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How film reflects Russia’s different experience of the Second World War

A rare moment of tranquillity from Come and See (1985). Picture: The Criterion Collection - Credit: Archant

Russia’s experience of the Second World War was very different to that of its allies. And that is reflected in its films of the conflict. JAMES OLIVER reports on a genre which reflects the poetic melancholy of the country

Films tell stories, that much is obvious. Those stories, though, are sometimes more than what happens between the opening and closing credits.

In Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino thought he was making a guys-on-a-mission movie and many agreed with him in the West, critics noting his witty deconstruction/ pastiche/ parody of Second World War flicks.

Russian viewers – or at least a goodly number of them – saw things differently.

You’ll recall that Inglourious Basterds diverges from the historical record more significantly than most war films; in wittily deconstructing/ pastiching/ parodying conventions familiar to Western viewers, it elides the role of the Red Army, which was a distortion too far for patriotic Russians; they knew who really won the war and it certainly wasn’t the Americans.

Evidently Tarantino hadn’t bothered to watch any Russian war films, and for a supposed cinephile, that might be a bigger sin than re-writing history.

Had he done so, he would have discovered not just a different viewpoint but an entirely different tradition of war films.

The Russians didn’t simply do most of the heavy lifting to get rid of Hitler, they went on to make some of the most distinguished and impressive films about the campaign.

In doing so, they tell us stories of the war that are very different to the ones we’re most familiar with.

The Cranes are Flying is a good place to start, and not just because it has just been released in a beautiful bells-and-whistles special edition, the sort of treatment that all great movies deserve.

The film offers a good example of how Russian filmmakers have treated the Great Patriotic War, tackling the struggle against Hitler in more breadth and depth than their English language counterparts: there is a soldier who answers the call to arms but the main character is the gal he leaves behind, focusing on her travails and tragedies.

Combat fans might grumble that it’s not a proper war film, wherein lovey-dovey stuff is less important than hardware and manliness. And judged next to the sort of war film we know best, that’s probably true: these are not the inspirational, exceptional people of so many English language war movies, nor are they assigned the sort of specific mission that so many western films are structured around. Instead, it shows how a desperate – and necessarily collective – national effort intersects with individual lives, and the costs that all citizens must bear to protect their country.

By 1957, when The Cranes Are Flying was made, English language war films were firmly in their ‘Take that, Fritz!’ phase: celebratory action re-plays denuded of the doubts – dread – people felt at the time. (At least in European-set films; the Asian campaign has always provoked more serious films, like The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was made the same year as The Cranes Are Flying).

Russian directors brought more artistry to their work. The Cranes Are Flying is a striking and beautiful film, director Mikhail Kalatozov’s swooping, swooning camera matching the ecstasies of his characters (…and their desperation too).

Kalatozov was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his achievement, the only Soviet filmmaker ever so honoured, although Grigori Chukhrai came close: he was given a special jury prize in 1960 for Ballad of a Soldier. As the title suggests it is a lyrical film, about – yes – a soldier making a journey back from the fighting to see his mother, the antithesis of the action-packed English language war film, stressing the family loyalties that are such a part of the Russian tradition.

More impressive still is Ivan’s Childhood. This was the first feature film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, and established a critical reputation that would only be bolstered by his other, non-Second World War films.

It is a film about the consequences of ‘total war’ – its title character is a 12 year old orphan, old enough, it seems, to serve at the front.

It is a mournful film, showing the war leeching away Ivan’s innocence, as it had for all those who were young when the Nazis invaded: a great many childhoods were forcibly curtailed by war.

Those three films were all products of the Khrushchev era, that brief period where (slightly) relaxed censorship allowed for (slightly) more artistic daring.

Still, remarkable films continued to be made even after the more reactionary Brezhnev took power, Ascension (also known as The Ascent) being among the greatest.

It’s one of the few war films directed by a woman: Larisa Shepitko was one of the great talents of her generation and this is usually taken as her masterpiece.

It is a story of partisans and collaboration, but it’s also more: it contains religious themes (collaboration being akin to Judas’ betrayal) that almost got it banned, another indication of the different approach Russian filmmakers took to their war stories.

Those distinctive qualities – the difference in tone between Soviet films and those made by their former allies – are not simply temperamental.

Unlike Britain, let alone America, the Russians had fought the war on their home soil, and that fighting had been barbarous.

War is hell even at the best of times but the Eastern front was full-on ninth circle stuff, the siege of Leningrad and the battle for Stalingrad most especially. Some 27 million Russias died in the war, and for a people who went through that – especially a people naturally predisposed to poetic melancholy – feel-good triumphalism was always going to be a big ask.

That carnage has, for obvious reasons, largely been soft-peddled on screen and depictions of fighting were usually kept relatively discreet.

There is one glaring exception to this, however: Come and See, made in 1985 and directed by Elem Klimov (husband to Larisa Shepitkova, incidentally).

It is hard to discuss Come and See without resorting to superlatives but let’s try. Its plot is simplicity itself: set in Belarus in 1943, it follows a boy who joins the partisans to fight the invaders.

The struggle is intense, so much so that he seems to age before our very eyes.

This is as far from comfort viewing as you can get. Klimov used every trick at his disposal to put the audience in his protagonist’s shoes.

Some of his innovations have since become commonplace; many directors have copied the sound design which tries to replicate the loss of hearing the occurs after a shell bursts.

Rather fewer, though, have followed his lead and used live ammunition during combat scenes.

It builds to a sequence that may well be the most unbearable ever committed to film, as our young hero finds himself in the earlier stages of the holocaust, before the gas chambers came on-stream, when the butchery had to be improvised.

There is simply no other film that can match the depiction of war – not Saving Private Ryan, not Platoon, not Black Hawk Down. If nothing else, it is virtually the only movie that can leave you with PTSD.

It’s important to remember that barely a fraction of Russia’s Second World War movies have ever been screened in the West; they began making films about the war almost from the day Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against his one-time ally and, if we’re being polite, not all of them attain the same artistic standard.

Some of them, in fact, are positively unhinged: The Fall of Berlin is a near-three hour epic made in 1950 (with music by Shostakovich no less). It tells parallel stories: one is of a frontline fighter and the young woman he loves. The other is of the father of the nation – Stalin himself – as he wrestles with the war and his untrustworthy allies, Churchill and Roosevelt, who expect the Russians to do all the dying while they feast on the leftovers. Stalin, incidentally, also offers dating tips to the young soldier to woo his beloved.

As amusing as this undoubtedly is to modern eyes, it wasn’t made to provoke ironic smiles but to tell the story that the Kremlin of the day wanted viewers to believe, and in that it was largely successful.

Cinema has always been one of the most powerful ways of mythologising the Great Patriotic War, of Russian victimhood and bravery. What’s more, it still is.

Vladimir Putin has very consciously encouraged used stories of the war as part of his efforts to Make Russia Great Again, not least by spending taxpayer’s roubles on hugely expensive blockbuster war flicks: Fortress of War, Stalingrad and last year’s box-office champ T-34 have barely been screened in the West – heavily influenced by American war movies, they lack the poetry of their predecessors – but they’re seen by a great many people domestically, further cementing the war (and it is the war) as the fountainhead of Russian national identity, as inspiration and epitome.

Readers of this publication will need no reminder of how misunderstood folk memories of the years 1939-45 can be weaponised by unscrupulous nationalists.

The same thing is happening in Russia even more acutely and, for the wider world, the potential consequences are far, far worse. Powerful things, stories.

The Cranes Are Flying is available on the Criterion Collection.

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