German filmmaker Christian Petzold has refined a distinctive, nearly paradoxical style and tone that could be called matter-of-fact melodrama.
The plots of his movies, which include the art-house hits "Barbara" and "Phoenix," are purplish and fanciful, lending themselves readily to overheated emotionalism. Yet the director stages his films with distanced lucidity, rendering plot twists into abstractions while fixating on characters who often regard trauma with mysterious poker faces.
In "Transit," Petzold takes this aesthetic to a daring new level.
"Transit" is so sober and restrained that one casually accepts his boldest conceit, which is to transplant Anna Seghers' 1942 Holocaust novel to a generalized present day, informing the film with the undertow of an existential parable.
Specific leaders, events and movements are never mentioned, as the characters ominously refer to a "cleansing" that's sweeping through Europe, causing people to flee via forged visas and transits. There are few modern trappings as well, as cellphones are pointedly absent, though the Nazis are outfitted in black gear that chillingly resembles the uniforms favored by police assault teams — a device that effortlessly rhymes modern authority's abuse of power with past historical atrocities.
The narrative pivots on the classic thriller device in which someone assumes a dead person's identity. "Transit" opens in the middle of the action, with a man giving Georg (Franz Rogowski) a writer's papers in a cafe. Quite a bit of complicated business is quickly discussed. The writer has a visa to move to North America, as he's been offered protection for penning politically charged articles that are presumably critical of the Nazi-like establishment, and Georg is to find him in a hotel and deliver the visa. Georg accepts this mission, though the writer turns out to be dead.
Petzold characteristically stages this reveal with the emotional temperature of a professor delivering a disquisition on the timelessness of human evil. We see only blood spatter on a bathroom tile, as a maid talks about the writer's inconvenience to her. Another unnervingly casual death later, Georg has outmaneuvered the government and is attempting to utilize the writer's visa at the Mexican consulate in Marseilles, where the last two-thirds of this mercilessly lean 97-minute film are set. In the French city, Georg enmeshes himself in the world of the writer's beautiful estranged wife, Marie (Paula Beer), her doctor companion Richard (Godehard Geiss), and a variety of other recent refugees.
The removal of period trappings is a risky and brilliant device, as Petzold recognizes the insidious distancing that occurs with many elaborate costume pieces. The Holocaust is something that should never become respectable or boring, and Petzold correctly suggests that genocide is timeless and unending, especially with Europe and North America's present fascist tendencies following an alarming pattern. Petzold's lack of sensationalism is particularly effective in the first act, as he stages crisp chase scenes that ground terror in the convincing humdrum details of everyday life. A death on a train is wrenchingly quiet, suggesting how quickly and easily life can be lost.
At a certain point, however, Petzold's good taste becomes somewhat tiresome. His allergy to the conventional pathos of melodrama has a way of making certain character relationships ambiguous to the point of inscrutability. Georg and Marie basically fall in love overnight, which is a common trope of thrillers that might've worked here if we were asked to invest in their passion. One short erotic scene —of Georg and Marie kissing on top of one another — briefly accomplishes this task, but Petzold often gets bogged down in the increasingly tedious trading of the writer's visa among several parties. In "Transit" viewers occasionally yearn for the madness of melodrama, a sense of the characters, and the film's creators, threatening to lose control of the enterprise.
In fairness, Petzold's studied aloofness is highly intentional and unconventionally resonant — "Transit" is the kind of film that's more haunting retrospectively than in the moment.
In one of the best scenes, Georg has to condemn writing as a parasitical art to preserve his ruse, and much of what we're seeing is filtered through the consciousness of a bartender who eventually talked to Georg after his adventure. Which is to say that Petzold's chilly sensibility is auto-critical, suggesting the bartender's inability to entirely know the inner world of George, Marie, Richard, and a periphery of tragic hangers-on.
We're seeing a dwarfed romantic daydream as an audience through the scrim of a writer who, like many of us, can't possibly know the demoralizing peril of being hunted and rootless.