Boris Banet began by making silent films, and the prologue of Odnazhdy Nochyu (alternately called in English Once at Night and Dark Is the Night), a wartime sound film, is mysteriously, frighteningly silent: at night, the shooting down of a Soviet plane, and a family’s rescue of two soldiers: a gripping, powerful glimpse of the phantasmagoria of war.
The setting is bombed-out Stalingrad, a city in ruins, during the German invasion during the Second World War, that is, the Patriotic War. Based on a play by Fyodor Knorre, Barnet’s lyricism and expressionism transcend the work’s stage origins to create a terrifying and turbulent nightmare. Irina Radchenko plays a girl who is as hysterically fearful of the Germans as she is dedicated to tending and hiding wounded Russian soldiers. Here is a poetic vision of a community’s courageous resistance to the invaders.
Indeed, one of the citizens who seems less than brave risks death—and receives death—at a decisive moment: a speech under a circus tent, in front of seated fellow citizens, ostensibly to urge them to obey all the rules that the Germans have imposed; but the speech shifts at the close, urging instead defiance and resistance. It is an astounding scene. In the darkness inside the tent, we see only the backs of the heads of some of those seated—and we are given only a partial view of the few that we see. And they are absolutely silent: silent witnesses in a ghastly dream.
In another passage, the Germans, armed with a dog, pursue a Russian soldier up and up and up a bombed-out structure to the attic, where the girl is hiding him. Along the way, a closeup of the dog’s face startles.
Barnet himself plays the German commandant.
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