Issue 63 (2019)

Pavel Drozdov: Never Say Goodbye (Proshchat’sia ne budem, 2018)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2019

It is October 1941. Some 20,000 heavily armed Wehrmacht soldiers advance on Kalinin (now Tver’) en route to Moscow. A small garrison of 2000 Soviet soldiers without tanks or artillery but aided by a people’s militia prepare to defend the provincial city, while saboteurs plot to undermine these efforts, sow fear and confusion, or persuade the inhabitants to support the enemy. A voice-over darkly intones that each inhabitant must make a choice: flee the city or stay and defend it.

proshchatsya ne budemDirected by Pavel Drozdov, a native of Tver’, this film was inspired by an idea by a local journalist, Viktor Kulikov, who was involved in a documentary serial on the city’s broader history. Kulikov notes that while officials and even the police fled as the Germans approached, the military authorities put out a call to local citizens to stay and defend the city in the hope of at least delaying the German advance on Moscow for a while. Some 1500 citizens, including schoolchildren, answered the call. While Kulikov had met many Tver’ veterans from other battles of the Great Patriotic War, he had never met any of these civilian reinforcements from this episode in October 1941. Kulikov and Drozdov’s project sought to tell the forgotten story of these people and to focus on the “moral” rather than military aspects, seeing the city’s defense by hundreds of citizens as a “shining moment,” actions that “in effect saved Moscow.” It was not intended to be a war film per se. (Kulikov 2018) Indeed, the war is for the most part a distant backdrop to this movie. German soldiers only make cameo appearances here, a few dive bombers terrorizing the city at the beginning of the film, a couple of uniformed Germans briefly scaring a farmer’s wife, and a line of soldiers and tanks at the end of the film advancing on the city’s few defenders. Unsurprisingly, the movie is dedicated to the inhabitants of Tver’, who took an active part in many of the scenes. It premiered nationally on June 18, 2018 at the museum of the Great Patriotic War memorial complex at Poklonnaia gora in Moscow.

proshchatsya ne budemAs the opening words intone over the sound of exploding ordnance, Never Say Goodbye sets out its stall, establishing a simplistic binary choice that is the hallmark of many movies with wartime settings, and foreshadowing the inevitable outcome. This leaden juxtaposition of heroism and betrayal runs through this film at a personal, political, and cultural level. The film’s opening leaves little doubt that correct choices will ultimately be made. The film’s thematic juxtaposition – to flee or fight, to be a traitor or hero - is framed by two initial episodes. In the first, a saboteur uses a Soviet newspaper to light a fire as a beacon to guide German dive-bombers to their targets in Kalinin. In the second, a Red Army officer rushes into a burning building destroyed by the bombs to rescue a man trapped by a fallen beam, while an NKVD officer complains that the officer is doing little to preserve order in the chaotic town. The film is as much about hunting down and catching the saboteurs as it is about the war action itself, and its sets up the hunt as a thriller with various red herrings thrown in to distract. Contrived incidents throughout the film help to build trust in the actual spy Timofeev (Egor Beroev), while throwing suspicion on those hunting him, notably the commander of the Kalinin garrison, Pavel Sysoev (Andrei Merzlikin), who is in charge of preserving order in the chaotic town. Multiple love stories—and a particularly feather-light love “triangle”—litter the movie, all so underbaked and clichéd that they are not worth examining in any detail.

proshchatsya ne budemAt various moments the protagonists look into each other’s eyes and solemnly repeat the title words: “We shall never say goodbye.” Of these love interests (the film does little to develop any real relationships), most notable is that between Masha, the daughter of the NKVD Major Tokarev (Artur Vakha), and her father’s soon-to-be prime suspect, Sysoev. After Sysoev eventually confronts and kills the spy Timofeev in a stairwell fight, his good name is ultimately cleared by Masha who confronts her father with the truth. This all happens in a recently dug zig-zag trench that stages the movie’s final action scenes, as all surviving protagonists prepare to face the advancing Wehrmacht army across snowy fields. 

proshchatsya ne budemAs is often the case with war movies that trade on melodrama and tend towards bathos, all loose ends are tied up rather too neatly. The spy plot is lazily revealed in a series of flashbacks, just in case easily distracted viewers had missed its convoluted telling. Red herrings are handily revealed, probably to no great gasps of surprise from the viewer. The sequence takes place in short order, so that we can get to the film’s payoff. With the villains safely exposed and dispatched, the hitherto conflicted heroes come together in a trench for a final quixotic tilt at the advancing panzers. All the character-types are in the trench together: the officers and the soldiers of the sole defending garrison, the officers of the NKVD, the priest and the wife of the dead spy (who have to be taught how to fire a rifle), the major’s daughter and her newly cleared beau, Sysoev, and one example of a citizen who reluctantly stayed instead of evacuating. After various procrastinations and prevarications, these ‘types’ all in the end make the right decision to defend their Motherland, their futile self-sacrifice captured in a mawkish final scene. The camera lingers - in the slo-mo action now de rigueur in bad war movies and accompanied of course by swelling music - on the individual characters charging over the parapet to their deaths with personal catharsis etched on their faces. Their deaths are certain, although the movie fades to black at this moment. The final battle sequence (of this war movie with little war) is the kind of manipulatively unrealistic and clichéd scene of wartime action that has been rightly pilloried and even parodied in any number of movies of this genre.

proshchatsya ne budemStill, it should be noted that Never Say Goodbye is not a full-blown exercise in nostalgia-stoking for the “golden age” of war and patriotism that is currently in vogue in many countries, Russia included. Its poor execution fails in that task. More than this, however, it, wittingly or unwittingly, conceals a far more interesting movie within. It paints a picture of Kalinin in October 1941 that might, in a different film, have revealed intriguing insights into lives lived in a highly authoritarian system now in a fight for its very existence. On the evidence here at least, life under Soviet socialism seems to have produced a society riven with internal conflict. The city’s officials and militia abandon the city in short order; soldiers try to desert and are apprehended at gun-point; civilians vacillate over whether or not to join the popular militia set up to defend the city alongside the small army battalion, and seem at best reluctant to do so; many men evacuate anyway, their wives pleading with them to do so; a patrol of non-evacuated schoolchildren seems to patrol the streets with impunity; NKVD officers are callously indifferent to the plight of the city’s inhabitants in these terrible times; a local saboteur works actively to persuade locals, including an Orthodox priest, to support the German invaders; a high-level NKVD spy works to exploit these fractures.

proshchatsya ne budemThis all raises intriguing questions with which the film merely flirts. What kind of system has produced this array of citizens’ responses to German invasion and occupation? Why does the saboteur believe, as he tells the priest, that the Germans are the liberators for everyone, not just from those who have suffered religious persecution? Why is an NKVD officer working for German interests? Why does defense of the Motherland elicit such vacillation in the hearts of Kalinin’s citizens? Moreover, this film might have had important things to say on the theme of lost or tainted innocence as well. The patrol of militant school-kids, so certain in their duty and ever-ready to intimidate their fellow citizens, perhaps shows an authoritarian patriotism instilled at a young age. Yet, when one of their number, San’ka (Kseniia Petrukhina), a young fiercely patriotic girl, who hid her identity to pass as a boy, finds herself training a gun on the cornered saboteur, the final shot is taken by Sysoev, not her.

Her innocence has been preserved, one assumes. Without the courage to take on this theme, among others, directly, Never Say Goodbye pales beside other films that have had the courage to do so (notably glasnost’-era treatments of the brutalization of children’s innocence not only by war but by other conditions of Soviet life: Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985) and Vitalii Kanevskii’s Freeze, Die, Come to Life (Zamri, umri, voskresni!, 1989) come to mind (see stills from Klimov's and Drozdov's respective films below). The distance from Klimov to Drozdov—and from glasnost’-era to Putin-era Russia—is captured well by a still from each film designed to capture the anguish of war.

proshchatsya ne budem
proshchatsya ne budem

They each reflect specific cultural moments of production of each movie, the measure of their marketability, and, it should be said, artistic integrity. Only one of these directors was not trapped by the conventions of the war film genre.

Frederick C. Corney
The College of William & Mary

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Works Cited

Kulikov, Viktor. 2018. “Istoriia Tveri bogata siuzhetami, kotorye tak i prosiatsia na ekran,” MKRU Tver’, 21 March.

 


Never Say Goodbye, Russia, 2018
Color, 114 minutes
Director: Pavel Drozdov
Based on an idea by Viktor Kulikov
Screenwriters: Natal’ia Lebedeva, Pavel Drozdov, Aleksei A. Petrukhin, Viktor Kulikov
Director of Photography: Kirill Speranskii
Editor: Aleksandr Pak
Composer: Aleksei Chintsov
Production Design: Pavel Shappo
Costume design: Ol’ga Dudareva
Cast: Andrei Merzlikin, Alena Chekhova, Artur Vakha, Egor Beroev, Anatolii Gushchin, Iurii Kuznetsov, Anna Churina, Rodion Dolgirev, Kseniia Petrukhina, the inhabitants of Tver’
Producer: Aleksei A. Petrukhin, Pavel Drozdov
Production: Studio Most with Chechenfilm
Release: 21 June 2018

Pavel Drozdov: Never Say Goodbye (Proshchat’sia ne budem, 2018)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2019

Updated: 2019