The work of German director Christian Petzold is relatively obscure in the United States. He mixes period pieces and contemporary dramas that explore the ongoing crisis of post war German identity, and the disorientation of those still reckoning with a past that continues to haunt them. Petzold’s newest film Transit belongs to this thematic tradition, but in execution it is the director’s most formally ambitious film to date. Somewhere between a mainstream thriller and a traditional art house film, Transit has led many to recall the mix of danger and romance particular to Casablanca. The comparison is apt. Transit is a thrilling and unsettling film that tangibly recreates a nightmare of displacement and uncertainty, but in such a way that could appeal to a broader audience.
The film opens immediately to the sound of ringing alarms, police cars, and rushing bodies. Unbothered by the commotion, Georg (professional dancer turned actor Franz Rogowski) sits at a cafe counter staring into blank space when a friend approaches him and propositions a risky mission in exchange for money. Franz is to deliver two letters to a famous writer by the name of Wiedel hiding out in a hotel not too far from them. The precise danger of such a task is made apparent when Franz takes to the streets, and manages to evade capture from a fascist police squad making mass arrests of the undocumented.
It’s at this juncture that Transit’s radical conceit begins to present itself. While the film appears to be an analog for the Nazi occupation of France, Petzold does not commit to any one time period, blurring the lines between a past and present. The terror of ethnic cleansing and political persecution strikes through the film with a powerful sense of continuity. So while the film makes clear reference to the flight of German Jews making their way to the port city of Marseilles with Nazi troops hot on their trail, the use of modern dress, shifting cultural references, and no explicit mention of “Jews” or “Nazis” suspends the film in temporal ambiguity.
Based on the novel by Anna Segher (which is firmly grounded in the events of 1942), Transit functions like a palimpsest, uprooting itself from the historical specificity of Nazism and injecting a post-colonial subplot that evokes the current refugee crisis. Once in Marseilles, Franz feels indebted to the son and widow of his companion who died on their train journey escape south. Driss (Lilien Batman) and the mute Melissa (Maryam Zaree) live in a small apartment on the outskirts of Marseilles, and Franz – genuinely enamored with the spunky, soccer-playing Driss – temporarily steps in as the boy’s father figure. But when bureaucratic oversights at the Mexican and American embassies allow him to assume the identity of the dead writer, the aimless Franz finds himself equipped with a visa and a one-way ticket out of the city, which is on the verge of collapse. There’s no thinking twice about leaving Driss and his mother behind.
At the heart of Transit, beyond the precise visual construction and measured third person narration that might otherwise seem objective and cold, is a molten core of existential despair. Franz meets several tragic characters in the port city, scrambling to find the right papers that might secure their way out, desperate to at the very least have their stories heard. Amongst these individuals is Marie (Paula Beer), an enticingly vulnerable, but stubborn young widow who continues to cling to the hope that her husband might still be alive. Her and Franz rather quickly strike up a romance, but Marie remains insistently enigmatic, her intentions obscure, her true desires unreadable.
Everyone is a tough read in this realistically-coded dystopia of dead ends and creeping menace, in which salvation is dependent on the prickly whims of luck. When the only means of legitimizing one’s existence is through documents – leaflets, manuscripts, passports, and transit papers – reality loses its footing and relationships crumble. You would think that severity would be the reigning mood of such a film, but Transit retains an indescribably gentle touch, one that inscrutably but necessarily marks a sense of hope.