This article was written on 27 Mar 2019, and is filled under Film & TV, Media.

Imaginary Resilience: Christian Petzold’s “Transit”

Christian Petzold’s current “Transit” is a stunning recreation of what the World War II refugee scene must have been like, particularly as, one by one, the “lines of flight” out of precarious Free Europe became obliterated, systematically, by the Nazis. Through somber interiors, muted cafes, consulates teeming with visa seekers, sudden disruptions to street-traffic (mostly occasioned by arrests and roundups); also, with hand-held cinematography for sudden twists of event, “Transit” creates a visual climate of unease, pervasive suspicion, and despair—this despite the irrepressible sunshine of Marseille in summer. The time is 1942. The Nazis have already achieved the unthinkable; they’ve captured Paris. Prospects for the refugee population are declining daily in Provence. Nearby detention camps are already overcrowded. The Nazis have begun rounding up Jews and other undesirables in Avignon. Marseilles’ still serviceable days as a portal out of Europe for the persecuted are immanently approaching their end. This ancient Mediterranean port-city with a history long antedating the nation-states of Europe, has rendered double duty: along with Lisbon, its vast maritime port has routed the refugees on a variety of outgoing naval vessels; geologically, Marseille is also trailhead to the overland route that can convey those fleeing over the Pyrenees into Spain, the path, for example that Walter Benjamin and company followed in September, 1940.

It’s quite a gamble on Petzold’s part to set a film thick with historical allusion and nuance in contemporary Marseilles; to highlight the aging port fixtures in 2019; to incorporate contemporary Marseilles’ full demographic mix—including its current top candidates for dispossession and deterritorialization—in its cast and among its extras. To this reviewer, the gambit pays off handsomely. At the same time that the film documents a scene, among the World War II refugees, of attenuated precarity, fleeting alliances, complicities, and betrayals, tenuous hopes and leads, more often than not exploding in the refugees’ faces, it dares depict how such a massive deportation will play out in a contemporary “advanced” urban center. We are currently riding a global tide—in a wide range of national and regional contexts—of political “desperate measures,” road tested, where not fully implemented, in the face of such phenomena as climate change, critical resource shortages, and a congenitally sluggish global economy. (The latter trapped in unbridled population growth and runaway investment and economic development.) The nightly news we all contend with lends a strong plausible feel to the contemporary flank of the massive dislocation that Petzold conjures before us.

Another major player in the film’s verisimilitude is its being steeped in historically recorded and authenticated events and reminiscence. Protagonist Georg travels south, hobo-style, on a freight train, in the company of his friend Heinz. There is a strong cohesion between Petzold’s shots of the Parisian streets at the outset and his takes on the streets of Marseille: as the film sets out, Georg is already enclosed within an extended virtual landscape. Our protagonist has been entrusted with delivering Heinz to his wife, Melissa, in the port city. In the film, Melissa is a contemporary Marseillaise, a North African. Within this family setting, Georg immediately steps in for his friend Heinz, befriending his son Driss and coaching him in his soccer skills. This touching on the spot mentorship will abruptly dissolve when it becomes clear that Georg will not accompany Melissa and Driss over the Pyrenees into Spain. Whether by accident or through the inevitable convergences of Zeitgeist, there is a conspicuous echoing between the dangerous and ultimately futile effort to preserve Heinz and the documented historical tragedy of Walter Benjamin: Heinz’s physical impairment, a severely infected leg (Benjamin’s flight over the mountains was jeopardized by a weakened heart); the escape route over the Pyrenees that would eventually arrive at Port Bou, where Benjamin, in despair at his group’s being detained, took his own life; the morphine, administered by Georg to Heinz in order to ease his pain, but also the agent of Benjamin’s suicide.

During other early peregrinations that Georg makes through Marseilles, a conspicuous brunette, Marie, keeps crossing his path, almost beckoning to him. It emerges, when she and Georg connect, that she is engaged in a desperate search for her husband, the noted writer Weidel, despite every indication that he is lost. (In fact, Georg has been confronted by his corpse in a hotel. He has taken possession of the manuscripts Weidel left behind.) For purposes of securing his transit, Georg assumes Weidel’s identity. At a later point, in an interview with a testy U.S. consul, it proves fortuitous that Georg has committed some of Weidel’s aphoristic prose to memory. For reasons as romantic as strategic, Georg is also willing to take on, as much in the sphere of imagination as by rapport, possession of Marie. When the two finally meet up, she has made a strategic escape-alliance with Richard, a pediatrician from Kassel. Yet this particular partnership, like their sexual bond, is somewhat superficial; not as deep as her resolve to relocate Weidel. With Richard it is an on-again, off-again affair. Once before, Marie has foiled their escape-plot: when they were already aboard a South America-bound steamer so that Richard could join a clinic where he is needed, she bolted at the last minute, trailing her new mate along.

In the novel’s and the film adaptation’s romantic component, Georg thus finds himself party to an already displaced love-triangle in which Richard has been substituted for Weidel. Inserting himself in this situation by falling in love with Marie truly attenuates the reality principle: it is not likely that she is in any condition to reciprocate Georg’s love; it is furthermore implausible that this new pairing will make good on its machinations to secure visas and transit to Mexico (Georg has grabbed supporting paperwork from fallen comrades). It is in conjunction with sailing to Mexico, and then securing additional visas for Marie, that the film coalesces some of its edgiest moments. These are the extended interviews with the consul—cat-and-mouse games with deadly consequence–a seasoned bureaucrat, who has internalized the dead-end logic of Kafka’s aphorisms and who is the ideal audience for Weidel’s parroted pronouncements on Hell channeled through Georg.

The ending of the film is a calculated non-resolution. It transpires in thriller fashion, with minute-by-minute reversals. The question is whether the new love-pair, Marie and Georg, is going to make it onto the ocean liner Montréal and out of war-plagued Europe, and tangentially, what is going to happen to Richard, the new odd man out? This purgatorial indecision has only been accentuated by the suicide of an unnamed female fellow-refugee, an architect. To add to the melodrama, she shares her last meal, an unexpectedly lavish one, with Georg. According to script, Georg and Marie embark on the steamer that will deliver them to freedom and safety in Mexico. But at the last minute, in another of the novel’s and the film-adaptation’s last minute swerves, Georg runs back into town to substitute Richard for himself. (Perhaps Georg envisages, for his own escape-act, clambering over the Pyrenees.)

In a decisively indecisive way, this is where the film leaves us. We know that this time, Richard will make good on his opportunity to doctor in a South American setting. And we know that Georg has eschewed his own passage. So the question is Marie. The film, loyal to the novel, does everything it can to confound us regarding her fate. Does Georg, in company with the audience, catch an instantaneous glimpse of Marie, suggesting that she too has, at the very last instant rushed off-board, foiling her escape, possibly to rejoin Georg? Or is this simply another lithe brunette? This fleeting uncertainty is, on the one hand, just a small point of fact. But the ambiguity serves as a toggle switch, in a film in synch with its source-novel, to its profoundest psycho-political issues.

The fleeting specter of Marie, even after she is hopelessly lost to Georg, gives irrefutable testimony to the resilience, at least for a time, of the Imaginary, even in the face of a catastrophic Real. World War II, not unlike rightward-turned political environments all over the contemporary globe, has radically scrambled and reoriented the understanding of the Symbolic, has rewritten the conventional social contracts underwriting civil society, the law, the rules of engagement. For all that it is rule-determined, the Symbolic is, paradoxically, disastrously, volatile enough to turn on a dime. An election, a new technology, a new deployment of conventional media of communication, is all that it takes to radically set the Symbolic off, to realign its previously sedate determinations. We have experienced this recently in our own lives, as Dark Money, in Jane Mayer’s magisterial account, has rewritten the operations of political finance, in the U.S. and elsewhere; as manipulations to voting regulations have turned suffrage, in certain U.S. states, into an whimsical perk; as the phenomenon of “bubbling,” in the media and elsewhere, has proliferated the number of completing realities, far from all of which hew to the facts.

Yet the Imaginary, on a far more stately trajectory than the Symbolic, in many of its dreams and aspirations, has dug in for the long haul. Not merely the faculty of visual stimulation and pleasure, the Imaginary is the domain of idealism, aspiration, redemption, reconciliation. The poignancy of The Diary of Ann Frank consists precisely in the persistence of a young teenager’s very ordinary aspirations and romantic wishes even in the face of the dire circumstances around her, the desperate measures that survival assumes. It took subsequent history to fill in that this thinking took place when Frank was already doomed; the text is a transcript of her resilience. This is the sense in which Georg, at the end of “Transit,” cannot fully relinquish the fantasy that Marie has disembarked in order to find him. His ability to fall in love with her at all, amid the aggravated transience of genocidal deterritorialization, counts as an Imaginary achievement.

Somewhat deviating from face-value, it is the Symbolic, rather than the Imaginary, that is wedded to the concussive and invariably late-breaking negotiations of the Saussurian parole. These transpire, as much as anywhere else, on the urban sidewalk and waterfront. While the more deliberate transactions of the Imaginary, impacting on the historical snapshot of a language as it would be codified in a dictionary, take place within the attenuated temporality of langue.

There is a fortunate time-lag before the non-negotiable exigencies of the Real and the prestidigitation of the Symbolic rewrite the very content and limits of the Imaginary. It is this delay, this suspended non-relinquishing of the dream, that enables democratic societies, through electoral process, to revise former enthusiasms and miasmas. The Imaginary is the medium of political memory. U.S. journalism has been unrelenting in its reminder of the persistent American ideals subtending the sharp turn rightward instigated by Trump’s unlikely and manipulated election. (The same journalistic network was active during the much more civil degradations of liberties and economic justice under Bush fils, but it took Trump’s aggressive belligerence to set off all the alarms.) There is certainly an interstice, but it is not forever, between the failures of human civic disinterest and equanimity, and the reprogramming of prevalent cultural fantasies and dreams. Media-saturated society dwells, in other words, on the verge of the corruption and bankruptcy of its longest-held ideals: justice, impartiality, equality before the law, and due process. The possibilities for amelioration and correction always persist, but in an inherently foreshortened temporality.

Not only does “Transit” ingeniously sustain its ominous atmosphere of immanent and pervasive threat, betrayal, and incarceration, possibly eventuating in annihilation. Its unresolved narrative threads literally open and demarcate the time-bubble in which it remains possible to refurbish idealism and effectuate indispensable correction to political coercion. At a juncture when refugees and other immigrants become a xenophobic rallying cry; when assaults on time-honored principles of law and safeguards against abuse issue from national executives distributed across the globe, “Transit” renders a valuable object-lesson on the Imaginary: its underlying dynamics and its surprising vigor.

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