The movie “Transit” opens at a café in Paris as a police siren wails outside. The conversation – between two men at a bar making arrangements for transportation – is furtive: “Paris is being sealed off,” one whispers, before handing over letters for his companion, Georg, to deliver to a third man. Soon after, Georg encounters the man from the bar again on the street, only this time his companion has been detained, along with several other pedestrians, by police in riot gear. When one of the cops asks Georg for his “papers,” Georg socks him in the jaw and makes a run for it.
The year is – well, what year is it, exactly? Although the police vehicles are modern, along with everything else in the film, the setting, based on circumstantial evidence, seems to be Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Georg (played by Joaquin Phoenix look-alike Franz Rogowski), a German Jew, is on the run, it would appear. But is this the past or the present? At first glance, “Transit” plays like some surrealistic vision of a dystopian near-future, in which the Holocaust has repeated itself, to the letter, but minus swastikas.
In fact, the film, by German writer-director Christian Petzold (“Phoenix”), is based on a 1944 book by German writer Anna Seghers, one whose story has been transplanted, wholesale, from the 1940s to today. Some details are out of place – or missing – yet several elements of the present-day setting add extra resonance to the gimmick. Most strangely, there are no cellphones, and people still use typewriters. But there is video surveillance. And a story line centering on the plight of an illegal North African immigrant and her son (Maryam Zaree and Lilien Batman), who are befriended by Georg after he flees to Marseille, gives the almost antique goings-on a disturbingly contemporary echo.
The story is, at heart, a romance, albeit a far-fetched one: When Georg attempts to deliver the letters, he finds that their recipient, a writer, has killed himself. Georg avails himself of the dead man’s passport and identity, along with the letters, one of which grants him passage to Mexico. He sneaks into Marseille to wait – along with hundreds of other refugees – for his ship to sail.
While there, he meets, by chance, and falls in love with the dead writer’s widow, Marie (Paula Beer), who has also been granted safe passage out of France, on her husband’s papers. The fact that she doesn’t know that her husband is dead – or that Georg is now masquerading as him – complicates things in ways that are far more powerful and evocative than they have any right to be. If this is a melodrama– and it is, in all the obvious ways – it’s a particularly eccentric, dry-eyed and astringent one.
In Marseille, where most of the action takes place, as the occupation moves farther and farther south, like a tightening noose, the community of refugees living there continually wind up in a restaurant whose bartender turns out to be the narrator of the film, and whose narration turns out to be taken, word for word, from Seghers’s novel, a manuscript of which Georg has carried around with him since he found it in the dead writer’s apartment.
All this can make “Transit” a bit confusing at times, in addition to lending it the patina of metafiction. It’s almost as if the tale is being acted out by people who know they are players in a drama, and not real human beings. There’s a mood of weird detachment that some will find off-putting but that ultimately makes what happens to Georg and Marie, paradoxically, not less real, but more so. It’s a story whose fatalistic ending has the impact of something that, like a repetition of the Holocaust, feels simultaneously unexpected and, devastatingly, preordained.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.
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