By Josiah Wampfler
“Transit” is yet another brilliant masterpiece from director Christian Petzold, following his superb 2014 film “Phoenix”. While Petzold returns to his fascination with the World War II era, the master stroke he plays with “Transit” is to tell the story of a man trying to flee France from the impending Nazi occupation in present day. With the modern setting, this story of the impending onslaught of fascism takes on an urgency and prescience that make this a truly powerful and important film.
If there is one word that comes to mind when I think about “Transit” it is longing. There is such a sense of longing to the film and in so many different ways. There is the obvious longing of Georg to escape France, a longing he shares with many others, though with a difference in degree. There is the longing of men who feel they must leave behind the people they care about in both the character of the doctor and of Georg himself. And the longing of those who may be left behind.
Even the camera has a longing to it, with its slow, methodical cinematography. The images inspire both a dread of the enclosing fascist forces and the longing for our characters to make it to safety, but also the magnificent beauty of coastal France and the longing to stay. It is a longing that helps us understand the reticence of many characters to leave, even though we know the dangers that await them if they stay.
But most profoundly, there is an overwhelming sense of longing to do the right thing and a struggle to know what that is. This question of morality constantly butts up against the characters’ desire for survival and it reveals more than we may care to admit about the current state of the world and our own complicity with the rise of right-wing forces. In one particularly revealing scene, the hotel Georg is staying at is raided by immigration authorities. He remarks through the voice-over as he and the other residents watch a family being dragged from the hotel that none of them could look one another in the eye because of the overwhelming shame. All they can do is stand there, eyes toward the floor as the family screams in terror.
“Transit” has quite aptly been compared to “Casablanca”, as it has similar plot points and similar morally grey protagonists. This is not to say it is a remake or a copy though. I think “Transit” is much more grey all around when it comes to the morality of characters’ decisions than the Bogart classic. The love story at the center is much more messy, and unlike “Casablanca”, the ending to Petzold’s tale is far less hopeful in regards to the state of our characters and turning back the tide of fascism. There is no defiant scene of bar patrons singing “La Marseillaise”. Ironically, though “Transit” is the film actually set in France, there is much more rebellious French spirit to be found in the foreign-set “Casablanca”. In Petzold’s “Transit”, the prospect of any real resistance is quite absent.
And though Paula Beer is certainly as stunning a leading lady as Ingrid Bergman (and gives an incredible performance to match), Franz Rogowski is a much less classic leading man than Bogart. He is not confident like Rick Dalton or classically good looking. Yet, Rogowski is absolutely perfect in the role. His actions in the film are morally complex, yet through the masterful performance you are able to connect quite deeply with him and understand even some of his more questionable choices. And there is an undeniable chemistry between Beer and Rogowski that helps to sell a romance that otherwise may have appeared far too quick for some. His timidity and reticence matches the general feeling of many around him. The world is coming to an end in this coastal French city, but no one knows exactly what to do, so for many life just goes on.
After two viewings, I have no doubt that “Transit” is a bonafide masterpiece, one of the best films of the year and will keep me coming back for more. It is the “Casablanca” for our times and the one we truly deserve; A film that is complex and doesn’t spoon feed us hope, because hope requires action to be realized. Will we take that action or, like the residents of Georg’s hotel, will we avert our eyes because of the shame?