Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballada o soldate, about a soldier who we know from the outset was killed in the Second World War, embodies the Russian soul.
In 1942, as the Germans impel Soviet retreat, Alyosha Skvortsov (Vladimir Ivashov, sensitive and appealing) is nineteen years old. In a panic he manages to knock out two enemy tanks with a fortuitously found bazooka. As reward, his wish for a brief leave to visit his mother in their rural village is granted. He had left without saying goodbye, perhaps not wishing to see her tears or have her see his. Comrades give him errands to do along the way, and other events, including a luminous romance with a homeless girl and the bombing of his train, also delay him. He is able to spend only a few minutes with his mother before returning to the front.
This lyrical black-and-white film is suffused with the fragile beauty that our knowledge of the boy’s fate imparts to everything. For my taste, there are too many instances of a Soviet cliché: low, upwardly tilted shots that set human forms and faces against an eternal sky; but most of the filmmaking befits the poetic form of a ballad that the title indicates, making the pulling back from realism at various junctures entirely correct. Yet Chukhrai also succeeds in portraying the horror and fearsomeness of war, its wreckage of dwellings and shattering of lives. Formally, then, the film is complex; its story, simple.
Alyosha represents the ordinary Russian soldier. His decency and directness, the film implies, could be found in countless Russian soldiers before they fell. The ballad form transforms Alyosha’s death into a continuance of his spirit. It freezes him humanely in modest legend.
Alyosha’s road journey home releases bittersweet eloquence.
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