Review by Jacquelin Hipes
How can a filmmaker ensure his World War II-era production stands out from the countless other period dramas depicting that time? If you’re Christian Petzold, adapting Anna Segher’s 1942 novel Transit, the answer lies in transposing events into the modern day. It’s the first of several odd choices for a story that ought to engage more than the final result manages. Generic military police in generic black body armor replace the always-despicable Nazis as progenitors of terror, and the visceral reaction one might have to Germany’s aggressive expansion – and what that meant for the conquered nations trampled underfoot – gets diluted into a far more tepid response.
Fleeing this nameless regime is Georg (Franz Rogowski), who barely escapes Paris with his injured friend. The friend succumbs to an infection by the time the pair reach Marseilles, a waystation for refugees hoping to find asylum overseas. Georg managed to smuggle some personal correspondence out of Paris as well, including the manuscripts and a promise of a Mexican visa for a deceased writer named Weidel. Lacking any such documentation of his own, and through a series of deliberately uncorrected misunderstandings, Georg assumes the writer’s identity as a means of escaping France. He whiles away the three weeks before his ship departs by mingling with the assortment of natives and foreigners stranded in the port city, including his dead friend’s young son and Weidel’s widow, Marie (Paula Beer). Their lives and struggles force Georg to reckon with his reasons for running away, and his justifications for wanting to stay behind.
A voice over – the source of which remains a mystery until a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment towards the end of the film – colors most of the action. Here, narration serves as a crutch. It deprives Rogowski of most opportunities to delve into the psyche of a displaced man on-screen; instead, his observations and increasing moral turmoil are drolly recited by a stranger. Rogowski manages well in spite of this handicap, giving the strong impression that he could have managed more if given the chance. Beer skillfully draws out the pathos of a woman who consciously acts against her best interests. Godehard Giese, who plays a doctor and Marie’s lover, also engages as a man caught between understandable selfishness and the self-sacrifice of love.
There are elements here of Franz Kafka and The Trial: the aimlessness, the detachment, the irony of a seemingly stateless man slowly crushed by the authority of a faceless nation. Yet, oddly, Transit feels soulless in comparison. The strange setting, the voice over, the disconnect between the ideas expounded and the action taking place on screen all conspire to keep one at arm’s length. Transposing events into the present day is the greatest test: make that leap with Petzold and all the other, smaller experiments should pay off as well. Those who fail to buy into the conceit, however, will likely struggle with all the less pronounced, yet no less important, successes that follow.
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