In Tranzit is one of these odd films that you can never quite get a handle on. Even now I’m not exactly sure what kind of a film it was intended to be. While it takes place at the end of World War II and involves some Nazi officers in a Russian POW camp, I’m not sure that the film has all that much to do with the war, or POW camps for that matter. The film remains a kind of abstract art form with a rather loosely told story.
A group of German World War II prisoners arrive in an isolated Russian POW camp that is run by women. At first they are quite harsh in their treatment to their charges. It’s obvious that most, if not all of them, have lost family to the Nazi brutalities of the war. As the prisoners begin to spend more time at the camp the hostilities between the groups begin to soften. The first step is taken by the camp doctor, Natalia (Farmiga) who is married, but her husband has suffered severe head traumas that have made him a mute shell of a man. She falls in love with one of the camp prisoners. Eventually some of the other women form attachments to the men. The camp is often visited by Pavlov (Malkovich) who also begins by appearing quite inhumane but eventually softens as the film progresses. The prisoners are not to be quartered here permanently. The camp is a “Tranzit” camp as the film’s title suggests.
Except for the locations which are revealed always in harsh wintry conditions, the film is mostly very subtle. At first we expect the movie to be a run of the mill guards mistreating prisoners affair. Without much warning, the film begins to change. As we watch these women soften toward their inmates, we don’t really get a sense of what might have caused the emotional swing. There are very few transitory images or scenes to get us more comfortable with the movement. The film then quite literally bogs itself down as it because more or less a voyeuristic experience. No, there aren’t any real exploitive sex scenes and not a ton of romance at all for that matter. Instead we end up as flies on the wall to the mundane moments of these lives that appear to drag on for no discernable reason. What remains are some pretty solid performances, most notably John Malkovich and Vera Farmiga as the camp doctor. Many of the members of the supporting cast are Russian actors, which ads an even stronger element of authenticity to the film. It appears that much of it was filmed in Russian and later dubbed for this English language version. The stage is set for compelling drama that sadly never arrives.
In Tranzit is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The imagery here is quite strong. While there is little in the way of color, you get a very ultra-realistic feel for the cold Russian environments. Occasionally a red flourish from the Soviet flag or a uniform accoutrement offers a faint glimpse of something bright. But these moments are rare, and the drab palette is absolutely intentional and appropriate. Detail suffers a bit from too much noise in the image. Black levels are merely average.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track works well in this dialog driven piece. There are some fine examples of ambient sounds here, but most of the action is front and center. The score is appropriately subtle and low key. Some of the best audio moments come from the music of the camp’s homemade band. There are some excellent violin moments here, and the presentation is rather strong.
The Making Of In Tranzit: (8:13) Cast and crew talk about the film from the Russian locations where it was filmed. Many can only speak Russian so that you’ll have to rely on subtitles here and there.
Director Tom Roberts is mostly known for making documentaries, and it certainly shows here. He knows how to deliver a real enough atmosphere that you truly get the sense that you’re witnessing something real. Unfortunately, he lacks the experience and/or skill required for dramatic storytelling. I’d like to see him apply his style and obvious skills to a story that involves us as much as his shooting decisions do. “Now that would be something.”