A Russian Youth
Vladimir Korolev, Mikhail Buturlov, Artem Leshik
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A Russian Youth’s provocations are worthwhile to consider and enjoy intellectually…
A Russian Youth is very much a ‘festival film’. It is best seen at a festival where there is an appetite for a healthy dose of experimentation, a disruption of traditions and an upheaval of expectations. The film premiered, appropriately enough given its subject matter, at the Berlinale and has picked up a few festival awards across the year, most notably at the Pacific Meridian Film Festival in Vladivostok.
No one does war films quite as well as the Russians. These films are about humanity and sacrifice in the face of extreme horror. They are powerfully dramatic, invariably hyper-realistic and employ the war context as a shortcut to eliciting deeply emotional connections with the audience. They are rarely patriotic chest-thumping proclamations, but rather sophisticated and delicate appraisals of character that are decidedly anti-war. It is not surprising that this remains a staple genre in Russia, and every year new, high quality films are released to broad audience appeal that find fresh stories within the broad canvas of Great Patriotic War.
In contrast, A Russian Youth disrupts Russian war cinema expectations. It is one of a very small group of Russian films set during WWI – a humiliating series of events with dire consequences for the 20th century. The film follows the misadventures of a weak, simple-minded but spirited peasant boy willingly signing up to fight the Germans. Within days of appearing in the trenches on the Eastern Front, Alyosha entertains his older comrades before being blinded during a gas attack. As he recovers in a field hospital, blind and desperate, it is clear that he cannot go home to his mother. He begs to continue fighting and before long he is assigned to listening to enemy airplanes with a huge steampunk ear-horn that can pick up the sound of advancing enemy planes from miles away. He becomes the army’s ears on the frontline.
Running in parallel to this is a present day story of an orchestra in St. Petersburg rehearsing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor’ (1909) and the 1940s ‘Symphonic Dances’ with the sound of the rehearsals often interrupting or sitting on top of the war time action, with the soundtracks intersecting.
There is no explanation for the interaction of the rehearsal and the wartime narrative, with the audience required to make the symbolic connections for themselves and interpret the conductor’s notes, whether to the filmmaker or his musicians.
A Russian Youth is a curious film that purposefully works against the grain. The action is set during the infamous WWI trench war, it eschews the realist tradition and powerful emotional connections, with its aesthetically over-determined use of war cinema tropes, stunning nostalgic treatment of the images, and some incendiary homoerotic horseplay.
The film asserts a contrasting provocative tone to earlier Russian war melodramas. Stylistically, it sits somewhere between a video essay on war and patriotic music and a Brechtian cinematic and symphonic experiment. The orchestral rehearsal provides only brief glimpses of impact on the action, with the finale a highlight, juxtaposing a close up of the pianist at full throttle with the band of soldiers pushing a heavily laden cart with a machine gun up a hill in what is without doubt the signature image of the film – the men in silhouette pulling with all their might against a darkly ominous sky.
The first thing that leaps out with this film is its visual style – the images appear to be delightfully nostalgic, as if yearning for a lost summer at the start of the 20th century. The colours are warm and the images grainy but luminescent. It is as if freshly discovered documentary footage was painstakingly hand tinted years afterwards, bringing back to life a world that was lost. Yet rather than making it appear authentic and real, this technique creates a feeling of distance. It is startling and visually moving and yet a long way from Soviet war melodramas.
The orchestral score and its foregrounding as a documentation of a real rehearsal is confusing – it acts as a way of interrupting the staged action and highlighting its artifice, but to what ends? We get it, but in order to see a war film we make certain adjustments of expectation and emotional readiness. Conceptually it may have been a good idea at the time, but it highlights the lack of substance in the story of Alyosha.
There is an argument that this film, Alexander Zolotukhin’s feature debut, would not have been possible without the heavyweight backing of modern master Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark) as producer. Zolotukhin comes from Sokurov’s special director’s masterclass that he established in the small southern Russian town of Nal’chik. Some of the 12 graduates of this course have already established their international credentials with twentysomething Kantemir Balagov a two time winner at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard category in 2017 for Closeness and 2019 for Beanpole. Sokurov’s masterclass and his producer credentials certainly facilitated this film’s appearance and festival recognition and there are clear reverential nods to the master’s style, but this film is a long way from Sokurov’s elegiac simplicity and stoic power.
Zolotukhin’s choice to opt for an improvisational approach with his cast of largely untrained actors may have been a pragmatic decision but also points to a lack of intensity and thematic observations, especially on the fractious composition of the Russian army riven by class divisions and lack of structure.
Like Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) and Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), this is a war film from a child’s point of view, but unlike those two masterpieces it seems to question the whole tradition of Russian war cinema without offering an alternative. A Russian Youth’s provocations are worthwhile to consider and enjoy intellectually, especially in the context of a festival where such significant questions need to be posed and discussed in the foyer afterwards.