Issue 35 (2012)
Vitalii Vorob’ev: I’ll Remember (Budu pomnit’, 2010)
reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic © 2012
In many respects, Vitalii Vorob’ev’s I’ll Remember is a workmanlike example of genre filmmaking about the German onslaught in 1942 in the south of Soviet Russia. The moving parts of the film’s story, about the quotidian bravery and treachery of ordinary citizens in confronting the Nazi occupation, comfortably fall into the furrows that have been thoroughly ploughed by many Soviet films. Vorob’ev’s portrayal of the response of children to invasion and occupation—alternating between quaking fear and an almost preternatural sang froid—naturally recalls Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962),among other films. Yet I’ll Remember also yields some unexpected glints of seminal thinking about new or different ways to cinematically represent the Russian experience of the Second World War, particularly in regard to Russian-Jewish cultural relations, the long shadow cast in the Russian provinces by the criminal underworld of the urkas and “thieves in law” (vory v zakone), and the moral ambiguities of collaboration.
The last of these subjects is, of course, especially provocative, suggesting a certain historical revisionism that goes against the grain of the Putinist neo-Soviet view of the Second World War as a moral struggle that can be clearly demarcated among a film’s cast of characters. In this regard, Vorob’ev’s film is clearly a very different animal from representations of the war such as Andrei Kavun’s television series Military Students (Kursanty, RTR, 2004),which offer up what might be regarded as a Russian equivalent of “Greatest Generation” nostalgia à la Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and David Frankel and Mikael Salomon’s Band of Brothers (2001). Vorob’ev is interested in portraying the unexpected triumph of evil within particular individuals, implying that there is a troubling measure of unknowability about the moral character of others until the point that they actually commit themselves to an act that is demonstrably evil or good; he suggests that the cinematic form is limited in its ability to represent evil, and that in fact moviemaking more often than not is a medium that revels in its power to obfuscate.
The time frame of I’ll Remember is the late summer of 1942, with Soviet soldiers in retreat from an unnamed town within the rocky terrain of the region of the Caucasian town of Mineral’nye Vody. Most of the Jewish residents of the town evacuate as quickly as they can, leaving certain younger family members in hiding with Russian gentile families whom they feel they can trust, while many others go into hiding among the cluster of rocky escarpments outside the town. German bombers strafe and kill almost all of the evacuees as they attempt to clamber onto the trains provided by the Soviet military. One survivor, the ten-year old Emil’ Averbakh (Denis Paramonov), in desperation returns to the communal house in which he and his family lived, and goes into hiding with the Shevelevs, a gentile family that is riven by a conflict between the father Dmitrii and his own, troubled ten-year old son Vadim (Roman Gol’chuk). Dmitrii has been released from a prison term for sabotage of a collapsed mine near the town five years before. Vadim (also known as Vad’ka) regards his father as a traitor, and rebels against him by falling in with a group of urka youths.
For more than half the film, Emil’ and Vad’ka loathe each other. In a bit of heavy-handed ethnic typecasting, Vorob’ev portrays Emil’ and many of the other Jews in the town as carriers of the Russian musical tradition, with the boy presented as a budding professional flutist. Certainly no one could be further than Vad’ka from the cultural refinement of the Averbakhs: Vad’ka is a delinquent who has absorbed the unreflective selfishness and aggressive anti-Semitism of the urka gang he spends time with. In keeping with the system of personal nomenclature that prevails in the criminal subculture, Vad’ka is given a nickname: “Grek,” in reference to the Greek origin of his mother Elena. He gradually comes to realize that both he and Emil’ are outsiders as seen from the perspectives of both the occupiers and the community. At one point, a Nazi captain assumes that he is Jewish because of his appearance. Rather predictably, Vad’ka and Emil become friends. Vad’ka brings food and reading material to Emil’, who is hiding in the attic. The different personalities of the boys exert a growing mutual influence, with Vad’ka becoming more introspective and culturally curious (as demonstrated by their joint reading of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, in a serialized translation from a pre-revolutionary magazine) and Emil’ taking on the petty thief’s resourceful stealth and physically fearlessness.
In a crucial scene halfway through the film, Vad’ka’s growing empathy for Emil’ motivates him to help carry the suitcase of a pianist who, together with other Jews, is being led away by German officers and Russian collaborators to a transport point; in the agitation outside of the trucks, Vad’ka is mistaken as a Jew and, narrowly avoids execution outside of the town because a Russian collaborator officer named Samokhvalov recognizes him. In their youth, Samokhvalov (a local famer who narrowly escaped dekulakization) and Vad’ka’s father Dmitrii were both interested in Elena, who eventually married Dmitrii. For most of I’ll Remember, the kind and circumspect Samokhvalov serves as something of a second father-figure for Vad’ka, and early in the film even forgives him for attempting to steal melons from his garden. Like many of the characters who turn collaborators, his motives seem to be a mystery, hovering indeterminately within the range of brazen opportunism, survival strategies, and crafty subterfuge. With a few exceptions (most notably the sadistic Russian officer played by Iurii Loparev, who eagerly takes part in the persecution of the town’s Jewish residents) nobody in the film is completely who they seem to be. Dmitrii appears to be a sad shell of a man, shattered by the experience of his unjust imprisonment, and yet emerges as the resistance ringleader who uses his hand-made matchsticks as a code for running messages to other members of the cell. The scenes of Dmitrii painstakingly cutting wood by hand into thin sticks and daubing each with liquefied flint and lining them into rows of hundreds are haunting in their suggestion of a person with a keen sense of justice, who is ominously biding his time. As sardonically played by Sergei Makhovikov, Dmitrii’s mind-numbing “work” under Nazi occupation evokes the image of Charles Dickens’ Madame Defarge, intent upon her knitting prior to the reckoning of revolution. Vorob’ev shrewdly plays with viewers’ responses for most of the film: is Dmitrii a physical and moral weakling, and Samokhvalov a faux collaborator who is playing a role for the sake of breathing room in a larger strategy? The revelations about Dmitrii’s covert activity and Samokhvalov’s profound treachery (which include a full-throttle abetment of Nazi policies, in addition to an attempt to steal Elena from Dmitrii, by framing Dmitrii for the mine collapse) does not dispel the viewer’s sense of the profound ambiguity of human surfaces in this film, and incommensurability between the performance of heroism and actual bravery. In the figures of the urka boy Vad’ka and the limping and lugubrious Dmitrii, we find images of heroism that bear little relation to classics such as Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, 1959).
I’ll Remember breaks a few other expected patterns. Vad’ka’s fearlessness in helping Emil’ and the other Jews escape contributes to Emil’’s heightened sense of his Jewish identity: he abandons his ambitions to become a musician and emigrates to Israel, where he eventually becomes a general. Here the experience of war on Soviet territory, with Jews and gentiles fighting a common enemy, does not necessarily result in a shared patriotism or provisionally merged national identity, as in Aleksandr Askoldov’s The Commissar (Komissar, 1967). The world of the urkas and their older confederates of the vory v zakone are portrayed as situationally cruel yet ultimately more merciful and fair than many of the collaborators, and here Vorob’ev is extending in new ways the heady moral relativism implicit in Vasilii Shukshin’s portrayal of the criminal subculture, in his Red Guelderbush (Kalina krasnaia, 1973).
Yet perhaps the most daring aspect of Vorob’ev’s otherwise conventional film is in its contemplation of cinema itself as a form of historiography and mythmaking. Few Russian films have had a title sequence that telegraphs its moral conflicts as strongly as this one, or which compress its overall aesthetic code as powerfully. The opening credits appear as a series of names in a severe white typeface underlined in red, over a montage of black-and-white film footage of a German atrocity from 9 September 1942 in the region of the Caucasian Mineral’nye Vody. The film stock is corroded with acid damage and streaked with acetate scratches, and we immediately understand that this series of frenetic and appalling images is a film made by the Nazi authorities, as proof of a job relentlessly and thoroughly executed. After a series of frozen shots that suggest a serially repositioned camera on a tripod—focused on prisoners undressing, the footwear discarded on the order of German officers and their uniformed Russian collaborators—the lens incongruously and anachronistically shifts into the jittery hand-held mode of a digital camera, floating in a curiously engaged way over a boy yelling “I am not a Jew!” Later, we witness this act of filming Vad’ka’s entreaty and Samokhvalov’s rescue, with Vorob’ev’s camera drawing attention both to the event itself in sepia-drenched tones (evocative of fading studio pictures between the two World Wars) and the German camera operator’s primitive filming of it. In offering us an introductory series of tableaux that is a composite of old and new forms of image capturing, but which uniformly receives an artificially distressed treatment, Vorob’ev seems to suggest that all subsequent cinematic accounts of war are shot through with authorial caprice and a tyranny of the demand for narrative coherence and tidy moral conflicts. Immediately after the title sequence, we are introduced to Emil’ and Vad’ka as they engage in a fistfight, with the other urkas cheering them on. Dmitrii comes limping in and breaks them up, at which point one urka declares that the “film is over” (kina ne budet). Coming at the beginning of this particular film, the statement hints at a view that all tidy conflicts are ultimately works of cinematic fiction or storytelling. While Vorob’ev himself does not share the criminal subculture’s view of a thoroughgoing moral relativism in life, he does recognize the dangers and temptations of it in cinematic art.
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I’ll Remember, Russia 2010
Color, 94 minutes
Director: Vitalii Vorob’ev
Script: Evgenii Sokurov, Vera Fedorova
DoP: Andrei Samarets
Production design: Sergei Grudinin
Composer: Maksim Koshevarov
Cast: Roman Gol’chuk, Denis Paramonov, Sergei Makhovikov, Elena Podkaminskaia, Larisa Korshunova, Iurii Loparev
Producers: Aleksei Safronov, Ol’ga Stepantsova
Production: Green City (Grinsiti) with support from the RF Ministry of Culture
Vitalii Vorob’ev: I’ll Remember (Budu pomnit’, 2010)
reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic © 2012