Calling a film “difficult” or “hard” is, in some respects, a no-win proposition for a reviewer. If that label is given in conjunction with a poor review, it invites barbs that the reviewer simply didn’t understand whatever was evident to those who endorsed the film. Conversely, if the label is given in conjunction with an endorsement, the review can come across as patronizing and condescending to the audience. “Well, I liked it, but it is probably going to be too difficult for, you know, the masses.”
The difficulty, such as it is, for Christian Petzold’s Transit, isn’t really in following the plot. There are echoes of Graham Greene’s The Tenth Man and of Ozon’s Frantz. A refugee, Georg (Franz Rogowski) assume the identity of a dead man whose transit papers are in his possession. After doing so, he becomes increasingly enmeshed in the world of refugees and falls in love with a woman (Paula Beer) whose own husband is missing. As suggested by the allusion to two (of many) other films, the thinly-hidden identity is hardly a new trope around which to build a melodrama. It’s a plot as old as the Odyssey. But the conflation of past (World War II setting) and present (style, refugee depiction) gives the film a strange, other-worldly quality that is somewhat disquieting.
One thread that runs through such narratives is the intersection of guilt and necessity. Refugees do what they must in order to survive. But those who survive sometimes live to see the consequences of their actions and how they impact and accentuate the sufferings of others. That theme was certainly evident in Petzold’s breakthrough film, Phoenix, where a Holocaust survivor wonders if the man she loved is the one who betrayed her to the Nazis.
Both films (Transit, Phoenix) deal with women in relationships with men who might have betrayed them. The primary narrative difference is that Transit is primarily from the point-of-view of the man. We (men/people) often cite powerlessness as an excuse that justifies actions made of necessity. Because there is, perhaps, a greater cultural shame attached to powerlessness in men, the shift in perspective here creates a less suspenseful yet more conflicted narrative.
Transit is opening at the Lincoln Center on March 1, 2019, after a festival run that included screenings at Berlin, Toronto (TIFF) and New York. Petzold’s film is the kind of international offering that may show up for a week or two at the Chelsea or Silverspot in Chapel Hill but may not get an extended run outside of urban centers with deeper film traditions. In other words, you may not have too many chances to see it theatrically in North Carolina. If you do have one, use it. The film will get plenty of exposure on DVD and streaming, but its meditative qualities and slower pace lend themselves better to the contemplative space of a darkened and distraction-free cinema.