Transit ★★★★½

A moody anti-blockbuster masquerading as a genre exercise, Christian Petzold’s masterful suspense drama Transit; the third movement in a thematic trilogy alongside his previous existential thrillers Barbara and Phoenix, is sure to perplex and confound some viewers, but nonetheless succeeds as a fascinating and deeply felt study of grief, emotional scars, human identity, and the cyclical nature of history. It’s also a film that fittingly seems to exist outside of any traditional space or time.

Based on Anna Seghers’s 1944 novel of the same name and set in Nazi-occupied France (yet one that looks and feels more like our modern world than that of say, 1942’s Casablanca), the set-up for the plot of the film is relatively straightforward; our protagonist is the mysterious Georg (a magnetic Franz Rogowski), who has been tasked with delivering two letters to a political writer who he comes to find has committed suicide, leaving behind an old typewriter, his papers, and a blood-stained room. To evade capture from the fascist agents of the state who are in pursuit and secure a safe exit, Georg assumes the identity of the writer, while at the same time he begins to fall for the deceased man’s wife (a transfixing Paula Beer), whose desperation for a safe haven is matched only by her longing for her husband.

If this sounds like the standard elements of a typical cat-and-mouse suspense thriller with a touch of melodrama, Petzold's execution of his material is anything but routine. Much like in the transcendent Phoenix, one of the great films of recent years, Transit is a film that rewards viewers intelligence through how patiently he tells his story in a manner that recalls the best European films of a bygone era (I was reminded of the recently deceased Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist in certain moments.) As a leading man, Rogowski has to pull off the difficult tightrope act of making his character both sympathetic to viewers while maintaining a certain degree of ambiguity in his motivations as the story progresses, and he's matched every bit by the outstanding work of the ensemble cast. Why Petzold chose to break from conventions and set the period story in a Marseilles that more closely resembles the present than the past is a choice that might be off-putting to some, but the century-blurring setting proves effective in underlying how the central themes of the film are meant to be taken as just as relevant to our current geopolitical climate as they were when Segher's novel was written (and if history is doomed to repeat itself, as the film painfully suggests, this applies to the future, too.) Transit is another tour de force from one of our great contemporary filmmakers.

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