Saturday, March 28, 2015

Proverka...(Trial on the Road)

I purchased a Russian-made DVD of this 1971 war film by Alexei German with the expectation that the movie would be subtitled.  The disc provided a menu screen offering "Subtitels" but these were marked as "OFF."  Neither manipulation nor cursing nor direct corporeal punishment inflicted upon the unfortunate remote was sufficient to activate the "subtitels" and so I watched this picture without any idea what the characters were saying to one another.  Most likely the "subtitels" would have been funky and disorienting:  The menu screen said that the film's titles was Checkpoint on the Way -- people typically call this movie Trial on the Road.   German's first feature film, the movie is impressively shot in an extremely wide-screen format -- the letterboxed images show flat snowy landscapes through which columns of men move; often, the weather is bad and snow is falling or there is mist and mud -- some of the landscapes have the hazy, calligraphic beauty of nature shots in Mizoguchi or Kurosawa.  Most takes are long and there are relatively few close-ups or inserts.  Although the film is mostly an intimate combat drama involving small-unit skirmishes in snow-clogged woods and fields, the picture must have had an enormous budget.  Near the end of the film, we are shown vistas with thousands of extras, most dramatically an enormous barge packed with mournful-looking men with shaved heads and huge sad eyes like lemurs, apparently, a representation of a prisoners of war being transported somewhere on an immense river.  As far as I could determine, the film follows the adventures of a ruggedly good-looking soldier dressed in a darker, and markedly more elegant uniform, than the ragged partisans with whom he fights.  The other soldiers seem to distrust the hero and, part of the time, he seems to be a prisoner himself in the custody of a small group of fighters -- these guerillas include several women and old men.  The film shows people trembling in the cold and watching the picture is like taking a shower in icy water -- it is a very cold-looking and muddy movie.  In the opening scene, some peasants with runny noses watch as troops pour gasoline (I think) over a pit full of what I thought were potatoes -- perhaps, the partisans are denying the Nazi invaders forage.  A column of Germans, recognizable by their helmets, is ambushed and lots of people fall dead in the snow.  The well-dressed hero appears in a peasant's farmstead, frightening a woman -- a boy shoots at him and, then, seems to capture the man.  The Germans fire mortars into the village and the peasants flee, many of them stumbling and falling in the slush as the bombs burst around them.  There are a number of scenes in a dark log cabin in which the men seem to argue about something.  A young soldier embraces a blonde girl fighter.  The partisans ambush the Germans and some more fire fights occur.  Some scenes, including the sequence involving the hundreds of prisoners on the barge, take place in hot, bright weather (everyone is sweating) and seem to be flashbacks.  In the barge sequence, the partisans have placed explosive charges on a big railroad trestle spanning the river but can't detonate them for fear of dropping the bridge on the barge-load of Russian prisoners.  Later, there is a big-budget explosion that destroys the bridge.  At the film's climax, the well-dressed soldier imitates a German (I could determine he was speaking German) and with some guerillas infiltrates a railroad switching yard.  There is a battle in which the well-dressed soldier climbs into a watchtower and guns down a number of Germans but, then, dies himself in a counter-attack.  His machine gun is flung to the ground and the hot barrel melts into the snowdrift releasing a cloud of steam.  In what appears to be a flashforward or coda, huge armies of Russian soldiers march through a German city with white flags flying from the fronts of buildings.  Two survivors of the partisan fighting, now uniformed soldiers among the vast columns of marching men, meet accidentally at a crossroads.  In the film's final image, we see the survivors of the partisan fighting pushing a stalled tank forward, everyone's shoulder pressed to the great weight that they are nudging down the road.  The movie is very impressively staged, but seems quite conventional -- a story of redemption in which the well-dressed man acts courageously at the climax to kill a number of Germans while the partisans are (possibly) stealing a locomotive.  The film even has a patriotic  and emblematic conceit:  we all need to work together and push in unison toward each our objectives.  (An account of the film in Nancy Condee's excellent book The Imperial Trace:  Recent Russian Cinema tells me that the film was suppressed for 15 years and not shown until 1986.  The well-dressed man in the nice uniform is a Russian who has been fighting for the Germans.  After the assault on the column, he joins the partisans.  They suspect him of disloyalty but he shows his mettle in the final fire-fight in the switching yard of the railroad.  His knowledge of German is invaluable in setting up ambushes and allows partisans taught a few phrases of German to infiltrate the railroad yard.  The scene on the barge was shot with over 600 actual Russian convicts on loan from the Gulag.  The film was controversial because the role of Russians who switched sides during the Great Patriotic War for the Fatherland has remained problematic in that country.) 

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