Nine Days of One Year
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In 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union entered into a Limited Test Ban Treaty that sent the testing of nuclear weapons underground. Work towards a ban on testing had begun in 1955 and by 1958, both countries agreed to a voluntary moratorium. Then, in 1961, over a test site in Siberia, the Soviets air dropped the Tsar Bomb, a fifty megaton monster that was then and still is now the largest nuclear device ever detonated on the planet. In 1962, against this backdrop, a rather extraordinary film was made and released, Nine Days of One Year.
The film was extraordinary for a couple of reasons. The first, and foremost, was and is simply that it's a beautiful film, exploring the existential crisis of a nuclear physicist determined to make fusion work in a reactor, even at the risk of his own life. The second is that it was made in the Soviet Union and revolves around careless work done in a nuclear laboratory, causing a radiation incident. This is not something the Soviet Union wanted to advertise in a fiction movie shown around the world, that nuclear accidents were possible in Russia.
Outside of Russia, movies about nuclear testing were already old hat. Atomic bomb tests were regularly used as boogie men in the movies, especially in Japan, the only country that ever had nuclear weapons used against it in wartime, where Gojira (aka Godzilla) became a popular series, depicting the reptilian monster born of nuclear recklessness. Atomic testing was also used in American and British science fiction, whether implied, as in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) where a cloud breezes over the boat of our hero, reminiscent of the fallout from the American Castle Bravo test in 1954 that dusted the Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, causing radiation sickness with the crew and proving fatal to one member; or directly stated, as in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), where simultaneous tests by the United States and the Soviet Union knock the earth off its axis.
Occasionally, a serious effort was made to examine nuclear war, as in Stanley Kramer's On the Beach (1959) but that dealt with the aftermath of a nuclear Armageddon, not the dangers of testing. Then came Nine Days of One Year, produced in the Soviet Union of all places and making a sincere effort to question not just war or testing but the very nature of playing God with the atom. It was a risky move by Mikhail Romm, its director and co-writer (with Daniil Khrabrovitsky). He knew making such a film might run afoul of the Soviet censors and yet, it wasn't until after it was made and played to good critical notices around the world that the Soviet censors finally came out against it. By then, it was too late. The movie had already made its mark.
Still, it is little known today and considering what a powerful statement it made, that's surprising. The film begins with a sweeping shot across the tops of trees and a river until finally we arrive at a massive physics lab. The narrator informs us that the film will present nine days of one year, but not consecutively. Rather, it will present the nine days instrumental to the story, whenever they occur. The first day takes us into the lab after a contamination accident has occurred. An older physicist, Sintsov (Nikolai Plotnikov), has taken on a fatal dose of radiation while attempting to get a plasma reaction attaining nuclear fusion. He ignores safety warnings against heating up the reactor too high and floods the room with radiation. He believes he has achieved fusion and so, even though he knows he has just sentenced himself to death, he is excited to have produced such a landmark result. A younger physicist, Dmitri Gusev (Aleksey Batalov), has taken on a much smaller dose but is warned that more will kill him. Best to cease this line of work yet it lead to an early demise.
His friend, Ilya (Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy), works in the same lab but is skeptical of what science has wrought. In a restaurant one night, he theorizes that modern man is no different from Neanderthals, perhaps worse. While Neanderthals could kill only in the hundreds or thousands, modern man could wipe out billions. He's going to marry Lyolya (Tatyana Lavrova) but she still loves Dmitri. The movie attempts to juggle the conflicted feelings Lyolya has for both men with the suicidal dedication of Dmitri to his work, all while Ilya stands powerless behind them, trying to take Lyolya away from inevitable heartache and Dmitri away from inevitable death. That the movie succeeds is a tribute to all involved.
Nine Days of One Year played in the states briefly and met with good reviews but no raves. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, found the movie too bleak but did say, concerning the subject matter mentioned above: "What's interesting is that such anxieties are mentioned at all in a Soviet film." J. Hoberman, writing in the same publication decades later, during a festival of Soviet era cinema in 2000, called the film a "grim and gleaming, angst-ridden nocturne." And it is. But there's uplift at the end, not that it's needed, and intelligent debate throughout. Putting concerns about nuclear energy in the same pot with the struggles of three people in love isn't a simple recipe by any measure but Romm pulls it off splendidly. Nine Days of One Year is one of the best, and most under-seen, movies of the sixties Soviet cinema.
Directed by: Mikhail Romm Written by: Mikhail Romm, Daniil Khrabrovitsky Produced by: Cinematography Ministry of the U.S.S.R Original Music: Dzhon Ter-Tatevosyan Cinematography: German Lavrov Film Editing: Yeva Ladyzhenskaya Costume Design: V. Kiselyova Production Designer: Giorgi Kolganov Cast: Aleksey Batalov (Dmitri Gusev), Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy (Ilya Kulikov), Tatyana Lavrova (Lyolya), Nikolai Plotnikov (Professor Sintsov), Evgeniy Evstigneev (Nikolai Ivanovich), Zinoviy Gerdt (Narrator)
By Greg Ferrara
The New York Times, November 12, 2000
The New York Times, December 29, 1964