Transit: Petzold’s Haunting Drama of Refugee Crisis


Christian Petzold’s aptly title, haunting refugee drama, Transit, is set in a purgatorial Europe outside of time, starring Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer as would-be lovers desperate to escape occupied France.

The film premiered at the 2018 Berlin Film Fest and then played at the Toronto and New York Film Fests.

Music Box Films will exhibit Transit March 1 in New York and March 8 in Los Angeles.

As fascism spreads in Europe, and most of France is occupied, a young German refugee named Georg (Franz Rogowski) flees to Marseille, where he assumes the identity of the dead writer whose transit papers he is carrying.

Living among refugees from all over the world, Georg falls for Marie (Paula Beer), a mysterious woman searching for her husband–who’s actually the man whose identity Georg has stolen.

Adapted from Anna Segher’s 1944 novel, Transit transposes the setting of the original story to the present, blurring particular historical eras to create a more timeless and universal exploration of the plight of displaced people–no matter where they are.

In using this narrative strategy, the director draws a relevant parallels between the crisis of refugees and displacement of the past and at present, situating its tale in a liminal milieu that bears significance to any individual or group which have lost their original home and national identity.

Clearly, the director has been influenced by the genre of film noir and by works of such seminal directors as Hitchcock and Carol Reed in their more overtly political films.

Petzold is a major talent to watch, having directed before some interesting films, including Phoenix and Barbara.

Interview with Director Christian Petzold:

The autobiography of Georg K. Glaser contains a wonderful sentence: “Suddenly, as my flight came to an end, I found myself surrounded by something I termed ‘historical silence.’” Georg K. Glaser was a German communist during the time in which the novel “Transit” by Anna Seghers was set. He fled to France and then to its unoccupied “free zone,” or “zone libre,” to which Marseille belonged.

Historical silence is akin to windlessness or still air: the breeze ceases to propel the sailboat, which is enveloped by the vast nothingness of the sea. The passengers have been expunged from history and from life. They’re cornered in space and in time.

The people in Transit have been cornered in Marseille, waiting for ships, visas and further passage. They’re on the run there’s no way back for them, and no way forward. Nobody will take them in or car e for them. They go unnoticed except by the police, the collaborators and security cameras. They’re borderline phantoms, between life and death, yesterday and tomorrow. The present flashes by without acknowledging them. Cinema loves phantoms.

Perhaps because it, too, is a space of transit, an interim realm in which we, the viewers, are concurrently absent and present. The people in Transit long to be taken by the stream, the breeze, put into motion. They long for a story of their own and discover the fragment of a novel left behind by an author, the fragment of a narrative about flight, love, guilt, and loyalty.