Issue 51 (2016)
Renat Davlet’iarov: The Dawns Here are Quiet (A zori zdes’ tikhie… 2015)
reviewed by Frederick C. Corney© 2016
Nostalgia for Nostalgia
In 1955, The Dam Busters, a dramatization of a British air raid on several dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley in 1943, quickly became one of the most powerful contributions to the British war myth. Based on two earlier book treatments of the raids, it was a child of its time and joined a deeply popular line-up of iconic representations of Britain’s war experiences that helped socialize generations of British children into a useable past for a post-colonial Britain. When The Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson, bought the rights to the film a decade ago, promising a remake, much excitement ensued. The film’s screenwriter, Stephen Fry, among others, pledged to stay true to the spirit of the original, “one of the greatest British films ever made.”  Notwithstanding a kerfuffle over an uncomfortably named dog in the original, the very idea of a remake, or of the form a remake might take, seems to have elicited little discomfort (Marks 2009). Indeed, to many it seems a “natural” thing to do, a seemingly self-evident need to bring this particular past to a younger generation (Munro 2015). Together with Britain’s, for the most part, popularly acclaimed centenary commemorations of the First World War in 2014, this suggests that the dead who make up so much of Britain’s self-mythologizing in the 20th century are alive and well in the 21st.
Soviet Russia, of course, produced its own iconic representations of war for consumption by its post-war generations. The latest attempt to recapture some of the old simplicities for a post-Soviet generation comes in the form of Renat Davlet’iarov adaptation of Boris Vasil’ev’s 1971 story of the same name, The Dawns Here are Quiet, itself the inspiration for a beloved film by Stanislav Rostotskii in 1972. In a recent interview, however, a rather prickly Davlet’iarov seemed primed for potential negative reactions to his film from people who, he noted dismissively, “probably know how to make a better film, or rather a purer one” (Liashchenko 2014). Although the original film had made an “indelible impression” on him as a child, he did not, he said, have the rights to that film. Instead, he had returned to the original work of Vasil’ev, an author whose work he had “grown up with,” and whose original povest’ he found “harsher [zhestche]” than Rostotskii’s film.
Multiple versions of a common tale will inevitably, intentionally or unintentionally, reflect the political, social, or cultural norms and expectations of the times when they were made. Remakes or otherwise, they will also inevitably be measured against earlier iterations. Sometimes an earlier film version casts such a long shadow that later versions struggle to emerge from it. Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) comes to mind. Sometimes, a state goes through such a political, social, and cultural upheaval that it becomes impossible not to view the old and new film as in some measure an illustration of the journey travelled from the past to the present, or in this case from Soviet Russia to post-Soviet Russia. This particular journey, though, is further complicated by the appearance at the cusp of glasnost’ and perestroika of a near-unique treatment of war with Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985). A surrealistic but relentless assault on eye and ear, this film should have lain to rest any notions the viewer might bring to it of romantic wars, facile heroisms, or improbable escapes. It is perhaps unsurprising that it had no impact on war films in Hollywood, where such themes continue to be treated with all of those comforting reverences firmly in place. Of direct pertinence to this discussion, Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008) is particularly egregious in this regard, but other more famous films, such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), offer similar comforts to its audience. More surprisingly, perhaps, given the popularity of Klimov’s film in Russia, it appears to have had little influence on Davlet’iarov’s film, which constitutes an attempted throwback to an earlier era of war mythicization. Davlet’iarov expressed his surprise that so few “big films” on the war had appeared in 2015, and he intended to bring his out in time for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Soviet victory in May.
Instead, we have here an updated but nostalgic treatment of an original nostalgic treatment of a wartime episode. The action takes place on a quieter border than that of Come and See, namely in Karelia in Russia’s North-West, where a small anti-aircraft station far behind the front-lines in May 1942 is training a group of young women as gunners [zenitchitsi] under Corporal Fedot Vaskov (Petr Fedorov). In what seems a little like a plot contrivance, a narrator tells us that an elite group of highly trained SS soldiers is making its way, deep behind enemy lines, towards the Kirov railroad and the White Sea–Baltic Canal. The group seems too small to be effective, outside of the plots of a myriad such war movies, but large enough to present a formidable adversary for our small group of doughty trainees. The film’s opening sequences are so bucolic, and the fluty music so overbearing, that we half expect to see a hobbit’s head poke out from one of the wooden huts in the outpost. The female trainees are all highly photogenic (something they manage to maintain throughout the film…), and the young male soldiers watch them doe-eyed, until the peace is broken by a brawl among the soldiers. As the male soldiers are shipped off because of their indiscipline, a reluctant Vaskov is left in charge of the group of young female trainees, and mocked by the departing soldiers and remaining civilians for his new duties. When the women shoot down a German aircraft that attacks their artillery station, losing several of their own in the process, Vaskov becomes outraged at their efforts to shoot down a pilot who had parachuted from the crashing plane rather than take him prisoner. The shift from remote idyll to “local” front line occurs when one of the young women accidentally stumbles upon two German soldiers wandering through the forest and sounds the alarm.
The film is telegraphed as a Bildungsroman of sorts, or rather a Heldenroman, as unlikely protagonists are forced by exigency to exhibit heroic traits in the face of direct peril. It is a common trope of many of the war movies produced between the 1950s and 1970s. In this recent Russian throwback, Vaskov enlists five of the women to accompany him on a mission to take the Germans prisoner before they can complete their mission. He and his charges are humanized for the audience as their backstories are told through recurrent flashbacks throughout the movie. These flashbacks tell stories of suffering and loss, both explaining the tight comradeship of the women, but also emphasizing their lack of real roots in the world, and thereby foreshadowing their ultimate demise. By contrast, the German soldiers are shadowy figures at best for much of the film, some of them physically shrouded with netting covering their faces.
Their uneasy Soviet fellowship (the women come from Belorussia, Estonia, Eastern Siberia, etc) develops gradually over time, as they surmount a series of obstacles that prepare them for the final showdown with the Germans. Vaskov’s initial disdain towards the young trainees develops into something approaching love by the end of the film. If Vaskov in this film is a little too much the man of unimpeachable honor and self-sacrificial heroism, the director Davlet’iarov tries to resist what he implied in his interview was a natural urge to idealize the past, and this past in particular. He noted his intention not to make a “film exposé of the bloody Stalinist regime,” but expressed nonetheless a desire to draw upon the hints in Vasil’ev’s book at the difficult pasts the zenitchitsy had endured (4). Indeed, he nods, if briefly, at brutal episodes in the Soviet past. Liza Brichkina (Sof’ia Lebedeva) recalls a brutal separation as a child from her family in the throes of dekulakization, a family she saw again only in their graves, although, as the narrator tells us, she never lost her religious faith. Galia Chetvertak (Kristina Asmus) grew up in an austere orphanage after her parents were carted off by the NKVD. Zhenia Komel’kova (Evgeniia Malakhova) was the daughter of a high-ranking Red Army commander, disgraced after she fell for a married officer, and eventually witnessed the murder of her family in Tallinn in 1941. Sonia Gurvich (Agniia Kuznetsova) and Rita Osianina (Anastasiia Mikul’china) both lost their lovers in the war, Rita being left with a small child to tend. Sonia, we are told by the narrator, does not know that her mother is dead, as a flashback shows a German in a bombed-out city summarily executing an old woman wearing a yellow star.
The formula seems set once the band of soldiers finds the Germans and discovers that there are sixteen of them rather than the two they had expected. From this point, we might expect to see each of the trainees rise to the occasion, fighting through their own personal foibles towards their final acts of face-saving heroism. Under Davlet’iarov’s direction, however, something different happens. They remain ineffective throughout, paralyzed by either fear or incompetence or lack of training. In the final fire-fight, they spray their machine guns blindly, or run in panic to be gunned down by the pursuing Germans. They follow Vaskov’s orders and listen to his frequent uplifting speeches passively, rarely initiating action themselves. When they do act alone, they do so impulsively and against Vaskov’s commands, and pay for it with their lives. Sonia runs back to retrieve a forgotten tobacco pouch, and is the first to be killed by the Germans. It is not unexpected, although its naked brutality shocks.
Galia, fragile throughout the film, is hiding from the Germans with Vaskov, but panics and runs away crying for her mother. She is gunned down. Liza, whom Vaskov sent back through the swamp to sound the alarm, becomes exhausted and dies a futile death there before she can get help. Even Zhenia, who heroically draws the Germans away from the injured Rita and Vaskov, is eventually cornered and shot. The mortally injured Rita shoots herself. Such messy, futile deaths might have been the cornerstone of a film that questioned tropes of heroism in war movies of a certain era. Instead, the final action scenes reassert all the old tropes, as Vaskov, newly impassioned by the loss of his comrades, goes Audie Murphy on the remaining Germans. Rather than kill the surviving three, however, he takes them prisoner, offering them a short lecture on the young women they had killed.
This failure to commit fully to an interesting counter-narrative about heroism in war undercuts the film. Instead, the film essentially reproduces a traditional patriarchal hierarchy, and perhaps the new patriarchy of the present day in Russia. Vaskov is always the central hub of this fellowship, the only real agent of direct action, while the women are acted upon throughout. The women are only sketchily drawn, and they approach character types designed to advance the narrative, the “naïve,” the “experienced,” the “free spirit,” and so on. This is no surprise when they act as types rather than as strongly drawn characters. It is Vaskov who kills, often by knife, most of the Germans. He is at various times their commanding officer, their friend, their cheerleader, their imagined lover. He tends their wounds, physical and psychological. He becomes the object of at least two of the women’s affections, and even plants a kiss on lips of the dying Rita in the moments before she kills herself. These women are further objectified by their perfectly maintained glossy good looks throughout the action (and even in death), and by a number of gratuitous nude scenes, as the women bathe together in a bath house and in a waterfall.
While ostensibly about the “forgotten” female combat veterans of the Great Patriotic War, Davlet’iarov’s approach jars even more when, at the end of the film, original footage of wartime female anti-aircraft gunners is intercut with sepia-toned scenes from this film. Perhaps, most generously, one might see this as the director’s effort to contrast his own depictions of flawed heroines with the iconic war heroines of Soviet newsreel footage. Such generosity, however, might be misplaced, given the truly hackneyed final scene of this film. Back in Hobbiton, Vaskov faces a new band of female recruits to train, and, as he imagines each of the dead girls in their faces, a single tear wets his cheek.
So what does this later screen version of Vasil’ev’s novel add to the 1972 adaptation? The answer is, not much. Despite Davlet’iarov’s protestations to the contrary, his film reprises the earlier film almost scene-by-scene (and at times almost frame-by-frame) and with the same flashback technique, but updates it with a glossy action-movie aesthetic, including big-screen fire-fights, more explicitly violent killings, all awash in a swelling soundtrack. As the older adaptation shows, however, with its sparse score, implied violence, and measured character development, less is often more, and that was still enough to garner an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film in 1973. Rostotskii’s focus remains throughout on the people rather than the action. His depiction of the trainees in the first half of the film was of a self-confident and self-reliant fellowship of females, but one with its own very human internal frictions, and one that treated Vaskov with at best playful scorn and at worst derisory contempt (Vaskov is largely peripheral in the first half of the film). Even when they entered Vaskov’s world of war in their pursuit of the German soldiers, they retained their strong character traits, never surrendering their own agency and ideas on this impromptu battlefield. In the climactic fire-fights, they are equals to Vaskov in marksmanship and tactical nous. The film of course had a clear patriotic message. The film’s final scene, set in the present-day, in which a young camper happens upon the old Vaskov and his soldier son visiting the memorial plaque to the fallen women, is a particularly preachy generational lesson.
Still, the film’s message is rarely explicitly political, and Rostotskii remains silent on the recent uncomfortable parts of these women’s pasts that had figured in Vasil’ev’s novella. The film was much more an indictment of the inhumanity of war than of the German soldiers. In a rare political scene that may have caused a few wry smiles in the audience in 1972, Vaskov is asked by two of the women to call a Party meeting to condemn one of their ranks as a coward for freezing in the heat of battle. Vaskov refuses, saying that he saw no such cowardice, and instead banned all Party meetings until after the battle. In general, the patriotic message is more subtle and politically neutral throughout the film. The black-and-white contemporary scenes are intercut with flashbacks of the individual recollections of home not only in color, but in a highly stylized, almost surrealistic idiom, and in one example using an explicit Cinderella fairytale analogy
These were not ‘real’ memories, Rostotskii seemed to be saying, but individuals' fantasies built around memories, and all the more powerful for that. By anchoring his film in personal imaginings that embodied individual suffering and loss, Rostotskii captured the essence of the successfully made war film. This alone may render futile any latter-day efforts to recapture that essence, whether through The Dawns Here are Quiet… or The Dam Busters or any number of the successful war films that were made for the postwar peace. one.
1] See The Dam Busters remake blog,
Frederick C. Corney
The College of William & Mary
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Works CitedLiashchenko, Vladimir. 2014. “Moi fil’m ‘A zori zdes’ tikhie…’ – eto ne remeik,” Gazeta.ru, 27 August.
Marks, Kathy. 2009. “Nigsy? Trigger? N-word dilemma bounces on for Dam Busters II,” The Independent, 6 May.
Munro, Les. 2015. “The Dam Busters: Will Peter Jackson’s remake of the iconic film ever get off the ground?” The Independent, 5 August.
The Dawns Here Are Quiet…, Russia 2015
Color, 115 minutes
Director: Renat Davlet’iarov
Based on the novella by Boris Vasil’ev
Screenwriters: Renat Davletiarov, Iurii Korotkov, Artem Vitkin
Director of Photography: Semen Iakovlev
Costume Design: Aleksandr Osipov
Sound: Anatolii Belozerov, Sergei Bubenko
Music: Roman Dormidoshin
Narrator: Sergei Garmash
Cast: Petr Fedorov, Anastasiia Mikul’china, Evgeniia Malakhova, Kristina Asmus, Agniia Kuznetsova, Sof’ia Lebedeva, Ekaterina Vilkova, Anatolii Belyi, Dar’ia Moroz
Executive Producers: Grigorii Podzemel’nyi, Nikita Suslov, Maksim Potashnikov
Producers: Renat Davlet’iarov, Vladislav Riashin,
Production: Real-Dakota; Interfest; Star Media
Renat Davlet’iarov: The Dawns Here are Quiet (A zori zdes’ tikhie… 2015)
reviewed by Frederick C. Corney© 2016