TRANSIT (Movie Review)

transit**1/2 out of ****
Rated R
 language and images of violence)
Released: March 1, 2019 limited; April 5 expands
Runtime: 101 minutes
Directed by: Christian Petzold
Starring: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Maryam Zaree, Lilien Batman, Barbara Auer

An intriguing beginning. A powerful ending. A lot of strained Euro-drama in-between. That’s the mixed bag of Transit, which also includes a provocative conceit that isn’t effectively fleshed out.

Based on the World War II set novel “Transit Visa” by Anna Seghers, Transit is the story of people trying to flee Nazi-occupied France. The conceit here is that it’s set in the modern day, and that leads to some anachronistic problems that director Christian Petzold can’t quite reconcile. He’s not deft at distilling the narrative down to its necessary essence, either.

Transit is a tale of two halves. In the first, Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German refugee in Marseille, takes the documentation of a dead writer, assumes that man’s identity, and plans to use those papers to gain a visa to Mexico. This is the intriguing set-up.

But then, in the process, he becomes emotionally attached to a boy named Driss (Lilien Batman) in the refugee community, along with his deaf mother. I assume this adheres to the plot of the book (which I’ve not read), but it plods while doing so.

As a result, the film’s second half is rushed. On a dime, Georg’s focus turns from the boy to another refugee couple, a doctor, Richard (Godehard Giese), and a forlorn woman, Marie (Paula Beer) who Richard has fallen in love with. The doctor has delayed his plans to start a new hospital in Mexico due to his desire to not leave Marie in the lurch.

Romantic feelings spark between Georg and Marie but, given the other various plot complexities at play (which I won’t spoil here), they’re not given the proper time to credibly evolve.

Had Petzold, who adapted the screenplay along with directing, simply touched on Georg’s connection to Driss as a necessary gateway to meeting Marie and the doctor, that would’ve allowed the bulk of the film to be about that love triangle trio – their allegiances, emotions, and deceptions – and would’ve made Transit a richer, more convincing, and more satisfying experience. (Petzold certainly had the cast to pull it off.)

Instead, we’re left with deeply-burdened actors expressing overly-eloquent dialogue (the kind that’s sophisticated and thought-provoking on the page but sounds stilted when spoken) in hushed dramatic tones. It becomes an art house European melodrama that, at times, borders on self-parody.

In an attempt to make it all gel, Petzold foists the third-person prose of the novel onto the story via voice over, forcing the literal text to do the film’s emotional heavy-lifting. It’s a device that reeks of post-production desperation, especially as it becomes a go-to crutch in the film’s second half, working to the fill the developmental gaps that Petzold’s script doesn’t allow time for.

Then there’s the anachronisms. It’s certainly a fascinating hook to set this in the present, but when it’s a world where smart phones and social media platforms don’t exist (because it’d be difficult to maintain the story if they did), that’s where the modernization starts to lose its veracity.

Instead of finding a way to make the drama work with that ubiquitous technology, Petzold’s essentially punts on that elephant in the culture, ignores it, and expects us to do the same. (Fleeing abroad by ocean liner rather than air travel also seems odd in the 21st Century.) The result isn’t a modern twist that feels inspired; rather, it feels like a compromise forced by budget constraints.

Transit is handsomely mounted (there’s some beautiful craftsmanship here) and the cast is first-rate, but Petzold’s lack of vision leaves them all in a limbo they can’t quite escape from.

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