A Russian Youth (Malchik russkiy, Russia, 2019)

War child

This Russian war film is on MUBI throughout most of May and is well worth seeing. It’s writer-director Alexander Zolotukhin’s feature debut and plugs itself immediately into the Soviet ‘tradition’ of children at war; particularly Ivan’s Childhood and Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985) (in nation state terms Russian and Belarusian respectively). The film’s protagonist, Alexey (Vladimir Korolov), even has a resemblance to Ivan (below) though he’s naive compared to the latter’s knowingness; it’s so long since I’ve seen Elem Klimov’s masterpiece that I need to put myself through that gruelling experience again.

Ivan’s childhood

Whilst the film is recycling the ‘war is hell’ trope it’s something that can never be said too often; Brexiteers spent far too much time arguing ‘we survived the Blitz, we can survive Brexit’ as if the Nazi bombing of London had been a good thing. In the UK we have far too much fondness for war metaphors; apparently we’re at war with Covid-19 and NHS and care workers without the required PPE are ‘fallen heroes’; this is despicable propaganda. So we’re ready for another war movie that shows it to be shit; particularly about World War I which was a pointless war. Zolotukhin, however, doesn’t do the film straight, he interleaves footage from the war with a modern day rehearsal of Rachmaninov with Russian youths of today in the Tavrichesky Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mikhail Golikov. The plangent strains of Rachmaninov do sometimes merge with events of 100 years earlier and, toward the end, a dissonant mix of different music enhances the devastation we are seeing on screen. According to Anke Leweke this doesn’t ‘interrupt the narrative flow, but rather translate[s] motifs and themes into an acoustic resonance chamber.’ I wish she had explained what that meant. For me the clash of two worlds: documentary and fiction serve both to alienate and annoy.

Another device Zolotukhin uses is cinematography that looks like it was shot at the time, such is its graininess, and has been colourised in the same way as Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (UK-New Zealand, 2018). Apparently cinematographer Ayrat Yamilov used a damaged celluloid filter to give it the ‘old and damaged’ film effect (Goi); whereas Mark Jenkins, in Bait, used post-production processes to get a similar look. I couldn’t watch much of Jackson’s film as the obvious disconnect between the actuality footage and the contrivance of colour and the soundtrack (where ambient sounds were obviously added) shrieked falsity and I didn’t feel I was getting an insight into what we were seeing. Because A Russian Youth is fiction, this artifice didn’t matter and worked to give an authenticity to what we were seeing. Clearly, for me, authenticity means a lack of overt manipulation whereas fiction, because its focus is usually ’emotional truth’ rather than on what was real, can manipulate all it likes as long as it convinces me.

A Russian Youth is a striking debut that and while it can’t hope to stand up to comparisons with the classics cited above it is worth seeing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: