Russia is an interesting nation to say the least, it’s history being a line of autocratic tsars and dictators, famines galore plague the country in it’s history, and uprisings were only slightly less common. As a nation it doesn’t have the most happy history, however this dark past is useful for one thing, and that is creating interesting media. So today and for the next 3 weeks, I am going to be looking at the films of Aleksei German, a semi famous Russian director, whose films I have seen come up when talking of good Russian films, and got curious enough about that I grabbed 4 of his films and decided it would be fun to review them. So without delay let us start with Twenty Days Without War.
The film starts us off with Major Lopatin, a Military Journalist during WW2, we hear a narrator talking about Lopatin’s thoughts, about how he is wondering why he remembers this day in particular, and about why he is remembering it now, wondering why he is alive instead of another soldier we see die in the flashback. We spend some time with him in a train, then it then Chronicles him back in his hometown, on leave for twenty days, which is the main bulk of the film.
The films twenty days style is done in an odd way. It passes quickly and we are given very little indication as to whether it is a different day after a cut to another scene, so the film can feel a bit odd and disorienting because events to very much just happen, us not being given much indication of how our character got here or why he may be here. Not that it is entirely bad and hard to follow, it’s just that it comes across as very disconnected and disjointed, since all we see is a bunch on snapshots of this guys time on leave.
However despite the editing being a bit rough around the edges and abrupt the films most certainly makes up for it in its directing and atmosphere, the shots in the film are lovely, especially in bringing across this atmosphere of claustrophobia that hangs over you the entirety of the film. The epitome of this is during the beginning in the train, which feels so closed and the oppressiveness of the atmosphere is just so wonderfully thick and ever present, despite the fact you only spend 10 or so minutes in it every moment is dripping with this dark atmosphere.
All the color in the film adds to this and feels dull, muted, so hopeless in it’s visuals, Our character also fits this dull aesthetic, not really having a purpose, seemingly having vaguely content existence but without…..much. He fits the films depressed, dark and just wonderfully sad attitude so well.
The visual of this film are just so so poignant, invoking emotion without any story to go with it, bringing across claustrophobia or sadness to the viewer so easily. Most films need story and characters to achieve any intense emotion, at least for me but this films visuals just……damn they are what drive the film, without them the story and characters would just feel like some boring vague guff.
The film does sometimes have shots that feel pointless and empty, for every beautiful somber scene there is one pointless odd drawn out scene, that just comes out of nowhere and slams into you feeling odd and just kinda pointless. Apart from this though the entire film feels mostly oppressive, it’s pure darkness not even Noir-Esque, for in those films things have clear form, a clear contrast of white, in this things blend uncomfortably since there isn’t much of a contrast just constant dreary shadow. We feel as if we are trapped in a dark an dreary mess, a darkness thick and uncomfortable and constant, it feels trapping and is at times so so unsettling with an atmosphere that almost makes it feel hard to breath from its pure unending oppressive and lonely nature.
One could though be turned off by technology at hand in the film though. It if very grainy, even for an old film, it being pixelated and not exactly something that looks good close up, at least technology wise. Another one of the biggest problem for me though was the subtitles irregularities, which can leave you feeling uncertain, at least if you are someone like me who loves knowing everything even background conversation, even if there is just multiple people talking it seems to omit them, so that can be a downer.
The films story is very much in nonexistance. The bulk of interesting meaning when it comes to the film comes from our main character and his brief interactions with others talking about the war, we can hear his frankness about the conditions of it. We hear about the hell of it too. Someone talks with Lopatin of how his train got shelled and how he crawled under dead bodies, while musing about how wearing a uniform and writing about the war didn’t do anything.
We also see our main characters fixation on a single death, the insignificance of such a thing, but it sticks in our characters mind, not Stalingrad, but this one kid, perhaps it is because it is so representative of the war because no matter how evil your enemy, no matter how fantastic your country is, there is no glory in war, at least not in the death of a kid.
Building on this theme all the war scenes we see are specifically non heroic. I wouldn’t say they denounce the war, but I would say it denounces the WW2 was glorious attitude that did permeate around then and still does to a large degree. After all it was perhaps one of the few wars in history were we were fighting a demonstrably much much worse foe. Despite the fact the allies did do some dodgy things, Bengal famine and Japanese interment camps, the Nazi’s were gonna genocide most of eastern Europe into nonexistence, and have the rest as slaves. Entire cultures and histories would have been erased in a matter of decades. So it isn’t hard to see where this glory attitude comes from, after all you do often see people talking about them being “the greatest generation” of humanity (of course the implication there is pretty much the greatest generation of Americans/British/French, since y know, I think humanities greatest generation wouldn’t have Stalin, Hitler and Shiro Ishii among them in the first place) This film though disagrees with the glory associated with WW2, it shows us Russia in a state of duality. Of
where the acts on the front are glorified but are discordant with the genuine horror of it all.
One thing I didn’t expect to find in this film was it’s ability to imply an affair without the scene being needlessly sexual. See most films when implying things like one night stands or romantic sex always seem to feel a need to shoot at least the beginning of it. Despite the fact there is no need to show us this, films will incessantly show us these pointless details trying to bring across a ‘sexy’ scene which more often then not feels odd, strange, and very much ‘shot for the male eye’ This film though so simply manages to imply a small affair without such pointless drivel. It isn’t much but still most film I notice fail to bring across such an idea without pointless scenes, so it is notable
The film though is frankly about the horrors of war, its oppressiveness which spreads even during away from the front, even though the villagers may not fully understand its horror, our main character doesn’t escape it’s reach and dwells on it during his brief trip and the film ends with the lovely words “Berlin is ways away, such a long ways away” Utterly fitting for a film so vaguely sad and wonderfully somber as this, which dwells on war with sad regret and a ‘tired of it’ attitude. If you can deal with a slightly disjointed film that can be dated technology wise, I can say the visuals of the film and it’s atmosphere will more then make up for those faults, and can easily say that if you have some free time this film is worth a look.