Svoi (Our Own) 2004

 “A woman and a cow need their udders touched tenderly.”

SVOI (Our Own) is an amazing Russian film that explores shifting alliances and divided loyalties against the backdrop of the German invasion of Belarus during WWII. Interestingly, the film keeps the Germans–more or less–in the background of this tense, tight drama, and although the Germans swoop in occasionally like a plague of locusts, the action mainly focuses on how Russians, fractured by politics, see each other as ‘the enemy.’

I’m not a fan of most war films as I find the way film tends to concentrate on all the flag waving, patriotism and noble death stuff behind those governments, politicians, and megalomaniacs determined to off  large numbers of humans in lemming-like marches to their collective, meaningless suicides while collecting rotten pay and a few tacky bits of ribbon and metal along the way, well…absurd and nauseating.

In spite of the fact this Russian film is set in WWII and initially seems to set the stage for the repeat of a typical WWII scenario, instead the plot manages to avoid all those tired old clichés by focusing on the human drama.

The film begins explosively with Germans invading Belarus. While all the Russian soldiers are rounded up and marched off, the savvy Chekist (Sergei Garmash) who had just arrived at the Russian headquarters abandons his uniform for hastily donned civilian clothes. As he tells the young sniper, Mitka (Mikhail Yevlanov), soldiers will be shot whereas with civilian clothes perhaps they stand a chance. It’s in this moment, that the Chekist shows his quick thinking and that Mitka accepts him as a leader. Watching the film’s first scenes, there’s the sense that if anyone survives, it’ll be the wily Chekist

As the men are marched off, the Chekist and Mitka form an alliance with Jewish Russian soldier, Livshits (Konstantin Khabenskiy). Another soldier taunts Livshits about being Jewish and summarily strong-arms him into handing over his scanty rations. This scene sets the stage for the idea that the Russians are divided amongst themselves but also underscores the tentative coalition formed between Mitka, Livshits and the Chekist as the dominating, protecting figure.

As luck would have it, the prisoners are marched near to Mitka’s village, and the savvy Chekist realizing that the chance to escape will never be this good again, persuades Livshits and Mitka to escape with him. The trio ends up at Mitka’s village where his father, Ivan (Bogdan Stupka) is the headman. While the plan took the escaped prisoners to the village, it flounders in the face of reality. Germans are swarming all over the countryside looking for the escaped soldiers, but they more or less leave it up to the Russian villagers to hand them over.

Hiding in the barn and with Livshits beginning to succumb to illness, the three soldiers have plenty of time to consider their situation. Mitka happily reunites with his fiancée, Katya (Anna Mikhalkova) while the Chekist ogles Ivan’s woman, Anya (Natalya Surkova). Mitka takes increasingly bold chances to see Katya and the Chekist becomes obsessed with Anya.

Over time the seemingly simple situation becomes increasingly complex while human behavior boils down to its basic elements and loyalties are tested. The Headman Ivan, a former Kulak who escaped from Siberia, is no great lover of the current political situation. To him, the enemy is anyone who threatens his home, his children or his way of life, and there’s an automatic antipathy between the Chekist and Ivan when they recognize their political opposition. Locked in the barn, dependent on the villagers for food, water and shelter, the relationships between the characters are stripped down to the basest level, and yet in spite of the fact that survival underlies all their actions, some of the characters function at a level that includes a notion of brotherhood while other characters seek only their own selfish ends. Just what happens in the village and how this drama plays out is the substance of this excellent Russian film, and by the film’s conclusion ironically two Tsarist gold coins end up trumping everything else.

The film’s heavily biographical screenplay is from Valentin Chernykh, who also wrote Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, and Chernykh modeled the character of Ivan on his grandfather, a man who hid his past as a kulak from Soviet power but who raised his grandson, the screenwriter, as a model Soviet citizen. The film is set in Chernykh’s grandfather’s region, Pskovshchina.

For those who don’t like to watch violence on the screen, the film includes a couple of killing scenes that are pretty brutal. From director Dmitri Meskhiyev.

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