Starring Franz Rogowski. In German and French, with English subtitles. Rated PG
In her 1943 essay “We Refugees”, Hannah Arendt—two years into exile from Germany—wrote, “Hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something as real as houses and stones and trees.…[C]ontemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends.”
The piece went on to describe further consequences of forced migration: suicide, depression, loss of trust, and the difficulty of confronting the true face of fascism, which market-tests its lust for genocide by moving select groups of people into harm’s way.
All this and more were depicted, without the benefit of hindsight, by fellow German Anna Seghers, who fled her home when the Nazis came to power, then had to leave Paris in 1940, followed by a year in Marseille and then escape to Mexico. Before leaving, she wrote The Seventh Cross, one of the earliest descriptions of concentration camps (it was made into a movie with Spencer Tracy), and started Transit, about that nail-biting interim in the far south of France, where this movie also takes place.
In taking this unique, methodically paced novel to film, writer-director Christian Petzold has done something remarkable: he has changed nothing essential but the time period. The cars and clothes are modern, but Jews, leftists, and artists are all on the run from occupying Nazis, soon to arrive—and French police are only too happy to help them.
On-screen, the book’s male narrator is disconcertingly detached from the protagonist, Georg (Franz Rogowski, who resembles a Teutonic Joaquin Phoenix). Georg is fresh from a camp for anti-Nazi political prisoners and lacking the papers to keep moving. But a chance encounter in Paris leads him to an unpleasant discovery that, in turn, takes him to Marseille, where people with their own agendas keep assuming things about him. Well, any port in a storm, and this Mediterranean stopover is packed with more spies and opportunists than you get in an average Graham Greene tale.
Along the way, Georg gets distracted by various desperate souls, including a small boy and his deaf mother, a lonely architect, and a mysterious woman (Frantz’s Paula Beer) who keeps showing up in odd places, lending the proceedings a Casablanca vibe. The foil in this formally ingenious movie is not a gendarme but a wary American consul (Trystan Pütter) who mistakes our taciturn antihero for a famous writer. It may seem strange that everyone speaks perfect German, and that the coincidences keep piling up. But to Petzold—a steely-eyed poet of dislocation, as seen in films like Barbara and Phoenix—these pulpy contrivances help remind us that all the world’s a stage, and refugees always carry the legends of their own lands, wherever they go.