Reviewed by Elena Zhuk
Directed by Alexander Kott. Featuring: Andrey Merzlikin, Pavel Derevyanko, Alexander Korshunov, Evgeny Tsyganov, Alexei Kopashov. Russia-Belarus, 2010
Russians definitely miss the Soviet Union - the country they lost a few decades ago, and feel nostalgic for the time when "patriotism" was more than just a pompous word. This may be one of the reasons for the raging success of "Brest Fortress" (Brestskaya Krepost), a joint Russian-Belarusian production. The film was produced and written by Igor Ugolnikov, who is head of the joint Russian and Belarusian broadcasting agency, but better known as an actor. It has been hailed by critics and spectators as the best homegrown costume drama about the Great Patriotic War to be released in the last 20 years. One of few truly successful Union State projects, the movie was conferred the "Vmeste" (Together) prize of the Committee of the Union State at the recent Listopad-2010 Film Festival in Minsk.
The film's central idea is to convey the heroic defense of Brest Fortress, which withstood the first wave of German fascist invaders on June 22, 1941. The peaceful life of shoppers in the Voentorg store, and those watching the film "Veselye Rebyata" starring Lyubov Orlova suddenly changes. The focus shifts to the three main resistance zones headed by Regiment Commander Pyotr Gavrilov (€lexander Korshunov), Commissar Efim Fomin (Pavel Derevyanko) and Head of the 9th Frontier Outpost, Andrey Kizhevatov (€ndrey Merzlikin).
The film's creators claim that their principal goal was to accurately document the events of the first days of the fortress' defense. This is somewhat undermined by the inclusion of a fictional character as the main hero. The audience sees the defense of the fortress through the eyes of Sashka Akimov (€lexei Kopashov), who narrates the story but never appears on screen. One can only guess why the director chose to leave the real character, Sasha's prototype, 15-year-old Petya Klypa - one of the few defenders of the Brest Fortress who survived - off screen.
Petya was imprisoned by the fascists who seized the fortress, and was sent to Magadan after the war, erroneously accused of a crime. Because of the numerous injustices he had to face, Petya even tried to commit suicide in Siberia, but was later liberated with the help of Sergei Smirnov, a journalist doing research for his "Brest Fortress" book. The book is impressive because of the huge volume of facts amassed by Smirnov. They could have been lost in the passage of time, and Smirnov thus helps the real heroes of this story receive their due recognition. Sadly many of those who survived the attack on the Brest Fortress were imprisoned by the fascists, and Stalin did not make them into heroes after the liberation, either. The close attention given to these aspects of the story in the film, which closely follows the book it is based upon, is a relatively rare feature in contemporary film.
Essentially, the goal of the film is to show the fighters' common heroism, as opposed to digging deeper into answering another very important question about the Brest Fortress: how could it be that a small group of people was left to certain death without any help from their great country? Still, the film does paint a compelling picture of the events, thereby inspiring the viewer to learn more.
It has to be said that the film achieves what it sets out to do. Until now computer graphics and special effects have helped adapt the best traditions of Soviet war cinematography to the modern screen. But the impression this film leaves is rather more complex: one sees a Hollywood-style war drama, but the scenery has not been created digitally. The setting is familiar, it is in your own country, and the events on screen took place only yesterday in the grand scheme of history. The viewer hence acutely feels a kinship with the characters, like they are his or her close relatives, the fathers and grandfathers who woke up one early morning and realized that they were not having a bad dream, but experiencing a terrifying reality.
The appearance of train carriages at night carrying people clad in Soviet uniforms at the local train station makes the blood run cold with terror, especially when an old postmaster is stabbed by a saboteur who asks him to light his cigarette. Later on, a Russian soldier kills a person dressed in Soviet uniform because of the shape of the nails in their boots. He was not even sure he had killed an enemy.
The movie cannot be accused of simply relying heavily on "bloody" episodes, although among the most horrific are scenes of fascists shooting people at the hospital. While the reality was in fact even worse, perhaps it would have been too terrifying if the scene from Smirnov's book, portraying "a German tank that bursts into the sanitary ward, spinning around on the concrete floor, mangling the bodies of the wounded with its tracks," had appeared on screen.
The film certainly does not paint a complete portrait of the siege, but that is not the director's fault. The real story unfolded in a decentralized way, with the defenders of the fortress separated and fighting in different places. That is why the movie is put together as a collection of episodes.
The defenders of Brest Fortress were left without water. The fascists controlled all the approaches to the Zapadny Bug and the Muhavets Rivers. It was almost impossible to get to the rivers, but Smirnov writes in his book that Petya Klypa often asked his commander for permission to go to the river and bring water. A very impressive scene in the film shows Petya, who bends over the riverbank to drink some water, coming face to face with a dead man floating beneath the water's surface.
Cut off from access to water and from each other, it is as though the defenders are on an island, isolated from the outside world. The saboteurs cut all the communication wires the very first night they arrived at the fortress, and the hope that the country would not abandon the defenders shows in the futile attempts of the radio operator who with a heavy Belarusian accent says: "I am a fortress! Waiting for support: