“What’s in a name?” — as with his last film, the haunting and radiant Phoenix, writer-director Christian Petzold is perpetually fascinated with the notion of assumed identity. How much of our status is attached to the name others call us? And, when we step into another’s shoes, do we automatically lose the natural orientation of our self? These are the burning questions driving Petzold’s Transit, a film that consistently finds creative ways to make the old feel new again.
In a last-ditch attempt to flee Nazi-occupied Europe, Georg (Franz Rogowski, Victoria and Happy End) manages to hop a train to France’s Marseille. There, caught up in the confusion and chaos of the occupation, he assumes the identity of a recently deceased writer who’s just been granted safe passage to North America in three weeks’ time. Filled with guilt and far from the familiars, Georg settles in a run-down hotel with a community of fellow international refugees, caring for a grieving widow (Maryam Zaree, Shahada) and her young son (newcomer Lilien Batman). All the while, he becomes increasingly intrigued by the wife of the man whose identity he’s stolen (Paula Beer, Never Look Away).
Petzold wastes no time blurring the past and present. Although the Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel is adapted in a straightforward manner, it is framed with anachronistic clothes and 21st-century cars. The decision to transit this period drama into the modern age gives it an intrinsic urgency, forcing viewers to focus on how little its societal observations about displaced people have changed in the past eight decades. At first, it may not appear period at all, but the plot beats place it firmly in an era where fascism and despair reign. As a result, the film takes on a new life altogether, simultaneously taking place at the height of World War II and in the present day. Case in point: Road to Nowhere by Talking Heads is on the soundtrack.
Mirroring the source material, Transit logs tortured inner monologue through sporadic and emotive narration. Petzold never relies on dictation to do the heavy lifting in lieu of vivid imagery, but he instead peppers in the pain and passion fueling his characters. Used in sparse, calculated bursts, it plays like a gripping novel, and it’s difficult not to surrender yourself to its subtle lure.
A simple and understated tale, Transit sneaks up on its viewers. They may not even realize how wholly invested they are in its emotional labor until they’ve already peeled back layers of humanity to examine the insistent damage of injustice.
In many circles, Transit is dubbed as Casablanca gone Kafka, which, while somewhat apt, is an oversimplification that misses so much of the potency that Petzold generates. This timely meditation on collective willful ignorance is truly dynamic, not because of its intricacy but because of skillfully designed minimalism. There’s something inescapably universal about Seghers’ tale of shifting trauma that feels just as meaningful today as it would have then.
Maybe in the next century as well.
Our own Gary Shannon is also a fan of the film when he saw it at VIFF last year. Read his review here!