If you are sick of the glossy sentimentalism of period WWII dramas, you may find the concept of Transit appealing. The plot, from a novel by Anna Seghers, concerns a refugee navigating Marseille on the eve of its occupation; it is shot, however, in modern dress and against the backdrop of the present-day city. It is a good idea and one I have always wanted to see done well – so you will understand that this shoddy, po-faced film failed to impress.
The atemporal staging makes obvious points about the universality of the refugee experience. It makes them frequently, it makes them monotonously, it makes them ineptly. The trouble, really, is that this film does not seem to know what the shared experience is: “They [the countries of transit] are all scared we will stay” is a line that gets repeated again and again in this film, presumably for lack of other thought. Are the characters trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare? Not really – the American consul, the main representative of bureaucracy here, seems to like chatting with visa applicants and even at one point arranges a fast-track application. How nice! Are these people oppressed by the constant uncertainty and threat of violence? They spend a lot of their time behaving like giddy debutantes, hopping on and off of boats and in and out of taxis because they are unsure which of the other people they have fallen in love with. Oh, we see a few toy policemen toddling around in riot gear, but there is no sense at all of pressing and escalating fear. And granted, some horrible things – a heart attack, a suicide – happen to members of the “Rick’s bar crowd” (this film is duelling with Casablanca) but none of it is as convincingly dreadful as the casual evils perpetrated in that film by Claude Rains’ Captain Renault and Sydney Greenstreet’s Señor Ferrari.
There is an obvious difficulty in making a film that wants to speak about the current refugee crisis using stories from the past. Let us leave aside the moral question of whether the Holocaust, of which several characters are victims, can be considered comparable to other atrocities, a question that was fought over intensely by German historians in the 1980s. If, indeed, the film wants us not to draw parallels but to focus on the state of transition or stasis shared by refugees then and now, it does a poor job of doing so. Transit may be filmed on modern streets, but so boringly that today’s Marseille fails to be felt. The port has always had a large and visible immigrant population but it is one which has been almost studiously ignored in this film. A short while after the events depicted here, a whole section of the Panier, the old town, where many refugees were in hiding, was dynamited as a criminal quarter; neither this history nor its effect on the cityscape are shown, with the film preferring to concentrate on generic pizza places and the laughably bland MUCEM. “Marseille is a port city, and what else are port cities for than for people to tell stories?” says the voiceover, in one of those lines that make you roll your eyes and mentally reach for the seatbelt. Triteness aside, it is evident that not every story is to be allowed into this work.
So much for poverty of thought: let’s not forget that Transit is also a bad film. One key marker of a bad film: clodhopping voiceover that adds nothing to what is already on the screen. Marker of a terrible film: the voiceover turns out to have been delivered by the barman where the main character hangs out, here played by Matthias Brandt looking hilariously like René from ’Allo ’Allo.
This is not the only evidence of poor craftsmanship, though it is perhaps the most obvious. At times it seems Petzold is so interested in musing on the tedium of his characters’ situation and plumping up his own vague ideas about inbetweeniness that he forgets he also has a plot to get on with. Georg (played by the excellent Franz Rogowski) has assumed the identity of a dead writer who has visas for Mexico pending for himself and his estranged wife. While doing the rounds of the embassies he keeps running into a mysterious woman who, in a big reveal near the end, turns out to be – the wife herself! (I don’t know if this is meant to surprise the viewer; it’s staggering that it surprises the characters.) He then has to persuade her that her husband is dead and that she should get on the boat while she lies in bed with him trying to persuade him that she still loves her husband, or needs him for her visa, or something.
It’s all very confused and everyone misses a lot of ferries. Certainly, this is not the way to behave with Nazis breathing down your neck. But then why should we expect realistic reactions from anyone on this film? It all feels like crass playacting: like a group of adults engaged in some sort of “escape from the Reich” role-playing game on the streets of Marseille. Like a historical re-enactment society’s first meeting after a fire at the costume warehouse. Like – oh well, you get the picture.
Our verdict: 🎵 “you won’t remember this…”🎵