From shape-shifting aliens in “Captain Marvel” to magic horse-blobs in “Now Apocalypse,” 2019 has been a year of extreme science fiction magic. “Transit,” a subtle dystopian inspired by 1940s noir, proves that the intersection between reality and the unknown can be much more terrifying than any special effect.
Based on the World War II-era book of the same name by Anna Seghers, director Christian Petzold combines the two timelines (current and 1940s) by placing the film in a present-day France occupied by fascist German forces. The film stars Franz Rogowski as Georg, a German struggling to escape France as German police round up groups of people for an unknown reason. This allows the audience to make assumptions about who is being targeted from both a 1940s and present-day context. Throughout the film, an emphasis is placed on characters having citizenship papers. This highlights France’s current immigration crisis, as well as racist and islamophobic rhetoric, as refugees from certain countries are banned from entering the United States and other places.
On a mission in Paris to bring letters to a writer named Weidel, Georg finds the man dead from suicide. He flees with a man named Heinz to Marseilles with Weidel's’ citizenship papers. These two events drive the rest of the film, in which Georg is conflicted by his roles as a lover to Weidel’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), and an adoptive father to Heinz’s son. The film is narrated by a bartender, who listens to Georg’s woeful rants about a life he could have had.
Petzold is a known perfectionist, and his subtle imagining of a Fascist reality could have been easily over-dramatized by a less accomplished director. “Transit” exists in an imaginary world and Petzold knows this, as he teases what could have been for Georg and the rest of the undocumented civilians throughout the film. Even the lack of characterization for Marie drives home the dreamlike quality of “Transit,” as the perfect Marie is more of an illusion to Georg than a real person. The interaction between her ghost and Georg at the end of the film solidifies this idea.
Both Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer are brilliant in their melancholic roles. “Transit” is a much-improved vehicle for Beer, who starred as a soulless love interest in the Oscar-nominated film “Never Look Away.” Rogowski calls to mind a young Joaquin Phoenix in his appearance, mournful eyes and slow, wistful body language and movements.
“Transit” exists in the French art genre and may be confounding to some mainstream audiences who are unfamiliar with open endings and a lack of narrative clarity. From both an aesthetic and political vantage point, however, “Transit” tugs at your heartstrings. Perhaps one of the most desolate, relatable themes of the film is “the one who got away.” Not only is “Transit” a stereotypical love story in its response to this idea, but a call to audiences to be aware of their surroundings before it's too late.