2019, NR, 101 min. Directed by Christian Petzold. Starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., March 29, 2019
“Ports are places where stories are told, that’s what they’re there for,” an omniscient narrator remarks in Transit. This is where Georg (Rogowski) finds himself, adrift in Marseille. France has been conquered by an opposing force, and Georg wants out, perhaps to Mexico. Filmmaker Christian Petzold continues his masterful dissection of the various complexities of his homeland of Germany (after 2012’s Barbara and 2014’s Phoenix). And while based on Anna Seghers' 1942 novel about life in Nazi-occupied France, Petzold’s conceit here is to place the film in a temporally vague setting. There are no swastikas attached to the jackboots that are menacing and ever present, but the themes become depressingly crystal clear very quickly. Oppression has happened before, it will happen again, and it is most certainly happening right now.
Of the stories told, I suppose there is no better way to start one than with a task to carry secret letters to a dissident author, only to find a bloody bathtub and a distraught landlord. Transit begins with Georg in a Parisian cafe, interrupted from his espresso by a friend and given that courier mission. Around him, sirens wail in a police state that resembles a world all too familiar. Upon arriving at the dead author's apartment and realizing that his errand has become moot, he grabs the author’s manuscript, steals his identity, and travels to Marseille, the hope of that ancient port being a gateway for freedom. Once there (the film moves from urban to country quite quickly), he discovers things are perhaps going to be more complicated.
Georg befriends a young boy, and subsequently, his deaf mother. There are stories within stories, and to be honest, most of them don’t seem to be heading for a happy ending. The film becomes a dissection of sorrow and disaffection. That disaffection is front and center with Georg himself: He is a cipher among the world unfolding around him, a world that is blithely rife with casual fascism, and endless lines of humanity desperately trying to flee, marked by a countenance that Petzold brilliantly conveys in the utter helplessness of his characters. This is a film about people who are stuck, not just by the structures that bind them, but by themselves. Transit is a brilliant and timely film that reminds us that we may all be currently in hell, and regret the folly of our lives, but perhaps we have each other. Or maybe we’re on the road to nowhere. The film offers no easy answers, but the stories it tells have much to say about the world we currently reside in, and how sometimes escape is not the way out.