Issue 30 (2010)

Vera Glagoleva: One War (Odna voina, 2009)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2010

For nearly a decade now, Russian filmmakers have engaged in penetrating exposés of the untold history of the Great Patriotic War. The topics covered include the penal battalions, the treatment of German civilians and POWs, the poor training of naïve young recruits, commanders’ callous disregard for Russian lives, collaboration, the role of the security police, and so on. Vera Glagoleva adds to this rich and provocative body of work the tale of what happened to women who bore children to the fascist enemy.

warOne War has a simple plot, which unfolds over three days, 8-10 May 1945.  Five women, along with their young children, have been exiled to a small island on Lake Ladoga for the crime of sleeping with German soldiers. Their corrective labor consists of gutting, scaling, and drying fish. They are guarded by a single, disabled sergeant (Aleksandr Baluev). This monotonous routine is interrupted by the arrival of an NKVD major (Mikhail Khmurov), who has come to round up the women and send them to the gulag. Their children will be placed in orphanages. The next day, the women are, however, allowed to celebrate the Victory, although the major refuses an invitation to join their modest festivities. Early the following morning (10 May), the sergeant flees with the women and children while the major watches silently from a rocky promontory.

One War presented this reviewer with a conundrum. On the one hand, the film tells a little-known story that has built-in emotional resonance. Ruslan Gerasimenikov’s cinematography is exquisite and painterly; the film’s acting is, likewise, very strong. One War has been a selection in a number of international film festivals and has garnered awards, most notably the Grand Prix at the Sofia International Film Festival.

odnavoinaOn the other hand, Marina Sasina’s ponderous script and Glagoleva’s clichéd directing mar the film. One War is heavily romanticized. The frequent long shots of the forbidding seascape and gray skies weigh the film down and contribute to its excruciatingly slow pacing. The message of these scenes is rather obvious: the women are imprisoned on the island by Nature, rather than by cages. Moments of sadness are accompanied by suddenly overcast skies. Freedom is likewise stereotypically symbolized by recurring shots of migrating geese, to which the women give scarcely a glance.  The upshot is that what should have been a relentlessly grim tale has been aestheticized and prettified.

One War is further characterized by sentimentalism, particularly in the depiction of the women and their children. The women are, with one exception, good-looking, with smooth white hands, and shiny hair. They wear warm, not exceptionally worn, clothing. Their children are adorable: squeaky clean and cutely dressed. The babies are either sleeping quietly or smiling sweetly. Everyone lives together in their communal tent in relative harmony.

odnavoinaThe history of each woman is revealed through a creaky plot device. Although they have been together for some time, only now do they reveal how they came to be in their situation. Masha (Natal’ia Kudriashova) was gang-raped; the mature Aleksandra (Natal’ia Surkova) slept with the Germans to get food for her children. Only one, Natasha (Kseniia Surikova) was “in love”; she believes in the sanctity of love and the rightness of following one’s heart, regardless of the circumstances. In other words, none of the women has done anything “wrong.” Nowhere in the film is there an acknowledgment that many such women were truly collaborators, sleeping with Germans for their own benefit.

odnavoinaThe film descends into melodrama when the clearly traumatized Masha suddenly commits suicide by throwing herself into the lake and drowning, although the major tries to save her. Certainly the end of the film is unbelievably melodramatic. The women are miraculously rescued by the kindly sergeant while the NKVD officer gazes on helplessly. Would that such happy endings were the norm in Soviet history.

How to explain the festival prizes? One War tells a serious story with Hollywood flair. The subject matter is “dark” in the Russian manner, but superficially so. The film is slickly produced, with surface beauty. The viewer can thus watch One War lulled by its slow rhythms, untroubled by any intense emotions or disturbing thoughts.

Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont

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One War (Odna voina), 2009
Color, 82 minutes
Director: Vera Glagoleva
Screenplay: Marina Sasina
Cinematography: Ruslan Gerasimenikov
Editing: Veronika Chibisova, Egor Puzanov
Music: Sergei Banevich
Art Direction: Igor Kotsarev
Cast: Aleksandr Baluev, Mikhail Khmurov, Natal’ia Kudriashova, Uliia Meinikova, Anna Nakhapetova, Kseniia Surikova, Natal’ia Surkova
Executive Producer: Mariia Ksinopulo
Producers: Natal’ia Ivanova, Vera Glagoleva
Studio: Khorosho Productions

Vera Glagoleva: One War (Odna voina, 2009)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2010

Updated: 04 Oct 10