German filmmaker Christian Petzold pointedly transports the Holocaust to current times and fascinatingly blends past and present as he looks at the plight of refugees in his terrific new drama, “Transit.”
Petzold (“Phoenix,” “Barbara”) makes movies about people trapped between old and new, East and West and self-interest and conscience. He combines romantic melodrama, existential horror, dystopian allegory and “Casablanca” in “Transit” (opening Friday at the Clay), which he’s adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1944 novel.
The story transpires in France in what is apparently the present day. But here, the Germans — who, while called, simply, fascists, are associated with Nazi horrors like deportations and “cleansing” — are occupying Paris and advancing.
Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German refugee, arrives in Marseille, where hundreds of refugees are drifting into cafes and gathering in consulates, waiting to receive visas and paperwork that will allow them to depart for the Americas. Those unable to obtain such papers will die.
Georg assumes the identity, and acquires the Mexican visa, of a writer named Weidel, who has committed suicide. Georg falls in love with Weidel’s estranged wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who doesn’t know that her husband is dead or that Georg is impersonating him.
When not searching for her husband, Marie is romancing Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor. He, too, is a refugee.
A triangle forms. Georg maneuvers to obtain travel papers for Marie.
A fatherly relationship Georg develops with a North African boy (Lilien Batman) intensifies Georg’s emotional thicket.
The love story contains too many twists as its three little people repeatedly alter their departure plans and undergo changes of heart. And Marie, despite the talented Beer’s efforts, is more mysterious than three-dimensional.
But Petzold keeps the romance and the action sufficiently entertaining. At the same time, depicting Marseille’s refugees, he takes us somewhere deeper.
We feel the frustrations of the people waiting for an uncaring bureaucracy to officially recognize their existence. Anxiety fills their faces. Purges are forthcoming. Guilt grips survivors who must abandon loved ones. Even those who set sail can die.
Petzold presents a compelling picture of a crisis that seems unlikely to end, and of people trying to cope and stay human while mired in it. Without heavy-handedness, he parallels the scenarios depicted onscreen with the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic attitudes present in Europe and elsewhere today.
He smoothly blurs past and present, aided by impressive production design. A typewriter suggests the wartime era; modern vehicles and sirens remind us that the story’s happening in the 21st century. We buy into this warped reality.
Portraying Georg, Rogowski creates a character who operates on high-pilot survival instinct while displaying conscience and humanity. He gives this intelligent, sophisticated, humane movie a captivating protagonist.
Petzold’s adaptation shifts narration duties to a minor character. He’s not all that omniscient, but like the rest of this movie, he’s got lots to say.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman
Written and directed by: Christian Petzold
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes