German filmmakers have, of late, been revisiting the 20th century, exploring their nation’s tortured record under the Nazis and, later, Communism. On the heels of his fine two previous features, Barbara (2012), about an East Berlin dissident physician’s banishment to the provinces, and Phoenix (2014), in which a Jewish Holocaust concentration camp survivor, newly remodeled by plastic surgery, returns to Berlin to confront the lover who informed on her, writer-director Christian Petzold turns his gaze to France under Germany’s wartime occupation. Adapting Anna Seghers’s eponymous 1944 novel about hordes of refugees flocking to 1942 Marseille to keep one step ahead of Hitler’s advancing armies, Petzold sticks fairly closely to the author’s plot, but he introduces a time shift in the physical setting: spray-painted wall graffiti, modern architecture and vehicles, and riot police in SWAT team gear instead of swastikas announce that this is the present day. It’s a daring stylistic move, one which frequently keeps the viewer as disoriented as the story’s desperate characters and helps make the film a profound meditation on the dehumanizing condition of statelessness.
Franz Rogowski (Happy End) stars as Georg, a German camp escapee of no particular religious or political bent who arrives in Paris, where he runs into a fellow refugee who entrusts him with an errand: deliver two letters to Weidel, an important writer in hiding, documents that will allow the great man to leave the country. Upon arriving at the writer’s hotel, Georg learns that Weidel has committed suicide, and the hotelier, anxious to avoid any trouble with the occupying authorities, foists the author’s belongings on Georg. Through a series of events and misunderstandings, Georg, already something of a cipher, becomes even more so when he assumes the dead man’s identity, further erasing his own. His subterfuge will send him on a journey through bewildering diplomatic channels as he navigates all the impediments facing refugees in their quest to obtain visas.
There’s a passage early in the novel that concisely illustrates this nightmarish scenario as Georg learns that even though Mexico has offered Weidel (whom he will soon be impersonating) a haven and safe passage, he can’t leave France without an exit visa, and can’t reach his point of departure without a transit visa. As an elderly fellow refugee with a pronounced sense of gallows humor explains, “My son, it’s all because each country is afraid that instead of just traveling through, we’ll want to stay. A transit visa—that gives you permission to travel through a country with the stipulation that you don’t plan to stay.” The trick, the old-timer explains, is juggling the different visas so that one doesn’t expire before you can use another. It’s an absurdity worthy of a play by Beckett or a novel by Sartre, with its existential dread of no escape, even as the possibility of escape is capriciously dangled.
To explain just how complex that visa tangle could get, you need look no further than the historic case of German-Jewish writer Hannah Arendt, who in her monumental volume The Origins of Totalitarianism explained how the Nazis eradicated millions of Jews during the Holocaust by first reducing them to stateless persons. When someone is deprived of rights of citizenship, he or she becomes persona non grata, increasingly invisible, as Arendt discovered when she fled Germany—without identification papers—for Czechoslovakia and Switzerland, before landing in Paris in 1933. After escaping the Gurs internment camp in 1940, she hastily planned her departure from France. According to Stephanie DeGooyer, Alastair Hunt, Lida Maxwell, and Samuel Moyn’s introduction to their 2018 book The Right to Have Rights, “Through a combination of sheer luck, quick thinking, and assistance from several individuals, including an American diplomat prepared to defy his government’s directives, Arendt was able to secure a Nansen passport, a French exit visa, Spanish and Portuguese transit visas, and a U.S. emergency visa. These documents allowed her to travel, in 1941, to the United States, where she was granted asylum as a refugee.” In 1951, she ended 18 years of statelessness when she became a U.S. citizen. Eighteen years.
If it was that difficult for a connected intellectual like Arendt to get out of World War II Europe and start over again, how hard must it be for disenfranchised migrants today—the millions fleeing war, or persecution, or famine, drought, floods, earthquakes or other natural disasters around the globe—to gain entrance to a country, any country, where they can actually remain alive? The movie Transit implicitly asks this question in sequences where Georg seeks out the family of one of his colleagues, an injured man who died aboard the boxcar in which he and Georg were heading to Marseille. Georg befriends the deceased man’s deaf-mute North African widow and young son; so well do they all get along it’s almost as though he has found a second home. But he is also drawn to Weidel’s widow (Paula Beer of Frantz and Never Look Away), and Georg is actively trying to arrange her escape as well, so he leaves his new surrogate family for a time. Later in the film, when he looks for them again, he finds that, left without any protector, they have departed for the hills and their flat is now occupied by a large number of new arrivals from Africa.
Then there are all the other refugees seeking visas, including the elegant Jew who is guaranteed a home in the U.S. only because she has been entrusted with an American couple’s show dogs that accompany her almost everywhere, and the conductor who has a heart attack in a consulate before he can leave for his new position with a South American orchestra. The wealth of observational details reflects Seghers’s own life experiences of statelessness. A German Jew who joined the Communist Party in 1928 and settled in Paris in 1933, she fled, after the Nazis invaded France in 1940, to Mexico on a ship out of Marseille; her fellow passengers included André Breton and Claude Lévi-Strauss. After the war, still a Communist, she returned to Europe, moving first to West Berlin and then to East Berlin, where her career flourished. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1967 and died in 1983.
If Petzold so thoroughly captures the nuances of her novel while putting his own stamp on the story, that’s because he has lived with it for so long. He and his longtime mentor, collaborator, and close friend, the late documentary and experimental filmmaker Harun Farocki, were such big fans of Transit that over the course of 15 years they would meet annually to reread and discuss the novel. That kind of devotion not only shows how compelling and sustaining a work of literary art can be; it also, as in the case of this deeply humanistic film, can build a bridge across time, between the victims of global strife in the mid-20th century, and those beleaguered displaced persons in our 21st century. If we all would only learn a few lessons from history and art and act accordingly and compassionately, maybe some of today’s wanderers in search of a better life might find one. In at least one corner of the world, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are still rights; at least they were the last time I looked. v