Aleksei Karelin: A Time to Gather Stones (Vremia sobirat' kamni), 2005

reviewed by Denise Youngblood © 2006

For everything its season and for every activity under heaven its time: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to pull down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time for mourning and a time for dancing; a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them [emphasis added]; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to throw away; a time to tear and a time to mend; a time for silence and a time for speech; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.
Ecclesiastes 3.1-9 [1]

After viewing A Time to Gather Stones at the Cairo Film Festival in December 2005, Variety critic Jay Weissberg handily dismissed it: "Good-looking but bland, Alexei Karelin’s Time to Gather Stones reps a standard take on the ‘getting to know your enemy’ genre, set in the aftermath of WWII.” [2] In the context of Soviet and post-Soviet Russian films about the Great Patriotic War, however, “getting to know your enemy” is anything but standard. A Time to Gather Stones is part of a new wave in Russian cinema that revolutionizes the war film genre by humanizing the German enemy. Among the best-known feature films of this type are Pëtr Todorovskii’s In the Constellation of Taurus (V sozvedii byka, 2003) and Aleksei German, Jr.’s The Last Train (Poslednii poezd, 2004); recent television mini-series include Aleksandr Aravin’s The Red Choir (Krasnaia kapella, 2004) and Vladilen Arsenev’s Echelon (Echelon, 2005). [3]

The film’s story is straightforward, the plot linear. A German explosives specialist, Lt. Rudolf Ohnesorg (David C. Bunners), decides not to flee with his comrades at the end of the war, but rather, to return to the USSR as a minesweeper, in order to atone for his “crimes.” Accompanied by a very suspicious, battle-hardened Red Army captain, Viktor Demin (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), and Nelia (Ol'ga Krasko), a soft-hearted female lieutenant who serves as their interpreter, Ohnesorg succeeds in locating and disassembling mines (thereby saving countless Soviet lives), before he is killed in an explosion. It is June 22, 1945, the fourth anniversary of the invasion.

Defusing mines is the leitmotif of this tale, but what is really being “defused” are tensions and hatreds wrought by four years of savage warfare. A Time to Gather Stones is a psychological drama about two traumatized men in the space between war and peace. Ohnesorg, whose name means “without a care” in German, is anything but carefree. Even in crowds, he is alone, the quintessential “Other.” He speaks a little Russian and reveals that his parents were Baltic Germans; he could easily claim to be a German communist as his suspicious Soviet interlocutors want him to do. On his short-lived journey back to enemy territory, Ohnesorg stubbornly maintains his identity as a “German officer” (not a fascist) whose motives are humanitarian, not political, thereby upsetting the worldview of the Soviet soldiers and civilians he meets.

Viktor Demin cannot understand anything about Ohnesorg, nor does he want to. Language is perhaps the least of the barriers between the two men; differences in culture and education are far more important. Although Nelia urges Viktor to address Ohnesorg as “Rudolf,” for Viktor the German is the generic “Fritz.” Viktor resents the ease with which Nelia relates to Ohnesorg and refuses to sit down to the table and eat with them. The first chink in Viktor’s armor occurs one night. Neither man can sleep, Viktor as a result of his war injuries; Ohnesorg from his nightmares. Despite himself, Viktor is impressed by his foe’s stoicism, and then by his dignity, as Ohnesorg refuses to work when Viktor holds a gun on him. Slowly, through the weight of shared danger, Viktor learns to trust Ohnesorg—and vice versa. Shortly before the German lieutenant is blown up, the Red captain claps him on the shoulder in the universal gesture of male camaraderie.

Nelia’s role in the film is part Greek chorus, part love interest. She is Woman, an exemplar of the spirit of caring and reconciliation. It is Nelia who urges Viktor to “move on,” because “the war is over,” as she tells him on several occasions. And Nelia is like a sister to Ohnesorg, feeding him and shielding him from those who hate him because of the uniform he stills wears. When a “friendly” boxing match between the two men turns into a bloody brawl, Nelia’s tears stop them.

Nelia’s relationship with Viktor is not, however, merely a genre convention. Like Ohnesorg, Nelia comes from a much more cultivated family than does Viktor. Their class difference weighs heavily on him; she in turn is shocked when he curses her and calls her a baba. Viktor misreads her innate kindness as flirtation. When she asks him to dance, he awkwardly accepts, but when they step outside, he rushes at her, trying to kiss her and pinning her against a haystack. He construes her anger and resistance as feminine guile, and the next day tries to propose marriage to her. Underneath his bluff and sometimes coarse exterior, however, is a scared boy with a scarred soul. Nelia realizes that.

Every character in this film—with the exception of Nelia, who represents hope—has been severely damaged by the war. Hatred, violence, and anger seethe below the victory celebrations. Signs of the physical and emotional consequences of war are inescapable. A wedding party erupts in a brawl, and then in a shooting, when a fatherless child tries to kill Ohnesorg. A demented crone they pick up on the road and attempt to shelter turns out to be only 35 years old. But the most important example serves as the film’s climax.

They’ve arrived in a small town and the local chairman warns them to leave soon, that the people’s mood is foul at the rumor that a German was among them. A large crowd of vigilantes gathers outside the building where they have bivouacked, shouting for Ohnesorg. Viktor goes out to try to appease them. Just as he seems to have calmed the tensions, Ohnesorg, still in his German uniform, appears at the door. The mob attacks. They are rescued just in time by Red soldiers that the “old” woman has fetched. This is the only time that Ohnesorg shows emotion. “Why do they hate me?!” he cries out to Viktor, “Because I’m German?! But everyone has suffered!”

The time and place of Ohnesorg’s death is symbolic on many levels. As already noted, he dies in the USSR on the fourth anniversary of the German invasion. He dies disassembling bombs in an orphanage, thus saving Soviet children, the USSR’s future. He also dies just as he is about to be arrested by the NKVD. Nelia tries to console the despairing Viktor that his death was in fact fortuitous.

Finally, Ohnesorg’s death may have saved Viktor. Viktor’s pent-up emotions burst when he hears the explosion. He buries Ohnesorg with respect and friendship, under a cross, as the German would have wanted. At last, Nelia sleeps with him, but for emotional comfort in the face of their loss, not for love. Karelin’s closing shots are ambiguous: Viktor is sleeping peacefully at last, while Nelia, fully clothed in her uniform, gazes at him with an unreadable expression on her face, a reversal of the “male gaze.” The war has been won, but peace is yet to come.

Ecclesiastes 3.1-9 has become a part of popular culture in the West through Simon and Garfunkel’s classic “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The song evokes warm memories for those of us who were young in the 1970s. One must remember, however, that Ecclesiastes is about the “emptiness of all endeavor,” [4] not about peace and love. Chapter 4 begins this way:

Again I considered all the acts of oppression here under the sun; I saw the tears of the oppressed, and I saw that there was no one to comfort them. Strength was on the side of their oppressors, and there was no one to avenge them. I counted the dead happy because they were dead [emphasis added], happier than the living who are still in life. [5]

Aleksei Karelin’s most notable credit prior to A Time to Gather Stones was the television movie Cinderella in Boots (Zolushka v sapogakh, 2002). In purely cinematographic terms, the film is, as Weissberg claimed, “good looking but bland.” As a contribution to Russian war cinema, however, it represents a step forward in the “revisioning” of the Great Patriotic War. If this film is any indication, Karelin should be a director to watch.

Denise J. Youngblood (University of Vermont)


1] The New English Bible with the Apocrypha. NY: Cambridge UP, 1972: 678.

2] Jay Weissberg, “Time to Gather Stones,” Variety.

3] In the Constellation of Taurus features two Russian boys who take a young German medic prisoner after he has accidentally shoots one of them; The Last Train, which Birgit Beumers reviewed for KinoKultura in January 2004, has a German doctor as its protagonist; The Red Choir pits a Soviet spy in France against an extraordinarily complex German intelligence officer; Echelon’s hero falls in love with a German woman.

4] New English Bible: 676.

5] New English Bible: 678, 4.1-2.

A Time to Gather Stones, Russia, 2005
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Aleksei Karelin
Screenplay: Valerii Frid, Iulii Dunskii
Cinematography: Aleksandr Nosovskii
Editor: Ol'ga Kolesnikova
Art Director: Levan Lazishvili
Music: Igor Shcherbakov
Cast: Vladimir Vdovichenkov, David C. Bunners, Ol'ga Krasko, Andrei Fëdortsov, Vladimir Men'shov, Aleksandr Lykov, Nadezhda Karataeva, Vladimir Kachan, Sergei Rubeiko, Evdokiia Germanova
Producer: Aleksandr Litvinov, Vladimir Men'shov
Production: Mosfilm (Zhanr) and Pervyi kanal

Aleksei Karelin: A Time to Gather Stones (Vremia sobirat' kamni), 2005

reviewed by Denise Youngblood © 2006

Updated: 30 Mar 06