is the most brutal and disturbing war film ever made: we experience Florya’s fiery baptism from boyhood into insanity. Director Elem Klimov shows us the horror of the Great Patriotic War untainted by Western propaganda (or at least its ignorance).
Klimov films in a tight 4:3 frame and packs every shot with information: we are not spared the bodies, the slaughter, the deep wailing sorrow, and the emotional filth of war. His close-ups into vacant eyes and burned faces croaking reprimands are unsettling. The soundtrack is often an ambiguous thrum, a deep scream through nature; when music is revealed it is often ironic. Florya is a young man who wishes to defend his country from terrorists, these Nazi invaders who are destroying everything in their path. We experience the film entirely from his perspective; we feel what he is unable to put into words. His heartbreaking scream as he tries to shut himself out from the world, hands clawing futilely at his ears, to refuse the knowledge of his family’s gruesome butchery, is utterly compelling…and believable. He and another young girl join the survivors of his village who are hiding in a swamp, starving, without hope.
Klimov gives us pure instinctual survival, he defines the human animal, and Florya stumbles directionless through the film becoming less and less human. He films mostly with a Steadicam with minimal editing giving the film a very realistic rhythm, choreographing complicated sequences with hundreds of people. The final half-hour is almost too much: as the retreating Nazis burn an entire village…and a church full of women and children. Klimov packs us in this tight space with Florya and we smell the stench of fear and gasoline, and the cries echo in our hearts forever. This dichotomy is mercilessly crosscut with laughing and taunting soldiers, who not only feel no remorse but are jubilant and ecstatic, whose joy at this murderous parade is gut wrenching. Florya survives and witnesses the Partisan’s retribution as they execute the Nazis…but they take little happiness from this act.
Florya never fires his rifle the entire film until the end when he discovers a muddied picture of Hitler. He points the weapon into the camera and shoots, reversing time, the Great Patriotic War rewinding, the Blitzkrieg retreating back into Germany, the Versailles Treaty being unsigned, and back to Hitler’s childhood. He pulls the trigger and each time these images rewind and his face glows with madness. But the final picture of Adolf as a child, cradled lovingly in his mothers arms…Florya can’t kill this image. Unlike the Nazis, he has retained his humanity; he is no child killer. The film ends as the Partisans march into the forest: the Steadicam follows them from the muddy road of fall, through the trees, and suddenly the snow is falling and a new season beckons. A wonderful shot without an edit, as the Russian winter is their final weapon that defeats the monstrous invaders.
Final Grade: (A+)