New Films 






Aleksei Gherman Jr.: The Last Train (Poslednii poezd) (2003)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2004

Aleksei Gherman junior’s film The Last Train premiered in Moscow in mid December during the film festival Stalker, which also awarded it the prize for the best film. However, its first screening had already taken place in the ‘controcorrente’ competition of the Venice Film Festival in September. The film, dealing with theme of war and shot in black and white, remained unnoticed by the press in the context of the Venice Film Festival (preoccupied almost exclusively with Zviagintsev’s The Return), although it was awarded a prize. In Moscow, it made rather a different impression, especially when set in the context of films dealing with human rights issues.

Gherman’s film is, in a sense, a response to his father’s war film 20 Days without War. Maybe this explains the oddity of a young, clearly talented director venturing on his debut film into the trodden territories of the war film, a theme that dominated Russian cinema in general, but had also been dealt with by his father. For Gherman Junior, however, war knows neither winners nor losers: instead of exploring the history of WWII, Gherman looks at the fate of two men who have failed to make the right choice (or a choice) at the right time. Therefore, they are now the victims of circumstances, of politics, of regimes – which they have or have not elected. Gherman’s concern is with people in particular circumstances, which are not their choice, and how they cope with these unwanted situations.

Gherman tells the story of a German military doctor. Not a soldier, but a doctor. A man who vowed to Hippocrates to help man rather than kill him. Doctor Fischbach (Pavel Romanov) had served in the First World War and seen its horrors, after which he decided to become a doctor. He has been sent to a military hospital at the front line. Although soldiers are being evacuated from there when he arrives, he decides to stay and do what he can: to help the injured. Yet there is nothing he can do. Only a fatally injured soldier remains behind with his commanding officer, who – apparently out of a sense of duty – chucks Fischbach out into a snowstorm. An act of cruelty or mercy? Fischbach is doomed to die: through the bullets of the advancing Russian army or through adverse weather conditions. Maybe the commanding officer wishes to give him and the – equally uninvolved in military affairs – postman Kreutzer (Petr Merkuriev), the chance of survival, should they be fit enough.

The names of the two protagonists are symbolic: Fischbach is a small rivulet with fish, Kreutzer – a massive ship. The conjunction of these two names is disproportionate. In the same way, incongruence dominates their adventures, their vain comportment in the given circumstances. As they elucidate: even if the army withdraws, they move forward. The army shoot at them because they mistake the rather fat Fischbach for a tank. Indeed, Fischbach and Kreutzer lose hope when they see the cruelty with which humans kill other humans, no matter which side they belong to.

Each action has two sides: mercy or cruelty. The German soldiers retreating from the station where Fischbach first arrives, to be taken from there to his destination, talk about the future: will they have children, and how many. Despite the clear hopelessness of the situation they force themselves to believe in a future. Likewise the driver who takes Fischbach to the estate used by the German army as a field hospital talks constantly about his admiration for doctors, reminiscing his childhood in order to avoid talking about the present. Only the coarse and brisk commanding officer Ralph (Aleksei Devotchenko), sees things for what they are and faces the present, the facts, and death: he remains with his fellow soldier in the house, forcing them to leave, knowing well that advances are retreats in disguise and that the distance of the front line is never accurate. The present is a time eclipsed in the war, where danger and misery can only be avoided, recoiling into the future or the past, or the illusions of a continuity of time both into the past or the future.

Gherman’s narrative is presented through the eyes of a German doctor, accompanied by the postman Kreutzer, who errs in the fields in the search for salvation. It is a challenging move to have the German soldiers and the Russian partisans played by Russian actors, while most of the dialogue is in German and rendered through Russian subtitles. The fate of Kreutzer and Fischbach is viewed with compassion: they are human beings in the first instance. It is important that neither of them are actual soldiers, but belong to the military support staff. The portrayal of war action occurs only towards the end of the film: the partisans, who let Fischbach and Kreutzer escape unharmed in an earlier episode, are killed by a detachment of German soldiers, who are then killed by a detachment of Russian soldiers in an act of revenge. Destruction entails only destruction. When Fischbach and Kreutzer, who witness the attack on the German soldiers, find the partisans hanged and murdered, they die of broken hearts: Fischbach freezes to death, seated on a small wooden box, holding an umbrella in one hand while clutching the hand of a dying partisan woman with the other. Kreutzer collapses under a tree after finding the partisan who let them go hanged. These men die without having entered the books of history for cruelty or heroic deeds. They die, nameless and forgotten, without family and relatives. Gherman devotes his film to those who failed to take action when it was still time to do so, and who end up in a situation that no longer allows them to make choices. It is from the horror of their absurd and vain attempts at humanitarian aid (medical or communicative) that they suffer resignation and die: their acts are meaningless in a world of such cruelty. In this sense Gherman speaks about present wars as well: acts of humanitarianism become more and more insignificant and meaningless in a world preoccupied with destruction of an ‘enemy’.

Gherman portrays the doctor as a privileged human being, protected from the outside world: he arrives in a train, sipping his tea in a cosy compartment before alighting at the station. He is met by his chauffeur and driven in a comfortable car through the open space, where a snowstorm reigns and threatens the foot soldiers. He then enters the house that has been occupied by the German soldiers, who are in the process of being evacuated as he arrives. The doctor not only moves against the current of the German movements, but he also gradually gets acquainted with the realities of the outside world from the safe, protected spaces with windows that open the view onto the open: the trains, the car, the house. Not coincidentally his glasses are broken when the commanding officer chucks him out of the house: his view is shattered, literally and figuratively. Out in the open, in the vast space of the fields and forests, Fischbach and Kreutzer are lost.

Gherman’s film is an interesting addition to the existing war films. It is a professionally impeccable answer to his father’s films. But most important, it is a clear manifesto about the absurdity of war.

Aleksei Gherman Jr.: The Last Train (Poslednii poezd) (2003)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers ©2004