Aleksandr Rogozhkin: Transit (Peregon, 2006)

reviewed by Natalia Rulyova © 2007

Transit is the latest film of the prolific Russian film director Aleksandr Rogozhkin, whose individual cinematic style has been widely appreciated, nationally and internationally. He has directed over fifteen television series and films, among them the award-winning The Cuckoo (Kukushka, 2002), which is often listed as one of the best post-Soviet films (see the review by Daniel H. Wild in KinoKultura). His war parable The Checkpoint (Blokpost, 1998) also brought an award and critical acclaim. His prize-winning and extremely popular comedy The Peculiarities of National Hunting (Osobennosti natsional'noi okhoty, 1995) and the follow-up The Peculiarities of National Fishing (Osobennosti natsional'noi rybalki, 1998) became the first two films in a humorous sequence about the specificity of national lifestyle and character. Many phrases from this sequence have already become part of post-Soviet folklore. His latest film, Transit, had its premiere at the Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival in 2006 and was subsequently presented at the Karlovy Vary film festival.

The recurrent themes in Rogozhkin’s films are national character, cultural differences, human communication, love, common language (or lack of it), and conflict. His cinematic parables, dramas, and comedies explore human emotion and interaction with good humor and at a slow pace. His signature camerawork is characterised by the focus on the beauty of surrounding landscape. Transit continues in the same manner. The film begins with a panning shot of a bare but beautiful tundra landscape. Then the camera cranes downward and focuses on an animal in the water, after which it shows a rifle and a man in Chukcha dress with primitive sunglasses. The tundra’s tranquillity and the man’s hunting are interrupted by military planes flying overhead. The camera pace quickens and the viewer is introduced to a small military aerodrome.

The narrative’s chronotope is clearly specified: the place is Chukotka and the timeline spans over ten years, beginning in 1943 and ending in 1953. More specifically, the setting is a Soviet airbase, which is filled with planes, Soviet officers and pilots, and those who serve them. All are depicted with great attention to detail. However, this historical specificity is immediately juxtaposed with a scene portraying two proverbial Chukcha characters, a young and an old man, who appear on the aerodrome as if they had come from one of the many Soviet and post-Soviet jokes about the Chukcha. The younger man tells the older Chukcha a joke. This is just one scene of many in the film where the director unexpectedly shifts a genre or a register: here, it is from a historical drama to a comedy with some elements of a parable―that is, from the concrete and the individual to the general and the abstract.

For this particular reason, reviewers have found it difficult to assign a genre to this film, which has elements of historical drama, comedy, detective or murder story, and parable. Inspired by his favourite novelists of the 19th and 20th centuries―namely Tolstoi and Dostoevskii, Faulkner and Updike―Rogozhkin himself identifies his film as a “film-novel” (see van Hoeij). The director likes the novel precisely because it allows mixing different genres.

Like a novel, Transit is densely populated with many characters. The conditions of war-time Stalinist Russia led to the development of a range of characters: from those who heroically survived to those who broke under the weight of suffering. Rogozhkin observes various types. Having spent eight years in Stalinist camps, the ex-plane designer Romadanovskii (Iurii Orlov) demonstrates a culinary talent as the airbase chef, surprising unspoilt Soviet pilots with the intricacies of pre-revolutionary cuisine. The 17-year-old local Chukcha Vasia (Aleksei Petrov), who does random jobs at the aerodrome and dreams to become a pilot, is, to the viewer’s surprise, an English-speaker. His aim is to swap things with the Americans for bullets that are necessary for hunting to provide daily food for his family. The commander, Foma Iurchenko (Aleksei Serebriakov), suffers from alcoholism and the consequences of a concussion. Irina Zarevaia (Anastasiia Nemoliaeva) is a translator/librarian and a daughter of an influential father who helped her and her husband escape from something horrible and hide in Chukotka. These are just a few of a gallery of portraits presented throughout the film.

The interesting feature of many recent post-Soviet films and television dramas is that they are often linked by the same actors, which creates a net of references among all those narratives and characters. This film is no exception. In fact, Rogozhkin actively uses such referencing. The most evident example is the alcoholic commander Foma. Serebriakov also played Tverdokhlebov, the honorable and honest commander of the battalion of ex-prisoners in the recent popular television drama Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat; dir. Nikoli Dostal', 2004). Foma is, in many ways, the opposite of Tverdokhlebov: the former is a nasty bully whose maliciousness is blamed on his concussion; the latter is a fearsome and honest man. In one of Foma’s spiteful comments, he threatens a young pilot: “Do you want to end up in a penal battalion? I can help you with this.” It is impossible to watch this scene without immediately linking it to the TV drama. This post-modernist trick takes the tension off the narrative and consciously moves viewers out of the story, placing them back into their own post-Soviet environment. Like Penal Battalion, Transit is a post-Soviet reflection on WWII, on the part played by Russian troops in it, on Soviet patriotism, Russian national identity and culture.

Like other post-Soviet films, Transit revisits not only Soviet history and fiction but, most importantly, its language. Soviet catch phrases and slogans are subverted by being put into a new context. For instance, the ubiquitous “one should respect and fear the authorities, not love them” is repeated by the NKVD officer to the young Chukcha, Vasia, as a moralistic admonition. Statements from official Soviet discourse are recycled along with jokes that were part of unofficial Soviet culture, in particular those about Chukchas, and both are reinterpreted from a post-Soviet point of view. Thus, Transit subverts some Soviet cultural myths by re-enacting them in a context imagined by a post-Soviet director. Appealing to familiar references and punning on commonly used phrases, Rogozhkin creates his own jokes verbally and visually (see the interview in Komsomol'skaia Pravda).

The plot of Transit is based on some historical facts that have not yet been examined in Soviet and Russian cinema. During World War Two, among other military equipment the USA gave the Soviet Union planes on lease to fight against the common enemy, the fascists. The most popular route for delivering the planes was from Alaska via the North through Chukotka. However, as Rogozhkin admits himself, historical fact ends here. In the film, the planes are delivered by American female pilots who fly them to the airbase to pass them over to the Russian pilots who will take them to the front. In actual fact, the planes were delivered only by Soviet pilots (see the website dedicated to Transit and the above-mentioned interview with the director). It would have been inconceivable for the Americans to be allowed to set foot on the tundra in the atmosphere of secretive war-time Stalinist Russia. The director creates this unrealistic situation to imagine what sort of interaction could have taken place between young Russian men and American female pilots if it had had a chance to happen. As in his previous films, The Cuckoo and Checkpoint, the war is just a backdrop: the director is interested in human communication and sexual attraction, which overcome linguistic and cultural barriers.

As well as genre, the plot of the film has also presented difficulties to reviewers and critics. It is difficult to summarise what the film is about. It begins by focusing on the meeting of young Russian male and American female pilots. The first confusion over the gender of the allies is represented in the scene in an airbase toilet when a young Russian pilot shows two women how to use the loo without realising that they are female. The first embarrassment is over and Russian men invite the American pilots for a dance. The official welcome with the Soviets’ singing “The International” follows the dance scene. If the informal dance helps overcome a lack of common language, the formal greetings underline the cultural and political differences between the two nations.

However, later the focus shifts from romantic comedy to situational comedy when a piglet Taras arrives at the airbase at the request of the chef. Instead of a sow, Taras turns out to be a hog, and the local Party committee decides at a meeting to get rid of it by giving it to the Americans as a gift. The light-hearted humorous scenes with a pig at the airbase and on military planes are woven into a drama taking place in the headquarters of the commander. Until the end of the film, the viewer is unaware of the relationship between the alcoholic commander Foma Il'ich and the translator Irina. Foma pesters and abuses the kitchen girl Valia, who is pregnant with his child. Irina is mostly alone, sometimes flirting with a young pilot who takes English lessons from her, but she is secretly interested in the handsome officer Sergei. Only after Foma is murdered and the narrative turns into a detective story with the arrival of the investigator and NKVD officer Gusava, does the viewer realise the nature of the connection between Irina and Foma.

Rogozhkin describes this narrative technique as “provocation”: many details of the plot are concealed but, as a result, many others, according to the director, become evident. In other words, the plot is based on the unspoken, leaving the gaps to be filled in by the viewer (see the interview in Komsomol'skaia Pravda). This rather post-modernist approach to story-telling tends to suggest possible plot development rather than to tell the fabula. Thus, the film does not have the satisfying ending of a detective story—the viewer is given a considerable hint at who killed Foma, but the murderer is not clearly identified. Some critics found this technique perplexing. The film ends as a parable with an old Chukcha man who lost his son in the war talking to a young Russian boy. The boy says that he understands why people kill animals: they can eat them. However, he does not understand why people kill other people; to which the old Chukcha says that it is too childish a question if an adult cannot answer it. Confusion of genre is a curious aspect of Transit.

 

Natalia Rulyova
University of Birmingham


Works Cited

Rogozhkin, Aleksandr. “Ia bol'she nikogda ne vernus' k ‘natsional'nym osobennostiam’!” Interview. Komsomol'skaia Pravda (27 July 2006).
Van Hoeij, Boyd. “Interview: Alexander Rogozhkin talks about ‘Peregon’ (Transit)”.


Transit, Russia, 2006
Color, 127 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Scriptwriter: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Cinematography: Andrei Zhegalov
Art Director: Vladimir Diatlenko
Music: Dmitrii Pavlov
Cast: Daniil Strakhov, Aleksei Serebriakov, Anastasiia Nemoliaeva, Kirill Ul'ianov, Sarah Bulley, Catherine Innocente, Aleksei Petrov, Andrei Shibarshin, Ivan Prill', Artem Volobuev, Iurii Intskov, Oleg Malkin, Iurii Orlov
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: STW Film Company, with support from the federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography

Aleksandr Rogozhkin: Transit (Peregon, 2006)

reviewed by Natalia Rulyova © 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07