Transit (CIFF 2018)

review by Jim Laczkowski

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Transit is one of the year’s very best films. There I’ve said it and it’s out of the way. Transit manages to be a film that is direct, simple and confidently tells a story that is fairly easy to comprehend once all the pieces come into play. You’ll initially feel a bit perplexed because we’re put into the mindset of someone in a perplexing situation. Once you acclimate, what transpires feels like an old-fashioned drama in which the suspense derives from character interaction and decision-making that may or may not be selfish. In a way it reminded me of the strengths contained in a show like Better Call Saul, only streamlined into 100 minutes. We follow a desperate man during WWII, Georg (a superb Franz Rogowski) who is hired to transport a writer, his travel documents, and controversial novel from Paris to Marseilles. When he realizes the writer has committed suicide he takes his belongings and by sheer happenstance assumes the identity of the writer. Approved by the Mexican Consulate due to his new identity he must wait for the next boat leaving for Mexico as the fascists move closer to taking over.

Georg resides in a run-down hotel, filled with German-Jewish refugees, some of which he has some peculiar run-ins with as does the police that come barging in from time to time. He meets up with a refugee mother and son, both illegals planning to flee across the mountainside and builds a strangely quick relationship with the boy who sees Georg as a father figure. Through that connection Georg also meets a Paediatrician Doctor, Richard (Godehard Giese) who is desperate to leave for Mexico so he can start practicing again. He is clearly a good man with a lot of internal conflict which also plays out in Georg. There is also a mysterious woman Marie (Paula Beer) that seems to appear everywhere Georg finds himself and even she might be mistaking him for someone else initially. All the while a narrator beautifully describes what transpires in addition to the internal monologue of Georg, though it is not revealed until later just who this narrator is.

I’m often not a fan of narration that feels expository to the action that’s taking place right before our eyes, but somehow, I was drawn into this story like a good book. Plus once we discover who is responsible for the ominous voiceover, it becomes all the more melancholy and less like a helping hand guiding us along the way. This eventually becomes a movie that works its way into you to where you probably won’t even realize how much you’ve invested. Take for example, a scene involving a melting ice cream sundae and a young refugee boy that Georg has befriended. Then you begin to feel the same absence the boy does and eventually, begin to feel for Georg’s plight as he strives for survival and longs for some kind of connection. The latter of which may or may not be his undoing. The film ends with an unusual song choice to play over the opening credits, but again, when sitting down to think about it, adds a whole other context or layer to what we’ve just witnessed. And upon even further examination, says volumes about the futility of war and where humanity finds itself currently.

Transit becomes this perfect balance between the macro and the micro --- a fractured society and a complicated individual -- as they all struggle for resilience and freedom during a fascist regime. In terms of this film being described as a Kafkaesque Casablanca, I wouldn’t say that it reaches that level of greatness, but it comes damn close and might be the best example of what a film festival like CIFF can offer to the adventurous viewer out there. It is powerful yet subtle and full of memorable characterization that truly does envelop in a way that a great movie should. By the end, you’ll likely feel what our protagonist is feeling and much like Phoenix, director Christian Petzold truly knows how to end a movie with the absolute best of them to where you’ll be thinking about it long after you’ve left the theater.

Screened as a part of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival