Here's the thumbnail sketch I would provide for the curious: This film is set in the present day, but depicts the panic which ensues as Nazi forces make their way through conquered France, and refugees are desparate to leave the country to the Americas. That's pretty straightforward, providing the audience with a new way of empathizing with people fleeing ahead of fascist forces as they move relentlessly south, from Paris to Marseilles, eventually cutting off all escape routes. Kind of like Casablanca in 2019, yes?
Except, there's additional layers of weirdness layered on top of that story. We don't really know why these refugees are targeted. They aren't identified clearly as being Jewish, for example. The mother and son in Marseilles who need to escape over the Pyrenees are of African descent, which makes sense, but I have no idea why Georg, the German lead character, was in flight. Also, the character Marie, widow to a writer we never see, appears mysteriously from time to time, mistaking Georg for her husband, then getting caught up in a strange arrangement with him, where she insists her husband will meet her on one of the last ships leaving Marseilles. There's also an occasional enigmatic narrator, who turns out to be the bartender in a restaurant that is frequently shown.
Frankly, I found Marie to be irritating. Georg seemed as confused about her as the audience. Franz Rogowski, who plays Georg, is a dead ringer for Joaquin Phoenix, right down to the upper lip scar, but he has trouble enunciating his lines clearly. Maybe that's why the Nazis want to send him to a camp?
A contemporary setting of Nazi fascist terror is brilliant and important. I appreciate why North African residents of France were shown to be persecuted. That message was clear. But I don't see why additional perplexing and inexplicable elements were necessary. They seem to be the product of the filmmaker's storytelling conceit, or my ignorance.
Petzold works on the vibes of the film. He is very careful about the fact of how the entire thread comes off to the audience. There is catharsis in your lungs when the air turns into navel-gazy nail-biting drama. This is where Christian Petzold; the director's, target lies. He feeds off on this energy and so does their character. Personally what appealed to me the most from the film is the calmness it conjures on the screen despite of the high stakes threats ticking behind these characters.
The protagonist, when alone, is always on the run, initially physically and latter in the film from his thoughts. But when he shares his screen with a boy having a catch or two, or having a cup of coffee in the cafe with a fellow being, there is a soothing humble look in his eyes where you find yourself sinking peacefully, a bit wounded, but satisfied. This mirror-like trajectory to Michael Curtiz's Casablanca rebooted with a style that matches the comparison it comes with.
The novel by Anna Seghers from which Petzold adapted the film, has had the essence of triggering impactful drama within a snap and Petzold has definitely encouraged that in here, from deriving the first meeting by iterating the scenario variously to bonding over a quick game that creates a heartwarming equation within a snap. Georg (Franz Rogowski) our host is pretty much reading someone else's diary throughout this journey, he is always the third person in the room that allows us to welcome him with open arms as he shares the same stage with us, while the other supporting cast does a decent work on advancing the storytelling. Transit is neither a romance nor a thriller, it is a typical drama that works it's way up the ladder through empathy and not manipulation.