Everything’s confused now. Narratives are manipulated, ethics keeps shifting. This uncertainty should make German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s Transit the revelation of the year. Here’s why it’s not:
Trend-follower Petzold (Barbara, Phoenix, Jerichow) has found another way to stay in step with progressive politics. His thriller Transit twists modern concerns about national identity, immigration, and fascism into a personal, artsy mystery.
Petzold starts with Georg (Franz Rogowski), an emotionally wounded German living in France, during a spookily contemporary, unspecified putsch, who seeks refuge in the Americas. (Ah, Mexico, gateway to the United States’ open arms.)
Adapting Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel Transit, about a man in spiritual and social flux, Petzold uses ominous, empty European settings marked by urban graffiti.
Georg’s statelessness is reflected in the disaffected transients he encounters: a friend who begs him to deliver a subversive writer’s letter to the wife he left behind; an immigrant child with a mute mother (Lilien Batman and Maryam Zaree); a doctor (Godehard Giese) anxious to defect; and a mysterious, haunted beauty (Paula Beer) who might be the letter’s intended recipient.
These wayfaring strangers evoke Casablanca’s usual suspects minus Hollywood’s vulgar sensationalism. Casablanca’s director, Michael Curtiz, pitched every moment to a melodramatic peak, but Petzold aims for cool sophistication. His approach demonstrates the millennium’s pallid existentialism.
Actor Rogowski’s perpetually worried grimace resembles Joaquin Phoenix doing his tortured-soul routine in You Were Never Really Here, a nihilistic Taxi Driver remake by Britain’s token female artiste, Lynne Ramsay. Ramsey emphasized grindhouse gore the same way Curtiz used corniness. Short of such low-down audacity, Petzold gives Transit globalist sentimentality.
The mother and child whom Georg befriends are refugees from the Third World, but in this film’s vision of international ennui, the Third World has merged into all Europe. Transit’s displaced-persons story is meant to be universal, capturing globalism’s anti-patriotic mode — the same progressive’s sentimentality seen in Cold War and Never Look Away.
If Transit satirized today’s European art-film tendencies, it might have achieved the zeitgeist shock of Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, but, instead, this movie proves that film culture at large has reached a stage where moviemakers and reviewers devote themselves to maundering and following social trends. That’s why no good, original film has emerged from Sundance or South X Southwest in decades. Conservative filmgoers need to realize this fact and be wary of it. Hollywood and its wannabes work to keep filmgoers aligned with political fashion and hipster schmaltz.
Note that Georg evolves from Kafka as well as the classic German existentialist protagonist devised by Georg Büchner in Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. Deep inside this Casablanca knock-off is a modern version of Büchner’s fatalism, anticipating the death of the West. (Death-of-the-West sorrow also explains the American race-exploitation films Get Out and BlacKkKlansman.)
Reviewers who favor open borders are easily impressed with Transit. The Times calls it “a labyrinth of a movie,” The Wrap calls it “a misery of a movie.” It’s a little of both and nothing new. Alain Tanner’s 1984 In the White City made similar European alienation erotic and life-affirming. Petzold’s Casablanca-meets-Kafka exercise is a world-weary cliché. He confirms Transit’s unoriginality with the end-credits musical theme: Talking Heads’ 1986 “Road to Nowhere,” an existential ditty that signaled the hip-cynical decline of that once great pop group.