VIFF, pt. 1: Missed Connections
On paper, Transit sounds essentially of a piece with Christian Petzold's last two movies (Barbara and Phoenix, both superb), albeit lacking Nina Hoss and taking place in France rather than Germany: a fastidiously detailed period film, set in a time of high anxiety and moral murkiness in Europe's twentieth-century past. In its execution, Petzold's latest is something else entirely: an atemporal, cyclical series of starts and stops, entrances and exits, merging Europe's past and present (and near future?) into a purgatorial loop, equal parts social morality play and ghost story. The adjective "Kafka-esqe" is turning up in most reviews, and it's wholly appropriate in this case, not least for the distanced, highly literary voice-over narration, though in its doubling of the action on-screen it also calls to mind Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, which is to say, that "literary" (or for that matter, "theatrical") need not be invoked as an antonym for "cinematic."
Yet, if this is Petzold's most literary work (adapted from a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers), it's also the roughest-around-the-edges of his recent films, opting for undisguised real-world locations over museum-like sound-stage curations. The effect is genuinely radical. What seems initially to be a story of Jews, communists, political dissidents, et al. attempting to escape from the the Nazi forces in occupied Paris is quickly confounded by the presence of anachronistic, present-day cars, buildings, graffiti, clothing, hair-styles, plastic products, etc., and later by the trans-Mediterranean migrants from the Mahgreb whom the protagonist encounters hiding out in Marseilles. Ah, so, this is actually a contemporary narrative? Not so fast. While numerous indicators of twenty-first-century (or at least definitely post-WWII) life are conspicuously present, others are no less conspicuously absent––in particular, digital technology. Unless I blinked and missed it, I didn't spot a mobile phone ("smart" or otherwise) or computer of any sort––elements that, unlike T-shirts and haircuts, would've altered the range of possible actions for Seghers'/Petzold's characters.
The result is a film that is neither properly "period" nor contemporary, but located instead in some kind of uncanny time out of linear-historical time, a singular aspect that renders Petzold's sociopolitical allegory both eerie and impactful. In this respect, I thought of BlacKkKlansman, another film this year that blurs conventional lines between past and present, though, to be sure, Petzold's film is not nearly as explicitly polemical as Spike Lee's; I thought also of Groundhog Day and of Peter Watkins' great La Commune (Paris, 1871). And in its sustained psychological tension and suspense (even, and perhaps especially, in moments of apparent stasis) Transit did call to mind Barbara and Phoenix, which can rightly be called Hitchcockian. But ultimately, in the way that all of these elements are brought together, this is quite a singular film, and an essential one, by one of the best filmmakers working today.