Mikhail Segal: Franz + Polina (2006)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood© 2007

Mikhail Segal's debut feature film Franz + Polina is another entry in a series of recent Russian World War II films that attempt to “humanize” the German enemy.[1] The picture opens with an inverted homage to Elem Klimov's 1985 masterpiece Come and See (Idi i smotri): a group of boy children are playing on a sandy river bank. Unlike the grimy urchins of Come and See, who are playing war games and digging for weapons, these children are entirely carefree, cheerfully splashing about in the company of young adult males. When the young men dress, the illusion is shattered. They are members of the SS Death's Head Battalion.

This nod to Come and See is as unsurprising as it is unsettling. Franz + Polina is based on a screenplay by the late Ales' Adamovich—the writer, historian, and politician who wrote the screenplay for Come and See . Those familiar with Adamovich's dogged determination to preserve the memory of the German army's genocide in Belorussia in 1943 must wonder how much of Franz + Polina is “Adamovich” and how much reflects the views of Vladimir Stepanovich, director Segal, and cinematographer Maksim Trapo, all of whom are credited as the authors of the film's “dialogue.” Franz + Polina 's sentimentalized depiction of young love between wartime enemies is distinctly alien to Adamovich's gestalt .

The film unfolds in a leisurely fashion that belies the urgency of wartime. Polina (Svetlana Ivanova) is a rusalka , an improbably beautiful river sprite who enjoys flirting with the innocent young German soldier Franz (Adrian Topol), a teenager who has joined the SS only because his mother has assured him that he must not shirk his duty to the fatherland. Although most of the village men, including Polina's father and brother, have fled to the forest partisans, this local beauty sees no particular problem with her autumnal romance. Polina's stolid mother is concerned, but only because Franz's interest in Polina has attracted the unfavorable attention of Franz's sergeant, who is bivouacked in their home. Mama seems not to worry that her daughter might be labelled a collaborator.

The first half hour of the film is idyllic: beautiful scenery, bountiful food, kindly occupiers. Polina's cottage is spacious, clean, and attractive, appointed with nice embroidered linens and family heirlooms (including the antique clock the German sergeant repairs), and a well-groomed, friendly dog that the sergeant befriends. The villagers who have hidden in the forest begin trekking back. The pleasant mood changes suddenly. German reinforcements arrive, and the village is torched, its inhabitants massacred, all off screen. The avuncular sergeant orders Franz to shoot Polina and her mother.

When the smoke clears, we see that Polina and her mother are the village's sole survivors, along with Franz, who has killed his sergeant rather than follow orders. Polina has awakened from her adolescent reverie, as has Franz. She now understands that this is war and that Franz represents the enemy. For his part, Franz realizes that by disobeying orders, he has irrevocably isolated himself from his own people and thrown his lot in with a mercurial girl with whom he cannot even converse.

After entirely unbelievable and thoroughly melodramatic developments—Polina's partisan brother allows her to protect “her” German; their mother dies suddenly of a broken heart—the young couple takes to the woods, posing as a sister and (deaf-mute) brother. Franz and Polina consummate their wordless love in a scene that is as repellent as it is ridiculous. They make love in a trapper's lean-to where they have taken shelter from a pack of starving feral dogs, their contorted faces intercut with extreme close-ups of the pack's leader snarling and foaming at the mouth. Shortly thereafter, captured by collaborators, Franz and Polina are taken away to be executed. Although they escape, Polina has been shot and grievously wounded. Another happy coincidence: they immediately meet up with a column of weary refugees, who prove to be remarkably tolerant when they eventually discover that Franz is a German.

The only believable character in the film is Kazik, a little boy who has witnessed the brutal murder of his mother and sister, and has been taken in by his godmother. Kazik is not about to forgive any German. Franz represents the enemy who has destroyed his world, and so Kazik stalks and eventually kills him while Franz is fetching water for the now-pregnant Polina. The film ends not with images but with the sound of Polina shrieking when she realizes that Franz is dead. Her screams are drowned out by the babble of the dead from her village, the same babble that drove her mother to her death.

Franz + Polina is a “nice” war film, well-crafted and beautifully photographed. It could have been made in any European country. Its message is soft and blandly humanistic: enemies are as much constructed as real; “ordinary” people just want to live and love; wars destroy lives, psychologically as well as physically. The film's “normality” was acknowledged in January of this year, when Segal was awarded the Grand Prize at the 20 th Annual FIPA Festival in Biarritz.

As a long-time observer of Russian war films, I have mixed feelings about Franz + Polina . On the one hand, I welcome the normalization of the Great Patriotic War that this very ordinary film represents. I understand the desire of the current generation of Russian directors to de-sanctify the war by using it as a backdrop for a conventional love story, albeit with a tragic ending á la russe . On the other hand, I recoil from the banality and poshlost' of the film's message. Is the “love” that Franz and Polina supposedly represent really “the answer” to the evils of genocide and annihilation? Why does Segal celebrate Franz and Polina's adolescent lust and frown on Kazik's equally understandable desire for vengeance? Movie-goers who prefer war films that deal with serious issues seriously should look elsewhere.

Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont

Stills courtesy of the production company's press kit.


Notes

1] KinoKultura has reviewed a number of these recent enemy-centered war movies; see, for example, Birgit Beumers on Aleksei Gherman, Jr.’s The Last Train (Poslednii poezd), 3 (January 2004); Youngblood on Aleksei Karelin’s A Time to Gather Stones (Vremia sobirat' kamni), 12 (April 2006); Daniel H. Wild on Artem Antonov’s Polumgla, 13 (July 2006). “Good,” or at least interesting, German characters have also been portrayed in popular television serials like Aleksandr Aravin’s The Red Choir (Krasnaia kapella, 2004) and Dmitrii Dolinin and Niiole Adomenaite’s Echelon (Eshelon, 2005); for an overview see Beumers, “The Serialization of the War,” KinoKultura 12 (April 2006).

 


Franz + Polina, Russia, 2006
Color, 119 minutes
Director: Mikhail Segal
Screenplay: Ales' Adamovich, with dialogue by Vladimir Stepanenko, Mikhail Segal, and
Maksim Trapo
Cinematography: Maksim Trapo
Sound: Iurii Reinbakh, Dmitrii Chernov, Vasilii Shitikov
Music: Andjei Petras
Set Design: Aleksandr Maksimovich
Costume Design: Liudmila Torshina
Cast: Adrian Topol, Svetlana Ivanova, Andrei Merzlikin, Tamara Mironova, Uve Ellinnek
Production: Ugra-Film
Co-Production: Solivs

Mikhail Segal: Franz + Polina (2006)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood© 2007

Updated: 18 Mar 07