Issue 31 (2011)
Alena Semenova, Aleksandr Smirnov: The Rowan Waltz (Riabinovyi val's, 2009)
reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2011
I will forget days of love and fame,
I will forget my youth.
The soul is dark, the way is treacherous,
But your image, your righteous deed
I will preserve until the hour of death.
[from Anna Akhmatova,
“O net, ia ne tebia liubila” (1917)
in The Complete Poems, p. 244]
At the core of The Rowan Waltz is a simple love story of a kind seen often in the cinema, and particularly in films about the Second World War. In this incarnation, a young wife and mother (Polina), believing her husband (Egor) to have fallen at the front, slowly opens up to the possibility of a new love (Aleksei), only to be confronted by the unexpected return of her husband alive. Her inability to reconcile her feelings of marital loyalty towards her husband and her feelings of passion for her lover brings a trail of ruin in its wake. In many respects, The Rowan Waltz has the feel and style not just of a classic Soviet-era film, but of many Western postwar films, which explore the wartime and postwar experiences of “ordinary people,” most often cast as “lost voices” or “unsung heroes.” Firmly part of the postwar efforts of war-torn nations to reconstruct themselves as coherent entities, this genre of Soviet films (to name two, Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957) and Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate 1959)] were, in their best incarnations, sentimental but never mawkish, and muddied the national nostalgia-in-the-making. Press releases about The Rowan Waltz stress that this is not a blockbuster, but a simple, human film: “Ordinary people become heroes, making sacrifices they considered themselves incapable of making.” (Gavrilov, 1)
The provenance of the present film is important both for the claims it makes regarding historical authenticity and for the light it sheds on the New Nostalgia in the Russia of Putin and Medvedev. The 65th anniversary celebrations of the end of the Great Patriotic War—or the “Great Victory” (velikaia pobeda) as it is called in Russia—have been a particularly well-orchestrated event. The Rowan Waltz was completed to coincide with the anniversary, a conscious paean to some of Soviet Russia’s “unsung heroes.” The film takes place in Vologda province, where villages have lost their men and many of their women to the front, and their young boys to the local partisan units. The old and the young girls are left at the mercy of the German invaders. Once advancing Soviet troops force the Germans from the Oshtinskii region of the province in 1944, the State Committee of Defense (Goskomitet oborony) orders the clearing of the many mine fields laid by Finnish, German, and Soviet forces. Soviet sappers are brought in to train the young village girls how to identify and defuse the land mines. In this variant, this film’s young girls are Soviet history’s “unsung heroes.” Their task is existential not only because of its mortal threat (they are furnished only with long sticks tipped with a wire to find the mines), but also because the minefields are making crops impossible in the region, and starvation threatens.
The Rowan Waltz grew out of a documentary that was made three years before by the same producer, Vladimir Esinov. Hearing about a group of women in their eighties in Vologda province who had been trained as minesweepers during the war, he produced a documentary about them, Graduation in the Minefield (Vypusknoi na minnom pole). The Rowan Waltz was the cinematic interpretation of the events revealed in this earlier interview project (the DVD contains both films). At critical junctures, the documentary contextualizes the feature film. Beginning with battle scenes so conspicuously absent from the feature film, the documentary weaves together footage of extended interviews with the survivors, scenes from The Rowan Waltz (drained of color presumably for added 'authenticity'), and comments from a group of female school children who have been brought in to listen to the interviews. At one premiere, the 34th International Film Festival in Sao Paulo, Esinov offered a historical contextualization of the film by drawing on the documentary (“‘Riabinovyi val's’ na kinofestivale v San-Paulo”). At another festival, war veterans watched the film “with tears in their eyes,” and called it “a genuine and truthful film” (“Festival' ‘Georgievskaia lentochka’”). Not surprisingly, perhaps, given such stated claims to past realities, the film won a people’s choice-type award in the 2009 competition “Rossiiskie debiuty” (Nikandrov). This is not to deny the value of the documentary project. The interviews with the old women are fascinating, and this episode from the Second World War was indeed a forgotten event, at least by all but these old women. At its best, the documentary is riveting, the old women’s memories proving to be an intriguing mix of official narrative and personal experience, and the close-ups of their faces and their vocal cadences hint at all kinds of contradictory emotions. At its worst, it is facile: the young schoolgirls offer platitudes about the sacrifices made by the older generation, and the original wartime footage of villagers dancing in the fields is followed by a shot of the young schoolgirls dancing in similar fashion.
I do question, though, the use to which the documentary (qua historical truth) is put, and the interesting questions it raises about the relationship between a documentary and an “artistic” film based upon it. For the producer of these films, there is no conflict. Esinov describes himself as “an ‘old Russian’ producer,” who makes “classic cinema, in the spirit of soviet realism” (Gavrilov, p. 4). The purpose and message of the film are for him unequivocal and incontrovertible:
The drama The Rowan Waltz was made in honor of those who, without feeling sorry for themselves, defended the honor and freedom of our Motherland. Those who displayed heroism, selflessness and courage, those who cleared the native land of enemy munitions, made it suitable for peaceful life, and, despite the whole tragic nature of their circumstances, were able to preserve their purity of soul and ability to love. This film is for all who remember and love. (Nikandrov)
Not surprisingly then, given this starting point, many of the defining features of the Khrushchev Thaw-era Soviet war movies are firmly in place in The Rowan Waltz. It has a simple human story that ends in tragedy; it is a love poem on celluloid. The major protagonists are innocents, the trainee sappers vulnerable and bruised. “The flowers of the rowan,” the producer tells us, “are delicate and fragile and bloom for less than ten days” (“‘Riabinovyi val's’ na kinofestivale v San-Paulo”). The war is only the backdrop here, distant and out-of-focus, the center-stage being occupied by the human protagonists. The accompanying music features, notably, a comradely, plaintive performance of Anton El'darov's adaptation of Anna Akhmatova’s 1917 poem “Oh no, it wasn't you I loved” (O, net ia ne tebia liubila). Incidental music was composed by the much celebrated, traditional Soviet Moldavian composer Evgenii Doga, whose waltz evokes earlier classic Soviet films.
However, the debutante director, Alena Semenova, a well-known actress who was charged with this film together with experienced cinematographer Aleksandr Smirnov, offers a more equivocal take on the material that perhaps muddies the simplistic message of the heroic and selfless wartime acts of “ordinary people.” “We see war without a visible enemy,” she said in one interview. “We observe the lives of people who are placed in a situation that is not propitious to human nature” (Nikandrov). In the hands of these directors, the materials of the documentary become suggestive and provocative ruminations on the nature of war and suffering. The brute reality of the war is largely invisible, and yet visible everywhere, and this seeming contradiction is achieved in a number of interesting ways.
The young girls, who are trucked in from local areas to clear the minefields, contrast sharply with Polina, the older woman from this particular village. Their attitude towards authority, as represented by the captain and commander who come to train them, is an irreverent mixture of flirtatiousness, cheek, and rambunctious good spirits. Levity is also provided by a young soldier who clowns around flirtatiously with the girls, to be half-heartedly upbraided by his superiors. Love blossoms between him and one of the girls. While the commander drily intones that victory is nigh, and that respect and discipline are required, one young girl shouts out “Happiness is coming, it is really needed,” a cry of irreverence at best at this particular moment in Soviet history. Their period of training continues in this vein, the initially stern (although increasingly relaxed) captain, Aleksei, contrasting with the at times bored, at times irreverent reception of his trainees. These young girls are just being young girls. The training itself is never truly authoritarian or overly officious, but, in keeping with the spirit of the film, these soldiers realize they are asking these girls to do something that is unusually dangerous even for regular soldiers. Still, all will not be well with these girls. The first sign is the arrival of an investigator to interrogate the girls about a dispute between the captain and a lieutenant. It presages darker times, the investigator at one point glancing back at a small portrait of Lavrentii Beria, head of the NKVD. In the next scene, the girls come to understand the real dangers of the work they have only taken half-seriously up to this point, as one of their number is blown up while trying to defuse a mine, the word “Mummy” on her lips. Their childhood is over, and from this point on the film takes a darker journey. The careworn, haggard women who line up at the end of the film as loudspeakers announce the fall of Berlin bear little resemblance to the young girls who had mustered as trainee mine-sweepers at the start of the film.
Polina on the other hand is a study in contrasts from the beginning: older, more mature, and already deeply touched by the war. She is at turns moved by frenzy, passion, and anguish, often barely in control of her emotions. As the film opens, Polina realizes that her young son, Dima, has ventured into a minefield to retrieve a makeshift soccer ball. The dog that follows him dies on a mine, but it could so easily have been young Dima. Torn, like any mother, between joy and anger, Polina hugs, kisses, and smacks Dima in a frenzy. As her attraction to Aleksei grows, her passion begins to draw her out of her widowhood. One scene between Polina and Aleksei foreshadows the film's final scene. The film lingers on Aleksei's explanation of one particular kind of anti-personnel mine, and he chooses Polina for a mock demonstration of the mine’s trigger mechanism. When Polina fails to fall to the ground as instructed by him, he tells her “You are now a corpse.” Though meant in jest in this scene, it takes on particular pathos in the film's climactic scene. The brutalities and cruelties of war are most visible, however, on the tortured faces of Polina and Dima, their expressions of horror and hurt at times echo the most moving scenes in Elem Klimov’s far more visceral Come and See (Idi i smotri 1985). Polina’s demeanor and expressions suggest a pain that goes far deeper than the loss of her husband, and points to sufferings during the German occupation that remain untold. Dima’s fierce protection of his mother against Aleksei’s attentions—he even draws a gun on Aleksei in one scene—hints too at hurts deeper than the loss of his father. In some of these scenes, Dima’s facial expressions approach those of the young boy Flera in Klimov’s film.
The contrast between the invisibility and visibility of war is also suggested by the juxtaposition of two major sites throughout the film. The minefields serve as an ever-present threat of future random destruction. Man built this monument to inhumanity of course, but Fate chooses the victims. The mines only become visible when uncovered by these girls (or when triggered in error), and the minefield serves as a metaphor of the hidden human suffering caused by this war that may, or may not, be revealed with time, and with who knows what consequences. In contrast, a more visible marker of the war are the bombed out ruins of the church that appear frequently as a backdrop to the film. Even if we see it only now and then,the directors tell us, the reality of war is always present. If the minefield is a complex warning, the church is a plaintive reminder.
In the hands of these directors, then, The Rowan Waltz is able to offer a quite complex picture of the emotional burden borne by these women that transcends the authority of authenticity claimed by the documentary Graduation in the Minefield. The difference is well-illustrated by the following moment. A simple reminiscence in the documentary about an evening at which the girls dance and sing to lighten their burden becomes in the feature film a frenzied bacchanalia in the wake of the death of one of their number in the minefield. As the commander forces alcohol on the girls and swirls them around faster and faster, compelling them to dance, their expressions tell a complex tale of desperate grief at the loss not just of one of their own, but of their innocence. Here again, Polina’s grief seems to indicate an even deeper loss than this one girl. There is nothing heroic in these faces, merely pain.
Frederick C. Corney
The College of William & Mary
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Gavrilov, Andrei, “Vladimir Esinov: ‘Riabinovyi val's’—eto kartina dlia vsekh, kto liubit i pomnit,” Kinorynok 4 (June 2009).
The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, ed. Roberta Reeder and translated by Judith Hemschemeyer (Boston: Zephyr Press, 1989).
“Festival' ‘Georgievskaia lentochka’ otkrylsia fil'mom ‘Riabinovyi val's’,” RIA-Novosti, 22 April 2010.
Nikandrov, Sergei, “Kinoprem'era na ‘Intere’ k iubileiu Velikoi Pobedy ‘Riabinovyi val's’ na minnom pole,” TV.Net.Ua, 12 May 2010
“‘Riabinovyi val's’ na kinofestivale v San-Paulo,” www.portugues.pro, 27 October 2010.
The Rowan Waltz, Russia, 2009
Color, 95 min.
Directors: Alena Semenova; Aleksandr Smirnov
Based on an idea by Vladimir Esinov
Scriptwriter: Tat'iana Miroshnik; Alena Semenova; with Marii Mozhar
Cinematography: Aleksandr Smirnov
Art Direction: Aleksandr Giliarevskii
Kompozitor: Evgenii Doga
Editing: Maksim Smirnov
Sound: Daler Khasanov
Cast: Karina Andolenko; Leonid Bichevin; Valeriia Lanskaia; Konstantin Milovanov; Denis Sukhomlinov; Elizaveta Arzamasova
Producer: Vladimir Esinov
Alena Semenova, Aleksandr Smirnov: The Rowan Waltz (Riabinovyi val's, 2009)
reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2011