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First run Theater cinema

The latest from German writer/director Christian Petzold (Jerichow, Barbara, Phoenix) is a drama based on Anna Seghers's 1942 novel set in France immediately after the Nazi occupation of Paris. The story follows a German refugee, Georg (Franz Rogowski), as he escapes to Marseille and assumes the identity of a dead writer whose transit papers he is carrying. Once in Marseille, he meets the writer’s wife (Paula Beer), whose belief that her husband will return to her prevents her from escaping France to Mexico with Georg. Petzold sets this period drama in present-day surroundings, drawing parallels between our current time and the era in which many tried to flee Europe as fascism invaded.

Sometimes my policy of going into a film knowing as little as possible about it can be challenging, but in this case, it doesn’t take very long to realize and accept the conceptual conceit of this picture. Within 10 minutes it’s clear that what we see is not meant to be contemporary, or set in some dystopian future, but rather a WWII era story told in “modern dress.” As an allegory, this tactic works to a certain degree, but Transit isn’t very effective as a cinematic narrative. Petzold has built his career on powerfully exploring emotional restraint in repressive societies, but here he abandons the smothered passion that made his Barbara (2012) so intoxicating, and he tells this tale in a cold, observational manner. The movie is so chilly it’s difficult to accept the romantic aspects on which much of the plot turns. The actions of most of these characters are motivated by their emotions, but with the exception of a fatherless child (Lilien Batman) who Georg befriends, none of what propels these people forward, and little of what holds them back, feels authentic. Petzold’s choice to employ a detached yet seemingly omniscient narrator separates us even further from the internal workings of his protagonists. 

Long before the drawn-out climax, the movie’s contemporary setting begins to feel like a simplistic gimmick designed to evoke a cerebral reaction to an emotional story. The costumes, vehicles and other period trappings may all be modern, but no one in the film uses a smartphone, a computer, a jet, or any of the other devices that keep us connected (or disconnected) with each other today. What the viewer sees grounds us in a time when the details of what these characters would struggle against are vastly different from what people in similar situations during the early ‘40s went through. Rather than create a timeless sense of empathy for displaced people, Transit feels displaced itself.

Twitter Capsule:
Compelling drama about a German refugee in France after the Nazi occupation. Petzold sets this WWII story in present-day surroundings to create a timeless sense of empathy for displaced people but his movie ends up feeling displaced itself.
Directed by Christian Petzold
Produced by Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Antonin Dedet

Screenplay by Christian Petzold
Based on the novel by Anna Seghers

With: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Barbara Auer, and Matthias Brandt

Cinematography: Hans Fromm
Editing: Bettina Böhler
Music: Stefan Will

Runtime: 101 min
Release Date: 05 April 2018
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1