Issue 40 (2013)

Eva Neiman: The House with a Turret (Dom s bashenskoi, 2012)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2013

neimanThis spare but affecting film is the second feature by Ukrainian filmmaker Eva Neiman. Apparently set in the winter of 1944, The House with a Turret shows displaced persons attempting to return to their homes from a railroad station in a stark, anonymous provincial town. Across from the station is a lone pre-revolutionary house “with a turret,” to which the camera returns several times.

An unnamed eight-year-old boy and his mother are trying to reach relatives when the mother is offloaded at the station due to extreme illness. She dies at the town’s only hospital, leaving her son to the mercy of strangers, who are only occasionally inclined to help the orphan. He eventually sets off on another train, in the company of a dubious “uncle” and his family. The uncle’s wife robs him of his little cash, and his “benefactors” predictably disappear.

domThere is not much more to this minimalist film than that. The boy (wonderfully played by Dmitrii Kobetskoi, a non-professional actor from an orphanage) is as stoic as the adults who surround him; it takes him a long time to shed a tear for his mother. He matter-of-factly reassures himself that everything is going to be all right as he trudges to the telegraph office to send a telegram to his grandfather. “That’s it,” he says simply when she dies. “I want to go home.” He asks for no comfort from the hospital staff and receives none. Most of the adults who tower around him are too wrapped up in their own cares to pay attention to a lost boy, but there are a few exceptions when people aid him, however brusquely at the telegraph office, on the bus, or on the train. Neiman is too realistic a filmmaker to pretend that everyone was callous.

After the mother’s nondramatic death (which also marks the last screen appearance of Ekaterina Golubeva), the only time the slow pulse of The House with a Turret quickens slightly is when two thugs push their way into the train where the boy and his new “family” are staying. “Uncle” is a somewhat shady character who has picked up the boy only to get his own tickets validated for the journey. His wife is mean to the boy, although she coos over her own child in a sticky sweet fashion. One of the thugs twists Uncle’s nose and orders him to give back what was stolen from the “brat.” Later, this man, who is drinking heavily with his blind friend, offers the boy food. In wartime, kindness comes at unexpected moments.

domThe outstanding feature of this slight film is the beautiful but uncompromising black-and-white cinematography. The House with a Turret Is frequently shot from a child’s frame of reference; frequent close-ups of the boy mean that adults appear in parts, as when the boy is seen in the middle of a forest of legs on the bus. There are lots of shots of the bleak wintry landscape, especially from the train. The denizens of the train are captured in closeups that show every wrinkle.

What is the symbolism of the house with the turret? A little girl and her grandfather live there; the little girl asks the boy to be her friend and even asks his name. (He doesn’t reply.) It might be seen as a reference to a gentler way of life, when people actually had family and friends, but the little girl appears to be an orphan, too. She has no mother or father, only a stern-looking grandfather.

Why was this film made? Unlike Sergei Loznitsa’s 2012 In the Fog [V tumane], The House with a Turret doesn’t “revision” or engage in any of the key issues of the war. It’s merely a slice-of-life. Perhaps that is its point: to interrogate the need for “significance” in the war film. Perhaps depicting the impact of the war on one child is message enough.

Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont

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The House with a Turret, 2012
Black & white, 81 minutes
Director: Eva Neiman
Screenplay: Eva Neiman, based on a novella by Fridrikh Gorenshtein
Cinematographer: Rimvydas Leipus
Art Director: Gennadii Popov
Editor: Pavel Zalesov
Music: Jurgen Groziner, Erik Satie
Producers: Alla Belaia, Natal’ia Stribuk, Aleksandr Tkachenko, Stanislav Zurahov
Production: Studio 1 + 1, Kiev
Cast: Vitalina Bibliv, Albert Filosov, Ekaterina Golubeva, Dmitrii Kobetskoi, Mariia Politseimako, Mikhail Veksier
Awards: Main prize, Karlovy Vary “East of the West” competition; grand prix, 16th Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn

Eva Neiman: The House with a Turret (Dom s bashenskoi, 2012)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2013

Updated: 12 Apr 13