Zinovii Roizman: The Last Armored Train (Poslednii bronepoezd, 2006)

reviewed by Tony Anemone© 2007

As the last members of Russia's “greatest generation” exit the scene, Russian television and cinema seem increasingly obsessed with celebrating the Great Patriotic War. The wave of war films and television serials that culminated in the 60 th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany shows no signs of slowing down. Russian viewers, it seems clear, cannot get enough of their “good” war. This fascination with World War II has resulted in some excellent movies, notably Aleksandr Rogozhkin's Cuckoo ( Kukushka , 2002) and Aleksei German, Jr.'s The Last Train ( Poslednii poezd , 2003), as well as worthy television serials, especially Penal Battalion ( Shtrafbat , 2004) by Nikolai Dostal ' . What distinguishes the best of the new wave of Russian war movies and serials is their rejection of the clichéd Soviet vision of heroic Russians versus faceless and soulless Nazi aggressors, and their willingness to wrestle with new themes and approaches to the war—for example, Rogozhkin's richly comic parable of (mis)communication between a Russian, a Finn, and a Sami woman thrown together by the vagaries of war; German's haunting and sympathetic portrait of doomed German soldiers in Ukraine; and Dostal ' 's monumental memorial to the notorious penal battalions. But for every film or serial that abjures Soviet taboos and tries to get closer to the reality of the war, there are many more that use the war as an easy vehicle for simple-minded entertainment or crude nationalist propaganda.

The Last Armored Train , a big budget serial with several well known actors and directed by Zinovii Roizman, a veteran director of action serials, falls somewhere between these two extremes: an action film that raises larger historical and political questions that it cannot resolve. Supposedly based on historical events, The Last Armored Train stars Andrei Panin as a purged Red Army general and former zek who finds himself in command of a motley crew of soldiers and civilians trying to break out of German encirclement somewhere in Belarussia in the first month of the war. As the film opens, the Germans have sent saboteurs and commandos behind the line of the escaping Soviet army to capture the bridge over the river Drut ' , thereby cutting off the Soviets' escape route. Led by Hermann (Andrei Sokolov), a brave but brutal Nazi officer of Volga German descent disguised as a Soviet Lieutenant, the Germans are able to manipulate, fool, and massacre their Red Army counterpoints with apparent ease. But the Soviets have a secret weapon: an armored train that, if it can make its way to the bridge in time, will thwart the Germans' plans and allow the Soviets to escape to fight another day. As the result of a complex and utterly implausible sequence of events, Panin takes command of the armored train and eventually saves the day for the retreating Soviets.

Like so many Russian films and TV serials, The Last Armored Train depicts the war through a combination of brutal honesty and embarrassing sentimentality. The brutality comes out especially in connection with the Stalinist secret police: next to the false confession beaten out of Panin's character by his NKVD interrogators and the naked amoralism and murderous egoism of the careerist NKVD officer, the horrors of actual combat seem almost subdued. Russian soldiers are, somewhat surprisingly, depicted as “dark” ( temnye ) and brutal louts, who hate Jews, Communists, and officers, and are interested in one thing only from women. Red Army officers, by contrast, are, for the most part, loyal, brave, selfless, and competent. The film's main characters are all highly idealized and sentimentalized, sometimes to the point of kitsch: the characterization of Romanov/Lesorub (Panin) as a talented and dedicated officer, charismatic leader, loving husband, sympathetic friend, a man of unimpeachable ethical standards, and an amazing fighter; the cloying love of Teplo and Toma; the voyeuristic scene of the naked Sonia and Toma declaring their hatred for war; the maudlin and patronizing burial of a soldier Teplo and Lazar ' knew briefly; and Lesorub and Sonia quoting German poetry to each other in bed are all symptomatic of The Last Armored Train 's lack of sophistication.

While seeming to suggest the usual cross-section of the nation familiar from so many war movies, the main characters suggest unresolved tensions lying beneath the surface of Soviet society of the 1940s. The least complicated characters are those who have lived their entire lives under Soviet power—the naïve young draftee Teplo (Denis Nikiforov), and the traumatized and fragile Toma (Marina Aleksandrova), who, naturally, fall in love. Each of the other characters, however, has a secret past: the elderly train engineer Fadeev (Oleg Korchikov) served with the Whites during the Civil War; the criminal Lazar ' (Ivan Kokorin) is actually Jewish; the purged former Soviet army general Romanov aka Lesorub is descended from the aristocracy; and the provincial teacher of German, Sonia (Ekaterina Rednikova), turns out to be the daughter of Germans murdered in Russia in 1917. Although they all have reasons to mistrust, fear, and even hate Soviet power, they fight bravely against a brutal and cruel enemy and, in the end, the army's escape is entirely due to their efforts.

While Roizman's directorial skills are displayed to good effect in the impressive attack by German gliders on a key bridge, in the historically accurate recreation of an armored train, and in several brutal fist fights, his filming of infantry attacks is amateurish and, on occasion, unintentionally comical (for example, German commandos trying to stop the armored train with rifle and machine gun fire). The actors' performances are likewise a mixed bag: Rednikova's over-the-top emotionalism and Aleksandrovna's schoolgirl naïveté are embarrassing and sometimes difficult to watch, but Panin's ability to differentiate between his character's genuine pain and disillusionment and his affected cynicism is the mark of a great actor. Although energetic and, on occasion, impressive as an obsessed Nazi commando impersonating a Russian officer, Andrei Sokolov is not completely convincing in the climatic fight scene with Panin, and Ivan Kokorin is a talented comic actor trapped in a role that was already performed brilliantly by Aleksei Zharkov in Dostal ' 's Penal Battalion .

Ultimately, the greatest weaknesses of The Last Armored Train are conceptual in nature. The film is suspended between incompatible visions of the meaning of Soviet history, World War II, and today's Russia. Criticizing the paranoia, spy-mania, and brutality of the Stalinist NKVD, the movie portrays a world absolutely crawling with spies, defectors, deserters, and other disloyal elements. Attacking the cult of the infallible leader, the film emphasizes the need and desire of the people for a charismatic and powerful leader to protect them in time of crisis. The director's absolute refusal to consider the fact that the Soviet victory over the Nazis was, in fact, the greatest achievement of the Stalinist regime makes the film's happy ending seem forced and false. Roizman's Last Armored Train illustrates, in other words, the difficulty of criticizing the Stalinist system while celebrating the victory of Russia's “greatest generation,” and—at the same time—inculcating a new patriotism among the younger generation of Putin's Russia.

Tony Anemone
New School University


The Last Armored Train, Russia, 2006
Color, 4 episodes, 52 minutes each
Director: Zinovii Roizman
Scriptwriters: Gleb Shprigov and Leonid Porokhnia, with the participation of Zinovii Roizman
Cinematography: Nikolai Ivasiv
Art Director: Aleksandr Chertovich
Music: Evhenii Shiriaev
Starring: Andrei Panin, Andrei Sokolov, Ekaterina Rednikova, Denis Nikiforov, Marina Aleksandrova, Ivan Kokorin, Andrei Olefirenko, Anatolii Kot, Oleg Korchikov, Igor' Sigov
Producer: Ruben Dishdishian
Production: Central Partnership, Belpartner TV

Zinovii Roizman: The Last Armored Train (Poslednii bronepoezd, 2006)

reviewed by Tony Anemone© 2007

Updated: 18 Mar 07