Issue 38 (2012)
Achim von Borries: 4 Days in May (4 dnia v mae/4 Tage im Mai, 2011)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2012
Ever since the end of the Cold War, the conduct of the Red Army in East-Central Europe during and after WWII has become a hotly contested and politically charged topic. While in Russia the myth of an irreproachable Red Army persist as part of the country’s WWII cult, the former members of the Warsaw Pact have been challenging the idea that the populations of East-Central Europe experienced nothing but fraternal magnanimity from the Soviet armed forces. The area’s post-communist governments have shown that liberation from Nazi control came with a high price tag for the populace living east of the Elbe. Thus, to apply the term liberation to the actions of the Red Army in East and Central Europe without caveats and disclaimers is misguided at best and deceitful at worst. That, for instance, NKVD forces had murdered 21,000 Polish officers at Katyn in 1940 or that, the Soviet military apparatus had engaged in forcible deportations of entire ethnic groups in the 1940s, highlights the widespread atrocities commited by segments of the Red Army in East-Central Europe during and immediately after the Second World War. While the Soviet forces certainly played a decisive role in defeating the Nazi occupiers across the Eurasian landmass, the blood bath of WWII nonetheless continued with the bloodletting of the immediate postwar period: Gulag or outright execution awaited blameless Soviet POWs and nationalist partisans because Stalin’s paranoia knew no bounds. Women across this region were, in Stalin’s words, simply collateral damage. In Stalin’s eyes rape and sexual violence perpetrated against women in East-Central Europe was of little consequence. When the Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas took up the issue of mass rapes conducted by Red Army soldiers, Stalin allegedly responded: “Can’t he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?”
4 Days in May, which is based on real events, addresses two topics dealing with the legacy of WWII as outlined above. First, von Borries provides a narrative that challenges the all-too-familiar stock characters and tropes of WWII in an effort to destabilize our ingrained sensibilities about this conflict. Second, the film attempts to bear witness to the needless violence against women that followed the war’s end. At the center of the story are eight Soviet soldiers and the charismatic Capt. Kalmykov (played by the magnetic Aleksei Guskov), all of whom take up residence in a girls’ orphanage located on the harsh but scenic coast of the Baltic Sea. Their mission is to safeguard the Soviet operations in the rear and to capture or destroy any fleeing German forces (which had already agreed to surrender to the British armed forces). Their task soon becomes “mission impossible” when a group of over one hundred armed Nazi soldiers settles on the beach awaiting to depart to Denmark to lay down their arms. The Soviet captain is thus made to devise ways in which to outmaneuver the German Goliath without any reinforcements. The military context, however, serves mainly as the background while the director focuses on the ways in which individuals make sense of their identities and allegiances in extreme situations. Throughout the narrative all principal characters have to reexamine the rigid, if not demonic, categorizations they have willy-nilly internalized over the course of the war. Von Borries provides the audience with plenty of feel-good moments when human compassion overcomes historic enmities and mistrust. For instance, the governess of the orphanage, who, as a St. Petersburg expat, connects to the captain (himself a Leningrader) by speaking Russian. Although they do not see eye-to-eye on the October Revolution, they clearly share a common history and background. More broadly, as the Soviet soldiers spend more and more time with the women in the orphanage, they cannot but feel close to them despite the linguistic or ideological barriers. There is even a romantic subplot in which a blonde German beauty falls in love with a Soviet soldier. Although they cannot communicate, his piano-playing acts as an aphrodisiac connecting the two unlikely lovers.
While developing the idea that two warring groups can cohabitate harmoniously, the director also shows that the reconciliation process is strewn with obstacles and that old habits cannot be forsaken automatically. For instance, the governess’s nephew—the thirteen-year-old Peter—remains committed to the Nazi cause. Partly because he wishes to honor his father who died a heroic death as a Nazi soldier and partly because of the toxic environment in which he matured, he resentfully tolerates the Russians’ presence. Thus, when an armed Nazi battalion settles on the beach, the lad foils Kalmykov’s attempt to bluff the size of his eight-man crew by telling the German commanding officers the Russians’ sad state of affairs. In a desperate move, the Soviet commander then has to drop the pretense that the German women under his care are much more than hostages, making it clear to the German Lieutenant Colonel that any attack on the compound will also result in the deaths of German women and children. The director uses this plot twist to not only build suspense but also to accentuate the fact that any modus vivendi based on reciprocal trust and respect, while possible, is temporary and always in danger of collapsing.
The war-weary Lieutenant Colonel resists attacking the Russians since he is well aware that any death resulting from the skirmish would be pointless, the Nazi war machine having all but collapsed. On the fourth day of this stillborn stalemate, the war ends. In sharp contrast to the commonly celebrated meeting of U.S. and USSR forces on the Elbe, the director shows German civilians and Soviet soldiers celebrating the end of the war together. Upon hearing the news of German capitulation, the orphanage residents prepare a modest feast, take out the gramophone to set a festive mood, and join the Russian victors in toasting the cessation of hostilities. The idyllic scene comes to an abrupt end when a cartoonshly contemptible Soviet Major General intrudes to drunkenly claim one of the German young women for his pleasure. By forcefully refusing his superior’s request, Kalmykov sets the scene for a tragic altercation. Branding Kalmykov a traitor the Major leaves, only to return with tanks and artillery to attack the “insubordinate” men. In an unlikely turn of events, the idle German forces join Kalmykov and his men to safeguard the wellbeing of the women in the orphanage. In an ironic twist, Kalmykov and his crew die defending the German women’s honor and falling alongside men they had been killing for the past four years.
The director clearly aimed to accentuate the complexity of traditional wartime narratives by blurring the boundaries between good and bad charecters. What matters to von Borries is not the uniform but the person wearing it. By focusing on the complexity of allegiances formed and broken over the course of the war, the director succeeds in affording soldiers a sense of agency. The film privileges those who refuse to obey ideologies and orders that arbitrarily divide humans and instigate needless atrocities. The heroes of this tale are Soviet soldiers who joined their sworn enemies to protect defenseless women against the Red Army as well as the German women who celebrated the war’s end with their captors and sworn enemies. In complicating one aspect of the WWII narrative, however, the director creates a different conundrum. The film’s finale is based on a crude caricature of the Soviet commander who insists on raping the young German. Thus, although Kalmykov’s men unite with the German soldiers to turn the usual WWII narrative on its head, one is still left with a Manichean universe. By portraying the Soviet “liberators” (in their majority) as violators, and by depicting Germans as rational beings, the director fails to, in any meaningful way, complicate the evil committed by plunderers and rapists. The audience is still left with the old good vs. evil narrative but with roles reversed.
Despite the film’s novel, if not entirely successful, attempt to rethink the tired tropes of WWII, this reviewer believes that 4 Days in May distorts the historical record by obscuring the level of sexual violence Soviet soldiers committed in East-Central Europe. Although the film makes it clear that rape was not an uncommon occurrence in territories liberated from Nazi occupation, it simultaneously skews historical realties by focusing on an unrepresentative incident. After all, how many Soviet soldiers sacrificed their lives to defend the honor of German, Hungarian, Polish, or Yugoslav women? The crimes of the Red Army are (again) overshadowed by their selfless heroism. In effect, von Borries relegates the horrors women experienced at the end of WWII to a side-story. By this I do not mean to diminish or negate the enormous sacrifices the Red Army bore or implicate all Soviet soldiers in crimes of sexual violence. Indeed, if events depicted in this film took place as the director portrays them, it is clear that the selflessness of such heroic men should be celebrated far and wide. Nonetheless, the stories of women raped or sexually abused by Soviet soldiers remain an unexplored issue and this movie perpetuates the sad state of affairs by directing the viewers’ attention to the righteousness of male heroism. Put simply, 4 Days in May introduces the topic of rape as a way to celebrate male heroism; the complex narrative of female experience is quickly obscured and female subjects become little more than grateful recipients of male valor. In doing so, the film fails to deal with the phenomenon of rape for what it is: a direct consequence of a misogynistic patriarchal system that condones violence against women during times of war as a regrettable but understandable practice.
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4 dnia v Mae / 4 Tage im Mai, Germany & Russia, 2011
97 mins, color/widescreen
Director: Achim von Borries
Script: Achim von Borries, Eduard Reznik
Producers: Stefan Arndt, Aleksei Guskov
Cast: Pavel Wenzel, Aleksei Guskov, Sergei Legostaev, Grigorii Dobrygin, Angelina Häntsch, Alexander Held, Gertrud Roll
Director of photography: Bernd Fischer
Art director: Agi Dawaachu
Costume designer: Nicole Fischnaller
Music: Thomas Feiner
Editor: Antje Zynga Production Companies: X Filme Creative Pool, Studio F.A.F.
Achim von Borries: 4 Days in May (4 dnia v mae/4 Tage im Mai, 2011)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2012