About halfway into Elem Klimov’s film about one boy’s journey with WWII Belorussian partisan fighters, he briefly strikes the exact right tone. After digging up a gun left near his home, running off to join the militia, losing all his family and most of his group as the Nazis push forward, he’s dashing thru open plains with his surviving commander and a friendly cow. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a flare lights up the sky and they are under fierce attack by an unseen enemy, scattering away from the deadly tracer bullets coming from rapid machine-gun fire. Terror, majesty, survival instinct, legendary peasant toughness, the sequence has all the attributes so painfully missing from the rest of the film. But Klimov doesn’t seem to know it. Soon, we’re back, cataloging war atrocities with a panoramic tour of one of the hundreds of villages the Nazis annihilated during the horrible first wave of easy victories. Klimov shoots much of this using an odd, if distinctive style, with long held portrait shots in uncomfortable close-up alternating with vast tracking shots covering multiple horrors with sweeping one-take camera moves. You can almost see him hoisting the Stalin Prize. (Not that they called it that anymore, though the film did indeed win the Moscow International.) Klimov, a mere 52 at the time, never got to make another pic.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Klimov was the husband of fellow Soviet director Larisa Sheptiko whose last film, THE ASCENT/’77, does better (at least in its first half) with another story of partisan courage & sacrifice during the Great Patriotic War. (Naturally, neither film mentions Stalin’s role in leaving Russia open for these early appalling losses.) Better yet, opt for Andrei Tarkovsky’s IVAN’S CHILDHOOD/’62, a truly great film about a young boy fighting in WWII Russia.