Vasilii Chiginskii: First after God (Pervyi posle boga, 2005)

reviewed by Denise Youngblood© 2006

The “true life hero” story is a hallowed tradition in the war film genre, particularly for World War II films. Soviet wartime and early postwar cinema offered a number of classic examples of the cinematic heroicization of the exploits of individual heroes and heroines: Zoia (Leo Arnshtam, 1944), Ivan Nikulin, Russian Sailor (Ivan Nikulin: Russkii matros; dir. Igor' Savchenko, 1944), The Story of a Real Man (Povest' o nastoiashchem cheloveke; dir. Aleksandr Stolper, 1948), and Konstantin Zaslonov (Aleksandr Faintsimmer and Vladimir Korsh-Sablin, 1949). After Thaw cinema began to deconstruct Stalinist mythologies of the Great Patriotic War, this subtype of the war film fell into disfavor. Therefore, Vasilii Chiginskii’s decision to resurrect the WWII “hero film” carries political resonance. His choice of hero is even more interesting.

Set in Finland in late 1944, First after God is a heavily fictionalized rendition of episodes from the life of Soviet submarine commander Aleksandr Ivanovich Marinesko (1913-1963), called “Marinin” in the film. The “real” Marinesko was the hero-who-wasn’t―a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing troublemaker whose disciplinary infractions dated to the very beginning of his naval career. He survived, and even thrived, because of his talents: an uncanny ability to motivate his men to take risks that other commanders refused to take and thereby, to sink many German ships. After the war, however, his abilities were no longer in demand. He was demoted to a series of increasingly inconsequential positions and apparently spent a few years in a camp. Only near the end of his short life did he receive some recognition and his pension. He was named a Hero of the Soviet Union in 1990 and a statue was erected in his home city of Odessa. [1]

Marinesko’s story provides ample raw material for Chiginskii to construct a hero of the “rugged individualist” type favored in recent Russian war films; the brusquely nonconformist lieutenant Petia Glushkov in Vladilen Arsenev’s 2005 television serial Echelon (Eshelon) immediately comes to mind. Marinin (Dmitrii Orlov) cuts a much wider swathe than any other post-Soviet war film hero. A scene early in the film is characteristic. Everyone at the base waits for the return of Marinin’s sub, the S-13, after the conclusion of yet another successful, but very daring mission. As Marinin swaggers down the gangplank at the beginning of the film to accept his tribute of whole roast pig, all eyes are upon him. The eyes of the base commander (Vladimir Gostiukhin) are moist with tears as he embraces his protégé. Those of the young blokadnitsa Tan'ka (Liza Boiarskaia), who narrates the film, are wide with infatuation. The gaze of another “voyeur” is not so adoring: NKVD major Sharabidze (Mikhail Gomiashvili) has arrived at this Baltic port to arrest Marinin, the son of a tsarist admiral and a brother of another enemy of the people. While Marinin has renounced his family and believes that his brother Roman (who served with Kolchak) is dead, the sinister Sharabidze hopes to convince him otherwise, thereby “exposing” Marinin and providing a pretext for his arrest.

Although Soviet cinema never produced an anti-hero quite like Marinin, the plot’s unbelievable twists and turns are familiar to devotés of Stalin-era melodrama. As his men forego their three-day leave to train nonstop, Marinin parties, first at the officers’ canteen (where he clearly is not very popular with more serious-minded commanders), then at a nearby inn owned by a beautiful Swede, Anna Theresa Maria (played by Irina Björklund, a Finnish actress born in Sweden). “Ania” (as Marinin dubs her) is immediately attracted to the extremely drunk captain despite the fact that she has a rich fiancé, Gustav, who has given her the inn. After dancing for a few minutes and conversing in broken French, the couple repairs to the bedroom. Marinin is such an enthusiastic sexual athlete that he breaks the bed! The next night he is back at the inn, drunker than ever, and refuses to interrupt his tryst with Ania to return to base when he is called out on a mission. As a result, his rival, young Captain Galiev (Sergei Gorobchenko), is sent out instead; captain and crew are lost. Yet the avuncular kombrig, after giving Marinin a perfunctory scolding, urges the hung-over Marinin not to blame himself.

Meanwhile, Major Sharabidze continues to plot against Marinin even though going AWOL should have been reason enough to arrest him. Sharabidze scores the fatal blow when he assigns a young sailor who had been arrested as a would-be deserter to Marinin’s crew. This boy had refused to renounce his father, a priest, when Sharabidze offered him the opportunity to do so. Marinin is ashamed, as Sharabidze knew he would be, and decides to try to find Roman. Again, Marinin disappears, this time for several days, as Ania seeks a lead, a lead that Sharabidze has “planted” with a Finnish woodsman. The trap is sprung and Marinin is arrested.

But the kombrig orders Marinin’s release for one final mission, an exciting battle with a formidable German in as well-orchestrated a scene as any in Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen, 1981). The film would have benefited from more such scenes. It seems Marinin has been lost. The lovelorn Tan'ka stands on a cliff crying, as music swells. But Marinin returns a hero, and Sharabidze leaves defeated.

First after God (the title is Soviet naval slang for a submarine commander) is a competently made film of the war-as-entertainment variety, best represented in the new Russian cinema by Nikolai Lebedev’s The Star (Zvezda, 2002). With the exception of the deeply flawed Marinin, all the characters are clichés: the kindly commander, the evil NKVD officer, the pretty but wholesome Russian girl, the glamorous and worldly foreign woman, and so on. The film’s sweeping panoramas of a landscape untouched by war and sentimental musical score are also straight from the playbook.

What makes First after God’s triteness disappointing is that the Marinesko story offered so much more. At the very least, it was an opportunity to engage with the vagaries of hero-construction and hero-worship, and with the role movies play in that process. Is Marinesko, a hero-come-lately, really more “heroic” than the heroes of yore?

Under Chiginskii’s direction, however, the story unfolds with neither depth nor irony. Dmitrii Orlov plays Marinin “straight”: as a brash young lug who feels entitled to the adoration he (unaccountably) receives, whether from his men, his commander, or his lover. Chiginskii clearly expects viewers to adore him (and his pranks), too. What a guy!

But although Marinin is physically attractive, he does not seem intelligent enough (or charismatic enough) to inspire anyone’s adoration or awe. Orlov’s affect is so flat that Marinin’s outburst of remorse over his renunciation of his family is almost laughable. “I’m not a hero,” he drunkenly sobs to Ania, “I disavowed my family, my brother, to get into college.” It’s childishly easy to trap him, and one can sympathize with Sharabidze’s disappointment and wonder how a man who has been in so much trouble can still be so naive. I found myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Sharabidze when he hisses at Marinin: “Do you think you are a hero?! All your heroism is as false as you! …. hiding under the sea, feasting on pigs and playing cards, while the people are bleeding.” Marinin should have asked Sharabidze how he was contributing to the war effort.

The greatest shortcoming of First after God, however, is the part of the Marinesko story that Chinginskii does not tell at all, but which was told, to great controversy and acclaim by Günter Grass in his 2002 novel Crabwalk (Im Krebsgang).[2] In Crabwalk, Grass thoughtfully attempts to reconstruct the prelude to, and aftermath of, Marinesko’s most famous deeds, the sinking of the German ocean liner Wilhelm Gustloff on 30 January 1945 and the German military hospital ship General von Steuben on 10 February. The Gustloff was carrying some 9,000 refugees from Gdansk, mainly women and children, plus 1,000 soldiers; the Steuben, approximately 3,000 wounded soldiers. Most perished and the frozen bodies of children bobbed for days in the icy waters. If the Germans had won the war, Marinesko would have certainly been executed as a war criminal.

Did Marinesko know? Does it matter? Are there any rules in wartime? Is all “heroism” relative? Grass explores these difficult questions with his characteristic insight and sensitivity.[3] If Chiginskii intended First after God to be an “answer” to Crabwalk’s penetrating questions, his response, which is characterized by uncritical hero worship and half-truths, is troubling indeed.

Denise Youngblood
University of Vermont


Notes

1] The most objective, best researched account of Marinesko’s career that I have been able to find is “Aleksandr Ivanovich Marinesko: Strikhi k biografii,” Morskoi sbornik 4 (1990), 33-47. This article is unsigned.

2] Günter Grass, Crabwalk, trans. Krishna Winston (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2002), originally published as Im Krebsgang (Göttingen: Steidl Verlag, 2002).

3] With Grass’s stunning revelation about his service in the Waffen SS, some have already begun to question his right to offer “insights” on any aspect of the war.


First after God, Russia, 2005
Color, 99 minutes
Director: Vasilii Chiginskii
Screenplay: Nikolai Kapitonov, with the participation of Igor' Evsiukhov
Cinematography: Archil Akhvlediani
Art Director: Andrei Vasin
Composer: Dato Evgenidze
Songs: Sergei Galanin
Cast: Dmitrii Orlov, Mikhail Gomiashvili, Vladimir Gostiukhin, Liza Boiarskaia, Irina Björklund, Sergei Gorobchenko, Iurii Stepanov, Viktor Sukhorukov, Nina Ruslanova, Sergei Rubeiko, Vitalii Abdulov, Dmitrii Rudkov, Ekaterina Vulchenko.
Producers: Sergei Bokhanov, Sergei Shumakov, Sergei Fiks
Executive Producers: Mikhail Kalatozishvili, Andrei Bondarenko
Production: Fortuna Film XXI, with the aid of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography and Telekanal Rossiia

Vasilii Chiginskii: First after God (Pervyi posle boga, 2005)

reviewed by Denise Youngblood© 2006

Updated: 05 Oct 06