Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate) [DVD]
Screenplay : Grigori Chukhrai and Valentin Yezhov
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1959
Stars : Volodya Ivashov (Pvt. Alyosha Skvortsov, Zhanna Prokhorenko (Shura), Antonina Maksimova (Mother Skvortsov), Nikolai Kryuchkov (The General), Yevgeni Urbansky (Invalid), Elza Lezhdey (Invalid's Wife), Aleksandr Kuznetsov (Soldier Gavrilkin), Yevgeni Teterin (Lieutenant)
Grigori Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate) tells a simple, humanistic war-time story about a 19-year-old soldier who, after being given a six-day leave for showing bravery in the heat of battle, tries to make his way back to his small village in order to see his mother. One of several classic films made during the "thaw" period in the Soviet Union following Josef Stalin's death, Ballad of a Soldier, as its title implies, focuses intimately on one protagonist, rather than the collective protagonist generally associated with Soviet filmmaking. Almost awkwardly idealistic, instead of brimming with socialist rhetoric, the film celebrates the individual human spirit and the power of good deeds.
Although Ballad of a Soldier is a film about war, very little of it takes place on the battlefields of World War II. We first meet Pvt. Alyosha Skvortsov (Vladimir Ivashov) in the midst of the fighting, as he finds himself alone and facing several oncoming German tanks. Like any recognizable human being, he turns and runs, although he ends up taking out two of the tanks by himself. Thus an "accidental hero," Alyosha is offered a decoration by the general, but instead he asks if he can take leave and help fix his mother's leaking roof.
The majority of the film, then, follows Alyosha as he tries desperately to make it back to his village. What should be a simple two-day journey develops into a much longer odyssey through war-ravaged Russia. Chukhraj, who cowrote the screenplay with Valentin Yezhov, wants us to look at the cost of war on the homefront in both physical and emotional terms. We see the bombed out remains of civilian buildings, reminding us that the violence of war never restricts itself to soldiers and battlefields.
But, even more devastating is the emotional turmoil the war has wrought, something Alyosha sees firsthand as he journeys home. One of the first people he meets is a soldier (Yevgeni Urbansky) who is returning home after having lost his leg in battle, yet the missing limb is not nearly as terrible as his deep-seated fear that his wife will now reject him. Alyosha sees the damage done to marriages by war again when he delivers several cakes of soap and a note to the wife of a fellow soldier, only to find that she has taken up with another man in his absence.
This may make it sound as though Ballad of a Soldier is a depressing trek through the human cost of war, but it is anything but. It has its deeply melancholic moments, but overall it is an uplifting experience, particularly in the relationship between Alyosha and Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko), a beautiful young woman whom he meets while they are both hiding in a railcar. They have a rather high-pitched "meet cute" moment in which she assumes him to be an attacker because he is hiding when she jumps into the railcar, but they eventually grow to trust each other and, in the few days they have together, fall in love. This, of course, in no way diminishes Alyosha's ultimate goal of seeing his mother, and the strength of his family bond is what ultimately holds the film together thematically.
Director Grigori Chukhrai, himself a war veteran, worked with two cinematographers, Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva, to give Ballad of a Soldier a poetic grace that helps overcome some of the more simplistic elements of the narrative. The gorgeous black-and-white photography captures both hope and despair in the landscape, although they seem particularly attuned to the details of the human face, focusing often on softly lit close-ups of the smooth-skinned Vladimir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko, both of whom were then unknowns, but would go on to long acting careers. If Ballad of a Soldier is perhaps a bit too optimistic at times--Alyosha is so kind and giving that he borders on being a narrative conceit, rather than fully embodied character--it is still a stirring portrait of human goodness in the face of horrors that many cannot even imagine.
|Ballad of a Soldier Criterion Collection DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||April 30, 2002|
| 1.33:1 (Academy Aspect Ratio)|
The transfer was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain print struck by Mosfilm, which was then digitally restored using the MTI Digital Restoration System. The results are quite beautiful, with a clean, finely textured black-and-white image with a strong range of grays and fine detail.
| Russian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural |
The monaural soundtrack has also been digitally cleaned up, although a slight ambient hiss remains. The one-channel soundtrack is understandable limited, particularly in the opening battle sequence, but this is inherent to the source materials.
| Audio interview with director Grigori Chukhrai and stars Vladimir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko |
This 14-minute interview was recorded after the film's U.S. theatrical premiere by Gideon Bachmann for the radio program Film Art. Chukhrai, Ivashov, and Prokhorenko all speak in Russian and therefore require translators, which makes the interviews fairly hectic and sometimes confusing (it didn't help that they were recorded in the Four Seasons with a band playing in the background). In some of the more confusing sections, Criterion has added subtitles in English, which makes the interview much easier to follow.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick