Christian Petzold’s “Transit” is the completion of what the director has called his “Love in the Time of Oppressive Systems Trilogy” with “Barbara” and “Phoenix.” And, despite being based on a novel by Anna Seghers from the era in which “Phoenix” takes place (World War II Europe), Petzold has decided to set his film in present-day Europe, trying to parallel a scenario that he insists could realistically still happen today.
Franz Rogowski stars as Georg, a German in Paris, trying to escape the constraints of a totalitarian regime rounding out Jews, although the film only hints at that, and refugees without travel papers. “Why are you still here,” a man asks Georg, “Paris is being sealed off,” he replies. That’s the closest we get to the nitty gritty of the occupation. In Paris, Georg is asked to bring identity paper to a writer named Weidel. When Georg arrives at the hotel, he learns Weidel has committed suicide. What to do with the papers? Since Georg has none himself, and is most likely resigned to a fate of capture, he decides to take Weidl’s belongings and hops on a train headed to Marseilles with a man named Heinz who has a badly injured and infected leg. However, despite countless shots of Penicillin, Heinz dies on the journey.
Arriving at Marseilles, Georg takes the identity of Weidl, as the city’s on the brink of invasion. He quickly befriends a young kid on the streets named Driss, becoming a sort of father figure for the African boy. Things get more complicated when Georg finds out that Marie, who happens to be Weidl’s wife, is searching for her husband, but has no idea that Georg took his identity. They meet and fall in love.
Georg’s Kafkaesque dilemma is based on Seghers’ book, which was released in 1944 and set in 1942, but Petzold’s peculiar decision to set it in the present has resonant effects. By turns intimate and expansive, Transit is a labyrinthine movie that deliberately runs you in circles. If, initially, the story feels excessively oblique, it slowly but surely reveals its hidden cards.
I’ve seen the film twice now and the second viewing felt much more like a first-rate film from a filmmaker always a step ahead of his audience, a third will most likely enhance the subtle effect. Petzold’s reflection on thematic resonance rather than, say, the dramatic prowess of “Barbara” and “Phoenix,” may turn some viewers off, but this bitterly ironic film is a worthy to addition to his cannon due to its peculiarly unpredictable circularity. Petzold means to isolate you with ambiguity, but the payoff is rewarding. [B+]