Issue 65 (2019)

Aleksandr Zolotukhin: A Russian Youth (Mal’chik russkii, 2019)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2019

malchik russkiiOne of the first swallows of this year’s Russian films on the festival circuit, A Russian Youth premiered in the Forum section at the Berlinale in February 2019. Its selection was no doubt aided by the fact that Aleksandr Zolotukhin is a graduate of Aleksandr Sokurov’s now legendary workshop at the University of Kabardino-Balkaria, which also included Vladimir Bitokov (with his debut film at Karlovy Vary) and Kantemir Balagov, whose first and second film screened in the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes. Moreover, the International Forum of Young Cinema, organized by the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art as part of the Berlin IFF, is the perfect platform for innovative and experimental films.

Zolotukhin’s choice of topic is bold: few filmmakers outside the US have tackled the Great War, and Soviet cinema has almost avoided it entirely. Indeed, realizing the difficulty in creating an adequate visual rendering of the Great War, Zolotukhin refrains from making a “historical film” and opens instead with color footage of an orchestra rehearsal in the present day. Only a few minutes into the film does a deliberately grainy and murky image reveal footage that is clearly from another time, of soldiers walking along a countryside path, following a horse-drawn cart with weaponry and ammunition, jumping onto the cart or sliding downhill in almost dance-like choreographed movements. Their appearance, demeanor and speech are deliberately artificial: the result of a creative/artistic representation of history. Soon they stop to offload the cart, because the horse cannot pull the weight up the hill. A sense of care for the animal shows the humanism amongst the group of soldiers, who tease a young soldier called Aleksei, or Alesha, who has joined the war effort “to kill some Germans,” and who asks how many of them he has to shoot to get one of those nice medals as worn by one of the soldiers on the cart. Both the young musicians of the orchestra and the young men in the army have in common a keen and ambitious attitude to their respective tasks: a harmonious performance of set movements. Without wanting to stand out, the young people make extra efforts: Alesha carries two boxes of ammunition (where others carry one). Indeed, he is particularly keen to be part of the collective: he worries when he falls behind, calling for the others to wait for him. His fellow soldiers mock him kindly and with good humor, and challenge him to play the accordion, which he does, but without great skill. In contrast to the orchestra, this is not a musician but, like a good citizen, he will play “along”.

malchik russkiiZolotukhin escapes historical accuracy in terms of facts and detail; instead, he brings back a sense of those times through the quality of sound and image. Moreover, he cast in the role of Alesha a non-professional, Vladimir Korolov, whom the crew found in an orphanage. Korolev’s almost transparent skin, his bright and clear eyes and blond hair, and his childlike curiosity speak not so much about “Russianness” as about blending in: his paleness is indicative of his lack of ego. He blends into the drab landscape of pale autumnal colors that is veiled in fog, where ditches are being dug and makeshift tents erected. He is almost invisible.

Individual figures disappear, movements appear clumsy and look unprofessional; the musical score purposefully replaces sound and creates—as happened once upon a time in silent cinema and its live piano accompaniment—a link with the here-and-now, with our contemporary world. The musicians’ ambition to render the essence of the score, and the soldiers’ ambition to overcome the enemy is what these “Russian youths” of the early 20th and early 21st centuries share, as Valerii Kichin astutely comments:

[Zolotukhin] set before himself the task of returning those times to the spectator literally. On scratched film stock, where the stains of age are visible. With grainy and faded images. With a vanishing soundtrack that had to be synchronized: the dialogues with their anonymous information remind us of foreign subtitles, without intonation, character and nation. And with people whose figures transpire through the fragile web of time: they have a look, a manner and a demeanour that is not of this world (Kichin 2019).

malchik russkiiYet the young generations of both then and now seem to be out of sync with time. They are seen and heard as if through visual and acoustic filters, estranged from time and place (indeed, the location of this battle could be anywhere).

During the very first attack by the invisible enemy army—only the voices of German soldiers can be heard, but the enemy remains invisible in battle scenes—the unit suffers losses: both machine gunners are killed. Moreover, the entire unit is exposed to mustard gas, because the makeshift masks made of gauze and linen, with separate goggles that cloud over, fail to protect their eyes—unlike the Germans, who have proper single-unit gas masks, protecting the entire face. As a result of the exposure, many Russian soldiers are temporarily or permanently blinded. While most injured soldiers are sent home, Alesha implores his superiors—through his friend Nazarka—to let him stay: he does not want to be a burden at home and is prepared to do any job in the army. He always wants to do things himself (“ia sam”) rather than rely on help. However, without the help of others he cannot always manage: the journey he takes to the outhouse, accompanied and assisted by Nazarka, shows Alesha’s almost slapstick movement through drying bandages on a washing line before he stops among birch trees on the cemetery to urinate. Later, Alesha stumbles. When a photograph is taken of all the blinded soldiers, they are lined up in rows on a temporary tribune, with the last row of soldiers standing on the lid of a coffin; without eyesight, they lose balance and all tumble down; the construction—and with it the photographic composition—collapses. The visual irony of soldiers performing ballet-like movements and slapstick acts to a musical score is one way of interpreting the shifts between the orchestra rehearsal and the war action.

malchik russkiiZolotukhin blends the historical past with the present: the soldiers of WWI are as inexperienced and unprofessional as the musicians in the Tauride Orchestra’s Cappella, conducted by Mikhail Golikov. The conductor (People’s Artist of Kabardino-Balkaria) often stops the musicians, corrects and comments their play, asks them to repeat a particular part of the score of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto (op. 30) and the Symphonic Dances (op. 45). In an interview, Zolotukhin explains the choice of the musical pieces and the rehearsal setting as a second plotline for his film:

The musicians time after time play fragments, they make mistakes and start over again. This is a noble ambition to direct the energy of the youth to culture and creation. But the future of those people worries me. At the beginning of the 20th century there were also beautiful young people, and none of them could imagine what Europe would hold in store, that human genius would be directed at the creation and perfection of weapons of mass destruction. The Symphonic Dances, which we use at the film’s end, were written at the beginning of WWII; after writing them, Rachmaninoff wrote nothing else. (Zolotukhin in Kas’ianova and Serebriakova 2019).

malchik russkiiThe film thus draws parallels between two eras that stand a century apart. Images—as grainy and faded as they may be—cannot render the history of the war. In the same way, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concert from 1909, encapsulating the turmoil of the 20th century that lies still ahead, or the Symphonic Dances composed in 1940 cannot be adequately rendered by an orchestra of today. Neither image nor sound can behold the past; both are only artistic recreations of a different time with different people, different feelings, and different values. Neither vision nor sound can bring back those times: the spotting of aircraft with the acoustic locator ultimately fails as much as Aleksei’s vision. As Zolotukhin suggests: “The film’s action takes place a hundred years ago, but it is about young people, their relationships and how a national character can manifest itself in extreme historical circumstances. The core of the national character does not change” (Zolotukhin in Kas'ianova and Serebriakova 2019). A Russian Youth, then, is not a film about the past, nor is it a historical film; instead, it draws our attention to some parallels in the character of the young protagonists.

malchik russkiiThe young soldier’s name is Alesha, like the war hero Alesha Skvortsov from Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, 1962), as Elena Stishova aptly suggests with the title of her review of the film in Iskusstvo kino. But such heroism as that of Skvortsov is far from the reality of the war, most of all the Great War. Zolotukhin’s Alesha is a soldier who knows his duty, who accepts punishment for a breach of discipline when sitting at the table reserved for officers, but who—above all—tries not to fall behind (“wait for me”), not to be a burden to anyone (“I’ll do it myself”), and to help the unit (again, with the words (“I’ll do it myself”). His highest aim is to belong to the collective. In that sense, he never stands out, but blends in (therefore he is pale and transparent); he accepts punishment and mockery; and he is no hero. He brings down no tank and shoots no German. He does, however, alert the battalion to an attack of German planes, but he is not the one to get a medal or thanks.

malchik russkiiAlesha is, in a sense, still a child. He is ticklish, he plays games, and even when tasked with listening out for approaching aircraft, he is jesting. He never seems to understand the seriousness of the situation, like a hero of a war film who knowingly takes a risk. His superior Makar Petrovich takes care of him—to a degree. But his real help and true friend is Nazar, whom Alesha never betrays and to whom he returns even when the latter has been taken prisoner by the enemy, and tried to protect and hide the blind boy in a church. Like any other soldier, Alesha is arrested—by a German soldier, another boy who is no older than he himself, and whom he mistakes for his peer until he feels the cap of his military uniform. Friendship and belonging are the highest values for this Russian youth. As Zolotukhin emphasized in his interviews: “I’m interested in researching the relationship in a Russian male collective, with its own traditions and specific world views” (Gorelikov 2019).

malchik russkiiZolotukhin raises the question of who those young people were that fought in WWI; and, by extension, who those young people are that perform Rachmaninoff’s agitated music today. What do they know of the times when this score was written? What do they need to know to be able to perform it, to be able to live through those concerns reflected in the two musical pieces, respectively written on the eve of the two major wars that would shake up Europe. What they both share is the need of a collective strategy (true, with a good and understanding commander/conductor); they need to listen to each other and play for (look at) each other. In this sense, the emphasis on the collective rather than the individual also suggests a move away from the egotism that governs the contemporary world, but it also suggests a different definition of “collective” than the socialist idea, but one of shared perception.

A Russian Youth reveals the director’s neglect of historical accuracy in favor of an interest in the national character as manifest in extreme situations, such as a war. Alesha’s belonging to the collective and his loyalty stand at the forefront of his attention. Alesha is a “Russian youth,” displaying the national character without any patriotic undertones; a young man without any overall world view, without a vision for his future, just like the musicians today have no stability in their world that they could rely on—other than their trust in the conductor, and in each other.

Birgit Beumers

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Works Cited

Gorelikov, Aleksandr. 2019. "Aleksandr Zolotukhin: 'Mal'chik russkii'—o chuvstvakh, kotorye stiraiut egoistichnoe 'ia'." Seans Blog,12 February.

Kas’ianova, Ol’ga and Natal’ia Serebriakova. 2019. “Aleksandr Zolotukhin. Eto prosto vospitanie.” 17 June.

Kichin, Valerii. 2019. “Muzyka prorochestv.” Rossiiskaia gazeta 10 February.

Stishova, Elena. 2019. “Ballada o soldate.” Iskusstvo kino 5/6: 81-84.

A Russian Youth, Russia, 2019
Color, 72 min., 1:2.39, Dolby 5.1
Scriptwriter and Director Aleksandr Zolotukhin
DoP Airat Yamilov
Production Design Elena Zhukova
Music Sergei Rachmaninoff
Editing Tat’iana Kuzmicheva
Cast: Vladimir Korolev, Mikhail Buturlov, Artem Leshchik, Danil Tiabin, Sergei Goncharenko, Filipp Diachkov
Producer Eduard Pichugin, Aleksandr Sokurov
Production Lenfilm, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
World Sales: Ant!Dote Sales

Aleksandr Zolotukhin: A Russian Youth (Mal’chik russkii, 2019)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2019

Updated: 2019