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Sunday, 16 August 2009

Ballad of a Soldier (1959)

Director: Grigori Chukhrai
Stars: Vladimir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko

Unusually, we're drawn in to this Russian war movie not by sound but by silence. A woman dressed in black walks through the village of Sosnovka to the only road that runs in and out of it, not because she's waiting for someone to return but because it's the last place she saw him. He's Pvt Alyosha Skvortsov, her son, and he was rushed off to the war without even having the chance to say goodbye. Now he's dead, buried as a hero in a town that she's never seen where strangers leave flowers at his grave.

He's regarded as a hero because he took out two Nazi tanks on the Eastern front, after they chased him off an observation post. He's a signalman, not even a front line fighter, and the weapon he used is one left by a fallen comrade that he stumbles upon by accident while a tank chases him. Nonetheless he's summoned to see the general who wants to commend him for a medal. Pvt Skvortsov asks instead for a day off to repair his mother's roof and presumably touched by his youthful charm and naivete, the general gives him six: two to get there, two to do the work and two to get back. These six days comprise our story and are a lifetime to him.

The whole point of this film is not to tell us the story of the Second World War or even the Eastern front where over ten million Russians gave their lives in the fight against the Nazis, but to tell us a very human story about one of those ten million, with the unspoken suggestion of course that it could and should be extrapolated up. We learn a lot about Russia through this process of extrapolation, by first learning about Alyosha and those he runs into on his journey home.

We also can't help but learn about how hard the war hit the Russians through the scenery he passes through. The trains run and run but everything around them is either damaged or destroyed. People do what they feel they must to survive, which isn't always the right thing, but there's a sense of cameraderie throughout. This is no overt propaganda film, but it does paint the Russians mostly in an idealistic light. Most of these actors could have been poster material and even those negative characters have mitigating factors. This was made in 1959 when Khrushchev had eased the restrictions on filmmakers imposed by his predecessors, but that doesn't mean they were free to make just anything.

Because we know that Skvortsov doesn't survive, there's an air of inevitability that pervades the entire film but we don't know how or when he dies so the inevitability is suspenseful, more and more tense as the film progresses as we try to work out how far he's going to get. This also reaches a level of heartbreak that many films try to reach but rarely achieve. He's a young man, only nineteen, but a model soldier: level headed, modest and decent, utterly willing to do his part to fight back the enemy from Mother Russia. He's a model citizen and as such a perfect encapsulation of what Russia gave up in the war, doing the right thing by all the various people he meets on his journey home, even though he doesn't know any of them.

Some depict different sides of the same coin. There's Vasya, who he meets at a train station and helps with his luggage. Vasya was invalided out of the war through losing a leg and almost doesn't return to his wife because of his injury. He remembers that things weren't going that well with them before the war so doesn't think she will want him now that he's a cripple. Of course she's waiting with open arms for him, overjoyed that he's alive. Then there's Sergei, who is heading towards the front as he leaves it. Sergei spends all his time thinking of his wife Liza, so much so that he persuades his sergeant to give both the division's bars of soap to Alyosha to take back to her with news that he's doing well. Liza is surviving the war by means that don't involve her being faithful, so Alyosha gives them to Sergei's father instead.

Most obviously there's Shura, a young girl who sneaks into the same carriage of hay that he's bribed his way onto. Initially they distrust each other but become friends and fall firmly in love in the few days they spend travelling together. Both Vladimir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko were first time actors when they played Alyosha and Shura here, but they give stunning performances. This is a war movie but it's also one of the most powerful romances I've ever seen on film, utterly devoid of the usual stereotypical situations. Prokhorenko has large and expressive eyes, almost like a live action anime character, and her bonnie countenance helps the silent scenes no end.

And here's where I return to that opening scene of silence. There are three amazingly powerful scenes here that are utterly silent and all the more powerful because of it. They are entirely visual, with no accompanying sound effects or soundtrack, though the film has a marvellous and very Russian classical score. The first shows Alyosha's mother and the last is her reunitement with her son. The middle one is the truest love scene I may ever have been privileged to see, with Alyosha and Shura stuck in the gap between carriages on an overpacked and moving train, so noisy that they can't hear each other's voices, but utterly lost in each other so that it really doesn't matter. It's stunning that this powerful romance doesn't just avoid a sex scene, it doesn't even involve a kiss.

In telling the story of Pvt Alyosha Skvortsov, writer/director Grigori Chukrai tells a universal story. It's nothing short of the story of war distilled down into one person. There's certainly a Russian flavour to it, what one IMDb reviewer calls 'Slavic soul', but that's just the flavour. Even more so than another great Russian war film, The Cranes are Flying, this could be any war or any country, because the human story remains the same, hence the generic title.

This is surprising and there are a number of surprises here. There is no mention of Communism or the Soviet Union, Pvt Skvortsov being called merely 'a Russian soldier' and this film being thankfully free of unneeded rhetoric or politics. There's also no overt anti-war sentiment. This is certainly not a pro-war film, but it's not wrapped up in being an anti-war film either, however much it speaks to what war does to people. Chukrai was a decorated veteran of World War II himself as a paratrooper and infantry officer. He knew what he wrote about.

Really, Ballad of a Soldier surpasses any such labels, such as war movie, romance movie or even road movie and becomes pure cinema, in the way that so few films manage. The Russians always had a highly cinematic eye, from the days of Sergei Eisenstein who defined many of the techniques the world is still mastering today all the way to what I hear about Andrei Tarkovsky but haven't yet seen for myself. They also have a strong sense for classical music, the Russian composers always being my favourites over the less weighty western Europeans. Bizarrely this film is so visual that it could be watched with the sound turned off entirely while the soundtrack could easily be listened to separate to the film, yet the two pair together with panache.

The more I watch Russian cinema, the more I want to watch more, but much of it is hard to find. Grigori Chukhrai directed nine films, this being the second after another war/romance film, The Forty-First. Reading up on the others suggests that his is a highly underrated and underexposed name. His co-writer here, Valentin Ezhov, wrote 34 films. Our inexperienced yet stunning lead actors went on to long careers: Vladimir Ivashov died in 1995 with 41 films behind him as an actor and one more, 1967's Iron Flood, as a director. Zhanna Prokhorenko is still alive at 67 but seems to have retired from the big screen in 1989 after 30 films. Her last credit is a TV series called Drongo. Yet reading through these lists, I don't recognise a single title except this one. That's a situation that I need to remedy.

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