Review: Transit, (Germany / France 2018)

This is the latest release by the German film-maker Christian Petzold. He has already had three of his fifteen credits released in Britain; all fine movies. The last, Phoenix  (2014), was a powerful and stylish drama set in Berlin and exploring changes of identity in a story full of noir tropes. This new title has parallels with the earlier one; the question of acquiring an identity, the displacement of war and the impact of a radical new situation for the main characters.

The title refers ‘transit zone’ where people wait for the official papers to leave; they are displaced and where

“here’s no fixed home. Home is basically homelessness.” (Christian Petzold in the Press Notes).

The story comes from a novel by Anna Seghers from 1944. The settings are Paris and then Marseilles. This adaptation treats period ambiguously so we seem neither in the past nor the  present. This can challenge the audience but emphasizes the  situation of the protagonists:

“They’re borderline phantoms, between life and death, yesterday and tomorrow.” (Petzold).

There are a number of key characters but at the centre is a man seeking transit papers  Georg  (Franz Rogowski)  and the wife of a writer Marie (Paula Beer). So there is a love story in the plot but this has to try and work itself out in a world where war has produced chaos, where police are a threat and officialdom is both remote and overwhelmed.

The idea of ‘transit’ has raised parallels with both Casablanca (1942) and Port of ShadowsLe quai des brumes (1938). And there is a reflexive narration which Petzold himself has compared to Barry Lyndon (1975). In both its plot and narration it also reminded me of The Sheltering Sky (1990) with two young US characters adrift in North Africa..

There was a single presentation at the Picture House which was well attended. However, it seems no other cinema in the area has screened the title. The production is distributed by Curzon/Artificial Eye who rely as much on online as theatrical. And the title has not been helped in Sight & Sound where it received a normal review in September 2019 whereas a title I felt was inferior achieved the two-page spread offered to only three releases  an issue. My colleague on ‘The Case for Global Film‘ rates it one of the best new movies of the year and I absolutely agree. Hopefully it may return for another screening at the Picture House; I should certainly like to enjoy it a second time.

One thought on “Review: Transit, (Germany / France 2018)

  1. I agree with Keith. Its a magnificent and deeply enjoyable World War II drama in modern dress: modern clothes and cars and a name-check for Dawn of the Dead but no phones or computers. It gives its treatment of familiar wartime and dramatic themes—tragic love affairs, mistaken identities, and lost opportunities—a timeless feel rather than a realistic one. There’s even a Kafkaesque fable included, foreshadowing the hero’s fate.

    The people of the film are all on their way somewhere, having chance encounters, telling each other their stories. Indeed, the whole movie is a story told to us by the bartender narrator, as told to him by the hero, Georg (I love narration that describes exactly what we’re seeing on the screen. Some subtle inconsistencies are slipped in as well—we can’t necessarily trust everything we see and hear). Stories within stories within a story. Many of them are familiar from wartime classics like Casablanca and The Third Man—stories of twists of fate, unlikely encounters, doomed romances and unhappy endings. Classic stuff, and if it’s perhaps more novelistic than cinematic and burdened by a sense of inevitability there is much joy to be had in the noirish themes and stunning softly-lit colours and images.

    Shocking that such an impressive work, highly pertinent to the current refugee crisis, got only one showing in Leeds; good that it was well-attended by a mixed crowd, which I think was as international as the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

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