Transit, the latest from the noted German thinker Christian Petzold, parachutes us into a city under siege. The city is 21st century Paris, replete with graffiti on the walls and a branch of Hippopotamus on every street corner. Yet the details of who exactly the occupying forces are fall somewhere between sketchy and vague: we hear muttered talk of camp-building, and rumours of American Jews racing to catch the last flight to Washington, but nobody on screen seems to have time to connect these paranoid dots, or fill in the worrying gaps for us. All you and I can gather, from the wails of police sirens and the fingerpointing of passers-by, is that this is far from a relaxing or stable environment to inhabit; that, after a decent run, the city of love and revolution and resistance may finally have fallen for good. Our hero Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German TV repairman who's found himself at the very eye of this storm, quickly picks up the signals: "They've set up a camp at the velodrome. They're scouring the district. They call it spring cleaning." Not for the first time, a creative positions himself as a canary in the cultural coalmine, sniffing for gas and hearing the deathly rattle of trains; perhaps only a German filmmaker could claim such a heightened sense for what's in the air, and what might be coming down the tracks. Either way, the relocation of what we may have thought was 20th century history to our plugged-in present lends Transit's location work a vivid eeriness. Everything Petzold puts on screen in these 100 minutes - the cosy bars serving up pizza du jour, the familiar tourist attractions, the bright blue skies - suggests it shouldn't happen here. But, of course, it could.
Even before the voice of an unseen narrator kicks in, Transit might strike the casual viewer as a literary or intellectual exercise: what if you took this historical situation and transposed it on the present day? Yet Petzold enriches his conceit with a sure feel for how even in the midst of crisis, life goes on, and for people doing their best in newly reduced circumstances. (How fortunate for the film's UK distributors Curzon that it should have been releasable in the summer of 2019.) Fleeing to Marseilles on an overnight train with a dead writer's passport in his pocket and an ailing companion in a comrade with a gangrenous leg, Georg stops to kick a football around with a youngster; in a later setpiece, he'll resolder that lad's fritzing radio with the assistance of a candle's flame. Transit is a thriller about individuals making do as the walls close in. Yet there are also, as there were in this director's previous Barbara and Phoenix, flickers of a bruised romantic sensibility: the movie's hopeful in its heart around the idea of a better world, but it also knows deep down how hard it is to get there whenever things start to head south. That's why Petzold casts Rogowski, whose boyish handsomeness looks to have been hammered out of him by circumstance. Elsewhere, the proprietress of a Parisian hotel confesses how, even with all that's been going on, she remains a sucker for love; the fugitive Georg catches a couple canoodling in the shadows; and he will be accosted in the street, several times over, by a mysterious, frazzled brunette (Paula Beer), at which point this most classical of pictures gains a femme fatale, as if the threat of danger and risk of death weren't elevated enough.
The enduring tension in Petzold's work has been that between theory and practice, or theory and the viewer's lived experience: he's such a big ideas man you wonder whether he feels he doesn't have to sweat the small stuff, that a grand gesture or two will be enough to sweep any onlookers past the connecting tissue and corroborating detail any truly satisfying genre film requires. That approach can work, but Phoenix offered up several places where the discerning viewer might have raised an eyebrow and said "hang on a minute", and Transit, too, relies on what we might describe as extended use of artistic licence. Anyone who's ever spent time in a city the size of Paris or Marseilles will recognise the implausibility in Georg's bumping into the same people time and again; in a perverse twist, when Petzold tries to ground this flighty narrative in the second half - explaining why his hero keeps bumping into these folks - the film becomes slightly less compelling than the man-on-the-run thriller that preceded it. Nevertheless, even these developments are appreciably adult and complicated, and it permits Transit to arrive at much bigger, more profound truths in passing: the heartbreak of that football-crazy kid when Georg announces his plans to move on, crystallising all that loss suffered by real-world migrants and their loved ones; or the fate of the musician finally undone by stress over the twelve passport photos he needs to secure safe passage. In a functioning democratic society, Petzold knows, this shouldn't happen. This nagging, haunting, quietly chilling work, made by a European who's spent the past few years reading and looking around rather than arguing on Twitter, never lets you forget for one moment: it still could.
Transit is still playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon.