The past becomes an eerie prophecy for the present in German director Christian Petzold’s haunting new existentialist thriller, Transit. Based on a 1944 novel by Anna Seghers that chronicled the harrowing purgatory of being stateless and dispossessed during wartime, Petzold’s mysterious waking nightmare of a film telegraphs its parallels to the current global refugee crisis by shifting the film’s setting to now — or at least a time that looks and feels like a funhouse-mirror version of now.
The movie opens in France, where the wail of police sirens is a constant background drone and civilians are routinely rounded up by heavily armed police officers. We’re told, through fearful, whispered conversations, that “the fascists” are rolling in and anyone without the proper transit papers will be shipped off to camps, or worse. One of these doomed souls on the run is Georg (Franz Rogowski) — an everyman straight out of a Kafka story who speaks in lisping German and has the face of a bruised angel. The fearful look in his eyes is both resigned and contagious as he desperately searches for a way out of a situation that he doesn’t seem able to fully wrap his head around.
After an acquaintance gives Georg a manuscript and the transit papers of a famous author of the resistance to take to Marseilles (which is still unoccupied… for now), Georg hops a train south. But when the author winds up dead, Georg decides to assume his identity, thinking it can’t be any worse than the no-win situation he’s already in. It’s certainly an understandable decision (and a familiar one to anyone who’s seen Jack Nicholson in The Passenger), but it leads to a series of lies and deceptions that will have ripple effects on not just him but seemingly everyone he comes into contact with: a deaf and mute North African mother with a sickly young child; the desperate souls waiting in line at the Mexican consulate for their prayers of deliverance to be answered; and the dead author’s in-the-dark wife (Paula Beer) who waits in vain for her husband’s return. It’s like Casablanca minus the swoony Old Hollywood glamor and with the way-station-of-the-damned paranoia dialed up as far as it will go.
Everyone in Transit lives in a constant state of fear and shame, watching as their fellow refugees are hauled off, afraid to intervene or speak up lest they be hauled off too. The only character that doesn’t seem to be very concerned is an unnamed narrator, who details Georg’s story with a godlike matter-of-factness that doesn’t quite work as well as the rest of the movie. A story like this has no room for archness. Still, Petzold walks the tricky tightrope of being both timeless and timely, the performances (especially those of Rogowski and Beer) are chillingly good, and the ambiguous final shot is damn near perfect. In Transit, the past is prologue… and it’s devastating. B+
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