As with the words ‘ironic’ and ‘literally’, ‘Kafkaesque’ is so commonly misused that its true meaning has become obfuscated, and one could argue it has even linguistically evolved to take on additional meanings. One traditional definition relates the term as being “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity”. Franz Kafka, the Bohemian author after whom the phrase was christened, often wrote stories in which colossal bureaucratic systems towered over his feeble protagonists, breaking down their worlds as terrifying, surreal dreams utterly devoid of hope. Thus, although ‘Kafkaesque’ has developed a much broader connotation to describe a wide variety of vaguely nightmarish scenarios, it’s actually a very specific term not often appropriate in a film review. And yet, Christian Petzold‘s Transit represents a genuine Kafkaesque film from its first to final frame, bleeding the same existential dread of that long-deceased literary legend in a manner that feels refreshingly (and quite literally) timeless.
Transit is based upon a 1944 novel about a man fleeing the Nazis in the early days of their advance across France. The film adapts the plot of the novel, but juxtaposes its 20th century horrors onto an uneasy 21st century aesthetic. Petzold shot the film in contemporary southern France with no attempt whatsoever to alter it to the novel’s time period, and furthermore conspicuously avoided all Nazi-specific iconography. Doing so, the film takes on an incredibly unsettling aura, obliterating any traditional sense of time period and instead opting for a nebulously contradictory world, one where modern cars and modern police uniforms exist yet cell phones apparently do not.
Petzold also makes a deliberate effort to not explicitly explain the film’s disorienting chaos beyond frightened whispers of German fascists and “cleansings” transpiring across the country. The film trusts that we understand the wide-reaching implications of a fascist occupation, and exploits this subconscious realization to disrupt our sense of security in a modern aesthetic. The comfortable distance between the 1940s and today is shattered by the sense that nameless atrocities hover just beyond the frame. Like an effective piece of horror cinema, Petzold proves that our imagination can be far more potent a weapon of fear than the camera.
As it unwinds its elaborate mysteries, Transit makes it increasingly clear that its world is not based in any semblance of reality. It’s a hellscape firmly dislodged from past and present alike, a fever dream of yesterday that unfolds as if it happened today. Such creative trickery in its worldbuilding pays tremendous dividends to its anxious atmosphere, and indeed one would be hard pressed to name another recent film with a setting quite like it. Though it’s not exactly making a political statement by dropping the novel into a contemporary setting, it’s impossible to ignore that the uncanniness of it all works precisely because of the recent rise in nationalist rhetoric poisoning global politics.
We meet our protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski from Michael Haneke‘s Happy End) in a quaint Paris café while police sirens wail past the windows and people are rounded up around the corner. Georg is a German living in France at the beginning of the German occupation, but he, like everyone else, is desperate to get out of the country before it’s too late. Stumbling upon a potential avenue of escape, Georg travels to Marseilles, where he becomes entwined in the lives of a local family and two other German emigrants also attempting to flee. After a relatively tense beginning, the film settles into a colder atmosphere of subdued dread, induced by the building fear of the oncoming fascist horrors. Much of Transit’s anxiety is brought about by this waiting, watching as Georg goes back and forth between overcrowded foreign embassies and making what appears to be very little progress in obtaining the necessary paperwork to leave.
Transit taps into a similar apprehensive tension to that found in Christopher Nolan‘s Dunkirk, restlessly anticipating an escape while the imminent threat of death inches increasingly closer. Like that film, we never even see the Germans, transforming their presence from something concrete and human into an all-encompassing monster of the psyche. Time becomes a shadowy enemy as well. Hours distort into days into weeks, and by the end of the film we’re not quite sure how long Georg has actually been in Marseilles. Will he ever leave? Every moment of Transit is drenched with the dreamlike fear of being late, of failing to progress in the face of a menacing deadline. As it reaches its ambiguously circular conclusion, the anxiety of waiting reaches a quietly unbearable climax, in the process revealing the opaque depths of its Kafkaesque brilliance.
As Georg, Franz Rogowski is phenomenally versatile in this film, and could easily go down as one of my favorite performances of the year. Like the world he occupies, Georg is a character ripe with contradictions- sometimes warm and familial, sometimes cold and even occasionally frenetic. Rogowski’s blank-faced stoicism is strikingly reminiscent of the persona Joaquin Phoenix exudes in many of his films, blending into the emotions of each scene like a sly chameleon yet still somehow aloof to it all. It’s almost as if he’s watching the nonsensicality of his failures to escape- of his world on the cusp of burning to ashes- through the screen alongside us.
Transit is truly one of the most enthrallingly unique films of 2019 I’ve had the pleasure of seeing thus far. Unsettling in the vaguest possible way, the film is one of the most calmly oppressive embodiments of a nightmare I’ve ever sat through, its disquieting tone and razor-sharp cinematography still lingering on my mind days later like a distant dream. Transit thrusts you into a world where bloated bureaucratic embassies largely determine whether one lives or dies, where the single greatest horror of the 20th century marches blindly into the 21st, enthusiastically ready to commit again the incalculable atrocities of its predecessor. In a way, fascism (or at least the way Petzold presents it here) is the ultimate realization of Kafka’s fears- a monstrous machine of rules and power that readily consumes every man, woman, and child in its sight. If nothing else, Transit embodies the best of Kafkaesque cinema, and stands as a thoroughly alarming reminder that history has a nasty habit of so frequently repeating itself that we may not realize when it happens to us.