To consider memory an encumbrance, we find Christian Petzold’s Transit in a kind of limbo. Here, the occupation of France by Nazi troops occurs at the same time as a casual reference to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Where modern automobiles and contemporary advertisements ornate the streets of Marseille, yet a motivating narrative device forces Georg (Franz Rogowski) to deliver a letter to a dying writer. It’s not anachronistic, but rather a compelling gambit on Petzold’s behalf to adapt Anna Seghers’ novel (based in the 1940s) without definitive markers of past or future. Rather, this impossibly romantic, anguish-ridden, intermittently frustrating exercise of Kafkian magnitude expresses the timelessness of despair.
American writer Rebecca Solnit considered despair as a kind of certainty, suggesting, “despair as a confident memory of the future”. In Transit, future and past are obfuscated in favor of a perpetually horrifying present, one that bleeds through every edifice of the film’s frame. Like Petzold’s previous film, Phoenix, Transit can seem like a puzzle, determined to test its viewer through temporal disorientation. But Transit’s unfortunate timeliness and timelessness serves to do what great cinema yearns to do: implicate the passive viewer and turn them into an active participant. I haven’t seen a film in some time that does this so convincingly, let alone one that relies on traditional modes of film language to stage such an assault on my expectations. One rushed festival viewing cannot do Transit justice; I want to pick this film apart and piece it back together.