Issue 67 (2020)

Aleksei Kozlov: Saving Leningrad (Spasti Leningrad, 2019)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2020

The deployment of barges in the early stages of the siege of Leningrad to ferry Soviet soldiers, civilians, and materiel across Lake Ladoga to relative safety in Novaia Ladoga is an intriguing story. This barge transport was dangerous, highly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the sea and to attack by German fighter-planes attempting to seal off the city. Barge 752, with its maximum capacity of 600 people plus materiel, was overloaded with 1500 naval and army cadets and civilians when a tugboat began hauling it 160 kilometers across the lake on 16 September 1941, a perilous 15-hour journey. The barge was inundated by an overnight storm, and later strafed and bombarded by German fighter-planes. Over 1200 lives were lost - men, women, and children. Accounts did not appear until the early 2000s when this incident finally became public. They described scenes of panic on deck, with cries and screams from women and children, almost all of whom perished. Hundreds drowned in the cold waters of Ladoga, and some cadets even committed suicide in desperation. (Dvorkin & Segal´’, 2003) The captain of the tugboat “Orel” later received the Red Star medal for saving more than 200 lives.

spasti leningradIn an interview while filming, the director Aleksei Kozlov recalled reading one of these eyewitness testimonies and being struck by a poignant description of “children’s sunhats, little suitcases, and toys” floating in the water. He integrated into the screenplay survivors’ reminiscences from similar incidents at the time and made a film that was not only about awakening interest in these events but “rather about self-sacrifice in the name of love, people, and one’s hometown” (Anon. 2018). He joined the film crew in a parade down Nevskii Prospekt in St. Petersburg on Victory Day 2018 commemorating the losses from this and other barge tragedies. In the final scene of the film, the camera tilts up from a close-up of survivors’ relatives and banners with “Barge 752” to a broad panoramic view of the marchers and the city.

spasti leningradThe tragedy of Barge 752 deserves a filmic telling that captures the truly life and death horrors of those hours on Lake Ladoga, and perhaps contextualizes these particular moments in the difficult prehistory and terrible wartime fate of Leningrad. Saving Leningrad is not that film. Kozlov is no newcomer to the war movie genre, having directed A Battle of Local Importance (Boi mestnogo znacheniia, 2008), Lieutenant Suvorov (Leitenant Suvorov, 2009), and Prohibition (Zapret, 2015). Saving Leningrad was released on 27 January 2019 to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Leningrad blockade. Kozlov has chosen to leaven his film with heroic tropes and often undeveloped subplots, rendering it more palatable for a nation engaged in wartime mythologizing, as illustrated by that final panning shot.

spasti leningradAnd yet…, the penultimate sequence of Saving Leningrad, lasting barely a minute, is perhaps the most poignant and thought-provoking in the entire movie, and might have been the perfect coda to a quite different kind of treatment of these events. The camera slowly sweeps a cold blue-hued bombed-out apartment in Leningrad as snow falls through the roof. A framed portrait of a young girl, a broken light-fixture, and other knick-knacks on a living-room table are partially covered in snow, as the camera briefly catches an old woman seemingly asleep on a divan in the background. In a contemporary voice-over, a woman intones that these two days, 16 and 17 September, were but two of the 872 “of such days” in wartime Leningrad. Her father, she tells us, died at Nevskii Piatachok, a key battle, fought in an attempt to break the siege, while her mother froze to death in the apartment in December 1942. It is a rare bare-bones sequence with real pathos in a film that is curiously emotionless and bloodless (notwithstanding the battle gore on display in several scenes). It is the kind of small vignette that figures so well in Svetlana Alexievich’s collections of women’s reminiscences from the war, although she was cautioned by censors that “we don’t need your little history, we need the big history. The history of the Victory.” “The history of the war,” Alexievich points out, has been replaced by “the history of the victory.” (Alexievich 2018, xxvii, xxviii)

spasti leningrad That image of the old woman ‘asleep’ on the couch lingers with us far longer than anything else in this film. The director’s vain attempts to convey small truths are best illustrated by the omnipresence of suitcases as a motif throughout the film, a nod presumably to his early inspiration for this film. The sheer ubiquity of suitcases drowns the motif in triteness, rather than evoking the poignancy the director sought. The suitcases at times literally overshadow the actors. Kozlov has wagered on ‘big history’ in this film, centered on two events: the barge under assault first by the storm and then by German fighters, and Soviet soldiers attacking a German beachhead.

spasti leningrad These action sequences are interwoven, however, with a vapid and unconvincing love story between a young artillery cadet, Kostia Gorelov (Andrei Mironov-Udalov) and the recent object of his affections, Nastia Tkacheva (Maria Mel´’nikova), who find themselves on the ill-fated barge. An NKVD investigator, Vadim Petruchik (Gela Meskhi), is also on board and recognizes Nastia as the daughter of a man he earlier sent to the gulag as an enemy of the people. That man, Aleksandr Tkachev (Valerii Degtiar’), has since been released and sent to fight on the beachhead. The characters in this film lack any depth or development. They are devices rather than individuals. Kostia is the love-struck seeming coward revealed as hero. Nastia is the virginal and feisty girl, somehow clad in spotless blue and white throughout, who resists his amorous advances until he proves himself the hero. Vadim is the film’s villain—sleazy, oleaginous, sexually predatory—who is ultimately revealed as a coward. Aleksandr is the Gulag returnee, a civilian-soldier who proves himself in battle. Other types include the long-suffering and stoic mother back in Leningrad, worrying about the fate of her family; and the rough-and-ready sergeant, a perpetual cigarette clenched between his teeth, who treats his men with the tough love they need in order to survive. The plot is advanced via fairly standard war-film tropes: conflicts between the rank-and-file and their NCOs that are inevitably resolved in mutual respect; scenes in the operation centers of the local Soviet command and of the German command that are a means of filling in logistical details; the calm-before-the-storm moment, conveyed here in the form of an impromptu volleyball game by the soldiers.

spasti leningradIt all seems so familiar. The characters are devices, without an ounce of depth, sacrificed on the altar of ‘big history.’ As for the ‘big history’ itself, the action scenes on the barge and the beachhead are well done in a Hollywood idiom and play out a predictable dynamic of heroic, against-all-odds victory. The battle scenes are bloody and often visceral, although they tend to devolve into balletic slow-motion death scenes in a familiar modern aesthetic of highly stylized violence. One scene in which the sergeant fights a German soldier in a ditch of black muddy water seems primarily intended to showcase the director’s skills with various slow motion and rapid cut techniques. It all serves to mitigate against deep emotional engagement with the film. Nor do plot turns that hinge on fantastical moments help, as when Kostia saves the day on the barge by shooting down not one but two German fighter planes with a rifle and a handful of bullets. Not impossible I suppose, but highly improbable. Most conflicts in this film are resolved in the most complete and cloying fashion: Nastia and Kostia finally kiss, Kostia and his NCO embrace, Kostia and the NKVD officer make up in a show of mutual respect, the returnee from the Gulag comes good on the battle-field. Most tellingly perhaps, a fluffy white dog that pops up throughout the film is plucked from a potential watery grave by Kostia’s father, a military officer who inexplicably had set out across Lake Ladoga in a small motor-boat to find his son.

spasti leningrad
spasti leningrad

spasti leningradSaving Leningrad evokes not only the war film genre, but specific movies. In the 2018 interview, the correspondent alluded to parallels that some people were already drawing between it and James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). Kozlov denied that it had served as a guide for his film at all, although he acknowledged that some were indeed christening it “The Ladoga Titanic.” Saving Leningrad and Titanic of course share the plot of maritime tragedy and enormous loss of life.

spasti leningradBoth films however also undercut their power with a trite love story, replete with star-crossed lovers and mustache-twirling villain. A mnemonic touchstone bookends each film, Saving Leningrad’s Nastia as an old woman with her lover’s watch, Titanic’s Rose as an old woman with a rare diamond. Even the car on deck in Saving Leningrad looks suspiciously like the model in which Jack and Rose share their tryst in the hold, and, in both films, musicians doughtily play their instruments at moments of extreme danger. For this viewer at least, the pivotal action scenes in Saving Leningrad also evoked Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) and even Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm (2000).

spasti leningradFor all this criticism, however, that final sequence in the Leningrad apartment, that I mentioned earlier, hints at a more interesting narrative, largely undeveloped. Kozlov gave no intimation of a subtext in his film, but perhaps I do him a slight disservice. The film contains brief snapshots of a prewar society fragmented and brutalized by repression. When Nastia’s father returns unannounced from the gulag, he meets a neighbor on the stairs of his apartment building. “You’ve returned,” she says. “You might say that…,” he responds, but what it means to return from the camps is left hanging in the air between them. His reunion with his wife is cold and distant, particularly on his side. She apologizes for denouncing him to save their daughter, to which he merely responds “Of course.”

spasti leningradIt is a sad study of a relationship fractured beyond repair by the Soviet system, the camera lingering separately on each speaker in the conversation, the better to convey their distance from each other. The emotional distance between mother and daughter at the start of the film suggests that the entire family is broken beyond repair. Walking around his old apartment, and sitting at his old typewriter, Nastia’s father realizes that he has become a stranger to his old life. His death at the front – announced in a voiceover at the end of the film - comes to a man already dead. There are other signs of a deeply dysfunctional political system in place. Military officers are often risk-averse in their decision-making, fearing that a wrong decision will lead to recrimination and punishment by higher-ups. The NKVD investigator is the embodiment of the punitive state, all-powerful and vindictive, subject to only a limited comeuppance. The Soviet military appears to be seriously under-gunned and under-manned, compared to its German counterpart. Machine guns, mortars, and grenades seem only to be in German hands, while Soviet soldiers wield only rifles and pistols.

Towards the end of the film, Nastia’s mother returns to work in her editor’s office and is informed by an employee that the Germans have been bombarding Lake Ladoga all night and have sunk several barges. The latter says there is nothing in the official dispatches though, and Nastia’s mother says, “Thank God there is nothing in them. We work in the editor’s office, and we should not believe rumors, but official reports.” She still believes official reports over rumors, but only just, her expression tells us. These, in film form, are Alexievich’s little histories of the war that are eclipsed by the big histories of the Victory.

Frederick C. Corney
William & Mary

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Works Cited

Alexievich, Svetlana. 2018. The Unwomanly Face of War. An Oral History of Women in World War II. New York: Random House.

Anon. 2018. “Rezhisser kartiny ‘Spasti Leningrad’ Aleksei Kozlov: ‘Nash fil’m smozhet probudit’ interes zritelia k istorii barzhi 752’,” Kinoafisha 17 August.

Dvorkin, S. and A. Segal’. 2003. “Tragediia na Ladoge.” Neva 8.

Saving Leningrad, Russia, 2019
Color, 96 minutes
Director: Aleksei Kozlov
Screenwriter: Aleksei Kozlov
DoP: Gleb Vavilov; Aleksei Doronkin
Editor: Anton Dement’ev
Music: Iurii Poteenko
Cast: Mariia Mel’nikova, Andrei Mironov-Udalov, Gela Meskhi, Valerii Degtiar’, Marina Komarova, Vitalii Kishchenko
Producers: Aleksei Kozlov; Arkadii Fateev
Production: Studio AVK; Algous Studio
Premiere RF: 27 January 2019

Aleksei Kozlov: Saving Leningrad (Spasti Leningrad, 2019)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2020

Updated: 2020