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Dmitrii Meskhiev, Our Own, aka Us and Ours [Svoi] (2004)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova©2005

At the XXVI International Moscow Film Festival in June 2004, Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Us hit the jackpot.  The film received the Grand Prix—the Gold St. George—for Best Film, and also picked up Best Director and Best Male Actor (Bogdan Stupka) awards.  In the six months between the film’s festival triumph and its more modest release, discussions among film connoisseurs seem to have merged with the film’s title: how did “we” beat “them” (that is, foreign films)?  Some comments sound like a paranoid throwback to the 1970s, suggesting that the “big” topic of WWII played a role in the jury’s decision, or even that Meskhiev’s film is a state commissioned work (sotszakaz) for the approaching sixtieth anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War.  Be that as it may, with its $2.5 million budget, a host of popular actors, and solid camera work by Sergei Machilskii (Nika Best Cinematographer award in 2003 for Filipp Iankovskii’s In Motion), Meskhiev’s film is a serious and professional work. 

            Us, indeed, belongs to a series of recent Russian films—of which Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo (2002) is perhaps the most celebrated example—that turn the myth of the Great Patriotic War into an identity quest.  In many ways, this is a very traditional Russian cinema about testing humanity in the absence of good choices, appealing in its absolute formal and narrative simplicity.  Us is set in the early months of the war, as the relentless wave of the Nazi invasion pushes the Red Army further to the East.  Like Cuckoo, Meskhiev’s film sets its narrative in an indefinite location: it can be Russia, Belorussia, or Lapland.  What matters is its liminal status—it is an “occupied territory,” the space between peace and war, “us” and “them,” humanity and brutality.  And the war itself has not yet achieved the status of the Great Patriotic War in public consciousness, as the site of a mythological struggle where the sides are clear. 

            Us is a film about escape and banishment.  Having escaped from enemy fire, the two protagonists—a Russian NKVD officer (Sergei Garmash) and a Jewish commissar (Konstantin Khabenskii) hurriedly change their Red Army uniforms for peasant outfits before they are captured by the Nazis.  In the prisoners’ column, they meet a young peasant, sniper Mitka (Mikhail Evlanov).  Mitka tells them that his village is nearby, and the three escape from the column and head for the village.  Once there, they have an unpleasant surprise: Mitka’s father (Bogdan Stupka), who spent years in Siberia as a former kulak, is the village headmaster and cooperates with the Nazis.   The three characters now face the ultimate challenge: surviving among their own people.

            The title of the film is virtually untranslatable and emerges out of the thick of Soviet ideological struggles of the last century, reviving the “us” vs. “them” opposition.  Within the political ideology of Stalinism, none of the male characters is one of “us”: three POWs, a former kulak, and a head polizei (Fedor Bondarchuk).  The film, however, suggests that the term is imbued with a communal, rather than ideological, logic of inclusion-exclusion.  Mitka Blinov, for instance, comes from the village of Blinovo and is related to half of its inhabitants, including several polizei.  Characters’ choices—to kill or not to kill, to betray or to save—are based on family allegiances and circumstances, not ideology.  It is a world of barter: Katia (Anna Mikhalkova) convinces a polizei to exchange a telescopic sight for her mother’s earrings; the father plans to ransom his two daughters out of the Nazi prison with two gold coins.  Ideology only becomes an issue when one doesn’t have a choice, as with Lifshits who, according to the film’s narrative, is a sickly Jew, hence a commissar and doomed to die.

            Us blurs two dimensions of the war’s epic meaning.  One is the tragedy of the Nazi invasion, conveyed through slow-motion cinematography, discontinuous montage of panic and destruction, sounds of shooting muted by the extradiegetic music.  The Nazi surprise attack on the Soviet Army Headquarters motivates the events of the narrative and brings the three heroes together.  The re-appearance of Nazi troops at the end disperses the group and closes the frame.  At the same time, Nazis are the least important figures in the film, being ostensibly not “us.”  German dialogue is never translated, and the German soldiers in a truck driving through the occupied town are strikingly different from the Russians: clean, shaven, young, and most importantly, deracinated and disoriented.  The only expression on their faces is bewilderment at Russian life.  They have very little control over that life and little understanding of the brutal, unsystematic, “Tolstoian” warfare waged against them. 

                

            “Our” protagonists kill only those who threaten the blessed insular state of our community.  The first victim is the prisoner who threatens to expose Lifshits as a commissar and a Jew if the latter does not give him his food.  He has his throat cut by the NKVD officer, who is redeemed by the film’s logic because he preserves the integrity of “us.”  The composition and the raw violence of this and other murder sequences are reminiscent of Petr Lutsik’s The Outskirts (1998), which manages to integrate dark humor with a political agenda through its masterful visual revival of socialist realist codes.  Lutsik’s single-minded heroes, on a mission to “free” their land from the powers that be, torture, kill, bite to death, and set on fire multiple enemies.  In Meskhiev’s film, too, the struggle for an epic heroic community and the longing for “genuine” masculinity can be iterated only through the return to mythical time.

            This mythical time—and war, as its expressive limit—constitutes the other epic dimension in Us.  The advancing German troops shrink the Russian world to the size of one village, one dark bathhouse, one barn.  But this barn is the Russian paradise.  It envelopes the fugitives like a womb.  Through a crack in the wall, they can peek at “our” stout women milking “our” cows; they hide in “our” haystack and drink “our” moonshine, which gives them warmth and epic strength. 

The lament by some critics that the film is “psychologically undone” by its own ending makes as little sense for Meskhiev’s film as it does for Lutsik’s The Outskirts.  The film itself provides an answer as the closing credits start rolling: none of the male characters has a name; the credits identify them solely through their ideological functions—“commissar” [politruk], “chekist,” “sniper,” and “old man.”  Three of these nameless characters represent the three epic warriors who won the Great Patriotic War: the NKVD officer is raw state power; the sacrificial commissar is the idealistic dreamer of a communist utopia; and the young peasant sniper is the popular spirit.  They represent exemplary masculinity, but, as the film suggests, only two of them will survive to become new Russian icons: strong state and healthy peasant power. 

The first Moscow International Film festival in 1959 awarded the Grand Prix to Sergei Bondarchuk’s Fate of a Man, a film about a POW, who for the first time blurred the Stalinist distinction between “us” and “them.”  In Us¸ Bondarchuk’s son plays a Nazi collaborator in another war film.  Forty five years later and in a different political system, the genre of war film continues to be central to the Russian identity quest, redefining the war as first and foremost the war over the meaning of “us.”  And it is fitting that the film’s camerawork is dedicated to the memory of Pavel Lebeshev, the cameraman for such films as Nikita Mikhalkov’s At Home Among Strangers, a Stranger at Home (1974) and The Barber of Siberia (1999), and Sergei Bodrov Sr.’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus (1996), all of which are primarily concerned with the re-configuration of Russian masculinity and communal Russian identity.

Elena Prokhorova, College of William and Mary


Ours (Russia, 2004)

Color, 100 minutes

Director: Dmitrii Meskhiev

Screenplay: Valentin Chernykh

Cinematography: Sergei Machil'skii

Music: Sviatoslav Kurashov

Art Designers: Aleksandr Stroilo, Zhanna Pakhomova

Costume Design: Aleksandra Vesel'chakova

Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Sergei Garmash, Mikhail Evlanov, Bogdan Stupka, Anna Mikhalkova, Fedor Bondarchuk, Natalia Surkova

Producers: Viktor Glukhov, Sergei Melkumov, Elena Iatsura

Production: Slovo Productions; supported by the Ministry of Culture of Russia and Channel One


Dmitrii Meskhiev, Our Own, aka Us and Ours [Svoi] (2004)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova©2005

6/1/05