Christian Petzold’s stunning 2014 drama “Phoenix” featured a piercing story of lost identity, deep longing and heart-shattering betrayal all to the backdrop of post-World War II Germany. After a few quick glances at his latest film “Transit” you might be tempted to believe he was covering the same ground. In some ways the similarities are striking.
While the two films unquestionably have some of the same things on their minds, “Transit” carves out its own unique path and sets itself apart in a variety of ways. Much like “Phoenix”, the influence of history is all over his new film, but we quickly learn Petzold isn’t bound to it. It too features an enigmatic story, but “Transit” plays out with a complete disregard for expectation.
Petzold (who serves as both writer and director) bases his film on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers about Nazi occupation during World War II. But finding your footing on Petzold’s timeline is easier said than done. At first glance you could easily think you were watching the story of a Jewish man on the run from the Gestapo. But then you see a modern car or the police’s advanced tactical gear and your sense of time is blurred.
The melding of historical and contemporary goes beyond appearances and often hints at more provocative ideas. For example the cities have the buzz of modernity but there is a noticeable lack of technology. We get plenty of worried talk about transit papers and exit visas. And the looming fascist forces are presented as current day yet they sharply resemble Hitler’s Nazism. Interestingly you could argue that the fascist threat is (at least in part) a MacGuffin and the movie’s interests are far more intimate and profoundly human. Like many truly great films, “Transit” allows room for various interpretations.
The film stars German actor Franz Rogowski who works with a quiet but ferocious intensity much in the vein of Joaquin Phoenix. He plays Georg who we first meet sitting in a Paris bar as police sirens wail in the background. The city has been occupied by an unnamed fascist regime and a “Cleansing” is underway (reminiscent of the horrific 1942 mass roundup of Jews).
Georg is anxious to flee the city but first he agrees to help a friend deliver two envelopes to a writer named Weidel who is in hiding at a nearby hotel. One of the envelopes contains a letter to the writer’s estranged wife. The other an exit visa to Mexico. Events quickly unfold and we see Georg escaping Paris for Marseilles with both envelopes and genuinely honorable intentions. But things can change in a blink of an eye.
In Marseilles a brief moment of indecision leads to Georg assuming the identity of Weidel and being granted passage out of the country. But first he must wait three weeks until his ship sets sail. During that time he connects with several people trying to escape the coming oppression. Among them is the widow (Maryam Zaree) and young son (Lilien Batman), a dispirited doctor (Godehard Giese), and a mysterious woman with a knack for vanishing as quickly as she appears. She’s played by Paula Beer.
Then there are the familiar faces of people who Georg repeatedly bumps into – fellow refugees who we never know intimately yet we hear them sharing their stories. As a narrator explains “Ports are places where stories are told” and telling their stories helps them deal with their troubles. These may seem like small touches but actually they’re among the many vibrant strokes of humanity on Petzold’s stunningly authentic canvas.
“Transit” is a film of many layers and much of the enjoyment comes from peeling them back and discovering the wealth of meaning underneath. It offers itself to many different readings – identity, fate, and the ever-present danger of repeating history just to name a few. And you can see it drawing from a variety of interesting influences – Alfred Hitchcock, Franz Kafka, even Curtiz’s “Casablanca”.
The world Petzold defines is girded by fear, paranoia and uncertainty yet his direction and the performances show a confident restraint. His intoxicating story moves to measured, melancholic beats while demanding every ounce of our attention and patience. This is one masterfully crafted movie if you’re willing to put in the effort. And it comes from a filmmaker so brilliantly in tune with his vision that it’s hard not to be dazzled.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS