How 'Transit' Changes Our Understanding of the Ghost Story

Christian Petzold's latest is unconventional in the best way possible.

Transit Film
SCHRAMM FILM

“Ghosts are guilt, ghosts are secrets, ghosts are regrets and failings. But most times a ghost is a wish.”

This quote comes from “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, a classic example of the gothic novel and a text that continues to shape our understanding of what makes a successful ghost story. But this quote and the ideas it conveys could have just as easily have come to us from Anna Seghers‘s WWII novel “Transit” or Christian Petzold‘s film adaptation, out now in select US cinemas.

Unlike Jackson’s story, Petzold’s film doesn’t deal with ghosts directly. This is not a horror or fantasy movie; a spectral being does not hang over the characters. The film follows a very real and alive man, Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German refugee who has fled his home country and is living in Paris on borrowed time as the German army encroaches more every day. Georg, like many in the French capital, flees to Marseille hoping to procure a transit visa that will allow him to leave Europe before it’s too late. Once there, he assumes the identity of Weidel, a deceased writer who has a visa. The problem is that the writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), is also in Marseille. Though she’s there with another man, Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor who wants to leave with her, Marie is still searching for the husband no one but Georg knows is dead. Thus begins the love triangle that further complicates this story of assumed and mistaken identity.

What sets Transit apart from its source material is that, while the film has WWII imagery and allusions to the Holocaust and rise of the Nazis, the story has been modernized. We see 21st-century technology and modern cars. The German army is not donned in SS uniforms but in riot gear. However, Georg and other central characters are dressed in classic silhouettes and items of clothing that are not so much vintage or modern but timeless. We see some markers of our present moment — cameras and TVs, but no cell phones. No one ever states exactly what year this is all supposed to take place in. It gives the film a feeling of being dislocated from any one period. The then and the now converge in Tralfamadorian fashion. It is not the 1940s or the present; it’s both; it’s any time before, after, and in between.

These refugees in Marseille are lost in time and the world around them. Trapped in one place, they are forced to repeat the actions of trying to procure various visas over and over again as they seek a resolution that may never come. Marie, for example, spends her days searching for her husband, always being told that she just missed him at any given location. We, of course, know that her search is fruitless because it is not Weidel she missed but Georg pretending to be Weidel. It would be no stretch of the imagination to compare this to any number of books or films about ghosts stuck haunting a manor, going through the same halls, again and again, all because they have unfinished business with the living.

Petzold leans into this thematic comparison and often presents Marie as having ghost-like qualities. She is repeatedly shown wearing the same clothes and makeup, always looking the same, creating the idea that for her every day bleeds into the next, tomorrow becomes indistinguishable from yesterday, time itself loses meaning. She walks through the port city every day, visiting the same locations to no avail. Before Georg is formally introduced to her, she runs into him several times, each time tapping him on the shoulder expecting to see the real Weidel turn around. Beer plays these scenes masterfully. Marie never says a word to Georg during these moments — instead we see the hope in her eyes turn to confusion as her smile disappears upon the realization that she’s just missed Weidel, again. Her husband becomes her own personal apparition, always seeming to be just out of reach.

Petzold — with his career-long interest in characters tied to a toxic national identity — has his fingerprints all over Georg’s relationship to Germany. He alludes to having escaped from a concentration camp and understands that he can never return to his home country, but he is also a stranger in France. During an interaction with a young boy he befriends in Marseille, Georg is both impressed that the boy speaks a few words of German and concerned that his own accent when speaking French gives him away as being foreign. He is trying to attain the visas he needs to leave, but he has no sense of where he wants to go or what he will do there. Even when he has the opportunity to leave he ends up remaining in Marseille because he is drawn towards Marie. If a ghost is a being trapped between the world of the dead and the world of the living, Georg is one trapped between the worlds of a lost home and a future destination.

As the doomed romance at the heart of the film takes shape, Weidel becomes the specter that haunts Georg and Marie’s budding courtship. She is tormented by the guilt of having left her husband, the fact that she needs to find him if she wants to use the visa he has in her name, and the possibility that because she left him, she also deserves to be left behind. Georg is torn between the desire to tell Marie the truth and the fear of losing his only means of escaping Europe if he does so. The relationship between the two and their experiences with each other become so complicated by the purgatorial nature of their lives that it can even become difficult for both characters to know what is and isn’t real. Midway through the film, Georg retells one of Weidel’s stories about a man who dies and goes to hell, only to discover that hell is nothing more than a place where he waits in one room for all of eternity. Apt, to say the least.

Transit has its fair share of clever allusions — Casablanca fans will notice that the young boy Georg befriends wears a soccer jersey with the name RICK on the back — but there’s notably several layers of meaningful references occurring in the film. Petzold’s most recent feature film, 2014’s Phoenix, was his post-WWII take on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In that film, Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration camp survivor, returns to Berlin searching for Johnny, (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband who may or may not have given her up to the Nazis. She’s undergone facial reconstructive surgery after being shot, and when she finds him, he doesn’t recognize her. Instead, Nelly assumes a fake identity, becoming Esther. Her husband, believing Nelly to have died in the Holocaust, hires Esther to pose as his wife to collect her inheritance. (Brilliantly and shockingly, the film never comes across as convoluted despite all of these conceits).

We can see traces of Vertigo in Transit. The doomed love triangle, the false identities, the way characters become bound to their experiences and repeat things over and over to no avail. But these traces come to us via Petzold’s previous references in Phoenix. Petzold considers Transit to be part of a trilogy dubbed “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems” that includes Phoenix and 2012’s Barbara. Though Petzold isn’t working with frequent collaborator Hoss in Transit, Marie’s red dress and her black coat are undeniably similar to Nelly’s costumes in Phoenix. It doesn’t hurt that these images are captured by cinematographer Hans Fromm, Petzold’s career-long collaborator.

Transit is not so much Vertigo-esque as it is Phoenix-as-Vertigo-esque. Again, past and present become tangled. Petzold is alluding to his own films as much as he is pointing to his influences from previous decades. However, he doesn’t do so with grand gestures and ego à la Tarantino. His interest in his own filmography comes across as more of a creator grappling to understand his creation(s). It’s Scottie wanting to know Madeleine even if it kills her; it’s Johnny trying to recreate the wife he can’t see standing in front of him; it’s Georg assuming someone else’s identity when he loses his own. To return to the ghost metaphor, it’s as if Petzold is haunted by the very narratives that so clearly interest him in the first place.

The filmmaker further challenges the distinctions between past, present, and future by utilizing a narrator who relates the story Georg would later tell of what happened to him in Marseille. There are a handful of moments where the narrator explains how Georg would recall an event taking place, but we see that some of the details are off. The narrator tells us Georg remembers that he turned around to look at Richard as he left a cafe one night, that he walked with a fellow refugee through the city in the evening after having a meal with her, that while he was in a consulate’s office he saw Marie through the window holding her hand up to her face to shield her eyes from the sun. But none of this happened. He left the cafe without looking back. He walked with the woman in the afternoon. Marie never held her hand up to her face.

Perhaps in another film from a lesser filmmaker I could imagine these being mistakes. But Petzold is too skilled a director — and has his skills on full display with Transit — for these details to evade any kind of proper analysis. These deviations between how an event happened and how Georg remembers it reveals the problems of memory. Georg has a tangibly desperate desire to hold onto something — his identity, Marie, his memories — but they are all slipping away from him whether he is conscious of this loss or not. Moreso these small moments reveal the unreliability of memory and the problem where knowing what happens next changes how we remember what happened before. When Georg reflects on his relationship with Marie, his desire for her to be safe means that he wants to remember that she shielded herself, if only from the sun.

If only it was possible to repeat a falsehood so many times that it could become true. If only Marie could keep searching Marseille and tapping men on the shoulder until one of them became her husband. If only Georg could will his memories into existence and change how certain events transpired. Like so many imaginings of purgatory — like Weidel’s story about hell being a place of waiting — Transit captures the tragedy of uncertainty in astonishingly heartbreaking ways. These characters are all, for external and self-imposed reasons, stuck repeating their actions, going through the motions, haunting each other and becoming ghosts in their own lives, never able to move on.

The ghost represents a multitude of things. For Marie, it’s the guilt of having left her husband. For Georg, it’s the secret of who he is and who he’s pretending to be. It’s both of their regrets and failings that prevent them from leaving Marseille. For Petzold, the unconventional ghost story of Seghers’s novel is an opportunity to return to the themes that have long haunted his films.

But the ghost is, above all else, a wish. It’s a wish to escape the personal and political constraints that bind these characters to a place they can never fully and truly leave. It’s a wish that, as the film’s gut-punch of a conclusion suggests, one could spend forever waiting to see if it comes true.

Horror movie junkie, fan of Old Hollywood, defender of Grease 2.