Off the back of career high (and also his first film not to premiere in Germany in years) Phoenix, veteran director Christian Petzold returns to Competition at Berlinale with an anti-thriller that blends American noir sensibility with the moralising of Michael Haneke. Transit takes place in an alternate present (or maybe past) where Germany is still in power after world war 1, and is rounding up refugees and dissidents. The man with Joaquin Phoenix's mouth and Jean Paul Belmondo's nose, Franz Rogowski, plays a concentration camp survivor who stays safe with the identity of a dead writer, something like Morvern Callar, except where Lynne Ramsey takes her character into uncharted territory, Petozld plants his firmly in a circular and liminal world. Phoenix has a masterful screenplay where the protagonist returns from a concentration camp with facial reconstruction surgery and her lover does not recognise her, yet in Transit the character is anonymous, has only intentions of fleeing to Mexico, and emotion is substituted for concerns of male transience and nihilism.
Crucially, there are no attempts to change or hide the film's contemporary reality, so present-day Marseilles is depicted exactly as we know it, with Napoletana pizza on the menu and kids in polyester football shorts. The effects of this are twofold: we are reminded of humanity's rush to declare its hands as clean of the mess of human history after the war, and how in this century we have seen the treatment of immigrants and refugees in Europe revert to a similar standard of that in Nazi Germany. In this sense, Petzold's film is moralistic, although the urgency of this is perhaps tampered by the sun-bleached noir aesthetic relating to the harassed mind of Rogowski's protagonist. He is like if Robert Mitchum's masculine self-assurance dissipated into the preoccupation of rolling cigarettes. The film also features the mould of a femme fatale, Paula Beer, who as an actor is able to convey feelings of nostalgia and vulnerability, but as a character serves more as a means of supplying feeling behind the male's expressionless mask. Transit falters because its appeal to modern morality gets derailed by a love relationship already better articulated by Phil Marlowe: "to say goodbye is to die a little".
~ Theo Macdonald