Issue 73 (2021)

Timur Bekmambetov: Devyataev (Russia 2021)

reviewed by Nina Sputnitskaya © 2021

This big, big, big Russian cinema: Devyataev during the time of Covid

DevyataevAs has been a tradition in recent years, the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) presented the premiere of a big national blockbuster, Devyataev by Timur Bekmambetov, in which the lead role was played by Pavel Priluchnyi. In numerous interviews the director (in particular, Bekmambetov 2020) said that he started shooting absolutely not at all for the sake of the military theme and the upcoming Victory Day (9 May). For him, the film is attractive because of the history of a man who has not become despondent, despite all the burdens and adversities he had to experience.

The film’s shooting and advertising campaign can be characterized in a single word: extensive. Videos from the filming give us an impression about the careful approach typical for Bekmambetov: the choice of locations, the construction of the set, the work with actors and, most important, solid work with the literary basis.

An important role was played by computer graphics. The film’s main spectacle consists of air fights and flying planes, therefore the development of the visual component played a key role, even if not the principal one. Probably for that reason Devyataev can be considered as one of the first extensive, balanced and successful projects—by Russian standards. Here the balance between computer visuals and the work of the acting ensemble is well balanced.

If we go by screen time, the total amount of time of computer graphics is rather insignificant: these are duels at the beginning of the film, when Devyataev’s plane is brought down; his and Larin’s flights in flashback episodes; and finally, a large episode of the theft of the Heinkel H111 aircraft and a hard landing. Here the director follows the tradition of Iulii Raizman’s Moscow Skies (Nebo Moskvy, 1944) with Aleksandr Ptushko’s tricks. In the scenes of air battles, the pilots of the popular online simulator of military equipment, War Thunder, participated.

DevyataevTimur Bekmambetov spoke frequently of the strong literary basis, the books written by Mikhail Devyataev. Moreover, the director emphasized that the author and hero of the stories perfectly well understood that he created a legend. Devyataev’s feat consisted in stealing and hijacking an enemy plane, and delivering important documents and equipment, which gave an impetus to the Soviet rocket program: that is the official part. Informally, the legend consists of twelve years of his life with continuous interrogations, mistrust from both official structures (the pilot spent time after his escape at the end of the war in the SMERSH concentration camp), and from the people around. Nevertheless, the hero never became despondent, but developed a broad public body of work: often he addressed various collectives, including youth groups, to tell them about the various circumstances of his feat. And this much less noticeable civil action makes up the personality of Devyataev, which in turn makes him the ideal candidate for a screen version.

DevyataevHowever, at the MIFF press conference the director admitted that during script preparation he never got as far as the post-war archives. Therefore, the civil period of Devyataev’s life in peacetime has little place in this big-budget Russian blockbuster. Nevertheless, Bekmambetov inserted some episodes that follow genre templates for the pilot’s civil life in the form of a prolog and an epilog. This is, in fact, an integral scene that is split into two halves: the hero together with his family goes on a tram, faces Larin’s father, his companion and traitor whose name he never mentioned, true to the word of an officer’s honor. He patiently listens to the father’s reproaches and gets off the tram: such is the film’s prolog.

The script structure is very detailed: the basic outline of the events preceding the escape sticks close the literary original, Devyataev’s book Escape from Hell (Pobeg iz ada, 1957). A particularly successful idea of the project is the antagonist Nikolai Larin (played by Pavel Chinarev), a close friend of Devyataev, who is also taken prisoner but decides to work for the fascists. The juxtaposition to this character showcases Devyataev as a professional, military pilot who obeys the code of honor of a regular officer. At the same time, the opposition of the two former friends increases the tension in the plot and visualizes the problem of the moral choice, introducing the idea of debt, honor and so on.

DevyataevThe main two blocks of the film are connected by the two locations where Devyataev is held prisoner of war. The first block is the camp in Lodz, where the meeting with the friend and traitor Larin occurs and where the latter tries to enlist Devyataev. From here the pilot makes the first attempt to escape. The events of the second thematic unit unfold in the concentration camp on the island Usedom near Peenemünde with its rocket center, where the development of V-1 and V-2 missiles was carried out.

Having managed to get to this main episode without significant mistakes, Bekmambetov starts playing on the field of big-budget Hollywood cinema that he is used to: after all, the plot about an escape from prison is one of the most developed in the history of cinema. Devyataev starts to gather a team; he finds the members of his future group already in a solid team of conspirators who want to escape from the camp via the sea and had even prepared a boat. However, there is no opportunity for them to resist the gift of conviction, the magnetism of the burning eyes and Priluchnyi’s charisma.

DevyataevCuriously, the entire episode of the preparation of the flight has been completed practically without computer graphics (practically, because special effects were required for the air raid scene when the bombing of the camp by Russian planes almost deprives Devyataev’s team of their “Heinkel”). The entire episode relies on a well-constructed intrigue: the mass of collisions which prepare the viewer for the culmination episode of sky-jack. Among the most impressive details are the extensive (a keyword of this movie and this review) thread where Devyataev, as a truly Russian man, confronts his catastrophic ignorance of a foreign language. All the signs in the “Heinkel” cabin are, naturally, in German, while the control panel is set up with considerable differences: the interface of the plane is far from intuitive, so that the pilot faces a major problem. This is resolved very wittily: nearby in the woods, where the prisoners are sent for brushwood for a fire, by sheer coincidence appears… no grand piano, but another shot-down “Heinkel”. In its cabin Devyataev finds a heap of plates with the names of the various devices. Touching these plates at night, he diligently studies German, which he so shamefully neglected at school.

However, in the film the Russian director Bekmambetov certainly could not do without Hollywood cliches. For example, a commonplace for film about escape (or a bank robbery) is the time calculation of group actions: the characters usually find out in such scenes who does what in which second, and Devyataev’s group captured the plane in three minutes.

One of the main reasons of the disbelief of the Soviet authorities for Devyataev’s evidence was that the officials, even the military, did not trust him: as if a man weakened by the concentration camp (the pilot weighed only 36 kg) could raise the Heinkel bomber plane into the air. After all, even German planes of the time of World War II had no hydraulic boosters and therefore the pilot needed remarkable force to press the pedals or pull the steering wheel toward himself in order to lift the plane into the air. The episode where Devyataev and his team try ever so hard to raise the plane into the air, far from the first attempt, and chase the plane from one end of the runway to another, is a lucky find of the director.

DevyataevThe film ends with an epilog: the episode started in the prolog continues. A black Voronok approaches (a symbol of the Red Terror, the colloquial name of a brand of the Soviet car of the Gorky Automobile Plant with which security officers took away people for interrogations or arrests), a persistent officer of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) opens the door, Priluchnyi’s says in a voice-over that this is a usual situation and that, each time he leaves for such inquiries, says goodbye to his wife and children forever. However, this time Devyataev, at last, has been recommended for a high government award. In the epilog the pilot reflects why he received this award and concludes that the times have changed: 1957 is the beginning of Khrushchev’s Thaw.

The life of Priluchnyi’s hero, both in the film and in reality, unfolded quite successfully by Soviet standards. He was in prison, but only for a short time; and most important—he did not die or go missing, he did not become an invalid, he returned home and did not die in poverty. He was graciously allowed to entertain the young generation and even publish his memoirs. He was allowed to live in the large city of Kazan instead of a godforsaken settlement. In turn for these small benefits, the USSR received invaluable documents and the equipment, thanks to which academician Sergei Korolev (1907-1966)—who was also in a prison camp from 1938 until 1944—designed the vehicle for the space launch of the first-ever artificial satellite in 1957. The history that Bekmambetov shows quite honestly reflects the history of modern Russia, where there are almost no participants of the Great Patriotic War left and where the rank of a hero, and to be a hero, are not always things of the same order.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Nina Sputnitskaya
Moscow, Film Institute VGIK

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Works Cited

Bekmambetov 2020. “Ekskliusivnoe interv'iu Timura Bekmambetova so s'emok ego novogo fil'ma o letchike Deviataeve.” TNV 16 March.

Devyataev, Russia, 2021
Color, 118 minutes
Director: Timur Bekmambetov, Sergei Trofimov
Script: Maksim Budarin, Georgii Selegei, Konstantin Galdaev
DoP Elena Ivanova
Composer: Iurii Poteenko
Production Design: El'dar Karkhalev, Sergei Struchev
Editing: Aleksandr Ivanov
Cast: Pavel Priluchnyi, Pavel Chinarev, Evgenii Serzin, Dar'ia Zlatopol'skaia, Dmitrii Lysenkov, Timofei Tribuntsev
Producers: Igor' Ugol'nikov, Igor' Mishin, Timur Bekmambetov
Release: 29 April 2021, MKFF

Timur Bekmambetov: Devyataev (Russia 2021)

reviewed by Nina Sputnitskaya © 2021

Updated: 2021