Christian Petzold’s Phoenix was one of the best films of 2015, a haunting drama about personal and national identity in the wake of World War II. The film also featured one of the most powerful endings to a movie I’ve ever witnessed. Petzold returns to the big screen with Transit, an adaptation of Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel of the same name. Once again, Petzold sets his sights on fascism though he sets the film in a modern setting, giving the film an eerie sense of displaced time as the horrors of yesterday are revived with the growing presence of nationalistic and fascistic movements across the globe. Transit is another harrowing masterwork by Christian Petzold and one of the best films of the year.
Georg (Franz Rogowski) is in France as fascism spreads like a plague. He must flee Paris as the fascist forces invade, opting to flee in the night to Marseille alongside a friend. However, in transit the companion dies. Georg takes the transit papers of a deceased writer Weidel and assumes his identity as he joins those seeking asylum in Marseille. In the town that is operating as a sort of temporary haven for asylum seekers, Georg meets Marie (Paula Beer), a woman looking to be reunited with her husband. Only Georg has assumed the identity of her late husband, and the two have a whirlwind affair with a tragic secret looming over their romance. Though Georg wants to flee to Mexico with Marie, she still harbors hope that her husband will return to her.
The characters of Transit are placed into a situation where there’s little reason for optimism, a world where their home has turned into an unrecognizable nightmare and escape hinges entirely on a navigating a bureaucratic maze of paperwork and interrogations. What Petzold captures so well is the elusiveness of normalcy in trying times such as these. Drinks in bars and cafes aren’t routine activities but opportunities for clandestine rendezvous with potential allies in the desperate scramble to escape the jackbooted thugs of a fascist regime. There are frequent encounters with expatriates at consulates and cafes, and yet these fleeting moments of comradery only serve as a reminder to all that’s been lost.
What Petzold does that makes Transit so urgent is removing the film from historical context. This is not a period piece. The horrors don’t take place in a distant past generations removed. It’s right now and the atrocities of the past are on the verge of becoming today’s atrocities. The sociopolitical changes in which our characters are plunged push them in unexpected ways towards each other, though it’s a kind of star-crossed romance that is more a survival mechanism – a way to cling on to some semblance of warmth and hope in a cold world brimming with despair.
As he did with Phoenix, Petzold ends Transit with another absolutely stunning ending. The fact is that nobody is ending movies with as much of a pure wallop as Christian Petzold is these days. With Transit, Petzold uses the past as a warning to where we are in this perilous moment in history. Transit is a film that takes the viewer on a harrowing journey in the hopes of escaping the brute forces of fascism, a journey with laughter and tears, romance and heartbreak, hope and despair. Christian Petzold is one of the greatest filmmakers working today and Transit is just his latest masterwork, one that will leave audiences gasping at the end as the screen turns to black and the credits roll. You may leave the theater but Transit won’t leave your mind.