Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Great Patriotic War

One thing we don't get to see too much of here in the US is non-English-language movies looking at World War II. In the Soviet Union, and still today in Russia, the war was referred to as the Great Patriotic War. Thanks to Soviet repression, a lot of movies from the USSR were little more than agitprop. However, after Stalin's death, there was a brief period called the "thaw", in which a more liberal policy resulted in some outstanding movies. I've already recommended The Cranes Are Flying; another one shows up overnight on TCM: Ballad of a Soldier, at 2:00 AM ET Monday.

A young soldier commits an act of heroism by singlehandedly stopping the advance of a phalanx of German tanks. He's up for a medal, but the kid doesn't want a medal, since it won't do him any good. His mother, living in a shack in a farming village, has written to him, telling him that their roof is leaking. So, he'd like a few days' leave to travel home to see his mother, and fix their leaking roof. His commanding officer shows some mercy on him, and actually grants the request.

However, the trip home isn't an easy one. Travel in the USSR during the war was chaotic at best, with trains showing up haphazardly, if they're not comandeered by military authorities, who need them for the war effort. Our hero eventually stows away in a military transport car carrying hay, and gets joined by a young woman who is trying to get back to her aunt. Along the way, they share some interesting adventures, including an attempt to deliver a couple of bars of soap to the girlfriend of a fellow soldier -- an attempt which runs afoul of some "complications".

Ballad of a Soldier is a very real and human story, with the actors playing thoroughly believable characters, much more than even in many of the Hollywood movies that used a lot of military personnel. Along the way, it tells a story that is at times warm, but just as often poignant and heartbreaking. The war barely hit the US homefront, while there were air-raids in Britain. However, in the Soviet Union, a good portion of the European part of the country was occupied by the Nazis before the Red Army pushed them back to Berlin, and that made life on the home front far worse than anything the Western Allies faced. (The Soviets weren't helped by two decades of a command economy leaving them with a much worse economic base to begin with, or all those purges in the late 1930s devastating their military command structure and leaving them in a much worse position to fight the Nazis.) Ballad of a Soldier shows all of this, with a beautiful presentation to boot. It makes a perfect double feature with The Cranes Are Flying, and both are available on DVD if you wish to watch them together.

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