‘Transit’ melds past and present in tale of Shoah-era France

In “Transit,” based on Anna Segher’s 1944 novel, a Jewish refugee from Germany flees Paris as the Nazis begin their 1942 roundup of Jews only to get stuck in Marseille as he tries to escape the Nazi advance through free France. 

This French/German drama, which played the Toronto, Berlin and New York film festivals, is the second film directed by Christian Petzold that deals with the Shoah. Some writers have described this innovative, moving film as a reimagining of “Casablanca” by way of Kafka. 

Like Petzold’s previous film about the Shoah, the noirish period film “Phoenix” (2014), “Transit” also deals with identity and impersonation but adds an innovative twist. While it keeps the dialogue and story of the novel’s 1942 setting, what we see onscreen takes place in the contemporary world. That choice serves as a reminder of the Shoah but also that Nazi ideology is still with us and history does not always conveniently stay in the past. It also makes the story modern and more universally about refugees and conflict. 

Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German Jew who fled to Paris and seems to have some loose connections to the French Resistance. Just as he about to leave, accompanying a wounded man to Marseille, Georg comes into possession of the papers of a dead writer named Weidel. Among the papers are an unfinished novel, letters from his wife and, more importantly to Georg, transit papers that give him passage to Mexico.As he travels south to Marseille, Georg assumes Weidel’s identity as his means to escape, but he also begins to read the novel. In Marseille, he starts the process of securing passage and finds himself waiting with other refugees. 

As he waits, he meets Marie (Paula Beer), the wife of the dead writer, and Georg is drawn into a series of complex relationships with her and other refugees.

The Nazis are unseen in the film but they are an ever-present threat looming over everything the characters do. We hear updates on their approach — they are three days away, they have occupied this town, they will be here tomorrow — creating a ticking clock effect for those waiting. 

Mixing time periods is a tricky approach, but Petzold handles it brilliantly. Scenes are shot in present-day Marseille in neighborhoods with a mix of modern and historic architecture. The actors are not in period costumes but are dressed in classic shirts, suits and dresses. The carefully chosen shots avoid including anything too glaringly modern, like a McDonald’s, but freely show modern cars and ordinary present-day street scenes. Walking this narrow line allows the audience to slip in and out of time periods. It is a fascinating, engrossing effect that feels more natural than it sounds.

Seghers’ novel is framed as a story told by a refugee to another, in first-person narrative. Petzold keeps that narration in voiceover but changes it to the second person recounting it to us (in the manner of Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”) although we do not meet the storyteller until late in the film.

The acting is very good, deeply drawing us into these characters’ stories and their plight. Rogowski is excellent as Georg, a self-focused working-class man who stands apart from the world and seems perhaps a little shady. Yet as he reads the unfinished novel, he absorbs some of the writer’s character. 

Beers is also very good as Marie, who had written her husband that she was leaving him but then wrote again that she had changed her mind. Now she searches unceasingly for him, in part because she needs his papers to escape but also out of guilt.

You wouldn’t think a story about waiting — waiting in line, waiting for papers, waiting for ships — would be so tense and dramatic, but it is. The story unfolds like a thriller, but it is also an exploration of a man whose identity is shifting. There is a romantic element as well, as Georg finds himself falling for Marie and struggles with telling her that he has assumed her husband’s identity.

Deeply affecting, “Transit” touches on love, loss and identity, as well as serving as a reminder of the Shoah. It takes a startlingly clever approach to telling its story, but not every audience will go along with the device. Some may find the mixed time periods too distracting while others may find linking the memory of the Shoah with present-day refugees unsettling.