The Pitch: Inspired by Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel, Transit is something of a surrealistic escape thriller and wartime romance. A young man — unnamed in the novel, here called Georg and played by Happy End’s Franz Rogowski — flees to Marseilles in hopes of escaping Nazi occupation. A friend asks Georg to deliver a letter to a writer, Weidel, in Paris, but upon arrival Georg finds that the author has killed himself. Despite his fears, Georg takes on Weidel’s identity and uses the author’s documents to hide more comfortably among other refugees in Marseilles. As Georg awaits guaranteed safe passage to Mexico, he navigates the local color, evading authorities through a low profile. He meets with families, doctors, odd birds, visa officers. Then Georg begins to develop feelings for Weidel’s wife Marie (Paula Beer).
Simultaneously breezy and brutal, Transit is elusive neo-noir, a tale of lost hearts and minds. It works in a microbial manner, slowly feeling out its situations and emotions, sometimes to the point of testing patience. But that has its reasons, in its own way. It’s a film where survival feels more like minding time, and the dangers are timeless in their abrupt immediacy. The rug, their travel papers, could be pulled from Georg at any time.
Oh, did we mention that Seghers’ novel has been adapted to take place in modern times? Georg lives through a Nazi occupation in 2018 France, depicted with police vans, sirens, and anonymous Kevlar-vested officers demanding papers at every checkpoint.
All is Fair in Love and War: Following up his intimate epic Phoenix, director Christian Petzold returns to similar territory with a new vantage. Transit is fascinated with identity and the experiences of wartime, and it’s a humanistic take with shades of Hammett, Huston, and yes, Kafka. The hunted man. Questions of identity. Strange people. Melodrama with touches of absurdity. The omnipresent fear of being preyed upon by forces beyond our understanding. Yet Petzold delivers it all with a chillingly plausible sense of realism.
Phoenix was a period-driven work about a woman’s plastic surgery allowing her to exist like an angel lording over her own presumed death. Here, Petzold plays with new identities once again through Georg, but the context is the key departure. Where Phoenix escalated to a barn-burning finale, Transit is closer to an exercise in cinematic novella. Georg’s interactions among the locals build to more of a chilling whimper than a bang. Petzold’s tone is demure, as he presents predicaments through Georg’s nervous, weary eyes. The emotion may only sink in a while after the film is over.
Take Georg’s relationship with Marie, a budding romance operating at death-defying levels of it’s complicated. Petzold pursues uneasy questions, like how willing and immersive and possibly exploitative Georg is being in taking Weidel’s identity. Marie seems as lost as Georg, for her own part. Perhaps there’s a spiritual connection at play beyond even what Petzold chooses to see through. But that’s not a bad thing. Low-key mood is important to making the film’s more sensationalistic elements feel ruminative, rather than convenient.
If only Petzold were tighter with his intent. The muted nature gives off the sense that Transit is searching for something bigger within its already high-concept conceit. Perhaps its most divisive choice is the deadpan narration, a common crutch of adaptation. Petzold leans on dry, matter-of-fact statements that feel redundant when his leads and other actors are perfectly capable of expressing bewilderment and fear. But for what it’s worth, Seghers’ prose on human feeling is well-selected. Maybe we need to be told that these people feel shame as a compatriot is dragged away, to really emphasize what we dare not speak.
Rick Blaine He Ain’t: Much has been made of Petzold’s affinity for vintage-era espionage, and Transit certainly has earns its stripes. You can see echoes of romance and dismay recall The 39 Steps or Above Suspicion (and even the underappreciated modern take Allied). But Transit is a bit more illusory than its more famous and obvious parallels; Petzold is more attuned to the experiential nature of his film than dramatic escalation. Georg is less a heroic lead than a passenger, witnessing as the world tears itself apart around him. A a tip for the under-initiated, approach Transit as less of an homage to old time fare about dames and double-crosses (or something like that), and more like a vicious daydream.
The Verdict: Transit is a walkabout potobiler that ruminates more often than it feels compelled to run. It’s brutal, stark, dry, compelling, rich, and all the other drastic hyperbole that one can only bestow upon a genre-bending experiment like this one. That’s what makes it so swift and decisively effective, and frustrating in its airiness at times as well. If its intentions aren’t clear right away, Transit ultimately gets there. And while the themes of war it explores might be worn, the presentation is so brittle in its immediacy that it takes on the effect of looking through glass at the horrible new world we live in. It looks shockingly similar to so many old ones.
Where’s It Playing? Select cities beginning March 1st.