Transit (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): An anachronistic period drama by Christian Petzold

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Christian Petzold’s new film “Transit” is interesting to watch for a number of reasons. While initially intriguing us with its deliberately anachronistic period background, the movie gradually draws us into its melancholic human drama around one desperate guy, and we come to overlook its rather artificial aspects for a while as getting emotionally involved more in his tricky and ambiguous circumstance.

The movie is based on based on Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel of the same name, but Petzold chooses to unfold the story in an unspecified period around the 21st century while mostly sticking close to the synopsis of Seghers’s novel. As Paris is about to be invaded by a certain foreign force out there, many people are desperately looking for any possible chance of getting out of Paris and then France, and the first act of the movie mainly revolves around how a plain German guy named Georg (Franz Rogowski) manages to escape from Paris. At the beginning, he is asked to deliver a couple of letters to some German writer who has also been in exile just like him, but then he finds that the writer killed himself, and then he comes to learn from one of these two letters entrusted to him that the Mexican Consulate in Marseille guaranteed the visa and transit for the writer and his wife. Seeing a pretty good chance for his escape, Georg takes the writer’s passport and several other things belonging to the writer, and he subsequently sneaks into a freight train along with some seriously injured guy who also needs to escape to Marseilles.

Around the time when the train arrives in Marseille, that guy in question dies, and Georg has no choice but get off from the train alone and then go to a place where the dead man’s wife and son live for notifying them of his death. Although his encounter with Melissa (Maryam Zaree) and her son Driss (Lilien Batman) is rather awkward to say the least, Georg comes to befriend them as time goes by, and he finds himself emotionally attached to them more than expected, though he knows well that he will leave Marseilles as soon as possible once he gets the visa and transit through the writer’s passport.

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However, the situation is not exactly ideal for him as well as many others in the city. He has to wait for a while at the Mexican Consulate, and its waiting room is full of many different people who have each own urgent reason for getting out of France before it becomes too late for them. Although everything seems fine and usual in Marseilles, the mood gets more ominous day by day especially after that certain foreign force occupies Paris and more of France, and Georg and those desperate people in the city also have to be constantly watchful about sudden police raids which may seal their fate once for all.

As everything is going fairly well as he hoped, Georg becomes a bit relieved, but then he comes to learn that the writer’s wife is looking for her husband in the city. Not long after their accidental encounter on a street, Georg comes across this woman again and again, and he soon finds himself attracted to her once he formally introduces himself to her.

It looks like that he may leave along with her, but then Georg comes to realize how complicated her situation is. Although she let herself separated from her husband some time ago, Marie (Paula Beer) still cares about her husband, and that was the main reason why she refused to leave when she could simply go away with a doctor who has been in love with her. As tactfully inserting himself between Marie and that doctor, Georg tries to persuade her to change her mind, but she remains adamant, and it goes without saying that the main suspense of the story lies on whether he will reveal the truth to her in the end.

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Dryly rolling its story and characters, the movie slowly builds up dramatic tension. As the news on the ongoing advance of that certain force keeps coming, Georg is more urged to do the right thing for Marie, but the circumstance only gets complicated because of his good-willed actions, and he also becomes estranged from Driss, who is understandably quite angry and disappointed to know that Georg will not stay that long around him and his mother.

The movie is supported well by the good performances from its solid cast members. Franz Rogowski, who previously drew my attention with his introverted comic performance in “In the Aisles” (2018), effortlessly embodies his character’s growing conflict and desperation, and Paula Beer, who was terrific in François Ozon’s Frantz (2016), is alluring and elusive as required while ably presenting her character with considerable sympathy and understanding. In case of the other main cast members, Godehard Giese and Maryam Zaree are equally effective in their respective supporting roles, and young performer Lilien Batman holds his own small place well as functioning as a small but substantial part of the story.

Although it is less impressive compared to Petzold’s previous works “Barbara” (2012) and “Phoenix” (2014), the movie still engages us enough under his calm but sensitive direction, and I appreciated its mood, storytelling, and performance although I felt rather distant to its story and characters from time to time. I am still not as enthusiastic about the film as some other critics, but it is indubitably another fascinating work from one of the most interesting filmmakers of our time, and you will not be disappointed if you have admired Petzold’s works like me.

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