A man arrives in purgatory, eager to learn his eternal fate. The divine judgement, however, is slow to arrive. The minutes turn to hours, the hours turn to days, and the days begin to blur together in a place where time has no meaning. Eventually, after what feels to him like a hundred years, the man begs for a verdict. “What are you talking about?” comes the reply. “You’ve been in hell since you got here.”
That grim parable is told to Georg (“Happy End” breakout Franz Rogowski) roughly halfway into Christian Petzold’s “Transit,” and yet the poor bastard doesn’t seem to realize that it’s about him. The inscrutable hero of an inscrutable film that unfolds like a remake of “Casablanca” as written by Franz Kafka, Georg has just escaped occupied Paris by the skin of his teeth, stowing away on a train to the port of Marseille. He doesn’t have much left to his name, and even that has become a luxury he can’t afford; in fact, Georg’s only hope for safe passage to Mexico is to assume the identity of a writer named Weidel, who committed suicide and left behind his visa papers. Georg’s ship is scheduled to sail in three weeks, but who knows what that means in a nightmare like Marseilles, where the only people welcome are those who can prove they’re leaving, and even the year is impossible to determine.
And so we arrive at the driving conceit behind Petzold’s beguiling “Transit,” which the “Phoenix” director has boldly adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel of the same name: The film is unstuck in history. Unlike the source material, it doesn’t take place in World War II, or even establish that World War II ever happened. The Nazis are still German, but they’ve been re-branded as generic fascists. And yet, while it was clearly shot on the streets of modern-day France (the roads hum with electric cars, and the cinematography isn’t aged in any way), Petzold’s telling isn’t necessarily set in the present. Digital technology is nonexistent, and the most relevant cultural reference comes when Georg mentions “The Dawn of the Dead” (and not even Zack Snyder’s version, one would assume).
This temporal confusion is never explicitly addressed, Petzold regarding his premise with the blunt senselessness of a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Wedged somewhere between fact and allegory, “Transit” trains one eye on the past and one eye on the present, until — like a Magic Eye illusion — they blur together in the middle, creating a new image that belongs to both and neither. Every refugee crisis is different, and every refugee crisis is the same.
What variations there are can be hard to spot, as the greatest commonality between exiles of various eras is that all of them are made to feel invisible. The dead are buried, but the desolate are just left to rot on the street. Watching Petzold’s characters mill about the sweaty visa offices and trap-like motels of Marseilles, the most crucial quote from Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow” comes to mind: “Being a refugee is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being. You are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects that would make this human life not just tolerable, but meaningful in many ways.”
It’s that stranded, existential meaninglessness that Petzold is aiming to achieve, albeit it in a roundabout way that avoids contemporary signifiers as though they would only get in the way. Little distinction is made between the various refugees; the white characters might be granted a certain hope of getting across the ocean, but everyone is ultimately in the same boat. Even the people who manage to secure a magic visa for the transatlantic voyage all seem to wind up back in the same bar, having been displaced by army officers or foiled by some other cosmic occurrence.
Inevitably, people fall in love just to pass the time, at least until they learn that time doesn’t pass. A dead ringer for Joaquin Phoenix (all the way down to the scar above his upper lip), Georg keeps crossing paths with a mysterious brunette named Marie (Paula Beer), who likes to tap him on his shoulder before running away. Marie is shacking up with a mustached doctor (Godehard Giese), but it’s hard to parse the geometry between them, even as the characters begin to sort themselves into a halfhearted triangle. As Seghers once described the situation, this is a story in which “Two men fight over a woman, but the woman in fact loves a third man, who is already dead.”
It’s a predicament with no satisfying resolution, just a lot of uninterested flirtation and empty acts of sacrifice. “Transit” isn’t much of a comedy, but it only gets funnier as the surreality of its premise takes hold, and every attempt at leaving Marseille ends in morbid amusement. Imagine if Ilsa and Laszlo’s plane exploded on its way out of Casablanca, and the pair of them just showed up at Rick’s the next day like it was the natural thing to do.
And yet, the more that Petzold’s film finds its rhythm, the more you feel the absence of any greater emotional undertow. These characters never become more than ciphers for some abstract horror, their humanity only bubbling to the surface when the narrator (the local bartender, of course) begins to describe his memory of them. It’s only during these brief moments that we can fully appreciate Georg’s disarray or the contours of Marie’s crisis.
Petzold may not care about any of that, but his version of “Transit” is made to contend with obstacles that Seghers never introduced into the source material, and the film’s main gimmick — more successful than not — compounds the extent to which these characters were slippery constructs to begin with. The result is a film that lucidly traces the specter of fascism (never extinguished, always waiting to exhale), and how unreal it feels for it to cast its shadow across Europe once more. It’s also a film that feels stuck between stations, so doggedly theoretical that it borders on becoming glib. Once you realize that Georg is trapped in hell, there’s nowhere for his story to go.
“Transit” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.