“There aren’t any old times,” Joseph Cotten says with a grind of boundless optimism in “The Magnificent Ambersons,” a movie made during wartime, 1942. “When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.”
A more threatening embodiment of that idea, of new times that seem like old times, comes to subtly provocative life in “Transit,” one of the most intriguing films of the new year. Written and directed by German filmmaker Christian Petzold, it’s an audacious reminder that there’s more than one way to adapt a so-called “period” novel for a new era.
Petzold’s previous film, the smooth “Vertigo” riff “Phoenix,” married pulp fiction to a story of living casualties of the Holocaust. Now the filmmaker has taken on a story, set in the French port city of Marseille, affording him the opportunity to create a shape-shifting narrative, calmly explicated but full of uneasy, even damning implications of refugee crises for a new era.
The film comes from the semi-autobiographical novel by Anna Seghers (born Netty Reiling, 1900-1983), exiled in France while her husband was in a prison camp. Seghers completed “Transit” in 1942; it was published two years later.
Petzold retains some aspects and reconstitutes others. The film wastes no time tossing you straight into its premise. German refugee Georg (played by the riveting Franz Rogowski) is in a Marseille bistro. It’s the present day, judging by the cars and the visual details. The occupying forces have taken Paris, and Marseille, among other cities, is next to fall.
A friend meets him at the bistro: Desperate to flee, he pleads with Georg to deliver two letters (one from a publisher in Mexico, another from his devoted wife) to a nearby hotel room occupied by a famous Communist writer, Weidel. Georg complies, for a fee. But he’s too late. Weidel has killed himself in the hotel room, leaving behind a lot of blood in the tub, as well as precious letters of transit ensuring Weidel’s passage across the Atlantic as well as a Mexican visa. Through a misunderstanding and then a willful deception, Georg assumes Weidel’s identity.
As Georg learns, Marseille is like the Casablanca of “Casablanca,” marching to a different beat. Everyone’s scrambling to get out, but it’s slow-motion scrambling and stasis, full of long waits in line at the consulate office. The late Weidel’s widow, Marie (Paula Beer), does not know she’s a widow, and searches in vain for her husband. Inadvertently she seems to be shadowing Georg, from consulate office to cafe. Soon (this is the corny part) Georg is in love.
Meantime he strikes up a friendship with a Northern African boy, Driss (Lilien Batman), in the Maghreb quarter of Marseille. In a knotty coincidence, the late Weidel’s widow has become the lover of another one of Georg’s acquaintances, a doctor (Sebastian Hulk) hustling to arrange his own transit visa. Who is Marie, really? How long will Georg maintain the ruse of his identity?
The present-day setting of “Transit” is realistic up to a point: There are no cellphones, and the clothes people wear don’t seem to belong to any particular period. We’re never encouraged to settle into the movie’s version of the present tense. Petzold’s technique is clean, devoid of surface flash; cinematographer Hans Fromm favors the sunny, seaside milieu, so that Georg becomes less of a film noir archetype and more of an Everyman, squinting into the sun, puzzling over his new identity. “Transit” is barely an hour and a half in length but it takes its time.
The casting’s marvelous, from Rogowski’s plaintive, somewhat dazed Georg (he looks like Joaquin Phoenix’s overseas cousin) to Iranian actor Maryam Zaree, as the mother of the boy befriended by Georg. What emerges in “Transit” is a fresco of displacement, of people on the run but stuck in place. A mordant sense of humor informs many of the scenes, as when Georg asks for a room and is told by the landlady that he must produce papers proving his travel plans. “So I can only stay here if I can prove that I don’t want to stay?” he asks. Then, in voice-over, a narrator more or less plopped into the story tells us: “He knew the woman would betray him, tomorrow, if not today.”
There are times when Petzold might’ve tightened the screws a little. The director credits Robert Altman’s early 1970s take on “The Long Goodbye” as a key influence. This movie’s universe is a little more complicated. Altman made private eye Philip Marlowe a proto-hipster relic of one era, utterly at odds with another. In “Transit,” the refugees are neither here nor there; they’re then and now. And escape comes only for the lucky few.
★★★½ “Transit,” with Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer. Written and directed by Christian Petzold, based on a novel by Anna Seghers. 101 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Opens April 5 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.