Friday, 6 September 2013

Alexei German: Trial on the Road - Проверка на дорогах (1971)

Director: Aleksey German
Writers: Yuri German (stories), Eduard Volodarskiy
Stars: Rolan Bykov, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Vladimir Zamanskiy

Проверка на дорогах (1971)

Banned for fifteen years and threatened with destruction by Soviet authorities, Guerman's solo directorial debut is clearly the work of a born master. Based on a true story documented by Guerman's father, Trial on the Road centres on a German soldier captured by the Russians in Nazi-controlled Byelorussia, who turns out to be a contrite defector who wants to return to the fold of the partisans. Forced to prove his loyalty to the homeland in increasingly perilous missions against the invaders, he achieves heroism in a sequence that recalls Melville's Army of Shadows in its masterful building of suspense. Accused of "de-heroizing" Soviet history with its moral complexity and multiple ambiguities, Trial on the Road became an acknowledged classic even in its enforced absence.

German’s first feature, Proverka na dorogakh(Trial on the Road), was finally shot in 1971; in retrospect it seems almost incredible that it was filmed at all. Soviet, indeed, Russian identity since World War Two had been founded on that bitterly won victory: the march to Berlin did more than any cult of personality to legitimate Stalin’s rule. German’s film undermines the fable of unwavering heroism and loyalty that sustained the self-perception of whole generations of Soviet citizens. A former Red Army lieutenant defects to the Nazis on ideological grounds, then decides to switch sides again to defend his homeland. The partisan brig­ade who capture him are suspicious and test his loyalty in a series of operations behind enemy lines. The motivations for the main character’s actions are barely discussed: questions of treason, of ideological as opposed to patriotic commitment are left largely unaddressed, and there is an uncomfortable sense of futility lurking behind any seeming acts of heroism. Proverka na dorogakh was shelved until 1986 because, according to internal memos of the state film agency Goskino, it ‘distorts the image of a heroic time’—‘the people it depicts could only have lost the Great Patriotic War’; the subtext being that German’s film ‘makes us someone other than who we want to be’.
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Inspired by a real case documented by Guerman’s father, Trial on the Road tells the story of a sergeant in the Red Army during World War II who has defected to the Nazis and, as the film begins, switches sides yet again. His loyalties questioned by all except for a benevolent commander, the soldier is forced to prove his patriotism via a series of increasingly perilous missions. The visual flourishes of Trial on the Road’s battle scenes even attracted the notice of some in Hollywood, but Guerman himself remains proudest of such innovative touches as actors who gaze directly into the camera. For daring to question the orthodoxy that World War II was a heroic struggle free of ironies and ambiguities, the film was shelved for fifteen years.
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