Review by Myles Gibbons
Written and directed by Christian Petzold, and based on the 1942 novel of the same name; Transit is a film that cannot live up to the promise of its own first act. Dangling plot lines and unfocused storytelling spell doom for this book-to-screen adaptation.
From the very first scene of Transit, the film establishes the idea of paranoia and fear in Nazi-occupied France as two men sit in a café. Every siren and sound makes them look over their shoulders. The whole first act keeps up this momentum with Georg (Franz Rogowski), our protagonist, evading capture by the skin of his teeth and making sacrifices to ensure his own freedom. His desperation to leave the state he is trapped in gives a sense of urgency to the first act.
It’s when Georg reaches Marseille that the film take a turn for the worse. Out of nowhere, an unknown narrator begins to explain how Georg is feeling, and this continues throughout the film; with Petzold taking a “tell don’t show” approach to storytelling. Whereas before the drama came from a fear of capture by the fascist authorities; the source of drama now becomes Georg’s paternal love for the son of a character that we were barely introduced to, and who had died in a previous scene. This love is displayed in part, but it isn’t until we are told once more by the narrator does this become clear. After twenty minutes of this pseudo-son being the source of the drama; he suddenly falls ill and refuses to see the protagonist once he finds out he is leaving Marseille for Mexico to escape the Fascist forces. The boy does not feature for the rest of the film.
From here on, the source of the drama comes from a woman who has been a recurring presence in the film (although not a character, but simply the object of the Protagonist’s desire based on her looks and mystique). At this stage in the film all intrigue and paranoia has dropped away, along with any complexity in the protagonist or the surrounding characters. What was first an interesting and paranoid political commentary on the expansion of the right devolves into a schmaltzy and poorly told love story which doesn’t have enough time to establish the primary characters, therefore relying on tropes and stereotypes, stripping away any complexity that the protagonist had previously, and turning him into a schoolboy fawning over a pretty woman.
I found this film frustrating, because, while it is poorly written and directed overall, there are real flashes of brilliance that show what could have been. The long, lingering camera shots that really give the actors room to act shows a real restraint in film-making. There is also a strong portrayal of real-life refugee situations, displaying the uncertainty of statelessness and the limbo in which one can find themselves. The idea of setting the film in seemingly modern times with modern cars and dress and putting the fascists in riot gear really make this film reflect the realities of the modern-day right wing. However, despite these intelligent choices, I simply can’t recommend this film. The plot is clumsy, and the characters wear thin very quickly. It’s sad to see a film with so much promise be ultimately so disappointing.
Transit is currently playing at the Irish Film Institute.