Christian Pitzold’s haunting 2019 film, based on Anna Seghel’s masterful 1942 novel.
MEDIA ON MY MIND
At a dinner party on the eve of the new millennium, I met a recently retired European diplomat. He had served over three decades in often impoverished provincial backwaters, then in major cities throughout the East and West. His geopolitical savvy was immense.
At the evening’s end, I asked for his thoughts about the major perils that might confront the world over the next 20 years. The problems he feared were the rise of religious fundamentalism across all creeds; the resurgence of bellicose, ethnically biased l9th century populist nationalism; environmental degradation; and nuclear proliferation.
He paused, then reflected on another danger. It was recognized by rote, yet for the most part went curiously unaddressed in the halls of power. It was compounded out of a sinister articulation of those already cited: “I worry that the next 10 or 20 years will see an unprecedented number of refugees; displaced within their country’s borders, inevitably flooding into nearby, then distant nations, such as the world has never seen . . .”
I’ve recalled his words many times since then, as one catastrophic migration, frequently spurred by impending genocide, has followed another. I remembered them again after viewing director Christian Pitzold’s haunting Transit (2019). In German and English, it is based on Anna Seghel’s masterful 1942 novel available from New York Review Classics (https://www.nyrb.com/collections/classics).
Seghe’s story is set in the 1940s; in Paris, then Marseille. Thousands fleeing the Nazi invasion descended upon the gritty port city, known as much for its vigorous criminal element as its bouillabaisse. The refugees came from elsewhere in France and other already occupied European countries.
They ranged across the social spectrum in class, race, and economic status. (Many were Jews.) Their common goal was escape, mainly by sea, to any country willing to take them. The alternative was an arduous, dangerous return through occupied territory, then a trek over the mountains to neutral Switzerland, or through Franco’s Spain to neutral Portugal.
Few were able to leave quickly. The majority found themselves hopelessly stranded, embroiled in a dispirited search for visas and permits. The dizzying array of crucial documents escalated daily. Meanwhile, the uprooted multitude became the prey of hostile, frequently corrupt bureaucrats as well as a legion of con artists.
With legal passage increasingly scarce, the displaced were compelled to seek illegal means of getting out, shady captains of “rustbuckets,” many of which never intended to sail. When their cash and jewels were depleted, the destitute turned to begging, petty thievery, prostitution-and suicide.
Pitzold’s cinematic translation preserves Seghel’s essential plot, principal characters, and the debased Marseille mise-en-scene. But he has skillfully fleshed out Seghel’s subtle intimation that the refugee’s specific plight mirrored a generic unmooring of mores and morality as the Nazi menace swept across Europe. Hence, the film is as scarily relevant to our fractured society as Seghel’s, of which more presently.
In Transit, Pitzhold has constructed an eerie alternate 21st century fascist reality. Architecture, costumes, and machinery are contemporary. No Nazis exist, only Germans sans swastikas, jackboots, or the Reich’s typical soldiers and weaponry. Instead, brutal street arrests and sadistic interrogations are carried out by thugs who could be collaborating locals rather than iconic Gestapo agents.
The gendarmes backing them sport NATO-type gear and guns. One can’t tell whether they are German or French (shamefully, many police in occupied France-particularly in Paris-arrested refugees and dissenters, whether they acted out of fascist sympathy or a misplaced sense of duty).
The film’s protagonist has escaped from a prison camp in Germany, the reasons for the internment are never explained. He is nameless in the novel; Georg in the film is nearly as anonymous in speech and demeanor. Gone to ground in occupied Paris, he is first encountered sitting in a bar, immured in stolid indifference while violent fighting rages in the streets outside.
Petzold deliberately does not clarify whether Georg’s intense anomie is innate or posttraumatic shaped by his savage prison experiences and the dangers he endured on the way to Paris. Both possibilities obtain.
He has been paid to deliver two letters to Weidel, a famous leftist writer. Georg finds the man has bloodily killed himself after his wife, Marie, declared she no longer loved him and left for Marseille. Ironically, she declares her change of heart in one of the letters he was to deliver; implores him to join her in Marseille and attempt escape. The other envelope contains an offer from Mexico of relocation-the country is a haven for displaced leftists-as well as the necessary travel papers, presumably for intended for husband and wife.
With a death squad hammering at Weidel’s door, Georg flees, scooping up the writer’s Mexican entry papers, passport, and his last short story. He plans to travel to Marseille, assume Weidel’s identity, and somehow jury-rig an exit.
Transit powerfully depicts the refugees’ frenetic round of official and embassy visits, punctuated by weeks of excruciating boredom, and hope for securing precious documents dashed hopelessly by indifferent or openly hostile scornful bureaucrats. Absurdly, Marseille’s authorities will tolerate and mercilessly exploit the stateless but only if they can prove their commitment to leave the city.
The film’s opening sequences deftly establish the refugees’ devastating dislocation. The film is filled with vivid, evanescent encounters. Georg’s are notably intense and ephemeral. He drags a wounded partisan into a boxcar, then finds him dead upon arriving in the city next morning. He grows close to a fetching North African boy and his deaf-mute mother. The pair then vanishes into the mountains after the youngster angrily rejects Georg when he learns about the intended escape. To paraphrase Goethe’s Faust: all is transitory.
Transit knowingly evokes the classic 1940s and 1950s film noir tropes. Many of these were written and directed by European refugees like Fritz Land and Billy Wilder, who were strongly influenced by post-World War I German expressionist art, which often contained unsettling urban themes. EmigrÃ© filmmakers translated the angst ridden, dispossessed milieu of the doomed European city to Hollywood (eg, The Big Heat, 1953; Double Indemnity, 1944).
The noir genre was typified by labyrinthian plots involving a criminal venture, set in the seamy underbelly of big city nights. Characters often came from working class, low class, or otherwise compromised social backgrounds.
In a common noir subgenre, a pair of star-crossed lovers, one or both seduced into crime, pursue redemption down dark, mean urban streets. A capricious, ultimately imponderable destiny dictate the destruction of their dreams-and usually their lives (eg, Criss Cross, 1949).
Transit insinuates that most of the refugees’ fate will be as fatally sealed, but in the actinic sunlight of Marseille rather than the tarnished nocturnes of Los Angeles or Manhattan. A femme fatale, who caught lovers in a a spiderweb of betrayal, often lurked at the core of noirs like The Maltese Falcon (1941). One interprets her as destiny’s lethal handmaid. Weidel’s wife is her avatar and the film’s femme fatale. She is the narrative lynchpin, however unwitting she appears about the sinister consequences of her compulsive ambivalence towards men.
Her abandonment compels Weidel’s suicide; her backpedaling letter precipitates Georg’s usurping the writer’s identity and journey to Marseille. When they finally meet, she is living with an American doctor, who gave up his own hard-won departure to be with her. She then offers herself to Georg. Instantly smitten, he cannot reveal his imposture. Her narcissistic perspective admits no incongruity in sailing away with all her lovers, including the dead husband she thinks will be on board with the crucial Mexican entry papers. Instead of a tidy Casablanca (1943) ending, the conclusion of Transit is unutterably tragic with no convenient rescue. I will only reveal that one last sees Georg, again alone in a bar, more immured in his sarcophagus of perennial anomie.
Backed by an exemplary cast, Franz Rogowski’s Georg personifies the director’s dramatic and ideological purposes. At times his faintly dysmorphic features appear set as in Gargoyle stone; at others, they are idiosyncratically attractive. Rogowski makes Georg’s default silent isolation achingly palpable. Being so unexpected, his observations about Marseille’s traumatized, unanchored mileu are rendered more incisive-and his rare breakthrough of endearing tenderness even more poignant.
In the film’s most heartbreaking scene he wipes away a single tear, while crooning a sweet lullaby to the North African boy about the twilight return of beasts and parents alike to the solace of home.
I have noted the analogizing of Transit between the totalitarianism engulfing Seghal’s era and our troubled time. Pitzhold’s enigmatic project demands strenuous work from the viewer to grasp this searing equivalence, and it brilliantly succeeds. One comes away enlightened and discomfited.
Transit implicitly references the social critics who illuminated the disrepair and absurdity of the human condition during and after World War II. One chiefly thinks of the great existentialists: notably Camus of The Stranger and Sartre of No Exit. But, it is the ghost of Franz Kafka, paragon of agonized alienation, who hovers over the concluding appraisal of our suffering unmoored world in Transit. Kafka’s presence is unmistakable in the parable of Weidel’s last story, which Georg relates with quiet irony to a cynical American embassy official who would rather see thousands die in Marseille’s squalor than grant them liberty.
A scene occurs at the end of the film: a man who has just died must register himself into hell. What he has done to deserve his fate is as inexplicable as the bureaucratic registration process-he finds himself standing before a large door and waits years without being admitted. (It is all pure Kafka.) Finally, he asks a passerby how to gain entry. The Kafkaesque reply:
“But, sir, this here is hell.”
Dr. Greenberg practices psychiatry in Manhattan, New York. He continues to publish frequently on film, media, and popular culture. For many years, his cinema column appeared in Psychiatric Times. He has appeared frequently on national and international network and cable television programs including Good Morning America, Today, CBS Evening and Sunday News. Please address communications to Dr. Greenberg at HRGSMES@AOL.COM