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Monday, 10 May 2010

Great Films about a Great War

Given the slogan that Mikhalkov wanted to 'sell' his sequel to 'Burnt by the Sun' "a great film about a great war", I have been thinking about the really great films that have been made in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Soviet film really is full of such films and I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that a number of them would be included in the list of the greatest war films of all time. Klimov's 'Come and See' is, without doubt, one of the most powerful and haunting war films made in the history of cinema. It marked Klimov's final transition from satirist (in his early films) to a filmmaker who would describe the absolute horror of war. It was, alas, Klimov's last film to be made - the late Klimov was never to make his long planned 'Master and Margherita' which may have shown us an absolutely new Klimov. Klimov's wife, Larisa Shepitko, was also to mae great films about the war.Her 'Ascension' was, in part, a polemical response to Alexei German's 'Proverka na dorogakh' (A Check-up on the road'). The point of contention between the two great filmmakers was the question of choice, betrayal and atonement. For Shepitko betrayal was a final betrayal and she couldn't bring herself to accept a character like Lazarev who had betrayed and then atoned for his betrayal. Shepitko's portrayal of the female air pilot in 'Krylia' (Wings) is a memorable portrayal of the generation gap between those who fought in the Second World War and those who grew up in the Thaw period. A film of lesser artistic quality but with a scene that never fails to bring one to tears- Belorussky Vokzal (Belorussia Station)- by Andrei Smirnov also attempts to talk about the fading reality of the war and the problems of the war generation in the early stagnation period. Both Smirnov and Shepitko were to contribute short films to the trilogy of 'Nachalo Nevedemogo Veka' (the beginnings of an Unknown Era) in 1967 with short films based on the Civil War period.

The early Thaw period also can be said to be full of masterpieces exploring the Great Patriotic War. Tarkovsky's 'Ivan's Childhood' was, perhaps, one of the first films to fully explore the experience of a child in wartime and clearly it has themes that would be reworked by Klimov a quarter of a century later. Some still continue to believe Kalatozov's and Urusevsky's 'Letiat Zhuravli' ('The Cranes are Flying') as the best war film. It is as much Urusevsky's camerawork that works on us as the dramaturgy and the new attitude to betrayal which german would rework in his 'Proverka...'. The humanist theme is continued by Chukhrai's 'Ballad of a Soldier' which also gained a very positive reception when it was made. Another director whose work explores war - sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely -is Marlen Khutsiev. It was the scene of the visit of the ghost of a dead soldier to the main character (his father) in 'I am Twenty' that was to draw Khruschev's ire (for the young soldier replies to his son that he can not tell him how to live and Khruschev found this an outrageous supposition) but also the scene at the party (and the toast to potatoes that Sergei proposes and the discovery by his mother of lost ration vouchers) is significant in exploring the shadow that war still throws upon the Thaw generation. Khutsiev was to more directly explore the Great Patriotic War in his films 'The Two Fyodors' and in his much underrated 'In the Month of May' (this was a film made for television but it touched on questions that had been rarely touched upon in Soviet films about the war, including the discovery of the concentration camps).

Recently I have managed to rewatch Alov and Naumov's 'Peace to him who enters' (Mir Vkhodyashchemu) - a superb humanistic portrayal of a trip by Soviet soldiers with a pregnant German woman to a hospital at the end of the war. The theme of muteness (a thread in sixties Soviet cinema) is encapsulated by the dumb soldier who has been shell-shocked by the horrors of the war but who provides the moral leadership of the group. Other powerful explorations of the Soviet experience of war is the Gerogian director Rezo Chkheizde's 'Father of a Soldier'- a film about a father searching for his son during the war.

Films made during the war itself are many and although there were many technical deficiencies, this period was marked by a relaxation of tight censorship. Films like 'Nashestvie' (Invasion) by Abram Room were even to give an ex-prisoner (quite clearly a political prisoner) the status of a hero. Another significant film is Barnet's 'Odnazhdi Nochiu' (Once at Night) which depicts the films heroine in a unique way reminiscent of the Lilian Gish heroines in D.W. Griffiths films and quite unlike the Donskoy heroine of 'Rainbow'. One may see in Barnet's film a precursor of the Samoilova character in 'Letiat Zhuiravli'.

The late Stalinist period rewriting of the war with Stalin as a demi-god like figure directing all operations from his office in films by Savchenko and Ermler and almost religious-like saviour descending from the skies in Chiaureli's 'The Fall of Berlin' was, arguably, only saved by Barnet's excellent Hitchcockian spy-thriller 'Podvig Radvedchika' (Exploits of a Scout)- a genre that would then become immortalised in the Stagnation period in the television series 'Semnadtsat Mgnovenie Vesni' (Seventeen Moments of Spring) and the less well-known but excellent 'Myortvy Sezon' by Savva Kulish and starring Donatis Bannionis (of Solaris fame) and Rolan Bykov.

These are only a few of the masterpieces on World War Two. The list would go on for a very long time.


  1. I am one of those who still believe Kalatozov's and Urusevsky's 'Letiat Zhuravli' ('The Cranes are Flying') as the best war film.

  2. Yes, an excellent film that fully deserved the Palme d'or that it received at Cannes in 1958. Oddly enough I think that Kalatozov and Urusevsky improved on this film in their subsequent Neotpravlennoye Pismo (The Unsent Letter') which is, possibly, even better than "Letiat Zhuravli' and, unfortunately, almost completely unknown outside of Russia (and not that well known in Russia itslef).

    Many of todays filmmakers in Russia say that it was "Letiat Zhuravli' that inspired them to become filmmakers in the first place.