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July 02, 2019



Christian Petzold - 2018
Music Box Films

Would I have thought differently about Transit had I not read Anna Segher's novel beforehand? The novel was published in 1944, taking place in Marseilles between late 1940 and early 1941 before the complete Nazi takeover, when refugees with the right papers and money could leave France for the U.S., Mexico or other South American countries. Seghers was also a refugee, taking inspiration from her own time in Marseilles. The narrative is primarily done in the first person by a young man, an escapee from a concentration camp, who has been given the suitcase and letters of an author who is revealed later to be dead. The unnamed narrator takes over the identity of the author in order to leave Marseilles, trying to work his way with the various bureaucracies to make his arrangements. A mysterious woman turns out to be the author's wife. The characters are ill-fated, whether by their own choices or circumstances beyond their control.

Petzold has transposed the story to the present era. The timeline has been collapsed, sub-plots jettisoned along with several characters. While loosely adapting Carnival of Souls for Yella, and The Postman Always Rings Twice for Jerichow worked, the time and place did not have to be specific. In Petzold's Transit, while we see the occasional roundup of "undesirables", there is no sense of a palpable threat by the group given the vague identity of fascists. Segher's novel also takes place over a period of several months with a stress on the boredom of waiting for papers to get approved, for trying to stay warm in what seems like a never ending winter, where the pizza that comprises the main diet is purchased as rationed bread. Petzold's changes include a young boy, half German/half North African, and his deaf-mute mother, also illegal aliens, as an attempt to make the updated version more timely. At the same time, Petzold has deracinated Segher's version which significantly included several Jewish characters. Ending the film with Talking Head's song, "Road to Nowhere" struck me as irresponsibly flippant.

While taking place in a contemporary Marseilles, some obvious indicators or timeliness are absent, such as cell phones and computers. I understand Petzold making a connection with the various refugee crises taking place in Europe. With the rise of nationalism that has taken place, Petzold virtually anticipated what has happened recently in Italy with the recently installed right-wing government punishing those who assist the would-be migrants from North Africa. Those aspects from Seghers novel that make it universal, still read and discussed, may not be lost, yet feel diminished in the film. The darkness and desperation of Segher's novel has been replaced by sunshine and casual inconvenience.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 2, 2019 06:31 AM