One of the eeriest signs that we’re closer to living in a dystopia than any time in our lives is how pop culture is beginning to represent life under authoritarian rule. Following in the footsteps of Jean-Luc Godard’s 60s sci-fi Alphaville, which made no attempt to hide the Parisian shooting locations, everything from Boots Riley’s raucous capitalism satire Sorry to Bother You to the grim speculative drama of the BBC’s Years and Years offer glimpses at a horrifying alternate reality that appears barely different to our own.
But nowhere has this technique felt more prescient than in Christian Petzold’s noir-inflected drama Transit. Adapted from German writer Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel of the same name, he takes a story set in Nazi occupied France and moves it to the present, where existing under the stifling bureaucracy of the fascist right is no longer a distant nightmare confined to history books. But to label Transit a political film would be something of a misread; he’s brought forward the period noir story to reflect the current political anxieties that come hand in hand with a rebirth of the far right, but there are occasional suggestions his tongue may be further in his cheek than initially apparent. It practically begs for rewatches to analyse any deeper commentary, or lack thereof, beneath the surface.
Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee in France, who comes in to the possession of a suitcase featuring documents bearing another man’s name, that includes a visa to escape from authoritarian rule to Mexico. Escaping from Paris to the port city of Marseilles, which is now predominantly populated by people trying to flee the country, he falls into a bureaucratic loop waiting for his ticket out of the country to be approved. Then, he meets Marie (Paula Beer), the wife of the man named on the documents, who is still searching for her husband unaware of his death.
Petzold is increasingly establishing himself as an arthouse heir apparent to Hitchcock, telling stories of mistaken identity and the manipulation of perception. Nowhere was this more apparent than in 2015’s Phoenix, which reimagined Vertigo in the shadow of Germany’s post World War II trauma, and Transit makes for something of a rewarding companion piece to the film which preceded it. What is more intriguing than the immediate narrative similarities, however, are the details he has omitted from the source material in order to distinguish it from the very similar story he told previously. Most notably, the lead character isn’t overtly described as a concentration camp survivor like in Seghers’ novel, a factor that would have otherwise linked him to Nina Hoss’ protagonist in Phoenix.
But the starkest difference between the two films is that here, Petzold demonstrates a form of helpless flippancy against an incomprehensible evil. Even if the narrative were to be viewed as a mere genre exercise, to see how a period specific noir story would fare if moved to a recognisably modern era, this doesn’t expose any probing commentary beneath, only an ingrained pessimism that this is the way things are probably heading. He’s a smart enough filmmaker to understand that we don’t particularly need a commentary on how bad these plain evils are, even as they are largely depicted through stuffy offices, with dozens of people waiting to get their visas to escape. In fact, he even mines a reasonable amount of black comedy from the sheer helplessness of the situation - it’s hard to not view the end credits needle drop as Petzold trying to find some humour in the ridiculousness of history’s darkest moments repeating themselves anew.