Журавли (Cranes) by Rasul Gamzatov

Sometimes I think soldiers, who have never

come back to us from the blood-covered plains,

escaped the ground and didn’t cross the River,

but turned instead into white screeching cranes.

 

And since that time the flock is flying, narrow

or wide, or long – and maybe that is why

so often and with such a sudden sorrow

we stop abruptly, staring at the sky.

 

On flies the wedge trespassing every border –

a sad formation, ranks of do-re-mi,

and there’s a gap in their open order:

it is the space they have reserved for me.

 

The day will come: beneath an evening cloud

I’ll fly, crane on my right, crane on my left,

and in a voice like theirs, shrill and loud,

call out, call out to those on earth I’ve left.

 

by Расул Гамзатович Гамзатов (Rasul Gamzatovich Gamzatov) (1968)

translated by Irina Mashinski

 


 

This poem was set to music, first performed in 1969, soon becoming one of the most famous Russian songs about World War II.

 

 

The poem’s publication in the journal Novy Mir caught the attention of the famous actor and crooner Mark Bernes who revised the lyrics and asked Yan Frenkel to compose the music. When Frenkel first played his new song, Bernes (who was by then suffering from lung cancer) cried because he felt that this song was about his own fate: “There is a small empty spot in the crane flock. Maybe it is reserved for me. One day I will join them, and from the skies I will call on all of you whom I had left on earth.” The song was recorded from the first attempt on 9 July 1969. Bernes died a month after the recording on 16 August 1969, and the record was played at his funeral. Later on, “Zhuravli” would most often be performed by Joseph Kobzon. According to Frenkel, “Cranes” was Bernes’ last record, his “true swan song.”

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28 панфиловцев a.k.a. Panfilov’s 28 Men a.k.a. Battle of Moscow

A 2016 war film based on the Soviet propaganda legend about a group of soldiers, Panfilov’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen, who heroically halt and destroy Nazi tanks headed for Moscow before they all perishing together on the battlefield. It is set in the Eastern Front of World War II and covers the 8th Guards Rifle Division operations during the 1941 Battle of Moscow

Supported by the gamers of War Thunder. The film was crowd funded by the donations of 35,086 people. Thus allowing the specially set up Panfilov’s 28 film studio to be made for the project with financial support from the Russian Ministry of Culture and the Russian Cinema Fund with assistance of the Kazakhstan Ministry of Culture and Sport in partnership with Shaken Aimanov Kazakhfilm with the assistance of the Russian Military-Historical Society.

… so yes. Just like the American army gives money towards Hollywood films that promote them, including the Transformers franchise, so too do Russian and Kazakhstan government departments. However if the Russian Military-Historical Society had access to the vehicles they are the ones who contributed the most although my assumption is they were more likely acting as the background extras in the scenes that required it while trained actors were at the forefront ad the vehicles were provided by the government departments.

Directed by

Kim Druzhinin
Andrey Shalopa

Produced by

Anton Yudintsev
Andrey Shalopa

Screenplay by

Andrey Shalopa

Starring

Aleksandr Ustyugov
Yakov Kucherevskiy

Azamat Nigmanov
Oleg Fyodorov
Aleksey Morozov

Music by

Mikhail Kostylev

Cinematography

Nikita Rozhdestvenskiy

Production
company

Panfilov’s Twenty Eight
Gaijin Entertainment

Release date

November 24, 2016 (Russia)

Running time

105 minutes

Country

Russia

Language

Russian

Budget

$1,700,000

Box office

$6,346,968 (January 2017)

₽385 million CIS
₽366.6 million roubles (Russia)
₸61.3 million tenge (Kazakhstan)

PLOT

USSR, late November 1941. Based on the account by reporter Vasiliy Koroteev that appeared in the Red Army’s newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), shortly after the battle, this is the story of Panifilov’s Twenty-Eight, a group of twenty-eight soldiers of the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division, under the command of General Ivan Panfilov, that stopped the advance on Moscow of a column of fifty-four German tanks of the 11th Panzer Division for several days. Though armed only with standard issue Mosin-Nagant infantry rifles and DP and PM-M1910 machine guns, all useless against tanks, and with wholly inadequate RPG-40 anti-tank grenades and PTRD-41 anti-tank rifles, they fight tirelessly and defiantly, with uncommon bravery and unwavering dedication, to protect Moscow and their Motherland.

SYNOPSIS

“Commemorating war does not only mean sorrow and grief. We also remember the battles and heroism that brought victory.”

– Commander, Panfilov Division, Bauyrzhan Momyshuly

November 14, 1941

A training barracks outside Moscow.

‘Of course mental strength matters most. Physical strength and courage too, but not so much.’ is the opening dialogue of the film.

Notably though in the dialogue you hear tovarishch ( Товарищ ) the subtitles omit this. Good in one way to avoid excessive subtitles but it omits indicating who is a citizen and who is a party member for those with a bit more of an in depth knowledge of the era.

A group meeting is held outside as the commanding officer or sergeant explains a tank’s weaknesses. Molotov cocktails are handed out.

The commander rides off on a white horse as the meeting continues.

A practise is arranged to train how to attack a German tank. The officers smoke saying the battle will be historic with looks of foreboding concern clear on their faces.

A war story report about a comrade Filin who was killed taking out an anti-tank gun with grenades is read by a lieutenant. The soldiers discuss the bulletin half mocking how often they’ve heard it repeated as they cut wood to make the tank model for their practise.

At sun set the wooden frame tank is dragged by the soldiers as one stood in a hole is informed how to act.

Inside the officers discuss recent military movements and the impending confrontation.

Many are Asian, specifically from Kazakhstan, which you wouldn’t see in a western film of these events despite the geographical area Russia covers as the old propaganda always depicted Russians as 7 foot tall, platinum blonde, white men with heavy athletic builds – which ironically meant they then had to go hire Scandinavian actors, e.g. the Swedish Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV, to depict this stereotype as it really isn’t as common in Russian heritage as they would like to think (though of course you have the Slavic ethnic group we most common think of when thinking of ‘a Russian’ who share a common genetic heritage with the Ukranians, Polish, etc). Of course this all came to a head with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a universally well known Austrian, in Red Heat. The irony being that, in the Soviet era, they depicted Americans in much the same way, overtly tall and muscular brutes, and so there was a lot of surprise after the fall of the Berlin Wall, from both sides, that actually they look more or less the same as each other being a mix of ethnicities and appearances.

The officers remain and discuss their concerns as the soldiers have a snowball fight outside ignorant of their impending fate as they’ve been stationed doing little if anything besides digging trenches pointlessly for some time now.

Everyone prepares to move out the next day.

A soldier leaves his woman behind. Is she his lover, wife, girlfriend, cousin or sister? We never know. (I looked away for a second but I don’t think the scenes given any more context than ‘cliché scene to insert for soldier’s beginning to move out leaving their loved one’s behind’. We never see her again nor is she mentioned.

Later the commanding officer addresses the assembled soldier backlit by a spotlight. He says inspirational things – how they’ll defend their beloved motherland and the ‘great’ German army will know failure. History has known many brave warriors but none more so than them defending not only Moscow but the rest of their homeland.

Marching a soldier tells a story of a village who were being attacked by bandits so chose to fight and hired an expert – a samurai. 40 bandits vs 7 men. The warriors built fortifications. The gang was defeated. Someone says they heard it but it was in America and cattle herders. They laugh and joke.

The officers discuss not being detected by the Germans and ask the commanding officer not worry about it. The CO tells them to dig in and hold their ground. Stand firm but stay alive – that is the paradox they are presented with he admits.

The soldiers continue discussing their tales of heroic warriors. Now they move onto the battle of Thermopylae. (As seen in Frank Miller’s 300 or it’s film adaption by Zack Snyder). Perhaps it is just me but this film is being a bit apocryphal citing seven samurai and 300… would Soviet soldiers know of either of those events? Of course the film makers are alluding to their films by Kurosawa and Snyder which themselves are based on the embellished legends of historical events and therefore this is a knowing wink to the audience that the film-makers here too acknowledge what they are depicting is somewhat fantastical but intended, as the story was meant to at the time, be inspirational but at the same time early in the film, if not the first scene, we have the soldiers mocking such propoganda which isn’t something you see in American made war films. Quite refreshing really though of course this is one of many such films based on historical war events.

Later the soldiers are digging trenches and mock an old woman calling them heathens ‘worse than Muslims’ joking she mistook the Asian Kazakh Russians for Muslims and then asked if they ran out of ‘Russian Russians’. (again I would like to think this is a knowing wink to the audience but I have little doubt Kazakh troops faced prejudice at the time just as was the case in other countries including America which split their troop along racial lines often). They laugh and their supervisor scolds them it’ll be sunrise soon so they need to finish up and the Krauts will be there soon.

A machine gun is set up looking across the frozen fields before being put back into the hole.

A swerving trench is dug into a treeline. A captain criticises the placement of a cannon but decides they’ll test it later

Soldiers mock a soldier who, having read a political leaflet, asks where he can get a white flag… then add the Germans will kill you anyway so you’re stuck in the red army.

It was a common theme to jokes during the Soviet time: you could run from the red army but where would you go? If you run away during battle you’re only delaying the inevitable conflict. If, outside of times of conflict, you got the necessary papers to travel you can only go to another part of the Soviet Union unless you”re connected in the diplomatic services or find good enough forgeries. If you did somehow get outside the borders you probably have no connections as all the white emigre (i.e. the people who fled in 1917) escaped with their entire families decades ago and anyone who defects later has to have a use to the west to ensure they can do so (e.g. be an exceptional dancer, scientist, etc) or skillset (e.g. plumbing/engineering) in order to help them gain money to survive. In other words you’ve nowhere to go to… You’re already home… so get used to it and do what needs to be done to survive here! Fatalistic black humour is a keystone of Russia’s culture during this period.

One soldier wonders if they’ve disguised the cannon enough with white cloth and such. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ he’s told how the Germans shot their air planes in the tail as there was not defensive gun there in it’s design thus leaving them vunerable until redesigned.

In the trenches others discuss fighting for their land. Because it is their land and otherwise there’s nowhere to live. Two forms of it exist: the Motherland can be burned – its where they live however the fatherland also exists – but it’s how they live. Someone asked ‘but if a Frenchman learned Russian they wouldn’t make him Russian?’ He’s teased that a German couldn’t be but if they fought the Nazis and learnt Russian then maybe a Frenchman could be.

A plane flies overhead. Its said it has paper thin armour. A soldier raises his rifle and is scolded that its foolish to do so. He shoots anyway and is joined by another.

Kazhan and other languages are spoken as the group is mixed. Soldiers discuss asking how well those outside Moscow live. A sack of potatoes. An old man is given barbed wire to fortify his shack but he says it’s pointless. The soldiers passing by couldn’t have any delicacies only what they could scrounge.

In the trenches the captain gets a radio call. They are to rise early tomorrow. The artillery commander arrives tomorrow. They’ll get support fire if needed.

Elsewhere under cover of night the Nazis run forward in formation preparing for the conflict tomorrow. In the trenches the red army men sleep. The Nazis uncover their cannons and begin shelling just before dawn. In the nearby village the old men look out wistfully. This is the last we see of them. Assume they’re dead because there will be nothing left on the horizon once the battles over.

A red army solider wonders if they know their locations or are shelling randomly. ‘3 hours no losses – except their hearing’. The captain approaches teases they couldn’t sleep. No answers one, not with this lullaby and is told they’ll have time to stretch their legs soon.

The captain mocks it is an orchestra but soon there will be an intermission and they’ll swarm the buffet. A solider is told to wear a helmet to protect his head as dirt flies past him.

The Germans begin moving forward in formation behind their tanks. When the shooting stops they’ll have arrived face to face with the Russians the Red Army captain is told.

The Russians take position under cover of the forest and wait for two shots to ring out signalling their counter attack. A solider mocks the Germans think they know the Russian weak point. Kazakhs, he says to his friend, they’ll show them Kazakh men when they attack Kazakhstan and is agreed with.

All is silent as we pan across the trenches where the soldiers are ready with their rifles poised.

A spotter reports what the German forces are composed of.

The captain signals to fire a cannon.

The spotter corrects the range.

The captain signals to fire again.

It strikes and some infantry are taken out but still the tanks move ever forward.

The Russian command centre marks of the map the events. Planes fly overhead… but they are German and the red army mock they’re like vultures ready to swoop down.

The CO is informed on the telephone of events. The trench soldiers begin firing and take out some infantry. A cannon takes out the treads of a tank. A volley nearly hits the trenches. The music is all in the minor key but building. A fragmentation shell is shot at the tanks being abandoned and kills its crew but another German tank takes out a cannon on the forest edge though the soldiers get into the trenches just in time.

The Kazakh sniper repositions as cover fire takes more infantry.

The Germans withdraw. Why the infantry march alongside the tanks seems foolish.

It’s commented they didn’t take long to leave. He’s told they’ll be back soon as he strikes up a cigarette. Isn’t it odd he says again. He’s told not to worry.

Another pair chat mocking that the Germans probably think anyone left alive will flee.

The Germans will change their tactics and hit the weak points. This was just a test.

The captain runs across a field to see a man, Pasha, being taken away on a horse drawn stretcher. He’s told everything is fine that they will be there when he returns to the front… but the captain has a look saying the bleeding wont stop and Pasha won’t make it.

Back at the trenches the soldiers smoke in silence. Sombre music plays.

In the trench’s office the captain reports to the CO. Six injured and Pasha went for treatment. Told to keep it up. As if there is another option…

It won’t be a sprinkler next time, he reflects after, but a downpour when the Germans attack again.

Natarov refuses to move as he wants to shoot a plane. He is told to take cover when it fails. Volleys of German cannon fire rain down along the trenches line knocking dirt about

‘See they don’t want to fight, saving themselves for Moscow – which is good for us – puts us at an advantage’ a soldier comments.

Another mocks ‘them being cowards certainly puts us at an advantage, lets hope they don’t bomb us to bits out of fear’.

The banter continues but it is acknowledged they’re not idiots even if they see tanks burning and people dying.

A massive volley of focused shelling rains down over the trenches. A solider sees his friend is dead buried under unsettled soil.

The sergeant in the bunker who said they were fearful now changes his tone reflecting the red army ranks will be thinned so they must become a stubborn thorn in the Germans side. ‘The strategy is no heroics’. He scolds a younger soldier who comments that’s it not a matter of choice to be shot.

An injured solider is being tended to by someone saying visiting the dentist is torture this is nothing – just as a shell sends him flying.

The sergeant reiterates no heroics – just burn tanks.

The commander paces back and forth as the radio operator tries to contact the fourth company who are out of contact. No success.

Shells continue to rain down.

The forest is left in smoking devastation. Soldiers slowly crawl out of the dirt checking who is or isn’t alive.

The captain goes around checking surviving numbers and having everyone regroup.

The German tanks begin moving again as the Russian dead are moved off the battlefield.

Off the front two more carts are ordered to carry people away and a message to be sent.

The Germans begin another assault on land. The lighting in the damaged trench is very cinematic suddenly in this one scene for the radio report to the CO. only 28 men left … but no re-enforcements can be sent. He has to hold the line. The CO sits back down disconcerted knowing he’s just given the group a death sentence.

The captain says nine tanks need to be set alight to send a message. He gives a rousing speech that they’ve nowhere to run.

”we’re out of options, brothers. Although our land seems vast, and we are ready to die for it, we have nowhere to retreat. And we cannot die until we stop the Germans because we’re defending the last line. After us, that’s it. After us, it’s Moscow.”

The soldiers resign themselves to their fate and begin preparing as the tanks approach.

Yakov is asked if the story is true the Nazis tired to blast him out of a dugout with grenades and he threw 14 back at them? He mocks that the story has already been blown out of proportion to that level. Lies, he says, but when pressed admits it was 5. then later they threw a sixth so he wouldn’t have time to react. The soldier asks for more but Yakov says he’ll tell him later. ‘When?’ demands the soldier. ‘At night, before bed’. As the soldier leaves he adds it wasn’t in the dugout either…

The sergeant says now its a matter of precision so they need to let them get closer so they know they’ve definitely hit them. Someone mocks he’s happy not to be a tank crewman as it’s certain death.

An older soldier prays. A younger soldier asks what he’s doing and he says nothing ‘for the motherland’ and the younger guy says that’s how it should be.

Everyone waits tensely. A few treads are taken from tanks by cannons but return fire takes out the crew of one cannon. Then the machine gun of a tank kills the Kazakh sniper so his colleague takes the anti-tank rifle and fires at the treads of one tank successfully. He hopes his brothers in arms rest easy now.

A machine gunner takes out Fascist infantry and one soldier wields a grenade. Grenades are thrown at the tanks. The machine gun give a new belt feed. A Molotov cocktail thrown on a tank. A rifleman mocks the machine gunner must be going for a record as he’s leaving none to be shot. A tank tries to shoot the machine gunner but misses. Then the feed ends and echoing shots of lone rifles ring out across the battle field.

Another anti-tank rifle man shoots a driver mocking he wont be swinging his cross around here… as Grisha the older soldier aids him…

a grenade takes out a tank and as another soldier tires to throw one he’s hit but throws it still. The German infantry are on top of the trenches now.

Red Army men are laid out side by side in the forest as the cannons are dragged further back by bleeding men.

A tank descends on 3 men. A grenade takes out the tank but two are shot. The survivor throws the Molotov cocktail and empties his machine gun. Fortunately a rifle man stops the tank by shooting the loner gunner.

Ammunition is running low so the surviving soldiers let the tanks pass in hopes to regroup and deal only with infantry.

A man crawls through the trenches picking up a grenade. But his is shot before he can throw it. But he can still shoot. So he crawls over the top and fires until he passes out. The man who aided him took the grenade and realises they’re losing.

The battle field is a mix of snow and charred soil. An anti-tank rifle is carried across the line and prepared. It takes out the treads of a tank. A cannon takes out the treads of another. The man calls for someone to bring a shell but no one is left alive so he grabs on off a nearby corpse. But this is enough time for the tank to aim its cannon and take him out along with the cannon he was manning.

An anti-tank rifle man and his brother are taken out. Then another. The tank climbs over the trench but gets stuck ripping soil out burying the corpses.

Slowly the Red Army soldiers are being picked off now one by one and buried by the tanks pulling over the trenches.

But a man rises out of the dirt (Yakov?) and throws a grenade before dying and it stops on of the tanks.

This gives the remaining men a second wind and one runs up, climbs the exterior and throws a Molotov cocktail into the window of the tank hoping it warms them up.

The riflemen and assault rifles hold the line but Vasily is hit and passing out telling Grisha and others to fight on. The survivors are running through the trenches and throw a Molotov into a tank on their way. Grisha is told to fire ‘at the pedestrians’ and is covered by another just as a grenade lands near them. They’re both find and go to find Diev.

More German infantry run across the field and now the Russians are down to small hand guns. The Germans fall to the ground when they think a grenade has been thrown. They realise it was a fake

The sergeant tells the injured political officer its okay only a few are left…

The German infantry walk over the barbed wire as the Russians lie in wait. One man picks up a hatchet like trench shovel. That’s all they’ve got now. Another holds a knife. Tension builds.

But a machine gun mows the Germans down. Who is it? A German tank commander looks through his binoculars. Its… I don’t know who. Younger guy. The belt feed seems to never end nor get jammed. One German makes a break for it but the feed continues again suddenly. Daniil was the man on the mounted machine gun.

Over the radio the German tank commander has an order to withdraw. And so the tank line moves back.

The Red army men breathe a sigh of relief.

The sun sets over the quiet smouldering landscape as black smoke pours out of the tanks above the snowy upturned fields.

Daniil joins the sergeant ‘saved some aces for last’. ‘it was luck’. ‘luck had nothing to do with it’. He jokes they’ll tell their grandchildren there were more then the 14 tanks they fought. They lament everyone of them is a hero… because so few are left. That’s how they fight… that’s how war is. A few others climb the mound in front of them and look out upon the horizon. It was a victory but it was a loss. So it is in Russian war fare. There is no glory.

We end on a monochrome sweeping image of the Soviet Realism styled statues erected in those fields and the markings of where the trenches were.

During the credits we see more of the monument erected to the men who died in a park. I don’t know it but I’m sure people who’ve been to Moscow would recognise it as before it an eternal flame is lit.

REVIEW

The music in this film is quite simple in it’s composition but has it’s charm. It’s not bombastic orchestral work like an American film just simple strings and accompaniment underpinning the tension and moments of determination we see the ensemble undergo.

The recent trend of shaky-cam during conflict scenes is thankfully avoided here so you will always clearly see events and know where things are within context of each other. The camera work is on the whole serviceable for the rest of the film but nothing particularly memorable.

Costume wise perhaps I felt at the start everyone was a little too clean, as was the criticism of Enemy At The Gates, but then they had only been training not in conflict at that point and it’s certainly gone by the point they’re in the trenches. As the historical society was involved no doubt they aimed for as much visual accuracy as possible however, in contrast, as the events are based on propaganda it is easy to believe that many events or the film are exaggerated for effect.

Set design, apart from the interior of the Commanding Officers room, is limited to exterior shots of , at most, small villages or the trenches. Maybe a lot of it was filmed on sound stages for all I know but you wouldn’t think so. Again, along with the camera work, it’s serviceable on it’s limited budget and thus achieves what it needs to if not at times excels like that one very cinematic shot moment of the shelled trench room when the radio request is made to the CO.

Of course the film is biased to come degree – all war films are even when they’re praised for being unbiased – but it was crowd funded and so there is that level of being indebted to the contributors… just as major films are to their producers. However as I noted they give nods acknowledging it’s based on propoganda and therefore even if these events occurred they’re heavily embellished stories and should not be taken as a report of fact unlike some other war films. But on the whole it’s a straight forward affair and if you’re looking for something about the Eastern Front of World War II it isn’t one I would say you shouldn’t see. Are there better films? Probably but I like the straight forwardness of this and that it doesn’t do any ‘big damn hero’ stuff until the final moment and to be honest when you hear about some of the real life things that occurred during war time it actually underplays how dramatic it could have been portrayed.

If I do have a criticism it’s probably the translation and subtitles. They should refer to the Nazis as Fascists because not all the forces aligned with the Germans were technically card carrying Nazis though were aligned with them. Look at my review of the Estonian film ‘1944’ to see a different perspective on it. Thus there is that issue though I image many would offer the counter argument that the Fascists in this film are all but faceless mooks there to be ‘the opposition’ either to kill the protagonists or be mowed down by them thus giving them any context beyond ‘target’ is asking too much especially for something based on propoganda.

Also if you wanted to read the credits on screen forget it unless you’re watching this on a cinema screen and have it at 4kD…

As for the DVD: it’s no thrills. You just get the subtitled film and a chapter select.

You like war films? Give it a go. You want to see a recently made Russian war film. Give it a go. You want to see what crowd funding (which then gets further funding from government sources admittedly) can achieve? Give it a go. Just don’t go in with high expectations. It gets the job done and is reasonably entertaining but it’s not something you will remember much about afterwards.

The Ring by Gwyn Parry

See that field,

in ’39 a Heinkel crashed,

 

the bodies

scattered amongst the turnips

 

their uniforms

grey as morning.

 

I was the first there,

was just 29.

 

I looked through bits of wing and wire,

the Germans all dead.

 

I knelt down on my knees

and see this ring,

 

I wiggled it

from the pilot’s finger,

 

took it home

in my hankerchief,

 

cleaned off

the mud and the blood,

 

put it on

my little finger,

 

where late at night

it burned

 

my tongue a knot

of strange language,

 

shame

winking

 

from all corners

of the room.

 

by Gwyn Parry

That Summer by Emyr Humphreys

There was nothing to help us

Trapped in that ornamental summer

By sunlight and ubiquitous foreboding; the tides

The pebbles indifferent to our sore feet

Told us nothing: banner headlines

Congealed those lukewarm fish and chips.

 

From where we stood to the horizon

The future stretched like a brooding canvas

Awaiting a blood stained brush. There were rocks

and groundsheets to sleep on, nowhere to go.

Only the tanks knew where to assemble.

 

Who would win who would lose

Whose corpse would hang on the wire

Would come later. The seagulls knew

More than we did as they wheeled above us

Like fighter bombers, their droppings

Illegible leafets, mobilising their screeches

As they crossed and recrossed concrete

Frontiers reinforced in the Underworld.

 

It didn’t need to happen. It shouldn’t

But it would. Limbs still free

Twitched with the urge to run: the sea

Was a threat not a refuge: the sky

Was closing in. We could only turn and face

The mouth of the tunnel: only wait

For the machine to emerge and howl

On our behalf as it ran us down.

 

by Emyr Humphreys

1944 (Estonian WW2 film) Synopsis and Review

1944 is a 2015 Estonian action war drama film directed by Elmo Nüganen. The film first premiered in February 2015 in Berlin, Germany, before its release in Estonia and other Northern European countries. It was selected as the Estonian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards but it was not nominated.

The film is set in the year 1944, from the Battle of Tannenberg Line (25 July – 10 August 1944) to the Battle of Tehumardi in Sõrve Peninsula (October – November 1944) and is shown through the eyes of Estonian soldiers who had to pick sides and thus fight against their fellow countrymen. Choices had to be made, not only by the soldiers, but also by their loved ones.

The film focuses on the individual in the context of the war rather than war itself, and shows the war from both perspectives – those of the Estonians in the Red Army and in the German Army.

The film was funded by the Estonian Film Institute, Estonian Ministry of Defence, Cultural Endowment of Estonia and private investments.

During the run of the film Estonian, German and Russian are spoken.

Excuse me not using names for the most part but in war films everyone seems reduced to stereotypes and can you honestly say, barring the central characters, you ever remember the names of the entire cast during these – most of whom die shortly after their ‘provide a minimal amount of character development by showing a picture of family which foreshadows they’ll die in the next scene’ moment?

Synopsis

We open on text:

‘In 1939, Soviet Union and Germany sign a Treaty of Non-Aggression. A week later, World War II begins. In 1940, Soviet Union annexes Estonia. 55 000 Estonians are mobilized to the Red Army. In 1941, Germany occupies Estonia. 72 000 Estonians are mobilized to German armed forces. Since German Army, Wehrmacht, accepts only German citizens, Estonians have to fight in Waffen-SS and other military units. Now in 1944, the Red Army is back on Estonian border.’

The subtitles at the start confuse ‘German’ and ‘Germany’ while omitting the definite article. Great start… and they move too fast to read for the last sentence or two. I notice once or twice later the subtitles seem grammatically wrong again and suspect they were done by someone whose not a native speaker or was put under severe enough time constraints they didn’t double check their work though for the most part it’s fine.

In the trenches the fast shakey camera makes effective use of the limited perspective.

OF course it lacks the ‘Hollywood sheen’ but in some ways that works in it’s favour. Also the minimal use of music during the charges of soldiers so as to not glamorise events and give way to moments over the stark depictions of combat.

One or two have camouflage on their clothing which I assume isn’t period accurate but might be. It’s the issue of so little coverage of World War 2 events which are not explicitly form German, American, French resistance or British perspectives. As a western viewer you automatically assume the attackers are Fascists but in fact it’s the Soviet forces or as seems to be the films preferred nom de plume the Red Army.

The quieter moments in the trench barracks feel far more effective as we focus on the actors and this doesn’t require big flashy events. The story of the people involved and their motivations rather than the glorification of war. Stories of how they dealt with the situation they were in and the sense of losing oneself – the loss of personal identity as a pawn in the motivations of others.

After proceeding under cover of darkness the music has a continuous tense cord with a few stark notes. THey join some Danes. This really is a narrative not explored in the West at all.

A fat Russian chokes a man. Few if any Russians would be that fat.

Some soviets surrender and are show from behind by the protagonists.

The German commanders appear. A government man appears and congratulates them and spouts the party line they’ve proved the Estonians belong to the Aryan race. He hands out signed photos of Hitler thinking they would get a wooden or iron cross

The poem ‘soldiers mother’ plays over the radio as they mock Hitler and one returns saying the Dutch have their own toilet paper and gave him pack of cigarettes.

One soldier shows the medal his father gained in World War 1/ its all that’s left of him. An argument breaks out as there are Estonians on the Soviet side. What will they do when they face their countrymen?

Outside propaganda plays over the tannoy and they begin to sing to drown it out as they move through the trenches.

The look out says its been quiet. When one of the brothers takes over a sniper shoots him in the head and the brother left behind is in shock a moment before beginning to cry. They give him something to drink. Later one reflects that his uncle in Tallinn told him not to go but he had to as there were arrests being made. An older soldier comes to relieve him and asks if being stubborn will bring his family back from Siberia . He knows it wont. They speak of the war and what its for. Whether they’ll gain their countries independence.

A procession of civilians walk along a road as military vehicles pass them. One soldier thinks going to Tallinn would be better as they could escape via a ship to Sweden. They shoot in the air to scare people off. A self defence force leader, clearly a civilian as he’s in an suit but with an armband, asks if they’ve spare ammo. He is gives them the weapons they ceased and the man jokes with out ammo they’re no batter than clubs.

A woman stops the procession and makes a man throw away furniture and take people on his cart. The soldiers joke she is the real furher. ‘men like cow’s udders’ she says as she loads a child into it.

A plane flies overhead. They take cover in the forest. It begins to fire down on everyone. Bombs are dropped. Sainas goes to save a child but ironically is shot dead while the child is fine. Another runs for the child and saves her just in time. The driver of the soldiers truck put sout a d fire and they go to escape as the reds will be there any moment. Main guy says his sister has the same doll as the girl but she is for away now. They decide to load people onto the truck. Injured to hospital refugees to Tallinn. The girl wants her doll to tell main guy something. He holds it to his ear and after he return sit the truck leaves and the soldiers walk away in another direction on foot as a folk song plays. A storm brews as they walk across the countryside.

They see due to the open landscape there’s no way to retreat if they cant hold the location along the road on the edge of the forest. A senior member tries to rouse them with a speech of how if the Russians beat them back they’ll retake it tomorrow. Then they begin to dig the trenches. A passing man offers them food. All quiet along the western front is mentioned. Again the leader tries to rouse them about their flag flying in Tallinn but the main guy is more pessimistic. They laugh and eat. It is a moment of peace in the war.

Sept 20 a motorcyclist goes past them at speed as they’re hidden in the dry grass. A tank and supply trucks procession is heading their way. They snipe the commander and fire rockets at the tanks.A sniper takes out their sniper. Many of the characters we have been following are wiped out.

They realise they’ve been fighting Estonians on the Soviet side. Their worst fears. What will they do now it’s a reality. Both sides stare at each other. Mournful music plays out. This is the reality of fighting a war begun by others and for their agendas. The soldier who killed the poetic guy looks at the documents in his pocket and seizes them before closing the corpses eyes and laying him to rest.

At a camp we follow the Communist side. They realise it was ‘normal Fascists’ they were fighting. The commanding officer berates them then leaves. The secondary commander tells them to bury the dead and stay out of the way of the NKVD officers.

A man asks if they’re burying fascists with their own. ‘its the end of the road for everyone’ someone replies. They pity that this is how things have turned out as they bury the dead and mark them. 31 dead red army soldiers.

The same old couple who served food to the fascists now serves it to the communists. They soldiers have meat and give some to the couple. It is German stuff they had ceased. The bearded soldier pities them as the couple have nowhere to to and will be labels kulaks and sent back if not to the Gulag.

A glasses wearing soldier shows a photo of his family and everyone knows his spiel off by heart and call it before he says it. They pass through the golden fields and reach Tallin in Sept 22.

Masses of Red army soldiers are there and propaganda plays over the radio accompanied by upbeat band music.

Beard tells killer to be happy and dance. The soldiers are fed and enjoy. Else where people pick through the rubble and inhabit dark silent buildings. Killer Juri visits the apartment of the dead poetic fascists woman and gives him the letter which he took from the corpse. She reads it in silence as we hear the dead man narrate his words talking about family.

Juri asks if he can help as she is tearing up. He removes his boots. She asks how he got it. Karl was her brother. She asks if he died in battle. Juri confirms it. How does he know. Juri says he witnessed it. The family were taken to Siberia. It broke Karl who blamed himself for what happened. She asks of him. He was conscripted in 39. She asks why he didn’t fight back. They were to disciplined to disobey or were cowards he admits. His family? The soldier is are his family but there’s less and less of them. She says he and her brother were similar. The innocent feel guilty. The guilty feel nothing.

She says he must be hungry and cooks for him. She watches him as he eats in silence. He takes out a cigarette and she offers him an ash tray. Its her uncles apartment not hers. They fled two weeks ago by boat to Sweden. March 9 the red army flattened the city. Juri says he was told it was Germans. She insists only women children and the elderly were there.

A little girl drew her something at the orphanage and she goes to show it but they’re interrupted by the radio. A moment passes between them and we see them walk in the park together. bird song. Slow piano. ITs not a romance as much as just comfort in kindred souls. She goes to check a door and find sit open. They go inside the church. Their footsteps echo.

She asks if he is staying long. Or will he move on? Where to? To Saaremaa he replies. She smiles to him takes his hand which fluster him and says they’re alone. He puts his arm around her hesitantly. She says she would forgive the one who put their family ane on the list to be deported. A name Jogi was on it. Juri doesn’t react. She recalls how they lived before the war smiling and falling asleep on his shoulder.

In the morning she gestures he write. She asks his family name. ‘Tull’ he lies. He is Jogi. An NKVD man calls him to the comrade captains car. He says that they’ve fought many battle together but bourgeois nationalists are still there. He says he is young and has time for everything including hanging around at night.

The captain asks who the woman was. They had observed him. Juri lies its his sister. The Capt. says he doesn’t remember it from his file. He asks Juri to report any anti-soviet efforts to him. Juri looks unsure.

17 Nov The soldiers move out across the countryside passing a form. One breaks rank and bearded soldier , Prohhor, is ready to shoot but it told to hold. The guy is at his home town so they allow him to call to the other residents. Beard mocks his grandmother said Estonia was small but not this small..

The soldier notes no one is there sadly. After a moment he says that he’ll go find them something to eat.

At night the commanding officer , Juri, staff sergeant calls on a soldier to have the three replacement soldiers come in to speak to him at the lit table he is writing at. He notes from how they stand they fought for the Germans. He tells them to forget their past and kept their mouths shut. Juri tells farm boy to feed them as well ads the others with the potatoes he fried. Farm boy tells them eat as much as they like as there is no point leaving any for the rats.

Juri asks if he heard anything about his folks who had abandoned the farm. All the farms in the area were destroyed, the people deported to Germany. He reflects the war will be over in a year or two and everyone will be back then. ‘My house is whole and I’m alive’ he remarks before leaving.

Juri later details his strategy plan to the leading soldiers.

They all drink some vodka from a bottle before farm boy remarks that Kreml (the Kremlin… Again refer to my view the subtitles were not done by a native English speaker) wanted to see him.

We next see Juri report to the Comrade captain who was cleaning his handgun. Juri hears the gun click as he closes the door but in fact the captain was putting it away before inviting him to sit. He calls on Juri to toast ‘to the victory’. The captain notes Juri got 3 replacements and asks if he checked them, Juri says he did. ‘Juri you are from the right family and have made the right decisions so far. Just like your father in his time. You haven’t applied for the party membership?’ Juri answers no. ‘That’s even better. You’ll be trusted more. You’ll go far. We’ll send you to study, and you’ll get an officer’s rank. You’ll be the company commander soon. We’d make a good team.’ Juri notes the company already has a commander, Captain Viires, as the Comrade Captain walks away. ‘That radish… Red outside, white inside. Those kinds of guys should be kept an eye on. Don’t spoil your life, Juri’

The next day, November 19, the cannons are being loaded as battle ships fire on the soldiers proceeding along the shoreline. Mines are on either side of the road. The tanks runs over a corpse. Shells hit the tanks. Many of the infantry are taken out by the impact. Still they press forward. One soldier breaks rank and runs across a field only to be killed by a landline. The soldiers get pinned down by machinegun fire and rockets shooting the tank. The tank fires on the machine begun wall blowing it up but still the infantry have to charge for cover. The tank knocks out the corner of a hut Fascist soldiers were coming out from. The on foot soldiers split into two groups heading along shallow trenches. One is blown up by a soldier dying holding a grenade and his wrist. They reach the command post and order the people inside to emerge. They then shoot them in cold blood though they surrendered, They were not ordered to shoot. Juri asks the man if he thinks it’ll bring Sarah back. The man doesn’t answer.

Later Juri sits alone outside smoking. Beard is hunched over at the table. He asks if Juri cant sleep. Juri says her cant forget the guy whose letter he delivered to his siste.r Did he tell him? He couldn’t.. But he fell in love mocks beard. ‘You didn’t kill him, the war did’. ‘MAybe God will forgive. Or not.’

Nov 22 they’re on the move again as an overseer captain says one last push and Estonia is theirs. The company Captain tells Juri the political office is interested in him. The captain says its as if they’re eating shit everyday. He had hoped to bring the men home but asks where did he bring them? He gestures for the company to stop its advance, checks and then they move on. They notice movement Fascists in the river crossing. The Fascists shout don’t shoot as their Estonian. The company captain calls for no one to shoot and those in the river to come up. Immediately the overseer/political captain runs up and interrogates them. They were not volunteers and are 16 years old. The Germans wanted to take them but they wanted to go home. The political captain tells Juri to take them and ‘shoot these traitors’. Juri says they’re children. The captain looks back at the cowering boys and announces ‘Soviet citizens who have defected to the enemy must be shot. Staff Sergeant Jogi take your men and obey the order. They were forcefully mobilised. Juri, obey the order.

Juri says he will not shoot them.

The political captain draws his handgun and immediately shoots Juri through the heart. All the men draw their rifles and aim at him.

‘Shoot. Shoot and all your relatives will be sent to the Gulag. [The company Captain faulters and slightly lowers his aim]. Are you scared? That’s right. One must be scared of Soviet Power. Captain Viires. Obey the order.’

The political captain slowly begins to raise his handgun but a shot rings out as he is shot dead through the chest.

It was the bearded soldier.

Viires orders the company to move forward and the boys to go home. Get rid of their uniforms and go home.

Beard stops a moment and kneels at Juri’s side removing his hat. Everyone stops. Beard removes a slip of paper from Juri’s jacket. He crosses himself and everyone stand over the bodies.

We then have a narration of the letter as beard delivers it as Juri had delivered the woman’s brothers letter earlier. An old woman and a girl live with her now. From the orphanage no doubt. Juri wonders, if not for the war, had they met after the war, maybe in the church, if he could face her and tell her the whole honest truth. ‘We need to start from a blank page. This is from Juri Jori, the Red Army soldier who killed your brother in a battle. I couldn’t tell you eye to eye. You are the only one left to me. Please forgive me if you can.

Then a black screen with white writing:

‘To all who fought and suffered in the name of freedom.’

Review

I think the first thing to be said is that the title is so basic you are likely to never look at this film if you see it on the shelves in a shop or a list on-line. If it had a more distinct title, even ‘ Battle of Tannenburg’, ‘Tannenburg Line’ , ‘Battle of Tehumardi’ or anything as generic, but still distinct, as those I think it would have gotten more recognition as ‘1944’ alone makes it sound like this was one of the laziest by the numbers productions possible when in fact it has a good message, told without demonising bias towards any one party, and provides incite into a perspective on the Second World War not often given a voice in the west. It hasn’t got the gloss of American financed films but the core concept of showing the divide of a nation during occupation by both Fascist and Soviet forces is interesting as there are no definitive ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys barring those who are self interested and seek political power. Everyone is swept up in the course of a war between foreign powers and has to face the reality they will be killing their won countrymen at some point.

If I have one issue with the film it is perhaps that the conflict scenes are bland. I wish perhaps it pushed those to the side as much as could be reasonably expected of a film set in this period involving soldiers and focused more on the characters. The death of the protagonists certainly comes as a shock to a first time viewer but it provides an important lesson I feel is often missing from war films – people have lives and things they are doing which come to an abrupt end because of events. OFten this is given the ‘here’s a photo of my family’ omen of minor characters who you know from that point on are going to be the sacrificial lamb of the films narrative so we see the results of war but the protagonists remain able to carry out their story to completion.

As I have said already I feel the translations for the subtitles on the DVD needed to be proof read as there were a few moments were the grammar went out the window. I have to assume either the translator, and the subtitler, were not native English speakers or there was a severely tight schedule and mistakes were made which leaves it to be criticised at leisure by consumers. Hopefully the company is more carefully in later releases as this is the sort of thing that will put people off buying their products. The DVD also was very bare bones but really I have come to expect that with many Foreign films now that are not released by Criterion, Curzon Artificial Eye or other long established Foreign film DVD makers who offer extensive extras.

The only truly antagonistic figures in the film are the political officers – those who have thrown in their lot completely with either the fascist or Communist forces to have power even if it means betraying their countrymen. Everyone else, for better or worse, only looks forward to when the war is over and they can return to their normal lives. The hardship undergone by civilians is represented by the procession of refugees fleeing their home in the country encountered by the Fascist soldiers.

On a sidenote I personally found the woman suddenly forcing a man to throw away his possessions so it could carry people, when said people had clearly already been on this procession for a long-time alongside the cart, a bit of a double standard. It is symbolically putting people before possessions, which is a good in the moment message, but could represent a willingness to abandon their own culture, represented by the objects that are discarded, in order to survive which seems at odds with the rest of the film’s philosophy of maintaining Estonia as a unique entity after the war’s end. Objects can be replaced of course but this moment in the film felt a bit to forced in and not cohesive with the rest of it.

The sense of Estonian national communal unity is represented by the old couple who serve food to both the Fascist and Red Army groups seeing only fellow countrymen not political sides.

The sense of the nation’s division is symbolised by the brothers from the farm being on seperate sides though on a first vieiwng this might go unnoticed as the brother on the Fascist side only mentions it in passing he is from the farm while we see the brother on the Red Army side return to the homestead. Contrasting this are the two borthers who are both on the Facist side and one witnesses firsthand the death of the other via a sniper.

If anything the bereft sister, who sees both her brother and potential love interest die, seems the anomaly as she seems to live a comfortable life even in the middle of a war torn country when everyone else has either been forced to choose a side or flee their homes. I suppose she offers the contrast to the farm boy soldier who has a home but no one to be there with while she has the orphanage ( or at least the little girl and old woman) in the end thus having a community but nowhere to call her own as she is living in her uncle’s apartment.

Would I watch this again? That is the big question and the answer is… Yes but it isn’t a film I would recommend if you didn’t have an interest in North European/Baltic cinema nor World War 2. In fact I don’t care for the seemingly endless number of films based on World War 2 but this gave a unique perspective similar to War Horse, due to the shifting perspectives of each side being represented, but without the near fairytale tone nor the convenience of it being due to a horse. Both sides are represented equally unsentimentally as external forces having a negative effect on Estonia.

In the end the concept far outweighs the execution sadly. I think with a bigger budget or more unique cinematography it might have been a world cinema classic rather than just a successful film in Estonia which you find cheap in your local supermarket with a bland, non-descript, cover as they hope people will blindly buy anything World War 2 related. Time will tell how it is received in the long run but I feel it was even-handed noting the strengths and failings of each side without leaving the audience with any prejudice save that Estonians were forced to take a side or evacuate which was sadly a truth of the era they lived in and if anything they delivered this message possibly too gently in regards to what happened to citizens. A good message, fair depiction but not a film you will remember long after watching it. The unique Estonian perspective however lends it at least a novelty value for anyone interested in not seeing yet another retread of the ‘America saved the world’ slew of Hollywood depictions nor the more blindly patriotic films of somewhere like Russia.