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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Ballad of a Soldier

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Director: Grigori Chukhrai
Country: Soviet Union
Year: 1959

Background

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I can hear you complaining. “Another war film? Another RUSSIAN war film?” It may surprise or even distress you to know that I can hear your thoughts, but make no mistake: I CAN. But here’s the thing, naysayers and jackanapes: While sharing a general theme, country of origin, color palette and aspect ratio with Alexander Nevsky, Ballad of a Soldier is at the opposite end of the “war film” spectrum. A Netflix reviewer describes Ballad as “Soviet life as it might have been depicted by Frank Capra, if he had had John Ford’s visual style” and that is so accurate that it almost makes the rest of this article unnecessary. To put it in perspective: If Alexander Nevsky is the swaggering and jingoistic Red Dawn of Russian war films, Ballad of a Soldier is The Best Years of Our Lives, a heartbreaking, humanist portrait of ordinary people struggling against intolerable odds just to connect with one another and reclaim their lives, while war and its fallout threatens to destroy everything.

Grigori Chukhrai was born in the Ukraine in 1921. He was a wounded and decorated veteran of WWII, and most of his films are at least tangentially related to the events of that war. When the war was over, Chukhrai studied film at the Soviet State Film School, and worked as an assistant director at the Kiev Film Studio. In 1957, he directed his first film to be shown outside the Soviet Union, The Forty-First. This period of Chukhrai’s ascendancy coincided fortuitously with the post-Stalin “thaw” in Soviet culture. Suddenly, the pressure to create “Hooray for Mother Russia” propaganda films was (somewhat) diminished, and it became possible to produce a film that accurately represented the devastation of war.

In 1959, Chukhrai wrote and directed Ballad of a Soldier. Two well-known young Soviet actors were cast as Alyosha and Shura, the male and female leads. As production began, however, the director was not happy with their performances. The professional actors were unceremoniously sacked, and two unknowns, Vladimir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko, were brought in. “We took a big risk,” admitted Chukhrai. “…we ventured and did not regret afterwards. Volodya (Vladimir) and Zhanna gave the most precious colouring to the film, that is, the spontaneity and charm of youth.” The film went on to become enormously popular in the Soviet Union, but Chukhrai was worried that his simple mother-son story would not be appreciated by a sophisticated international audience. Ballad was screened at Cannes in 1960, and won a prize for its “high humanism and outstanding quality.” Soviet filmmaker Sergei Gerassimov explained the film’s appeal: “The pathos of Fellini in La Dolce Vita could be put this way: One Should Not Live Like This; the pathos of Chukhrai in Ballad of a Soldier could be summed up as: We Should Live Like This.” Ballad went on to play in festivals around the world, and was a surprise hit in the U.S., even receiving a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination.

Chukhrai went on to direct other films and win other awards, but Ballad of a Soldier would remain the pinnacle of his career, the film that will always be associated with his name. Grigori Chukhrai died in Moscow in 2001, at the age of 80.

Synopsis

An old woman dressed in black walks alone on a country road. She stops and stares into the distance. She waits, the narrator tells us, for nobody. “The one she used to wait for, her son Alyosha, did not return from the war. He’s buried far from his birthplace, near a town with a foreign name. Strangers bring flowers to his grave. They call him a Russian soldier, a hero, a liberator. But to her he was simply a son, about whom she knew everything.”

Well… almost everything. The remainder of the film is a flashback which undercuts that statement, showing us the only part of Alyosha’s life which is unknown to his mourning mother.

Alyosha (sometimes, confusingly for us Yanks, called Alexei) is alone in a trench on the battlefield. German tanks chase him from the trench and across a ruined landscape, past the corpses of his fallen comrades. Exhausted, and with nowhere to run, Alyosha digs in and fires at the tanks. Somehow – “miraculously” wouldn’t be wide of the mark – he disables one tank… and then another.

And… that’s all the fighting you get. Seriously. I watched it all the way through, hoping for some scenes of Russian soldiers being cut in half by strafing runs or SS officers melted by phosphorous bombs or at least a frigging nerve gas attack or a grenade tossed in slow motion through the window of a moving supply train, but no such luck. Five minutes in, and the shooting is all over, my friend.

Alyosha is summoned to the general’s office and offered a medal. “Instead of my medal, could I go home to see my mother?” he asks, hesitantly. His mom’s roof is leaking, he explains, and he’d like to fix it for her. After the general stops laughing, he grants Alyosha’s request, and this is the point at which the movie shifts gears, morphing before our eyes from Full Metal Jacket to It Happened One Night. Or possibly Easy Rider: “They went searching for Russia… and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Alyosha is given a six-day leave: two to get home, two to fix the roof, two to get sidetracked on wacky adventures among the colorful rapscallions he encounters in the Soviet countryside, and then two to return. Wait, no… okay, two to get there, two to fix the roof… well, in any case, he has six days, which he can allocate as he wishes. If he uses more days from Column C (wacky adventures, etc.), he’ll have to subtract an equal number of days from Column B (fixing his mom’s roof). It’s a flex-time deal.

Alyosha prepares to leave, and is almost immediately burdened with a desperate request from a fellow soldier headed for the front: “Tell Liza that her Sergei is all right! Also, as a token of my undying love and eternal devotion, take her this bar of hand soap!” See, this is the kind of information you can absorb from foreign films: apparently, hand soap has an entirely different cultural significance in the Soviet Union.

At the train station, Alyosha meets a one-legged veteran heading home to his wife. Alyosha, chipper as always, offers to travel with him, but the morose veteran is in no hurry to get home. Convinced that his wife could not love an amputee, he is determined to wander the earth, presumably fighting crime, leaving his wife free to re-marry. “My wife is young and pretty,” he tells Alyosha. “She’ll find her happiness, right?”

Alyosha prevails upon Stumpy Ivan, however, and they board the train for Gorosov together. When tobacco runs low, Alyosha shares his meager supply with a trainload of soldiers. When the soldiers also mention that they are, in fact, lacking the cigarette papers necessary to contain and smoke the tobacco, Alyosha tears his commendation documents into appropriately-sized rectangles. That’s the kind of guy Alyosha is; the kind of guy who tears up his commendation papers so that someone he just met can have a smoke break.

At the next station, the veteran and his wife are reunited. “Oh Vasya! You’re back! You’re alive!” They embrace and weep, and Alyosha is free to resume his light carpentry visionquest.

After a furtive exchange of canned beef, he is allowed to stow away in a freight car full of hay. The hay is warm and comfortable, and Alyosha thinks to himself, “how could things possibly get any better than this?” At which point, a beautiful young woman hops into the same hay-car and begins adjusting her stockings, surrounded by a halo of unearthly light.

The young girl is Shura, and she is on her way home to visit her fiance. After hearing this, Alyosha keeps a respectful distance, although at one point they have to hide in the hay and he kinda nuzzles her cheek. Which, believe it or not, is very sexy. But that’s as far as it goes, because Alyosha is only on a six-day leave, and Shura HAS A FIANCE.

A bullying train guard discovers the two not-quite-lovers and comments leeringly to Alyosha, “You’ve got it made – hay, a girl…” A fight ensues, and Alyosha calls the guard a “miserable shit” which was surprising to hear in a 1960 Russian film. Eventually, more canned beef changes hands, and Alyosha and Shura are allowed to remain in the hay. Predictably, their conversation turns to love. “I used to be friends with a girl, and we didn’t think at all of love, only friendship,” proclaims Alyosha. “Maybe you were in love and didn’t notice,” counters Shura. That Shura; she’s a sly one.

Every time the train stops, Alyosha hears frightening news about the war; battles lost, cities destroyed. During one of these stops, the train – with Shura aboard – leaves without him. Alyosha dashes through a forest to a nearby road and hitches a ride with an old woman whose truck, not surprisingly, breaks down in the rain. “What a truck,” she observes with resignation. “We’re the same age!”

Alyosha catches up with Shura, and they hurry through a bombed-out city to deliver the hand soap to Sergei’s wife Liza. The mood in Liza’s apartment is tense, and we soon discover why: She is living with another man, who is currently hiding in the pantry. “Don’t tell Pavlov about what you’ve seen here,” she pleads with Alyosha. Rather than denouncing her verbally, Alyosha delivers the ultimate symbolic condemnation by taking back the previously-gifted hand soap. Take that, WHORE!

On the train once again, Alyosha and Shura look into each other’s eyes with sweet longing, glorious close-ups of their luminous faces intercut with the Russian countryside sliding past the window.

It is time for Alyosha and Shura to part; she to visit her fiance, he to continue on to his mother’s village for some hasty roof repair. Shura admits what I suspected from the first: she was totally lying about that fiance shit. “I don’t have anyone else,” she tells Alyosha, and he… jumps back on the train. “I live in the village of Sosnovka!” he yells to her, but trains are loud, brother, and she can’t hear anything he’s saying. She is probably shouting something at him, too, but who can tell? And that is the last time Alyosha and Shura ever see each other.

The train travels on, through dense forests of birch tress, as Alyosha remembers every moment with Shura… her smile, her vitality, that mysterious halo of unearthly light that seemed to surround her head at all times… finally, (the memory of) Shura tells him what everyone in the audience figured out five minutes earlier: “Alyosha, when I told you I didn’t have anyone else, I was admitting that I loved you. Why didn’t you say anything?”

Refugees from the Ukraine are also on the train, traveling to the Urals: “The factory is there, and our sons.” Alyosha’s leave is running out. All of his do-gooder-ism and assorted shenanigans have eaten up most of his roof-fixing time. At his current speed, Alyosha figures he’ll have one night to spend visiting with his mother. Right about then, the dirty Jerries bomb the train. The beautiful young Ukrainian girl who had momentarily presented a second romantic option for Alyosha is now dead, her beautiful blonde hair arrayed about her bleeding head like the rays of a setting sun.

Undeterred by the horrifying rail disaster, Alyosha finds a fucking raft and poles himself down the river. Closer to home, he takes to the road, and hitchhikes the rest of the way to his mother’s neighborhood. “That’s Katerina’s boy!” exclaim the neighbors as he drives past. “Someone go out to the field and tell her!” With the truck waiting, Alyosha searches for his mother. She runs, panting, through waving fields of wheat. The truck driver toots his horn, thereby increasing the tension. Mother and son finally find each other and embrace, crying, for a full minute. Katerina has plans – she wants Alyosha to come in and have tea, spend the night, move some boxes up to the attic, watch a couple episodes of LOST, meet that nice neighbor girl (Zoika) who’s all grown up now… but Alyosha explains that he has to leave. “I wanted to fix the roof…” he says, hopelessly.

The driver, who has a load of beets to deliver, honks the horn again. “I didn’t wait for your father,” says Katerina. “But I’ll wait for you.” Alyosha climbs into the truck and waves as he speeds away. “I’ll be back, Mama!” he says. The truck disappears over the hill, and Alyosha’s mother remains standing in the road, alone.

What I Liked

The young leads are absolutely delightful: attractive (which counts for a lot in this kind of film), believable, sly, petulant, funny, utterly natural. Their romance – despite never being consummated – is deliciously romantic. The affection the director has for these actors, these characters, is deeply felt throughout; the film is filled with close-ups of their faces, and it never gets tiring.

The backdrop of the war is believable and the impact on the characters’ lives is heart-wrenching, but somehow the tone of the film remains sweet and optimistic. In the BACKGROUND section, I mentioned the director who said that Ballad of a Soldier tells us, “We Should Live Like This.” As glib as that sounds, it accurately describes my emotional response while watching the film. I loved the characters, and I was completely swept up in their quest to do the right thing, to connect with each other, to survive. I felt devastated when their plans were thwarted (I even cried, a little). After the film was over, I was left with the same warm, satisfied feeling that I have after watching some of Capra’s better films: for approximately fifteen minutes, I believed in the possibility that humans might be basically decent, when given the chance. That feeling evaporated when I fired up my computer and saw the story about the cannibal sex-murderer who now enjoys a career as a highly-paid celebrity food critic in Japan. No, I am not making this up.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

At the beginning and end there was some narration, and this seemed to be the only bit of knee-jerk patriotic posturing in the film. “They remembered him – not just as a soldier, but as a RUSSIAN soldier.” I could have done without that.

Should You See It?

I’ve gotten in the habit of apologizing for these films being subtitled, black-and-white, and for having fewer helicopter chases than your average American blockbuster, and I’m going to stop that as of this sentence. I hereby recommend Ballad of a Soldier without reservation. It’s a gorgeously composed, tightly edited, beautifully scored heartbreaker of a film, with two vibrant and attractive young people as the leads, and a whole range of chewy character acting around the periphery. It triumphantly succeeds as popular entertainment, but it won’t leave you with that saccharine aftertaste that you get from watching the latest Sandra Bullock film. Get yourself a box of Kleenex, watch Ballad of a Soldier, then come back and tell me what you thought.

Next: Beauty and the Beast

5 Comments

  1. Ballad of a soldier was one of the best russian -war movies ive ever seen. People should watch simular war movies –to see what we do to each other –it really would beat going off to war –every time the whistle –blows —-i truly know what im talking about –My grandfather was–in ww2-korea-&–viet nam. Watch movies -for research, see how many other countries lost. WW2 -every island the imperial japenese army was on they lost 60,000–80,000 wow! Thats incredible,& horrible. And we thought 58,000 in nam was bad.We used the atamic weapons because we couldnt stomach-more blood shed –or see the political –situation-change at home–(the communists) IN RUSSIA & CHINA. wHEN GERMANY SURRENDERED–HE WANTED TO REARM THEM TO FIGHT THE RUSSIANS- IF WE DIDNT LIKE THE RUSSIANS SO MUCH WHY DID WE EVEN HELP THEM? tHEY ALSO –INVADED ((poland)) AS WELL –BUT WERE NEVER BOMBED –LIKE GERMANY WAS–WHY NOT?wE ALSO BOMBED THE JAPENESE — BECAUSE THE WEST HAD A HATRED/FEAR OF A STRONGER ASIAN COUNTERPART. jAPAN –ARMED UP IN THE 1ST PLACE BECAUSE -OF THE USA-(COMMODORE PERRY) OPEN UP YOUR PORTS TO WESTERN TRADE-THEY DID /DIDNT WANT TO BE INVADED. iN WW2 JAPAN SAW WHAT HAPPENED TO CHINA/& VOWED NOT TO BE INVADED , I DONT -KNOW –& DONT HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS-BUT THESE ARE SOME OF MY BELIEFS. (TO REACH –PEACE—tEACH –PEACE) SAID BY ONE OF THE POPES,GREGORY I BELIEVE. yOU WANT TO SEE A GOOD WW2 MOVIE,ernest gordon—tO END aLL wARS. ,WATCH IT IM TELLING YOU. yOU DONT NEED THESE STUPID MINDLESS –ACTION FLICKS OF TODAY.+ WATCH tORA! tORA! tORA! _MY GRAND FATHER JOINED ARMY 21 B-DAY AUG 1941–1ST PLACE HE -WAS BROUGHT TO –PEARL HARBOR,HE SAID ((ALL THE CARRIERS WERE OUT THAT DAY???) VERY STRANGE –IF YOUR NEVER EXPECTING NY PROVOCATION. tHEY WERE AT WAKE & MIDWAY -THE JAPENESE SAILED DIRECTLY THROUGH THEM –TOTALLY UNNOTICED-sURE! dO YOUR –HOME WORK-STUDY IT ALL.tHE US KNEW ALL THE i.j.N –SIGNALS–THE JAPENESE ALLSO AS WELL AS THE GERMANS HAD INFERIOR RADAR-COMPARITAVE TO THE US,BRITTAN. wHY DO YOU THINK GERMANY –NEVER INVADED–GREAT BRITTAN–SOME ONE MADE DEALS. HISTRY LOVER. IF WE DONT -LEARN FROM THE PAST WE ARE –MOST ASSURADLY TO REPEAT IT.

  2. (snicker)

  3. Wussies? That’s it, young lady; I am revoking your remote privileges. Anyway, I didn’t exactly “cry” – just, you know, teared up. A LITTLE. I don’t think any actual tears left my eyes, or not enough to call it “crying” in any case. Sheesh.

  4. Ugh! Another war movie! I knew I was going to hate it, and I put off watching it. When I finally commandeered the couch and the remote with resolve, I was fighting a virus, and I thought, Perfect! I can “nap” it, as opposed to watching it, and get enough of the gist of it to write how much I hated it.

    Well, guess what? I loved it! It was one of the nicest movies I’ve seen in a very long time. And it’s a “war” movie!! Seeing a different view of Russia was so interesting. Rotation of the camera to an upside down shot while filming the tank was quite a different view, too. I don’t know why but I was totally surprised by the rain and muddiness in Russia. Although there was only a bit of it, I really loved the humor. Everything about this film was gentle. Most films nowadays are anything but. Even today’s “chick flicks” are harsh compared to this one. I agree that the message was certainly about living right. And I’m sure some could find great fault with the fact that Alyosha was too perfect. But I loved the fact that the actors were not the well-knowns originally picked for the parts. Their innocence and naivety were genuine. This movie gave my Pollyanna propensity a long overdue feeding and held me in rapt, unnapping attention from beginning to end. Five stars!

    PS: I didn’t get teary. You guys are wussies. Or maybe you just need to watch more chick flicks.

  5. “Ballad of a Soldier” is a 1959 black-and-white Russian film.

    First, going in there were two things that struck me. Thing one: It’s 90 minutes long. Thing two: It’s about a soldier. This means I have a nice short war movie to watch and I’m all for kicking-ass and taking names. Give me your Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Sam Peckinpah guns a-blazin’ war movie any day of the week. Should be fun!

    Second, I haven’t cried while watching a movie in a long time. During the holidays I usually watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” but I’ve neglected to do so the past couple years because I’ve really not been in the mood to end up blubbering like a 2 year old (as much as it’s a “good cry”). I have to determine…am I really in an emotional state right now to cry my eyes out?

    What do these things have to do with “BOAS?” I’ll get to that.

    The movie starts out exactly as I hoped. 19 year old signal man, on the front during WWII single handedly wipes out two tanks with a grenade launcher. Running for his life away from the attack, he has no choice but to grab the weapon and fire. Kill or be killed and he does so with precision. YAY! We’re off to a good John Wayne start. Next thing you know, he’ll be promoted and kicking even MORE ass. I couldn’t wait.

    Back at the base camp, though, he is recognized for his great job in wiping out the two tanks and instead of being given honors, he asks for leave to visit his mother to fix the leaking roof. His commanding officer gives him 6 days, two to get there, two to fix the roof, and two to get back.

    Uh…war? What about the WAR? Aren’t you going to send him back to the front? Would General Patton been as nice? John Wayne? HELLS NO! But the boy is given leave to go help mommy out down on the farm.

    The film then becomes a road movie as our hero makes his way from the front to home. Along the way he offers to take a gift (two bars of soap) to a stranger’s house who learned he was going near his home town.

    On his way home he encounters a one-legged man who is depressed and going home to his wife, but chooses to NOT go. To leave her because, I guess, she wouldn’t want to have anything to do with a one-legged man. Still, the ticket lady and the young man convince him to stay with her in what is one of many moving scenes in the film.

    After encountering the one-legged man, he cons his way into a hay car by paying off the guard with a can of meat (yummy). Once inside he’s ready for the long journey home when a beautiful “city girl” (though it’s out in the country) climbs aboard. Fearing that she’s going to be raped, she starts screaming and nearly jumps to her death from the moving train, but he convinces her that he’s okay and they travel together on the journey. She’s going to visit her husband who is an injured pilot – though we learn, later, that she is lying.

    As the days pass and they get separated, the boy uses every means necessary to get home. BUT WHAT OF THE SOAP! I know you’re asking.

    He makes it to the small town and tracks down the wife of the soldier only to find out that she’s sleeping around with someone else. Though he gives her the gift he can’t bring himself to leave it with her and takes it back and gives it to the soldier’s father. Still, they are elated to know that their son is alive.

    Finally the young woman and man have to separate when she finally admits that she is lying all along. Still, he MUST get home, as he is late. He is able to get on another train but only 10 KM from home, the bridge is blown to smithereens (YAY! WAR MOVIE!) and he must make it there on foot (or by the kindness of strangers willing to drive him there – against the authorities).

    Now, it would do no good here to tell you how the film ends (unless, of course, Jason already did so above – spoiler) but I can tell you that by the end I was tearing up and emotionally attached to this young soldier in a way that I never would have been had it be John Wayne or Randolph Scott or Tab Hunter.

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Oh, wow, the photography was AMAZING. There is a transition shot of upside down tanks in the opening few scenes that just made me stand up and take notice. The early scenes in the film are filled with TONS of extras, tanks, costuming, etc. What sets you up for a massive war movie, quickly simples itself right up to a low-budget road movie.

    There are other shots in the film that came right off the 7” screen and whacked me upside the head, such as one where the beautiful Russian girl’s face is framed and lit in a way that, lets face it, was magical. She’s asleep – she might has well have been an angel.

    It’s PRACTICALLY G-Rated. Short of a couple “shits” – the film was, basically, G-Rated. And when was the last time you could say that about a war movie.

    If peered at a little bit deeper, the film could be a way of displaying the fruitlessness of war as we go on this journey with this young soldier. But…I’m staying on the surface and enjoying every minute.

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

    Sadly, other than a few cigarettes and the usage of “shit” – the boy is about as practically perfect as perfect could be. Yeah, he kinda gets angry when he takes the soap back but all-in-all he is a bit of a one-dimensional character. I would have liked a tad more depth. A bit of “been there – killed that” type of guy, maybe a smidgen of a past. Not a boy who looks like he was just made captain of the Russian rugby team and dating the head cheerleader.

    ALL IN ALL:

    Excellent, emotional, funny, sad, beautifully shot film. My favorite so far in the Janus Collection.

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