Film: Transit

Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018) isn’t particularly unique, but it makes one bold, ingenious decision that sets it apart. It begins in modern-day Paris, where a German expatriate, Georg (Franz Rogowski), appears to have taken political refuge from a repressive regime. Georg’s connections to an underground of similarly displaced people lead him to take a job delivering correspondence to a dissident writer—who, as it turns out, has quite violently died. When Georg next finds himself assisting a wounded fellow refugee escape south to Marseille, he has the writer’s manuscript and letters in his possession. This positions him to assume the writer’s identity, which might be his ticket out of an increasingly fascist Europe to the safety of North America. But the connections he makes in Marseilles—particularly with a young immigrant boy named Driss (Lilien Batman) and the wife of the deceased writer, Marie (Paula Beer)—greatly complicate his decision-making.

Transit is a finely crafted tale of wartime romance and suspense that feels more old-fashioned than its vaguely speculative backdrop. Indeed, if the scenario resonates with World War II history of occupied France, it’s because the film is based on a novel by Anna Seghers from 1944. I wasn’t aware of that until after the fact, which adds a layer of mystery to the early stages, as the nebulous conflict driving the action possesses an unnerving lack of specificity. Even unaware, the scenario’s World War II parallels seemed clear, and Petzold’s strategy of repurposing history in a modern context—whether artistic or merely budgetary—is a flash of inventive brilliance. If anything, it layers surreality over the scenario. Seeing the jackbooted occupation forces and Vichy collaborators in modern garb proves a powerful commentary on the timeless need for vigilance against humanity’s destructive authoritarian instincts. Stripped of that one change, Transit still would have been an effective period romance, buoyed by Rogowski’s relatable heroism and fine supporting performances from Batman, Beer, Barbara Auer, Matthias Brandt, Godehard Giese, and Maryam Zaree, among others. But with that change, it achieves an even more striking and profound effect.

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