Issue 32 (2011)

Aleksei Uchitel’: The Edge (Krai, 2010)

reviewed by Tim Harte © 2011

“It’s alive!,” exclaims Elsa, a young German woman, as she watches an ancient, rusty locomotive mechanically come to life and slowly proceed down the track in Aleksei Uchitel’’s The Edge. The old-fashioned steam engine, of course, lends itself quite well to personification, conjuring up a wide variety of anthropomorphic forms in modern culture. The ever-expressive train inevitably evokes notions of modernity, progress, speed, and mobility, as well as the cinematic medium itself.

kraiIn Uchitel’’s The Edge, the steam engine takes center stage, serving as a catalyst for so much that transpires in this post-World War II-era film. Here the engine assumes a protean form, connoting not only power and speed, but also the womb and sex (shots of a steam engine emitting a sudden spurt of steam suggestively follow a scene of passionate love-making). One of the film’s more prominent locomotives boasts the foreign name Gustav, while the letters on another are mistakenly given as the name of its engineer. Likewise, the steam and sounds of all these engines likewise appear to have lives of their own in the film, as the abundant puffs of smoke obscure so much of the action while the hissing and endless horn whistles muffle the human voices, forcing the film’s protagonists to bellow at the top of their lungs. Engineers and mechanics may control these machines, but it is the engines themselves that predominate in The Edge.

The events at the heart of Uchitel’’s The Edge transpire immediately after World War II, deep within the Siberian taiga at a remote labor camp.  At this edge of civilization, we find Russian citizens taken from German prison camps and sent to Siberia as “traitors of the Soviet homeland” (“predateli Rodiny”) due to their close contact with fascist Germany. Into this cold, remote environment comes Ignat, a steam engine mechanic and erstwhile hero who suffers from several concussions he received prior to the war. Ignat, much like the steam engines in the film, assumes a wide variety of identities: a muscular “New man” of the Stalinist era and steely-eyed war hero, he also has a touch of the holy fool, as he is plagued by strange fits due to his concussed state. Played by Vladimir Mashkov of Thief and Oligarch fame, the chiseled Ignat resembles one of the film’s trains in that he is physically strong and forceful, but also a bit worn down and jaded from his military experience, which we briefly see in a vivid concussive (i.e., hallucinatory) flashback featuring a race between Ignat’s wartime engine “Joseph Stalin” and a Nazi locomotive. Ignat, alas, drove his “Joseph Stalin” too hard and into the ground, and he thus finds himself emasculated and adrift after the war, deprived of his main form of expression.

kraiIn remotest Russia, Ignat cannot help but prove his prowess behind the wheel of an engine. As he competes with another locomotive driver for the attention of the voluptuous, yet maternal Sofia, who has smuggled an orphaned German infant with her to Siberia, Ignat finds himself racing yet another train and subsequently wrecking it. To replace this machine, Ignat heads to a wooded island, which, rumor has it, harbors an abandoned steam engine that has long sat there due to a damaged bridge. Having swum out to the island, Ignat finds the young German woman Elsa, a wild-child Rip van Winkle (unaware that a war has come and gone), who has lived inside the womb-like machine, which she calls Gustav, since the start of German-Soviet hostilities in 1941. At that time, her father and his German partner (also Gustav) were murdered while traveling with her through Siberia. Ignat, of course, resurrects the rusty steam engine while grappling with the pugnacious Elsa, as the Russian-German team of two repairs the bridge and perilously drives the locomotive back onto the mainland and then to the labor camp.  

kraiWhat ensues is a profound transformation of the initially hostile relationship between Ignat and Elsa, as he must defend her against the prejudices of the Russians - who paradoxically find themselves resenting the German woman despite being under suspicion themselves for harboring pro-German sentiments. Indeed, mob mentality sporadically arises as the subject of Uchitel’’s disapproving eye here, as the Russians both shun Elsa and struggle to overcome the ugly nationalism that remains from World War II. At one point early in the film, a doctor, stinking of homemade spirits (samogon) and offering the patient Ignat a cup of his personal stash, remarks that Hitler might never have started the war if he had partaken of these Russian spirits. Perhaps this provides the solution to all the chauvinism on display after the war. Or is it the large, ubiquitous bear that can unify everyone? Uchitel’ sporadically cuts to a large bear wandering about the Siberian woods, an animal that takes on heightened import through its inconstant, yet conspicuous presence in the film.  A personified symbol of Russia, of course, but also the focus of imaginary games that Elsa plays in German with Sofia’s adopted son that get the young boy laughing, the bear eventually provides sustenance for the camp community once it falls under the wheels of a fast-approaching train. Ultimately, however, it is the arrival of the authoritarian Stalinist official—referred to as Fishman—who unites everyone in opposition to the repressive hand of the State.

kraiAs a post-World War II drama, The Edge succeeds when maintaining its protean approach to the steam engines, yet it falters somewhat once it succumbs to the old-fashioned chase and clichéd contest between good and evil. When Uchitel’ resorts to showing white smoke gushing from Ignat’s steam engine, while black smoke pours from Fishman’s, we know the train motif has been taken a bit too far.  In previous work, for instance the Ivan Bunin biopic Diary of His Wife (Dnevnik ego zheny, 2000) or the virtually real-time excursion through contemporary St. Petersburg of The Stroll (Progulka, 2003), Uchitel’ has generally resisted the bombastic and clichéd for more nuanced textures, but here he lets the overwhelming force of the train and the heroic figure of Ignat race away from him. Russia’s 2010 entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards (but not on the short list of nominees), The Edge often dazzles, particularly with its beautiful bluish-gray shots of the cold Siberian landscape, yet Uchitel’ could be accused of bending gratuitously to preconceived, Western notions of Russia. Likewise, he resorts to Western narrative forms associated with the thriller that seem out of place in the harsh Russian environment or against the brutal backdrop of prison camps. Nevertheless, the trains keep coming in The Edge, epitomizing the ways in which old steam engines—cinematically transporting people into an unfamiliar world—both entertain and amaze us to this day.

 

Tim Harte
Bryn Mawr College

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The Edge, Russia, 2010
Color, 124 minutes.
Director: Aleksei Uchitel’
Screenplay: Aleksandr Gonorovskii
Producer: Konstantin Ernst
Cinematography: Iurii Klimenko
Cast: Vladimir Mashkov, Anjorka Strechel, Iulia Peresil’d, Sergei Garmash, Aleksei Gorbunov
Original music: David Holmes
Production: Rock Films and Studio Teleshow (in association with Russian Railways)

Aleksei Uchitel’: The Edge (Krai, 2010)

reviewed by Tim Harte © 2011

Updated: 11 Apr 11