Set in the remote far eastern region of Chukotka―home of the Chukcha, the perennial butt of Soviet-era jokes―Transit resurrects a long-forgotten memory from World War II: the US Lend-Lease Program that supplied the USSR with fighter planes to use against the Nazi’s after its own air force was almost destroyed by the invading German army. Rogozhkin does not claim to be recuperating history; indeed he deliberately distorts it for the benefit of the melodramatic narrative. In his version, the planes are flown to Chukotka by American women pilots―played by non-professional actresses chosen from amongst expatriates and foreign students in St.
Petersburg on academic exchange programs―where the planes are handed over to Soviet pilots, who then fly them to the combat zones in the West. That fleeting contact between men and women wearing different uniforms, representing conflicting ideologies, but swept up in a conflict that makes them uneasy allies―as well as potential bed partners―serves as one of the essential ingredients in the melodrama.
Romantic entanglements and complications, however, are not restricted to relationships between men and women wearing different uniforms. The Soviet garrison—consisting of pilots, guards, service personnel, local troops and civilians—contains its own brew of intrigues, rivalries, and passions. At the center of many of them are the two women in the camp: a librarian formerly married to the base commander and the base commander’s cleaning lady whom he treats as his “frontline wife” (a term used during World War II to describe the sexual relations between officers and subordinates).
While this second ingredient is fully homegrown, it too consists of an incompatible mixture―the entire scope of Soviet society that is engaged in a struggle to survive both foreign and domestic aggressors: from intellectuals to culinary artists, from political prisoners to alcoholic (and paranoid) commandants, from manipulative NKVD investigative officers to stalwart frontline officers, from straying wives to abused female servants, from pet pigs to the embodiment of the quintessential Chukcha joke.
Personal identities (and allegiances) repeatedly come into conflict with collective ones. Indeed, “Soviet identity” quickly becomes an empty signifier in the film, since Rogozhkin presents a contradictory array of choices, none of which withstands scrutiny. As much as Transit returns to the past, it also denies the authenticity of the homogenizing ideology of that past, at the center of which was “the New Soviet Man.” Soviet WWII melodramas—Mikhail Chiaureli’s Fall of Berlin (1949), for example—were explicitly ideological, reinforcing (through their use of a number of political symbols embedded in public consciousness) a collective identity that was or had been under threat. In Transit, by contrast, identity is no longer homogenous—perhaps the only cohesive element is its state of contradiction.
This return to the past, then, involves a process of demystification. When the film examines Soviet power, it often does so in a comedic way that highlights its ineffectiveness; in more serious moments that same power manifests itself as a force destructive to life. The film refuses to reproduce Soviet ideological symbolism as a political phenomenon, finding an apparently truer origin for identity in the “native” way of life that returns to the area of the former Soviet outpost after the war: the Soviets who remained conformed to the Chukcha way of life rather than the other way around. This conclusion leaves the viewer with a reminder of the mutability of identity, which is at once highly personal and generalized, hence its inscription in the melodramatic genre.
Rogozhkin (born 1949) graduated from the History Department of Leningrad University in 1972, and then studied Art Design at the Hertzen Pedagogical Institute. After working as a graphics designer at the Leningrad television studio and an artistic director at Lenfilm studios, he enrolled in the Department of Directing at VGIK, the State Institute for Filmmaking (Sergei Gerasimov’s workshop). After graduating in 1981, he began directing at Lenfilm studios. Since 1998 he has directed films for STW Film Co.
1979 My Brother Has Arrived (short)