Director: Christian Petzold
Stars: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Lilien Batman
In spite of the elegant calm of his scenes and the stillness often viewed in his characters, there’s a sense of urgency about the cinema of Christian Petzold.
Chiefly this comes from his protagonists, who have a habit of restlessly seeking some form of safety or peace, often a mirage that they’ve conjured for themselves. This was certainly true of the protagonists inhabited by Nina Hoss in his last two features; 2012’s Barbara and 2014’s astonishing Phoenix. For his latest, Transit, Petzold moves back across the gender lines..
In a story told by an unseen narrator, Franz Rogowski plays Georg, a man attempting to escape a newly fascist France in modern times. Georg is a quiet man and Rogowski keeps a lot of his processes internalised. Still, the smallest knot in his forehead tells of a mountain of worry. His often-downcast eyes betray his constant fear of discovery.
Quite what makes Georg outcast in this high-concept parable is left out of the equation but, like the plastic surgery conceit in Phoenix, its the kind of business this director would urge you to leave at the door. It’s a means to an end. Having made it to Marseilles, Georg is mistaken for a dead man; a writer whose papers he is carrying. Reluctantly, Georg assumes this man’s identity, while at the same time growing closer to a deaf and mute young mother (Maryam Zaree) and her football loving son Driss (Lilien Batman).
Then, compounding matters, Georg encounters Maria (Paula Beer); the widow of the man whose papers he is using. The stage is set for improbable emotional complications, passionate embraces, and story moves that strongly recall those of Casablanca. To remake Michael Curtiz’s film would be reviled as sacrilege. Petzold’s film is not that remake, but it bares striking resemblance at times.
The sense of identities layered on top of one another in a manner verging on the contrived is another element that harks back to Phoenix but, as in that film, Petzold gets away with it thanks to the strength of his convictions as a director. You are absolutely convinced of his straight-faced seriousness; an almost Hitchcockian confidence that the material will land if played correctly.
The Hitchcock link is obvious, maybe, but there are also shades of Sirk about Transit. Perhaps because Sirk became the poster-boy for sumptuous melodrama. Petzold’s colours are certainly redolent of Sirk. There’s also a feeling here of barely contained emotion; that any one of these characters might crack at any moment… There’s tension in how frequently they don’t.
In many ways, Petzold operates in a manner counter-intuitive to melodrama. There’s no real score to speak of; our emotional responses aren’t guided by the swelling of strings. Nor do his actors make larger than life gestures. Everything is contained, stifled. But that containment is its own pressure cooker. The big emotions are there, but in the world of Transit all must wear poker faces. It is as though the right to emote has been stolen from these people.
Why make Transit a contemporary story, when it would be well-serviced by the historic paranoia of German occupied France in WWII? The statement Petzold seems to be making is profound, and it perhaps stands as the strongest aspect of the film. The very point of his present day coup de tat is its invisibility. Aside from a handful of riot police and the frustration with government red tape in a time of crisis, Petzold’s fascist takeover bares none of the set-dressings one might expect. There’s no modern twist on the gestapo here. Instead, Petzold asks us to recognise the alien and the threatening among us already, hidden in plain sight. His argument is that such radicalism doesn’t present itself so starkly anymore, and is no longer drawn along lines of race or nationality. A far-right uprising might look for all the world like business as usual, and so why couldn’t we be in the middle of one right now?
The world is getting more fearful, and more divided. Transit apes story tropes from Casablanca, but it does so deliberately, as if to warn us that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and those that remember will likely get swept up as well. Resistance is important, as is making human connections. That might all seem a little grim, but as his final frame here shows, there’s still always room for a little hope. While Petzold’s on-the-nose choice of closing credits music makes his fears impossible to ignore.