Monday, 4 April 2011

Dmitri Meskhiyev : Our Own - Свои (2004)


Directed by: Dmitri Meskhiyev.
With : Konstantin Khabensky, Sergei Garmash, Mikhail Yevlanov, Bogdan Stupka.

Winner of 13 prestigious awards around the globe—including five Russian Academy Awards (Nika Awards) for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Sound and Best Screenplay—veteran director Dmitri Meskhiyev's Our Own is an unforgettable and emotional story about heroism, sacrifice and patriotism. ...



At the XXVI International Moscow Film Festival in June 2004, Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Us hit the jackpot. The film received the Grand Prix—the Gold St. George—for Best Film, and also picked up Best Director and Best Male Actor (Bogdan Stupka) awards. In the six months between the film’s festival triumph and its more modest release, discussions among film connoisseurs seem to have merged with the film’s title: how did “we” beat “them” (that is, foreign films)? Some comments sound like a paranoid throwback to the 1970s, suggesting that the “big” topic of WWII played a role in the jury’s decision, or even that Meskhiev’s film is a state commissioned work (sotszakaz) for the approaching sixtieth anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War. Be that as it may, with its $2.5 million budget, a host of popular actors, and solid camera work by Sergei Machilskii (Nika Best Cinematographer award in 2003 for Filipp Iankovskii’s In Motion), Meskhiev’s film is a serious and professional work.

Us, indeed, belongs to a series of recent Russian films—of which Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo (2002) is perhaps the most celebrated example—that turn the myth of the Great Patriotic War into an identity quest. In many ways, this is a very traditional Russian cinema about testing humanity in the absence of good choices, appealing in its absolute formal and narrative simplicity. Us is set in the early months of the war, as the relentless wave of the Nazi invasion pushes the Red Army further to the East. Like Cuckoo, Meskhiev’s film sets its narrative in an indefinite location: it can be Russia, Belorussia, or Lapland. What matters is its liminal status—it is an “occupied territory,” the space between peace and war, “us” and “them,” humanity and brutality. And the war itself has not yet achieved the status of the Great Patriotic War in public consciousness, as the site of a mythological struggle where the sides are clear.

Us is a film about escape and banishment. Having escaped from enemy fire, the two protagonists—a Russian NKVD officer (Sergei Garmash) and a Jewish commissar (Konstantin Khabenskii) hurriedly change their Red Army uniforms for peasant outfits before they are captured by the Nazis. In the prisoners’ column, they meet a young peasant, sniper Mitka (Mikhail Evlanov). Mitka tells them that his village is nearby, and the three escape from the column and head for the village. Once there, they have an unpleasant surprise: Mitka’s father (Bogdan Stupka), who spent years in Siberia as a former kulak, is the village headmaster and cooperates with the Nazis. The three characters now face the ultimate challenge: surviving among their own people.

The title of the film is virtually untranslatable and emerges out of the thick of Soviet ideological struggles of the last century, reviving the “us” vs. “them” opposition. Within the political ideology of Stalinism, none of the male characters is one of “us”: three POWs, a former kulak, and a head polizei (Fedor Bondarchuk). The film, however, suggests that the term is imbued with a communal, rather than ideological, logic of inclusion-exclusion. Mitka Blinov, for instance, comes from the village of Blinovo and is related to half of its inhabitants, including several polizei. Characters’ choices—to kill or not to kill, to betray or to save—are based on family allegiances and circumstances, not ideology. It is a world of barter: Katia (Anna Mikhalkova) convinces a polizei to exchange a telescopic sight for her mother’s earrings; the father plans to ransom his two daughters out of the Nazi prison with two gold coins. Ideology only becomes an issue when one doesn’t have a choice, as with Lifshits who, according to the film’s narrative, is a sickly Jew, hence a commissar and doomed to die.

Us blurs two dimensions of the war’s epic meaning. One is the tragedy of the Nazi invasion, conveyed through slow-motion cinematography, discontinuous montage of panic and destruction, sounds of shooting muted by the extradiegetic music. The Nazi surprise attack on the Soviet Army Headquarters motivates the events of the narrative and brings the three heroes together. The re-appearance of Nazi troops at the end disperses the group and closes the frame. At the same time, Nazis are the least important figures in the film, being ostensibly not “us.” German dialogue is never translated, and the German soldiers in a truck driving through the occupied town are strikingly different from the Russians: clean, shaven, young, and most importantly, deracinated and disoriented. The only expression on their faces is bewilderment at Russian life. They have very little control over that life and little understanding of the brutal, unsystematic, “Tolstoian” warfare waged against them.
Us, indeed, belongs to a series of recent Russian films—of which Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo (2002) is perhaps the most celebrated example—that turn the myth of the Great Patriotic War into an identity quest. In many ways, this is a very traditional Russian cinema about testing humanity in the absence of good choices, appealing in its absolute formal and narrative simplicity. Us is set in the early months of the war, as the relentless wave of the Nazi invasion pushes the Red Army further to the East. Like Cuckoo, Meskhiev’s film sets its narrative in an indefinite location: it can be Russia, Belorussia, or Lapland. What matters is its liminal status—it is an “occupied territory,” the space between peace and war, “us” and “them,” humanity and brutality. And the war itself has not yet achieved the status of the Great Patriotic War in public consciousness, as the site of a mythological struggle where the sides are clear.

Us is a film about escape and banishment. Having escaped from enemy fire, the two protagonists—a Russian NKVD officer (Sergei Garmash) and a Jewish commissar (Konstantin Khabenskii) hurriedly change their Red Army uniforms for peasant outfits before they are captured by the Nazis. In the prisoners’ column, they meet a young peasant, sniper Mitka (Mikhail Evlanov). Mitka tells them that his village is nearby, and the three escape from the column and head for the village. Once there, they have an unpleasant surprise: Mitka’s father (Bogdan Stupka), who spent years in Siberia as a former kulak, is the village headmaster and cooperates with the Nazis. The three characters now face the ultimate challenge: surviving among their own people.

The title of the film is virtually untranslatable and emerges out of the thick of Soviet ideological struggles of the last century, reviving the “us” vs. “them” opposition. Within the political ideology of Stalinism, none of the male characters is one of “us”: three POWs, a former kulak, and a head polizei (Fedor Bondarchuk). The film, however, suggests that the term is imbued with a communal, rather than ideological, logic of inclusion-exclusion. Mitka Blinov, for instance, comes from the village of Blinovo and is related to half of its inhabitants, including several polizei. Characters’ choices—to kill or not to kill, to betray or to save—are based on family allegiances and circumstances, not ideology. It is a world of barter: Katia (Anna Mikhalkova) convinces a polizei to exchange a telescopic sight for her mother’s earrings; the father plans to ransom his two daughters out of the Nazi prison with two gold coins. Ideology only becomes an issue when one doesn’t have a choice, as with Lifshits who, according to the film’s narrative, is a sickly Jew, hence a commissar and doomed to die.

Us blurs two dimensions of the war’s epic meaning. One is the tragedy of the Nazi invasion, conveyed through slow-motion cinematography, discontinuous montage of panic and destruction, sounds of shooting muted by the extradiegetic music. The Nazi surprise attack on the Soviet Army Headquarters motivates the events of the narrative and brings the three heroes together. The re-appearance of Nazi troops at the end disperses the group and closes the frame. At the same time, Nazis are the least important figures in the film, being ostensibly not “us.” German dialogue is never translated, and the German soldiers in a truck driving through the occupied town are strikingly different from the Russians: clean, shaven, young, and most importantly, deracinated and disoriented. The only expression on their faces is bewilderment at Russian life. They have very little control over that life and little understanding of the brutal, unsystematic, “Tolstoian” warfare waged against them. ...

Reviewed by Elena Prokhorova©2005 in KinoKultura

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