Ballad of a Soldier
Think of Ballad of a Soldier (1959) as the poetic odyssey of an accidental hero through the ideals of the Soviet state pulling together in times of hardship, with a few raised eyebrows at the few shirkers and unfaithful spouses on the homefront. It's beautifully photographed (life during wartime has rarely looked so beautiful) but it's also filled with visions of poverty and hardship. And there is also a poignancy to his journey, his romantic interlude and his all-too-brief reunion with his mother: the narration that opens the film explains to the audience that Alyosha does not survive the war. This is his farewell tour and he lives it to its fullest, meeting the world and everyone in it with an open heart and a generous spirit.
Ballad of a Soldier was made in early days of the Russian "thaw," a brief period after the death of Stalin when Nikita Khrushchev oversaw a series of political reforms. Parallel to the political movement was an easing of censorial standards for artists, who were given more freedom to stray from the state-imposed Social Realism and themes that glorified party leadership and collective idealism. It was the first flowering of Soviet cinematic freedom between World War II and Perestroika and Ballad of a Soldier was one of the defining films of the era. Like the films before it, it respects and reveres authority figures and idealizes the salt-of-the-earth workers of the great Soviet nation, but it also casts its gaze beyond the ideals to explore the more human dimensions. In one of the most delicate scenes, a veteran who lost his leg is afraid to return home to his wife. With his unending optimism and faith in the spirit of the Soviet people, Alyosha helps him along and quietly and respectfully observes the tender reunion. And while his romantic interlude with the young stowaway is perfectly chaste (they don't even kiss), there is a hunger in his eyes as, hidden behind a haystack, he watches her fix her stockings. Such a suggestion of sexual desire would have been unthinkable just a couple of years before.
A war film, a coming of age tale, road movie and a hymn in praise of the common man, you could call Ballad of a Soldier a folk song of a movie, one that transcends politics. It won a special prize at Cannes and earned an Oscar® nomination for its screenplay; along with Mikhail Kalatozov's 1957 The Cranes Are Flying, it announced the end of Russia's cinematic dry spell under Stalin's reign with a return to the poetry and humanism practically unseen since the heady days of experimentation and optimism in the silent and early sound years. They were the first Soviet films in decades to receive international acclaim and distribution. Unfortunately, this brief period of artistic freedom was short lived and the Cold War resumed in the sixties. Such simple, humanistic films no longer found favor, but Ballad of a Soldier endured, embraced as a national Russian classic and beloved as a tender tribute to the Soviet spirit in the horror of World War II.
Producers: M. Chernova
Director: Grigori Chukhrai
Screenplay: Grigori Chukhrai, Valentin Ezhov
Cinematography: Vladimir Nikolayev, Era Savelyeva
Film Editing: Mariya Timofeyeva
Music: Mikhail Ziv
Production Design: Boris Nemechek
Cast: Vladimir Ivashov (Pvt. Alyosha Skvortsov), Zhanna Prokhorenko (Shura), Antonina Maksimova (The Mother), Nikolai Kryuchkov (The General), Yevgeni Urbansky (Vasya).
by Sean Axmaker