A clever, if chilling, construct frames Transit, from writer-director Christian Petzold. We’re in contemporary Paris, judging by the clothing and cars we see, but everyone is talking as if the city has fallen under Nazi occupation. There are dire warnings of the city being “closed off,” of citizens being abducted if they can’t show the proper documents, and of homes being raided. Georg (Franz Rogowski) plans to flee as soon as he’s delivered two letters to a writer as a favor for a friend, but when he discovers the writer has committed suicide, he quickly grabs whatever documents and manuscripts are in the dead man’s apartment and stows away on a train to Marseilles.
Transit is based on Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel, which had a complicated narrative even before Petzold played with the period setting. Once in Marseilles, Georg poses as the writer in order to gain passage out of the country. Then he runs into the deceased man’s estranged wife, Marie (Paula Beer). Should he tell her about her husband and turn over the documents? Keep her in the dark and use the papers? Indulge his sudden infatuation with her and try to have it both ways?
A similar scenario—and murky moral questions—drove Petzold’s last film, Phoenix. Specifically set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Phoenix centered on a concentration-camp survivor whose scarred face keeps her from being recognized by her duplicitous husband when she returns to Berlin. Transit, then, is another riff on mistaken identity, albeit one that throws a third wheel into the mix: a doctor (Godehard Giese) who is living with Marie and trying to find a way for the two of them to leave France together. And so we have something like a knottier Casablanca, with even more deceptions, motivations, and emotions than that classic managed.
Well, maybe not emotions. Transit’s convolutions tend to flatten out the characters, so that I was always more aware of the machinations at work than the human feelings involved. Georg’s attraction to Marie and their ensuing romance, if you can even call it that, feel particularly rushed, grounded more in plot mechanics than authentic relationship. It doesn’t help that Rogowski’s Georg plays things so close to the vest that he registers as a bit of a blank; Beer’s Marie, meanwhile, seems to have been envisioned as a haunting figure—flitting about Marseilles like an apparition—more than an actual person. (By comparison, Nina Hoss was at once commanding and achingly vulnerable as the lead of Phoenix.)
Transit’s appeal, then, is mostly intellectual. There are all sorts of ideas about storytelling at play, perhaps one too many. (A mysterious narrator presides over the proceedings, and at one point his voiceover overlaps with similar dialogue being expressed in the scene, in a bit of too-cagey meta-commentary.) Visually, I did appreciate how Petzold often emphasizes the way objects leave the frame—whether it’s people ducking in an alley, disappearing down a subway entrance, or even a ship leaving port by slowly exiting the right side of the screen. It’s a nice motif for a movie called Transit—as is the recurring image of silvery blue train tracks racing by at night.
Then there is the film’s potent politics. By merging refugees from the past and present—Georg also meets a mother and son who more closely resemble the displaced families we see on the news today—Transit reminds us how easily the awful past can be repeated in the present. In an ironic touch that I understand is drawn directly from the 1944 novel, many of the desperate characters trapped in Marseilles are hoping to reach Mexico. Racially motivated raids, demands for documentation, harsh deportation. In the fractured funhouse mirror that is Transit, contemporary France by way of World War II looks an awful lot like the United States in 2019.