There is an old gospel song, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through”. A bit of that sense of temporariness is what we find in Transit from German director Christian Penzold. There are various aspects of this film that may leave us a bit off-balance, but that just adds to the depth of this film.
The film is based on a novel by the same name that was based in 1940 France as Nazis were in the process of occupying the country. But it is filmed with current day clothing, weapons, and vehicles, but not modern technology such as computers. The story certainly reflects the novel’s time frame, but the film also pulls the story into our world.
Georg (Franz Rogowski) has recently escaped from a prison camp, and is told of a chance to escape Paris for Marseilles, which has not yet been occupied, and so is a place where many have fled to seek passage to other countries. When delivering letters to a writer, he discovers the writer is dead. But the writer has letters that promise him a visa for Mexico, if he can get to Marseilles to get them. Soon he is in the city, doing what must be done to leave France. Also in the city is Marie (Paula Beer), the writer’s estranged wife, searching for her husband. The two are attracted to each other, but Georg cannot bring himself to tell Marie the truth. Will they sail off into the sunset together? Will the truth come out? Will anyone be saved?
There are various side stories that add to the plot and its complexity, including the young son of the man who died while en route to Marseilles with Georg, and a doctor with whom Marie is having an affair. There are also many stories of people in Marseilles struggling to find a way to leave. Meanwhile, the fascists keep “cleansing” towns and will soon be here.
The modern setting of a story that seems obviously to fit with the Nazi era reminds us that refugees and immigrants continue to deal with this sense of “just a-passing through” with hopes but no assurances of having a place to go to. As we hear the various stories of the different people who are in Marseilles, they reflect life as it is still being lived by people who seek safety and a new life in another land.
But because of the way the film draws this story into our own world, it becomes a dark, existential reflection of life as something in transit. Marseilles becomes a limbo or purgatory that we find ourselves in just as the characters have. It sees life as a kind of searching for a future that we do not know—one that could be our salvation or our ruin. In the meanwhile we are thrown together with other would-be pilgrims, stuck in a world that is simultaneously threatening and hopeful. And there is no guarantee that any of us will find our way out. This is made evident in the song over the closing credits, which is not “This World is Not My Home”, but “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads.
Photos courtesy of Music Box Films