Issue 32 (2011)
Aleksei Uchitel’: The Edge (Krai, 2010)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2011
Aleksei Uchitel’’s The Edge traces the adventures of a World War II veteran and disgraced Stalinist Hero of Labor during the immediate postwar period in a penal colony located in the far reaches of Siberia. Ignat, the steely-gazed and hard-bodied protagonist, enters the Gulag encampment populated with various enemies of the people and sows discord by interfering with the established local status quo. A true Stalinist hero of the 1930s, Ignat feels more comfortable with machinery than with human emotions and sacrifices both his health and his personal life to subjugate or make his own one of the most important symbols of the Stalinist industrialization era: the locomotive. Arriving at Krai, Ignat is determined to reclaim his former glory. Once one of Stalin’s most venerated locomotive drivers, Ignat lost his exulted position trying to impress the Great Leader; attempting to beat the existing speed record, the eager patriot derailed the train, squandered the privilege of commanding locomotives, and earned a brain injury that now leaves him handicapped with recurring debilitating seizures. This half-broken but determined Soviet figure attempts to rejoin the ranks of Stalinist heroes in an outpost populated with alleged traitors of the homeland.
As in any classic socialist realist narrative, the hero is continually detracted from his mission by a gallery of dastardly characters. Because Ignat is a patriotic victor among seditious turncoats, the leader of the camp removes Stepan, one of the inmates, from his position, entrusting Ignat with the camp’s sole locomotive. In addition to becoming the new engine driver, Ignat attracts the attention of Stepan’s girlfriend Sofia. Stepan therefore sabotages and derails Ignat’s train, which effectively reduces Ignat to prisoner status. In an act of desperation, Ignat decides to uncover the mythical locomotive that had, allegedly, been stuck on the other side of a torn-down bridge and guarded by a grisly apparition ever since the war began. Ignat discovers not only the long-forgotten train but also stumbles across its vigilante guardian: an almost feral German girl. The only survivor of a German engineering crew that came to construct the bridge in the 1940s, Elsa has lived alone in the woods for nearly five years, cannot speak Russian, and has no idea that a world war has taken place. Elsa and Ignat, both industrious, hardheaded, and ingenious workers, get the locomotive across a makeshift bridge only to face jealousy, discrimination, and hostility from the suspicious and malicious collective.
At the end of this action-packed production it is difficult to determine the focus of the film. Is it a story about the triumph of an individual’s will over adversity? Is it a narrative centering on a tragic love triangle, involving an improbable combination of a gorgeous Gulag prisoner, a sultry war hero, and a tomboyish German refugee? Is it an account of how people behaved under the brutal conditions of the Stalinist regime and how the line between victim and tormentor remains forever blurred? An over-involved plot thickens ever more improbably with each passing scene; undeveloped reflections on the nature of Stalinist authoritarianism and musings on the “mysterious Russian soul” both obscure the film’s potency. Put simply, the film collapses under its own weight. Part historical drama, part sociopolitical commentary on postwar Stalinism, part love triangle, and part action film, The Edge neither contributes an original treatment of Soviet history nor sheds light on the mystery of the human condition.
Disappointingly, the focus on broader historical and moral questions obscures arguably the most successful aspect of the film: the dramatic action sequences. Had Uchitel’ given more time to the heady locomotive races and men’s desperate attempts to prove their mettle by pushing their steely machines to the edge, he would have delivered a hair-raising action drama and even constructed a contemporary take on the Stalin-era socialist realist classics. The Edge appeals because of the visually arresting scenes of locomotive racing, the evocative scenes of the Siberian landscape, and the larger-than-life machismo. Set at the edge of Russia’s vast geographic expanse, the film titillates with an almost fantastical backdrop, folktale tropes, and a tempered fairytale ending. Perhaps it is superfluous to observe that Edge abounds in stereotypical and exoticized imagery: a catfight in the women’s banya, an “immortal” grizzly bear strolling the evergreen woods, a superstitious populace drowning in untold quantities of moonshine, and an idyllic wintery landscape as far as the eye can see. Even though the only item missing from this panoply of boilerplate images is a balalaika and a troika, Uchitel’ comes close to producing a Hollywood tale of triumph, passion, and grit through the use of familiar Russian tropes.
In terms of the film’s historical orientation, Uchitel’ cannot seem to decide whether to be faithful to the spirit of the period or pepper his depiction of Stalinism with moral commentary. To this reviewer, it seems that Uchitel’ is most convincing when he recreates the socialist realist stock characters—the superhero, the fumbling bureaucrat, the saboteur, and the supportive love interest—since they fit so well with the timeless Hollywood epic tradition that Uchitel’ builds atop the Russian historical context. With Ignat, Uchitel’ revives the hyper-masculine heroism evident in Stalinist films and heroes a la Pavel Korchagin and Valerii Chkalov. Rather than bore viewers, Ignat manages to intrigue and excite with the kind of imposing and self-righteous masculinity showcased by modern superheroes such as Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises or Kiefer Sutherland in 24.
Uchitel’ is also more successful when relating the historical context without trying to find ways to condemn/problematize the senseless cruelty of Stalinism. Despite the fact that the action takes places in a labor camp, the lack of barbed wire, watch towers, or sadistic guards means the community of Krai appears like any other rural settlement in Stalinist Russia: the material conditions are abysmal, work is excruciatingly tough, and fear of the authorities is ever-present. At the same time, this location so far from the Kremlin - separated by a natural boundary from Stalinist civilization—ironically allows for a greater degree of autonomy. Uchitel’ is thus able to circumvent the existentialism of the Gulag narrative and focus on group mentality more broadly. This approach is effective until the very end of the film, when the residents of Krai first try to do away with Elsa and Ignat and then suddenly defend the pair against the ferocious brutality of a highly placed NKVD officer. It remains unclear what motivates these people: xenophobia or injustices committed against them by their own regime. Thus the broader moral and historical questions interfere with what seems to be the crux of the film’s appeal: the fast-moving, gleaming locomotives and the tough guys who drive them.
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The Edge, Russia, 2010
124 mins, color
Director: Aleksei Uchitel’
Producers: Konstantin Ernst, Aleksei Uchitel’, Igor’ Simonov, Aleksandr Maksimov
Script: Aleksandr Gonorovskii
Cast: Vladimir Mashkov, Viacheslav Krikunov, Anjorka Strechel, Iuliia Peresil’d, Aleksandr Bashirov, Sergei Garmash, Vladas Bagdonas
Music: David Holmes
Production: Rock Films Studio, JSC Teleshow with the support of JSC Russian Railways
Aleksei Uchitel’: The Edge (Krai, 2010)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2011