Ballad of a Soldier Review
Unlike most of the other films in the Russian Cinema Council's initial batch of releases, Grigori Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier already has an international pedigree, making enough of a splash when it first opened to gain the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination and jointly win the 1962 British Academy Award for Best Film (shared with The Hustler), even though it has somewhat faded from view since then.
But it's easy to see where its reputation comes from, as this quiet, understated account of love against a backdrop of wartime deprivation works both as a moving story in its own right and as a genuinely fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary Russians in the early 1940s during a time of immense hardship.
The narrative wheels are set in motion when young soldier Alyosha Skvortsov (Vladimir Ivashov), as a reward for heroism on the battlefield, is granted a couple of days' leave to visit his mother. Virtually all the film is taken up with his journey, most of it by train, and it quickly becomes clear that the film is less about his ultimate goal than about the discoveries he makes along the way: he falls in love, he risks his life, he sees friends betrayed and loved ones lying to each other in order to conceal too painful truths.
And the most painful truth of all is revealed right at the start of the film: these are the last significant moments in Alyosha's life, and by revealing his fate so early on, even the most seemingly unimportant event takes on new resonance, helped immensely by Chukhrai's visual lyricism, which wrings poetry out of almost everything the camera sees: steam trains, clouds, pylons, silver birch woods, soap bubbles, wheatfields and seemingly endless roads and rails.
The film's dramatic centrepiece is the brief, unconsummated affair between Alyosha and Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko), who meet after they smuggle themselves into the same railway carriage and who grow increasingly closer as they have to evade the authorities. There's a wonderfully evocative sequence that uses just music and the casting of passing shadows over their faces to reveal their true feelings for each other, which is echoed in a similar sequence where Alyosha, alone, thinks about what might have happened under different circumstances.
Apart from a brief sequence right at the start in which Alyosha confronts a tank and reveals that heroism comes in many forms (not least the unintentional kind) and a scene much later on when a railway bridge is blown up, the war is largely a distant backdrop, something happening to other people which nonetheless overshadows everything. Alyosha's uniform marks him out as a figure of authority and a fount of knowledge (he's asked repeatedly: "when is the war going to end?"), but we know that he's merely a nineteen-year-old boy with virtually no experience of the real world.
What's particularly impressive about Ballad of a Soldier is the way Chukhrai and his cast consistently side-step the obvious. Although a few sequences have predictable punchlines (the lieutenant in charge of the train is so frequently described as "a beast" that you know well in advance that he's going to be more of a pussycat than a tiger), the film's power comes from the incidental details: the scrutiny of people's faces as they await news, the ruined landscapes they travel through and the pain of those bereaved or betrayed. It reminded me a great deal of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's The Night of San Lorenzo, another World War II-set film about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and while it doesn't quite match that film's overall richness and imaginative daring, much of it resonates in the mind long after it's ended.
This is a frustrating transfer to rate accurately, because at its best it boasts one of the best black-and-white pictures I've seen on a DVD, and there are passages that are not far short of that offered by that other 1959 classic North By Northwest, still the benchmark for DVD transfers of films from this era. The source print is in astonishingly good condition given its age - there are a few spots and scratches, but far fewer than one would expect or be prepared to forgive, and the image runs the gamut from brilliant whites to deep, rich blacks (while still retaining more than enough shadow detail), and grain is mostly absent, bar one or two shots - and even in those it's never a problem.
The transfer, too, is mostly excellent - very sharp, clear and detailed, and individual sequences are often state of the art. Unfortunately, though, it occasionally suffers from the same problem that I noted with Ruscico's Viy, in that static parts of the image have a tendency to freeze in a somewhat artificial way that, when noticed, can't help but be slightly distracting. This is a fairly minor problem, and is probably much more noticeable on the large 43" TV used to review this disc, but nonetheless it's disappointing, as the source print is good enough for this transfer to be demonstration quality. Incidentally, it's framed at 4:3, the original aspect ratio, so anamorphic enhancement isn't necessary.
The sound is the usual 5.1 remix from a mono source, though in this case the end result overwhelmingly favours the centre speaker, with just a few directional sound effects added (the subwoofer has also been used to beef up a few explosions). Barring a couple of annoyingly unsubtle moments where you can all too clearly hear the mono track being split into two or more channels, the remix is mostly very effective, and the sound quality is no worse than you'd expect from a film of this vintage - i.e. a somewhat compressed dynamic range and a certain tinniness, especially at the upper end.
Soundtracks on offer include the Russian original plus English and French dubs, though it's hard to imagine too many people preferring the latter two. I reviewed the Russian version and sampled the English, which is technically competent but comes with all the usual drawbacks of post-synchronisation into a different language, quite apart from the transatlantic accents being somewhat jarring. A couple of minor grammatical slip-ups excepted, I had no problem with the admirably clear and readable subtitles, and the selection of twenty chapter stops is more than adequate too.
The extras blend a standard Ruscico package of multiple trailers, filmographies and stills with a couple of rather more interesting features. The trailers, appropriately enough, are all for war films: The Cranes Are Flying, Father of the Soldier, Torpedo Bombers and At Dawn It's Quiet Here plus the generic Ruscico trailer, though oddly enough not one for Ballad of a Soldier itself.
Filmographies cover director Grigori Chukhrai, writer Valentin Yezhov, composer Mikhail Liv, cameraman Vladimir Nikolayev and actors Nikolai Kriutchkov, Antonina Maximova, Yevgeny Urbanskiy, Zhanna Pokhorenko and Vladimir Ivashov, though, disappointingly, none of them contain the buried trailers that can be found on other Ruscico discs.
And there's the usual superbly-presented gallery, offering ten stills via a beautifully designed thumbnail menu - quite a few Western DVD producers could take a leaf out of Ruscico's book here, as indeed they could from the menus in general, all of which are animated, and based around a theme of sepia-tinted moving shots from the film, accompanied by excerpts from the music. As ever, they're trilingual, offering Russian, English and French versions.
Things get rather more intriguing with the inclusion of an original propaganda newsreel dating from 1941, showing troops marching through Moscow's Red Square in front of Stalin (both the man himself and huge posters) while a commentator tries to stir patriotic passions ("Glorious detachments of armed workers, ready to fight for their city to the last drop of blood!") against a background of suitably martial music. As usual with Ruscico, no contextual information is provided, but it's pretty clear what the purpose of this was! It's presented in the original Russian with optional English, French, Spanish, Italian or Dutch subtitles, and runs for seven minutes. The technical quality is fairly ropey (plenty of spots and scratches and some weird texturing throughout), but that's not too surprising under the circumstances.
Comfortably the best extra, though, is a delightful interview with Grigori Chukhrai in which he gives a candid personal account of the making of the film, from the tortuous process of getting his script approved by various faceless bureaucrats to an injury on set that led to an epiphany in hospital as he realised that he'd miscast key roles and decided to replace well-known stars with relatively inexperienced acting students (which created further bureaucratic problems, not to mention a threatened mutiny by his crew) to his catching typhoid fever during shooting, and various other horror stories. Clocking in at an impressively meaty 35 minutes (by contrast, most of the other Ruscico interviews I've seen to date are well under ten) and presented in Russian with optional subtitles in the same five languages mentioned above, it's well worth a watch - my only real quibble is that I'd have appreciated more than one chapter stop, as there are some anecdotes I'd love to return to!
So a general thumbs up, all in all - a good transfer (though it's frustrating that it isn't quite great, as it easily could have been) and an excellent package with some terrific extras (the Chukhrai interview is the best I've seen on a Ruscico disc to date). And given the film already has a richly deserved international reputation, unlike many of the other Ruscico titles, it's good that they've made a real effort here, as the likes of this and its not dissimilar contemporary companion-piece The Cranes Are Flying are more likely to be a first choice for casual browsers than the more obscure films in their catalogue, if only because English-language write-ups are easier to come by!