Christian Petzold is the film-maker renowned as a modern master of suspense and a poet of Germany’s divided self. Of his recent work, I loved his Stasi thriller Barbara (2012) but put myself in a minority of one by objecting to a serious plot hole in his hugely admired postwar noir Phoenix (2014) – a plot hole that I couldn’t accept was unimportant, or conversely some anti-realist stylisation. Well, now I have to admit that Petzold has shown himself to have a flair for just this kind of anti-realism or quasi-realism in his new and rather brilliant film, Transit. Its experimental premise was alienating for me at first, but its mysterious, dreamlike quality began to surround me like mist.
Petzold has adapted a 1944 novel by the anti-fascist German author Anna Seghers about a fugitive German in Paris who has escaped a concentration camp and flees to Marseille at the time of the Nazi invasion. He has been entrusted with delivering a letter to a renowned author sympathetic to the anti-Nazi resistance, but on discovering that this man is dead, he steals the writer’s identity papers and two visas for him and his estranged wife that would allow them safe passage abroad. Once in Marseille, he passes himself off as this writer, which embroils him in a romantic and political crisis.
Petzold has updated the story to the present, but like a Brechtian modern-dress adaptation: it’s a 1940s drama with 21st-century cars and streetscapes and police uniforms. This creates a genuinely disorientating, disturbing effect. What was originally a period suspense drama is now a metaphysical mystery about identity – a dream of something that happened long ago or something yet to come. Franz Rogowski plays the fugitive Franz and Paula Beer plays Marie, the beautiful, enigmatic woman who like everyone else is looking for a way out of there.
Of course, it initially resembles Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, and one actor here, Barbara Auer, playing a woman miserably stranded and stuck with looking after an American’s two dogs in return for some promised future help, does look weirdly like Ingrid Bergman or possibly her daughter, Isabella Rossellini. But then, as the action reveals a weirdly ubiquitous paralysis and obsession with the correct documentation, Transit begins more to feel like Kafka’s The Trial. When Franz tries to check into a hotel, the proprietor will accept only short-term residents, not long-term squatters who will wind up not paying the bill, so Franz must produce transit papers and onward ticket. “So someone can only stay if he can prove he doesn’t want to stay?” asks Franz drolly.
Stealing someone’s identity is a dangerous game, and a narcotic fantasy that undermines your sense of the real: and there is another resemblance: Antonioni’s The Passenger. And perhaps in the deep background there is the ghost of Stefan Zweig, the great author who fled Nazi Europe for a melancholy death in Latin America.
Petzold finds his eerie leitmotif in Franz’s repeated encounters with the captivatingly elegant Marie who on repeated occasions comes up to him, taps him on the shoulder, appears to flinch and look disappointed or even affronted when he turns around questioningly. Franz is not who she is looking for. Over and over again it happens. Why? Is Franz in a dream, a Groundhog Day of loneliness and wrongness?
Franz feels himself in need of an identity that really belongs to someone else – and not just this dead writer’s. Once in Marseille, he makes contact with the wife of a Resistance comrade who died as they made their escape: in fact, he has to break the news, and then he befriends this woman’s lonely, football-mad son. Could he be a dad to this boy? Or is he just stealing someone else’s identity?
As it happens, there is a logical explanation for what is happening with Marie – and also a sensational and poignant final twist. This explanation for the dreamlike repeated meetings might have amused Hitchcock or Patricia Highsmith – and that brings me briefly and unimportantly back up against the credibility factor. Just as the identity-theft plot of The Talented Mr Ripley would not really work in the present day when digital technology can track and verify people so easily, so we have to ask if Franz really could pretend to be an author who is reasonably well known, and whose author photo, even in the early 40s, would have been reasonably accessible.
But the generic superimposition, the hallucination of the present in the past, makes this a marginal issue. The strangeness of this story will live in your bloodstream like a virus.
• Transit is released in the UK on 16 August.