JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The quietly extraordinary new movie "Transit" presents us with a real puzzle right off the bat. We know where the story is taking place, but when it's taking place is far less certain. It begins with a vision of Paris on the verge of collapse. You hear the scream of police sirens and a few references to encroaching armed forces, visas and deportations, all of which strongly suggest World War II.
But what we see looks like Paris in the present day, or at least a strange, suspended-in-time version of the present day with modern cars and modern clothes, but apparently no computers or smartphones. Is this Nazi-occupied France or some fresh dystopian war zone? The German director Christian Petzold isn't saying.
Seven years ago, he made a movie called "Barbara," an impeccable drama of love and political resistance set in 1980 East Germany. He followed that with "Phoenix," a devastating romantic mystery about a Holocaust survivor in post-war Berlin. "Transit" is a bold, experimental leap, his most mysterious and conceptually audacious treatment of history yet. It positions us in a time and place between two eras, where the weight of the past is forever bearing down on the present.
The movie, adapted from Anna Seghers' 1944 novel, follows a young AV technician named Georg, played by the soulful German actor Franz Rogowski, who is lying low in Paris after having escaped from a concentration camp. It's suggested that Georg is Jewish, although here and in other places, the movie avoids spelling things out.
With the German occupation of France looming, Georg makes his way to the port city of Marseilles, where thousands of refugees are desperately trying to secure their exit papers and flee to the Americas. Georg has in his possession some documents belonging to a famous communist writer named Weidel, who recently committed suicide.
Shortly after arriving in Marseilles, Georg is mistaken by officials for Weidel himself and goes along with the deception, especially since it means he will be the beneficiary of Weidel's transit visa to Mexico. From there, the twists and ironies begin to pile up as Georg encounters and quickly falls in love with Weidel's estranged wife, Marie, played by Paula Beer. Marie has no idea that her husband is dead.
And while she and Georg are drawn to each other, there's little hope that it will end happily. Georg can't bring himself to tell her the truth. And they both seem more like ghosts than people, haunted by their war-torn pasts.
Christian Petzold is a lover of classic Hollywood genres, especially film noir. And he works in a crisp, exacting style that might be termed Hitchcockian realism. His stories are full of preposterous plot turns and elaborate cases of mistaken identity. But the emotions, like the visuals, are always powerfully restrained. It's as though he were ruthlessly paring away the excesses we usually associate with melodrama.
Curiously, the more contrived "Transit" gets, the more affecting it becomes. Outwardly, the movie tells the story of an impossible love during wartime with shades of "Casablanca." But the indeterminate nature of the setting creates its own strange dissonances. A lot of the old documents we see, the passports and the visas, look right out of the 1940s.
But there are also deliberate echoes of the current refugee crisis, especially when Georg befriends a North African migrant woman and her young son. In a different life, he could be the husband and father figure they need, too. But there are no easy escapes or solutions here. And despite Georg's wily resourcefulness, he's ultimately unable to help anyone, including himself.
Franz Rogowski, an actor with a serene, haunted presence and a strong resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix, is our angelic guide to this strange netherworld. Marseilles, often shot in broad daylight, here takes on the mournful quality of a sunlit purgatory. By the end, "Transit" has become a piercingly sad lament for the lost and forgotten souls of Europe in the last century, the present one and, possibly, the next.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Pamela Adlon, who writes, directs and stars in the FX series "Better Things" about a single mother raising three daughters who's also juggling the demands of her aging mother and an acting career, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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