Artem Antonov: Polumgla (2005)
reviewed by Daniel H. Wild© 2006
With his debut film Polumgla, a story about German prisoners of war and their Soviet guards that takes place in the far Northern reaches of the taiga during the winter of 1944, the twenty-six-year-old director Artem Antonov certainly aims high indeed by setting his sights on a topic that in military terms would be classified as fraternization with the enemy. Moreover, its release in Russia in February 2005 coincided with the eve of the celebratory “Day of the Defender of the Fatherland,” the successor to the Soviet Day of the Army and Navy, and the film conveys a deliberately humanist if not pacifist point-of-view. Antonov’s willingness to introduce the idea of ambiguity and nuance into the depiction of Wehrmacht soldiers and his recourse to a notion of the common human bond between Russians and Germans puts his work solidly in the company of other recent films that have challenged entrenched definitions of the traditional ways in which the enemy can be represented, namely Aleksei German Jr. The Last Train (2003) and Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s Cuckoo (2002). While Antonov’s film might not match German’s clinical eye that depicts war as the macabre descent into the permanent state of a cruel existential condition in which the physical body is the only thing that remains of the human, Polumgla comes closer to aligning itself with the overall tenor of Rogozhkin’s film, which turns the microcosm of three strangers who are stuck with each other into a playful interrogation of the foundations of a nascent social community as it is reduced to its essence.
Likewise, Polumgla playfully invokes a familiar cinematic trope without letting it define the narrative, but rather uses it as a convenient starting point towards a very different end. The idea that especially in a time of war a strong bond can be forged between the most unlikely of characters has long been a staple of Western war films, perhaps best exemplified by The Dirty Dozen (USA 1967, dir. Robert Aldrich). Polumgla inverts this trope by chronicling the fate of a young Lieutenant, Grigorii Anokhin, who is stuck in a sanatorium but eager to return to the front in order “to kill the fascists,” as he says. Traumatized by witnessing the massacre of his comrades, he has taken to drink and he is ready to extract revenge. His attempts to return to the front, however, are frustrated when he is assigned a different mission. With a team of soldiers unfit for duty at the front, he is ordered to take a group of fifteen German prisoners and their commanding officer to the remote village of Polumgla to construct a radio tower for use as an airplane beacon. When they arrive in the village the entire group is greeted by its inhabitants, women, children, and the elderly, with pitchforks. At first the presence of Germans in the village is eyed with wary suspicion and hostility. Soon, however, the basic needs for shelter, clothes, and food take precedent and the women are grateful for the presence of the men who are able to help them with their chores. With only rudimentary phrases to communicate and left to their own devices far away from the war, the villagers, soldiers, and the German prisoners slowly begin to establish the grounds for their peaceful cohabitation and they are surprised to learn that they can actually take comfort in their mutual companionship.
Anokhin is cured of his drinking habits by an old woman with an ability to conjure up a spell that can heal his body and soul. In an episodic manner, the film demonstrates how the men become part of the rhythm of daily life in the village community. When food supplies run low, the strongest of the German soldiers helps to hunt for a bear in hibernation. Gradually, anger and fear give way to intimacy and even love. Some of the Germans move into the houses of the village women as any questions of punishment or retribution subside. They discover their common similarities and their unity. “People change,” observes Lukeria, the old woman, in her wisdom. To the amazement of headquarters, Anokhin reports no casualties among the prisoners over the radio. Only the German officer and a Soviet sergeant deplore these developments of “liberal attitudes.” “You already look and behave like Russians,” the German officer scolds his men during the morning roll-call for which they have congregated after leaving the huts and having been lovingly tucked in warm clothes by their Russian lovers. In the harsh conditions of winter, the communal suffering turns into something akin to beauty as the Germans gaze in wonderment at the appearance of the Northern Lights. In a yule-tide mummers’ parade to drive out evil spirits everyone unites, Germans and Russians alike and as one, in merriment and joyous celebration.
When the inevitability of historical circumstances returns to intervene in this idyll and the war arrives at the village again, it is to the film’s credit that it does not counterbalance these depictions of communal bonding with vengeful acts of brutality in order to underscore the tragic dimension of such a representation. Instead, the film opts to conclude the narrative with an earnest and sober restraint rather than culminating on an excessively operatic note of easy existential dread. There is no visual spectacle of a punishing massacre, only the change of circumstances. The mission has changed. The tower is no longer needed for strategic purposes and logistics prevent the transportation of the German prisoners elsewhere. They are therefore marched out of the village and executed in silence beyond a hill as the helpless villagers remain behind. The radio tower stands as a futile and admonishing tribute to a brief period in time.
It is worth asking whether this shift towards such conciliatory humanist representations of the German enemy portends something beyond a generational interest in redefining specific cinematic traditions in contemporary Russian cinema. Cynics could be forgiven if they pointed out that it may well serve the interests of Russia in its tenuous relation to the European Union to insist on positive portrayals of Germans at a time when the economic and political ties between Russia and Germany can be evinced in the form of a Putin-Schröder cronyism. The film critic Andrei Plakhov, however, points out in his brief overview of the state of current Russian cinema in the Dutch film journal De Filmkrant at the conclusion of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam that Antonov’s film certainly did not enjoy the support of the government. On the contrary, Plakhov asserts that the Russian government threatened to ban the film for its “provocative” content and its “lack of patriotism.” The film’s provocation lies precisely in its categorical insistence on a humanism that cannot be circumscribed by ideological expediency. The film therefore dispenses with conventional constructions of character development and narrative change in favor of a more abstract typology through which the human emerges. In this respect, the comparison to Cuckoo is thus inevitable since both films are located in the temporal and geographic fringes where social structures and constraints are reduced to their minimum, which allows both films to celebrate humanism as a form of benign natural transcendence. In doing so, both Cuckoo and Polumgla run the risk of a kind of ethnographic reductionism in which ancient rituals and folklore become the palliative to the dilemmas that social and historical circumstances dictate. But Polumgla pursues an interesting line of thought, which by now seems to amount to an almost radical claim, namely that no matter what these circumstances are, the human cannot but interfere even in the extreme conditions of war.
Daniel H. Wild
New York City
1] Andrei Plakhov, “Russia: A Touch of Reality,” De Filmkrant 274 (February 2006).
Polumgla, Russia and Germany, 2005
Color, 103 minutes
In Russian and German
Director: Artem Antonov
Screenplay: Igor' Bolgarin, Viktor Smirnov
Cinematography: Andrei Vorob'ev
Editor: Artem Antonov, Sergei Ivanov
Music: Andrei Antonenko
Art Director: Mariia Belozerova
Costume Design: Asia Kogel, Nadezhda Orlova
Sound: Vladimir Persov
With Iurii Tarasov, Anastasiia Sheleva, Sergei Griaznov, Johannes Rapp, Martin Jackowski, Lidiia Bairashevskaia, Christian Sengewald, Natal'ia Burmistrova, Vitalii Kovalenko, Kira Kreilis-Petrova
Producers: Igor' Kalenov and Aleksandr Rodnianskii.
Production: Nikola-Film Studio (St. Petersburg) and Rohfilm (Germany), with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema, Russia
Artem Antonov: Polumgla (2005)
reviewed by Daniel H. Wild© 2006