Russia, historically speaking, has cemented themselves as a stark contradiction to the American film style. Whether it be the prolific Man With A Movie camera, or the entirety of Eisenstein's ouevre, narrative dissonance and non-linear editing are their thing, so when I approached Ballad of a Solider, I assumed these would be traits of the film, however, within only moments of viewing the clearly melodramatic film, I was baffled to find its clearly American composition. Between long reaction shots, use of music to emphasize emotion and the focus of redemption within the narrative, Ballad of A Soldier is not entirely Russian in its composition. Now that by no means makes this a terrible piece of cinema, in fact, it is quite great and clocking it at just under ninety minutes, the film is accessible and earnest. Furthermore, the films is neither a clear condemnation of war efforts, nor is it set out in praising the validity of warfare. The narrative of Grigoriy Chukhray's film, which he both wrote and directed, is as the title suggests about a soldier and is certainly a ballad at that, considering its lyrical nature. It focuses on one character and his vision of a slowly eroding nation, one that evolves from foolish youthful ignorance to adult disillusionment. If it were not for films like Forbidden Games and Ivan's Childhood, I would define this as one of the greatest coming of age tales ever composed, but mind you if I ever were to make a list of the top ten, it would certainly make the list.
Ballad of a Soldier, begins immediately as action is depicted while the credits begin to roll. We are provided with an image of an elderly woman wandering towards a dirt road that leads to her rural village. The film's narrator quickly explains that she is waiting for her son, a soldier, who will never return, because he like so many his age, were casualties of World War II and was lost to a haunting memory. The film then enters into a flashback, which introduces us to the films protagonist, Alyosha (Vladimir Ivashov) a wide-eyed private who has recently received praise for single-handedly destroying two tanks. When offered medals for his feats, he counters with a request to simply visit his mother and help her repair his homes leaking roof. Agreeing to his request, Alyosha's superior grants him six days to complete his task and return to his battalion. Gracious at the amount of time he has been allotted, Alyhosa leaves camp ecstatic and heads towards his hometown. His obstacles start immediately, however, when he is stopped by a fellow soldier who begs that he deliver a gift to his wife, who resides on a street quite close to a train station in which he will make a stop. Alyosha in his kind manner, agrees and continues on his quest. During his first stop via train, he also helps a crippled soldier, only to discover that he plans to leave his wife upon returning home, with the help of a station agent, Alyosha convinces the man to stay with his wife, unfortunately, his task means that he will miss his scheduled train. After bribing a guard, he is able to ride on a cargo train and eventually meets a young woman named Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko) for whom he immediately falls. This quick romance fills in the remainder of the travel narrative as she comes with him to drop off the gifts to the soldiers wife, only to discover that she has left him for another man. After a bittersweet departure from Shura, Alyosha affords just enough time to visit his mother briefly, giving her a kiss and the gift of a headscarf before leaving back to the war front, a place that the narrator reminds us will be his final resting place.
I stated that Ballad of a Soldier is not blatantly a condemnation of war and am quite certain of that assertion. While it certainly shows the casualties and destructive nature of battling in the name of politics, the narrative suggests that it is simply part of human nature and necessary for individuals to understand that the world is indeed divided into good and evil. While this certainly would drive Nietzsche into a fit, it seems much more appropriate for Russian tradition. With heavily existential motifs a part of their cultural history, Ballad of a Soldier is certainly similar. Alyosha represents an individual who adheres to the good nature of the world, despite being constantly shown that people are inherently bad, particularly those with power or those out of the eye of condemnation, as are evident in the demanding train guard or the cheating wife. Yet, even in these moments of despair, Alyosha does meet people inspire him to do right, a notion that is initially implanted in him by the general who allows him to take leave. Now the issue arises with Ballad of a Soldier in the death of Alyosha, something that is depicted off screen. If we were shown the death of the young soldier on screen, we would be provided with something that would either confirm or deny his existence, yet the film closes with him leaving into the horizon. The notion of a soldier like Alyosha is a memory, something that you can praise in a ballad, yet something that exists in an incomprehensible world. Ultimately, Ballad of a Soldier is not a commentary on war as much as it is a nostalgic reflection on a generation who lost their youth.
Key Scene: The initial meeting between Alyosha and Shura is so well shot and acted that it seems to be documentary footage.
Yet another brilliant offering from Criterion, Ballad of a Soldier is a must own and I doubt it will get a bluray upgrade so there is no time like the present.