It takes a while to get used to the rules of Christian Petzold’s ‘present-in-the-past’ Europe in Transit, which extracts a few WW2 elements from Anna Seghers’s 1944 source novel and artfully scatters them on a contemporary canvas. We open on a bar in occupied Paris, where escapes are plotted and movements of the oppressing forces are tracked, but the police cars and their sirens, aggressively speeding by just outside, quickly impose their dissonance on the viewer.
These first few minutes, albeit disorienting, are a fruitful, remarkable feat of economy and style. Equipped only with a glossary of terms like cleansing, occupation, fascists and raids, the audience must find their place on a spectrum of possibility. Neither a straight-up period update, nor a dystopian future borrowing historical elements, Petzold’s gamble is utterly unique and confidently opaque, useful as far as the director takes it but tossed to the side as soon as the film zeroes in on the masterfully existentialist loopiness at its core. Petzold’s best move might be never getting too cute in establishing the boundaries of his allegory, so that even crucial aspects of a more traditional ‘world-building’ (the existence of digital, the exact nature of the persecution) are rendered unimportant in favor of a truly timeless framing.
With means of transport out of this infested Europe disappearing one after the other, people converge on ports and coastal cities trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean, the last great border. Having narrowly escaped Paris, Georg (Franz Rogowski, who rises to the challenge of shouldering the weight of a film like this after promising supporting turns in Victoria and Happy End) heads to Marseille armed only with the belongings of deceased fellow travelers, crucially a Mexican visa and a poet’s manuscript. In the south of France he becomes a pawn on a harrowing bureaucratic board of absurd desolation, with people killing time between embassy appointments by waiting in bars and restaurants, or wandering aimlessly through an indifferent city. Their need to have their stories heard is simultaneously response and antidote to a perversely Kafkaesque system of visas and transits that need to be lined up in just the right order to be granted a way out.
Once again, putting white and comfortably European faces on such a predicament is a somewhat effective commentary on current events, but also one that instantly turns stale. Petzold makes sure Transit is never really about that, instead using it as a rich tapestry around his complex, if more abstract, dissertation on identity. As the decade that saw him make a defining leap in his career draws to a close, there’s something comforting in witnessing the consistency and sustained quality of his work distilled into what is possibly his highest achievement.
The theme of replaced identity and appropriation of the past, already developed in Barbara and Phoenix, goes even one level deeper in Transit, with Petzold having curated his cinematic imagery to such an extent that the absence of Nina Hoss looms large over the proceedings. Paula Beer – who for much of the film appears only as a fleeting presence that keeps escaping Georg’s peripheral vision – could be her, or approximate her, in a sense of ‘not-quite’-ness that resonates with the characters’ hollowed uncertainty. In much the same way that Sergio Leone used the absence of his dollar-trilogy stars as shadow play for Once Upon a Time in the West’s crepuscular Western icons, Petzold uses his previous material as an echo chamber.
As Georg’s gaming of the system puts him in a rather enviable position compared to the exquisitely sketched cast of characters around him, he’s ultimately just as unable to break the circuit as anybody else. In the film’s finest display of synergy, everything from the sound design (the bar’s bell, the embassy announcements) to the editing and dialogue (comprising multiple literary voiceovers whose identity gets its own little payoff) comes together to elevate a motif of circular repetition that is quietly suffocating.
The Marseille in which this all takes place is reticent and remissive, with any sign of modernity pushed back towards the sea; we can only get a glimpse of its landmarks through the narrow frame of an alley, or through a hotel window overlooking the water on which departing ships slowly disappear. It’s a sunburnt-pavement interpretation of a city, sapping the energy out of even the most complicatedly doomed love affair.