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Christian Petzold has created a film with a lot to say, even if it does feel very quiet and muted. Transit, a German-French language thriller, requires patience. If you have that, then this is a thought provoking film with considered political commentary on the current state of the refugee crisis in Europe.
The most notable aspect about this film is the lack of a score. Music is used sparingly, and there is an eerie silence running throughout. This makes for some really effective and impactful juxtapositions. When music is used, it means something. When Georg (Franz Rogowski) fixes the radio and organ music starts playing, after many scenes of near silence, we share in his glee. The leitmotif of gentle piano music, which only seems to play when Marie (Paula Beer) appears, serves to make her stand out, and suggest her importance to Georg. One really chilling scene in the hotel, involving the heart-breaking screams as a refugee family as they are separated by the police, would not be as impactful and notable if the rest of the film were not so eerily quiet. Sound and music are used effectively and sparingly in Petzold’s work. However, this does have a negative impact on the viewing experience, for it slows the pace of the film down. This film uses quite long takes anyway, but it is the music that really slows everything down. Given the title, it is ironic that this film is filled with a sense of inertia and a sense that time is standing still. Music often heightens the tension and rev up the thrills. The lack of it in this movie will test your patience as everything appears to move so slowly. Filled with long takes and a lack of a score, this is a film for the most patient.
This clearly aligns with Franz Rogowski’s performance. Rogowski is just as muted as the score. He portrays Georg as tired and exhausted. There is a lack of energy to his character, and he appears worn out. Given the premise of the film- Georg is fleeing Paris for a different country, and takes on the identity of a dead writer called Weidel to do it- you would think there would be a sense of urgency and nail biting fear of being caught. His performance creates the opposite effect, but is nevertheless highly suggestive. It is open to interpretation: is he weary and giving up? Does he feel isolated from himself, now that he is officially someone else? Does he feel powerless in the face of a suited bureaucracy who will decide his fate? Rogowski’s performance is muted, but it is no less effective for what Petzold is trying to do.
The latter interpretation about bureaucracy is the most plausible reading, for this film is oozing with political commentary. This film was adapted from a 1940s novel by Anna Seghers, which is about an escapee from a Nazi concentration camp trying to flee France. Dressing this old novel with a modern setting, filled with cars and suits, immediately suggests parallels between then and now. Georg’s main conflicts in this film come from interviews with bureaucrats attempting to catch him out. This is all too real for refugees today. The plight of refugees, and their struggle caused by constant suspicion and a sense of dislocation, appears to be as much of a problem now as it was back then. The sense of inertia proves even more significant then, for it highlights how refugees are constantly left waiting for approval, and left in stasis at the borders between countries. Why Georg is fleeing is also given a contemporary update. The fact the Nazis are never mentioned by name allows for the suggestion that fascism has not gone away. Naming the fascism underlying this film would place it in the 1940s; by refusing to name it, Petzold suggests fascism also comes with the update to the present day. Unfortunately, it is not stuck in the 1940s past. This film may be adapted from a book from the 1940s, but it has the present day political landscape within its crosshairs.
Sometimes this movie may have long periods of silence and a growing sense of inertia. Even in this absence, however, Transit has much to say. The political commentary in this film is thoughtful and everything about this film contributes to its message. Yes, this may try and frustrate one’s patience at times, but it ultimately proves a rewarding experience.