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German Director Christian Petzold's latest, TRANSIT, follows in the line of his excellent movies PHOENIX and BARBARA as another exploration of individual identity during periods of high political tensions. Based on a WWII novel, Petzold made the conscious decision to not be another period piece by setting in the present. Or, did he?
The world we find in TRANSIT is like a parallel alternate reality. All shot in present day France. No visual effects. But, there is something off. Most of the clothes and props the main characters wear and use seem to come from the 1940s. Europe has been plunged into some unspecified war. Refugees are being expelled. Others desperate to emigrate legally to the Americas. Transit visas are like gold. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German stuck in Marseilles. By chance he acquires a Transit visa from another man, but, this requires him to take on the other man's identity. A mysterious woman, Marie (Paula Beer, recently seen in the exceptional NEVER LOOK AWAY) seems to keep appearing before him. Always elusive. Eventually, they meet, only to make things more complicated.
Petzold is after something very tricky here. Without ever fully explaining the world he is building, we are plunged into it often leaving the viewer as baffled as the characters. The parallels to the refugee crisis in present day Europe are obvious (Georg interacts with an African woman and her child, and later, with a Muslim family), but never hammered home. Stylistically, Petzold has created an odd blend between a Noirish CASABLANCA and a totalitarian Orwellian 1984 present, all by way of Antonioni's THE PASSENGER. The past and present fold in and out, like something out of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.
TRANSIT is a heady mix that won't be for all tastes, and Petzold doesn't fully command this world as well as he has in his past features. Still, it's a movie that's hard to shake. The acting is quite strong including the two leads, and a particularly strong supporting bit by Barbara Auer. TRANSIT may not be to the level of Petzold's previous few pictures, but, it's a worthy entry that lingers in the mind.
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