Transit (2019; Christian Petzold)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, May 3, at the Tower Theatre in Sacramento.
“Thoughtful Yet Glacial”
German director Christian Petzold follows up his 2015 critical darling Phoenix with another thoughtful yet glacial melodrama that flits around the margins of World War II.
Transit is based on a 1942 novel set during the Nazi occupation of France. However, while Petzold makes little attempt to update the source material, he also doesn’t dress the film in period trappings. In other words, no one in Transit owns a smartphone or accesses the internet, but their cars and clothes all look very modern.
For all the talk of “camps” and “cleansing” in Transit, no one mentions the Nazis or the Holocaust either. And neither do they speak about Trump or the refugee crisis or the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism or any other handy-dandy sociopolitical talking point. That nonspecificity is a strange strength of Transit, as well as one of the film’s biggest weaknesses.
A perfectly ambivalent Franz Rogowski stars as Georg, first seen drinking forlornly in a French bar while German police scour the city. Georg gets a chance to escape by delivering a letter to a well-known writer. When Georg finds him dead from suicide, he escapes to the port town of Marseille with the writer’s transit papers.
In Marseille, Georg queasily assimilates into a gaggle of deportation-craving refugees. Mistaken for the writer, Georg assumes the dead man’s identity, taking his place on the last boat to Mexico. However, Georg’s attachment to a couple of women he meets in Marseille threatens to thwart his escape.
Petzold peppers Transit with curious flourishes. A narrator suddenly pipes up after the first 15 to 20 minutes, makes a first-person reference around the halfway mark, and late in the film reveals himself as an exceptionally minor character in the story (not to mention an unreliable narrator). Meanwhile, the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” plays during the closing credits for no reason.
As with Phoenix, I was impressed by the reach and restraint of Transit, but could never connect with the film’s cold-blooded aloofness. It feels as though Petzold wants to paw through the viscera of history without ever getting his hands dirty.