Synopsis: When a man flees France after the Nazi invasion, he assumes the identity of a dead author whose papers he possesses. Stuck in Marseilles, he meets a young woman desperate to find her missing husband – the very man he’s impersonating.
Global displacement and the current refugee crisis are at the center of Christian Petzold’s TRANSIT, an interesting, if not completely satisfying, drama on how hope is like a rainbow that you chase and strive to reach, even if deep down you know very well it’s far from plausible. In the process, you meet people along the way and your sacrifices, pain and joyful moments form an irreplaceable part of who you eventually as your experience accumulate and your journey continues – with no end in sight.
The film opens with a conversation between two displaced men in Paris, France. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a man whose only hope is to exit France and reach Mexico. When he is handed two envelopes and asked to hand them to a writer who resorted without legal papers to one of the hotels nearby, he goes on a journey of impersonation as he assumes the writer’s identity after realizing that he has been granted a passage permit from the Mexican embassy.
Petzold’s film explores several timely themes including, as the title suggests, the refugee crisis. In an attempt to offer the film more nuance, Petzold resorts to an innovative narrative device by placing some of his refugee characters, who are from the past, alongside current refuges in present day Marseille. While seemingly awkward and not entirely plausible, Petzold soon introduces a scene that ties in this metaphorical placement in a city that simply does not notice refugees. They live among us, walk our streets and cross our borders, but we simply do not acknowledge them. Having the refugees from the past interact with present day authorities who do not question nor even notice their outdated papers, clothing and mannerisms, Petzold clearly addresses the ambivalence and oblivion that plagues the current crisis that swept Europe and still has clear ramifications.
Soon after he assumes a false identity, Georg meets a mysterious woman (Marie, played by an under-used Paula Beer) and the two embark on an interesting romantic relationship that is somehow atypical to most romantic depictions in German cinema. The film also includes sweet encounters between Georg and Driss, the son of his late comrade Heinz who had passed away before succeeding in leaving to Mexico.
But that’s where the film falters. While Petzold masterfully employs metaphors and political commentary in subtle and smart ways, the film neglects characterization in a way that could have allows the viewers to root for, and connect with, the characters. Instead of fully fleshing out the characters, the film may rather leave some viewers cold and unmoved. While the characters’ struggles, as refugee, are clear and uncontrived, the plot does not yield scenarios that take the characters to deeper or more meaningful levels beyond them being refugees. In a sense, the characters all share a sense of despair, agony and loneliness – but they do not stand out on their own and from each other to create a more dimensional view that could have made the film a much more emotional experience.
Perhaps that’s the whole point of the film – that the crisis is too big to actually yield anything beyond the pain and sense of displacement, but when the credits roll, one can not help but feel a more interesting, accessible and engaging film could have been made of the source material.
Technical credits are very solid – with competent cinematography and atmospheric production design that captures a city that is oblivious, and at times hostile, to those wandering its streets looking for a way out.
Verdict: A thoughtful drama on the ever-present refugee crisis that is both competent and lacking. With better characterization, the film’s potent and timely message could have been an emotionally rewarding experience that goes beyond the political commentary.