The grip of the fascist extreme right has Europe in a stranglehold, and France is now an occupied nation, meaning certain undesirables to the occupying forces are having to leave the continent as quickly as they can. This is easier said than done, as the bureaucracy cannot cope and there is a crackdown on refugees as well, but for Georg (Franz Rogowski), he is being reluctantly drawn into espionage when his friend encourages him to pick up a nearby writer's effects from his hotel room. Grudgingly, he goes and finds the writer has messily committed suicide, but after consulting with the unnerved chambermaid, he does get the relevant papers - soon taking on a new identity.
Transit was the third in director Christian Petzold's trilogy which he based around the novel of the same name by Anna Seghers, a wartime effort that was from 1944 and detailed the adventures of a political prisoner's escape from the Nazis. But for this one, Petzold tried something different as like Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, this was a science fiction movie without visual effects: the setting was purely suggested through the plot, dialogue and various trappings such as costumes. While this was set in a period contemporary to the film's release, what occurred throughout was closely hewn to Seghers' World War II plot, all the better to compare that era to the one Europe was going through.
The result was curiously effective, though the director did tie himself in knots a little to ensure this seemed relevant to the audience watching it in the twenty-tens, rather than the nineteen-forties, so there were no mobile phones to be seen, and all communications were carried out through written letter or typewriter, not e-mail, for example. The sense of watching a world in limbo, where something dreadful is holding the globe in a terrible balance that could tip over into sheer Hell at any moment, was vivid to say the least, and this was a picture where you could recommend it for its atmosphere and unsettling nature, comparing the rise of the fascists to what was the modern era.
Therefore when we hear about the authorities clamping down on the Jewish population, it does conjure an uneasy sensation knowing Petzold was consciously invoking a very old evil to point out the resurgence of the far right, not only in Europe, was creating parallels in his parallel universe that you may not be happy to ruminate on. Nevertheless, there was a disconnect, this was not exactly The Man in the High Castle, and more than that there was an issue with his approach, for Transit was as academic as you like in its postulations, and you know what that meant: it was as dry as dust. The central character was a cypher by design, he had to be to take on the deceased writer's identity and successfully lose himself in this subterfuge, but that failed to render a gripping protagonist in a gripping scenario.
Indeed, he was almost perversely uninteresting, and that lack of charisma tended to work its anti-magic on the characters around him as well. You could not understand, for instance, why the writer's widow (Paula Beer) would be so enamoured of this impostor, to the extent of trying to seduce him - we're evidently intended to be energised by this potential affair, but while Beer was as reliable as ever, there was zero chemistry between her and Rogowski, so no sparks flew. You could say that about everyone else in the film too, aside from a small immigrant boy (Lilien Batman) who he befriends - we could believe in his paternal interest in the fate of a child whose future was now utterly uncertain. The ending had a go at arty enigma, but that did not land either, leaving a piece that sounded a lot more intriguing than it played, not even the anticipated paranoia of the premise manifesting to a satisfying degree. Music by Stefan Will.