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by Jay Seaver

"Sometimes thrilling, sometimes despairing, almost always interesting."
4 stars

There's something kind of fascinating about how, by setting his adaptation of Anna Seghers's 1941 novel in what appears to be the present day, Christian Petzold turns what was at the time a contemporary work into speculative fiction, a more concrete reminder that what had happened before can happen again than making it a period piece or something that pushes the action to some sort of specific future that could possibly be rebutted. It's a brainstorm that takes "Transit" far, and Petzold and his collaborators are good enough to get more out of the film than just the idea.

As the film opens, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is still in Paris even though the invading army is rapidly approaching and it soon won't be safe for the likes of him. A writer friend asks him to deliver a pair of letters to his colleagues Weidel, and in exchange he'll help Georg escape to Marseilles. The man is dead when Georg reaches the hotel, but one of his documents - an agreement to take asylum in Mexico - may be useful. So Georg escapes south, but reaching Mexico means not just acquiring passage on a ship, but convincing the American consul that he will not disembark when the ship docks there on the way. In the meantime, he befriends Driss (Lilien Batman), the soccer-loving son of his traveling companion, and the boy's mother Melissa (Maryam Zaree). He also finds his path crossing with Mtarie (Paula Beer), the strikingly beautiful wife of the man he is impersonating - and her heart is already divided between Weidl and Richard (Godehard Giese), a refugee surgeon.

It wouldn't be accurate to say that Petzold starts Transit without much explanation - there are two major scenes that are just people telling Georg specific bits of background in the early going, although they are focused on the immediate situation rather than the general state of the world - but there is an immediate sense of urgency while the film is set in Paris as the audience has to process the situation and keep an eye on the details in a way akin to how Georg does. Morally ambiguous actions are often happening in the moment, and the film crackles in a way worth the envy of those making thrillers. Many films have to build to this sort of suspense, and Petzold is soon moving on after making it look effortless.

A narrator is added when the film reaches Marseilles, and though he's not the cause of Transit becoming a bit less compelling at this point, he's certainly a symptom. There's suddenly a bit of distance between the audience, and too often it feels like that audience is learning about characters third-hand, through someone else's superficial observations, rather than through their own actions and words. Petzold never finds a good way to show the passage of time, and with it the approach of an army that will make Marseilles no more of a haven than Paris, keeping everything in too much stasis when the screws should be turning. The movie can't reach the same heights of its paranoid "it can happen here/now" opening as it goes on, and there's a point to it - a nifty bit of table-turning at the end indicates that the filmmakers have been chewing up time to set up a certain specific sense of of futility - the pieces don't quite fit together as well as they could or should.

Still, they're awfully good pieces, especially in small moments like the fugitive protagonist playing soccer with an immigrant kid, or a hotelier plainly laying out how the current desperate situation distorts an otherwise decent person's actions. The filmmakers seem to find the brightest and cheeriest sections of Marseilles to serve as contrast to the tightening noose, finding ways to highlight how people seemingly ignore the desperation of refugees in their midst, or how there's something disconcerting about a city that's even just a bit empty. The stories going on in the background are satisfying and full, in a way that perhaps heightens the seeming aimlessness of what's going on up front.

That's reflected a bit in the cast: There's something a bit off about Franz Rogowski's performance as Georg; whether it's his German-accented French or the character's need to keep his guard up, he can feel opaque most of the time, reliant on the narration, although it doesn't need to be that way, as Rogowski is excellent when Georg is allowed to interact honestly with anybody, or even slip some of himself into his role-play. Meanwhile, Paula Beer is darting in and out of scenes, her Marie always given a sense of purpose even when her priorities are fuzzy. She and Lilien Batman (playing Georg's new young friend) are often able to grab the center of the film despite the fact that they're given less to do than Rogowski.

All those strong pieces in the middle are more than enough to connect the film's excellent opening and sneakily effective end, moving the film from broad allegory to intensely personal despair. It's good enough to disappoint as the last film in Petzold's "Love in Times of Oppressive Systems" trilogy, especially since both "Barbara" and "Phoenix" also have lesser bits that disappear from one's memory of them with time.

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originally posted: 03/23/19 04:35:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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