Transit (Christian Petzold, 2018) 3½ out of 4 stars.
A profoundly unsettling film, director Christian Petzold’s Transit plunges us into the heart of World War II, as refugees from behind German lines struggle to find a way out of the danger zone. Starting in Paris and then moving down to Marseilles, the movie tracks Heinz (Franz Rogowski) a member of the German underground on his journey to escape to the Americas, tracking him through scrapes thick and thin. We’ve seen countless such stories before, but here’s the kicker: though adapting Anna Seghers’ eponymous 1944 novel, Petzold sets the affair in the present day, making no attempt to explain himself or the anachronism. The time is now, and fascists are on the march, coming for us all.
At first, this device confuses, but before long, given the high stakes and engrossing narrative, we quickly forget the oddness and follow Petzold (through Heinz) on his experimental voyage through the possibilities of cinema. Then again, given the perplexing rise of right-wing nationalism in today’s world, perhaps the seemingly bizarre is merely prescient. What’s past is prologue, in the end.
Heinz embarks on his southbound trip as an escort to a wounded fellow combatant, the two hiding on a cargo train, Heinz also carrying papers from a dead writer. His companion expires en route, but Heinz, himself, escapes the train before the Nazis find him, making his way into Marseille to first find the family of his erstwhile travel buddy and then to search for the writer’s wife. Along the way, he is mistaken for that writer, and since the man had passports and money coming to him, why not? It’s as good a way as any to get out.
In addition to the modern-day backdrop, Petzold adopts a low-key mise-en-scène that belies the fraught circumstances, focusing more on the one-on-one interactions between characters than the uberdrama happening around them. This adds to our sense of estrangement, while also reminding us that, no matter the stage, in the theater of the human condition, it’s the intimate connections that make life worth living. If all politics is local, then all metaphysics are personal.
Petzold (Phoenix) is aided in his venture by lead actor Rogowski (Happy End), whose scarred upper lip and feverish eyes do more than just lend him an uncanny resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix; with his additional burly physique, he looks like a highly sensitive boxer, always about to pounce. The supporting cast, including Paula Beer (Never Look Away), Godehard Giese (Liebmann) and Maryam Zaree (Burnout), are all equally game for the alternating dreams and nightmares of Petzold’s vision, and the net result is a consistently engaging slow-burn of a thriller that affects the heart and mind in equal measure. If at times the trappings of the 21stcentury break the spell, the magic is still mostly there.
[in German and French (and some English), with English subtitles]