European Film Week films:
Brian Tallerico Review on the film “Transit”
Art and Experience: “Ports are places where stories are told,” a character says in Christian Petzold’s masterful “Transit,” a film that closes out what the director has called his “Love in the Time of Oppressive Systems Trilogy” with “Barbara” and “Phoenix.” At first, the parallels between “Transit” and “Phoenix” are striking. Both films are about identity and betrayal, and this film is based on a novel by Anna Seghers from the era in which “Phoenix” takes place: World War II Europe. As it unfolds and expands, “Transit” starts to echo several other clear inspirations from “Casablanca” to Kafka to even some more modern filmmakers like the Dardennes and Aki Kaurismaki, and yet this is very much a Christian Petzold film, first and foremost. It explores the themes that clearly fascinate him with his confidence of visual language and gift with performers. It is daring, riveting, and the first great movie of 2019.
In Paris, Georg is asked to take two pieces of correspondence to a writer named Weidel. When Georg gets to the hotel, he finds a bathroom covered in the blood of the man he was supposed to meet, who has committed suicide. He takes the writer’s belongings and jumps a train with a man named Heinz who has been injured. The two are headed to Marseilles to hop a boat to Mexico, where they might be safe, but Heinz dies on the journey. Two dead men will shape Georg’s future, guiding him into the lives they left behind.
Throughout “Transit,” Georg plays different roles. He’s a father to a boy named Driss; he’s a friend to a doctor named Richard; he eventually meets Marie Weidel and becomes a version of the person who left her behind; and he’s even the film’s (not necessarily reliable) storyteller, as the movie is narrated by a bartender who heard this tale from his best customer. “Transit” is essentially about a man caught in purgatory considering the lives he could have had as a writer, doctor, father, lover before he’s allowed to move on to the next phase. He even reads one of the writer’s stories about a man waiting to get into Hell only to be told that he’s already there.
Petzold’s “Phoenix” was steeped in noir visual language, and this story could have been told in the same smoky, neon-lit style, but he conveys a lot of “Transit” in the bright light of Southern France, adding to the sense of confusion and disconnect that defines the film. Georg sometimes looks like a time traveler, and one could be forgiven for thinking this is a story of a Jew fleeing the Third Reich until Petzold drops in a shot from a surveillance camera or of a modern automobile. It adds both to the sense of purgatory—the idea that this is a man who doesn’t belong and isn’t sure where he’s going—and the feeling that Georg is lost, not just in place but time. When he connects with Marie, it almost feels like he’s connecting for the first time in his life, and yet this connection is based at least partially on a lie. Even in his truest moments, he is not exactly himself. He is a fill-in for a missing father or a missing husband.
Rogowski elevates the film by nailing a very difficult part—it’s purposeful that Georg is in every scene in that it adds to the overall sense of confusion to limit our perspective to only his. Instead of presenting Georg as the cipher he could have easily become, Rogowski makes fully three-dimensional a protagonist who feels both classical in his Kafkaesque dilemma and yet also relatable in his emotions and actions. It’s a great performance.
As he did with “Phoenix,” Petzold completely sticks the landing, concluding with an almost mirror image of his last film’s perfect closing shot. It’s an ending that is both hopeful and uncertain. In other words, it captures the tone of a film about a man stuck between Heaven and Hell, and the stories he becomes a part of while he’s there.