Issue 50 (2015)

Sergei Popov: The Road to Berlin (Doroga na Berlin, 2015)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2015

The seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in May 2015 was a cinematic non-event as far as Hollywood was concerned, except for David Ayer’s Fury, a $68 million tankisty extravaganza released in October 2014. Even though it starred the ever-reliable Brad Pitt, Fury would have been a financial disappointment for its backers had it not been for the global box office. American spectators have turned to other conflicts and no longer find the Good War riveting.

doroga na berlinRussian cinema could not, of course, ignore the anniversary, given its storied tradition of producing films commemorating World War II every five years. This tradition, which flagged in the 1990s, resumed with renewed vigor in the 2000s. The sixtieth anniversary in 2005 saw the release of a flood of Russian war films, most of them slick and romanticized (Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo [Kukushka, 2002], Nikolai Lebedev’s The Star [Zvezda, 2002]), but a few quite hard-hitting and exciting (Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Our Own [Svoi, 2004], Aleksei A. German’s The Last Train [Poslednii poezd, 2003]). Since then, the Russian government has dramatically increased its political and financial support of “patriotic culture,” and it seemed that the release of Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad in 2013 might launch a series of similarly vulgar and overblown war film epics. This has not happened. Sergei Popov’s The Road to Berlin is a small, quiet picture that longs to return to the authentic humanism of the Thaw-era war films. Unfortunately, it succeeds only in being sentimental, contrived, and banal.

The Road to Berlin is a “comrades” film that resorts to the hoary trope of mismatched buddies on a trek. The protagonists are a study in contrasts that are grounded in unfortunate ethnic and class stereotypes. The son of an engineer and a Komsomol member, Ogarkov is a tall, handsome, blonde, and articulate Russian, while his opposite Dzhurubaev is a short, swarthy, taciturn, and illiterate (even dim-witted) Kazakh. The premise is simple.

doroga na berlinIn 1942, on the eve of the battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army is in some disarray. Due to a German surprise attack, Ogarkov is unable to deliver an important communiqué that leads to an army unit being encircled. As a result, he is court-martialed for cowardice and sentenced to death. Before the sentence can be carried out, the Germans strike again, but Ogarkov and his guard Dzhurubaev manage to get away. Dzhurubaev is stubbornly determined to take this “enemy of the people” to justice and thus begins their improbable journey. Ogarkov constantly tries to talk some sense into the young Kazakh, without success. Even though Ogarkov could easily kill Dzhurubaev or run away, he ends up doing neither. Travelling together across the devastated landscape, the two men have a few adventures (rescuing a wounded Soviet pilot, engaging in a battle, etc.) and form a grudging friendship before reaching headquarters. Just as Ogarkov is about to be shot, he is reprieved. Shortly thereafter, however, Dzhurubaev is killed in yet another German surprise attack; Ogarkov sorrowfully buries him but takes his new boots (one of the few finely observed details in the film), before heading off to war again. Without any kind of transition or linking narrative, the scene that follows is set in Germany, 1945, in the war’s last days. A visibly more haggard Ogarkov has survived.

Although this modest film is beautifully shot by Shandor Berkeshi, Sergei Popov’s direction is pedestrian, trading for the most part in well-worn war film clichés. What it does best—showing the disarray at the front and among the military command—other Russian films, most of them Soviet, have done better. Who can forget, for example, the encirclement in 1941 as depicted in Aleksandr Stol’per’s The Living and the Dead (Zhivye i mertvye, 1963) or the road to Stalingrad as seen in Sergei Bondarchuk’s They Fought for the Motherland (Oni srazhalis’ za rodinu, 1975)? And the punitive and unjust treatment of Soviet soldiers accused of cowardice by military tribunals has already been effectively exposed in Nikolai Dostal’s television serial Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat, 2004), which commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of VE day. That Mosfilm would resort to such a shopworn and understated picture for a seventieth anniversary film is surprising, especially given the personal commitment of studio head Karen Shakhnazarov to the project. The Road to Berlin also received the financial support not only of the Ministry of Culture but also the Russian Military-Historical Society, which was resurrected in 2012 on Putin’s explicit orders, to help revive patriotism. In any event, The Road to Berlin did not resonate any better with Russian movie-goers than it did with me. According to the website KinoPoisk, the film earned only 12.8 per cent of its $3.8 million budget and was seen by merely 132,400 viewers. It is doubtful that anyone’s patriotism was restored.

Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont

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The Road to Berlin, Russia, 2015
Color, 82 minutes, Russian
Director: Sergei Popov
Scriptwriters: Evgenii Nikishov, Karen Shakhnazarov (based on Emmanuil Kazakevich’s story “Dvoe v stepi” and Konstantin Simonov’s wartime diaries)
Cinematographer: Shandor Berkeshi
Music: Roman Dormidoshin
Art Directors: Sergei Fevralev, Irina Ochina, Goliumzhan Beishenova
Editor: Ol’ga Kolesnikova
Cast: Iurii Borisov, Amir Abdykalykov, Maksim Demchenko, Mariia Karpova, Ekaterina Ageeva, Valerii Nenashev, Sergei Veselev, Filipp Savinkov, Igor’ Khripunov, Igor’ Brovin
Producers: Aleksandr Litvinov, Karen Shakhnazarov, Ol’ga Golomovziuk
Production: Mosfil’m, with the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and the Russian Military-Historical Society

Sergei Popov: The Road to Berlin (Doroga na Berlin, 2015)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2015