Writer: Fridrikh Gorenshtein
Stars: Karina Andolenko, Sergei Dontsov, Natalia Gandzyuk
In the West, Aleksandr Proshkin is mainly known for his 1988 hit The Cold Summer of ’53 (Kholodnoe leto 53-ego), the first film to engage with the fate of the Gulag returnees and the wave of crime (real or perceived) that flooded the country following Stalin’s death in March of that year. Characteristic of the new openness of the Gorbachev era, Cold Summer proved to be an eye-opener for many and an exciting film to watch. Rather than having the villains captured by the police, Proshkin decided to assign the role of “good guy” to an ex-convict, a “traitor of the fatherland,” and resolve the conflict in a classical shoot-out. Although it would be inappropriate to speak of a happy ending, the hero’s personal fate still being highly uncertain, the dividing line between good and bad is still easy to distinguish. Called a “Western” on more than one occasion (e.g., Dobson 2009: 1-2), Cold Summer comes close to satisfying our sense of poetic justice.
Set in an anonymous town in the western part of the Ukraine during the winters of 1945 and 1946, Expiation is doubtless a more demanding film, both in terms of plot development and as a statement of Soviet reality in the late 1940s. Many scenes become clear only upon a second viewing and even a denunciation in the style of Pavlik Morozov turns out to be less straightforward than one would expect. In an interview in Moskovskii Komsomolets, Proshkin has explicitly urged his audience not to judge his heroine too harshly, but to duly consider the circumstances under which she was forced to live (Khokhriakova). Indeed, viewers preferring neatly defined categories of “good” and “bad” characters as in Cold Summer, will struggle to make sense of the heroine and her sometimes contradictory behavior.
Expiation opens with a highly symbolic scene that epitomizes the grimness of life in the Soviet Union just after WW II. Using a pair of pincers, a ten-year-old boy cuts bullets in two and throws them into a camp fire where they explode. His little brother assists him, taking delight in the loud bangs. It soon becomes clear that this is more than a reckless pastime of two vagrant children. The older boy melts the bullets’ jackets to cast his own brass knuckles, a vital asset for life on the street. When his younger brother throws a handful of intact bullets into the flames, the result is stray gunfire that makes passers-by intuitively duck. On this occasion, nobody gets hurt, but eventually the young perpetrator is killed in a freak accident when a group of waifs throws an unexploded German bomb into a mine shaft thereby causing a small, but fatal landslide.
Reviewed by Otto Boele © 2012 in KinoKultura