Christian Petzold’s “Transit” is a fascinating paradox: an anti-romantic romance. It may have the surface trappings of a “Casablanca,” but it’s closer to “Vertigo.”
The source material, about French refugees fleeing the Nazis, is a 1944 novel, set two years earlier, by the celebrated German-Jewish expatriate writer Anna Seghers. By contrast, Petzold’s film takes place in a vaguely present-day limbo. It takes a while to catch on to the fact that, although we appear to be watching a movie about the struggle to survive in France during the Nazi encroachment, the cars are mostly modern, the clothes people wear are a mix of period and contemporary, and the Nazis are identified only as fascists. On the other hand, there are no cellphones, people seem to travel solely by ship and rail, and typewriters, not computers, are utilized for correspondence and for the fashioning of counterfeit (and antiquated-looking) passports.
Georg (Franz Rogowski, who looks remarkably like Joaquin Phoenix and has some of the same striking presence) is a German electronics repairman trapped in Paris as it is being sealed off by the fascists. Asked to smuggle identity papers to a famous German author named Weidel, he discovers that Weidel has committed suicide. Georg makes it to the sun-baked seaport of Marseilles with the intention of locating Weidel’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who has been pining for her husband. There he is mistaken for Weidel by the American consul. And so begins an impersonation that has the deliberate trappings of a Kafka nightmare. Georg even takes up with Marie, who is also involved with a doctor (Godehard Giese) who loves her and wants them both to flee before Marseilles is overrun.
As in Kafka, the nightmarishness here is presented matter-of-factly, which only serves to accentuate the existential dread. Unlike Paris, Marseilles may be brightly lit, but that’s just a decoy. Sunshine can be just as unnerving as shadows. As in a recurring dream, the protagonists in “Transit” are forever looking to get out and forever falling back in their quest. The action in the movie is a kind of tape loop of escape and calamity, much of it self-inflicted. Despite the frenzy with which Georg and Marie attempt to flee to the few countries that will still take them, there is a sense in which they don’t want to escape. Their lives are energized by peril, and life in Marseilles is at its most perilous.
I may be putting too psychological a spin on the proceedings. Above all, the characters in “Transit” are archetypes. Georg, who seems both indomitable and cruelly buffeted by fate, is an everyman ensnared in a world forever fraught, then as now, with the brutalities of which man is capable. Marie is a wandering soul whose quest for love represents a kind of eternal return. The narrative that plays out between these two has both a deep strangeness and a familiarity: We’ve seen it before, though not quite in this way.
If Petzold had simply filmed Seghers’s novel as a wartime period piece, it would have lacked resonance. But he recognizes the story’s expansive contemporary allusions. He knows that global terrorism and fascistic insurgencies have a vast backlog of antecedents. He’s too cagey a filmmaker to hit you over the head with these allusions, and yet there are moments when only the most blatant symbolism will do – as in the scene where Georg, who has befriended and then lost track of a young soccer-playing boy (Lilien Batman), visits the boy’s tiny apartment and discovers instead two dozen North Africans in hiding.
Petzold also recognizes that we can’t easily separate our movie memories from our non-movie ones. The labyrinth that he creates in “Transit” is a melange of tropes and images drawn not only from “Casablanca” and “Vertigo” but also from an entire catalog of noir films and wartime melodrama. By drawing on these movies, he is creating yet another paradox: Instead of distancing us from the nightmare by allowing us to safely position “Transit” as “only a movie,” the filmic references instead bring us shudderingly close to a different kind of reckoning. Superficially the movie may look comfortingly familiar, but there is something radically “other” about its presentation. Whatever the disguise, the past and its awful indignities are always with us.
In German and French with English subtitles.