A Russian Youth

Currently streaming on MUBI

The debut feature from Belarus film maker Alexander Zolotukhin is an impressive, absorbing piece of work.

Zolotukhin is a pupil of Alexander Sokurov, and his influences are easily discerned here. (It was financed by Sokorov’s Foundation, too).

It’s the eastern front during WW1 and young village lad Alexey (Vladimir Korolev) is freshly arrived at the front line with aspirations of killing a lot of the enemy and winning medals. Instead, in his first experience of battle, he loses first his beloved accordion and then, far more drastically, his sight in a mustard gas attack.

Pleading to stay at the front rather than be sent home where he will be a beggar, he is given the job of listening for enemy planes. This involves him being seated at a huge metal funnel, wearing a helmet with tubes attached, and clutching a stick with which to beat out a warning. This task he performs well, to the benefit of his comrades.

This is shot in a manner that gives the film the look of a newsreel salvaged from those times and adds a certain authenticity to the story. It also contrasts with the frequent cuts to an orchestra rehearsing the score, with exhortations from the conductor. This makes for an interesting counterpoint, but I’m still unsure as to whether I’ve missed some salient point here.

One point Zolotukhin does make is that the troops, drawn of course from the peasant class, are largely meaningless to their officers, who see them as cannon fodder and nothing more. One soldier is handing out leaflets to his comrades, assuring them that a big change is going to come, suggesting that this treatment is one more push towards what we know will happen a few years later.

A fine debut that suggests that here is a director who has a lot more to offer.

Jim Welsh

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