A man is on the run from a fascist army that's occupying France. He jumps onto a train heading to Marseille and toward his very last chance to get away: a Mexico-bound cruise ship that's leaving the Mediterranean port city soon. The man is Georg (Franz Rogowski), a Jewish German radio technician. His bag contains the manuscript of a dead but famous Communist author. Also in the bag: the dead man's papers for Mexico. Georg is assuming the writer's identity.
Once in Marseille, he obtains a small room in a hotel that's crammed with people waiting for papers. They, like him, are in transit. And he, like them, must now spend long hours in long lines at this and that embassy trying to get an interview with an official who has the power to stamp an approval on his papers. If Georg fails to get this stamp before the next ship departs the hell that Europe has become, he knows the fascists will find him, arrest him, and throw him into a death camp.
Georg is facing another problem as well: He is falling in love with a woman who is also staying at the hotel and who turns out to be the wife of the dead writer. Marie (Paula Beer) is looking for her man. Georg knows she will never find him. Nevertheless, he is drawn to her beauty and desperation.
The film, by the great German director Christian Petzold, is based on a 1942 novel of the same name about a Communist rebel who escapes from a Nazi concentration camp in Paris, heads down to Marseille, and ends up waiting, and waiting, and waiting for a transit letter. Petzold, however, sets this World War II story in present-day Europe, though it is a strange intersection between the past, present, and future—the Jews who fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s meet and interact with Muslims fleeing a new fascist regime. The Jews in the movie are ghosts from the past, and the Muslims are ghosts from the future. These are the specters haunting Europe today.
Transit is not Petzold's first ghost story, but it is certainly his boldest and most intense. The urgency of the current political situation in Europe is captured by the film's realism and visual austerity. As a result, Transit is like experiencing a nightmare with your eyes wide open. Also important is the face of Rogowski's Georg. Though never expressing fear, it does, at every moment (in the cafes of despair, the rooms of misery, the streets filled with fear) show that, like Walter Benjamin's angel of history, it can see the "one catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage, and hurling it before [the] feet [of Europe]."