A legendary film, Destiny of a Man (Sudba cheloveka) is in fact one of the few notable Soviet films of the 1950s.* This is in part due to the fact that Nikita Khrushchev, who replaced Josef Stalin as the Soviet Union’s premier in 1953, lacked his predecessor’s interest in cinema as a tool of propaganda, both domestically and beyond. Another factor is the financial drain that the Cold War imposed on the U.S.S.R., which, added to the lingering costs of the Second World War, conspired to make the national film industry a lower priority than it once had been. Finally, and most importantly, the inspiration of Soviet artists had suffered a retreat as Soviet communism had steadily withdrawn from idealism, settling into the stultification of an entrenched, nonresponsive bureaucracy. The passion, the vision, and even much of the ideology were all gone.
It is perhaps in this context that the reputation of Sergei Bondarchuk’s Destiny grew to gargantuan proportions. Bondarchuk’s most famous film won the Grand Prix at the Moscow International Film Festival, and Garbicz and Klinowski, in Cinema: The Magic Vehicle, place it in the first rank of films. Bondarchuk ten years hence would win an Oscar for his uneven though spectacular film of Tolstoi’s War and Peace (1967).
Based on a story by Mikhail Sholokhov, Destiny of a Man traces the odyssey of a World War II private. After 17 years of marriage, Andrei Sokolov (played by Bondarchuk), a carpenter, leaves his beloved wife, Irina, his son and two daughters in order to fight in the war, predicting that he will soon return. His actual destiny, though, does not match the one he predicted. Sokolov ends up a prisoner in a series of Nazi concentration camps, where he is treated brutally and worked to the bone. (This we must take on faith, given the unbudging nature of Bondarchuk’s girth.) Andrei escapes, rejoins the Russians and, on leave, discovers that his wife and daughters died in a bombing. He must find his son, now also a soldier; but, just days before war’s end, Captain Anatole Sokolov also was killed. Andrei “adopts” a little street boy whom the war orphaned, telling the child that he is the boy’s father who has been searching for him since the end of the war. Thus the two victims start life afresh, with much love and renewed hope.
Watching this film is a heart-battering experience, and if tears shed were my barometer for determining what constitutes a great work of art I would add my voice to the consensus of praise. Destiny of a Man reduced me to hysterics. It isn’t just the extent of loss that Sokolov endures; it’s the film’s unsentimental treatment of both this loss and the man’s agony. Moreover, there is much else to commend the film, especially the shimmeringly beautiful, at times poetic, black-and-white imagery on which Bondarchuk and his fine cinematographer, Vladimir Monakhov, have collaborated. I cannot imagine how Andrei’s dreamed encounter with his family, when he is a prisoner, could have been handled any better than it is.
Yet I remain skeptical that the film is as great as everyone else seems to think it is. For one thing, the film is too self-congratulatory about its lack of sentimentality. There is too much sense here of a pulling back from full expression; Bondarchuk seems to believe he deserves points from us for not exploiting our capacity for vulnerability when in fact he should be totally unmindful of this. Moreover, much of the imagery is inflated, and some of it is touched by aestheticism. There is an overhead shot of the Nazi camp crematorium, smoke belching into the sky as prisoners are herded in its direction, that disconcerts me. I wasn’t sickened by it, as I was by the gaudy grandeur of the background glimpse of the crematorium in Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), but I can’t exactly rejoice that, while Spielberg wallows in aestheticism, Bondarchuk only dips a toe or two into it. If bodies are being burned, there should be nothing grand or pretty about it, because if there is, the shot loses what it humanely requires: a sense of the human deaths involved. Thirdly, I find the narrative structure, drawn from the story, inhibiting. In the film, it is distracting that Andrei is recounting everything while his adopted son is off playing. The narrative frame contributes nothing but a narrative method for relating the story. To justify its employment, it needs to do more than that. Finally, Bondarchuk should have gotten someone better equipped than himself to play Andrei Sokolov. His performance is no more than adequate.
Still, this is a creditable piece of work. I certainly mean no disrespect. However, Destiny of a Man isn’t up to the task of matching the brilliance of such Soviet war films as Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929) or Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985); on the other hand, it’s leagues beyond such mediocrities as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). Bondarchuk’s film is a substantial and serious film about war. Everyone should see it, especially since my less enthusiastic opinion of it is so out of whack with the film’s celebrated status. I said I was skeptical about the film, but I am skeptical also about being skeptical.
* The others are former documentarian Yuli Raizman’s Cavalier of the Golden Star (Kavalier zolotoj zvezdy; Dream of a Cossack, 1950), Grigori Chukhrai’s The Forty-First (Sorok pervyj, 1956) and Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, 1959), and Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s final film, Poem of the Sea (Idi i smotri, 1958), which after his death his wife, Yulia Solntseva, completed.
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