Here’s an unusual film. It’s short for a modern feature at under 75 mins. It doesn’t have much of a plot but it packs in a great many ideas. After the announcement of its state sponsorship we are told that this is an ‘Example of Intonation’ [from?] ‘A Non-Profit Film Foundation’ (Alexander Sokurov’s Foundation). These credits (white on a black background) are accompanied by what sounds like a shuffling of papers. The first image on screen is a pair of soldiers running/stumbling down a steep slope towards us accompanied by the opening of a dramatic orchestral score and suddenly we see the conductor of the orchestra in mid-shot. He is in contemporary dress, the soldiers are from a much earlier period. For the next couple of minutes the image cuts between the soldiers, who have now caught up with their comrades, a raggle-taggle bunch with a horse pulling a cartload of ammunition and a machine-gun, and the players of the orchestra – seemingly it is an orchestra of young players, perhaps from a conservatory? In both locations the camera alternates between closer and longer shots. The camera eventually picks out a boy soldier, perhaps aged 14 or 15? He is being teased by the men. The filmic image of the soldiers is distinctive. There is a high degree of ‘grain’ and the colours are de-saturated so that the greens of the countryside and the browns of the uniforms merge into a sometimes hazy and almost nostalgic glow like early colour photographs. It is also ‘painterly’ in its presentation (see the image above). The corners of the image are rounded. The aspect ratio is hard to determine but it seems to me to be something like 1:1.54, unlike anything I am familiar with. (I measured its dimensions on my computer screen.)
The crosscutting between the orchestra and the soldiers lessens as the narrative develops. Yet as soon as the title, A Russian Youth by Alexander Zolotukhin, has disappeared (we easily identify that the film is going to be about the boy played by Vladimir Korolev), we are shown a close-up of the music score itself. Then, although we see less of the orchestra, we do hear the conductor’s instructions which are italicised in the subtitles so that we can distinguish them from the dialogue between the soldiers. As soon as the narrative begins to develop we forget about the orchestra but we know it is there. It ‘re-appears’ at the climax of the film with attention given to ferocious piano playing. I didn’t really notice the ‘intrusion’ of shots of the orchestra later on in the narrative. Perhaps there were some but I don’t remember them. What does this parallel cutting mean? I thought at first that because the filmic image of the soldiers seemed to refer to ‘silent’ cinema (albeit in the ‘wrong’ aspect ratio) the orchestra was meant to signify the players who would have been in the cinema orchestra in the 1910s. It occurs to me now that we do have an orchestra of young players who seem sometimes to be looking at a projected image of the young soldiers fighting for their lives. The Russians on screen are being encircled by German forces who seem much better armed and better led. Is this therefore an anti-war film? It doesn’t seem to be celebrating the prowess of Russian troops.
We are not told where the fighting is taking place nor when these events are unfolding but there is a brief scene in which some of the soldiers are distributing leaflets, suggesting that there is considerable unrest about the poor leadership of the armies and the inadequate provisions. Our hero ‘Aleksey’ is blinded in his first action by a German gas attack. He has been badly taught the primitive technique for covering his eyes. The Germans have gas masks. Such scenes (i.e. a gas attack on a defended trench position) suggest 1915 or 1916. The gas was perhaps chlorine, used by the Germans on both fronts. The blinded Aleksey is helped by many of his comrades and taken under the wing of one or another. In a sense, he is no worse off than before. In fact he makes his one positive contribution to the Russian effort by acting as a ‘listening observer’ and giving warning of approaching enemy aircraft using a primitive listening device like a gigantic ear trumpet.
I found this film very watchable and intriguing. I’m not sure what it all means but it certainly explores ideas about sound an image in cinema. Several commentators and reviewers have attempted to link the film to the considerable achievements of the later Soviet Cinema in producing films about ‘The Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-45. Tarkovsky’s film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Elim Klimov’s Come and See (1985) are the two films referenced, both featuring young characters. I haven’t seen Come and See, but Ivan’s Childhood has a young central character who is quite unlike the the village boy in A Russian Youth. The two wars are very different, one largely before the 1917 Revolution, the other a ‘Patriotic War’. Having said that, I was reminded of Aleksai German’s Trial on the Road (1971/85), simply on the basis that there is a futility expressed in these anti-war films. In A Russian Youth, the final scenes, accompanied by that ferocious piano playing seem to take us back to the beginning with a similar scene of soldiers trying to haul a heavy gun up a hill. The difference is that the men (and the boy) are now prisoners being forced up the hill by their captors.
The credits reveal that the music by Rachmaninoff is the 1909 Piano Concerto No.3 Op. 30 and the Symphonic Dances from 1940 Op. 45. The orchestra is the Tavrichesky Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Golikov and it is indeed a youth orchestra. Researching the orchestra I came across this excellent piece by Baradwaj Rangan who watched the film on MUBI India. Rangan makes some very interesting points. He’s explored the music and the conductor’s comments as they are juxtaposed with the visual images and dialogue of the soldiers and finds them often connected directly, as if the conductor is giving instructions to his players in a similar way to the orders given to the soldiers, e.g. “Let’s take a break there”. The punchline of Rangan’s piece is to argue that A Russian Youth has much more of an emotional charge through its formal operations than Sam Mendes’ acclaimed ‘one take’ film 1917. I decided not to watch the Mendes film (mainly because I feared something like what Rangan suggests about it). But I do go with the view that A Russian Youth is a very emotionally-involving film.
I was struck by how well writer-director Zolotukhin and his crew (cinematographer Ayrat Yamilov, production designer Elena Zhukova, costume designer Olga Bakhareva and sound designer Fonin Andrey) create the world of 1915. I thought afterwards how it seemed much more ‘real’ than those colourised images of 1914-18 newsreels presented by Peter Jackson that received so much attention a few years ago. A Russian Youth is very much worth 75 minutes of your time. Don’t miss it if you get the chance to see it.