When I started watching Transit, in the dimly lit cinema house, I dimmed my phone too quickly look up what year the movie was set in. Why? Because I was having enormous issues keeping my head on straight as the silver halide crystals kept flashing technicolor pigments across the screen. Was I in pre-invasion France in 1940, as they quietly awaited their fate? Or was it 2019? Finding nothing but more confusion on the interwebs, I decided to just hold on to the armrests all the tighter, and see where the movie was about to take me.
And, oh wow, what a cinematic mindjob experience I was in for.
If you haven’t seen Christian Petzold’s 2019 movie, Transit, boy – do I have a treat for you today. It’s as if the Bard himself time traveled his way forward in time 400 years to bring us this gut wrenching, time dilation of a movie, about a cast of characters doing their best to flee France before it is too late. Or, if not Shakespeare, maybe Franz Kafka would be a better metaphorical comparative. A world of shuffling disfigured faces, all straining against the coming evil. No, our perfect analogy is Noah and his family, working around the clock to create passage out from under the coming horrifying flood. There is no end of analogies to the stories that the movie Transit is telling. And there will be no end of discussion about this brilliant movie, if only you give it a chance first.
Transit Movie Walkthrough
Before we start unpacking the various interpretations and ins-and-outs of this mindjob movie (which was based on a brilliant novel of the same name by Anna Seghers), we should probably understand the actual facts about which this movie is telling. Because, Transit is not the easiest movie to understand straight out of the chute.
The movie tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who has recently escaped from a concentration camp. Meeting up with a friend of his, Paul, he agrees to deliver letters to an author named Weidel in Paris. But when he goes to deliver the letters, he finds that author’s wife is gone, and the writer has committed suicide. But why? Not finding the answers I was hoping for in the movie, I decided I’d read the novel upon which the movie was based and found this passage:
“I read them carefully, though not just out of idle curiosity. Please, you must believe me. In the first letter someone informed him that his story promised to be quite good and worthy of standing alongside all the other stories he had written so far in his life. But, unfortunately because of the war, no one was publishing such stories now. In the second letter a woman, probably his wife, wrote that he should not expect her ever to come back to him; their life together was over.
“I put the letters back. As I saw it: Nobody wanted his stories anymore. His wife had run away. He was alone. The whole world was collapsing, and then the Germans came to Paris. That was too much for him. So he put an end to it.”
And so, taking the unpublished manuscript, the author’s papers, letters, and visas, our protagonist leaves for Marseilles. Now Marseilles happened to be the end of Europe. Marseilles had basically become a cliff and a precipice wherein a fleeing mass of humanity began dashing itself against the rocks over and over again in an attempt to run from the coming inevitable death. Finding no other way to get the necessary transit visas for escape, our protagonist becomes Weidel.
The noose around the town begins to tighten as a cast of recurring characters begin to get all the more frantic in their attempts to leave Marseilles. Initially, our protagonist was traveling in secret with a sick individual who had an infected leg wound, but who died during their travels. And so our protagonist heads to his family’s home, and meets Melissa (played by Maryam Zaree) who happens to be deaf and dumb, and Driss (played by Lilien Batman), in order to let them know of her husband’s death. And as our protagonist begins to get close to Driss, it suddenly becomes apparent to them all that our man of the hour has no intention of heading off across the Pyrenees with them, instead he has booked passage to Mexico utilizing Weidel’s visa papers.
As he waits for his boat’s departure, he continues to get stalked by a wild-eyed woman who is obviously looking for someone. But things don’t become clear as to what is going on until after Driss gets sick and our protagonist fetches a doctor who is able to help. And we learn that this woman is actually the writer Weidel’s wife – Marie (played by Paula Beer), and that she has just started living with the doctor Richard (played by Godehard Giese) out of convenience, and to help with avoiding the authorities.
The Weidel Chaos Triangle
So, stop a second. We need to understand this thoroughly, or we are going to completely miss the larger point of this movie.
From a timeline standpoint – the Weidels visited a hotel room they once stayed in. And it was during this visit, that Marie decided to leave her author husband. Overcome by his loss, Weidel committed suicide. But when Marie realized just how bad the situation was, and that Weidel had her visa information necessary to leave the country, she began desperately looking for her husband. When our protagonist found Weidel’s documents, book, and letters, he used them to become Weidel, which left a trail for Marie to follow thinking that she was always just on the cusp of finding her lost love. (Love? I think I overstep. Let’s talk about this later.)
And when our protagonist figures out who she is, and why she is pursuing Weidel, it all clicks in his mind, realizing what he has been doing to her all along. But he chooses not to tell her the truth. Instead, when he discovers that the doctor is planning on leaving Marie behind, he decides he is going to help Marie instead. Now, how does he decide to help Marie? But by using her own Visa and passport information to get her passage on a ship.
But Marie isn’t wanting to ditch the doctor, so she was attempting to get him to go ahead of her, at which point she was going to ghost the guy. BUT! Richard gets booted from the ship because of some officials that took his spot on the boat. But meanwhile, our protagonist realizes that Marie isn’t into him at all, but that she is just using him to find her husband. (Who we all know is dead in a fairly violent suicide at the hotel.)
The End Game of Transit
As the movie barrels towards a close, we have a bit of a complicated game of cat and mouse happening. Richard, the doctor, is determined to leave, but as I mentioned is booted from his boat. Our protagonist had gotten passage for Marie to go with him to Mexico. Well, now, though Richard is quite literally adrift, sans passage out of France. But when our protagonist goes to take Marie with him to the boat, she begins talking about how she knows that she’ll see her husband on the boat. That, at the consulate, they told her that her husband would be on the boat. Which, they were obviously referring to our guy, right? But she is so hellbent on finding the guy, that now she isn’t thinking straight anymore. So protagonist tells the taxi driver to take her on to the boat, and he heads back to find Richard. And he gives Richard his ticket and passage instead.
After the boat departs, our guy heads back to the pizza place, decided that he doesn’t care anymore what happens to himself. Marie has abandoned him, in search of her husband. And he doesn’t care anymore whether he lives or dies. But secretly, he wishes Marie had abandoned the boat in order to rejoin him, come what may. And that is when he sees a grumpy Marie (mad because he put Richard on the boat – Richard who she was hoping to ditch) walking by the restaurant, and angry with him. Was that a vision though? He wasn’t sure. Curious to see what Marie did, whether she stayed aboard or disembarked, he heads down to the cruise headquarters to ask and see the list of people on the boat. And that is when he finds out everyone onboard died when the boat hit a mine.
Morose, and ready to die via occupation, our protagonist is completely despondent. But then, out of the blue, he turns and sees someone there, standing in the doorway. End of the film – roll credits – fini.
Transit is Based On Real Life
I walked out of the theater, and immediately went hunting for whoever created this screenplay. I was desperate to figure this out. And as I mentioned up top, Transit is based on the novel of this same name, written by Anna Seghers. She literally had to run for it as the Nazis spread through France, and the grip of Germany tightened around Europe. A close friend of Anna’s, Walter Benjamin, had committed suicide on the French-Spanish border after being turned away from Spain when Spain cancelled all transit visas. Anna and her husband had fled from Germany to France after Hitler’s rise to power, but they had to flee via Marseilles after standing in long consulate lines hoping and praying for all the appropriate visas to come through. So a lot of this story is very autobiographical. And yet, some of the plotting is so convoluted as to be reach the point of absurdity. It’s true, and it’s not.
But I Don’t Understand!?
The number one confusingly disorienting aspect of the movie is the WHEN. When did this movie happen? Is this the future? Is this a modern retelling of World War II. What is going on? Well, when Christian Petzold decided to do a remake of Anna Seghers book of the same name, he had a choice to make. Should he set the film in the 1940’s when Seghers set her retelling of her and her husband’s escape from Marseilles, or should he do something different? And different he did. Dumping all of the Nazi iconography and the historical context really changed the meaning and particular significance of the specific events of the movie. Now, instead of the tried and true Holocaust, 3rd Reich lessons, we are showered with nationalistic and modern day protectionism ideas. But the time warping had such a peculiar effect on me as to completely disorient me for half the movie duration. Sitting there in the dark I was dying to start researching to figure out what the heck Petzold was up to.
I have to say, I have seen several modern re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s plays that also had a similar effect. Oh, it’s like watching Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet where he gave the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy in a Blockbuster video store. It makes all the words mean something else entirely. Similarly, watching World War II fear played out in a modern France setting really makes it all mean something different. For example, what if the Hard Right took power in America, and began rounding up minorities, or “illegals?”
What is the code of honor in a situation like that? What is the morally right thing to do if your neighbor is getting hauled off in a van, and you know they are about to be shot and then unceremoniously dumped in a pit? Our protagonist notices everyone watching as a woman is being hauled away, and he calls out everyone’s shame as they watch. Worse, when a connection is made between Driss and Mr. Protagonist, their friendship isn’t just a a kind memory of civility…it’s a lifeline. So when he decides he’s stealing this identity, the papers, and the visa, in order to head off on his own, it is almost guaranteed a death sentence for Driss and his mother. Similarly, Richard’s decision to leave Maria behind was also a guaranteed death sentence. The rules, morals, and ethics with how we live today are irrelevant when under a threat like a Nazi occupation. Sins of omission actively become sins of commission. Saying nothing becomes a death sentence in situations like these.
Transit’s Characters Are Selfish
Not a single person in this movie lived selflessly, or thoughtfully acted on anyone else’s behalf. But! What about our protagonist? He totally made Maria’s boat trip possible! Oh, puh-lease. His only reason for inviting her onto the boat in the first place was 100% sexual. Think about it, Driss and Melissa? Did he offer any sort of assistance to them? Uh, no, he didn’t. Worse, Melissa was deaf and dumb, and wasn’t attractive to our protagonist. OK, maybe that’s going a little too far. But there is zero connection between him and Melissa, regardless.
What about the kindnesses of Richard to Maria? Nope. Scratch that out. He made it clear that he was covering his own ass when push came to shove. Really, it was just a relationship of convenience. And on Maria’s side, she was out looking for her husband all day long. Heck, both of them knew what the what was. Notice how quickly Maria jumped ship to the protagonist. In a heartbeat! And she was super clear she was still looking for her husband. And the protagonist refused to tell the truth about the one big, big lie of the movie, that he had taken Maria’s husband’s identity.
Maybe the only selfless act was from Frau, the architect. The woman who took care of the American’s dogs, and was trying to get them back to America. Her offer to the protagonist for dinner and an evening together. And yet! Now that I think about it, the dinner was her final dinner. Worse, she jumped to her death mid-sentence. There is literally nothing more selfish than that.
Transit is Modern Kafka-ism
Do you guys know Kafka? Maybe his book entitled The Metamorphosis? Basically, the story opens like this: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” And the entirety of the book is all about the strangeness of this event. Better yet, no one really seems to notice this metamorphosis as strange at all. Nothing is ever explained. It just is. And in so doing, it causes the reader to reflect on the strangeness of their own lives and the weird things that we have taken for granted.
This Kafkaesque experience in Transit is similarly disorienting in that we have no idea what is going on. Is this just a modern retelling of WWII? Is this a new uprising of chaos? There are no swastikas or symbolism of the 3rd Reich. Is this something different? Better yet, to see this movie play out in the midst of a global nationalistic swing makes it all the more frightening. It isn’t just Trump touting Nationalism, it’s also Viktor Orban of Hungary, Matteo Salvini of Italy, and there are even large party blocks in Germany, England and Austria that are aligning with this new insular political direction. We all assumed that WWII was a horrible fluke of history, but could it happen again? What if, over the course of the next year, horrifically, one of these nations create their own SS group, and begin their own holocaust of these “illegals” in their nation? What would we do? And how would we react?
Would we retain the current norms and mores of myopic selfishness we hold dear today? Or would we aspire to be those few that housed these hunted illegals? Would we aspire to help the woman being carted away in front of us, or would we allow her to get dragged to her death, with nothing more than a backwards glance?
Final Thoughts on Transit
I literally can’t say enough good things about this movie. It is brilliant. Why? Well, mainly because I can’t stop thinking about it. Is it a political message about history repeating itself? Maybe. Is it a warning sign about selfishness in the world today, and our need to look out for others in need? Maybe. Is it just an intriguing story sans moral or embedded ethic? Maybe. Is it all of these things and none of these things? Yes…definitively, yes. I don’t know, what did you guys think of this amazing movie?
Edited by, CY
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