Compelling drama about German POWs in a Russian prison

In Tranzit is a unique post-WWII drama set in Leningrad, Russia, and is based on true events. The year is 1946, and a group of German POWs are sent to a prison camp run by female guards (the camp was formerly for women). Vera Farmiga plays Nataliya, the compassionate doctor who treats the prisoners as human beings, whereas the majority of the guards treat the prisoners with disdain. One guard is particularly sadistic, though her treatment of the prisoners needs to be framed within the context of her past, as her family was murdered by German soldiers.

With limitations of food and other rations, everyone tries to make do and function the best they can, but things get complicated with the demands of John Malkovich, who plays Pavlov, a high-ranking Russian officer who commands Nataliya to get information for him. The information requested is about Nazi SS officers who are hiding amongst the prisoners, and Nataliya's job is to weed them out. She is reluctant mainly because she doesn't think it's part of her job, but Pavlov holds a threat over her that has to do with Andrei (Yevgeny Mironov), the mentally unbalanced gatekeeper of the camp.

As the period of incarceration progresses, boundaries are crossed – Nataliya finds herself drawn to Max, one of the POWs (credibly portrayed by Thomas Kretschmann), others discover intimacy and even love even though it is forbidden, and a musical band is also formed amongst the inmates.

This is supposed to be a true story, and I for one thought this was an interesting drama as it dramatizes a relatively unfamiliar series of events, having to do with German POWs incarcerated in a Russian prison camp (especially the part where some of the inmates are allowed to live with women off the camp). Though I'm very familiar with the events of the Holocaust, this part of history was a revelation to me.

The acting, especially by Vera Farmiga as the kind and strong-willed Nataliya, was amazing, and this is definitely one of her best roles to date (she recently portrayed the CIA operative outed in the movie Nothing But the Truth. John Malkovich somehow seems wasted in this role and his performance was not particularly compelling. The other performance which deserves mention is Yevgeny Mironov's Andrei, who gives a compelling dialogue-free performance, portraying a mentally unstable person.

Highly recommended for those interested in history and dramas of substance.

* * *

An Excellent Idea for a Film, A Very Weak Script

In Tranzit is one of those forgotten films the viewer wants to love: an all-but-unknown bit of history based on a true story that offers a different insight into the universal damage inflicted upon all peoples by WWII. The problem with this production is the embarrassingly weak script by Nataliya Portonova and Simon van der Borgh, the unfocused direction by Tom Roberts and the bumpy editing by Paul Carlin. Beautifully photographed by Sergei Astakhov in a manner that emphasizes the brutality of Russian winters, setting a perfect matrix for the drama, this film had potential, but even the isolated acting contributions of a few seasoned actors cannot hide the weak script and the annoying pacing.

1946 and a Russian women's prisoner-of-war camp lays unused until it is determined by one evil Russian officer Pavlov (John Malkovich) that it will become a camp for German prisoners of war to ferret out occult members of the Nazi SS group that inflicted such agony on the Russians. The camp is run by a group of angry Russian women soldiers and one Russian physician Nataliya (Vera Farmiga) who, together with Citizen Zina (Natalie Press), represent the humanistic side of the suffering Russian victims of the German brutality. And so it is German men, including the handsome Max (Thomas Kretschmann) who shares a mutual attraction with Nataliya and the enigmatic Klaus (Daniel Brühl) among others, versus the Russian women: role reversal and gender-dominance changes create the drama. One key mute figure is Andrei (the brilliant Russian actor Yevgeny Mironov), the psychologically damaged husband of Nataliya, who in many ways represents the tragedy of the entire WWII on mankind. How these two groups of people interact and survive the conditions imposed on them forms the story.

Though Farmiga and Kretschmann, Press and Mironov overcome the awkward script in an attempt to suffuse this film with palpable tragedy, the result is a bumpy ride through the obvious pitfalls of amateur filmmaking. It could have been an important film, but it remains a minor though interesting insight as to the extended effects of war on people's psyches.

* * *

In Tranzit Gets Lost in Transit

There is an interesting story to be told about German POWs and their female Russian guards following the defeat of Germany in World War II. Because of its weak script, this film does not succeed in doing so.

According to the marketing statement on this DVD's hardcase, this is the story: "In the chaotic aftermath of WWII, a group of German POWs are accidentally sent to a female-run Soviet prison camp. When the guards are given the task of weeding out the SS officers, they play a bitter game of cat-and-mouse with the prisoners. Each group slowly learns that situations are not what they seem; prejudices are sometimes unjustly held; and love can be found in even the harshest places." This muddled and unfocused blurb is less than half accurate. E.g., only one woman (the camp's doctor, played by Vera Farmiga) is given the mission of identifying the SS officers, and she uses no cat-and-mouse game to do so. On the other hand, according to the discussion in the bonus features, the story was supposed to be about how the Russians and their German enemies learned to forgive each other. This is not accurate either.

What we are shown is a kaleidoscopic array of often unconnected elements that do not provide us with a story arc or combinations of two or three or four story arcs that make any unified sense. Some guards act with nobility and dignity, some steal food, some seek to gratify their sexual desires, some enjoy inflicting pain, and so on – which merely gives us a cross-section of humanity that might exist almost anywhere on earth. At intervals, SS officers are mysteriously plucked out of the prison population by a male Soviet officer (John Malkovich). At intervals, policies are mysteriously changed by the Soviet government – or by Malkovich's character. E.g., near the end of the film, the prisoners are given musical instruments, a dance is arranged with them and several dozen local Russian women, some of the prisoners begin living with Russian women outside the POW camp, and the gatekeeper of the camp (the mentally disabled husband of the camp's doctor) is taken away. What do these events all add up to?

They seem to be scraps of drafts of four or five scripts that were never quite completed. Perhaps they are.

* * *

An Aimless Story Ruins What Could Have Been a Great Film

It's always a little heartbreaking to watch a movie like In Tranzit. Directed by documentary director/producer Tom Roberts, this intriguing piece of history finds itself marred by its distant, almost documentary-like approach. Hollow, cold, and lacking any of the emotional oomph that it should have, this is based on the true story of a post-WWII detention center, staffed entirely by women, in war-ravaged Russia. A shipment of Nazi POWs ends up in their care while awaiting orders from up high. Cold, lonely, and with spirits broken by war, the inevitable happens – the men and women begin to have relationships that threaten the integrity of the camp.

Sadly, this film is all over the place and refuses to settle on a single storyline. The result is a muddled wreck of dull stories that should be incredibly interesting. Because the film lacks any sort of focus we can never really feel for any of the characters, many of whom should have a film all to themselves. Vera Farmiga (this summer's Orphan) gives an outstanding performance as a Russian doctor whose husband has been turned into a mute, paranoid, mentally handicapped shell of himself – she refuses to have him committed to a sanitarium, so he works as the camp's nearly incompetent front-gate sentry. Meanwhile, a prisoner/high ranking SS member falls for her and they begin what may or may not lead to an illicit affair. This would have made for a fantastic movie... had the director chosen to focus upon it. Instead, this is only one subplot in a series and never gets the attention it deserves.

Meanwhile the camp's chief liaison/warden (John Malkovich) seems to have a thing for the doctor, while the doctor's superior officer has the hots for him and the cook gets pregnant by one of the German prisoners who she's fallen in love with. Sound like a soap opera? It could be, if overdone. Instead it is all underdone. There is so much going on in subtext without any actual text to speak of. There's not really a plot so much as a monotonous wading through interesting stories but never settling on one.

Everything else – the acting, the cinematography, the set design – is damn near perfect. That's what has me so brokenhearted about this film. It's exactly the type of film I like to see. I love a good World War II movie, especially a sweeping one filled with torment, agony, and love shining through it all... but that's not this film. This would very much like to be that. The actors want it to be that. The crew wants it to be that. But the story... the story has no idea where it's going. And the whole thing is wasted.

The only feature on the disc is a brief making-of, which is a must watch if you end up seeing this. It isn't until you watch this featurette that you realize just how harsh the conditions were, how multi-national the cast really is, and what it took to get this on film. If only it had turned out better.

* * *

In Tranzit is the type of movie that has a great potential and could have been outstanding. Based on a true story, and supported by a great international cast leaded by the awesome Vera Farmiga, John Malkovich, Daniel Brühl, John Lynch and others, the film benefits from magnificent cinematography, costumes and set decoration. Unfortunately the screenplay is weak and pointless. The writer seems to be lost in the dramatic conflict of the lonely women in the chaotic post-war with few men in the city but their former enemies; the existence of a war criminal in the group of prisoners; and the romance of Nataliya and Max. I am a fan of Malkovich, and he plays the villain here in his usual quietly sinister way. This guy just has a way of being really scary by just walking into a scene. It's a movie worth watching, but it didn't live up to its potential.

* * *

Shot in extreme conditions in St. Petersburg, the movie was directed by Emmy-award winning documentary director Tom Roberts. A dispute between the producers delayed the release date, seeing the film head straight for DVD, where, in my opinion, it is more well suited.

Based on a true story, In Tranzit is set in the aftermath of WWII at a female-run Soviet prison camp. A group of male German POWs are accidentally sent to the camp and the female guards are given the task of weeding out the SS officers.

Vera Farmiga is Nataliya, a compassionate camp doctor who works under the command of Pavlov, a high-ranking Russian officer. Nataliya's mentally unstable husband Andrei (Yevgeny Mironov) is allowed to stay at the camp where Nataliya can monitor him, but only in exchange for assistance in Pavlov's cause. While Nataliya and fellow worker Zina (Natalie Press) are sympathetic to the prisoners' plight, the majority of the other guards treat the prisoners with disdain, largely due to the death and suffering inflicted on them and their families.

During their incarceration the guards allow the prisoners to start a band and form relationships with women outside of the prison. Nataliya herself finds herself drawn to Max (Thomas Kretschmann) although inevitably the relationships will be short-lived as soon as the prisoners are reallocated to prison or sent back to Germany.

This is not a blockbuster film by any means. This is a small independent film that manages to capture an interesting and relatively unknown part of history around the WWII period. The script, however, struggles to create any real tension, although the actors, on the whole, create an interesting drama portraying the interaction between the prisoners and guards.

In Tranzit also stars Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds) and Thekla Reuten (In Bruges).

* * *

This is supposedly based upon a true story. Maybe the part that is true is that the Russians didn't have enough space for all their prisoners and just dumped four dozen in a lightly staffed women's prison.

Starring Thomas Kretschmann, who managed six roles in 2008 including Wanted and Valkyrie in addition to this one. Also featuring Vera Farmiga (The Departed), who only had four roles in 2008, including The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. She has a deal with the prison commandant, played by John Malkovich, to protect her lover from being sent to the front. Also along is Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds, The Bourne Ultimatum, 2 Days in Paris, Joyeux Noël), always a welcome addition.

It was definitely a dark and depressing film, made the more so by the constant snow. There are some SS officers in the mix and Pavlov (Malkovich) is determined to root them out and hang them. He enlists Nataliya (Farmiga) for this task. Malkovich was born for roles like this.

It is strange that the women who hated the prisoners in the beginning for killing their families manage to find forgiveness at the end so they can have sex.

It was the acting, not the script, that made this worthwhile.