Sunday, March 17, 2019

Road to Nowhere: TRANSIT

Christian Petzold’s Transit is a story of refugees fleeing fascist forces that are taking over Europe. A German man (Franz Rogowski) sneaks out of Paris just ahead of a crackdown of some kind. He’s headed to Marseille, where he’ll wait for papers he'll need to flee somewhere safer — maybe Mexico, or America — or, failing that, he'll hike over the mountains. In this port city, he’s mistaken for a dissident writer whose immigration paperwork has already been completed. While he waits for his ship to come in, he’s surrounded by others stuck in the red tape — long lines, jumbled belongings, fraying relationships, dwindling resources. He sees the same faces again and again — a woman left stranded with two enormous dogs; a conductor; a doctor; a bartender; a soccer-loving boy and his deaf-mute mother; and a woman (Paula Beer) awaiting the arrival of her husband, a writer who promised their paperwork would be waiting for them. Pulling setup and incident from Anna Segher’s 1944 novel, Petzold’s film of people waiting in hope of exit visas could easily have fallen into a Casablanca riff, plumbing the familiar tropes of World War II fiction for its impact, much like his last film, the heartrending straight-faced melodrama Phoenix, used a rubble-strewn post-war 40’s landscape for its wickedly clever emotional twists. (Maybe Soderbergh in The Good German mode would’ve done Transit that way.) Instead, Petzold moves the book’s narrative essentially unchanged into something like present day, or maybe very near future, France. The image of modern cars and contemporary clothing, of current cruise ships, of militarized police, creates a haunting frisson of disjunction. If we saw this story, an episodic collection of displacement and strife slowly escalated through mistaken identity and competing loyalties, in vintage costume and historical affect, it’d be easier to contain in a safely time-stamped box. Here the danger, the quotidian responses to geopolitical strife, is both inextricable from the premise and a constant background given. It’s familiar and strange; it has happened before and can happen again — fascists marching in the streets. And yet Petzold hardly foregrounds this. He coaches his cast to give inscrutably troubled performances, portraying people hesitant and stumbling towards possibilities that may never come to fruition. It becomes a film of waiting, of people caught between where they’re going and where they’ve been, making connections to soothe their conscience or merely grasping at the last vital strands of humanity and compassion before the world forecloses their opportunities. Their lives have been smashed apart. They feel they just have to get on a boat and away from their broken homelands to start whole again. Would that it were so simple. 

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