A Radical Movie About the Holocaust, Set in Present-day France

In ‘Transit,’ German director Christian Petzold has fashioned a bold confrontation between time and place, one that expresses the survival and endurance of Holocaust memory

Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer in “Transit.”
CHRISTIAN SCHULZ / Schrammfilm

“Transit” is the second consecutive feature film by German director Christian Petzold to deal with the memory of World War II and the Holocaust. Through narrative and stylistic choices, the film touches on the question of a German film director’s capacity to present this memory and of Germany’s ability to deal with it.

In 2014, Petzold directed “Phoenix,” set in the postwar ruins of Berlin. It told the story of Nelly, a Holocaust survivor who was once a singer. Her face was shattered by a bullet wound and restored in a series of plastic surgeries. Nelly arrives in Berlin to find her non-Jewish husband, Johnny, a piano player in a nightclub, who is evidently the individual who handed her over to the SS.

When they meet, Nelly conceals her true identity from him, although Johnny does discern a similarity between the stranger who walked into the club and his wife, whom he is sure has died. Nelly has a family inheritance coming to her, which Johnny wants to gain control of. He convinces this woman to pretend to be his wife. And so begins a process of shaping Nelly’s image in the image of the supposedly dead wife.

Petzold built his melodrama on film noir foundations but in bold colors, and placed it in an intentionally artificial, stylized reality. The film corresponds with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and other films in which men attempt to recreate women who have lost their outward identity. “Phoenix” highlighted two of the elements that characterize Petzold’s work: Engagement in impersonations and representation of characters as ghosts in their historic context. This latter attribute applies to Nelly, who has come back from the dead in order to be reborn in her own character.

Both these elements also characterize “Transit,” but they are presented even more radically in his new film than in “Phoenix.” The movie takes place in Marseille in 1942. Its protagonist is Georg (Franz Rogowski) a Jewish refugee from Germany, who has come into possession of the last manuscript of an author named Weidel, who has committed suicide, as well as Weidel’s transit papers to Mexico.

Georg assumes Weidel’s identity, with the objective of taking advantage of his transit papers to escape France, across which the German forces are advancing. As he wanders the streets of Marseille, awaiting the visa that will save his life, Georg repeatedly comes across a woman who is a stranger to him, and who seems like a ghost wandering through the city. Later on, we will discover the connection between this woman (Paula Beer), whose name is Marie, and Weidel, Georg and one other central character in the film – a doctor (Godehard Giese) who is also a refugee.

Past time, present place

What Petzold does in “Transit” is one of the most radical actions in the history of the link between cinema and memory of the war and the Holocaust; it relates to the connection and the confrontation between time and place. The time is 1942; the place is the city of Marseille in the present day.

When watching the film’s first few minutes, the connection can be misleading: Until we understand the significance of this radical action, we feel lost within the chasm between the time and the place in which the film occurs.

The radical idea underlying Petzold’s choice – past time, present place – is anchored in the book by the German writer Anna Seghers on which the film is based, which was completed in 1942 and published two years later.

One of the practical goals served by placing the film’s story in present-day Marseille is the filmmaker’s decision to forgo the need for a period-piece reenactment of Marseille in wartime. Such a reenactment drains prodigious creative and financial resources, and can often prove to be a burden on the outcome, usurping and overpowering it.

The total release from the need to reenact – which also reflects a sort of aspiration toward the freedom interwoven into Petzold’s plot – enables him to focus on the story, the characters that populate it and the statements arising from it.

And yet what Petzold does in his film has, of course, an objective that goes well beyond this practical aspect. Since the film does not take place in either the past or the present, but rather in a twilight zone in which the past bursts into the present and the two are mixed into one another, the main characters appearing in “Transit” are ghosts that have burst from the past into the present by means of cinema, in which the past is in any event an eternal present that comes back into being before our very eyes.

Even if Petzold’s new film is set in France and not in Germany, his main characters are refugees from Germany, and through his decision to situate the past in the present, Petzold is engaging, in his unique way, in the modus of the German approach to memory and the Holocaust – a memory that seeps into the present.

The filmmaker even uses a nameless (at the start) storyteller who accompanies the events with his narration – a narration ascribed to Georg in the third person and which thereby reinforces the sensation of unfamiliarity.

Here and there, the past that appears in the film directly touches on the present in it. This happens most radically in a subplot, in which an event that happened to Georg on his way to Marseille brings him into a present-day encounter with a mother and her young, soccer-fan son who have moved to France. With the help of this subplot, it feels as if a mythical string is being tugged from the past into the present, and then tugged back into the past.

Marseille of the present has become a city of migrants and refugees, and Petzold’s film – in the confrontation between time and place that he creates – does indeed pertain, at its most sweeping level, to the experience of the migrant and the refugee, the rootlessness and desperation that stem from this status, and the hope of being saved (both then and now).

Some viewers will find unacceptable the comparison between memory of the Holocaust and the current distress of refugees from war-torn regions who are now washing over Europe – a sort of statement that the more history develops, the less it changes.

True, we do not conceive of the Holocaust as a source for any sort of comparison. And yet, this level is linked to Petzold’s attempt to declare – through his film – a measure of endurance and survivability of the memory of the war and the Holocaust. This aspiration to draw a relevant link between then and now adds an ideological and political subtext to his creation.