I don’t typically keep a running Best Picture tally throughout the year, but I will be quite disappointed if “Transit” does not get at least a nomination in February of 2020. Taking place in modern France, “Transit” superimposes a Nazi occupation on a contemporary setting and follows the efforts Georg (Franz Rogowski, “Victoria”) makes to escape. “Transit” takes its title in part from the extra documents required when migrating internationally with stops in other countries. They are a coveted commodity in the film; it is much more difficult to secure transits than it is to secure a destination visa. After serendipitously stumbling upon an opportunity to assume a dead man’s identity, Georg’s shot at freedom seems straightforward: All he must obtain are transits. His journey is quickly complicated by a widow and desperate child, a heartbreaking love triangle and a woman with two dogs.
Georg’s epic journey is important. Adapted from a 1944 novel by Anna Seghers, the film retains a novel-like narrative quality with third-person voice over narration and intentional re-use of certain locations throughout. Director Christian Petzold (“Phoenix”) also wrote the adaptation of Seghers novel. Petzold’s screenplay retains the timeless emotions of displacement and remains culturally relevant despite the anachronistic socio-political setting.
“Transit” investigates freedom, and what it means to be faithful to oneself. I empathize wholeheartedly with Georg, taking shallow breaths while sitting on the edge of my seat. My heart ached with his profound loneliness. Palpable uncertainty calls attention to the truth, always hidden just out of view from the viewer or from the characters themselves. The film looks into the nature of “home” as defined by people, places, and safety. Georg’s fate is left to the viewer’s imagination, a poignant reflection on existence in a transient state.
Visually, cinematographer Hans Fromm (“Yella”) takes advantage of the widescreen format with gorgeous, expansive shots of pastoral French landscapes seen from a speeding train. Other train-shots are composed like a still-life painting: Two men in a stark white room accompanied only by cheese and paper. The tensely calm beauty of Marseille is rendered with clarity throughout the film, making the final moments doubly gut-wrenching.
“Transit” reminds us the costs of compassion, the double-edged sword of shameful silence, and the existential weight of solitude. One particularly literary line, “ports are places where stories are told,” offers a neat summary of the film and its characters. “Transit” sees people converging in unlikely circumstances; each day some stories are told as other stories are being written.
While I haven’t read Segher’s novel, “Transit” retains a literary quality and cadence. Embracing film’s unique beauties without abandoning literature’s nuanced sentimentality, Petzold holds onto the gentleness. Opening the door for political questions and rumination on identity and the concept of home, the instant classic does not sacrifice immediacy. I intend to read the original book soon, and I’ll certainly be adding “Transit” to my repertoire of favorites.