Issue 73 (2021)

Andrei Zaitsev: A Siege Diary (Blokadnyi dnevnik, 2020)

reviewed by Tim Harte © 2021

Blokadny dnevnikThe brutal yet heroic facts surrounding the Siege of Leningrad are familiar to many. For nearly 900 days, between the early autumn of 1941 and the winter of 1944, Hitler’s army, aided by Finland, surrounded the Soviet Union’s second largest city and blocked access in and out of the former imperial capital. Using deprivation and starvation of the civilian population as a means of achieving Soviet capitulation, the Fascist forces attempted to squeeze all the life out of Leningrad. As Nazi bombs rained down and food supplies dwindled, over a million inhabitants of the city perished, most of them from hunger. Yet the city and its citizenry nevertheless endured, providing the Soviet Union with a symbolic victory that no doubt contributed to the eventual defeat of the Nazis.

What can be gained now by a cinematic navigation of this well-trodden historical ground? Quite a lot, it turns out. Rather than resorting to a factual, documentary approach to the Siege of Leningrad and its horror, in A Siege Diary (Blokadnyi dnevnik, 2020) Andrei Zaitsev has taken personal accounts of that first winter of the Siege, when the unusually harsh weather and dire lack of provisions made life close to unbearable, to produce a compelling narrative of one woman’s struggles amidst all the death and suffering in Leningrad of February 1942. Based in large part on Ol’ga Berggol’ts’s “Daytime Stars” (“Dnevnye zvezdy”), an autobiographical story of a young woman’s journey through Leningrad during the Siege to see her father at a hospital on the outskirts of the city, and Daniil Granin and Ales Adamovich’s Siege Book (Blokadnaia kniga, 1977), a once controversial work of documentary prose on the toll the Siege took, Siege Diary personalizes this momentous event of Soviet history in what emerges as an intimate look at suffering, memory, and faith.

Blokadny dnevnikIn a scatological start to Siege Diary, a German soldier makes the Nazi swastika sign in the snow with his stream of urine. Zaitsev, whose relatively small body of work includes the 2015 14+ and the 2011 Slackers (Bedel’niki), moves quickly here to establish the Nazis’ senseless cruelty. In a prologue of sorts to the film, Nazi soldiers stationed outside of Leningrad dote on a young officer’s carefree, flirtatious wife; initially underdressed for the harsh Russian winter, she is allowed to fire off artillery aimed straight at the heart of the city. As a Mozart symphony plays out over a loudspeaker, the young woman casually yanks on a cord to precipitate a round of destruction and death. Her laughter and the smiles of the soldiers leave a lasting impression. Arguably hyperbolic and even a bit heavy-handed, the scene nevertheless sets the stage for the harsh absurdities that will transpire on the streets of the northern city. The flippant banter of the Germans provides a stark contrast to the raspy, desperate words that will be spoken by the film’s heroine and her starving compatriots.

We are soon introduced to the film’s heroine, Ol’ga (Ol’ga Ozollapinia), or in more affectionate circumstances Lialia, as she attempts to warm herself in her cold, dark apartment. She is preparing to bring the corpse of her recently deceased husband to the morgue and then continue on her way to the hospital where her father works as a surgeon and where she hopes to beg for his forgiveness (for what, it is not exactly clear). The conditions are dire, for Ol’ga takes a small bite of bread, gobbles up every last crumb, and rations the rest. Helping Ol’ga drag the corpse to the morgue is her neighbor, Liuba (Vasilina Makovtseva), who has her own grave problems, for in addition to having to warn an older child of the cannibalism plaguing the city at the time, she has decided to deprive her youngest child, an infant, of food so that she and her other children can somehow survive. Amidst hushed murmuring in their apartment, the infant’s cries from an adjacent room painfully ring out.

Blokadny dnevnikShot mostly in black and white, Siege Diary explores issues of remembrance and childhood. As the title of the film implies, it is indeed a personal, diary-like account of the Siege, yet within the stark scenes of deprivation and cold, Zaitsev has inserted short sequences filmed in hazy, aquarelle colors that convey the heroine’s joyful memories of childhood. These brief scenes show a young Lialia tenderly interacting with her father. The color, it should be noted, softens the proceedings, as if synesthetically warming up the cold, older woman—and the viewer—in defiance of the harsh, frozen world threatening the citizens of Leningrad. Reminiscent of a matryoshka doll, these are memories within memories, with the inner remembrances of a colorful adolescence becoming a beating heart encased by outer remembrances of a cold black and white sort. Despite the frost and lack of food, Ol’ga’s heart continues to beat.

In addition to inserting the colorful scenes of Lialia’s childhood into his largely black and white film, Zaitsev has opted to use a male narrator—himself—to recount Ol’ga’s retrospective thoughts and reflections on the Siege. Such a gendered disconnect between character and voice allows for a certain detachment and even relief from what transpires on the wintry Leningrad streets. Conversely, Zaitsev’s soft, gentle voice helps bridge the modern-day camera work with the past events, allowing the film to be more than just an historical reconstruction or period piece. It becomes something far more personal.

Blokadny dnevnikLike a primitive man venturing outside of his cave, as the narrator puts it, Ol’ga leaves her apartment to enter onto the snowy and virtually deserted streets of Leningrad. Accompanied by Liuba to a courtyard morgue, where she emotionlessly sets her husband down in a row of corpses, Ol’ga hands Liuba the key to her apartment, saying she will never return. Hers will be a journey to the underworld in which no normal return is possible. And to mix one’s Greek mythological allusions, Ol’ga’s arduous Odyssey continues when she encounters a group of slow-moving, bundled-up Soviet citizens waiting in line for bread. The obvious association is the zombie horror film, but that does not do justice to the scene at hand, for they all face a moral quandary when a sled full of bread, destined for an orphanage, spills before them in the snow. Should they satisfy their basic urge for self-preservation and grab the bread, or should they let it get to the children? In the end, Ol’ga and almost all the others make the right, selfless choice.

Having wandered past icicle-covered buildings down a seemingly magical Nevsky Prospekt, which is both described and filmed as a vast, deserted field, Ol’ga must make another close to life-or-death choice when she comes upon some abandoned trams. She knows that if she goes in to get a modicum of relief from the cold and then falls asleep, she will undoubtedly freeze to death. But the temptation is too great. Amidst a smattering of frozen corpses, she takes a seat, swallows a small morsel of food, and promptly drifts off to sleep. In phantasmagorical fashion, with reality and dream merging, the tram comes to life and begins to move. Yet it is not the tram moving but rather a truck, whereby Zaitsev’s camera, largely taking Ol’ga’s perspective, peers out from a pile of bodies. Conveying life and consciousness, the moving film images capture here her fortuitous survival, for workers have collected Ol’ga’s body from the tram not realizing that she was still breathing. About to discard her and the actual corpses on the outskirts of town, the workers tend to the frozen Ol’ga and then, in another moment of good luck for the heroine of what emerges as a dark fairy tale, offer to drop her off near the hospital where she was originally headed.

Blokadny dnevnikAs the truck pulls away from where Ol’ga was discovered alive, in the background we see an endless mound—a virtual sea—of corpses. What comes to this reviewer’s mind is the harrowing conclusion of Ingmar Bergman’s Shame (1968), in which the protagonists find themselves on a boat amidst a thick bunch of floating corpses. The corpses of Siege Diary, however, invert the shamefulness of Bergman’s carcasses: for Bergman the floating bodies point to human weakness amidst senseless bellicosity and human folly, whereas in Siege Diary the abundance of corpses point to suffering, resilience, and even pride amidst the senseless bellicosity and human folly.

In addition to the Bergman link, there is of course the Russian/Soviet cinematic context for this film, as both Aleksei German and Andrei Tarkovsky appear to have informed Zaitsev’s filmmaking. Although computer-generated in part and to good effect, the black and white images of blockaded Leningrad underpinning Siege Diary evoke the carefully reconstructed war-era images found in German’s work (e.g., Twenty Days without War [Dvadtsat’ dnei bez voiny, 1976]), while Ol’ga’s wandering through scenes of destruction and death evoke German’s co-directed first film, The Seventh Companion (Sed’moi sputnik, 1968), in which an older man abandons his apartment and wanders through a war-torn St. Petersburg immediately after the 1917 Revolution. Tarkovsky, meanwhile, is summoned through the colorful scenes from Ol’ga’s childhood, and several other sequences, be it the German officer wrapping his young wife in a thick Russian coat at the start of the film or a desperate man shouting for starving citizens to get off streets due to incoming bombs, which evoke the director’s black-and-white epic Andrei Rublev (1966). Regardless of these nods to the greats of Soviet cinema, Siege Diary emerges as Zaitsev’s own distinct work, thanks in large part to its unique thematic and its tender ending.

Blokadny dnevnikDelivered by truck to the frozen Neva, the heroine must summon all her strength to reach the wide river’s opposite bank, where she hopes to find her father. A recording of a piano composition—“Sentimental Waltz” by Tchaikovsky—rings out over the publicly broadcasted radio, as if a more intimate counterpoint to the German soldiers’ Mozart symphony, for the Russian music seems to inspire Ol’ga to make her way across the Neva to where her father works. Nearing the end of her spiritual journey, she drags herself up a steep embankment, staggers into the hospital, and enters the poorly lit office of an older man working quietly at his desk. It is a moment of profound recognition and connection, as Ol’ga asks for a Dr Ivashov, her father, who is none other than this man (Sergei Dreiden), while she struggles to explain that she is in fact his daughter. A stirring reunion shot in a quiet, understated way (“Alive” [“Zhivaia”] is the only word Ol’ga can muster as they tenderly embrace), the scene resonates in ways that link the film to our present moment. As Dr Ivashov and his daughter hug after their long separation, one cannot help but think of our present-day pandemic and the physical isolation caused by Covid-19. Although the hardship of the Siege does put our Covid-era suffering in perspective, this scene nevertheless celebrates the universal, timeless need for human intimacy and affection.

Like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon, the frozen, bundled-up Ol’ga is soon unwrapped, transformed before our very eyes. She may be emaciated and barely able to stand, yet we see before us a much younger and more vulnerable figure than anticipated. And although it will take some coaxing from Dr Ivashov, Ol’ga’s spirits will ultimately be lifted and her determination fortified. As A Siege Diary concludes, Zaitsev ascribes a religious tone to his film, whereby memories of young Lialia’s late mother praying before her daughter at a summer dacha compel the resurrected Ol’ga forward. Whether such overt religiosity is necessary remains to be seen, but Zaitsev nevertheless succeeds in establishing a humanistic cinematic approach to such a difficult, hallowed event from Russian/Soviet history. This is an account well worth embracing.

Tim Harte
Bryn Mawr College

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A Siege Diary, Russia, 2020
Black & white and color, 118 min.
Director: Andrei Zaitsev
Screenwriter: Andrei Zaitsev
Cinematography: Irina Uralskaia
Production Design: Iraida Shul’ts
Costume Design: Ekaterina Khimicheva
Cast: Ol’ga Ozollapinia, Sergei Dreiden, Vasilina Makovtseva, Andrei Shibarshin, Daria Rumiantseva
Producer: Ol’ga Granina, Andrei Zaitsev
Production: Kinostudiia “Sentiabr’”

Andrei Zaitsev: A Siege Diary (Blokadnyi dnevnik, 2020)

reviewed by Tim Harte © 2021

Updated: 2021