Welcome back to my ongoing coverage of the Melbourne Cinematheque's fantastic program for 2013. Here, I will be reviewing the first film each season (month). This month I took a look at Trial of the Road (1971), the first of the films from Russian director Aleksey German. For the month of February I introduced one of Keisuke Kinoshita's works which can be found here. I hope you saw at least something from this series!
Running from March 6-20, Aleksey German's retrospective of shocking and eye opening films that centre on the condemnation of the censored past of the Soviet Union display an uncanny filmmaking ability unlike anything at the time. Mixing hyper-surrealism and undefined characters that can never be identified as good or bad, all in the era of Stalinism, he unmasks the absurd pointlessness of war.
Trial of the Road was so shocking to Russian sensibilities in the way that it condemned the utter fiasco that was the era's Soviet forces that it was actually banned in the USSR for fifteen years. Set during World War II, a Russian soldier, totally disillusioned, defects to the invading Nazi forces but is later captured and taken as a prisoner of war during the Soviet winter offensive. Here he befriends other fellow deserters who have also lost hope. Then, the general of the offensive offers him a chance for redemption, but only if he takes part in a suicide mission.
The film begins with an utterly stark image of a blanket of white snow. Frustrated Russian farmers watch it as the camera pans to reveal German forces ruining their harvest and taking their livestock. A voice over lays out the situation, but words only act as an ancillary device to the desperation of the harsh black and white footage. There is however a purposeful contradiction as these scenes are accompanied by a slightly upbeat score which plays in time as German forces load trains with the stolen livestock. Cut to the Soviet forces, who by comparison seem to have no level of coordination. Here men bicker and tell inane stories, other men bully each other over petty things. It seems the German invading forces are far less inept. And this is the point. Aleksey hammers this message in time and again to great effect.
This is war, however, and these men have a mission. There is a fearful urgency to their relentless march through the tundra of unforgiving white. The cinematography is sublime and there is an absolute otherworldly quality to the terrain and small villages they trundle through. This feeling of urgency is bolstered by the sudden and brilliant flashes of combat that inextricably come from nowhere, as if we're in a fever-dream. These scenes escape out of the battlefield and into residential spaces. They are loud and the casualties are obvious from the visceral action, but the cinematography is distant and yet powerfully striking. This is another surreal contradiction that heightens Aleksey's film.
The narration and dialogue are other matters entirely. In order to contradict the cohesive confidence of communist forces, the film is peppered with an inept and nervous cast of characters with mass dissention in the ranks. The innocents also voice their opinions, and arguably there is a more justified and proud voice here. A soldier hiding out like a coward is questioned by a woman in the house. When he asks her if she wants to live she boisterously replies, 'I'll live until I drop dead.' Likewise, the deserters, who by all counts should be villainized for their treason, are instead humanised by Aleksey and shown as suffering under Soviet forces' arrest. The deserters refer to the forces as 'partisan louses,' and from their depiction in the film, one would find it difficult to argue.
The jarring juxtaposition of dialogue and combat works supremely well in the film's favour, particularly the finale, which depicts an epic battle devoid of meaning. Trial of the Road is a bizarre and overwhelming experience, the strangest anti-war movie I have ever seen, and yet undeniably compelling and gorgeously shot. Aleksey German is truly a unique voice in Russian cinema and I look forward to the rest of his season.
Please check the Melbourne Cinematheque guide for the rest of the films comprising German's marvelous season. I will return in April for 'the many incarnations of Jean-Luc Godard and his classic Two or Three Things I know About Her. Additionally do not miss Alphaville (April 10) on the big screen!