Ballad of a Soldier (1959)

Dir. Grigori Chukhrai. Starring Vladimir Ivashov, Zhanna Prokhorenko, Aleksandr Kuznetsov

This is a short movie, less than ninety minutes from tip to tail, and what’s incredible about is that for, I dunno, eighty-two of those minutes I never would have dreamed that this was a movie about cruelty. Alyosha (Ivashov) is on his way back home, given a generous leave after blowing up two tanks all by his lonesome. He meets men down on their luck, men caught up in the fearsome bureaucracy of the military, families who have been ripped from their homes, a girl who loves him. But it’s home he’s bound for, and the asides of his journey stop him from getting home in time to fix the roof. The general gave him two days to mend the house; in the end he has something like two minutes to see his mother. When he lets go of his embrace and she tells him that he ought to eat something and rest up, he tells her that he doesn’t have any time left. He has to hurry. He has a car waiting. (Obligingly, the truck driver honks a few times during this reunion.) Alyosha has, on multiple occasions in this movie, taken a duty far more literally than he had any need to do. Precious time from his leave was spent receiving a bar of soap from a soldier on the march to give to his girl; more precious time was spent delivering that bar of soap to the woman, retrieving it from her when she proved to be unfaithful, and then sending that cake on to the soldier’s family. It never occurs to Alyosha that he could simply not deliver this bar of soap, but his mind is too literal. From the beginning of the picture, we know that Alyosha will be one of the eleven million Soviet soldiers who died during the Great Patriotic War, and perhaps he was a good soldier because he was so intent on carrying out his orders, no matter how humble or mean the originator of them might have been. But this literalness is what makes the last few minutes of Ballad of a Soldier unbearable. By the time he hitches a ride with this truck driver, he knows he’s out of time to reach Sosnovka. How much better it would have been to simply turn around and fail this particular mission in whole rather than in part. What he gives his mother, for a few seconds, is a searing hope. It is one thing to give someone hope during a war that killed even more Soviet civilians than Soviet soldiers; it is another to walk in, know what his arrival will do to her, know what his departure will do to her, and then do it all anyway. Antonina Maksimova looks like Frances McDormand; she has the ability to suggest hardness and a deep sadness all at once, and from a number of angles Chukhrai finds ways to show us her despair. From above, we see her clutch her son tightly and cry out that she won’t let him leave. From below, we see the strength of her chin and the hurt in her eyes. At the beginning of the movie, an extreme close-up into a superimposition which suggests that the sadness goes all the way into her pores and that the war has been imprinted on something just below the skin. When the truck drives away, Alyosha is in the bed, standing and waving at his mother and his family and the women of the village who have all gathered hoping to hear some news of their sons. The dust kicks up from the wheels and the wind takes it. Twice, Chukhrai makes a shot that he really only needs once; the dust covers the doomed Alyosha, obscuring him entirely. It’s the closest thing his mother will get to a burial for her son.

Ballad of a Soldier is rich with minor characters for a movie which is free-handed with their disposal. Chukhrai frequently fills the screen with their faces, and then pulls away to contextualize the weariness or suffering or resetnment in their faces. An old general (Nikolai Kryuchkov) sends Alyosha on his leave; this is a face riddled with cares and thoughts that must stay inside and thus bulge up against the dermis, creating a topography on the layer above. We could tell how tight the little bunker was where Alyosha reported, but it’s not until he tries to leave that he bangs his helmet against the hasty doorframe, and that little slapstick moment in a jam-packed room gives us a real sense of how the world is pressed in on that general. Pavlov’s dad (Vladimir Pokrovsky) is a man whose persona is watery even when his eyes are dry; his physical weakness is amplified by shots which show the number of people milling around this room. Vasya (Yevgenia Urbansky), a soldier who left home with two legs and a failing marriage, meets Alyosha at one of the train depots; Alyosha, a friendly sort, helps him out by carrying his suitcase. Something about his cheeks makes them the saddest part of his face, perhaps the way they smush up against a surface like a telephone or a desk and squish a blank eyeball; he has no faith in returning home to the failing marriage. Over and over again, Chukhrai lets us see him up close, but at the train station he pulls away from the new invalid. The crowd swarms and a woman flies through it, beelining towards the husband she is almost effervescently glad to see. The last time we see Vasya, it is from distance on an empty platform, and it is abundantly clear that he is missing that other leg.

The great joy of the picture (and for a total of about three minutes, what I thought would be its great pain) is Shura (Prokhorenko), who is the Nadia or Sasha to France’s Marianne. Her hair falls in a long braid. She wears a simple, clean dress and carries her belongings in a tied-up cloth. Modest almost to a fault, beautiful, loyal: Alyosha tries to be a gentleman for as long as he can, but he oversteps a boundary too early when he first meets her. He goes in for a kiss that she refuses to return, and then is a little too cavalier about the attempt after the fact; what does this hick know about kissing anyway? Their first meeting is comedic and then fraught. Separately, they have both made their way aboard the same rail car carrying hay. He was there first, and when the door opens he bolts behind a bale for cover; girl’s clothes fall above his head and then on his face. When he makes himself known, she begins to scream. She tosses her belongings out the door. She tries to jump, although he, wisely, does not let her. It takes a while for the two of them to make some kind of peace with one another, though when they do the peace is replaced with a much stronger feeling. There is a sequence which is just hauntingly beautiful, ethereal as a soldier’s life cannot be ethereal, and surprising: it is the first time that we have been deprived of any of their words to one another. The two of them are zooming along. The sun is so powerful, the train so fast, that there are no details around them. Their own faces and bodies are somewhat obscured, and yet it’s clear the two of them are laughing, completely at ease, completely joyful with each other. If there were shots like that in Romeo and Juliet no one would doubt that there could be love at first sight; it is the kind of vision that reminds an old man what it’s like to be young and optimistic, an old woman what it’s like to see a boy and remember what it was like to fall for him. Chukhrai’s direction is not overwhelmingly experimental, but he is always interested in skewing a standard shot; here, though, he goes away from the world of pointed, angled observation and drives us fully into pure emotion.

The two of them leave each other eventually. Shura told Alyosha early on that she was en route to see her wounded fiancee, a pilot in hospital. As they detrain for the last time, she admits it was a lie. There’s no one. She’s going to see an aunt, not a man. Alyosha, by now close to his mother, too literal from birth, misses the import of those words: it’s not until he’s on the move that he realizes that this last admission was an admission of love, and with similar superimpositions falling over him as crushed his mother in close-up at the beginning of the picture, the brackish taste of despair finds the back of our throats. Chukhrai alleviates it with poetry, although a lengthy shot of Shura does not entirely ameliorate the pain. She stands in profile to us. The camera is only at about knee-height, is raised up, and it makes her more symoblic, more proud and lovely than ever. Yet we are not so far away that we cannot see the firm set of her mouth, the sadness in her eyes. She looks out in the distance where Alyosha has gone. She walks away from the spot, and then turns around again, in the same stance as before, only further away. It is our last look at her, a woman whose misfortune must be weighed against that of Alyosha’s mother. Alyosha’s mother had him first and last, but Shura was the one who was there in what must have been his finest days, and who was the coronal glow in his face.

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