The Battle of Brest Fortress: An Ode to Russia
The Russian Resurrection Film Festival is here again, tonight (August 18) in Melbourne and later in all other capitals. See russianresurrection.com.au.
Here is a preview.
Brest Fortress is the best war movie I can remember. That is, since the Russian Resurrection Film Festival – say – five years or so back.
It tells the story of the desperate nine-day defence of the Brest Fortress against the Nazis that began on the morning of June 22 1941, with Hitler’s invasion of the USSR. The Brest Fortress was located only four kilometres from the border of German occupied Poland. In other words, it was right in the front line, ready to be hit on the first day of the invasion.
Director Alexander Kott sets us up for the tragedy with a recreation of that lustrous summer Sunday. Soldiers and their girls dance at an outdoor dance in the garrison, a soldier gallops on horseback through the fields, a projectionist drives with a movie to be screened in the fortress that night hoping to enjoy time in the back of a cinema with his flaxen-haired, apple-cheeked girlfriend, in the fortress a group of soldiers rehearse Russian folk dances. Young Sasha Akimov, an orphan, plays a trombone in an army band. All in all it is idyllic, a garrison at peace, basking in the sunshine.
We are being set up – altogether legitimately – to despise the aggression that is about to carve this world up into pieces. One major warned about the vulnerability of the fortress if the Germans come and he and his colleagues are aware of German deserters crossing the line and trying to warn the Russians that Stalin’s great ally is about to turn on him. They even give the date. The fortress cannot be defended, the army families living inside would clog the great gateways, it could never hold out. But the major is being investigated for undermining morale, for holding such heretical opinions, for questioning Stalin’s complacency. Stalin’s notorious complacency.
When the German attack comes in the morning light, it happens as he feared. The Luftwaffe dominates the skies and the fortress is battered. German infiltrators steal out of a German train disguised in Russian uniforms. Their goal – to infiltrate the fortress. The images of warfare are grippingly real: the heroic resistance at each of the fortress’ gates, the hand to hand warfare when the Germans enter and then get turned back, the heroic but useless charge to achieve a break out. The doomed Red Army forced the first order to retreat in the German-Russian war after defeating with grenades and rifles a German tank attack. We witness the Germans drop a two ton bomb on the fortress. Still, the soldiers of the Red Army refuse to surrender.
Young Sasha Akimov survives. We hear his voice as an old man occasionally filling in the gaps in the action. In the final scenes we see him at the war memorial that commemorates these Russian warriors who held back the Third Reich when it was at its strongest. We learn that in the mid-50s – after the death of Stalin – the Red heroes of this resistance story were acknowledged as Heroes of the Soviet Union.
This is a great bit of Russian filmmaking, loyal to all the conventions and loyalties of the Russian war film genre, tender in its treatment of its Russian characters. It wins largely by its state-of-the-art war narrative film technique.
The movie is set in the mid 90s and it begins with an ethnic minority Afghan war hero, a Yakut, now living in St Petersburg, suffering shell-shock from a war injury. Old Skryabin now makes his living shovelling coal into a furnace to heat the building and sleeping on a bed next to the furnaces. This is Petersburg in the mid-1990s and the place seems to be run by criminals carrying out contract killings to hold their power. Gangsters arrive in the basement to feed the victims of fatal shootouts into Skryabin’s furnace while he looks on, indifferently. It’s an insight into the savage criminal milieu of Russia in this period. It works with a cool, matter-of-fact tone.
I was honoured to be able to assist the Russian Resurrection Film Festival get started and very proud of its expansion. I’m itching to see the rest of these movies.
One can only think, what a people, what a history, what a culture.