Christian Petzold is at the height of his career with a consecutive streak of terrific films: Barbara, Phoenix and now Transit.
This mystery drama follows Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German radio and TV technician, navigating Nazi-occupied France, fleeing from Paris to Marseille in the hopes of escaping to another country via the port city. The path isn’t a straight one and his journey to get away is clouded by a knotty identity issue pertaining to his status as a refugee. Choosing Mexico as his ideal destination, he is required by the consulate to get a Transit visa. To secure this, he assumes a dead writer’s identity after getting hold of his possessions and taking the golden documents necessary for free movement.
The story takes place in a few recurring locales: a cafe, a bar, a hotel, the consulate. Within these spaces, Georg encounters a medley of characters living under the same fear of being caught by the fascists. Striking his attention in particular is a young boy named Driss (Lilien Batman) and his deaf-mute mother Melissa (Maryam Zaree), and Marie (Paula Beer), an enigmatic woman looking for her husband, whose plight sounds eerily similar to that of Georg’s. Marie and Georg get entangled in an unpredictable romance and, as with Phoenix, the narrative threads amazingly coalesce in the final minutes.
There’s a fascinating layer of truth as Georg’s story is retold to us by a narrating bartender as each scene plays out and lots of details don’t align (for example, saying a character cries when they don’t). Perhaps the barman is telling us a narrative moulded by Georg in his favour, perhaps it’s a muddier case of eyewitness memory. It’ll be interesting to read the various interpretations – this openness is a strength of the director’s writing across his filmography.
Dystopian France is terrifying because it’s invisibly intertwined with the real world. Transit is based on a novel by Anna Seghers, set in 1942, but Petzold relocates it to the modern day. No symbols or propaganda items or other idents are included – the fascists are in power in an imperceptibly different Europe, deporting and arresting refugees, providing a tense undercurrent to Georg’s story and coating it with parallels to contemporary anxieties – Georg is privileged to move around freely whilst his neighbours from the Maghreb are in the opposite predicament. It’s a sad and pensive tale.
Transit is released in select cinemas and on demand on 16th August 2019.
Watch the trailer for Transit here: