Tells the stories that need to be told
Storytelling plays a crucial role in Transit, a film about displacement during wartime, directed by Christian Petzold and adapted from Anna Segher’s novel. There’s a scene in which Georg (Franz Rogowski), a man using a stolen identity to flee occupied France, is sitting in an embassy, waiting to have his papers approved. He listens to the accounts of two different people in similar situations, a man and a woman, who tell him their stories, recounting their predicaments as if by compulsion, rather than any desire to have a conversation.
This theme is further developed by Georg’s impulsive decision to assume another man’s identity, that of a writer who has killed himself in a bathroom in France. He winds up stuck in Marseilles after being Georg is mistaken by the official for the writer himself. It’s there that, by tremendous chance, he meets the wife of the man he’s impersonating.
Rogowski, who proved his mastery of quietly traumatised characters in Michael Haneke’s Happy End (2018), plays Georg as if he wants to shield the audience as much as possible from what’s going on in the man’s head. Georg has come from a concentration camp and receives the world with a permanent anxious grimace—he stands lopsided and, due to a scar on his lip, speaks out of a tightly pursed mouth. When he shows he still has life left in him, for instance when he plays soccer with the son of the woman who was married to the deceased writer, you see the traces of the man he used to be.
Petzold is not telling a straightforward war story, even if many of its themes are well-worn. He has set the film in the present, so that historical significance and modern technology mix together. It’s understated enough that it doesn’t feel like he’s making some grand gesture, yet it’s difficult to pin down exactly why he’ss done it. Given that the story is about refugees struggling to escape their war-torn countries, it could be to emphasise the story’s relevance to today’s politics, but this would have been easily achieved without the modern update. Somehow, despite being the most jarring aspect of the movie, it also feels like the most inconsequential.
Transit is an odd film and kind of a depressing one. What it does do, however, is show the tenacity of the human spirit in its worst times, through stories we know are being told all the time, around the world, yet which we don’t hear enough. Petzold and co. are here to show the importance of those stories.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.
Transit played at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which is running from 2 – 19 August. Tickets and venue information available on the website.