By Arun Kumar
The distinct attribute of Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (‘Ballada o soldate’) is its simplicity, the pivotal aspect of all true art. It tells the tale of a young soldier’s journey home to visit his mother, navigating through the landscape of loss before his six days leave expires. It may sound like one of those stereotypical war movies, full of dogma and war-time devastation visualized as a mere spectacle. Or it could be one of those propagandistic Soviet films where big crowd of fresh-faced soldiers run into battlefield, eager to give their lives for ‘motherland’. But to our fascination, Chukhrai’s wartime saga concentrates on an individual, one who is so honest and sensitive that we lament over his inevitable fate. Its humane perspective elegantly channels in the incalculable tragic costs of war without stringently projecting revered idealism. As the title suggests this journey of a country-boy-turned-soldier primarily appeals due to the lyrical power of its visuals.
Ukraine-born film-maker Grigori Chukhrai (May 1921) was called up for military service at the age of 18. He was a paratrooper during the Second World War. After the war, he joined the Moscow Cinema Institute to study cinematography. In 1956, he made his brilliant debut feature The Forty First (1956), which chronicled the tragic love story of red army sniper and a white army officer. Made in the era of De-Stalinization (the ease of censorship undertook by Nikita Khrushchev), the movie concentrated more on the humanity of two lovers than Bolshevism. Compared to The Forty First, Ballad of a Soldier had very less of the party-stamped political rhetoric and gazed at the perennial source of Soviet history – World War II – from a fresh perspective. The 19-year-old protagonist Alyosha Skvortsov (Vladimir Ivashov) is nothing like the cinematic war heroes, from whose heroic image the ‘deified’ image of Stalin is transferred through. Pvt. Alyosha is an inexperienced and terrified soldier who becomes an ‘accidental’ hero.
Similar to Mikhail Kalatozov’s Palme d’Or winning The Cranes are Flying (1957), Ballad of a Solider is recognized for its visual stylization, experimenting with aesthetic choices that are usually associated with art-house cinema. While Chukhrai employs less of the avant-garde techniques unlike Kalatozov, there’s one extraordinary stylization early in the narrative. Infantryman Alyosha is on the run from German armored tank division (the year is 1942 and Soviet army is still retreating from their Nazi enemies). An overhead crane shot showcases Alyosha dash across the battlefield. Suddenly the shot tilts so that the landscape is upside down (conveying the soldier’s dread). Thanks to luck on the part of Alyosha, the situation turns truly upside down. Despite the terror, he single-handedly takes out two tanks using an abandoned bazooka in a trench. His conduct is deemed heroic and the General cites him for a medal. But instead of a decoration, Alyosha earnestly requests for few days leave to see his mother, whom he didn’t even say goodbye before leaving for war. The weary yet kind General grants him six days leave.
In the peacetime, it wouldn’t take much more than a day for Alyosha to reach his country home from the battlefront. But the wartime stretches Alyosha’s journey home. Although he is in a great hurry, the innocent young man never forgets to help those in need: he helps to alleviate the existential anxiety of a legless veteran returning home to his wife; he strikes up a jolly-good conversation with soldiers on the move; he promises to deliver two bar of soaps (a treasured gift in the wartime) to a fellow soldier’s wife. During his trip in the army freight as a stowaway, Alyosha meets a fellow hitch-hiker named Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko), a shy and very beautiful young woman. She initially suspects Alyosha that he might sexually assault her. She bawls like an animal and almost jumps from the speeding train. They eventually grow to trust each other and a sort of mutual tenderness forms between them. In the right situation, the tenderness might metamorphose into love and the sexual tension perfectly assuaged. But in this backdrop of chaos and suffering, their romance is short-lived and Alyosha’s extended journey only gives him little time to tenderly hug his mother and say a (final) goodbye. Earlier, in the narrative a voice-over reveals the fate of young Alyosha. We take this information in a detached manner. But the devastating final shot acutely conveys the enormity of loss. The death of more than 20 million Russian lives in the Second World War may instantly shock us, but soon relegate to back of our mind. But this ballad of a soldier powerfully immerses us into the pain of those bereaved.
Grigori Chukhrai’s movie definitely possesses deep melancholic and sentimental moments, but it doesn’t resort to cliched melodrama. As I previously mentioned, the commendable factor of the simple narrative is its visual poetics that eschews overt symbols for genuine emotional tension. The poetic touches imparts many uplifting or affectionate moments, particularly in the cute and chaste relationship between Alyosha and Shura. But the lyrical flourishes don’t hinder Chukhrai’s authentic portrayal of his country in war-time crisis. Chukhrai’s brilliance not just lies in the incidental details of the ravaged landscape, but also in presenting the diverse attitudes and responses of each individual. Neither the protagonist nor any other character remains as the perfect representative of the Socialist State. They aren’t like cyborgs, parroting the need to sacrifice themselves to gain victory against the fascist enemy. Chukhrai simply observes each individuals and their behavior with respect to the crisis. The idea of a soldier accepting the bribe of food cans or the notion of an adulterous wife whose husband is toiling at the front is in itself could have made the director to face the brunt of Soviet censors. It isn’t to say that Ballad of a Soldier is entirely devoid of idealization or punchlines. Chukhrai’s emotional judgment of characters is spontaneous and unwavering (the unfaithful wife is emphatically condemned and the crippled soldier’s decision is strongly berated by a female ticker seller) yet he doesn’t give into the temptation of canonizing Bolshevism.
Grigori Chukhrai and his cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev, Era Savelyeva are triumphant in concealing the overly melodramatic dimensions of the story with a gentle lyrical quality. At times, the lyricism escalates the painful emotional quotient: for example, the surrealistic sequence after Alyosha parts from Shura. The formal choices are consistently artful and expressive. Yet it remains unobtrusive, never belying the story’s austere structure. If the movie is considered as an observation of basic human values at conflicted times, it is better reflected in director Chukhrai’s magnificently aestheticized close-ups as the smoothed-skinned faces of Vladimir and Zhanna carry hope and despair in equal measures. Both Vladimir and Zhanna, playing the central characters, made their acting debut and went to have a long acting career. It’s not exactly a strong performance, but their softly lit-up face contains the power to stir our hearts. Altogether, Ballad of a Soldier, with a running time of 89 minutes, is a highly impassioned Soviet wartime story that avoids recitals of socialist rhetoric and firmly retains historical reality.
Arun Kumar is a Software professional with an unbridled passion for the world of cinema and books. He believes in an enriching film culture – from watching great cinema to engaging with its connoisseurs. Currently, he blogs at Passion for Moviesand Passion for Books.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Travel: Cities, Places, People’, edited by Nishi Pulugurtha, academic, Kolkata, India.