“The war has come to this: A remote farm lost in the vast steppes near the river Don.”
Summer 1942; during the Great Patriotic War, survivors of a Russian Army unit are in retreat. From Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel, Oni srazhalis za rodinu opens with an overhead shot of stony terrain, presaging the trenches the men will be digging in it as German invaders advance toward Stalingrad. The camera moves across a wheat field—the motherland that will become scorched earth, from which a Russian soldier will pluck a spared stalk, blow on it and eat, declaring it “a precious thing”; the camera stops at the edge. There is a deep ravine below; in extreme long-shot the line of Russian soldiers march, the distance indicating the high ridge they are charged with holding “at all costs” “until reinforcements arrive.”
Sergei Bondarchuk, who also enacts one of the roles, has made a good film that’s sustained by the (sometimes hilarious) comradery of the exhausted soldiers and punctuated by tremendous passages of battle, including ones highlighting the phantasmagoric properties of war. German tanks at one point approach the entrenched Russians, who stop them—but this turns out to be illusory; what had been a static windmill in the background now occupies the center of a shot, aflame and in motion from aerially dropped bombs: Reality? a dying soldier’s vision? both? It’s a line the film repeatedly blurs.
A makeshift medical center for wounded soldiers, where surgeries are performed without benefit of anesthesia, occasions an unflinching passage.
Initially, the names of character and actor are matched to successive marching figures. An anonymous one looks straight at us, the last group in the dedication: “To those who survived, and those who didn’t, and those who come after . . . .”
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