Anna Seghers's 1944 novel Transit is a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of the paranoid life of refugees in Nazi-occupied Marseille in 1942, telling the story of the constant feeling of danger and despair on the part of people clustered in the last escape hatch from an increasingly locked-down Europe. Christian Petzold's 2018 adaptation of the novel is... well, it's not that. If you closed your eyes and just listened to the dialogue, you'd imagine the situation is the same as the one Seghers described; the look of the film suggests it takes place right here and now, in a Europe of rising right-wing populism and anti-immigrant activism. Which means, among other things, that Transit is unusually good at mixing an analysis of the past with an analysis of the present, since it takes place in such a conspicuously ambiguous neverwhen. Marseilles is specific; France is specific. But the rest of the movie is pointedly opaque and unknowable, existing only as a freestanding present.

Besides being thematically productive, this ends up being the perfect way to set the mood for this story, which is basically a story about a sad sack lump of a man trying to fight a bureaucratic system with inconsistent rules, on top of being run by totalitarian goons, all while semi-deliberately loosing track of his own identity. Stripping away the stability of being able to name a time and context where this happens is very much in service to building a sense of a never-ending now, where the future is too uncertain to think about it and the past is better forgotten about. And, of course, not really knowing what the hell is going on is a good way for the film to increase the paranoia of living in such a system, untethering us from any sort of actual persistent knowledge. It's not just the film's slippery chronology that does this, either. The film also has a narrator (Matthias Brandt), whose relationship to the film's diegesis keeps shifting - first he just seems like a stentorian voice of God, then we discover that he has interacted with the protagonist at some point later than the events of the film, then we discover that he's apparently inside the plot of the film. And while this is going on, his level of knowledge fluctuates: he knows things that aren't happening onscreen and occasionally seems to be ignorant of things that are, and what he's talking about sometimes doesn't bear any direct relationship to what we're seeing at all.

All in all, it's a film that's messing without our understanding of how stories and mise en scène function just by existing; and this makes for a good fraught background for the actual narrative to do its work. The story is that Georg (Franz Rogowski), a Germany refugee fleeing that country via Paris, has crossed paths with the corpse of writer Franz Weidel, who committed suicide. Armed with an unfinished manuscript and travel papers in Weidel's name, Georg makes it as far as Marseilles, where he meets the illegal immigrants Melissa (Maryam Zaree) and Driss (Lilien Batman), the wife and son of another dead man, his friend Heinz. Whilst in Marseilles, Georg gets himself involved in a romantic triangle between Marie (Paul Beer), Weidel's wife, and Richard (Godehard Giese), the doctor treating Driss, while the whole world supposes him to be Weidel.

If that sounds confusing and busy, good. Transit is a movie that thrives on keeping its viewer on edge and moving swiftly though a convoluted nightmare of a narrative. Petzold, a director given to making crisp, efficient films, has refined the film's rhythms and scene transitions such that entire scenes often feel like they exist just to present a single beat before skipping to the next thing. Causal links go missing, and the film never breathes: as soon as a scene can end, we're suddenly already into the next moment, constantly having to grab onto whatever context clues we can to figure out where we and what's happening. The film is much too brisk and short - 96 minutes at the point that the end credits start scrolling - for this to be as exhausting as it might be, but it might be very exhausting, and appropriately so. This is a story about having to constantly move, not to get any place but simply to not stay still long enough to become a target, and Bettina BΓΆhler curt editing builds that right into the body of the film. Just about the only time it stops and waits is the ending - easily the best part of the whole thing, in part because of the melancholic beauty it adds to the film's tragic love story, and far more because of its tension, as it goes against everything the film has taught us momentum on its way to an absolutely incredible final shot.

In truth, the final scene is certainly the difference between Transit, a film I admire greatly as an intellectual game and puzzle box, and Transit, a film I adore as one of the year's best. It's never up to the level of Petzold's previous film Phoenix, another exhausting thriller playing around in the echoes of World War II, which would be asking an awful lot of any movie; it comes exceedingly close, though, and I'm tempted to say that the last scene (followed by the best end-credits music cue in an age) is the point where Petzold finally outdoes himself, bringing both a sense of dogged hope and utmost pessimism that break through what has been, up to this point, a fairly chilly picture. Rogowski is outstanding: his portrayal of Georg as a a nervous nobody, capable of eradicating his identity and adopting new ones because there was no real identity there in the first place, is very sad and more than a little disconcerting, and he's great at letting little flashes of real emotion crawl up through the general survivalist panic of the film. Especially when the love story comes to the foreground, and we're reminded of the emotional stakes that make surviving important. The cast around Rogowski are ciphers, though, which is never great, but is particularly rough in the case of Beer's Marie, who never emerges as anything but a symbol, in film that otherwise prefers to keep its symbolism tucked away where you need to dig for it. This is all to say: the film can be a bit remote, more impressive than lovable; and given how rich and moving it is when it is lovable, that's a pity. Still, what works in Transit is utterly phenomenal, as an intellectual exercise, a piece of storytelling, a dive into a mysterious, dream-like world, and as a Kafkaesque character drama. Being so airtight in its construction means that it's a little bit sterile, maybe - but it is airtight.