By far, the best of the three films by Aleksei Gherman (or Guerman, or German) that I have now seen is the earliest: Proverka na dorogakh, which is based on his father Yuri’s experiences. Steeped in wintry snow, it is a ravishing vision of German-occupied Russia in 1942 during the Second World War. As sardonic as Andrzej Munk’s Eroica (1957), Gherman’s intermittently brilliant black-and-white film was suppressed by Soviet authorities for more than a decade.
Indeed, the film’s opening movement—its episodism correlates to the random, discontinuous nature of war—massacres the Stalinist-era myth that rural peasants unanimously supported patriots, that is, anti-Nazi partisans; rather, exhausted by hunger and fear, many simply wanted the war to end, whatever the outcome. When artillery fire frightens off his prized cow and he tries to retrieve it, a partisan is shot dead, possibly by one of these peasants. Throughout the film, ambiguity attaches itself to various murders; is the culprit a Soviet or a Nazi? Moreover, there are impersonations of Germans by Soviets, reminding one of the impersonation of Nazis by Poles in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942).
The central ambiguity attaches itself to Sergeant Alexander “Sasha” Ivanovich Lazarev, a defector whose loyalty is below suspicion once he turns himself in to a Soviet contingent. He confesses to having killed on German orders in order to save his own life; now he is required to risk his life on a mission that might set his loyalty above suspicion. But isn’t the Soviet side manipulating him as the Germans had done? What does this ultimately prove?
I am baffled by one reviewer’s application of the term chiaroscuro to this film’s gorgeous, expressive appearance; lower-contrast black-and-white photography than that contributed by B. Aleksandrovsky, Lev Kolganov and Yakov Sklyansky, presumably at Gherman’s specific direction, would be hard to imagine. Visually, the film is a gigantic blur of diffuse light gray and blinding snowy white. That at least is what I see in the DVD transference with which I must make do; and, of course, this makes perfect sense, given the moral and psychological ambiguities that the film addresses.
German’s film culminates in Lazarev’s final mission: an explosively exciting passage that yields with a sharp cut to a withering scene of the triumphal march through town of Soviet soldiers, including the noncommissioned officer who set Lazarev to his loyalty-task. Hail the conquering hero!
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