Berlinale Blog 2018 #5: Transit – Competition

     |    Thursday February 22nd, 2018

Film critic and filmmaker Adrew Horn is reminded of CASABLANCA and PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES by Christian Petzold’s competition entry TRANSIT. But read it yourself in the realeyz Berlinale Blog:

When I was a kid, I saw a movie called “Paris When It Sizzles” with William Holden and Audrey Hepburn. Holden played a screen writer trying to meet a deadline to deliver a script and Hepburn as his secretary – and eventual love interest – taking it all down as it became the movie we were actually seeing. And I remember he kept talking about the idea of “the switch”, meaning a way of flipping the direction of the narrative so as to surprise the audience. But Holden wasn’t satisfied with that, in the course of the story he gave us “the switch”, “the switch on the switch” and “the switch on the switch on the switch”. Seeing Christian Petzold’s latest, “Transit” I couldn’t help but think that “the switch” was definitely in.

The story follows, Georg, a German living in Paris in the early days of the Nazi Occupation whose friend talks him into accepting the simple job of delivering two letters to a prominent, but controversial, writer named Weidel, who is planning an escape to Mexico with his wife.

Georg is himself the sort of uncomplicated innocent who Hitchcock used to love throwing into some unforseen vortex of intrigue. But maybe Georg is not quite so innocent, as he is already involved in trying to help his friend Heinz escape Paris to join his family in Marseilles. Georg would rather stay out of the Weidel affair, but falls for the promise of the fee Weidel is supposed to pay him on delivery.

But it all goes quickly off the rails when Georg arrives at the hotel to find that Weidel had cracked under the strain of police persecution and committed suicide. Georg is left with the undelivered letters and decides to take Weidel’s passport and current manuscript.

Meanwhile, Paris is heating up and he has to evade the police cordon to get to his friend Heinz, only to arrive at the safe house to find him shot, but still desperate to travel. It’s been arranged for Georg and Heinz make the trip hiding out in a freight train, but Heinz dies on the way and Georg is left alone in Marseilles, which coincidently is a main port of departure for refugees of the Occupation, which was to include Weidel and his wife.

So there he with no money and nowhere to go, floating in a limbo of waterfront cafés, cheap transient hotels and official waiting rooms full of people waiting desperately for passage out. Having opened the letters, Georg finds papers granting Weidel his visa for Mexico which is waiting to be picked up at the consulate in Marseilles. The other letter was from Weidel’s wife telling him their marriage was over.

Hoping to get some kind of reward for returning the papers, Georg goes to the Mexican consulate only to be mistaken for Weidel. Before Georg can explain, he is given passage and travel money, as well as contacts at the American consulate to arrange for the necessary transit visa through the US.

That’s the switch and we no doubt saw that one coming. What comes next though is the discovery that Weidel’s wife, Marie, is also there in Marseilles having had a change of heart and waiting for her husband so she can leave with him for Mexico. Not knowing Georg, but going to the consulate to get news of her husband, she manages to arrive after his visit and is told that her husband is there. She just doesn’t know where. The switch on the switch.

Meanwhile Georg has bonded with his friend Heinz’s family and now starts question to if he wants to go. When Heinz’s son Driss get’s sick, Georg finds him a German doctor who it turns out is coincidently the man that Weidel’s wife ran away with. They were previously about to go off to Mexico where the doctor is supposed to take over a clinic, when Marie had another change of heart and backed out, causing the doctor to give up his passage to stay with her.

No, it doesn’t stop there, and believe me there are a bunch of switches yet to come, with further misunderstandings, romantic entanglements and the inevitable random acts of fate. And if at times it gets to be too much, the constantly shifting circumstances is just what the movie is all about – evoking a sense of dislocation coming out of the urgent need to leave, colliding with yet another reason to stay.

This dislocation is further enhanced by what at first seems a strange decision to ignore the period of the story and shoot the film in contemporary surroundings, which sometimes, depending on the location, seem timeless, and sometimes clearly modern. You do get used to it, but it’s always there as a nagging feeling of unbalance, mirroring the characters’ existential nowhere.

While “Transit” calls up references to films like Casablanca or Hold Back the Dawn it doesn’t try for Hollywood glamour. And yet the story does carry it’s own sense of doomed, yet transcendent, romanticism that won’t let go, even to the final blackout.
Andrew Horn