' ' Cinema Romantico: Transit

Tuesday, September 17, 2019


“Transit” opens with Georg (Franz Rogowski) hunched over a cup of espresso in a Parisian café, the camera looking at him in profile so we can see the door leading out onto the street. And when the door opens, the echo of police sirens infuses the room, denoting danger, though Georg’s expression does not change, not even when the person entering turns out to be his colleague and warns Georg of obvious imminent danger. No, in his countenance and unkempt appearance Georg elicits the impression of a person who has been waiting in the café a long time – for what, who knows – an idea that will become manifestly clear as the movie proceeds, right down to a concluding shot powerfully rhyming with the first one. Indeed, “Transit” might take as its mantra the grim opening narration of “Casablanca” intoning that people come to the French Moroccan city to “wait, and wait, and wait.” Of course, “Casablanca” turned on everyone’s attempts to get out, and “Transit” does too, with Georg coming into possession of a dead author’s letters of transit. But for all that nominally happens, and it’s a lot, writer/director Christian Petzold keeps the story spinning in circles, not so much to build tension or tease a payoff as to set and maintain a mood. And despite many contrivances, nothing feels phony, because in the end Petzold has created a kind of convincing cosmic purgatory.

The purgatory in this case is not Casablanca but stop #2 on the round-about refugee trail mentioned in “Casablanca” – that is, Marseilles, the southern France resort that Petzold renders both inviting simply in its picturesque Mediterranean air and frightening in its eerie emptiness, with people tucked away inside, fearful of the impending purge. What’s more, he twists familiar moments of European leisure, where Georg sipping wine in a Marseilles café is more about wasting away than indulging in an aperitif while a woman sprawled on an airy hotel room bed opposite her lover feels born less of amorousness than ennui brought on by wasting away. Yet if these locales are obvious, the time is not, with Paris being occupied and mentions of cleansings and relocations to camps being offset by who is doing the relocating – soldiers in conspicuous modern garb. Petzold is blurring the lines between past and present, both overtly and quietly, jarring us with these sudden intrusions of modernity even as he lets the intrusions speak for themselves, creating a kind of netherworld where the characters are ghosts hoping to be released from the anguish of waiting around.

Initially Georg moves discreetly amongst these other ghosts, Rogowski playing the part with a kind of pointed blankness, evoked in an embassy scene where he listens to the sad tales of refugees around him and nods along disinterestedly like he’s not listening at all. If he, too, is an apparition then he slips into other lives, moonlighting as the father of a North African boy Driss (Lilien Batman) he encounters and repeatedly running into a mysterious woman, Marie (Paula Beer), on the street and in the café, the shots of her so strangely alike that they feel akin to a recurring dream. She, it turns out, is the wife of the dead writer whose letters of transit Georg has, and while in another movie this might have yielded a noir-ish attempt to become someone else, Petzold focuses on an untraditional love triangle. Marie, having taken up with a doctor Richard (Godehard Giese), is waiting for the return of her husband, thinking him still alive, while Richard, who has an opportunity to leave, waits instead for an opportunity to flee with Marie, while Georg metaphorically dances between them, a moment at the end where Georg and Marie can’t let go of each other, falling into kisses as they speak, even as she can’t stop talking about her husband, evincing as much displacement as the setting, as if even in someone else’s arms the desire is still to be somewhere else.

Petzold further disorients us through voiceover, which appears throughout even if it is not Georg’s, seemingly omniscient and telling his story, the speaker’s identity deliberately withheld until the very end, cleverly, wickedly building to a moment tying Georg’s plight back to an earlier scene. That circling back comes home in the closing shot too, presaged by another glimpse of Marie exiting the café which, given the moment’s context, might be imagined, or perhaps something more, an extension of “Transit’s” elliptical universe, and Georg becoming lost in it forever.

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