In 1960, Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier had a triumphant tour of the international festival circuit, garnering many prizes in such far-flung places as Cannes, San Francisco, London, Teheran, and Milan before winning the Lenin Prize at home. For Russians it became one of their most beloved movies, embodying (along with two other classic films about World War II, The Cranes Are Flying and Fate of a Man) the personal scale and humane aesthetic of the post-Stalinist “thaw” period. The glory of war and collective sacrifice had been amply celebrated in monumental epics of the immediate postwar period. It was time to recognize the individual cost, the small acts of kindness and bravery, the simple goodness and generosity of human beings living in terrible times. While Mikhail Kalatozov, the director of The Cranes Are Flying, was of an older generation, Chukhrai, a wounded and decorated war veteran, represented the first post-Stalinist generation of filmmakers looking for new ways to express the most defining experiences of their young lives: World War II.
The roll-over shot at the beginning of the film, of a frightened youth named Alyosha running away from German tanks, introduces the upside-down world of war to which the right-side-up world behind the lines will soon be contrasted. This technically impressive shot may be Chukhrai’s response to the complex, innovative cinematography of The Cranes Are Flying. But more generally, the film’s lively camerawork and economical, at times rapid, rhythmic editing—dynamism within, as well as between, shots—attest to the rediscovery of Eisenstein in thaw-era films.
The opening visual flourish soon gives way to a more subtly lyrical cinematography, a shift that underscores where Chukhrai’s interest lies; though set in wartime Soviet Union, Ballad walks away from the genre of war film just as Alyosha walks away from the fields of war. After disabling the German tanks, the accidental hero turns down a medal, asking only for leave to fix the roof on his mother’s village house. This, then, becomes a kind of road movie, with our clean-scrubbed hero instinctively helping everyone he meets on his many train rides home. Despite his youth, Alyosha has a strong moral sense, whether standing up to a ridiculous bully guarding the train, or taking back the soap he has brought to a soldier’s wife when he discovers that she has not faithfully been awaiting her husband’s return. What emerges is a portrait of life and problems behind the lines of war: our hero helps a veteran who, having lost a leg, is afraid to return to his wife, fearing she might reject him. While Alyosha exhibits a natural goodness and quiet heroism, typical of films of the thaw is the absence of Communist or Soviet rhetoric and pomposity of earlier war films.
The film is framed by voice-over narration about a simple soldier who dies, while we watch his mother on a lonely country road. At the film’s end he will be called not a Soviet but a “Russian soldier,” emphasizing not his political but his national, ethnic identity. Although we are told from the beginning that he is dead, the moment the film cuts to Alyosha running away from the German tank we forget his eventual fate and are intimately involved in what remains of his young life. When he meets the lovely Shura, also surreptitiously riding the rails, we root for their pure innocent love to blossom. Although they never exchange even so much as a kiss, the innocent yet erotic feelings they engender light up the screen.
Besides rejecting political rhetoric and monumental, classical cinematography, the films of the thaw also rejected the sexless, puritanical Soviet representation of love on the screen, reclaiming the body and a youthful, healthy sexuality––rather modest by today’s standards, but liberating for the times. After changing his mind on using the professional actors he had cast, Chukhrai picked two very young, unknown acting students, matching a prototypical, blond, open-faced, and handsome Russian everyman with a (Ukrainian-named) Slavic beauty; her luminous eyes, pouty lips, full figure and long glorious hair are often filmed with a halo effect. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Alyosha’s and Shura’s faces and her billowing hair are superimposed over the pure Russian birch forest the train is passing as they are finally able to exchange their unspoken expressions of love.
The poetic, lyrical cinematography underscores the cathartic emotions unleashed by the film for a generation of viewers who had lived, fought, and lost loved ones during the war. Alyosha is so busy helping others that when he finally gets home, he only has enough time to hug his mother and immediately start on his journey back. As mother and son run towards each other to heightening musical crescendo, their suddenly silent, wrenching embrace is one of the most moving scenes not only in Russian cinema, but in all of world cinema.
Despite the fact that his first feature, The Forty-First, was highly acclaimed in Cannes, Chukhrai wondered what the sophisticated international audience would make of Ballad of a Soldier, his simple mother-son story. His competition at the festival? Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, Buñuel, and the American blockbuster, Ben Hur, with its thousands of extras and eleven Oscars. But Ballad was a revelation at a festival marked by the scandalous appearance of Fellini’s decadent La Dolce Vita and films representing what cultural historian Lev Anninsky called “helpless neorealism.” The Soviet filmmaker Sergei Gerassimov explained the film’s fresh appeal: “The pathos of Fellini in La Dolce Vita could be put this way: One Should not Live Like This; the pathos of Chukhrai in Ballad of a Soldier could be summed up as: We Should Live Like This.” The film was awarded a special prize for its “high humanism and outstanding quality.” And even the usually hard-to-please New York critics effusively praised Chukhrai as a “director of genius.” The unabashed emotion of this film, its visual energy and beauty, the fresh innocence of the heroes, and the simple but potent message––love of mother, girl, fellow soldiers, and countrymen, where goodness begets goodness––had transcended the cold war rhetoric of 1960.
Vida T. Johnson is professor of Russian film and culture at Tufts University and the co-author, with Graham Petrie of The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, Indiana University Press, 1994.