There are those who treat melodrama as a dirty word, but no working filmmaker gives it a cleaner, crisper reputation than German auteur Christian Petzold, whose extraordinary anti-historical experiment “Transit” nonetheless registers as his most conceptually daring film to date. A refugee portrait that piles contrivance upon contrivance to somehow land at a place of piercing emotional acuity, this adaptation of Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel takes a brazen, bounding risk right off the bat by stripping its story — about a German concentration camp survivor seeking passage to North America in Nazi-occupied France — of any external period trappings, relocating it to a kind of liminal, sunburned present day.
It’s a leap not every viewer will readily take, but there’s a method to the madness of Petzold’s modern-dress Holocaust drama: “Transit” invites viewers to trace their own speculative connections between Seghers’ narrative and the contemporary rise in neo-Nazism and anti-refugee sentiment, all while its principal story remains achingly moving. An unexpectedly subversive companion piece in multiple respects to Petzold’s last film, 2014’s twisty Auschwitz-survivor portrait “Phoenix,” “Transit” should rack up international sales on the basis of its conversation-piece singularity and its characteristically immaculate formal execution — and ought to make a star of superb leading man Franz Rogowski, whose planed, haunted face lingers in the mind as long as the film’s surfeit of discussion points.
Indeed, it’s Rogowski’s silent, urgent emotional immediacy as a performer that pulls us through the tricky opening stages, as Petzold asks his audience to accept not just the film’s disorienting clash of modern and historical elements but its arch, initially disembodied third-person voiceover. Calling “Barry Lyndon” to mind, it’s another potentially polarizing device that at points overlappingly echoes the characters’ own dialogue, elsewhere issuing subjective but not omniscient perspective on their actions and feelings. Neither are wholly scrutable in the case of Georg (Rogowski), a young Jewish audio-visual technician who escapes Nazi imprisonment to arrive in Paris, only to flee for Marseille as the occupation looms.
Stuffed in Georg’s rucksack are the papery personal effects of a stranger, controversial communist author Weidel, left behind in the hotel room where he slashed his wrists: a manuscript for a novel, two letters from his estranged wife Marie, along with documents guaranteeing the dead man a Mexican visa. Georg’s honest plan upon arriving in hot, still, purgatorial Marseille, where thousands of refugees like him await means of escape, is to hand in Weidel’s papers at the Mexican consulate, in the hope that they’ll somehow reach his unwitting widow. But when the consul mistakes Georg for Weidel himself, offering him imminent safe passage to Mexico, he hesitates only a few tense, flickering beats before assuming the writer’s identity. It’s a dangerous ruse further complicated when he encounters Marie (Paula Beer, fresh from her auspicious debut in François Ozon’s oddly comparable “Frantz”) by chance — or fate? — and falls steadily in love with her.
That’s only the half of it, as “Transit” then launches into a heady, noir-ish tangle of reversals and ironies, rife with literal and spiritual parallels to “Phoenix” — another heartbroken study of identities mistaken and modified amid Holocaust trauma, lacerated with the pain of separation and abandonment, in which individuals remain deeply, echoingly alone even when they come together. Atmospherically and stylistically, however, it’s a film entirely distinct from its partner and predecessor, beginning, of course, with its eerie, unpinnable milieu. Intelligently conceived by production designer K.D. Gruber, “Transit’s” Marseille is a world of shabby 21st-century architecture and outfitting, cleared of any hint of post-midcentury technology — and made alien by the unexpectedly scorched palette and desolate Cinemascope expansiveness, even in the pokiest interiors, of Hans Fromm’s exquisite lensing.
This could as easily be the past, as viewed through a hall of mirrors, or an apocalyptic near-future, positioning the events on screen either as recontextualized history or timely cautionary tale. Petzold’s otherwise straightforward, refined adaptation of Seghers’ novel avoids overtly incongruous allusions to modern-day politics, letting the environmental detailing do the topical talking — though a subplot concerning Georg’s tender bond with Northern African immigrant boy Driss (a winning Lilien Batman) in Marseille’s Maghreb ghetto nods obliquely to the contemporary refugee crisis.
Rogowski’s delicately pitched performance, meanwhile, straddles multiple eras, which is to say his poignantly broken body language and hollowed-out aura would mark him as an outsider in any story milieu. More intensely expressive in her anguish is Beer, making a concentrated impression in a somewhat underwritten role; deliberately or otherwise, the young actress’s delivery and styling here evoke Petzold’s longtime muse and collaborator Nina Hoss, further underlining the sense of twinning with “Phoenix.”
Indeed, even Hoss’s no-show in “Transit” (the first Petzold film without her since 2005’s “Ghosts”) seems resonant in a film that shivers with the awareness of absence, distance and the relentless, elastic course of time’s arrow. When Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” thunders over the closing credits, it’s the most blatant of the film’s anachronistic jolts, as well as its most questionably on-the-nose — but Petzold’s startling, gut-wrenching gamble earns that note of endlessly looped despair.