Just released on video by Peace Arch Films is this bleak movie based on events which took place in a POW camp in the Soviet Union just after WWII. Strong acting helps overcome a meandering, but unpredictable plot. The based-on-fact story, backed by good use of locations near St. Petersburg, Russia, helps give the film an air of authenticity. The scattershot story never builds dramatic momentum, but it does take some interesting twists and turns.
The story takes place in a POW camp run by women just after the end of WWII. Soviet officer Pavlov (John Malkovich of Burn After Reading) believes that some of the Germans are using false names to cover their war criminal past. The scars left by the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg's name during WWII) are still evident, as the woman guards punish the prisoners in retaliation for crimes committed by the Germans during the war. The camp doctor, Nataliya (Vera Farmiga of The Departed) seems to have more sympathy for the prisoners. Her husband Andrei (played by Yevgeny Mironov of House of Fools) is also in the camp. He can no longer speak, victim of a brain injury and battle stress. Nataliya eventually becomes interested in an educated German prisoner, Max (Thomas Kretschmann of Valkyrie), who also falls in love with her.
A number of the guards and prisoners are able to get past their hatred of each other and form romantic attachments. However, these romances are doomed because the prisoners are bound for other destinations and can never return. This transit camp is just a stop on a long road. In one scene, a female who works at the camp and a prisoner compare photographs of their families. Both have lost a lot in the war. Of all the countries in WWII, Germany and the Soviet Union suffered the most. In the Soviet Union alone, more than 20 million died in WWII, more than the combined losses of the other Allied nations. During the siege of Leningrad alone some 2 million people died, many more than all the U.S. losses in all the wars in American history. The fact that a Russian and a German soldier can fall in love in the aftermath of that is encouraging, but the tragedies in this film overshadow the positives. One of the positives is a dance at which Russians dance with prisoners while an orchestra comprised of prisoners plays music. Another subplot involves German prisoners informing on each other in an attempt to get better treatment.
This is one of those films in which the mood is so dark it seems certain something awful is going to happen sometime soon. It turns out to be not as bad as all that, but it certainly has its depressing elements. Even though the film seems to be heading towards a formula ending, I found myself surprised at some of the developments in the film. One character in particular, Klaus (played by Daniel Brühl of The Countess) is not what he seems. Other characters hold surprises too. A number of characters behave in unpredictable ways. The biggest name in the cast, of course, is John Malkovich. He plays a character who seems to be predictable, but isn't quite as simple as he seems. The weird thing about Malkovich's performance is a strange wardrobe malfunction. He never wears a hat, even though it is obviously cold, with snow on the ground and the actors breath visible. When it is that cold you definitely need a hat, or you risk illness. Couldn't they find a hat big enough for his head? The DVD I watched had a short documentary included, The Making of "In Tranzit". In the documentary, I saw Malkovich wearing a knitted hat. If he were a real Soviet officer in these conditions, he'd be wearing a hat. If he was wearing a hat on the set, why not wear one in the movie to make it look more realistic? It just looked weird for him not to have a hat in the movie.
The acting in this film is powerful, including the performance of the hatless wonder. It is a solid international cast, and a story that, while not compelling, will keep you guessing right up to the end. It has an air of authenticity about it and it works for the most part. It isn't very uplifting, but it isn't as depressing as it might be, either. This film rates a B.