Issue 39 (2013)

Andrei Maliukov: The Match (Match, 2012)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2013

matchWhen Andrei Maliukov’s film The Match premiered in Kiev on 26 April 2012, members of the Ukrainian nationalist political party Svoboda tore down the movie posters and reportedly chanted “Out, Muscovite occupiers!” and “Shame on Ukrainophobic films!” (quoted in Marson 2012). Some towns across the country cancelled film screenings, claiming either that the film was anti-Ukrainian or that it would offend Germans who would soon be travelling to the country for the Euro 2012 Championships. The reaction came after the Ukrainian State Film Agency deliberated over whether or not to allow the film on domestic screens at all. Clearly The Match touched a nerve, one that exposed painful memories over the memory of the Second World War and the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

matchThe Match is about the so-called “Death Match” of August 1942 played in Kiev between the Ukrainian side FC Start and the German team Flakelf while the city was under Nazi occupation. The tale of the match first surfaced in 1943 in a Soviet newspaper report and then gained more fame in 1946, when a novel about it appeared. The Death Match eventually became part of the culture of memory associated with the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union: a 1962 film commemorated the legend, and statues to the participants were erected in 1971 next to the Dynamo stadium in Kiev and in 1981 next to the Zenit stadium (now renamed Start), where the 1942 match was played. The story that these products of memory told was relatively straight-forward: former members of Dynamo Kiev had joined FC Start, a team connected to a bakery, and began to win matches in occupied Kiev. They defeated some German teams, Hungarian teams, and other Ukrainian teams. On 9 August 1942, they faced off against a strong German side, Flakelf, which featured German professionals pulled from the Luftwaffe’s ranks. The Start players received a visit from a Nazi official who warned that they must lose or face serious consequences. The Start players, in an apparent show of Soviet patriotism, won 5-3. Several players were subsequently arrested, sent to the nearby Syrets concentration camp, and shot. The story of the Death Match therefore became perfect fodder for postwar commemorations of Soviet patriotism and for cementing the notion that Ukrainians and Russians were brothers.

matchThe problem is that, while the match certainly took place and several Start players—Ivan Kuzmenko, Oleksiy Klymenko, and Mykola Trusevych—were arrested, incarcerated and shot, these actions may not have had anything to do with the victory on the pitch. FC Start played a match a week after the Flakelf one, destroying another Ukrainian side 8-0. The arrest of several Start players, as historians have debated, may have been because of sabotage at the bread factory where they worked, because they were deemed Ukrainian nationalists, or because their affiliation with Dynamo Kiev made the Nazi occupiers suspicious of their NKVD connections. As Karel Berkhoff has written in his book about Ukraine under Nazi occupation, the “charge was not entirely groundless, for many Start players had been in Soviet Ukraine’s leading soccer team, Dynamo Kiev, which Ukraine’s NVKD had sponsored” (Berkhoff 2004: 203). A Hamburg-based legal inquiry opened in 1974 concluded after 31 years that no proof existed that definitively linked the deaths of the Start players to the victory over Flakelf. In the end, decades of Soviet myth-making and the murkiness of wartime activities make it hard to determine conclusively why some Start players were arrested.

matchAndrei Maliukov’s film, however, posits (or reposits) that the participants in the Death Match were visited by a Nazi official who told them to lose. They initially went down 3-1 by halftime, but at the break decided that “there are things worth dying for.” Led by their star goalkeeper, Nikolai Ranevich (modeled on Mykola Trusevych and played by Sergei Bezrukov); the Start team rallied, scored 4 goals in a brutal second half, and celebrated their triumph over their occupiers. Maliukov’s Match therefore represents a contemporary recycling of the Soviet myth.

matchThe film also attempts to narrate the contentious history of Kiev before and during the war. Before viewers get to the dramatic match, Maliukov focuses on a love story amidst war. The film opens with Ranevich and his Dynamo teammates winning a local match in June 1941. His fiancée, Anna (Elizaveta Boiarskaia), celebrates the victory with him as they spend the last hours together before the Nazi invasion. After the shock of 22 June, Ranevich and some fellow Dynamo players volunteer for the front. They fight bravely but Ranevich is wounded and captured. The goalkeeper and his best friend, Andrei (Nikita Tezin), play some football before their fellow POWs and gain their release to work for the bread factory and play for Start. Afterwards, Ranevich discovers that Anna has married the collaborationist mayor of Kiev (played by Stanislav Boklan). Eventually—and right as Start are about to play the fateful match against Flakelf—Ranevich realizes Anna did it out of love in order to gain his release. Renewed, he inspires his Start teammates to victory and lets Anna know he still loves her. The film ends with notes that Nikolai and his comrades enjoyed only seven more days of freedom and then references the 2005 decision rendered by the Hamburg prosecutor’s office.

matchThe love story between Nikolai and Anna—and her forced relationship with the collaborationist mayor—attempts to use the football story as a means to explore Kiev under occupation. This historical-cinematic reconstruction raised the ire of Svoboda and many other Ukrainians. The Match includes scenes of Kiev’s Jewish population being beaten, rounded up, and marched off to Babi Yar (Babyn Yar in Ukrainian), the site of the September 1941 massacre of nearly 34,000 Jews. Throughout the film, Ukrainian collaborators are among the main perpetrators in these episodes of violence. They are characterized as nationalists, speaking only Ukrainian in contrast to the Russian spoken by the Start players: to drive home the point their voices were dubbed into Russian. Certainly some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, as Berkhoff and other historians have written, but the film overwhelmingly casts anyone who speaks Ukrainian or who wears traditional Ukrainian clothing as villains and anyone who speaks Russian and who supports the Soviet war effort as heroes.

matchThe fact that a Russian film, one backed by money from Russian-based producers and the Russian State Cinema Fund, made these historical connections led many in Ukraine to cry foul. The film’s website declared The Match a “historical patriotic drama” and “a movie about all of us and about our common Motherland.” These claims seemingly echoed those made in wartime and postwar Soviet propaganda, which stressed the historical unity of the Ukrainian and Soviet peoples (Yekelchyk 2007: 146). Stanislav Kulchytskiy, a historian who participated in the protests about the film, stated that “Ukrainians now think of themselves as a nation that exists separately from the Russian nation, but the Russian nation thinks on the scale of the Soviet Union, of an empire (quoted in Marson 2012).” Oksana Faryna, who covered the film controversy for the Kyiv Post, declared that The Match was “shot entirely from the official Russian point of view that says all people who fought for Ukrainian independence are bad,” concluding that Maliukov’s movie is “political propaganda to bring Ukraine back to Russia, to show we are one nation with one history” (Ibid). Writing in Kommersant’, the Russian film critic Lidiia Maslova described the film as “essentially nothing but the supporters’ anthem ‘Ole-Ole-Ole-Ole Russia, forward!” (Maslova 2012).

Any attempt to delve into this history was bound to provoke criticism. Maliukov defended his movie by stating that he did not think about making a pro-Ukrainian or anti-Ukrainian film, but one “about love, about soccer, about how tough it was for some people to live in this historical moment” (quoted in Marson 2012). Perhaps, as Faryna noted, the real controversy surrounding The Match was the wide gulf between the contemporary Russian film scene and its Ukrainian counterpart that the film revealed. “We don’t have our own film industry or any filmmakers with financing who can present real, complicated stories with different shades to allow the viewer to decide,” she lamented (quoted in Marson). For the time being, Ukrainian audiences and critics will have to continue to get their cinematic history lessons from their neighbor.

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)

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Works Cited

Berkhoff, Karel (2004). Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine Under Nazi Rule. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Faryna, Oksana (2012). “Film Tells Soviet Legend of World War II Match.” Kyiv Post 26 April.

Marson, James (2012). “‘Death-Match’: Why a Nazi-Era Soccer Movie is Making Ukraine Angry.” Time 31 May.

Maslova, Lidiia (2012). “Futbol pobezhdaet smert’.” Kommersant 78 (2 May).

Yekelchyk, Serhy (2007). Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Match, Russia, 2012,
Color, 117 minutes
Director: Andrei Maliukov
Screenplay: Timofei Sergeitsev, Igor’ Sosna, Dmitrii Zver’kov, Il’ia Neretin
Producers: Il’ia Neretin, Dmitrii Kulikov, Timofei Sergeitsev
Music: Ivan Burliaev, Richard Horowitz
Cinematography: Sergei Mikhal’chuk
Cast: Sergei Bezrukov, Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Eduard Bezrodnyi, Ekaterina Klimova, Dirk Martens, Aleksandr Kryzhanovskii, Aleksandr Kobzar’, Sergei Romanovich, Igor’ Gnezdilov, Nikita Tezin, Stanislav Boklan, Karen Badalov

Andrei Maliukov: The Match (Match, 2012)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2013

Updated: 12 Apr 13