The period piece is one of the most contradictory and limited forms of storytelling, its lavish pageantry frequently distancing stories from the viewer while also bending over backward to attempt prescience through overdetermined connections to modern political turmoil. With the impeccably crafted chamber-piece thriller “Transit,” German filmmaker Christian Petzold sidesteps these pitfalls and solidifies himself as one of the finest directors working today. An adaptation of Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel of the same name, “Transit” imbues its World War II-era story with a spectral ambience, as Petzold swaps the original setting for unvarnished contemporary urban spaces.
Attempting to escape from Nazi-occupied France, Georg (Franz Rogowski) takes on the name of a deceased Communist writer and sneaks onto a train headed for Marseille. A miserable purgatorial interim, the only ones welcome in the port town are those who can prove to authorities that they’re going to leave. Georg meets Driss, the young son of a late refugee, and falls for Marie (Paula Beer), the wife of the author whose identity he adopted. Suddenly finding himself invested in others, Georg questions his determination to escape and leave those he’s come to care for behind.
The first 30 minutes of “Transit” are terrifying. Georg’s escape from the authorities and frequent futile attempts at finding shelter are driven by pure survival instincts, but they become even more tense by leaving no room for acclimation to the contemporary setting. Sprinting through alleys covered in modern graffiti, the film’s surfaces take on a hallucinatory quality, luridly rendered and utterly beguiling.
The give-and-take between the historical weight of the story and the aesthetic incongruities of its setting reaches fruition once the film arrives in Marseille. “Transit” doesn’t possess a strong sense of place as much as a shrewdly disorienting version of one, mixing this era of fascistic atrocity already associated with its own cinematic iconography with the current time. Visas are written on clamorous typewriters, but the Gestapo arrive in police vans and wear body armor instead of SS uniforms.
The 2010s imitate the 1940s, folding the past into the present, achieving an arresting political statement. In one of the film’s most striking moments, Georg revisists an apartment to find the previous tenants gone, replaced by a large group of North Africans cramped together. Rummaging through the rubble of European civilization, Petzold attempts to find the people who have been left behind and extract stories from their own time periods.
Georg spends much of the film’s duration in hotel lobbies and embassy waiting rooms, all of which are brimming with refugees in the same situation as him. Each carries their own story that spills out of their mouths, not out of eagerness, but instead in a desperate need to exorcise the traumas they’ve endured. The film’s narration, spoken by a third party relaying Georg’s own account to him, is a frequent intruding force, talking over intimate interactions and moments of introspection. This framing device, a story told through one storyteller’s account of another, immerses the film in Georg’s psychology and renders him a disparate presence to others within the film as well as to the viewers. It evokes a loneliness that can be located in the many side characters he meets throughout the film.
Drifting from one stranger to another, Georg’s uneasy alliances metastasize to something resembling compassion, a burden to his survival and also a rare vestige of humanity in the ghost town. Impeccably paced and sparsely staged, “Transit” digresses from one interaction to another, gradually setting into motion a doomed romantic passion that sneaks up on Georg and the viewer. Though perhaps too precise at times, it is a positively scintillating experience to watch a trajectory emerge from the raw terror of the beginning. Sifting through the incinerator of history, “Transit” is a profoundly haunted film, eerily calm until it becomes utterly devastating.
“Transit” is now playing at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.
Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].