Issue 71 (2021)

Igor’ Kopylov: Rzhev. Unknown Battle (2019)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2021

Soviets into Russians

rzhevFor a period of fourteen months from 1942-43, Red Army soldiers fought protracted and bloody battles against the Wehrmacht for possession of land in the Rzhev region of the Great Patriotic War’s Eastern Front, some 150 miles West of Moscow. The Rzhev meat grinder (Rzhevskaia miasorubka), as it became known to history, devoured over a million Soviet soldiers and officers, as the notice at the film’s conclusion indicates. Tying up German forces here, the notice adds, meant that Germans at Stalingrad did not receive long-awaited reinforcements. In this way, it “changed the course of the entire war.”

rzhevIn this war drama, Igor’ Kopylov seeks to capture both a small and a greater part of this Soviet experience of war, as he sees it. The film is based on the tale Redeem with Blood (Iskupit’ krov’iu), published in 1991 by Viacheslav Kondrat’ev, who wrote from his own experiences on the Rzhev front. Kondrat’ev was known as a chronicler of the existential and psychological experience of the ‘common’ soldier on the front-line. He was also something of a gadfly in his trenchant criticism of the running of the war by the Soviet party and military leadership.

rzhevIn a retrospective on the war that appeared in Literaturnaia gazeta at the end of the Gorbachev era, Kondrat’ev wrote: “What depressed us in the front lines was that our commanding officers... threw us into ill-considered attacks that they knew were doomed. Now you wonder how many men we lost for no purpose, but from incompetence, from ambition… How many lives could have been saved if we had fought just a little more intelligently, a little more prudently, with a bit more compassion for people?” He equated Soviet conduct of the war to the seminal moments of the Soviet past: “No, they did not pity their own people, just as they did not pity them in 1917, in 1921, in 1929, and in 1937… Russia has plenty of people… to waste” (cited in Tumarkin 2003, 603). Criticism of the views in his book has been reprised in a recent article on Rzhev. Literaturnaia Rossiia wrote that Kondrat’ev’s book showed he had given in at the time to the “fashionable moods” of the perestroika intelligentsia’s efforts to “dismantle the Soviet system.” The entire book “was awash in respect for the simple soldier and malice towards the political officers and intelligence officers,” and that “malice gives poor counsel” as it evokes only hatred, and “you won’t get far with hatred” (Anon. 2019).

rzhev Kopylov limits the action in his film to a single day and night and to Ovsiannikovo, a village that a decimated Red Army unit must take back from the Germans and hold at all cost, alone. It opens with a protracted and bloody battle scene as troops attack the German lines. It is the most familiar sequence from these kinds of films, marked by familiar motifs: lines of soldiers charging machine-gun lines amidst mortar explosions; interspersed single shots of individual suffering; close-ups on the tormented face of a traumatized soldier; a crucified soldier on the barbed wire; poignant and surreal scenes of post-battle desolation, and so on. They have become core parts of any number of war films. This opening sequence is not, however, indicative of the thrust of the entire film. Indeed, the final shot of this sequence suggests a different story. As the charge unfolds, the camera returns repeatedly to a young soldier sitting in the snow traumatized by the mayhem and death surrounding him. As the battle ends, the young man takes a bullet to the head, and the camera zooms in on his cap badge with its red star in his dead, open palm. Was this a meaningless death in a meaningless war, this scene asks, or was something more at stake here?

rzhev For much of its remaining running time, the film seeks to answer this question. It settles into the tedious wait for the final vain charge that will inevitably be the film’s climax. Few of the protagonists here are richly drawn, Kopylov settling rather for broad-stroke portraits of the Common Soldier. In the trenches and the surrounding ruined village, the men (there are no female characters at all in the entire film) banter endlessly and sometimes profanely about their lives, loves, fears, and hopes. They smoke, share stories, and sing songs from their homes. They take ‘trophies’ from the fallen Germans: cigarettes, liquor, a German pistol, even pictures of girlfriends from the walls of their enemies’ billets. They are randomly spared by Fate (a metal canteen takes a bullet destined for a soldier), for which they cursorily thank God. These are not die-hard Soviets defending Communism. They identify rather with their civilian occupations: barber, mineworker, farmworker. Indeed, the film is dedicated to the “memory of the volunteers who have risen to defend peace and justice at all times.” It is in a sense a portrait of all soldiers in all wars, at least for the first half of the film. Having established the terror/quotidian dichotomy of war, Kopylov suddenly shifts the focus to this particular moment in this particular place. The USSR intrudes.

rzhev A German plane flies over the Russian lines dropping propaganda leaflets, a seemingly minor event that takes on real portent here, given the Soviet historical legacy of suspicion and paranoia. The leaflets promise food and safety to those soldiers who surrender. This galvanizes the unit’s political officer (politruk) into action, and he rushes around, screaming at the men not to read the leaflets unless they want to face a tribunal. The men see this as a typical mistrust of them by the state. “When did Soviet power trust the people? Never,” says one soldier. As the political officer rants on, another soldier says: “There is no trust. How do we live like this? How do we go into battle?” But worse is to come: HQ sends an NKVD officer (osobnik) to investigate. In this moment, the old imperatives of the Soviet system reassert themselves in the form of an older and divisive Communist purity test. The intended subordination of trench camaraderie to Communist comradeship elicits open conflict as the political officers order soldiers into the perilous no-man’s land to gather the leaflets. Their commander refuses. As guns are drawn, the political officer backs down, and the army officer implies that this political officer might find himself a victim of “friendly fire” if he is not careful. The NKVD officer finds out that one soldier has kept some of the leaflets to use as cigarette paper, and decides to take him back to Command to face a tribunal. The absurdity of the situation is clear to all except the NKVD officer, it seems. As they are making their way across the lines, the officer is hit by German machine-gun fire. Stranded in a trench, the wounded officer and his prisoner philosophize about the system that formed them. For the NKVD officer, the state was his parent, raising him when he was orphaned, feeding and clothing him, and instilling in him a duty to follow Communist law, come what may. The prisoner notes his political powerlessness vis-à-vis this officer and the state, but declaims his own human power, especially as a parent, telling his captor that one's baby’s first smile is “a forgiving of all sins.” Somewhat reconciled, they leave their trench only to be captured by a German patrol. Given the choice by the Germans to buy his own survival by killing the NKVD officer, the prisoner shoots himself instead. After then shooting the NKVD officer, a German soldier notes the absurdity of the situation: “These pigs are all the same. Ultimately, we are teaching them to kill each other.”

rzhevRzhev chooses not to focus on the absurdity of the loss of these two men in the cause of a senseless reckoning that had more to do with the past than the present. Instead, it elevates the final heroic sacrifice of the Common Soldier in a greater cause that the film advances through a number of conversations among the soldiers. Russia intrudes. When one of them tells his captain that he loves Russia and signed up to defend it, his captain corrects him with “USSR.” “How old is your USSR?” he asks the captain defiantly, “Russia is going nowhere. It has been here a thousand years and will continue.” As the final battle looms, the unit commander refuses to subject his men to the assured slaughter a renewed effort to retake Ovsiannikovo would bring. He accedes to the order, however, when his commander explains to him that the real battle is not for Ovsiannikovo but for Russia, as forces tied up here will stop German reinforcements being sent to Stalingrad. The film concludes as they line up to march back into the fray.

rzhevWhile Kopylov’s film gives voice to Kondrat’ev’s criticisms of Soviet era imperatives, it nonetheless replaces blind devotion to the USSR with blind devotion to Mother Russia. Even the two political officers end up being redeemed by the common soldiers’ acts of humanity at key moments. This is perhaps unsurprising given the Putin-era embrace of the Great Patriotic War as the only Soviet foundation myth worth nurturing. Kondrat’ev would probably not have been a fan of the film. In wartime, he said, the soldier had the feeling that “he alone held the fate of the country in his hands,” but after the war that same soldier became resigned to the fact that not so much had changed: “with me, without me, everything goes on anyway” (Zubkova 2003, 28). Plus ça change… Kondrat’ev would have divined little meaning in that tiny badge in the fallen soldier’s palm.

Frederick C. Corney,
The College of William & Mary

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Works Cited

Anon. 2019. “Iskupit’ krov’iu. Pravda i mify o Rzhevskoi bitve,” Literaturnaia Rossiia 9 December.

Tumarkin, Nina. 2003. “The Great Patriotic War as Myth and Memory.” European Review 11 (4): 595–611.

Zubkova, Elena. 2003. Russia After the War: Hopes, Illusions, and Disappointments. Oxford: Blackwell.

Rzhev, Russia, 2019
Color, 113 minutes
Director: Igor’ Kopylov
Based on a novel by Viacheslav Kondrat’ev
Screenwriter: Igor’ Kopylov
DoP: Edgar Zhamgarian, Evgenii Kordunskii
Make-up: Pavel Betker, Elena Kostenich
Costume Design: Aleksandr Vasiukov
Editor: Vitalii Vinogradov
Music: Maksim Koshevarov, Aleksandr Maev
Cast: Sergei Zharkov, Ivan Batarev, Oleg Gaianov, Arsenii Semenov
Producers: Inessa Iurchenko, Sergei Shcheglov
Production: Kino Al’ians
Release: 5 December 2019 (Karo)

Igor’ Kopylov: Rzhev. Unknown Battle (2019)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2021

Updated: 2021