Director: Christian Petzold
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Maryam Zaree, Lilien Batman
Watch Transit online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
It’s not uncommon for films to echo the classics, but it’s altogether rarer for a film to do something new with them. While it alludes to films like Casablanca and Vertigo in a roundabout way, Transit boasts a similar emotional wallop to those rightfully lauded cinematic landmarks, while bringing their tone and timbre into a kind of timeless but recognisable limbo.
It also modernises the 1942 novel of the same name, written by Anna Seghers, and similarly follows a stateless refugee attempting to leave Europe as the German army marches across the continent. In Christian Petzold’s film, this nightmarish and wholly cinematic scenario provides the setting for Georg (Franz Rogowski) to escape from Paris to the port city of Marseille by assuming a dead writer’s identity.
There, he has the chance to escape to Mexico by using the man’s visa to obtain transit papers and board a ship for America. However, in the days leading up to his departure, he has meaningful interactions with a variety of locals, including a deaf-mute woman (Maryam Zaree) and her young son (Lilien Batman), Dr Richard (Godehard Giese), who is imminently expected at a hospital in Mexico, and, crucially, the writer’s estranged wife, Marie (Paula Beer), whose fate is very much in Georg’s hands.
From the top down, the film’s use of setting is more cinematic than political. Early on, the imagery of police vans wailing and speeding down the streets of Paris on the hunt for undocumented refugees strikes a chord, as far-right rhetoric gets louder and louder around the world in real life. But while German director Petzold has grappled with his country’s post-war legacy in his previous films, the Germans here are substituted for generic fascists, and the setting feels ahistorical, rather than anachronistic.
The second-person narration adds to the cinematic artifice, with an unknown character relating the story as told to them by Georg, thus creating a purring tension that’s not resolved until the third act. Rogowski makes an unconventional lead, but he puts up a sympathetic portrayal of a character who’s understandably opportunistic to start with. The film is racked not by the impossibility of escape, but by the moral difficulty of going through with it.
It’s there in his interactions with Beer and Giese, whose roles are most prominent in the Casablanca-style set-up. While the mashed-up setting suggests a certain historical amnesia, the central character’s dilemma is all about the loss of self. Assuming someone else’s identity comes easily to a character in Georg’s predicament – or easier than it would in a fully contemporary setting, with computers and surveillance – but it proves much more difficult for him to keep hold of his own.
Beyond the potential romantic complications that the heart-stricken Marie presents, Georg also finds his conscience pricked by the mother and son of a fellow refugee who was less fortunate. Rogowski has great chemistry with his younger co-star, in particular, but there are repeated reminders that he is not the boy’s real father, as if he’s reluctant to step into another dead man’s shoes. From the thought-provoking dialogue to the mercurial setting, there’s an unsettling Kafkaesque quality that looms over the whole drama.
There’s a definite morbid and abstract streak too, which encompasses everything from thriller to tragedy to romance in a series of virtuoso turns throughout the running time, but the emotional undercurrent is powerful all the same. The characters are quite broadly drawn, but whenever some new challenge comes Georg’s way, you feel its arrival in the pit of your stomach.
Living up to its name, Transit will transport you in the first half, before knocking you on your backside with its finale. Coupled with the achingly ironic Talking Heads song that plays over the end credits, the ambiguous final shot sums up the sense of uncertainty Prertzold plays for and gets with this metaphorical ghost story. It’s a thrilling, captivating nightmare of a film.
Transit is now in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema.