A refugee’s life is one of lies, documents, betrayals, fear, fleeting tenderness and the desperate need, once everything has been stripped away, for reinvention across the borders of foreign lands.
Christian Petzold’s searing new film “Transit” explores the prospect that in one sense or another we are all refugees, characters adrift on an existential expanse, trying our best to find hope against forces that batter and weaken us. These upheavals and tragedies pierce the illusions we have constructed and leave us trapped and spellbound in self-inflicted and imposed purgatories. We feel suspended, lost, yet our lives press on.
“Transit” unwinds as Nazi occupation seeps to France; not in the 1940s but in a re-imagined, terrifying present. The undesirables including Georg (Franz Rogowski), who has assumed the identity of a dead writer, flee to Marseilles for passage to Mexico.
Nazi soldiers are seldom glimpsed but the dread they evoke permeates the whispers of those on the run, even Georg who befriends a refugee boy and falls in love with the alluring, restless wife of the man whose name he’s confiscated.
“It is the loneliness of refugees,” said Petzold, whose film opens Friday in Los Angeles. “They have no biography. They have no identity. They have no passport. Nobody wants them. They sell their bodies on the street. They do cheap work. They beg, deal drugs. All these forgotten people we don’t want to see in the dark places in cheap hotels and under bridges. They only have a little energy left and out of this they try to make stories of love and loyalty to survive.”
The acclaimed German director’s films peer into lives in disarray; they fold human fallibility into national transgression. His characters move through the world as if sins and secrets are co-conspirators in one’s undoing and ultimate redemption. Suspense leads to revelation and duplicity disguises truth.
“Transit” is yet another exploration in how sinister powers subsume us and force unexpected reckonings. The stateless souls in the film are as old as war and oppression. Refugees from Africa and the Middle East surged into Europe four years ago, prompting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a gesture of compassion that stunned the world, to open her country to more than 1 million foreigners. Right-wing and neo-nationalist parties across the continent ignited an anti-immigrant sentiment reminiscent of the fascist politics that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler.
That fervor against “the other” in recent years propelled nationalist and populist movements and events around the world. The election of President Trump followed a campaign on nativist slogans and promises to build a wall at the Mexican border.
“Transit” is an echo of the past that reverberates through the present. Based on the novel of the same name by Anna Seghers, which is set in the 1940s after the German conquest of France, the film brings us to modern-day Marseilles. Georg navigates a port city of cafes, consulates, shadowed hallways and uncertain lives set against the backdrop of a fortress built centuries ago to repel invaders. Old fears are realized anew in different faces, and time is at once frozen and fluid.
“I love it when you have contemporary time and historical time and they’re in a corridor and they have to communicate with each other. This is cinema for me,” said Petzold in a phone interview from his office in Berlin.
“No country wants these refugees.They are of no worth anymore. They are like phantoms. But in this moment they make experiences that those of us in the rest of society, those in a better position, can’t. For me it’s a movie about people who try to be good.”
What is good is measured in degrees. An exiled architect Georg meets wants to share a bottle of champagne and refined conversation before facing her sad yet empowering demise. A boy Georg plays soccer with vanishes one night with his mother; a new refugee family moves into their apartment. Georg’s love, Marie (Paula Beer), is the muse of a dead writer, who through her time on the run discovers she is free from the writer’s image of her.
“Beer told me she thought this novel by Seghers was written by a man,” said Petzold. “She was astonished that it was written by a woman because Marie in the novel is just an idea of the male writer. It’s like she is the prostitute in the harbor. But Beer said, ‘I need a body for my own.’ This desire not to be part of male subjectivity, to be her own, is the idea of Marie and of this love story.”
Petzold’s suspense style in “Transit” was influenced by Hollywood noir, notably “The Killers” (1946), adapted by Robert Siodmak from an Ernest Hemingway short story about a man waiting for his assassins. The director also drew from Robert Altman’s take on the Raymond Chandler novel “The Long Goodbye” (1973), about Los Angeles private investigator Philip Marlowe. The Altman movie blurred the Hollywood of the 1940s with what it had become four decades later.
“Transit” forced Petzold to reconsider time and place. In “Phoenix,” he conjured the ruins of World War II in a dark period landscape. But with his new film he said he didn’t want to see “the Nazi uniform and actors in old clothes. I needed a corridor between the contemporary world to the world of 1942.” His Marseilles in “Transit” is as the city appears in real life, its refugees at once immediate and a reminder of the eternal struggle against oppression.
“When we were making ‘Phoenix’ we had to create bombed out German streets,” he said. “We had to find them in Poland because in Germany now everything is proper and new. We got into two black Mercedes and went into very poor parts of Warsaw and Krakow. We got out and the poor people in the old houses had fear because the Germans were coming again.”
He laughed at the memory, but his tone changed.
“I feel ashamed about that,” he said. “To go through the world and rebuild the world as if the world is my imagination. I want to communicate with the world, not to see the world as a studio.”