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The Thriller 'Transit' Makes A 1940s Story Speak To A 21st Century Audience


How do you make a story from the 1940s speak to a 21st century audience? Critic Bob Mondello says a German filmmaker has found a fresh answer in the thriller "Transit."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Occupied France, German soldiers approaching Paris, police hauling refugees to camps - terrified intellectuals grimly haunt cafes seeking papers, visas, a way out. You've seen the situation in countless World War II movies, but in this one, the careening police vans are modern. The cafes have TVs. It's the Holocaust but the day after tomorrow.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Georg.

MONDELLO: Georg, a German refugee, is offered a deal - a ride out of town if he first delivers two letters to a famous writer named Weidel.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking German).

MONDELLO: At Weidel's hotel, he learns the writer has died, so he grabs a half-completed manuscript to go with his two letters and heads for the port city of Marseilles hoping to trade Weidel's papers for passage out of Europe. But there's a mix-up at the Mexican consulate. When he mentions Weidel, an official thinks he's the writer, tells him his wife is looking for him...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking German).

MONDELLO: ...And hands him their visas and cash. "Transit" then involves Georg, played by a sad-eyed Franz Rogowski, in a love story complicated enough to qualify as a mistaken identity farce if people didn't keep dying. What makes filmmaker Christian Petzold's beautifully strange take on the tale intriguing is partly that the modern dress and references to fascists cleansing society of these people who are refugees means parallels are unavoidable. Scenes conceived 75 years ago of desperate emigres tangled in bureaucratic red tape look alarmingly like the nightly news.

But even more striking is how the film's form follows its function. "Transit" is a story in transition about transition, the images of cobbled streets and modern cruise ships forcing you to flip between past and present even as characters caught in a purgatorial present await an even scarier future. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.