A typewriter sits among beige paper on an oak desk. A metal fan whispers a low breeze around the hotel room decorated with peeling paint and aged wallpaper. In the bathtub, coated with sprays of blood, a dead body lies cut at the wrists. The year is 1942, and we’re in Nazi-occupied France. Outside, armored police in brand new cars wield semi-automatics. People chat on iPhones and watch fascism encroach on their lives on flat-screen TVs. They shop at department stores hoping any kind of routine will dull the pain. The year is 2018, and we’re in Nazi-occupied France. Welcome to the world of Transit.
It is tempting to view the “hook” of Christian Petzold’s drama as some kind of publicity gimmick, but the classic/contemporary amalgam of wartime Europe and 21st century France is masterfully seamless. Lit entirely by natural light and shot by an unobtrusive camera, the film is tangible to the point where it becomes wholly convincing. The result is a heavily atmospheric experience, almost a “period piece” of yesterday, wherein the time becomes irrelevant and the characters’ struggles hit closer to the heart. It is the brilliant result of a directorial risk that paid off in full. Based on the 1944 novel by German writer Anna Seghers, Transit follows Georg, a German in Paris who assumes the identity of a dead author and flees to the port city of Marseilles in search of an escape.
The film is at once keyed-in to the current troublesome political landscape and curiously distant from it. This isn’t an attack piece masquerading as art — it’s a heart-shattering narrative about the hardships of love in a fascist state. Petzold takes few overt swipes at global leaders and instead focuses on telling a universal story of pain and hopelessness. Its relevancy is more of an undertone felt in the background of each scene. Carrying the film are the central players — a naturalistic turn from Franz Rogowski showcases his pitch-perfect ability for stoicism and emotional nuance. Supporting performances by Paula Beer and Godehard Giese feel just as real.
Melancholy and hopefulness are the two main weapons in the arsenal of Transit, and Petzold knows when to deploy them. Guided by a warm, novelistic voiceover, the emotion of the film crests and falls beautifully, punctuated as much by the near-silence of the beachside cityscape as it is by the occasional sorrowful melody of a piano. It is strange to see such poetic filmmaking in a work ostensibly about wartime. In many ways, Transit recalls mid-century noir romances such as Casablanca and To Have And Have Not; films that were more concerned with exploring the depths of people torn apart by tragic circumstances than their historical context.
A final shot for the ages caps off an impressively taut hundred minutes. With the intricacies of his setting, Petzold could have embraced a longer runtime. Instead, he wisely sticks to giving us an impression, a taste of what life under modern-day fascism might feel like. As frightening as it is engaging, Transit marks a peak in the German director’s career. Originality and simplicity are two terms rarely put together, but Petzold proves they can be two sides of the same coin. Transit is an essential watch for a myriad of reasons, and is so far one of the year’s most genuinely affecting pictures.