Review: Transit (2018)

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Directed by: Christian Petzold | 101 minutes | drama | Actors: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Barbara Auer, Matthias Brandt, Sebastian Hülk, Emilie de Preissac, Antoine Oppenheim, Louison Tresaliet, Justus von Dohnányi, Alex Brendemühl, Trystan Pütter

‘Transit’ starts in medias res , a literary term to indicate that you are in the middle of the story. Not surprising, since it is a novel adaptation. The reader knows that it is a narrative mode in which events are cleared up later. This principle also works very well in film; images may activate the plot even better than words – see ‘Traceless’.

Christian Petzold can tell a story. Yet he asks a few things from the viewer. You expect a film start in Nazi-occupied France in a historic setting. That is partly true, but as soon as the German Georg (Franz Rogowski) appears on the street, it is suddenly contemporary Marseille. It is certainly original, but does it also work? Or rather, does it work in a way that we can understand?

A writer would say: I can think of what I want. Georg flees from a concentration camp to the south of France and finds shelter in the guest house of Marie (Paula Beer). This beautiful Frenchwoman falls for the lisping Germanic and that is credibly conveyed. The trademark of Petzold, who always knows how to create chemistry without having to play violin music. Authentic drama, hypothermic heartbeat, difficult circumstances, et cetera.

The doubt remains, especially with a voice-over – a trick to mask imperfections in the narrative method. But you remain expectant about the role of the present in the story. Is this some kind of ‘English Patient’, a retelling? Or does the modern setting represent the viewer who places himself in the past through the narrator? We pause the film to read the Wiki of Anna Seghers’s 1944 war novel of the same name. The narrator there is Georg, that’s something, but otherwise Segher’s’ ‘Transit’ seems like a linear story.

Petzold himself appears to have invented the 21st century setting, with even timelessness as a starting point in the costumes; in the end, the mixture of past and present turns out to be a cerebral means of creating wonder. An artificial way to give shape to what is already worthwhile in itself, but needs a new look. Sometimes things do not have to be explained perfectly, but it is precisely that story-technical gap between the teeth that causes emotion.

The means, of course, serves an end. At Petzold it is always about identity issues. The journey to the South of France has a different continuation in the past and present. That is strange, but not incomprehensible. In both cases Georg takes the place of another deceased person in the life of his wife. Petzold seeks agreement between a concentration camp refugee from 1942 and immigrants in today’s Marseille, and with Georg as a connecting element, he places this in the heart of the viewer.

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