Issue 50 (2015)
Sergei Mokritskii: Battle for Sevastopol (Bitva za Sevastopol’, 2015)
reviewed by Tatiana Filimonova© 2015
Appearing in theaters in April 2015, just in time to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, Battle for Sevastopol tells the story of the famous Soviet female sniper, Liudmila Pavlichenko (Iuliia Peresil’d) who is known for having shot 309 German soldiers and officers during World War II. A joint Ukrainian-Russian production, the filming of Battle for Sevastopol was completed without delay despite the growing tension between Ukraine and Russia in the months leading up to the release.
Modeled not only after Hollywood war blockbusters, but also, undoubtedly, romantic dramas, the film strays rather far from its title. The main focus of the plot is not the battle for Sevastopol, nor even Pavlichenko’s role in the city’s defense. Instead, the film is built around two axes: first, Pavlichenko’s visit to the United States and her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; and second, Liudmila’s tumultuous relationships with the men in her life.
The film starts with the Soviet delegation’s visit to the United States in 1942. The audience becomes familiar with Pavlichenko through her interactions with other delegates on the visit, especially through her budding friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. This sequence leads up to Pavlichenko’s famous Chicago speech, where she shames Americans for “hiding behind my [Pavlichenko’s] back for too long” and urges the US to open the Second Front. Flashbacks of combat scenes in subdued sepia tones follow each “American” segment and narrate Pavlichenko’s military struggles and personal affairs.
We learn that in the years leading up to the war, Liudmila, a student in Kiev, is selected to participate in а marksman training course. Four years later, in 1941, research takes Liudmila to Odessa. Although she prefers books over men, two suitors take an immediate interest in her: Nikolai (Anatolii Kot), a self-assured military pilot; and Boris (Nikita Tarasov), a quiet yet confident Jewish doctor. Suddenly, news of the war comes to Odessa, and Liudmila enlists in the army. One might think that the war will interrupt the film’s emphasis on romance, but in fact the romance plot only becomes more pronounced. Pavlichenko embarks on romantic adventures while defending Odessa with the famous Chapaev unit and establishing her reputation as a sniper. After falling in love with Captain Makarov (Oleg Vasil’kov), she is wounded and transported into the care of Boris, the doctor and her longtime admirer. This love-triangle is broken when, upon her recovery, Liudmila learns of Makarov’s death at the front. Heartbroken, Liudmila returns to the army and soon falls in love with her new combat partner, sniper Leonid Kitsenko (Evgenii Tsyganov, popular for his heartthrob roles in films like Aleksei Uchitel’’s The Stroll [Progulka, 2003], Oksana Bychkova’s Piter FM  and the TV series The Thaw [Ottepel’, 2013]). About an hour into the film, the action finally moves to Sevastopol, where military tensions escalate along with the growing passion between the two snipers. Sheltering Liudmila from an explosion, Kitsenko also dies, again leaving Liudmila emotionally devastated. She recovers in the loving care of Boris, but in memory of Kitsenko, she goes out on her last assignment, and kills a famous German sniper. Finally, as Sevastopol’s fall is nigh, Boris, with whom Pavlichenko dreams of happy family life after the war, smuggles her out of the besieged city by giving her his own evacuation pass. He remains in Sevastopol to treat the wounded and is killed mere weeks after Liudmila’s evacuation.
While the loss of all three men emotionally devastates Liudmila, Kitsenko undoubtedly remains Liudmila’s key romantic interest throughout the film. The audience is led to believe that it is his son that Liudmila bears after the war, and whom Eleanor Roosevelt meets during her Soviet visit 15 years later, in the film’s last scene.
The film’s reliance in style and image on easily recognizable Russian and Hollywood blockbusters ensures its appeal to a mainstream Russian audience. The pre-war sequence creates a thorough stylization of the era through costume and setting, undoubtedly inspired by Valerii Todorovskii’s retro-stylizations in Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) and The Thaw. Pre-war Odessa scenes, including one where Boris’s family hosts Liudmila for dinner, brim with grotesque depictions of Jews, replicating the Jewish stereotypes liberally used in, for example, Sergei Ursuliak’s Liquidation (Likvidatsiia, 2007). Sensationalistic details such as an exaggerated Odessa accent, “gefilte fish” on the table, and Jewish jokes, aim to provide comic relief, which later in the films takes a tragic turn. At one point Boris is set up as the “stereotype of an evil Jew” akin to Mark in Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957), who stays away from the front lines due to his profession (Woll 2003, 61).
This stereotype is, however, overcome by Boris sacrificing his life for Liudmila and by his hard work treating the wounded in Sevastopol. Scenes at the sniper training base, where Pavlichenko is confronted with a series of physical and emotional challenges, borrow heavily from Ridley Scott’s blockbuster G.I. Jane (1997), depicting the struggle of a determined female soldier to make the ranks of a prestigious combat unit. Pavlichenko’s duel with a Nazi sniper recalls Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates (2001), a film about the Stalingrad sniper Vasilii Zaitsev. The computer graphics of the battle scenes in Sevastopol, including the ample aviation and navy presence, hark back to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor(2001).
Various aspects of the plot are loosely based on Pavlichenko’s accounts of Sevastopol’s defense in А Heroic Story (Geroicheskaia byl’, 1960), as well as on biographical information garnered from interviews and other sources. For example, Liudmila’s friend Masha in the film takes on the role of the famous nurse known as Dasha Sevastopol’skaia, who saved many soldiers by bandaging their wounds and dragging them from the battlefield into safety (Pavlichenko 1960, 5). Masha’s love interest, pilot Grisha, is similarly modeled after the real-life hero, First Lieutenant Konstantin Denisov. Much of the biographical information is, however, embellished or invented. In real life, for example, Pavlichenko did not speak English, which she conveniently uses during her tour of the US in the film. More importantly, the film conceals the fact that Pavlichenko (born Belova), was actually married and had a son before the war, instead presenting her as an innocent young communist, and thus romanticizing her relationship with Kitsenko (King 2013).
The film abounds with clichés that are perhaps necessary to facilitate the understanding of the historical situation among broad audiences in today’s Russia, as well as outside of its borders. Lead actress Iuliia Peresil’d convincingly plays the stereotypical devout communist who stands out among her peers for her determination, responsible character, and self-possession, and becomes a national hero. The Komsomol representative who accompanies Pavlichenko on her visit to the US is the caricature of a narrow-minded communist party activist, lacking any flexibility that the real delegate (most likely an NKVD agent) might have possessed. It is barely realistic that Liudmila’s first combat and romantic partner, Makarov, would have been able to spend the night caring for her at the hospital while the rest of the division was engaging in combat. While no fiction film purports to document the events on which it is based in all preciseness, some of these embellishments, especially the tumultuous romantic aspects of Battle for Sevastopol, clearly situate the film among other popular blockbusters that combine the drama of war with the melodrama of romance to cater to an audience that expects to be entertained.
Despite the fact that Liudmila is not a typical romantic female character, but rather a soldier, the film nonetheless steers heavily in the romantic direction, which might not be the case had the protagonist been a male war hero.
One aspect of the “romantic” line of the plot, no matter how clichéd, is well done: the director subtly portrays the intimate nature of the relationship of the sniper and her guns, while at the same time highlighting the romantic aspect of the film. This plot line first appears in the scene when the instructor at a pre-war shooting range explains to Pavlichenko how to load and aim a rifle. The frame offers a close-up of Pavlichenko and the instructor holding the rifle, with the latter slowly whispering instructions into Liudmila’s ear. This theme continues when Pavlichenko inherits a rifle from the deceased Makarov and the camera focuses on her shaking hands touching the muzzle of his rifle. Overall, the film portrays a striking intimacy between the snipers and their guns, and it seems that Liudmila is indeed destined to have a long-lasting close relationship with a rifle rather than a man.
Despite a large budget and fabulous cinematography, the film does not live up to the epic qualities promised by its title, which strategically highlights the significance of the historical battle for Sevastopol at a time when Russian national identity is being re-forged. The Ukrainian release title, Nezlamna (The Unbreakable One), is perhaps better at conveying the film’s essence, a combination of a military biopic and tragic melodrama. At the same time, it lacks the psychological complexity of World War II classics such as Kalatozov’s melodramatic The Cranes are Flying or Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985). The film’s derivative nature, unconvincing plot twists, and excessive focus on romance prevent Battle for Sevastopol from joining the ranks of Soviet war classics by directors like Grigorii Chukhrai, Mikhail Kalatozov, Elem Klimov and Larisa Shepit’ko. Overall, however, the film succeeds in creating an entertaining portrayal of World War II’s Soviet heroes and in sparking interest in Soviet history among its audiences.
The College of Wooster
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King, Gilbert. 2013. “Eleanor Roosevelt and the Soviet Sniper.” Smithsonian.com, 21 February.
Pavlichenko, Liudmila. 1960. Geroicheskaia byl’, Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury.
Woll, Josephine. 2003. The Cranes Are Flying: The Film Companion, London and New York: I.B. Tauris.
Battle for Sevastopol, Ukraine/Russia, 2015
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Sergei Mokritskii
Scriptwriters Maksim Budarin with participation from Sergei Mokritskii, Leonid Korin and Egor Olesov
DoP: Iurii Korol
Production Design Iurii Grigorovich
Music Evgenii Galperin
Editing Viktor Onysko
Cast: Iuliia Peresil’d, Evgenii Tsyganov, Joan Blackham, Oleg Vasil’kov, Nikita Tarasov, Anatolii Kot.
Producers: Natalia Mokritskaia, Egor Olesov
Production: Kinorob, Novye Liudi
Distribution (RF) Twentieth Century Fox CIS
Sergei Mokritskii: Battle for Sevastopol (Bitva za Sevastopol’, 2015)
reviewed by Tatiana Filimonova© 2015