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Aleksandr Rogozhkin: Cuckoo (Kukushka) (2002)

reviewed by Daniel H. Wild©2004

A nail is hammered into stone while men in Wehrmacht uniforms are meticulously preparing the proper vantage point for a sniper's position. With this opening sequence of images, Aleksandr Rogozhkin's film The Cuckoo begins in medias res, but soon adds a profound existential dimension to the seemingly routine sequence of World War II military activity. A Finnish soldier has been condemned by his unit and is forced to don an SS uniform. Now he must assist in his own enchainment. Imprisoned on a boulder "like Prometheus," as he will later explain, his life is reduced to serve one final purpose: he is to become a "cuckoo," Soviet army slang for a condemned and thus involuntary sniper. This introduction deftly establishes an overarching theme. It hints at the larger, abstract question of how humans could possibly liberate themselves from the brutal constraints of circumstances, especially in war, while it simultaneously renders this idea in its essential concreteness—an image of one man, shackled to a rock.

At the same time, we learn that a Russian captain has been placed under arrest for murky charges of "anti-Soviet plotting" by a political officer and now awaits his fate. When their car is accidentally bombed by Soviet airplanes, the badly wounded captain is the sole survivor. Through his sniper rifle's telescope, the condemned Finnish soldier observes a Sami woman who finds the Russian captain and drags him to her lone settlement in the vicinity. She tends to his wounds while going about her daily business as if her selfless act of benevolence were a natural part of it. After his patient and meticulous attempts to loosen the nail that ties him to the rock prove fruitful, the Finnish soldier finds his way to the woman's hut as well. There the three strangers become involved in the difficulties of establishing a fragile and provisional community as they struggle to find and maintain the means for a peaceful coexistence structured around the necessities of survival, namely food, shelter, and companionship.

If this scenario, in which three archetypal representatives of three different cultures collide, recalls the prerequisites for an existentialist drama, the film's harsh visual style emphasizes this dimension even more. The desaturated film stock and the coldness of its color palette, paradoxically, make vivid the film's austere sense of place and time, Northern Finland in the September weeks of 1944 before a ceasefire agreement ends combat between Finland and the Soviet Union, and yield a filmic landscape where life is stripped down to its bare fundamental elements. (The film itself was shot on the Kola Peninsula.) The sparse but ominously ethereal musical soundtrack underscores this sentiment effectively. Here, on the periphery of civilization, it seems that the human figure becomes clear-cut and stark in nature.

The film's ingenuity lies precisely in its refusal to remain on such a potentially portentous scale or succumb to grandiose statements on the human condition because it focuses resolutely on the ironic difficulties that arise during the creation of this accidental community. Once the three characters find themselves stuck with each other in the Sami woman's space, any attempt at meaningful communication is frustrated since not one of them speaks the same language. This fundamental obstacle becomes obvious as they speak at but past each other in Russian, Finnish and Sami, a fact objectively recorded for us by the subtitles. It does not deter them from communicating while they remain trapped in the limits imposed by their own languages. What they communicate to each other, however, is mainly the sound of speech, not understanding itself. In this respect, the subtitles leave the viewer with the vantage position of knowledge. We understand that all of their dialogues are, in fact, monologues, in which only the most rudimentary and random fragments of information are conveyed, and that they mainly reconfirm their acquired biases and prejudices to themselves in their responses to each other. Nonetheless, all three are very loquacious as they attempt to settle the terms of their cohabitation and gradually they begin to develop a real sense of community, in spite of the inherent absurdity of their situation in which little is known about how little they know.

The Finn, Veikko, is a young idealist for whom the "war is over now" because he has escaped his death sentence. His attempts at conveying this notion to the wary older Russian, who never abandons his suspicion of the one he calls "Fritz SS," are a great source of humor. Anni is the Sami woman, whose husband was taken by "soldier-men" four years before. Despite this, she seems to have been able to live her life alone without becoming entangled in the war that has raged around her. She is only grateful that her thoughts have been "read" by "the spirits" and that she has therefore been sent two men at once. The Russian, however, dubbed by Veikko "Gerlost" because his dismissive utterances of "get lost" are misunderstood, does not care to acknowledge that Veikko is "a Finn, not a fascist." To change his obstinate prejudice, it takes one more, almost fatal misunderstanding, which forces Anni to summon up the memory of the wisdom of her tribal ancestors. We learn that her real name is "cuckoo." In a beautiful panoramic shot that stands as a coda, Anni tells her two little boys, name Veikko and "Gerlost," the story of their fathers, two men who "tired" of the war and became friends before she sent them on their separate ways. We know the account to be a kind of fiction, a story arranged out of fragments of incomplete knowledge, but it is a fictional story that is told in the spirit of truth.

 

Aleksandr Rogozhkin tapped into a nationalist vein with his wildly popular Peculiarities films in the 1990s. He has also demonstrated earlier a skill for rendering complex political issues into precise parables with his 1998 film The Checkpoint, one of the more sober contributions to Russian cinematic representations of the war in the Chechnya. For The Cuckoo he has received a number of awards, including the international film critics' FIPRESCI prize at the Moscow International Film Festival, where the film was celebrated "for the mastery of its mise-en-scene, and the originality and metaphorical and humanistic force of its scenario about the problems of communication among human beings." Indeed, the film's title suggests its status as a fable. This level of abstraction, however, obscures the film's hints at a more radical idea in the context of its setting, namely that our reliance on the notion of any essential difference between people should belong to the realm of fiction as well.

Кукушка (The Cuckoo)

Russia 2002. 104 min. Color. In Russian, Finnish, and Sami with English subtitles.

Written and directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin.

Director of Photography Andrei Zhegalov.

Editor Iuliia Rumiantseva.

Production Designer Vladimir Svetozarov.

Music Dmitrii Pavlov.

With Ville Haapasalo (Veikko), Anni-Kristina Juuso (Anni), Viktor Bychkov (Ivan "Psholty").


Aleksandr Rogozhkin: Cuckoo (Kukushka) (2002)

reviewed by Daniel H. Wild©2004

8/04/04