When a man flees France after the Nazi invasion, he assumes the identity of a dead author whose papers he possesses. Stuck in Marseilles, he meets a young woman desperate to find her missing husband – the very man he’s impersonating.
Nazis are taking over the world again in writer/director Christian Petzold’s drama Transit. This film is not your typical blood-soaked, torturous exploration of the evil we inflict upon each other. Defined as “The Cleansing,” the fascist invasion in Petzold’s film mostly takes place off-screen, looming in the idyllic French horizon.
It spreads slowly but surely, like cancer, engulfing everything in its way, including scenic beauty and human compassion. An acute reflection of the current refugee crisis, minimalist and poetic in its approach, Transit, unlike its protagonists, seamlessly reaches its destination: a conclusion so heartbreaking, it will resonate for weeks after.
“…assumes the identity of a dead writer to escape a steadily-crumbling France to refuge in Mexico.”
Georg (a subliminally powerful Franz Rogowski) assumes the identity of a dead writer to escape a steadily-crumbling France to refuge in Mexico. Stationed in the beautiful Marseilles, awaiting his ship to Mexico (aka salvation), Georg encounters fellow asylum seekers. Among them is the deaf Melissa (Maryam Zaree) and her asthmatic son Driss (Lilien Batman); an architect with doomed dogs (Barbara Auer); a pediatrician called Richard (Godehard Giese); and Marie (Paula Beer), wife of the dead writer, who keeps futilely searching for her husband.
Told in an unrushed manner and utilizing eloquent narration, Transit builds slowly, the horrors off-screen more palpable than any of the ones graphically shown in, say, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. Anchored by Rogowski’s somber performance (he looks like a cross between Tony Goldwyn and Joaquin Phoenix), Petzhold’s assured direction and Hans Fromm’s crisp cinematography, the film is never overt, subtly touching upon a variety of relevant themes.
“It’s about the stories we tell each other, how they endure and help us get through harrowing times…”
It’s about the stories we tell each other, how they endure and help us get through harrowing times. It’s about human compassion, how tragedy both numbs and opens people up. It’s about the prevailing bureaucracy in today’s societies. It’s about our search for identity. Last but not least, Transit is about transiting, and how we’re all passengers desperate to reach a destination.
The irony of escaping to Mexico from an idyllic – but soon to be ravaged – France, may be the only trace of wit on an otherwise bleak canvas. What saves the film from drowning in grimness are its warm performances, its humanity. Less obvious than TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale, not as visceral as Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, and with definite echoes of Michael Curtiz’ classic Casablanca, Transit is its own creature, by turns heartrending and horrifying.
Transit (2019) Written and directed by Christian Petzold. Starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilie Batman, Barbara Auer.
8 out of 10