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Berlinale 2019: ‘A Russian Youth’ is a Unique Take on Soviet Melodrama

Soviet cinema often depicts war from the viewpoint of a young man. Think masterpieces such as Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood or Klimov’s Come and See. A Russian Youth, deploying the technicolour aesthetic of 40s and 50s Soviet melodramas, joins this fine tradition, providing a unique take on the war genre. An experimental production that scores the horrors of World War I to an orchestra rehearsing two pieces by Rachmaninoff, it’s a bold and risky film that nonetheless doesn’t quite pay off.

The film starts in the thick of war, with a plucky-yet-useless young boy rushing to join his friends at the Eastern front. During his first encounter with death, he is blinded by a gas attack. He refuses to go home, leading his comrades to think of another use for him: he is quickly tasked with listening for enemy planes, plugged into a huge telescope-looking machine that can pick up sounds from very far away.

These plot developments are intercut with an orchestra rehearsing both Rachmaninoff’s “Third Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” and “Symphonic Dances” — replete with the conductor’s comments on individual performers. The effect is something like the opening sequence of Moonrise Kingdom, narrated by Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra.” Sadly, it never quite settles into an enjoyable rhythm. The film would’ve been better off if the orchestral cuts were constant, creating a kind of Vertovian silent film montage — or if it didn’t feature them at all, simply allowing the narrative to speak for itself. 

Perhaps these breaks are made to stress the artificiality of war narratives themselves, the way they are created like music to manipulate the heartstrings. Or perhaps more knowledge of the context of Rachmaninoff’s pieces — “Third Concerto” was made before WWI, “Symphonic Dances” before WWII — is needed to appreciate the mixture of music and image here; it’s hard to say. This is no pro-war film, but it can’t quite be described as anti-war either, considering the Brechtian orchestral breaks that stall the narrative. There are some strong metaphors swelling around. Seeing as Russia lost heavily in WWI and capitulated to a communist takeover, the hero being a blind young boy determined to fight no matter the odds actually makes a lot of sense. Additionally, there is a strong homoerotic undertow, including the very touchy friendship the blind boy and his helper enjoy, as well as other nude frolicking in bathhouses and lakes. This queer playfulness is at odds with the serious story matter, seemingly satirising the very nature of war in favour of uber-comradely behaviour.

A Russian Youth marks the debut of Alexander Zolotukhin, supported by legendary director Alexander Sukurov’s own non-commercial film fund. It was shot at the legendary Lenfilm studio, home of over 1,500 Soviet productions. For fans of Soviet aesthetics (such as Academy Ratio), bold colour palettes, strong anti-Church themes, and the glorification of Communism, the studied nature of these images is pretty impressive. If only the two disparate elements were better reconciled, then A Russian Youth could’ve really been sublime.

The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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