Georg (Franz Rogowski) is one such character who is trying to escape the encroaching fascist regime. What year it is is also a surprisingly opaque detail. It feels like 1940s Germany, but there are no swastikas, and the dress and transportation seem fairly modern. Although based on a 1944 book by Anna Seghers, Petzold strips the movie of any period clues, leaving us in another sort of purgatory that brings the narrative closer to us. One woman points after a fleeing Georg at one point, for all the world sounding like an informant yelling after a Jew. And yet at another, Georg connects with a North African immigrant and her son.
Georg impersonates a dead man in order to obtain a visa and papers to flee Europe, but with that come all sorts of entanglements with other refugees, including Marie (Paula Beers), who is that dead man's wife and searches for him, ignorant that he has passed away.
Transit has a framing device of a narrative within a narrative that is jarring at times, but then only adds to the surrealism of the story. What we're narrated verbally isn't always met with what actually happens before our eyes. It also immediately enforces a distance from the characters that is echoed by the distance from the action which induces shame in the bystanders of the story. There's a skewed logic at times in the ways characters act, as if they are party to the whims of a writer. But again, this only underscores the tragedy of the skewed logic of oppression that is all too real.
Petzold has always given the impression of a Hitchcockian noir filmed in the present, with crisp colors as well as shadows. It's a style that's evocative of the old suspense master while being completely now. Marie flits like a ghost through each scene, haloed with importance even before she's introduced into the story like a soft surround of Kim Novak. And yet, the range of colors achieved by cinematographer Hans Fromm is thoroughly modern, from the blues of the night train travel, to the hues of late French cafes, and the baking sun of Marseille.
Transit perfectly evokes the purgatoric in-betweenness of its characters and their situations, unable to shed their past to embrace their future. Georg is time and time again driven by his guilt, trying to assuage it, even as he becomes more than a simple bystander who only wants to survive. However, Petzold reminds us that the only way to change our narrative is to remember our past and learn from it. The future determines as much of the past as the reverse, or as one character puts it: "Who forgets first? The abandoned one or the one who left him?" Perhaps it is whoever moves on first.