The wind is blowing harshly throughout the film. It caries with it death, it blows away and covers life. Everything is deadly in this film. The cold, the snow, the overpowering presence of white. There is white everywhere, but not a heavenly white, but one that reminds us of Odna (1931) and maybe years later will be referenced in Yol (1982), a bleak white that alienates and freezes all life. It’s like a maze, everything is white, nothing distinguishes itself. Everything is the same. Everyone looks the same, some hunched dark silhouettes in a sea of white, but no one is safe. Everyone can be easily spotted on the white background. Some branches pop out of the snow like fingers of nature. Wind is death. People hide from it, they run away from the wind like they run away from the Germans.
The photography is superb. Black and white. At times hand-held. Composition wise, the faces are so well framed that one immediately gets immersed in the character’s eyes and soul. Just take a look at this old woman’s face. Barely 15 minutes into the film we see her and we understand the hardship, the history, the pain. She, and her companions, barely escaped the Germans just a scene earlier and now they are in a thick snow covered forest. She, and the others, are eating grain because that is all they have. She caries the weight of her country now stricken by war, famine and the unbearable Russian winter. If there ever were frames that could transmit all of those, Vladimir Chukhnov’s manages to be one of them.
It was always fascinating for me how the Russian winters have brought down the likes of Napoleon and Hitler, but not the Russians themselves, the peasants who have lived all their life in those empire-crushing conditions. It happens every year, for months in a row. They should have become extinct by now, if we were to pun on them the same standards as we do for the Germans and the French. But they don’t. I don’t really know why but I feel this old woman might be able to give out hints (that I cannot put into words) on why the Russians are so resilient.
I fell in love with the shot where the two partisans are caught by the Germans in the attic and we have the shot from Sotnikov’ (Boris Plotnikov) point of view as he lays down, being tied up and wounded, from the sleight. Seeing it shot in that way instantly brought me memories of times when I used to look at the world like that, as a kid. Mixing those feelings with the circumstances of the film makes this scene for me unforgettable. If I will ever make a film myself, I will definitely use a shot like that.
Later in the film, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) cries blood. Not his own, but Sotnikov’s who becomes a martyr, a Jesus-like figure, a pillar of principle in contrast to Rybak, who resembles Judas. The religious symbolism doesn’t end here but goes on with showing all the other characters in the frozen jail as witnesses to the godly pain. Then they go up Golgotta (also referenced in this picture – featured in the beginning and end of the fil,- which resembles the three “hills” where Jesus was crucified along two other evildoers) and, reminiscent of Eisenstein’s counterpoint theory of music, a joyous marching song plays in some speakers as we see what was awaiting our heroes. The most difficult part was not dieing, but living after death. Rybak now has to live regardless the fact he “did a good job”.
Enjoy, courtesy of MosFilm: