Sergei Bondarchuck is one of the great unsung masters of the movies. He was an actor who turned to directing and ended up making what I think is one of the true masterpieces of all cinema the 1968 War and Peace. It's a huge sprawling epic running around 7hours and comprising, in its uncut form, four separate films. It’s a film that is both epic and small scale. It is absolutely perfect in some spots and utterly messy in others. It’s a film that transcends its problems to be a something greater. Trust me that film is so much better than the punch line of a joke its become (Down the road after my next viewing I think there will be an entry here)
However before War and Peace, before tomorrows film They Fought for the Motherland, there was The Destiny of a Man, the story of one man and his life before, during and after the Second World War.
The star of the film is Bondarchuck himself and he’s quite good as the everyman representative for all of those in the Soviet Union or the world. He makes us care about him and feel for his plight as he goes from happy peasant to soldier to POW to survivor. We feel as his world his turned upside down again and again by life’s trials and tribulations. It’s a tough role that is full of opportunity to over do, but Bondarchuck the director reigns in Bondarchuck the actor so that his performance remains note perfect.
Filmed in a moody black and white this is a film that perfectly conveys the horrors of war and of life in simple ways that other filmmakers need hours and complex effects to reveal. The short five or so minute death camp sequence is to my mind a perfect distillation of what the death camps were. In the course of what seems to be a simple tracking shot Bondarchuck shows us how people arrived on the trains, were sorted and ended up going up the chimneys. Its a sequence that is sparse, far from graphic and yet utterly chilling. The whole film is like that, simple sequences that convey a greater sense of events.
I really like this film a great deal. I like it because no matter what you say about the film’s technique or look, the film is ultimately about people. We watch the film because we identify on some level with out hero. The film is about our hero and his struggle to survive in extraordinary circumstances. We watch in the hope that if these things happen to us that we might one rise to the occasion, even when we’ve broken. There is a wonderful sense of life and of humanity even in the darkest times.
And no the film is not perfect. This was Bondarchucks first time out of the box in the director’s seat and there are a couple of times where the story’s larger implications get away from him and kind of blur things, there is a more than a hint of a propaganda message in the mix. I don’t know if that’s his doing or the greater powers controlling film production, but there is clearly a deep love for mother Russia. Then again I don’t think Bondarchuck was ever not a messy filmmaker. Any film that I’ve seen which he directed always had something imperfect about them.
If you can look past the flaws I think this film will knock your socks off. See this film. It will move you.
Currently out on DVD