Christian Petzold’s films have explored some of the most dramatic events of the past century in Germany – “Barbara” was about an East German doctor who was banished to a country hospital after attempting to escape to West Germany during the 1980s, while “Phoenix” was a twisty thriller set after the fall of the Third Reich. His latest, “Transit,” is the third film in his “Love in the Time of Oppressive Systems Trilogy” and my favorite of the three.
Based on a novel by Anna Seghers, which was set in World War II-era Europe, Petzold has updated the film to modern times. The film’s characters hear repeatedly of a threat and that people are being rounded up. The word “crematorium” is mentioned more than once, and police sirens are often heard. The film’s lead character, Georg (Franz Rogowski), flees from Germany to Marseilles, where he attempts to hide out as he awaits passage to North America. Ominously, we hear of an army that is on the march toward France.
In other words, the film’s story is that of World War II and the film’s characters attempt to flee a fascist power. However, although no exact date is mentioned, the surroundings (vehicles, digital signage, clothing) appear to be modern. The story in “Transit” is one pulled almost directly from “Casablanca,” but the film’s style is of a more cerebral nature.
As the film opens, Georg is attempting to flee by train to France. He is nearly caught by the police after attempting to deliver a note to a famed author – who was also planning to flee and meet up with his wife in Marseilles. However, Georg finds that the writer has committed suicide. After arriving in Marseilles, he visits a bureaucrat to obtain a visa that will allow him to take a ship to North America. The bureaucrat mistakes him for the dead author, and Georg doesn’t correct him.
As he begins to play the part of the dead man, Georg meets several people who will guide his path – a young boy named Driss (Lilien Batman) and his mute mother, two African immigrants he meets after having ridden the train with the boy’s father, who died en route from an injury; the dead author’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who still believes her husband is alive; and Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor who tends to Driss when he becomes ill and is involved in a casual relationship with Marie.
“Transit” is a slow burn thriller that begins to mesmerize after we settle in with the characters. It’s a tense picture – there are multiple raids that reflect Nazi arrests – but also a character study about several people who are enigmatic, but still manage to feel as if they are well developed as characters. As the film goes on, it begins to resemble one of the central storylines of “Casablanca,” and Petzold’s picture explores the notion of retaining humanity and doing the right thing in the face of fascism – a theme that remains chillingly resonant today.
This is one of the year’s best films so far. It’s inventive in how it portrays the story of World War II and Nazism in a modern setting without ever showing any of that ideology’s iconography. It takes a horrific historical event and makes it timelessly relevant. And it features a terrific performance from Rogowski, who humanizes a figure caught up in a Kafkaesque dilemma. The picture features what will likely be one of the year’s best endings – one that is both hopeful and uncertain at the same time. This is a captivating movie.