Berlinale 2018: Christian Petzold's 'Transit' is Peculiar & Fascinating
by Alex Billington
February 17, 2018
We take for granted how easy it is to travel between countries nowadays. But it wasn't always so easy. And it might not be so easy in the future. The latest film from German filmmaker Christian Petzold (Jerichow, Barbara, Phoenix) is a feature titled Transit, which is premiering at the Berlin Film Festival. The film feels similar to something Aki Kaurismäki would make, specifically his most recent film The Other Side of Hope, and even feels like it would play nice with Ai Weiwei's documentary Human Flow. Transit is about refugees and transit papers, and the lives of people who are just trying to find a way out, a way to somewhere else. They're just trying to move on. It's the kind of film you need to sit on and think about for days or weeks, and not instantly process, because there's so much more going on beyond just what's presented on the surface.
Transit is a very intriguing film set in modern day France, even though the story seems to be taking place at the beginning of WWII. Franz Rogowski plays Georg, a German man who finds himself drifting between cities without much of a focus on what he's doing. There's talk of various French cities being "occupied" and the presence of Germans seems unsettling to some residents. Georg makes his way around via train, ending up in Marseille, where he encounters various people all trying to get transit papers to take boats across the ocean to Mexico or America or somewhere else. Everything we're watching seems eerily like it's taking place during WWII, yet the film is set in contemporary times, with modern vehicles. The only other tell is that no one uses phones or computers. It took a while for me to settle into this, but once it gets going, I fully into it.
This peculiar framework provides a few various angles that add so much depth to the storytelling, and are worthy of extensive analysis. First, it seems Petzold is making a comparison between today's times and the refugee crisis and what happened during WWII. Mainly that it's so exhaustive and destructive to families, and to the mind's of all of these people, who are scattered everywhere, desperately trying to find somewhere safe to go. Some of them just want someone to sit with so as to not be lonely. Others are waiting forever for someone who will never show up. The other angle is that this might be a hint about how bad it can become if we let things continue, if we let nations go back to closing their borders, or restricting access to only certain people who can get transit papers. The film works both ways, and that's what makes it so utterly fascinating.
As for the story on the surface, about Georg and his friends and acquaintances, it's a bit convoluted. At the start, he is traveling with a writer who passes away on the train. He plans to take his artifacts to the Mexican embassy and turn them in for a bounty, but unwittingly ends up borrowing this man's identity to help him stay afloat. He drifts around the city, arranging meetings with embassies and encountering locals. There's a rather annoying voiceover that comes in often, telling Georg's story from the viewpoint of a bartender at a restaurant he frequents (another meta narrative on top of it all). At some point, I realized the way he drifts around represented how these kinds of people are lost in transit, drifting because they don't know where to go, or what to do, or what they should be doing, or who they even are anymore. They're sadly lost in the mix.
Even though this wandering narrative and confusing framework wasn't easy to figure out at first, as the film played out I started to appreciate it more. There's so much to dissect and analyze with this film and I admire how much Petzold is saying without having to say it directly. Even though there is a voiceover, it's used only to progress the story and give us more details about the characters. It doesn't spell out the fact that this film is about refugees and migration and the lives of people who are trying to move. And none of this is explained in any overt way, it's worked into the screenplay in subtle ways. It's not blatantly entertaining, nor boring or depressing, and it has a unique lead performance that is captivating in a quirky way. Transit deserves extra consideration and examination beyond what's on the surface, it's a fascinating film worthy of much respect.
Alex's Berlinale 2018 Rating: 8 out of 10
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