Issue 30 (2010)

Aleksandr Kott: The Brest Fortress (Brestskaia krepost’, 2010)

reviewed by Anton Sidorenko © 2010

On the ruins of a myth

Preparation and shooting
The Red Army’s defense of the Brest Fortress against the Nazis in June-July 1941 is one of the most resonant episodes of the Great Patriotic War. The legend about the feat of the defenders of the fortress—the Citadel on the Bug, as it is often called—emerged during the Khrushchev Thaw. The myth about the fearless warriors, who fought Hitler’s army deep in the enemy’s rear for almost a month was formed in the mid 1960s, after the publication of a book by the Moscow journalist Sergei Smirnov (the father and grandfather respectively of filmmaker Andrei Smirnov and Dunia Smirnova). In the 1970s, at the suggestion of the First Secretary of the Belarus Communist Party, Peter Masherov, the Brest Fortress became the ideological and tourist brand for Belarus, as well as an occasion for the propaganda of Soviet internationalism: the garrison at the Fortress had included a dozen nationalities of the USSR. For the authorities of modern Belarus, the history of the Brest Fortress and its defenders is, above all, an example of the “fraternal attitudes” to allied Russia. It is no wonder that this well-known plot was chosen for the first film project of the Television and Radio Organization (TRO) of the Union state.

brestThe film project was preceded by a documentary film of the same title, made by TRO a year before the beginning of the feature film. According to scriptwriter Konstantin Vorob'ev, it was the success of the television screenings of the documentary that pushed the management of TRO into the direction of a live-action film for the silver screen. The film-project The Brest Fortress was financed from the budget of the Allied State of Russia and Belarus at a ratio of 60 and 40 percent respectively, with an overall budget of approximately $7 million. The ideological inspiration for the film came from the former television comedian and now head of TRO, Igor’ Ugol’nikov, who emphasized from the very beginning the public importance of the project. The Brest Fortress should tell the young generation of Russians and Belorusians “the truth about the war”, which has been deformed in recent narratives. In particular, young men should know that the main contribution to the victory over Nazism came from the USSR.

The fact that the filming took place on the place of the real events—the territory of the present memorial of the Brest Fortress—helped promote the ritual nature of the project. The premier took place on the 69th anniversary of the beginning of the war, at 4 a.m. on 22 June 2010, near the Kholm Gate of the Fortress, where the first shots were fired. It was assumed that the premier would be attended by the heads of state of Russia, Belarus and probably Ukraine, but because of the conflict between the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and the Kremlin, the event happened without the participation of politicians.

The preparations for the filming were painful, largely because of problems with finance and with the scriptwriting. Several playwrights were brought in to work on the script, but after numerous disputes over historical accuracy, the fourth version was accepted and considered suitable for production. The candidature for the director was known two months before the beginning of the filming, in June 2009: the direction was entrusted to Aleksandr Kott (Two Drivers /Ekhali dva shofera; the television serial PQ-17), who managed to complete the film in record time, by December. Several key roles in the production were carried out by Russian cinematographers, and Russian actors also played the main parts. Belarusian cinematographers were enlisted for the technical support of the filming process, and Belarusian actors were supernumeraries and played episodic roles, while the inhabitants of Brest were called upon for crowd scenes.

brestThe work on The Brest Fortress had obvious political implications and was accompanied by a number of publications in the mass-media. The public was divided into two camps in its attitude to the future film, depending on the attitude to the union between the two countries and their assessment of the Second World War. The filmmakers were, in absentia, accused of attempting to rekindle the imperial spirit of Soviet cinema of the Brezhnev era, for the more liberally-minded part of the population embodied in the films of Iurii Ozerov. The film crew, in turn, assured that film would reconstruct historical events with a maximum respect for the memory of the participants of the defense and an abundance of hitherto unknown facts.

Some days before the premier, a public viewing took place in Minsk in the presence of Alexander Lukashenko, where the president of Belarus approved the project and expressed a constrained discontent with the level of contemporary Belarusian cinema, which is in no shape to cope with a project of this kind independently.

Plot and production
The Brest Fortress is an original hybrid of Soviet (Russian) patriotic cinema and Hollywood entertainment, which—in its composition and individual sequences—is surprisingly reminiscent of James Cameron’s Titanic.

brestThe action begins several days before the fatal date of 22 June, with the representation of the fortress and its inhabitants through the eyes and words of a young pupil of a musical platoon, Sasha Akimov. The role of Sasha was performed by the student of the Suvorov Academy in Moscow, the Belorusian national Alesha Kopashov. The spectator enters the fortress through the Kholm Gates, still untouched by explosions, decorated with Polish arms and eagle (until 1939 the fortress belonged to Poland), and thus gets acquainted with a gallery of characters, just as Cameron presented the liner Titanic and its passengers at the beginning of his film. Associations to the most successful Hollywood film arise repeatedly during the viewing. The attempts of the inhabitants of the fortress to break through the narrow Northern gate under the Nazis’ machine-gun fire reminds us of the storm on the main deck and the lifeboats of the Titanic’s third-class passengers. The ending of The Brest Fortress, with the victims of the war resurrected in Sasha’s (Gennadii Garbuk) memory, is a literal copy of the well-known scene where the souls of the passengers, led by the lover, meet the soul of Rose on the Titanic in the other world.

Associations with Cameron’s masterpiece, however, are not the only parallels to Hollywood. The early versions of the script paid great attention to the image of the enemy storming the fortress, including Hitler’s nephew, Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny, who at the time really resided in Brest, as well as the head of Nazi Germany, who visited the ruins of the fortress together with Mussolini in August 1941. However, the lines of actual Germans as character models were deleted from the plot, which is most likely due to the need to shorten the script. The enemy is by and large not endowed with personal traits and represents instead a hostile, fatally dangerous force that ceaselessly attacks the fortress. In this sense, The Brest Fortress is a direct successor to Hollywood westerns about the Wild West, where the inhabitants of the American Frontiers beat the multifold superior forces of the native Indians off their forts. Even closer lies the analogy with Starship Troopers by Paul Verhoeven, where the space rangers shoot—and heroically perish—from the feelers of the non-anthropomorphic arachnids.

Like Verhoeven’s, the characters of The Brest Fortress are above all afraid of falling into the hands of the terrible enemy alive, preferring suicide to captivity. Here the influence of Stalinist propaganda is obvious, according to which the ideologically hostile “German fascists” were identified as monsters rather than people. To some extent the image of the enemy and the attitude to the enemy in The Brest Fortress corresponds to the moods of Putin’s Russia, whose propagandists recently have been dividing everything into “ours” and “theirs.” The Brest Fortress in that case is an image of Russia itself, a lonely island in a sea of enemies. From Soviet cinema also comes the internationalism declared from the very beginning. However, instructions about the allegiance of characters to concrete nationalities seem artificial: some characters speak deliberately with a Belarus accent, the soldiers from the Caucasus perform a ritual dance, and the hero of Pavel Derevianko— the commissar Efim Fomin—proudly informs the enemy that he is a Jew. That, however, is not in line with the traditions of Soviet cinema.

Also, unlike Soviet films, The Brest Fortress is deprived of direct propaganda. Individual details testify to the communist party and its heads, such as Stalin’s portraits on the walls. In several scenes the authors gently and indirectly criticize the former authorities for military carelessness, but the system itself is not called into question, which is again typical for Russian cinema of recent years. Similar signs are that part of the action takes place in the club. The spectator sees that it has been converted from an orthodox cathedral, which may be an unostentatious sign for the spectator about the “heavenly penalty” for desecrating a sanctuary. An original curtsey to the organs of state security (more likely current than Stalinist) comes in the heroization of the employees of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD)—something uncharacteristic for perestroika and post-perestroika cinema. Right at the beginning one of security officers interrogates the character of Aleksandr Korshunov about “harmful rumors about a sudden attack from Germany”, but the officer is compelled to do so by an order from his superiors, and therefore is no villain; instead he subsequently dies a heroic death.

brestThe main characters, played by popular Russian actors are—according to the filmmakers—as much as possible and even externally) aligned to their historical originals, and they carry their names. Those canonized in the Soviet era are all included in the plot, and the main figures are Major Gavrilov (Korshunov), political commander Fomin (Pavel Derevianko), and Captain (in reality lieutenant) Kizhevatov (Andrei Merzlikin). According to the historical events, each of them headed a line of defense, and thus Aleksandr Kott offers the spectator a set of parallel episodes. This circumstance highlights the monotonous flow of the plot (“ours” are shot and heroically perish; “theirs” continuously attack). The battle episodes, shown in a manner typical for modern cinema, appear predictably as most lively and sincere, while prologue and epilogue are cardboard-style and outdated, as if filmed in the spirit of Socialist Realism. When staging the battle episodes, the filmmakers no doubt considered the Hollywood experience of recent years. One of the most memorable scenes is the dropping of a huge bomb à la Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.

On the whole the filmmakers did not manage to achieve the promised “maximal approach” to the historical events. The frames are dominated by monotonous-mechanistic demonstrations of battle actions. Despite the revelation of a number of facts previously unknown to the general public (such as the conquest of Brest by the Germans before the beginning of war action), The Brest Fortress is yet another attempt to revive an old myth rather than a new vision in cinema on a military subject. The filmmakers did not deploy to the full the fact that the film appeared at a moment when the interest of former Soviet citizens in the Second World War peaked, among other things thanks to  numerous pseudo-historical bestsellers and television programs coinciding with the 65th anniversary of the end of the war.

The Brest Fortress actually became another Russian project, filmed in Belarus and with participation of Belarusfilm, but which is difficult to see as national cinema of Belarus. On the whole the film continues the “colonial” line and, in any case, can hardly be associated with Belarus behind its borders.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Anton Sidorenko

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The Brest Fortress, Russia and Belarus, 2010
Color, 140 minutes
Director Alexander Kott
Scriptwriters Vladimir Eremin, Konstantin Vorob’ev, Ekaterina Tirdatova, Aleksei Dudarev.
Cinematographer Vladimir Bakshta
Production Design Alim Matveichuk
Composer Iurii Krasavin
Producers Igor’ Ugol’nikov, Ruben Dishdishian, Vladimir Zametalin
Cast: Andrei Merzlikin, Aleksandr Korshunov, Pavel Derevianko, Iana Esipovich, Alesha Kopashev, Veronika Nikonova, Evgenii Tsyganov.
Production: Central Partnership (Russia), Belarusfilm (Belarus), on the commission of the Television Organization of the Union state.

Aleksandr Kott: The Brest Fortress (Brestskaia krepost’, 2010)

reviewed by Anton Sidorenko © 2010

Updated: 04 Oct 10