by Coco Hames
Join Ettes leader Coco Hames as she moves through the Janus Films Essential Art House DVD box set one film at a time.
BALLAD OF A SOLDIER directed by GRIGORI CHUKHRAI (1959)
Russian with English subtitles
Running time: 88 minutes
Ballad of a Soldier was the first Russian film to be independently released in the United States, and it was very well received, even gaining a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. It's interesting that this antiwar classic came out right at the height of the Cold War, when sympathy for Soviets wasn't exactly sweeping the nation. While Soviet cinema around this era (a time referred to as the post-Stalinist "thaw") had a lot of patriotism and group solidarity in its imagery and storylines, there is definitely something "Western" about its presentation, most notably in that the story follows one man as an individual, on his own journey.
The first thing that came into my mind when I started watching Ballad was, "This is like a Russian Umberto D." The realism, the use of inexperienced actors, the emotional story and visual presentation all connect; De Sica's Umberto D. came out in 1952 and ostensibly could have informed Chukhrai and this film, as it was filmed in 1959 and released stateside in 1960.
The story opens with a woman walking through a village, down to a road where the narrator tells us she used to wait for her son to return. But he never returned from the war. He is buried in a foreign land, where strangers put flowers on his grave. We start at the end, but thus begins the story of our soldier, Alyosha Skvortsov, played by the boyishly handsome Vladimir Ivashov.
He is on the front, fighting yet afraid, and after seeing comrades fall just feet from where he is, he manages to take down two enemy tanks all by himself, which is totally awesome, and highlights how crazy war is and how anything can happen. This is further emphasized by quick, unnerving cuts, and even an inverted camera as we tumble along with or hero. When he is commended by his general, and it's decided he's to be decorated for his heroism, he asks if instead he can go visit his mother, since he wasn't able to say goodbye before he left for the front. He's only 19, and how much he misses his mother is apparent and sweet, and the grizzled general and his aides can't resist giving in to the boy, allowing him the time to go home, provided he comes back immediately.
We begin to see that this is a story about humanism and love, and how it can show up and persist and be honored even in dark and dangerous times. The love our soldier has for his mother; the love another soldier has for his wife back home; and — importantly for the story of our soldier — the love that grows between him and a young woman he meets on a train on his journey home.
After bribing a guard to stowaway on a cargo train, he is joined by another stowaway, the adorable Shura (played by the lovely Zhanna Prokhorenko), who, upon noticing she is not alone in the train car, FREAKS OUT on our hero, believing him to be a "scoundrel" who must only want to harm her. It's a really cute introduction because, as we already know, Alyosha is a stand-up kid, and their interaction until they come to an understanding is funny and charming. They warm to each other, and he offers to share some of his provisions, including a piece of salo, which I learned is a traditional Eastern European food made from cured fatback, seasoned with garlic, salt, black pepper, and coriander. Previously, I did not know this, and learning is great.
It's hard not to just give a scene by scene account of this movie, especially because the characters are so beautiful and engaged with life and one another, in a way you don't often see in these types of films. War can bring out the worst in people, but also the best, and the deepest humanity, and that is the powerful theme I found in Ballad of a Soldier: it even won a prize at Cannes for its "high humanism and outstanding quality."