Transit

Transit ★★★★

[8]

The films of Christian Petzold can be maddeningly perfect at times, to the extent that their flawless construction relies on some form of neat but implausible narrative coincidence. This is what kept me from fully embracing Phoenix, to say nothing of Barbara and Yella. These are films as ideal objects, generated to get somewhere without a lot of extraneous, messy life intruding on their closed systems.

What made Phoenix such a step forward for Petzold, and actually makes Transit something of a great leap, is the filmmaker's broader embrasure of abstraction. In the earlier films, he seemed to be adopting genre templates, if anything, in order to bring them closer to reality. (Jerichow, his best film to date, is the exception.) Now, with Transit, the plot machinations that might otherwise beggar belief are all part and parcel of a stylization that touches down in recognizable reality without ever fully committing to it.

All this by way of saying, Petzold has made a film about a fascist takeover of France by an invading German army that continually plays like a period piece even though it's pointedly not. We see contemporary cars and lighted bus shelters and hip-hop style graffiti on the storefronts. But the characters use old typewriters, have 1940s passport covers, and dress like they just stepped out of a colorized version of Casablanca. If "history repeats," then Transit is a film double-coded to look like an ambiguous time loop, a society stuck in a rerun of its own past.

We could call it a pastiche if that didn't imply some form of ironic distance. Petzold plays this amalgam completely straight. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is an ill-defined partisan on the run from Paris to Marseille, barely escaping and losing a colleague along the way. Quite by chance, he ends up taking on the identity of a dead writer, Weidel -- shades of Antonioni's The Passenger -- only to discover that his estranged wife Marie (Paula Beer) is looking for him. After several instances of mistaken identity, the two finally meet by chance, through Marie's current lover, Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor who treats Triss (Lilien Batman), the young son of Georg's dead friend.

Much of the "action" of Transit pertains to the struggle to secure visas and pemissions of passage to leave the country before the German forces begin their "cleansing." Petzold fills the short film with colorful side characters and digressive incident. In some sense, these aspects of Transit allow Petzold to create internal contrast between the contemporary and the classical, in terms related to both cinematic style and European demographics.

Melissa (Maryam Zaree) and Triss, from the Mahgreb, are clearly not part of the same time frame as, say, the old conductor (Justus von Dohnányi), who comes off like a John Ford stock character. And the same could be said for Maria as well, and of the star-crossed semi-romance betweeen Maria and Georg. If Transit seems to end in a classic Hollywood style, it only gestures toward the fact that present political crises are, or should be, recognizable as repetitions of older forms of fascism. And ending with a modern song selection -- Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" -- may not exactly place us in our own time. But it does take us emphatically "out of the past."

History repeats. We've seen fascism rise before. It's happening again. So what the fuck are we going to do about it?

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