Unstuck from time and self, ‘Transit’ demands your attention

March 8, 2019

There’s an espresso machine in the first shot of “Transit.” It’s not an especially fancy espresso machine, an average appliance you’d expect in any modern café. But protagonist Georg (Franz Ragowski) isn’t having coffee in the present—“Transit,” we soon learn, is set at an undetermined point during the height of the Nazi occupation of France. Georg, a German-Jewish refugee, is on the run from the fascist authorities, fleeing Paris for the port city of Marseilles in hopes of securing passage out of Europe.

But the viewer is never allowed to settle into this semi-conventional World War II narrative—if that opening espresso machine didn’t give it away, “Transit” embraces anachronism. German director Christian Petzold (“Phoenix”) denies any and all period accuracy: The cars, trains, ships, streets, restaurants and offices are all indistinguishable from what you would see on any trip to Europe today. It’s a move of peak formal expressionism; the devil is in the details: You won’t see any period inaccurate technology (i.e. cell phones), but some contemporary marker shows up in nearly every shot.

In one of his most disturbing images, the fascist soldiers in Petzold’s occupied France casually drive police vans and wear the standard uniform of any EU cop. Massive passenger boats headed west, the only hope of escape for our heroes, look like luxury cruise ships. Petzold seems intent on cramming modern details into every single shot, never letting his audience escape the obvious issues these objects and vehicles trigger.

To be clear, bold aesthetic trappings aren’t the point—rather, Petzold has his sights set on the emotional implications. By the time Georg arrives in Marseilles, he’s a mess; equally paranoid and ashamed, a lonely and traumatized survivor. Others in Marseilles share a similar fate, as the city becomes purgatory not only for Georg but also Marie, the wife of a prominent communist writer named Weidel. Complicating matters further is the fact that Georg himself is constantly mistaken for Weidel (due to some plot movements I don’t want to spoil). Georg, disconnected from country, family and—thanks to the film—time, risks alienation from his own identity, as the line between himself and Weidel blurs.

There are similarities aplenty to “Casablanca” (and I’m far from the first critic to point them out). But as usual, Petzold’s real influence is Hitchcock. It’s not the first time the German auteur has echoed the master of suspense, as the brilliant “Phoenix” (2015) also cited “Vertigo.” His unlikely marriage of World War II narratives to stories Hitchcock would tell has become a goldmine. As Petzold’s characters chase truths and individuals that don’t exist, we come to understand their fractured psyches and daily dissonance.

The whole thing just works. Petzold closes the distance between viewer and subject with his radical aesthetic choice, and the performances by Franz Ragowski and Paula Beer (as Marie) eliminate any additional space. Petzold’s cinematography is also fantastic, producing a bevy of quality frames. Using an extra-wide aspect ratio, his camera translates the terror of fascism into a visual language anyone alive today can read. It’s far from comfortable but so very effective. Never has a simple espresso machine signaled so much.

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