May 19, 2019

“Transit”

As in, Letters of…
3 popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
film critic

One has to be either a fool or a complicit coward not to recognize the mercilessness regularly perpetrated on humankind by immoral governments and their tyrannical leaders. Equally clueless are those who don’t realize that the worldwide, mass immigration being used as a scapegoat by said guilty-as-sin autocrats is in essence a product of their regimes’ greed, racism and ineptness. Ever notice that the really bad guys are never ever wrong? While Rick in “Casablanca” (1942) occasionally confesses to a lack of judgement, you’ll never hear good Nazi Major Strasser admitting a mistake. Civics Lesson #1: Rick is good; Major Strasser is bad.

What all this has to do with “Transit,” adapted by director Christian Petzold from Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel, is just about everything, albeit in an artistic, symbolic, poly-metaphorical way. Read the plot synopsis and it seems rather clear-cut: A man fleeing France from the invading Germans assumes, at first unintentionally, the identity of a dead author whose wife he falls in love with upon their chance meeting. She doesn’t know her husband is dead. However, in weaving his muckraking tale of turmoil and inhumanity in the world of borders, checkpoints and provincialism, leave it to Petzold to invariably take the more obscure path.

Perhaps it’s his form of audio-visual touch-n-feel in an attempt to make us appreciate the uncaring horror inflicted on those caught in the vice of tyrants playing at government. And just to make it a little more murky in an art house sort of way, especially for those watching it stateside with subtitles, while Ms. Seghers’s story takes place in the 1940s, when the Nazis are indeed invading and occupying France, Mr. Petzold asserts a current poignancy by setting it in the present day. To further complicate matters, subtitles or not, you can’t help but feel a tad disoriented by actors speaking German playing the French people who are being forced to flee from the Nazis who would “cleanse” them.

We are tossed headlong into the discomfort of the protagonist, Georg, ably played by Franz Rogowski, an everyman attempting to find some sort of mental and physical terra firma on which to stand in this never-ending upshot of a Babel toppled for its overweening vanity. Marie (Paula Beer), the starry-eyed wife who simply won’t believe that her famous writer spouse is dead, co-represents the face of immigrants. They weren’t born immigrants with DNA denoting that, but flung into it, putting a face on it. In short, people just like you and me. They once went to work, watched TV at night, rooted for Bernie at the little league game on Saturday and agonized about not being able to find a good, honest handyman. Now someone wants to see their letters of transit, and more often worse.

The film is a refresher course in what goes on if we blink too long and miss the signs alerting us to a democracy in jeopardy. Sadly, I know the story only too well, not because I am astute, but because I have been around for a while and those ignominious powers that be rarely take a break from their blatant attempts to evaporate our freedom. They are the bully in the playground who grew up without benefit of a life-changing epiphany. This isn’t happy viewing. Still, while it would be more enjoyable were I a college sophomore parsing the recently screened film in a coffee shop with my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed cohorts, and planning how we will change the world, I’m grateful the discussion is still in progress.

Granted, it is esoterically embroidered. Yet even after we’re confident that “Transit” is like something Aesop may have written were he determined to challenge the wiles and wherefores of contemporary totalitarianism, we’re still at a bit of a loss. You can’t help but feel that there is yet another cryptic element of human psychology to be deciphered, that there is a gene in some folks that not only precludes them from calling out obvious tyrants, but actually causes them to vociferously side with them. Organisms in good health move toward pleasure and away from pain. Thus, one needn’t be Dr. Freud to understand that any aberration thereof is, well, aberrant, and in human beings specifically, downright unsociable.

Plopped atop all this highminded contemplation, director Petzold submits a mini thesis on bravery and sacrifice in the face of world upheaval. And, proving that brilliant minds do indeed think alike, one should note that while the windup in “Transit” bears heroic similarities to “Casablanca,” the two stories were written at about the same time. Both are primers of civic-mindedness that essentially ask, would that candidate you’re about to vote for give up his or her letters of transit so that Victor Laszlo and Ilsa could continue their fight for freedom?

“Transit,” not rated, is a Music Box Films release directed by Christian Petzold and stars Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer and Godehard Giese. Running time: 101 minutes

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