(Ballad of a Soldier)
Director: Grigori Chukhrai
Production: Mosfilm; black and white, 35mm; running time: 89 minutes; length: 8045 feet. Released 1959. Filmed 1958.
Screenplay: Grigori Chukhrai and Valentin Yoshov; photography: V. Nikolaev and Era Savelieva; editor: M. Timofeieva; art direction: B. Nemechek; music: Mikhail Siv.
Cast: Vladimir Ivashov ( Alyosha Skvortsov ); Shanna Prokhorenko ( Shura ); Antonina Maximova ( Mother ); Nikolai Kruchkov ( General ); Evgeni Urbanski ( Crippled soldier ).
Cannes Film Festival, Special Jury Prize, 1960; honored at All-Union Film
Festival of Russia and at the Czechoslovak Film Festival for Working
People, 1960; Lenin Prize to Grigori Chukhrai, 1961.
Chukhrai, Grigori, and Valentin Yoshov, Balada o soldate , Moscow, 1967; extract in Films and Filming (London), July 1961.
Chang, Kuang-nien, An Example of Modern Revisionist Art: A Critique of the Films and Statements of Grigori Chukhrai (in English), Peking, 1965.
Shneiderman, Isaak, Grigorii Chukhrai , Leningrad, 1965.
Liehm, Mira, and Antonin J. Liehm, The Most Important Art: East European Art after 1945 , Berkeley, 1977.
Veress, József, Grigorij Cshuraj , Budapest, Hungary, 1978.
Garbicz, Adam, and Jacek Kalinowski, editors, Cinema, The Magic Vehicle: A Guide to Its Achievement: Journey Two: The Cinema of the Fifties , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1979.
Johnson, Albert, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1960.
Film a Doba (Prague), no. 11, 1960.
Crowther, Bosley, in New York Times , 26 December 1960.
Clark, Arthur, in Films in Review (New York), January 1961.
Gerasimov, Sergei, "Views of Life Compared: Chukhrai and Fellini," in Films and Filming (London), March 1961.
Whitehall, Richard, in Films and Filming (London), July, 1961.
Herlinghaus, Hermann, "A Talk with Grigori Chukhrai," in Film Culture (New York), no. 26, 1962.
"Discussion in Villepre," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 5, 1962.
Chukhrai, Grigori, "Keeping the Old on Their Toes," in Films and Filming (London), October 1962.
Badder, D. J., "Grigori Chukhrai," in Film Dope (London), April 1975.
De Libero, L., in Cinema Nuovo (Bari), January-February 1977.
Donets, L., in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 1, 1989.
Iensen, T., "Četyre dnja bez vojny," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 5, May 1995.
* * *
Superficially, Grigori Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier has the naivety of a recruitment poster. At the height of the Nazi invasion, a young signalman, Vladimir Ivashov (Alyosha Skvortsov), cripples three tanks, and is given a week's leave to visit his mother. Struggling towards his home village by car and train, he sacrifices his time, little by little, to those who need it more. He helps an amputee frightened of returning to his young wife, delivers a precious gift of soap to the family of a soldier he meets on the road, saves victims of an air raid and befriends a girl, Shura, with whom he falls in love. Alyosha reaches the village on the last day, spends only a few minutes with his mother, then leaves, never to return. We know from the outset that he'll be killed in battle and buried by strangers, far from home, known to them only as "a Russian soldier."
Accustomed to think of Soviet film in terms of Eisenstein's historical epics or collectivist propaganda of The Brave Tractor Driver variety, Western audiences of the late 1950s welcomed Gerasimov's And Quiet Flows the Don , Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying , and especially Chukhrai's The Forty First and Ballad of a Soldier as assurances that the 19th-century humanism of Tolstoy and Turgenev survived under "social realism."
Critics who looked deeper recognised the films as covertly symptomatic of repression. All were set during World War II, one of the few "safe" historical periods under Stalin, and on their plots the dogmas of collectivism, national unity, suspicion of foreign entanglements, and the immersion of cultural minorities rested a heavy hand. From the first sequence of Ballad , where Alyosha's bereaved mother (clearly a metaphoric Mother Russia, just as Alyosha is a symbol of selfless anonymous service to the state) stands amid collectivised wheat and remembers the son of whom, until he left for war, she had known "everything there was to know," one is aware of a society where a shared accountability, not only for one's work but for one's thoughts, is ingrained from birth.
Ballad of a Soldier is not without its tentatively subversive elements. Authority figures may be revered, but Chukhrai does show a venal sentry extorting a bribe of canned beef to let Alyosha on the train (though he's later exposed and punished by a kindly officer). Free enterprise raises its head in a market at a railroad terminus, but the tone of this scene, where Alyosha buys a scarf as a gift for his mother, is absurdly furtive. The bartering peasants circling one another in cautious silence might be selling heroin rather than the family samovar.
Politically, the most significant encounter of the boy's journey is with a group of dispossessed Ukrainians, en route to factory work in the Urals. Since Ukrainian separatists sided with the Nazis early in the war and nationalism remained rampant, not only in the Ukraine but in other republics, the appearance of these refugees in national dress, advertising their despair at losing their home ("We're like birds in the autumn. We don't know where we're flying") is unexpected.
Both Chukhrai films won Cannes Festival prizes and were circulated more widely than any Soviet productions of the time. In the popular imagination, they represented Russian cinema, much as La dolce vita was seen to typify Italian film or French Cancan , the French. But Ballad , with its academic visual style, reminiscent of David Lean, who cast a long shadow over post-war film in Europe and Asia, and its tone of moral rectitude directed against the unpatriotic and the unfaithful, hardly bears comparison with the best European work of the time.
Nevertheless, the film carries conviction. Chukhrai shows skill with actors, extracting in particular a moving performance from Evgeni Urbanski as the one-legged soldier who considers losing himself in Russia's vastness in preference to returning home a cripple. In a scene at a railway telegraph office that, in visual style and performance, might have been extracted from Brief Encounter , Urbanski tries to sends a telegram explaining his defection, but is talked out of it by Alyosha and an irate clerk, who speaks for all the women waiting at home. Urbanski's later bitterness as he waits on a platform which gradually empties of passengers, and the moving reunion with the wife are handled with an agreeable lack of sentiment and rhetoric.
Such scenes lie at the heart of the film, and excuse the coy romance (in a railway car conveniently filled with hay) of Alyosha and the chaste Shura (Shanna Prokhorenko). In general, however, Ballad of a Soldier and other World War II dramas belong outside the stream of Soviet film. They were made as if Dziga Vertov, Dovzhenko, even Eisenstein had never existed. In retrospect, we can see that the most important film produced by this fad for wartime propaganda was Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood. Nevertheless, Ballad of a Soldier and Grigori Chukhrai himself deserve a niche in Soviet film history as, if nothing else, symptoms of an early opening to the West.