Synopsis – Georg (Franz Rogowski) steals a dead writer’s identity and flees to Marseille to escape from fascism, but must contend with a series of ever-escalating complications, chiefly surrounding the writer’s wife Marie (Paula Beer).
1. It’s a goddamn masterpiece.
2. Immaculately composed with the utmost formal rigour, Transit is another triumph for writer-director Christian Petzold, whose previous film was the sublime Hitchcock-pastiche Phoenix. This time, Petzold transplants Anna Segher’s 1942 novel source material to the modern day, with an end result resembling nothing less than a radical reimagining of Casablanca. Above all, Petzold’s greatest achievement in this film (and there are so very many) is how achingly emotional the whole thing is, even though it is filmed in the sparsest and chilliest of tones. A film like this, so impossibly dense in its plotting and stacked to the hilt with formal trickery, should exist purely as a mindfuck thriller, the European equivalent of Inception, all intellectual fun and games with next to no emotional resonance. Yet, against all odds, Transit essentially transforms into a melodrama, albeit one with a complete absence of histrionics – and along with it, artifice as well. The end result is one of the most thoughtful, meaningful, and yes, emotional, works of cinema that I have experienced this year.
3. While Phoenix, Petzold’s last film (a masterpiece in its own right), told its Vertigo-inspired tale through the period trappings and cabaret lighting of post-war Germany, Transit deliberately strips its narrative of all context in a move that creates a disconcerting tone throughout. Who are the fascists sweeping through France? When is all this taking place? How do the various countries mentioned (France, Germany, Mexico, the USA) relate to each other? None of these questions are answered, because this is not that kind of film. Instead, the sense of temporal dislocation serves as a filmmaking device to plunge the reader into the headspace of our protagonist Georg – small and helpless in the face of an implacable machine. There is also a clear political point being made in setting a 40s-style thriller in the modern day, alluding to the current plight of refugees and the rise of fascism across the world. All these heavy ideas, however, are dealt with the deftest of touches, and Transit never feels like it is preaching or lecturing at any point. Instead, the film simply relies on that greatest asset of cinema – creating empathy – to drive across its political ideas by making the viewer feel Georg’s plight with such intensity that it is impossible not to expand that feeling to the very real global situation right now.
4. Key in creating that empathy is lead actor Franz Rogowski’s magnificent performance. Rogowski resembles a young Joaquin Phoenix not just physically (the heavy brow, the scar above his lip) but also in terms of his ability to convey mountains of emotional depth through the merest of expressions. In Transit, Rogowski barely raises his voice above a whisper, but that whisper speaks volumes. Rogowski’s Georg has the slumped posture and leaden face of a man who has learned that the only way to survive the system is to be unseen. Yet, in choice moments, such as when he plays with the mixed-race son of his dead friend or when he recites the manuscript of the dead writer he is pretending to be, Rogowski allows a spark of Georg’s humanity to shine through. The other actors do very well with a lot less material, with Paula Beer being a standout and lending humanity to what might have been an underwritten role otherwise. But this film is Rogowski’s through and through, and it only seems fitting that the (spectacular) final shot of the film is a close-up of his face (no real spoilers here, not to worry).
5. It is difficult to know where to start in terms of cataloguing the formal brilliance of this film. Should we talk about shot composition, on how the characters are framed in isolation amidst empty, barren expanses? Or how about lighting, and how the scorching sear of the sunlight of Marseille is practically its own character? Or how the film begins with its characters framed almost entirely in profile shots (indicative of something to hide) before transiting to head-on frontal shots as the characters open up emotionally? Maybe the almost Brechtian narration, and the way it weaves back and forth between the dialogue and the action taking place onscreen, sometimes elucidating and sometimes contradicting. Perhaps the use of repeated shots to create visual motifs – Georg standing on a balcony looking down at a car, Marie walking in and out of a cafe, train tracks drifting by in the night like a flowing river. Or what about the sound design, and the way sirens are consistently mixed into the ambient white noise of the film?
You get the idea. Transit is a marvel of craftsmanship, with every element honed to perfection.
6. But beyond craft, there is art, and Transit certainly falls under this category. Beyond the political allegory mentioned in paragraph 3, there is a rich philosophical vein to be mined. Questions of identity abound throughout the film, as the characters slip from one role to the next depending on the situation. Characters are besieged by demands to identify themselves, from the fascists to the embassies to each other, and the liminality of identity is remarked on throughout the film. In its portrayal of constant transit and perennial waiting as a living hell (explicitly mentioned by Georg), Petzold alludes to the existentialist tradition of Sartre and Camus, and their tales of tranquil torment in an uncaring world. It is that tranquil and serene affect that truly makes Transit great, and there is a sense of Greek tragedy about it, with us as the audience dispassionately observing the downfall of not just one man, but the entirety of civilisation along with him.
7. There is so much more that can be said about Transit, and I am sure many will try in the upcoming years. It is a study in contrasts – the cooly intellectual thriller with great emotional depth, the philosophical treatise with umpteen surface pleasures, the hyper-dense film that moves with a lightness of step. With this film, Petzold firmly establishes himself as one of the current great European auteurs and a filmmaker who is not afraid to take big, bold risks. Transit is an artistic and formalist triumph, and the fact that it is not even Petzold’s best film speaks to how great the previous one was (please watch Phoenix ASAP). It is a film composed and conducted by a master, with deliberation and intent behind each directorial decision to explore matters of great political and philosophical import while still managing to tell a crackerjack tale from the opening to its stunning final shot. It is everything cinema can be and should be.
And I say this once more, because it cannot be said enough.
Transit is a goddamn masterpiece.