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Ghost citizens await their chance in Petzold’s “Transit”

Updated: Aug 21, 2019


Georg (Franz Rogowski), who has been posing as an exiled German writer, and Marie (Paula Beer), the writer's widow, in a Marseille hotel room.

Frame shots courtesy of Music Box Films


Blu-ray, DVD; 2018; Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Prime, FrandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: Making-of documentary

GERMAN DIRECTOR Christian Petzold adapted a 1942 Anna Seghers novel for his eighth feature film. In the book, an escaped concentration camp prisoner in 1940 is trying to evade probable execution in German-occupied France and find a way to any safe asylum he can. But, rather than filming a period piece, Petzold chose to set the story in modern-day Paris and Marseille, without changing any of the circumstances.

Only a few minutes of run-time are needed to get past the disconnect, and even to see the parallels with the refugee crisis happening in our country and around the world right now. The protagonist is a young man named Georg, played by Joaquin Phoenix lookalike, Franz Rogowski. A friend gives Georg a bunch of letters to be given to an exiled writer known only as Weidel at his hotel. Georg runs the errand, but gets to the hotel just as the staff is hastily dealing with the writer’s messy suicide. The hotel manager gives all of Weidel’s personal effects to Georg, who manages to hop a railroad boxcar and get to Marseille, from where it’s easier to bribe authorities and get transit papers.

Among Weidel’s possessions, Georg finds safe transit documents to Mexico for Weidel and his wife (Paula Beer), and money from the Mexican embassy. Georg realizes that assuming Weidel’s identity would be the perfect way to get out of Europe. Several more subplots, including a romantic triangle, mesh perfectly making a haunting, completely absorbing and original work of cinema.

Georg, in Paris, is asked to do a favor for a friend.

He agrees to deliver some letters to the famous exiled writer, Weidel, in his hotel room.

Georg hides from the police after he discovers Weidel has committed suicide.


This Music Box Films Blu-ray looks excellent (2.39:1 aspect ratio), with skin tones and details right on target, whether in or out of doors. Colors are well-saturated; contrast is effective. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also without fault. German and French dialogue clear (English subtitles are, of course, provided, but too large on the Blu-ray,while smaller on digital), and ambient sound effects well-balanced. The use of music in Stefan Will’s score is subtle, and nicely supports the drama.


The disc contains interviews with Petzold – including a Q&A at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, another with actress Barbara Auer at the Berlin International Film Festival; two interviews with the actor Franz Rogowski; and a color booklet with essays and interviews. Most informative is the making-of documentary.

Petzold talks about his dear friend, the writer and director Harun Farocki, who died in 2014 soon after he’d given Petzold Anna Seghers’ book to read. The two had begun writing a film treatment together, but Petzold put it aside while he recovered from the shock of Farocki’s sudden death. When he revisited it, he was inspired by a Chantal Akerman film set in the present day with a story that takes place decades earlier. “So I thought, “that’s the most political way of doing ‘Transit’ – seeing the novel as a transit from present to past … as if the ghosts of the past are running around in our present.”

Georg rides in a boxcar, accompanying a dying man whom Georg is supposed to deliver to the man's wife in Marseille.

After the man dies, in transit, Georg arrives in Marseille.

Georg finds the man's widow, Melissa (Maryam Zaree) and her son Driss (Lilien Batman).

Petzold sent his finished screenplay to Rogowski, who signed on for the part of Georg. Petzold says he made sure not to show any smartphones or computers in the film, and the actors wore clothes and had hairstyles that would fit in either 1940 or today. Rogowski says the character of Georg “combines a piece of German identity with the current situation in Europe, where people want to get in, not out.” He notes that in 1940, Marseille was filled with “millions of people, stuck there and trying to flee the Nazis. Many perished; some were rescued.” Beer says she “liked the story of lost souls wandering around, looking for connections with other people.”

Petzold discusses his use of a narrator, a “nobody” who turns out to be a bartender in a café, an “outsider who observes it all.” The director says the characters in “Transit” are “running around like Belmondo in ‘Breathless,’ searching for identity.”

Petzoid adds, “Love stories can make a home for you. That’s what ‘Transit’ is about: The desperate attempt to make a love story happen … about people on the edge, who are about to become ghosts.”

— Peggy Earle

Georg meets Paul (Sebastian Hülk), a doctor who's in love with Weidel's widow, Marie, and who is trying to get transit papers for the two of them.

Georg, Marie (Beer) and Paul discuss their escape from France.

Georg and Marie hold hands.


A view of Marseille harbor from Paul's hotel room.

Georg goes to Melissa's apartment, but she and her son are gone, and several refugee families are living there.

Georg has dinner with a Jewish architect (Barbara Auer), who had hoped to get out of France and evade the Nazis.

Desperate, because she has no transit papers, she leaps to her death.

Georg must decide whether to use Weidel's transit papers to get to safety.


He convinces Marie to go with him.

Refugees wait outside the U.S. Consulate in Marseille, while Georg tells Marie to wait outside as he finalizes her papers.





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