The cinema of the migrant is alive and flourishing. After a fashion, it has become the topic du jour, the central note of political intrigue being if you make a modern film about gross civil and political injustices, it must be inherently meaningful to audiences that will take it home considering these subjects over the news. That’s the case with Transit. Transit is adapted from the Anna Seghers novel of the same name. While the novel is set in 1942 fascist occupied France, the film transports the setting to modern day France without cell phones. Christian Petzold evokes the story with a startling precision given the changes, perhaps most startling of all, that they are accepted at face-value and do not create any questions about context.
An exacting Franz Rogowski plays Georg, who finds transit papers from a writer who’s slit his wrists. He assumes the author’s identity, while holding out in Marseilles whilst the town’s resources of food and alcohol dwindle. The refuged masses huddle about transfer stations telling their literal war stories, comparing atrocities, and finding common ground in their misery. It’s not for Georg. Amidst all the displacement, his personal assessment is inward-looking. He seeks to find his authentic self while living in the disguise of another man. He falls deeply in love with the man’s widow, who is unaware of his assumed identity. Meanwhile, he is enraptured in a more familial calling when he starts looking after a young boy. With the boy and his mom, he can be his truest self, an electronics expert that can fix broken radios and can fulfill the role of fatherhood stolen from so many young men. The central conceit becomes – which life is more valuable, should Georg steal away with a widow to Mexico, or follow his chosen family into treacherous fascist controlled territory.
The film does a lot by not showing its hand. That there is not any explicit Nazi imagery helps the imagination fulfill its modern setting. It still holds true to the wartime grounding of its book, it has only shifted the time forward. The cars are modern, there are a few minor conveniences, the boy has soccer prints from magazines lining his walls. Then it becomes even more effective when the clearest communication is through a kitschy old radio. In fact, the world of the film is enlivened by its anachronistic intrigue. As it progresses, and Georg finds love, muted colors and claustrophobic settings give way to the lush possibilities of the port and the ocean behind it.
Transit is a significant romance. Sometimes by compassion, others by the need to fill the holes that have been taken from its subjects. The plotting is acutely sharp, spinning perilously toward an ending that can not be easily found from its subtext. It’s a gorgeous and imminently rewatchable work of faith in people to overcome, one with characters and an old soul worth investing in.