Maybe I'm just a victim of my own self-imposed strictures, but the thin patch this summer seems to be dragging on forever, with the cinemas stuffed with remade regal cats, God-awful life-affirming quasi-musicals, and offerings from middle-aged wunderkind who've been pushing the same thing all their career. Seriously, the only thing saving you from having to read another review looking at Hobbs and Shaw in more detail is the fact the Editor refused to accept that many ampersands twice in one calendar year.
So it was that I found myself obliged to make a rare visit to Oxford's plushest but most expensive cinema in search of something else: which turned out to be Christian Petzold's Transit, a German film from last year now getting a limited cinema showing in addition to being available as view-on-demand. The film is based on Anna Seghers' 1942 novel of the same name, which leads to some curious effects, as we shall see.
The protagonist is Georg (Franz Rogowski), a young German man who is in Paris as the film opens - but seriously considering his exit strategy, as the city is occupied and sealed, with many people living in desperate fear of their lives as paramilitary forces round up enemies of the new regime. The disconcerting thing is that we are not in 1940 - this looks very much like the present day, or perhaps the near future. There is some close order plotting in the early stages of the film: in order to have a chance of escape, Georg agrees to deliver some letters to another refugee, a writer named Weidel. But Weidel has already surrendered to despair and committed suicide, and Georg keeps his personal effects. He seizes on another escape route, travelling in a goods train to Marseilles with an injured man, who dies on the way.
Once in Marseilles, he has to break the sad news to his former companion's widow and son, and finds himself reluctantly drawn into their struggle for existence. He is also distracted by a mysterious woman (Paula Beer) who keeps approaching him, seeming to know him, only to withdraw. None of it seems to mean much, for there is no way out of the city, and whatever catastrophe is engulfing Europe will reach Marseilles soon as well. It is only when Georg visits the Mexican Consulate to return some of Weidel's papers that there is a glimmer of hope - the authorities there assume that Georg himself is Weidel, who has already been offered a safe haven in Mexico, assuming he can secure the necessary transit visas from Spain and the USA.
Quite understandably, Georg instantly assumes Weidel's identity and goes about getting the necessary paperwork to allow him onto the boat. But there is yet another wrinkle. Georg finally gets to know Marie, the mystery woman he keeps seeing, and a tentative sort of romance springs up between them, despite all the various hazards which surround them. She can accompany him on his fake Weidel-visa, but she refuses to contemplate leaving, insisting on waiting for her estranged husband to arrive. Which would be straightforward enough, but then she reveals to Georg her husband's name...
The most obviously distinctive thing about Transit is that it is a novel about life in Nazi-occupied France which someone has updated to the present day. It's a little difficult to tell whether Christian Petzold is doing this to make some kind of weighty allegorical point, or simply because the funding wasn't there to do this as a full-blown costume drama. Certainly, this tale of migrants desperately fleeing Europe does feel uncomfortably topical, and perhaps the idea is to achieve the same kind of effect that Russell T Davies achieved in his TV drama Years and Years recently: compelling the viewer to identify with a refugee and come to understand why they do the desperate things that they do. Nevertheless, the conceit is a qualified success at best - the film has a slightly stylised quality, and awkward questions about why airlines are no longer operating and how Georg is able to pass himself off as an apparently quite famous writer are hand-waved away somewhat.
It's not as if the film ever really escapes the shadow of its wartime origins - 'Casablanca as written by Kafka' is a quote on one of the posters for it, which is a not unreasonable description: there is a lot of fuss about visas and travel papers, riches-to-rags refugees living in fraught desperation, and a strange love triangle at the heart of the story. On the other hand, there are other resonances, too - it's hard to watch this film and not think of Antonioni's The Passenger, another tale of a man seeking to obliterate himself by swapping identities with a corpse.
It has to be said that while the film looks quite reserved and conventional, it is shot through with darkness and coloured by the gnawing anxiety felt by the characters as the unarticulated doom that is seemingly overtaking Europe closes in. In a sense, this is a film which is absolutely about the death of the self, whether that be figurative or literal: there is more than one suicide, and it could be argued that all the characters have been torn from their former lives and are existing in a state of limbo, awaiting their eventual fates.
Not the lightest of films, then (indeed, this is the main thing that sets it apart from Casablanca), but it remains a very watchable one, mainly due to a strong set of performances. Transit doesn't work too hard at putting across a message or allegorical point, which gives some elements of the conclusion a slightly oblique quality - some elements of the story are left up to the viewer to interpret as they see fit. After functioning as a fairly conventional drama, almost a thriller, for most of its length, the ambiguous ending may not be for everyone, but it does suit the film. There is something very thoughtful about this film, and quietly very sad, too. It's a strange thing to say, but I did find it very engrossing and almost enjoyable to watch, although whether it is a warning from history or a portent of the future is something we will have to find out in the fulness of time.