It’s tempting to be glib and describe “Transit” as an existential remake of “Casablanca.” But that sells short the ambitions of Christian Petzold’s nervy drama. This is a movie that wants to reflect the limbo of war refugees and the greater limbo of life itself — the circles we run in while believing we’re walking a straight line. It does so with a precise, observant tone that’s cool, sometimes cruel, and ultimately coldly reductive.
The movie’s eeriest stroke is taking the 1944 wartime novel by Anna Seghers about a protagonist desperately trying to secure shipboard passage to the United States or Mexico before the Nazis enter Marseilles, and updating the story to a vague but insistent modern day. The “cleansings” have already begun in Paris, but Petzold withholds the usual iconography of jackboots and swastikas. This invasion could happen yesterday, or tomorrow. Or today.
The hero, Georg (Franz Rogowski), is smuggled out of the capital aboard a cargo truck with an unlucky colleague and soon finds himself at loose ends in the port city. Back in Paris, he had instructions to deliver letters to the anti-Fascist novelist Wiedel, but Wiedel has killed himself and Georg is now in possession of the writer’s papers and his final short story.
Already there are echoes of Antonioni’s 1975 masterpiece, “The Passenger,” and other Kafka-esque tales of identity swaps, but “Transit” keeps Georg and a viewer off their feet. He meets the colleague’s widow (Maryam Zaree), a deaf mute Arab with a soccer-loving young son (Lilien Batman) with whom Georg bonds. He also finds the consulate bureaucracy more than happy to assume he’s the dead writer and provide him with passage, transit papers, and cash. What, then, of the writer’s beauteous widow, Marie (Paula Beer), waiting patiently for her husband to turn up, and what of the widow’s lover Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor with an overseas children’s hospital waiting for him to come and run?
The doctor won’t leave without the widow, and the widow won’t leave without her husband. The pieces are in place for a great sacrifice for the greater good on Georg’s part. Petzold, who has mined elegantly acute moral drama out of the Cold War era (“Barbara,” 2012) and post-World War II settings (“Phoenix,” 2014), knows better — or, rather, he knows worse. Over and over in “Transit,” ideals are trumped by messy human emotions, and emotions are stymied by fate. The sense is of people struggling like flies in molasses, unable to move in any meaningful way, except back to where they began.
If that sounds chilling, it’s a chilly film, distanced even further by an omniscient narrator whose identity is a mystery for much of the film (unless you’re paying attention) yet whose reveal reveals little. That may be part of the dark game Petzold is playing in “Transit.” What isn’t part of the game is the way that narration comes to smother the film, or the way events repeatedly curl back on themselves — people seem to keep getting on ships only to get off them again — until the film’s energy flags and the viewer’s patience wears thin. A jarring Talking Heads song over the end credits only heightens the sense of a brave but blinkered artistic vision.
Rokowski slowly draws us in as Georg — moviegoers might be reminded of a skinnier, more disenchanted Joaquin Phoenix — and there are characters on the sidelines who beg for movies of their own: the Mexican consul (Grégoire Monsaingeon) with a world-weary literate bent, or the architect (Barbara Auer) trying to leave the country with her client’s two dogs, which she hates. With just the slightest turn of the screw, “Transit” could have been a comedy that Camus might appreciate. Instead, Petzold scrupulously gives us a ghost story set among the living while reminding us that the invading armies are always closer than we think. The movie haunts, but more in theory than in fact.
Written and directed by Christian Petzold, based on a novel by Anna Seghers. Starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner. 101 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: some violence, language). In German and French, with subtitles.