Christian Petzold is one of our great contemporary dramatists, taking the building blocks of melodrama and draining them of artificiality; he’s a kind of quotidian, brutalist Douglas Sirk. What could be simple narrative convenience or lazy coincidence instead becomes, in Petzold’s hands, a kind of tragic, cosmic inevitability. Beginning in media res, Petzold’s new film Transit opens on two men discussing their plans for escape, what to do about comrades in hiding, and the passing of illicit letters. It’s just another day — at least until police cars go screaming by and soldiers come marching up the street. Then the voiceover begins, an omniscient third-person narration that is (at first) strikingly incongruous with what we see on-screen. In a bold formal gambit, Petzold integrates certain WW2-era elements from Anna Seghers’s 1944 source novel into his film adaptation’s narration, but sets his film in a (mostly fictional) modern era.
Narration and images exist in a sometimes confounding, contrapuntal relationship in Transit, and other times begin to dovetail and mirror each other. This creates a profoundly disorienting effect, even after one discerns what, exactly, is going on. As critic Neil Bahadur points out, this conceit not only suggests the liminal space occupied by characters — trapped between countries, desperate for escape — but also a new liminal space between past and present. Ultimately, the narrative becomes a distaff, crypto-remake of Casablanca (much like Petzold’s previous feature, Phoenix, nodded to and took elements from Vertigo), as Georg (Franz Rogowski) takes on an assumed identity and becomes entangled with the wife of the man he is impersonating. Georg also strikes up a friendship of sorts with the wife and son of a fallen comrade, his connection with the boy ultimately complicating Georg’s desire to flee France for Mexico. It what is certainly one of the year’s best films, Petzold chronicles the Kafka-esque travails of displaced peoples, and how their struggles remain the same in the past and the present.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | Issue 3.