There’s a specific anxiety that comes by with having to constantly move from one place to another, and in Christian Petzold’s melodrama Transit, all of that seems to be elevated to a tee. But from watching every moment through the eyes of Franz Rogowski’s character, all that you really need to know is that this is a film all about people who are haunted by the ghosts of the past, for they lurk all around a place where awful things have been happening day by day. Yet as one would ever expect from Christian Petzold, there’s a great deal to admire about how he crafts melodrama – it’s never to the point where it feels overtly sentimental or very dry. To say the very least, it’s a film that racks up tension in the same sense that the very best Alfred Hitchcock films would, yet it also has that same tenderness of a Douglas Sirk film, but that only covers the very least of where the film’s best aspects start to shine. But it also plays out like a novel being read, this approach could have gone wrong – yet Petzold uses it to capture something much greater.
It all starts off simply enough, with Georg (Franz Rogowski), a young German man sitting inside a bar in Paris. Looking to escape the remains of Nazi-occupied France, he assumes the identity of a dead author, because he also possesses his papers – only to find that he is to remain stuck in Marseille. Yet while he remains in Marseille together with many other refugees, this is when he also stumbles across Marie (Paula Beer), a woman searching for her missing husband – and that missing person happens to be the one person that Georg is impersonating. Soon enough this also sends Georg on yet another ride unlike anything he’s quite experienced prior, for he also falls in love with Marie and desires to escape with her. As the romance finds itself blossoming, what Christian Petzold brings to the screen in Transit never holds back on being unflinching in any sense of the word, only creating an impending sense of doom coming along as these people are still trying their very best to search for what’s set to come in store for them in the near future. But there’s no specific time in which this story is set, which only allows the film’s contemporary appearance to turn into something all the more daunting too. You could see this same scenario easily applying to a concept of a modern time period, and it still manages to retain its impact.
We only ever feel the catharsis of what it feels like to constantly have to be moving from one place to another. It’s rather obvious enough from the film’s title, but nothing gives it away far more than the nature of the world inhabited by its lead character – one where people are constantly moving only to seek a better life for themselves amidst the aftermath of war. But Petzold doesn’t hold back even when touching upon the most difficult of traumatic experiences here, he shows you the manner in which their own struggle has also come to see the ways in which the war has damaged such people as they also come to terms with how their current selves, continuously on the run, are still defined by this experience. But even through having a voiceover describing to you events as they happen on the screen, you are made to think back about what it feels like to be an interpreter of these events. This also brings forward the film’s greatest strength, in which it plays itself out like a romance commenting upon its own self, not in the sense that this is a meta-narrative but rather you’re witnessing contemporary stories as understood by a new perspective, even allowing a greater connection to form as a result.
Rogowski is every bit as terrific as you could ever expect from a lead directed by Petzold, but it’s only fitting enough to also comment on how Petzold writes him with such depth and empathy for his own struggle too. Everything that Georg sees from his own eyes is one thing that allows Petzold’s lens to shine out as is, but so is the confusion. The confusion with trying to take on a new identity as a means of survival, trying to figure out how one is to survive, but also wondering if you’ll ever be able to make it out alive. It’s fitting enough that the film ends with Talking Heads’s “Road to Nowhere,” because it’s also a perfect way to represent what the movie is about. There’s no way to escape this confusion of what goes on inside a world constantly moving by as it is also defined by trauma, but it also never kills away the search for hope. Petzold doesn’t ever show that this world is completely hopeless as it is, but there is still a reason to persevere even through the toughest of times as it can continuously find ways to eat oneself up – even as we are asking the questions about the moral means of searching for survival. And thus it also opens up what solidified the greatness of Transit for myself, the very notion that mistakes of a past life will only ever find themselves haunting the present as is.
After Phoenix, I had only ever wondered what it was that Christian Petzold had in store for his future offerings. I had known that it would bring out something great, but not quite anything like Transit – which only hits me to be even more haunted in such a sense. It’s a film that best captures what it truly feels like to be on a “road to nowhere,” especially when one already knows that they simply must continue going somewhere. But there’s no set definition of this “somewhere,” either, which is also what makes this search even more daunting as is. Will it be easy enough to have to endure new traumas as long as you know the ghosts caused by past mistakes will continue to find their ways of persevering. But when you see everything from such a claustrophobic point of view, it also comes up to highlight what also makes the work all the more wonderful. You can always feel that violence is present, even if there is no death that takes place onscreen. Yet it still brings you closer to that very instinct of simply wanting to survive in a world that only builds itself all the more on cruelty.
Watch the trailer right here.
Images via TIFF.
Directed by Christian Petzold
Screenplay by Christian Petzold, from the novel by Anna Seghers
Produced by Antonin Dedet, Florian Koerner von Gustorf
Starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer
Release Date: November 9, 2018 (Canada)
Running Time: 101 minutes