The song that plays out this atmospheric refugee drama – Talking Heads’ ‘Road to Nowhere’ – vocalises the existential undercurrents that make it an intriguing, if frustrating, watch. Eschewing easy thrills, writer-director Christian Petzold transplants a wartime novel by Anna Seghers, a German Jew who fled Europe in 1940, on to modern-day Marseille. The Nazis are still invading, there’s still talk of ‘cleansing’ and paranoia is everywhere. But yes, that probably is an Uber at the back of the frame.
Its star, Franz Rogowski, appeared in the breakneck one-take thriller ‘Victoria’ but slips down a gear or two here. He plays Georg, a German trying to flee Europe via hastily adopted identities, subterfuge and a romance with Paula Beer’s (‘Frantz’) mysterious widower. A wearying inertia descends over stretches of the film as Georg drifts from cafés to consulates and back, trying to secure a transit permit. Only a disarming friendship with a young kid and his mum, also stuck in migrant limbo, elbows in on the nihilism.
The film’s unusual device half works. The mash-up of past and present draws smart comparisons between the modern-day migrant experience and its ’40s equivalent. But it feels like a budgetary, as well as artistic decision, and the characters feel uncoupled from the world around. If the minimalism of Robert Bresson and the hopeless romance of ‘Casablanca’ are touchpoints, they echo only faintly. ‘Transit’ is thought-provoking, but one play may be enough.