Written and directed by Saskia Diesing
Starring Hanna van Vliet, Eugénie Anselin, Anna Bachmann
In German, Dutch and Russian with subtitles
In cinemas as part of the German Film Festival
Review by Barry Healy
Lost Transport is a feminist story of human bonding loosely based on events that occurred at the end of WWII as Allied forces advanced on both sides of Germany.
In April 1945, with the Nazi regime crumbling, the SS transported Jewish concentration camp prisoners on trains from the Hell hole of Bergen-Belsen to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Three transport trains with a total of around 7,500 people, deemed Austauschjuden (“exchange Jews”), were selected to be taken to the other camp.
The Nazis, bizarrely, thought they could swap these Jews for German prisoners of war held in other countries.
One train encountered advancing US troops and the prisoners were liberated, the second reached Theresienstadt and the third seemingly disappeared, hence gaining the title the Lost Transport.
Actually, the train criss-crossed Germany after its planned route was blocked by bombed out bridges, wandering for weeks as the prisoners, stuffed into cattle wagons, suffered starvation and disease. Hundreds died.
Only years after WWII did the story emerge from survivors, many of whom had moved to Israel. German/Dutch film maker, Saskia Diesing found out about the train twelve years ago at her uncle’s funeral when it was revealed that he had been on it as a child.
Diesing researched the story and discovered that the train had been abandoned by its guards outside the village of Tröbitz, leaving the prisoners to fend for themselves. Soviet forces found it and billeted the liberated Jews in the nearby village.
Lost Transport imagines circumstances in which three disparate women, one a death-camp survivor, another a Red Army sniper and the third a member of the Hitler Youth are forced to live together and come to terms with each other’s humanity.
When Diesing began her screenplay, the main characters were male, but after a year of writing she thought to change that. She explained why to an interviewer: “Women have experienced war in a different way. And this what we don’t see that often in films.”
Her philosophy is that liberation does not come from hatred but from compassion. She wanted to show women, in the aftermath of the war “cleaning up the mess.”
Her story explores complexities of human nature, as the women navigate their past traumas, present challenges and uncertain future. And it sheds light on the intricacies of wartime experiences, including moral dilemmas when a conflict ends.
The cramped settings intensify the characters’ interactions, creating a tense and emotionally charged environment. Within their domestic setting, the women’s differences surface.
While probing empathy, forgiveness, and understanding, problems of collective guilt and responsibility also arise, as the women confront the actions and allegiances of their respective groups during the war.
They witness Soviet troops raping, the reality of Nazi anti-Semitism and a revenge culture among liberated Holocaust survivors.
The film’s strengths are its talented cast and expert production values. However, the plot is not without fault.
There are several places where the narrative strains to create the outcome the writer/director wants. The story bends under the weight of Diesing’s moral parable.
All cinema requires the viewer to suspend disbelief, but too much weakens the experience.
A valid suspension of disbelief is at the film’s beginning as the starving Dutch Jews tumble out of their prison train. They look quite hale and hearty.
It would be ridiculous to demand that actors be deliberately starved to have the correct, emaciated appearance. The audience can easily agree to accept that premise for the duration of the movie.
But when a drunken Hitler Youth member takes control of a Soviet rifle without anybody objecting, things start to get a little stretched. Another instance is the depiction of arrogance among Jewish survivors arrogantly ordering German women about.
There is also a plot device whereby Soviet officials plan to kidnap skilled Jewish workers to reconstruct the USSR. In fact, the Soviet Army carefully nursed the Tröbitz refugees back to health and safely delivered them to US Army forces.
Stalinism was guilty of enough crimes against humanity without having to manufacture them. Diesing is anxious to depict all players as guilty, rather than allowing her story to express its own truth.
Diesing’s lack of faith in her own material is not serious enough to destroy the film, but it distracts from its power.
Lost Transport is not a shallow concoction. However, there is enough strength in the characters, the actors and the story line to have produced a better film.