Sunday, March 6, 2011

Russian War Film

No doubt Girgori Chukhrai's 1959 black and white film, Ballad of a Soldier, found a large audience in the Soviet Union. It's a simple story about a young villager, Alyosha (played by the spectacularly handsome Vladimir Ivashov), who goes off to war, single-handedly destroys two tanks, and wins the honor of returning home to see his mother. Along the way the soldier enjoys the camaraderie of fellow soldiers, sees the devastation of the countryside at the hands of marauding Germans, falls in love with a beautiful young woman, saves some (but not all) homeless train passengers from a German attack, and returns, very briefly, to see his peasant mother before returning to the front where he will die. Ballad of a Soldier reminded Russians of their victory in the Great Patriotic War, but didn't underestimate the costs of the war.

In a nation which had suffered the loss of perhaps twenty million citizens to Hitler's madness, the war could not have been sugarcoated anyhow. People remembered, and always would remember, how much they had suffered at the hands of the enemy. Unusually, the romantic film begins and ends in tragedy. In the opening credits, the soldier's forlorn mother looks out upon the small village road her son had taken to rejoin the struggle against Germany. As the narrator explains, others will honor the sacrifice of this brave soldier, a promising young man who could have become "a builder of socialism," but his mother will feel nothing but grief at the loss of her beloved son. And really, the film highlights the nation's loss on a personal as well as cosmic level. The German invasion has killed the film's protagonist, and decimated the country as a whole. Although civilians work to erect barricades against the German tanks, and soldiers bravely resist tanks without adequate weapons, the country is laid waste in the process. Fields burn, innocent girls die, cities crumble, soldiers lose limbs, and the women are left alone to till the fields in the absence of husbands.

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