A classic life-during-wartime drama with a modern sensibility, German writer-director Christian Petzold’s “Transit” is both timeless and completely made for our current, uneasy times.
France is on the verge of being occupied by Germany, and people are scrambling. Georg (Franz Rogowski), a radio and TV technician, is offered a job for quick money: Deliver a couple of letters to Weidel, a writer in Paris. One letter is a visa to Mexico for Weidel and his wife, Marie. The other is from Marie, begging to be reunited.
When Georg finds Weidel’s hotel room, he learns that Weidel is dead, and left behind his typewriter and some incendiary manuscripts. Georg takes possession of Weidel’s typewriter and papers, and tries to figure out his next move. In the meantime, he’s pressed to accompany a wounded dissident, smuggled on a train from Paris to Marseille. Georg makes it to Marseille, but the dissident dies en route.
Once in Marseille, Georg befriends a deaf refugee, Melissa (Maryam Zaree), and her son, Driss (Lilien Batman) — but Georg’s plans to use Weidel’s papers to get out of France upsets the abandonment-phobic Driss. While Georg is going to different consulates to secure his passage to Mexico, someone else is doing the same: Marie (Paula Beer), who is keeping time with her lover, Richard (Godehard Geise), a doctor leaving for Uruguay to set up a hospital.
The love triangle — between Georg and Marie and Richard — is propped up by the strong performances, particularly by Rogowski and Beer (so good in “Frantz” and “Never Look Away”) as characters who must improvise to stay alive.
Petzold’s script, adapted from German author Anna Seghers’ novel, sets us firmly in World War II-era intrigue and romance, and one might expect to see 1939-era cars and Nazi insignia. Instead, the settings are current — shot in Marseille in the spring and summer of 2017. This change makes these displaced people’s plights more immediate, calling to mind today’s refugee struggles in Europe and our own immigrant dilemmas.
If there’s a nostalgic twist, it’s Petzold’s use of an unknown narrator (only identified in the final reel) who brings a literary flourish to the tragic story. The juxtaposition of the past and the present keeps us constantly off balance, and make “Transit” a ride to remember.
Opened March 1 in select cities; opens Friday, April 12, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably PG-13 for disturbing images, some violence and sensuality. Running time: 102 minutes; in German and French, with subtitles.