August 17, 2019

‘Transit’ Tells Timeless Story of Refugees’ Plight

Still from the film "Transit"

The German-French film “Transit” works on two levels: as a very personal story of love (and love lost) and a universal tale of refugees wanted by neither their lands of birth nor their potential host countries.

The film’s central figure, Georg, is a German refugee from fascism who has joined equally desperate refugees in Marseille, seeking a way out as the German army closes in on the French port city. He eventually meets and falls in love with Marie, a woman desperately seeking her missing husband.

 In the movie, adapted from the 1942 novel of the same name by Anna Seghers, Georg is apparently not Jewish but has fled as a political opponent of its fascist regime.

As the film opens, a friend asks Georg to deliver a letter to a man named Weidel, a famous German author living in exile in a Paris hotel. As George enters the hotel room, he discovers the author has committed suicide, leaving behind an unfinished novel and two tickets for a transatlantic voyage. Georg takes the papers and assumes the author’s persona.

In Marseille, Georg waits at the Mexican and American consulates, listening to the endless woes of others, including a Jewish refugee. He is told by consular officials that Marie, a desperate woman with the same last name as his, has been haunting the consular offices, seeking some trace of her missing husband.

“[‘Transit’] puts into sharp relief the timeless tragedy 

of racial and political persecution and 

the plight of refugees.”

Georg and Marie meet and fall in love, with Marie unaware that Georg is impersonating her husband, who she assumes is still alive. Meanwhile, trading on his famous assumed name, George obtains entry visas for Mexico and the United States for himself and Marie. They book passage for a transatlantic ship before the unexpected happens.

Though Seghers’ novel is set during World War II, director Christian Petzold has chosen to conflate past and present, so that, for instance, the cars on the streets of Marseille are of current vintage. (See the Journal’s interview with Petzold on Page 39).

Though this approach is at times disorienting, it puts into sharp relief the timeless tragedy of racial and political persecution and the plight of refugees.

Despite this rather somber theme, the film has some touching moments, particularly in the relationship between Georg and a 5-year-old refugee named Driss, who bond over their mutual enthusiasm for soccer.

The film’s lead roles are impressively filled by two of Germany’s most popular actors: Franz Rogowski, who plays Georg, won the 2018 Berlin Film Festival’s Shooting Stars Award; and Paula Beer, who plays Marie, won the 2016 Venice Film Festival’s best young performer award for her role in “Frantz.”

Without spelling it out, the film calls attention to the heartlessness with which most refugees are treated, including by the present U.S. administration.

According to the latest United Nations statistics, a record-high 68.5 million refugees were driven from their homes by war, violence and persecution in 2017. More than two-thirds of those people came from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. Turkey accepted the largest number of refugees, some 3.5 million, followed by Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Lebanon (998,900), Iran (979,400) and Germany (970,400), the U.N. reported.

In 2018, President Donald Trump lowered the United States’ annual admission quota of refugees to 45,000 — the lowest since enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980 — of whom only 21,292 were admitted. For 2019, Trump lowered the quota to 30,000, a ceiling
his administration is not expected to reach, according to the National Immigration Forum.

As a footnote, I arrived in the United States in 1939 as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Although my family left and arrived under relatively favorable conditions, the experience broke my father physically and spiritually.


“Transit” opens March 15 at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino.