Purgatory Revisited

A Brief Commentary & Review of the film by Christian Petzold, “TRANSIT”

by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director

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In Christian Petzold’s film TRANSIT, the main character Georg has assumed the identity of a controversial dead writer, in his attempt to obtain a travel visa and escape a fascist regime that is closing in on the city of Marseille. He assures the American consulate he has forsaken his writing craft. After obtaining his travel document, the consul asks him, out of sheer curiosity, what was the last thing he wrote. Georg recalls and relates what he had read while browsing through the dead writer’s manuscript.

“A man had died. He was to register in hell. He waited in front of a large door. He waited a day or two. He waited weeks. Months. Then years. Finally a man walked past him. The man waiting addressed him, “Perhaps you can help me. I’m supposed to register in hell.” The other man looks him up and down, says, but sir, this here is hell.”

In 1944, the French existentialist philosopher and playwright, Jean Paul Sartre, wrote Huis Clos (“No Exit”). In that play, the story takes place in a plain drawing room, where three characters -- Joseph, Inès, and Estelle -- discover they are condemned to remain in each other’s company for all eternity.

As things proceed to unravel, their relationships devolve in typically human ways. Eventually, they reveal their crimes and indiscretions while they were still among the living. The awkward threesome bicker and quarrel amongst themselves. When Estelle tries to relieve Joseph of his guilt feelings over his prior attempts to flee his country during wartime, Inès exposes Estelle’s ulterior motive to seduce the only man available. Even when Joseph has the opportunity to actually escape, he can’t bring himself to do so without some form of restitution; which nevertheless eludes all his attempts. Finally laughing with a shrug of resignation at the ludicrousness of it all he mutters, “Eh bien, continuons...” (“Well then, let’s get on with it...”).

As the play ends, the moral to be drawn from Sartre’s tale without end is the famous quotation, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is other people”). If so, it begs the question, where might a little light be found among the shadows?

Curiously enough, in the same year Sartre wrote his play. Anna Segher wrote the novel, Transit. It’s the story Christian Petzold adapted for this 2018 film by the same name. Shifting the original story of German Jews in France fleeing fascism for the United States and Mexico to some imagined present circumstance, the filmmaker blurs time periods in his film adaptation to create a timeless and timely exploration of the plight of displaced people everywhere. But again, if it’s déjà vu all over again, where might anything redemptive in this human condition be found?

The absurdity of an inert kind of existential malaise is evident throughout the the film. Once in Marseilles, Georg seeks a hotel room where he can hide out for an indefinite period of time. The hotel owner demands a week’s payment upfront in case she’s raided by the authorities. But since he has no residence papers, he’ll have to first show a visa or ship’s passage to the police. “So,” Georg replies, “I can only stay here if I can prove I don’t want to stay?” She chuckles, giving away what will remain the ironic undercurrents of someone who can only survive by posing to be someone else, living in a state of limbo.

When Georg goes to the American embassy, he finds a long line of asylum seekers; each with their own story of the horrors they’d suffered, and their hopes for a new life in the U.S. or (ironically, today) Mexico. You’d suppose a storyline entitled Transit should convey some sort of movement. But there’s only an expiration date to everyone’s story in a place where everything seems both indefinitely and incessantly temporary.

Now about that sliver of light in the mean-time? There’s Georg’s encounter with Melissa who is deaf and dumb, and her 8-year old son, Driss. Georg becomes the surrogate father figure, after telling Melissa her spouse has died on the journey to Marseille. And, when Driss falls ill, Richard the pediatrician will rush to this stranger’s aid, because the child cannot go to a hospital without proper identification papers.

Meanwhile, there’s Marie, the spouse of the dead writer whose identity Georg has assumed. She wanders the streets and cafés, in search of her estranged husband; while torn between a past and a future with someone that will never come to pass.

The film ends with a fleeting image of Marie. Is the apparition a ghost from the past? Of what might have been, or might be still? It is typical of this style of film-making. It is left up to the viewer to decide the ending.

But for the time being, there are small acts of kindness and sacrifice that occur in the midst of the futility of each character wavering between doing something for the sake of the ‘other,’ and trying to save themselves.

As Georg softly sings a lullaby about “home” from the memory of his own childhood to the young Driss,

The butterfly comes home, the bear comes home, The lanterns are lit, the day has flown
The codfish swims home, the elephant stomps home, the ant rushes home,
The lanterns are lit, the day has flown
Fox and goose come home, cat and mouse come home, man and wife come home
Tales are weaving on their own, as the evening rests upon our home.

But in the end, there’s no place for a transient to lay his head. jb