The issue of human migration, particularly within the context of refugee crises, could not be a more relevant and important issue than it is in 2019. This is a world in which the actual president of the actual United States is running actual detainment camps, and trying to pull the wool over the people’s eyes. Into this febrile context arrives Christian Petzold’s wildly idiosyncratic drama Transit, which takes aim at the demonisation of the ‘other’ not just today, but throughout history.
Petzold’s film is a curious one, set in a bizarre and unspecified time period. Initially, all of the talk of German occupation in France positions the movie as a Second World War story, but soon one realises there are too many cars on the streets and the dress is too modern. While it would be too simplistic to describe Transit as a modern day adaptation of Anna Seghers 1944 novel, it is not a faithful one either, existing in a strange, suspended temporal animation which is a constantly unbalancing masterstroke.
Georg (Franz Rogowski) manages to flee Paris to Marseille, using the alias of a writer acquaintance after his suicide in order to circumvent the need for proof that anyone entering Marseille intends to travel on somewhere else. He bonds with a deaf single mother and her football-loving son, before meeting couple Marie (Paula Beer) and Richard (Godehard Giese). Marie is on the hunt for her missing husband, who just so happens to be the writer whose identity Georg is using to travel.
The plot is all-out melodrama, but the surrealist setting – CCTV has been invented, but mobile phones are conspicuous by their absence and people still use typewriters – gives it an impish twist. Petzold’s mercurial script keeps exposition to a minimum, with a third person voiceover providing context from an askance and unreliable perspective, outside of the main story.
Into the centre of all of this comes Rogowski’s central performance. His eyes carry the weight of someone living in a permanent state of deceit and paranoia, embroiled in the Kafkaesque nightmare of embassies, travel papers and uncertain boat journeys. He’s a man hollowed out by the loneliness of circumstance, and we see him try to form surrogate families throughout the movie. The very nature of his environment, though, means these relationships are in constant flux.
The transit of the title refers not only to the literal predicament of the narrative, but to Georg himself, whose personal bonds are forced to remain malleable. Georg’s taciturn existence is a side effect of someone who builds walls to prevent himself getting too close to people, in the knowledge they’re likely to slip away. Petzold’s sparse, intriguing script contains numerous references to hell, evoking the clear allegory at play – being a refugee is akin to remaining trapped in a precarious purgatory, waiting desperately for something to change.
Transit is an unusual viewing experience, with the audience plunged into the same uncertainty and chaos as the characters. Dead ends are common and it’s never entirely sure what the endgame will be, but Petzold finds a way to reach through this murk and pick at some genuinely intriguing characters. Beer is as inscrutable and complex in her role as Rogowski, and their relationship is permanently cloaked in a layer of mystery so thick that it’s difficult to ever see it working out.
Despite the occasional misstep – playing ‘Road to Nowhere’ over the credits is a rather too on-the-nose gag and the narrator gimmick is a weird one – Transit is a compelling and deliberately timeless account of the immigrant experience, which is a desperate nightmare from which it’s almost impossible to escape. The film is part bureaucratic head-scrambler and part sweeping romance – difficult to pin down, but always intriguing.
Dir: Christian Petzold
Scr: Christian Petzold
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Matthias Brandt
Prd: Antonin Dedet, Florian Koerner von Gustorf
DOP: Hans Fromm
Music: Stefan Will
Country: Germany, France
Run time: 101 mins
Transit is in UK cinemas from 16th August.