My entry into professional writing was reviewing the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list for DigBoston. Now I’m doing the same with the Russian Guild of Film Critics’ equivalent list found here. Rather than review each film, I’ll be recapping each decade.
I’ll also include the burrito I ate while collecting my thoughts. Welcome to BurritoAndAMovie.com.
The Forty-First (Сорок первый) 1956, dir. Grigori Chukhrai
Spring on Zarechnaya Street (Весна на Заречной улице) 1956, dir. Felix Mironer, Marlen Khutsiev
Carnival Night (Карнавальная Ночь) 1956, dir. Eldar Ryazanov
The Cranes Are Flying (Летят журавли) 1957, dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
Fate of a Man (Судьба человека) 1959, dir. Sergei Bondarchuk
Ballad of a Soldier (Баллада о солдате) 1959, dir. Grigori Chukhrai
Duck burrito with tater tots from Five Horses in Davis Square, Somerville, MA. They’re back open, though this doesn’t seem to be on the menu right now.
Pic taken December 2020. Hey, sometimes these decade retrospectives take a while from start to finish.
When I discuss political and economic circumstances in these introductions, it’s to establish what might have been on the minds of filmmakers and their audiences. How and why a movie is made is as relevant to me as how it was received, and neither happens in a vacuum. I wouldn’t be so crude as to suggest that in every film, X is an allegory for Y with only chronological coincidence to support it, but context matters. I have a materialist view, but not a determinist one – I believe that artistic zeitgeist is a refraction of the times, not a reflection. The world hits an artist’s mind and art hits a viewer’s mind like rays of light hit the ocean, continuing on its journey but in a new and unexpected direction.
Minds, like the ocean, are also shaped by both internal and external forces. That is why politics matter in any worthwhile historical film criticism, whether or not the film itself is politically minded. If a work is escapist, what is it escaping from? If it is angry, what is it angry about? If it is cheerful, is it because of or in spite of the world around it? Did it connect with audiences as intended, was it rejected, or did it take on a new life when the zeitgeist shifted?
I do try to avoid the minutiae of personal tastes and whims of powerful people if they’re not directly relevant. Not because they’re not interesting, but because I think they’re over emphasized by the “great man” view of history. Russian history especially is a Venus flytrap for people obsessed with looking at the world this way, with what I’ll call the Stalinist mystique: the predisposition of Westerners to filter all of Russia and the Soviet Union through a superficial understanding of its most imposing figures.
Spend enough time with Russophile Westerners and you’ll find the ones who never moved past the Churchill quote that Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Reading blogs and reviews from that crowd is my least favorite part about researching these pieces, and about Slavic Studies in general. They’re obsessed with the idea that there is something unknowable about Russian existence. You don’t read, enjoy, and analyze Master and Margarita, you worship its impenetrability. You don’t view Putin’s actions as those of a conservative, self-absorbed, nostalgic statist whose geopolitical views were shaped as a KGB agent in collapsing East Germany, you quiver at the all-seeing eye of history’s most fearsome spymaster.
It’s as though deep inside the Russian soul there is a map to the R’lyehian Autonomous Okrug, where the non-Euclidean library is filled with literature in which the unprepared will find only their own madness (once the story really gets going 100 pages in).
It’s easier, and more fun, to performatively struggle with what War and Peace means than it is to accept that the book concludes with Tolstoy literally telling the reader what it means. And we can pick apart Stalin’s psychology, paranoia, and contradictory politics, but the second half of Churchill’s quote was “[P]erhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” He was saying that Soviet leadership at the time was outwardly secretive and deceptive but rational in its own way.
The irony is that I’ve never met anybody more eager to tell you exactly what they think than a Russian. No riddle, no mystery, no enigma. While there is a uniquely Russian perspective, it’s no more fixed in time than ours. They don’t walk around thinking, “Alas, I am Russian. How mysterious.” They live in the same world we do, and react to the same events.
In the late 1940s and early ’50s, purges and xenophobic campaigns intensified in severity, paranoia, and absurdity, always concealing its reactionary reality with revolutionary jargon. When Stalin died in 1953, he was preparing a new purge of Party ranks (including decades-long loyalists), and his sudden death halted what might have been the start of a massive anti-Semitic purge (the “Doctors’ Plot”). In the ensuing power struggle, Nikita Khrushchev outmaneuvered Lavrentiy Beria for leadership, and initiated a series of liberalizing reforms known as the Thaw. The USSR developed a more open foreign policy, and Khrushchev mounted a campaign of de-Stalinization culminating in explicit denunciation in his 1956 Secret Speech (not actually secret). Forced population transfers and purges were no more, Stalin’s most vicious collaborators were arrested and sometimes executed, many victims of the purges were politically rehabilitated (often posthumously), and censorship of the arts was greatly relaxed.
Ensuring that Beria never consolidated power is among Khrushchev’s greatest achievements. If Stalin was a monster, Beria was a genuine murderous psychopath, intimately involved in his atrocities the way Stalin was cold and distant. The world is better for Beria never having assumed full control of a nuclear superpower.
We could spend more time discussing Khrushchev’s legacy, and whether these positive developments are tainted by his previous participation in the purges, the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Cuban Missile Crisis, his failure to sideline the Stalinists who would later oust him, or to democratize the Soviet government…but we won’t. We’ve got movies to cover!
The Thaw generation was energized by these reforms, and were eager to challenge prevailing orthodoxies; shockingly so, given the horrors that had occurred within their own lifetime. The mood among young people was optimistic, and surveys of later generations in Russia consistently find that this era is widely viewed as one of the few bright spots of the twentieth century.
This enthusiasm didn’t start right away. The RGFC list contains 100 movies made over 80 years, from 1918 and 1998. Yet there is a conspicuous gap from 1947 to 1956; not only that, but there are three entries all from 1956. In the years between Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s denunciation, the cinematic tone was changing but had not yet broken free from convention. A good example is a film not on the list, 1955’s Укротительница тигров (Tiger Girl) from 1955, which has some terrific jabs at paternalism and the outmoded social conservatism of the ruling elite, but stops before it does anything that could be called defiant. It even wraps up with an awkward “And then they got married,” emblematic of how far boundaries were typically pushed before reining it in.
Of course, it’s exactly backward to suggest that Khrushchev’s speech gave filmmakers permission. All of the films from 1956 had already been written and filmed in the years prior, so no one was waiting for new rules. The whole nation was ready for a change. History was marching forward with or without Khrushchev, and he was smart to follow.
Films rooted in Stalin’s cult of personality, such as The Fall of Berlin, were removed from circulation or banned. When possible, he was edited out of others. One crucial edit was returning a scene back into the popular 1936 musical comedy Circus. The ending of that film (spoilers for an 85-year-old movie you’ve never heard of ahead) features a crowd accepting the interracial child to the USSR, after his mother was chased out of America for race-mixing. They pass the child around the stands, singing lullabies in many of the languages of the USSR. Those languages originally included Yiddish, sung by Solomon Mikhoels, artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater and later chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Nearly all members of that committee were arrested and executed in the late 1940s, including Mikhoels, and Stalin ordered him edited out. After Stalin’s death, the scene was re-inserted.
The most immediate effects of the Thaw can be found in war films. Four of the six RGFC films from the 1950s take place during wars; three about World War II (The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, The Fate of a Man), and one about the Russian Civil War (The Forty-First). This was a very familiar setting for filmgoers as the lasting effects of both wars on the Russian psyche cannot be overstated, but one important thing was different. The films were no longer only about collective bravery or the solemn wisdom of those in charge. They were about personal battles, uncertainty, loss, and the struggle to maintain hope. A film about the Civil War could now feature an engaging White Army character, or a WWII film could show a flawed Soviet character.
These may seem like minor distinctions, but the new freedoms sent a shockwave through the Russian artistic world. Too much, in fact, for many powerful Party hardliners. Khrushchev was ousted in 1964 after nine years, and the subsequent Brezhnev administration saw a tightening of censorship, reversal of the outward-facing foreign policy and many other of Khrushchev’s ambitious reforms, and the “shelving” of films that would not be seen again until Perestroika and Glasnost in the late 1980s, when they were hailed as lost classics.
As well as being a remarkable time in Soviet (and even more broadly Russian) history, Thaw cinema can be further subdivided as artists tested the waters, pushed the boundaries, then tried to eliminate all known orthodoxy. The following six films don’t contain anything an outsider might see as incendiary, but contain a great deal of humanity and explorations of moral ambiguity. This is even true to a degree with non-war films Carnival Night and Spring on Zarechnaya Street. It is the restoration of emotions that were excised from movies just a few years earlier. There is some stylistic experimentation, but it is mostly within a cinematic language familiar to audiences. Things took a more freewheeling turn in the early 1960s as film lengths, focuses, and tonal centers were as wild and unpredictable as their technical qualities. (We’ll get there in the next installment.) Finally, it all came to a crashing halt when films sometimes questioned where the Revolution might also have had some negative consequences for society (still within the parameters of a small-c communist worldview).
Let’s take a look at how it all began.
The Forty-First (Сорок первый) 1956, dir. Grigori Chukhrai (YouTube)
In the fog of the Civil War, the wide open sands of the Karakum Desert and the shores of the Aral Sea feel claustrophobic. Love becomes a prison, and your beloved is its warden. There is a life beyond politics, but there is no life without it.
Grigori Chukhrai’s The Forty-First is the ultimate tale of love in wartime for many reasons, but what sets it apart is that neither is a backdrop for the other. It’s part adventure story and part romantic melodrama, but to call it a merging of two genres would be a disservice to its unity of vision. The characters’ political views (or lack thereof) are crucial to their actions, while the grueling tale of survival sets the stage for the unlikely romance as well as its unavoidable end.
The Forty-First is the second film adaptation of the novel by Boris Lavrenyov, himself a Civil War veteran who based many of the characters on real people he encountered during those years. It follows the relationship between Red Army sniper Maryutka (Izolda Izvitskaya) and aristocratic White Army officer Govorukha-Otrok (Oleg Strizhenov). As her small detachment crawled its way across the seemingly endless Karakum Desert, Otrok was to be Maryutka’s forty-first White kill had she not uncharacteristically missed her shot. He becomes her prisoner until the detachment can reach the nearest Red headquarters across the Aral Sea, but a storm wipes out everyone except Maryutka and Otrok, stranding them on an uninhabited island. Away from the context of the war, a once-unthinkable love affair begins.
But then it ends. These are not star-crossed lovers; Romeo and Juliet might have had a future if their families could let bygones be bygones, but Maryutka and Otrok are both fighting for mutually exclusive outcomes. The ways they complement one another in isolation would never withstand the forces of reality, but unfortunately for Otrok, Maryutka is the only one who understands that. And so it ends. I won’t say how, but believe me when I say it ends.
Otrok seems a tough nut to crack at first. He is clearly of strategic importance to the Whites, carrying an important message from Kolchak to Denikin, yet is strangely indifferent to the war in general, ideologically neutral while showing neither hostility nor sympathy to his captors. Maryutka, on the other hand, is an open book. She has little education but passion to spare. She writes energetic yet clumsy poetry about her wartime experience, which is initially amusing to Otrok but later becomes a reason for him to believe they might have a chance together. Maryutka is receptive to the idea of his assistance with her writing skills. On the island, she nurses him back to health, and he is amused by the Robinson Crusoe parallel. He regales her with the Daniel Defoe story, after which the two give in to their mutual attraction.
Over time, his true motivations come out. He’s not fighting for the monarchy or the deposed Provisional Government. He’s entirely apolitical, he simply wants his life of leisure back. He would never leave his library if it were up to him. Maryutka’s convictions, on the other hand, are part of her very being. She wants to learn more about poetry but not for its own sake, not to be pretty and technically flawless, but to better convey a message. She’s willingly fighting for her beliefs, he’d prefer not to fight at all, but if he must he’ll only look out for himself. He loves poetry but doesn’t care about the world that created it, while she writes her poetry to be a direct connection to her lived experience. Her ungraceful verses, lack of formal education, and unflinching idealism were a source of amusement for Otrok at first, but by the end we learn that she was not the naive one.
The 1927 version from trailblazing director Yakov Protazanov is well crafted and occasionally exciting with a cast of soon-to-be screen legends in their early years, but is somewhat forgettable. Chukhrai, meanwhile, creates an atmosphere of desolation mostly in his use of terrain, shooting on location in the desert in such a tight, controlled manner that I was sure it was a set at first. The desert and sea are not open and full of possibilities, they’re endless and directionless. In this setting, we sympathize with those who lose their way; a soldier betrays his comrades, a commander seizes camels that might cost local populations their lives only for them to be stolen in the night, and a Red and White soldier fall in love.
Spring on Zarechnaya Street (Весна на Заречной улице) 1956, dir. Felix Mironer, Marlen Khutsiev
Marlen Khutsiev captured the spirit of the Thaw at its beginning with Spring on Zarechnaya Street in 1956, and at its end with I Am Twenty in 1965. The former is a sweet, charming look at the first generation to come of age after the war. It was the most popular film of the year when it was released, and has millions of views on YouTube. The latter, originally titled Lenin’s Guard, was specifically denounced by Khrushchev and was not seen in its three-hour entirety until 1989, and contains a specific reference to Stalinist purges, among other shockingly blunt sequences. Spring on Zarechnaya Street is formally familiar to other famous Soviet films, while I Am Twenty arguably has more in common with early Truffaut or Godard.
There is little direct comparison between the two films, except to show how consistently Khutsiev understood his audience and the issues they faced, perhaps better than they did. Spring on Zarechnaya Street was his first feature film, co-directed and written by his early collaborator Feliks Mironer. It’s a very simple yet sophisticated story about an evening school for young laborers in an industrial village. Tatyana (Nina Ivanova), fresh from university, arrives to teach Russian language and literature. She’s practically the same age as many of her pupils, often younger, which complicates matters when smoothtalking (or so he thinks) steelworker Sasha (Nikolai Rybnikov) develops feelings for her.
The setting will be unfamiliar to many Western viewers as it’s very specific to postwar Eastern Europe, but the story will resonate with anyone who had difficulty continuing to grow up as a young adult, no matter your situation. Perhaps you pursued your dream and land a good job out of college but realized you’re closer to the bottom of your professional climb than you are to the top. Maybe you’ve charmed your way into people’s good graces instead of developing a unique identity, and realize one day that your magic has faded as your friends go down their own paths without you, leaving little to show for your years of coasting by on charisma alone.
Throughout the film, I was thinking about the characters’ lives before this moment. How these young people were escaping war when they should have been in school, or how many of them never truly knew their fathers. This is a theme Khutsiev makes much more explicit in I Am Twenty, but it is a firm part of Spring‘s emotional foundation as well. These are directionless souls in a highly structured setting, traumatized kids trying to be adults with virtually no role models.
The moments you will remember from Spring on Zarechnaya Street are subtle: a small shift in someone’s expression, a moment we can see but not hear or vice versa, most notably when Sasha slinks out of Tatyana’s room as she gets lost in her music, or when he becomes jealous of her affection for long-dead poet Aleksandr Blok. Or, if you watch this on the official Odessa Film Studio YouTube page, you’ll find this gem of a translation:
Carnival Night (Карнавальная Ночь) 1956, dir. Eldar Ryazanov (YouTube)
It may come as a surprise to many that there are a number of wonderful Soviet comedies that viciously riff on the small-mindedness of local bureaucrats. Actor Igor Ilyinsky, a highly visible presence since the silent era, created two of the most well-known boneheaded pencil-pushers: Byvalov from Grigori Aleksandrov’s Volga-Volga, and Ogurtsov from Eldar Ryazanov’s Carnival Night. (Ilyinsky himself has a fascinating story, from Volga-Volga being Stalin’s favorite movie to his semi-retirement, but that’s for another time.)
Ryazanov, who later directed perennial favorites Beware of the Car, Office Romance, and The Irony of Fate, was just getting his feet wet in the film world with no intention of going into comedy when Carnival Night fell into his lap. One of the biggest voices in Soviet cinema, Ivan Pyryev, convinced him to make it, and he managed to nab Ilyinsky in the starring role as he was making his screen comeback after a nearly two-decade absence.
Blessed by two giants of the industry, Ryazanov rose to the challenge with spectacular results. Carnival Night is a fresh take on slapstick comedy that managed to be as absurd as Aleksandrov but not cartoonish. Ilyinsky draws on his notoriety in other bureaucratic roles without rehashing any material. Byvalov and Ogurtsov are both wholly incompetent and know nothing about the art supposedly under their jurisdiction, but while Byvalov is a cynical careerist and is totally indifferent to fulfilling his duties, Ogurtsov is completely naive. Byvalov is dangerous, while Ogurtsov is very annoying but harmless, which is reflected in the plots of their respective movies: Volga-Volga is about a race down the river to fight for proper representation of a village’s creative residents, while Carnival Night is about a bunch of kids who don’t want the grown-ups to make New Year’s Eve boring.
That’s really all there is to the story because that’s all there needs to be. Shenanigans, top to bottom. A town’s House of Culture is preparing a New Year’s Eve entertainment program with songs, dancing, a jazz band, and a magician. Comrade Ogurtsov, the new director, disapproves of everything and intends to replace everything with a forty-minute lecture about the possibility of life on Mars. The local youths will have none of that, so it’s prank after prank to keep Ogurtsov distracted while the real show goes on.
My favorite moment comes when Ogurtsov, unimpressed with a routine by clowns Tip and Top, tells them to remove the wordplay, costumes, makeup, and clown names. The result is two men in business suits, one congratulating the other on his engagement. They shake hands, end of scene. I think that scene could be a Rosetta Stone for Westerners to understand Russian comedic irony.
Carnival Night doesn’t need much more of a hard sell than that. It’s fun, funny, lighthearted, and features both longtime legends at the top of their game, and soon-to-be legends at the start of theirs.
The Cranes Are Flying (Летят журавли) 1957, dir. Mikhail Kalatozov (Criterion)
If you’ve taken any course on Russian film, The Cranes are Flying is part of it. It was the only Soviet film to ever win Palme d’Or at Cannes, and one could confidently say that it is the first film to unambiguously declare that a new era of expression had begun.
Mikhail Kalatozov is the only filmmaker in this entry with an already established career. Before The Cranes are Flying, Kalatozov had been celebrated in the silent era, condemned for Salt for Svanetia, was rehabilitated with a place on the State Committee for Cinematography, served as a wartime cultural attaché to the United States, and made party-line biopics and Stalin-era propaganda until his return to lyrical storytelling. Chukhrai, Ryazanov, and Khutsiev, meanwhile, were just out of VGIK (All-Union State Institute of Cinematography), and Bondarchuk began transitioning from actor to director. It’s one thing when a young director does something bold and unpredictable in changing times, it’s another thing entirely when someone like Kalatozov breaks the mold.
The radical shift represented in The Cranes are Flying is that it is a deeply personal wartime story with no institutional obligations. The focus was not on the wisdom of leaders or the triumph of victory, but on the suffering endured by the entire nation. When the war begins and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) is deployed, leaving Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) behind, the overriding feeling is anxiety, not national pride. When he is killed, it is not in a moment of glory. When the war ends, it is seen through Veronika’s eyes, not throngs of flag-waving partisans. It is about the endurance needed to survive those years: sacrifice, insecurity, fear, degradation, all without truly knowing whether Boris survived.
Of the six films on this list, four take place during wartime, but only The Cranes are Flying spends a majority of its time with non-military characters. Kalatozov is also the only director of those four films who is not a veteran, but he was intimately familiar with the consequences of war, most notably when he began production on a film about the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, The Invincible, in the middle of the blockade. Kalatozov had made war films before and certainly commanded enough technical skill and political trust to make any film he wanted, but The Cranes are Flying is perhaps the first full statement of Kalatozov the artist since the early 1930s. And as an artist, this is the film he wanted to make, drawing from all of his experiences: feeling the wrath of government and wielding its influence, traveling abroad and at home, seeing the wake left by war even in places where not a single bullet was fired. All were part of what might be called the thesis of The Cranes are Flying; just or unjust, in victory or defeat, soldier or civilian, to wage war is to suffer.
Fate of a Man (Судьба человека) 1959, dir. Sergei Bondarchuk (YouTube)
When I look at Sergei Bondarchuk, I think of what might have happened to Orson Welles if his career had gone exactly how he wanted. The Soviet government valued Bondarchuk the way Hollywood hated Welles, but they are more alike than they are different. Both were tremendously successful from a very young age, becoming best known as film directors but not starting there. They starred in their own films and understood their on-screen physicality better than most who film themselves. What Welles did with Shakespeare, Bondarchuk did with nineteenth-century Russian military history. The two collaborated twice, costarring in the 1969 Yugoslavian epic Battle of Neretva, and Welles acted in Bondarchuk’s Waterloo in 1970. If you go to Bondarchuk’s Wikipedia page, the featured photo is even of him speaking with Welles, who is cropped out.
The most obvious difference is that the Soviet film industry gave Bondarchuk everything he needed on an enormous scale, including using the actual Soviet Army as extras in War and Peace and leveling hills in Ukraine for geographic accuracy in Waterloo. Hollywood, meanwhile, couldn’t wait to get Welles out of its hair, and he spent much of his life hustling for funds wherever he could find it, stitching together footage filmed years apart for a single sequence.
This might be in part because of Bondarchuk’s conservatism versus Welles’s radicalism. I know “conservative” is a strange word to use when talking about big-C Communist nations, but in this case I’m using it to mean agreement with official points of view, cooperation with authority, and stylistic accessibility. Welles wouldn’t have made War and Peace similarly to Bondarchuk, but he might have made something close to Fate of a Man, which uses literalism to strengthen its central metaphor. The titular “man” refers as much to our lead character, Andrei Sokolov (Bondarchuk), as it does the entire USSR, or perhaps any war-afflicted nation. He fights in the Civil War and endured the famine that followed before the events of World War II, connecting the two periods that most shaped the Soviet psyche. As a truck driver, he is as much witness to the trails of those around him as he is participant in his own narrative. And when he returns home, he leads a peaceful life but is forever scarred by what he witnessed, mirroring the uneasy relief and solemn hope of the average Soviet citizen.
With a story this linear, Bondarchuk is able to focus on the details that turn depiction of hardship to analysis of tragedy. When Andrei is first captured, he and other POWs are held in an abandoned church, a place of worship and solace used for imprisonment and torture. A man who tries to open the door simply to relieve himself is laughed at by his fellow prisoners before he is executed by the Germans. His compatriots fall silent, realizing the indignity on all sides. A doctor who treats Andrei, helping him survive, is killed the next morning. At the concentration camp, the closest he comes to a normal setting comes when he is invited to dine with the commander and his officers, who make a mockery of civilized society by celebrating surrounded by suffering of their own making. Andrei rejects preferential treatment, winning equal share of bread and butter for his comrades by winning a vodka drinking challenge. He helps others through starvation through an act of indulgence.
Bondarchuk’s uses these juxtapositions make Fate of a Man about more than life or death. It’s about how alien such actions are to a decent soul, or worse, how we possess the ability to create such situations out of either ignorance or indifference to the contradictions. Remarkably, this was Bondarchuk’s first film as director, adapted from a novel by Mikhail Sholokhov, most famous for And Quiet Flows the Don. Sholokhov was known for his ability to craft stories exactly like this, using plain language to communicate complicated ideas, all within the confines of state-mandated socialist realism conventions. Bondarchuk’s films became more technically elaborate but share the same goal as Sholokhov and Fate of a Man, to explain incomprehensible times in accessible ways.
Ballad of a Soldier (Баллада о солдате) 1959, dir. Grigori Chukhrai (Criterion)
Though Ballad of a Soldier might not be a household name in the West like The Cranes are Flying, it caused just as much of a sensation when the two were released in the US as part of a 1960 cultural exchange. The latter won the Palme d’Or, while the former won the BAFTA for Best Film and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. If you look at press materials from the time, often with the stars and director who toured with the film, you can feel the excitement and curiosity in the American interviewers. Sometimes they’re shocked at how closely they identified with the characters, the energy and lack of stodginess in the performances, or the freedom Chukhrai seemed to have while making it. A lot of the questions are gotchas about freedom, human rights, creative liberty, etc., which I find to be quite rude to put an actor just getting their start on the spot about geopolitics, but also a reflection of how unaware most Westerners were of Soviet internal affairs, even during the Thaw.
Unlike The Forty-First, there is very little battlefield action in the film, but similarly, it explores the life that might be waiting for them when they return. Alyosha (Vladimir Ivashov), a Private on the Eastern Front takes out two German tanks by himself. When offered a decoration, he refuses and asks for leave to visit his family. He has six days to go there and back. He sneaks aboard a train after bribing its guard, where he meets Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko), also stowing away. She says that she is traveling to meet her fiance, and the two travel together, encountering the obstacles that might face any stowaway, but doing it with the energy only young people have. They begin to trust and admire one another along the way, and before they are separated, she admits that she lied about having a fiance. Alyosha realizes too late that this was an invitation, and by the time he reaches his mother’s village, he is only able to visit for a moment before returning to the front.
The film begins and ends with a voiceover, each telling us about Alyosha’s death, which we do not see but understand happens when he returns. It didn’t make me cry right away because there’s such boundless optimism in the lead performances, but it did later. I was reminded of when the New York Times published the names and faces of American soldiers who died in Iraq when the number reached 1,000, and I wept in my college cafeteria. The film is not a tragedy but it invites us to accept the many dimensions that make up a human life. Alyosha, as the voiceover tells us, will be remembered as a Russian soldier, but might have turned out to be anything. He might have married Shura, or he might have met someone else. He might have returned home to his family, or he might have gotten a new start in the city. He shows great ease negotiating with people and getting them what they want with no cajoling, so maybe he would have made a difference in the world of politics or industry. But he, like millions of others, are soldiers.
Of all the films on this list, in this or any other decade, I think Ballad of a Soldier has the most universal appeal. It’s a topic you find in the films of virtually every nation, and it’s not too difficult to see Alyosha and Shura played by a pair like Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. There’s little metaphor in the filmmaking but abundant soul, as Chukhrai understands that this is not a story of bribing train attendants or hugging family, although it is. It’s not about the episodes of these particular people, but more broadly about the moments that define our memories of a person’s life. After all, the most sacred thing a person leaves behind is our memories of them.