Issue 72 (2021)

Vadim Shmelev: The Final Stand (Podol’skie kursanty, 2020)

reviewed by Ian Garner © 2021

kursantyVadim Shmelev’s The Final Stand is the latest in a decade-old series of state-funded Second World War epics. While competently made—the production values, cinematographic work, music and, especially, acting are all of a fair standard—the film amounts to little more than a repetition of tropes already familiar from Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun 2 (Utomlennye solntsem 2, 2010), Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad (2013), Kim Druzhinin’s Tanks (Tanki, 2018), Aleksei Sidorov’s T-34 (2018), Sergei Mokritskii’s The Battle of Sevastopol (Bitva za Sevastopol’, 2015), Aleksandr Kott’s The Fortress of War (Brestskaia krepost’, 2010), and Druzhinin’s Panfilov’s 28 Men (28 Panfilovtsev, 2016). The directors, scriptwriters and—presumably—their funders in the government, however, seem to have set out to produce a film with special appeal for young Russians by offering an idealized vision of young patriots willingly sacrificing themselves at the front.

kursantyThe film retells the Soviet-era myth of a group of artillery and infantry cadets sent from their training academy directly to the front in autumn 1941 to defend Moscow from the rapidly advancing Wehrmacht. A lengthy opening act follows the officer cadets from field exercises to the barracks as they make friendships and romance the female recruits. Thereafter, the historical framing is entirely familiar: well-shot and lengthy battle scenes depict the brutality of fighting at the front and inevitably result in heroic sacrifice. The brave but inexperienced recruits almost visibly age as strategic and quotidian naivety make way for military nous won at great personal loss. This simple reiteration of familiar motifs is closest to Panfilov’s Men in subject matter: The Final Stand is a note-for-note rendition of a war-era myth of heroic sacrifice that, like the Panfilov’s Men legend, was hugely exaggerated in a series of Brezhnev-era museums, movies, books, and memorials. A combination of modern cinematography, washed-out color palette, Hollywoodized Soviet marches, and the overt references in the movie’s opening intertitles to the producers’ consultations with federal ministries, veterans’ organizations, and museums confirm The Final Stand as a crystallization of Putin-era Second World War filmmaking.

The film is most notable as the latest and least subtle manifestation of the government’s attempts to calcify a sense of generational indebtedness in Russia’s younger generations. Young Russians today seem less and less interested in official narratives of the Second World War. Fewer are turning out for official celebrations like Victory Day parades, and few seem able to articulate anything more than a general knowledge of or interest in the war (Krawatzek & Friess 2020). As a result, the government has attempted to re-instill, through official celebrations, youth movements like the YunArmiya, and movies like The Final Stand, the idea of the younger generation’s unpayable debt to their “fathers,” who sacrificed themselves in the war. Shmelev places this narrative at the core of The Final Stand: motifs of family, children, and lost youth are foregrounded; in spite of their suffering, the cadets find a new sense of camaraderie in battle; and the cadets’ senior officer even overtly states that “your fathers and brothers are already giving their lives to hold back the Germans” as he sends his troops off to the front.

kursantyAt times, the work’s retrograde, official conservatism seems almost absurd. There is just one non-white character, women play roles as wives and mothers (one young bride even promises to cook soup for her husband’s journey to the front), and the avuncular officers are at odds with the harsh, Stalinist conditions of the wartime. A skirmish at the barracks in the film’s opening scenes is resolved when the stern but fair duty officer doles out a gentle punishment. If this is an attempt to suggest conditions for conscripts in today’s Russian army might not be so bad as the dedovshchina’s fearsome reputation suggests, then it fails: the moment is so lacking in tension that it, like many of the Socialist Realist works the film is based on, seems more like a parody than a depiction of reality.

Nonetheless, and in spite of the difficult conditions as Covid-19 has raged across Russia, officials and distributors have made real attempts to show The Final Stand to young viewers. The film was heavily trailed, available on streaming platforms, shown for free in some areas, and even screened at universities for domestic and—unusually—exchange and international students (Tsyganova 2021; Popov 2021).  Student leaders duly responded with comments that draw on both Soviet and Putin-era narratives: “My comrades at the university know that the Great Patriotic War is a heartfelt and sensitive topic for every citizen of the Former USSR. [The film] depicts the feat of young people just like us. They are true heroes, because they resisted to the last.” (Popov 2021). Indeed, in spite of the hackneyed plot, The Final Stand has had a generally positive reception. Reviews in media outlets have interpreted the bombast, cliché, and visual and thematic hyperbole as tributes to patriotism and sacrifice.

kursantyThe film’s younger viewers have not generally been so impressed. Reviews on kinopoisk.ru suggest that the young targets of the movie’s propaganda message are tired of “one-dimensional, same old, film-by-numbers” approaches, noting The Final Stand’s verbatim reiteration of tropes and whole scenes from other recent Second World War films. Efforts to engage the audience with positive visions of militarized society through works such as Shmelev’s film look unlikely to succeed; public attempts to instill a sense of generational debt by suggesting that today’s youth can never live up to the standards of the idealized Podolsk cadets (see, for example, Borisenko, 2020) are likely to be understood as hyperbolic.

Indeed, such comparisons inevitably strip young viewers—especially those resistant to the government’s cinematic discourse—of agency, ironically undermining the opening act of The Final Stand, in which the young cadets seem to live happy, full, and free lives. If the war strips the film’s heroes of their freedom, then the inculcation of an unpayable debt to the wartime generation in the present does the same for young viewers in the present. The Final Stand is emblematic of a new era of stagnation for Russian cultural politics. The constant reiteration of official myths in ever more crystallized forms confirms old beliefs for the converted, yet seems likely to diminish the younger generations’ interest in those myths and, therefore, the government’s political projects. In spite of the moderate success of films such as Shmelev’s work, state-funded filmmakers will soon have to find new inspiration and new approaches.

Ian Garner
Queen’s University, Ontario

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Works Cited

Borisenko, Dmitri [@borisenkodmitr]. 2020. Tweet.

Krawatzek, Felix and Nina Friess. 2020. World War II for Young Russians: The Production & Reception of History. (Report). Berlin: Zentrum fuer Osteuropa und international Studien.

Popov, Sergei. 2021. “V Astrakhani inostrannye studenty uznali o podvige podol’skikh kursantov.”Moskovskii komsomolets 11 March.

Tsyganova, Svetlana. 2021. “V kinoteatrakh Ekaterinburga besplatno pokazhut fil’m ‘Podol’skie kursanty’.” GlobalCity, 14 February.

 


The Final Stand, Russia, 2020
Color, 137 minutes
Director: Vadim Shmelev
Scriptwriters: Vadim Shmelev, Igor’ Ugol’nikov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vadim Zadorozhnyi
DoP: Andrei Gurkin
Production Design: Konstantin Pakhotin, Sergei Struchev
Music: Iurii Poteenko
Cast: Aleksei Bardukov, Evgenii Diatlov, Sergei Bezrukov, Liubov’ Konstantinova, Artem Gubin, Igor’ Iudin, Ekterina Rednikova
Producers: Igor’ Ugol’nikov, Vadim Zadorozhnyi, Evgenii Aizikovich
Production: Central Partnership
Release Date: 4 November 2020

Vadim Shmelev: The Final Stand (Podol’skie kursanty, 2020)

reviewed by Ian Garner © 2021

Updated: 2021