Anna Seghers’ later years were rather sad, because it was glaringly obvious the Soviet Communist system she had so loyally served failed quite miserably to live up to the ideals it professed. At least she had post-war years. Herr Weidel is not so fortunate. The fictional novelist was supposed to travel the same route that Seghers did, from (still just barely unoccupied) Marseilles to Mexico, by way of the USA, but the morose man of letters chose to end his life instead in Christian Petzold’s Transit which opens this Friday in New York.
Seghers’ novel was important beyond its literary merits, because it documented the Holocaust-era roundups as they were happening. It is about as particular to a specific time and place as a novel can be. However, Petzold ventures way, way out on a limb by recasting his screen adaptation in a Marseilles very much like that of today. Eventually, viewers start to suspend disbelief, but it is unnecessarily distracting in the early going.
Georg is a refugee, which makes Transit feel very contemporary, except not exactly. The rather sullen gentleman is at loose end, trying to avoid prison cells and policemen in the final days leading up to the occupation. Georg was supposed to hand-deliver letters to Weidel letters from his considerably younger wife, Marie, and the Mexican consulate in Marseilles, which has guaranteed Weidel legal asylum. Instead, Georg found the remains of his suicide in the small, sad motel room.
The initial idea was to turn over Weidel’s papers and correspondence to the Mexican mission, in hopes of receiving a finder’s fee, but when he is mistaken for Weidel, Georg does not correct them. Georg assumes he fell into a highly fortuitous deliverance, but things get rather complicated when he meets the distraught Marie. Thus, begins a strange kabuki dance involving identity, love, guilt, and culpability.
Even with Petzold’s temporal gamesmanship, the combination of classic last-boat-out, letters-of-transit intrigue and the more postmodern unraveling of Georg’s sense of reality and identity are quite compelling. Despite the Mediterranean sun, Petzold maintains a murky, disconcerting atmosphere. Yet, he keeps breaking his own spell with the modern trappings that so clearly contradict the 1942 setting.
Admirers of Petzold’s absolutely brilliant previous films, Barbara and Phoenix might be alarmed to discover the great Nina Hoss is not on board this time around, but Paula Beer continues a similar streak of excellence, which includes her standout work in Frantz, Bad Banks, and Never Look Away. As Marie, she creates a portrait of a usually sensitive and brittlely flawed femme fatale. She forges some ambiguous but rather poignant chemist with Franz Rogowski, who radiates existential angst and plodding sad sackery as Georg. Yet, it is Godehard Giese who really drives home the film’s messy humanism, as Richard’s Marie’s loyal friend-lover-protector.