Friday, February 24, 2017

Revisitations: Ballad of a Soldier

[From April 8, 2015. Oliver Stone went to some lengths a few years ago to convince us of the USSR's contribution to the war against Fascism. No one should doubt the magnitude of the price Russians paid to expel the Germans once they invaded their motherland. But if you were to visit cemeteries of World War II dead in North Africa or across the Pacific islands, you won't find any Russian names there - unless it was the name of a Russian/American. Russians fought to liberate Russia. Americans fought to liberate the world.]

Ballad of a Soldier

This remarkable Soviet film from 1959 tells of a country boy who, like millions of his countrymen, were enlisted in the superhuman effort to drive the army of the Wehrmacht, the most advanced and well-equipped in the world, out of Russia. The efforts of a number of people in the West, including American filmmaker Oliver Stone, to inform us of the terrible cost of winning World War II to Russia, and the enormous debt we all owe to ordinary Russian soldiers, has done much to correct our understanding of exactly who won the war. What's very curious to me is why there are so few Russian films from the period just after the war that were anxious to tell such a terrific story. Curious because the Great Patriotic War, as it became known to Russians, provided filmmakers with a golden opportunity for avoiding politics altogether and simply getting the story right.

Grigori Chukrai (1921-2001), a decorated Red Army veteran (like Alyosha, he was a signalman), got the story right by telling us the story of one soldier. He begins the film with a bucolic scene of a country road, down which a woman in black walks, past chickens and young people, and stops to look wanly down a road that stretches to the horizon. A narrator begins: "This is the road to town. Those who leave our village, and those who later return to their birthplace, walk along this road. She's not waiting for anyone. The one she used to wait for, her son Alyosha, did not return from the war. He's buried far from his birthplace, near a town with a foreign name. Strangers bring flowers to his grave. They call him a Russian soldier, a hero, a liberator. But to her he was simply a son, about whom she knew everything, from the day he was born to the day he left along this road for the front." A dissolve shows us the same woman, somewhat younger, looking with alarm down the same road. Then we see a helmeted soldier in a trench, as a tank bears directly down on him. (I don't know tanks very well, but the ones in Ballad of a Soldier looked like German Panzers to me - probably captured in the war.) He starts running away, but it follows him in every direction he turns. This could be mistaken for symbolism, but the tanks's single-minded pursuit of one soldier is just absurd enough to be real. Alyosha jumps into a trench, finds an anti-tank gun and fires it at the pursuing tank just in time. The tank slumps away from him lifelessly.  He sees another tank approaching and fires the same gun at it and scores another hit. For this act of heroism, Alyosha is told to report to his Comrade General, who tells him he is to be awarded a decoration. He boldly asks for leave instead of the decoration. He tells the general that he got a letter from his mother telling him that her roof is leaking. So the general grants him six days' leave - two to get to his village, two to fix the roof, and two to get back to the front.

The rest of the film is occupied by the six days leave that Alyosha (played by 19-year-old Vladimir Ivashov) earns and his long journey from the front to his village. Along the way, he encounters various people, farmers and laborers, and a beautiful girl named Shura (played by 19-year-old Zhanna Prokhorenko) who happens to be a stowaway in the same train car he occupies. There is a surfeit of socialist realism in so many scenes - every one of them trying to convince us that there are no bad Russians, that they are the salt of the earth, that there are no unfaithful wives, no inconstant loves, that officers are tough but fair, that friendship is everlasting and love isn't something to be entered into frivolously. After awhile, scenes come to resemble vignettes (the lighting is especially emphatic.)

I took a week's leave from the Army in 1997, and travelled from Lawton, Oklahoma to Denver by bus. The whole trip took nineteen hours, and all the way I was thinking that the journey was chewing into my leave time - time I could've been spending with my family instead of sitting on a TMN&O (Texas, New Mexico & Oklahoma) bus that seemed to stop every dozen miles or so. For the return trip I had to leave a day early to avoid being AWOL.

I wish I could say that most of the scenes in Ballad of a Soldier come across as achingly true. The content of treacle in them is quite a bit higher than one would find in a comparable Hollywood production. Ballad of a Soldier makes William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives look like stark realism, instead of intelligent hokum. It's clear that Chukrai loved his subject, and loved every character in the film. But he didn't love them enough to simply let them behave naturally. It's a far better technique for allowing an audience to make up its own mind whether characters are worthy of love or not.(1)

One scene is particularly unconvincing - when Alyosha stands with a group of laborers listening to news from the front. The news is bad. I have a hard time believing there was any such news delivered over the radio to the Russian people during the war. Whether they were losing on all fronts or not, the news was probably pure propaganda, all glorious victories and valiant resistance. That there was plenty of glory and valor to be found in Russia, especially after the fall of Stalingrad, there is no denying. But the cost in lives was horrific. To adapt Winston Churchill's famous tribute to the men who won the Battle of Britain, never have so many owed so much to so many. It doesn't have a much of a ring to it, but there was no one on our side at the time to pay such a tribute. By the end of the war, Russia had gone from a much-needed ally against the Germans to our next probable enemy. 

Through it all, however, Chukrai gives an impression of an overwhelming human catastrophe, with everyone clamoring to board the next train, when individuals have no time to express what is in their hearts, or even say goodbye to one another. Alyosha'a eventual arrival in his village, which gives him barely a few minutes to be with his mother before he has to begin the long journey back to the front, is effectively moving, with the prodding music shutting off just as they embrace in a long, silent moment.

Regardless of the monumental brutality inflicted by him on his own countrymen and on the revolution, it's doubtful that anyone other than Stalin could have brought so many people to bear on the single objective of driving the enemy out of Russia, even all the way to Berlin. The narrator mentions that Alyosha died near a town "with a foreign name," and that people (non-Russians) "bring flowers to his grave." The Russian army may have initially been seen as "liberators" by Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs, but as soon as they realized that the Russians weren't going to leave, and, as Churchill put it, the "iron curtain" descended in the middle of Europe, Russian soldiers, whatever their sacrifices in driving out the Germans, became occupiers.   

(1) Chukrai was half Jewish and half Ukrainian, so he probably knew the word "schmaltz."

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