Film Review | Transit: The road to nowhere

Conceptually playful though sneakily poignant, Christian Petzold’s unique allegory about the refugee experience creates a beguiling and thought-provocting speculative space

First things first. Transit, written and directed by Christian Petzold and one of the most attention-grabbing German films to be released to international audiences this year, is a work of speculative fiction. Specifically, it slots in rather nicely with the kind of alternate history – even outright sci-fi – that characterises the work of authors like Philip K. Dick, whose Man in the High Castle, now also a cult TV series, presents a chilling scenario of how the world would have dealt with the Nazis not, in fact, losing the Second World War.

While Petzold’s latest feature may not operate on so broad and ambitious a narrative canvas as the likes of The Man in the High Castle, its speculative bona fides are established in more direct and artful ways.

Unlike lesser works of this ilk – that is, the dross that’s unloaded on us on a regular basis by our corporate overlords of Marvel and DC – Petzold uses the strange scenario as a mechanism of estrangement, shoving us into the proceedings with nary an explanatory monologue and fully expecting us to stand ramrod-straight in our seats and just keep up.

Our introduction to this off-kilter version of our own world begins with a rapid-fire exchange between Georg (Franz Rogowski) and Paul (Sebastian Hülk) – the two are hunched over in a Paris coffee shop as the latter lays out the mission: Georg is to deliver letters to a dissenting writer fleeing the regime, whose tentacles stretch out into France.

But as he searches for the persecuted scribe, Weidel, he soon discovers that he’s slit his wrists in a hotel room, leaving Georg with nowhere left to run.

Assuming the dead writer’s identity, Georg heads to Marseille in the hope of laying low until he can somehow find his way to America. But his goals are complicated with the appearance of the beautiful Marie (Paula Beer) – Weidel’s forlorn widow, who is now hiding out with a doctor, Richard (Godehard Giese), and who harbours the vain but persistent hope of seeing her husband once again.

Based on the Anna Seghers novel of the same name published in 1942 but updated into a deliberately fudged historical reality, Petzold’s film has drawn comparison to another cultural mainstay from that same year: Casablanca, another wartime tale of almost-lovers evading capture and attempting to weave their way across arbitrary, authoritarian borders during wartime.

Given that Michael Curtiz’s Humphrey Bogart and Ingmar Bergman-starring film is often listed among one of the greatest American films of all time, this makes for a lofty comparison. Luckily, Petzold acknowledges the influence without leaning on it too heavily, as Transit has enough of an original conceptual punch and sensitive, high-powered performances that help it stand on its own two feet.

Breaking into the (relative) mainstream of European cinema with the attention-grabbing, single-tracking-shot German sleeper hit Victoria (dir. Sebastian Schipper; 2015), Franz Rogowski confirms he’s an actor to watch. Maybe it’s the hare lip that brings to mind the American actor’s turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2013), but Rogowski certainly has something of Joaquin Phoenix’s ragged, mumbly intensity – a volcanic well of emotion that’s dangerously close to bursting at any moment.

In other words, a complex performance of masculinity that certainly gives Humphrey Bogart himself a run for his money.

His female counterpart has less screen-time for such exploration, and so it is perhaps in Marie – weaving in and out of frame like a perpetually hassled, perpetually distracted beacon of half-intended seduction; hair wet, wardrobe mid-century stylish – that the film’s ‘vintage’ aesthetic is most nakedly on display. But as the story evolves, Beer manages to wring out the pained longing that her character represents.

A longing that is, after all, reflected in the band of displaced and dislocated souls that makes up the European refugees at the core of this story.

Refracting what could have been something of a forced table-turn of the current, real-life geopolitical scenario of migration, Petzold injects mordant humour into the supporting characters’ plight. A chattering conductor who will talk his counterparts’ ears off about the documents that he needs to process… a buttoned-up, clearly bourgeois woman champing at the bit as she waits in line for the fateful boat ride, two dogs in tow – dogs she hates and has been forced to deliver in exchange for legally safe passage.

An Absurist attack on the absurdity of arbitrary borders.

The verdict

Artfully disorienting and running on an inspired and urgent central premise, Christian Petzold’s historically ambiguous allegory succeeds as both an alarming parable about the ever-present threat of fascism and a poignant interpersonal drama that eschews emotional excess in favour of a genuine interplay of powerful emotion.

Transit will be screening at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema at St James Cavalier, Valletta on September 3  (19:30), September 7 (20:30) and September 19 (19:30)