By André Crous
A Russian Youth takes a promising premise set in a very serious context and turns it into a joke within an embarrassing experiment. Set on the Eastern Front during the carnage of World War I, the Soviet Army is facing off against the German Empire. In its midst is a blond-haired, baby-faced and seemingly very inexperienced 15-year-old soldier named Aleksey (Vladimir Korolev), who soon gets trapped in the trenches as the Imperial German Army closes in. When the Germans’ mustard gas washes over them, the makeshift gas mask that is a bit of gauze over his mouth and goggles over his eyes do little to protect young Aleksey, and he loses his sight.
At the same time, however, there is another intrusion, arguably just as bad as the mustard gas. In experimental fashion that has a stunningly alienating effect on whatever empathy we might have, the film constantly but irregularly cuts to an orchestra performing the film’s score: Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 30” and his “Symphonic Dances Op. 45”, neither of which dates to World War I.
There is no question that the two parts were directed by the same person, because both contain some of the most cringeworthy performances in recent memory. On the one hand, there are the constant close-ups of musicians faces as they either watch with pained involvement or tension or giggle at supposedly comical moments in the film – the same scenes we, the audience, had just seen ourselves, but without the emotional investment, the tension or the giggles. On the other hand, there is Aleksey’s performance, which can most charitably be described as histrionic. Not satisfied with merely being blind, he has to scream, stumble and fumble with every breath he takes. It fully appears the mustard gas immediately affected the boy’s mental health because no person in their right mind behaves like this.
For most of the film, I kept hoping for another attack to dispense with Aleksey so that the boy would no longer make a fool of himself. From the moment he wakes up with bandages over his eyes, realises he will never see again and then proceeds to clamber over a dozen or so fellow soldiers, all of whom are injured just as badly as him but behave with infinitely more maturity, we can see this is a hysterical child who does not belong in the army, never mind as the lead in a feature film.
He is taken under the wing of a fellow soldier, a young man called Nazarka (a very patient Mikhail Buturlov, who might be the only saving grave about this production), who manages to put up with his tantrums and tries to protect him against his own buffoonery. Eventually, for whatever reason, Aleksey is noticed by a superior officer, who takes him to a hilltop and introduces him to a new line of work: using a massive war tuba to listen out for attack planes. After making a mess of things on his first try, Aleksey hears planes buzzing overhead almost immediately upon his second attempt and is thanked by another senior officer for his service. The inanity never ceases.
Director Alexander Zolotukhin, who, an opening title card reveals, made the film with assistance from a fund set up by master filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, uses sound and image to give an oblique impression of the World War I setting, although we are never directly informed about the story’s time and place. Since the spoken words do not directly correspond to the movement of the actors’ mouths, it is clear the dialogue was added in post-production. In addition, the visuals are quite gritty, and the colour is slightly washed out. At times, it almost looks like a colourised version of footage shot a century ago. But They Shall Not Grow Old this is not.
Whether the graceless performance by the lead, the exaggerated facial expressions by the musicians and the deplorable “German” spoken by the German characters (all of whom speak broken German and have Russian accents) are intentional is an interesting question. Would Sokurov, the man responsible for the sensitive portrayal of God-turned-mortal-Emperor-Hirohito in The Sun, have allowed such a brazen act of seemingly astonishing incompetence to be committed without good reason? One should hope not. Is A Russian Youth the Russian counterpart to Mark Wahlberg’s lamentable acting in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, which allegedly sought to reflect the performances in the disaster movies from years gone by? It’s wholly unclear. If it is, then the joke is only funny to those who know the inside story.
Although some care was clearly taken in its formal audiovisual construction, A Russian Youth lacks context for the viewer and refuses to make its real intentions clear. The risible central character does nothing to overcome our objections, while the persistent comments from the conductor about his orchestra’s execution of Rachmaninoff’s compositions and the focus on their reactions to a film we are watching make for very annoying asides.
Viewed at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival.
Director(s) Alexander Zolotukhin
Screenwriter(s) Alexander Zolotukhin
Directors of Photography Ayrat Yamilov
Running Time 70 minutes
Original title Мальчик русский
Transliterated title Malchik russkiy
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩