‘Transit’ reminds us that cruelty can take place anytime

The story’s origins are in WWII, but it clearly takes place in the present day.

A man hunkers down in wartime Marseille, grimly waiting out the days while the fascists approach. Through a fluke, he’s got transit papers for a ship leaving soon for North America.

But — of course — he meets a woman. And she, in turn, already has a man.

If you are picturing Humphrey Bogart in some vintage World War II drama, you’re not far off the mark. “Transit” is based on a 1944 novel, by Anna Seghers, set in Nazi-occupied France. Yet this is a new movie, in every way.

The film’s German director, Christian Petzold, does not set the film in the 1940s. The plot seems to be taking place during a World War, all right, but what we see is clearly the 21st century.

Petzold’s well-received previous films, including “Phoenix” and “Barbara,” generally had some kind of trick at the middle of their stories. Here, that trick is the disorienting time-shift — a curious choice, at first, but one that reminds us that every era has its refugees, its desperation and its fascists.

The Bogart character is Georg (the world-weary Franz Rogowski), apparently a member of some kind of anti-fascist underground. Early in the film he tries to deliver a message to a celebrated writer in Paris, only to find that the writer is dead.

There’s an opportunity here: In Marseille, Georg can pretend to be the writer, get his transport visas and quietly escape to Mexico. But the writer’s estranged wife, Marie (Paula Beer), is also hanging around the port city waiting for safe passage, wondering why her husband hasn’t shown up yet.

She has a boyfriend now, a doctor (Godehard Giese), and this complicates things. Meanwhile, Georg befriends a soccer-mad little boy (Lilien Batman) — a development that threatens to become sentimental, but instead sheds light on one more aspect of people becoming displaced.

The built-in suspense of “Transit” is hard to resist, and I loved its boldly colorful look. So many movies that want to impress you with their gravity adopt a washed-out palette — as though a film rich in color can’t be serious.

Petzold doesn’t bother explaining or fitting together the discrepancies between the WWII origin of the story and the present-day setting. It’s a kind of “Twilight Zone” effect, and your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on whether you accept this screwy premise.

I was happy to accept it. In the end, the film’s vague setting burrows into your brain, leaving open the likelihood that fear and cruelty are never contained by a single time period. The action could take place at any time, not just in the Twilight Zone.

“Transit” (3½ stars)

A tantalizing premise in director Christian Petzold’s suspenseful drama about a man (world-weary Franz Rogowski) waiting for transport out of war-torn Marseille to North America. Although the action in the film appears to be taking place in WWII (and is based on a 1944 novel), what we see clearly happens in the present day, reminding us that fear and cruelty are restricted to no particular time period. In French and German, with English subtitles.

Rating: Not rated; probably R for subject matter

Opening Friday: at SIFF Cinema Uptown

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