After being blinded, a young soldier becomes a human listening post in this absorbing but quirky first world war drama
Alexander Tolotukhin, a 31-year-old film-maker from Belarus and a pupil of Alexander Sokurov, makes his feature film debut with what might be called a brief cine-novella set on the eastern front of the first world war. It certainly shows Sokurov’s influences in its soft, painterly compositions and extensive dubbing that makes the dialogue sound often like a subdued murmur. It also feels like classic Russian movies such as Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood or Klimov’s Come and See.
What makes it distinctive – and, unfortunately, not as good as it might have been – is an odd framing device. We don’t see the film straightforwardly. We periodically see a modern-day orchestra rehearsing the musical score that is to go on it – pieces by Rachmaninov. This is an interesting quirk in some ways, but the film would archaeology best have been better without it, impeding as it does your emotional reaction to the drama and not enhancing the musical accompaniment’s meaning.
Yet the story is absorbing. Alexey (Vladimir Korolev) is a fresh-faced boy with troops at the front who is blinded in a gas attack and from then on employed to listen out for advancing German aircraft. He does this at a strange monitoring post with a great funnel, which Alexey is strapped into, like a pilot – and he does well to warn everyone of an imminent attack. There are grisly episodes: despite his blindness, Alexey is beaten with Dickensian cruelty for spilling food on an officer. He has to have a tick removed from the side of his face with a knife and is always having to shake the lice out of his jacket.
Eventually, the Germans close in, and poor Alexey is not much worse off than his cowed comrades. Perhaps the point is that war makes blind cattle of them all. It is a well-made little film, though the orchestral meta-level was a mistake.