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Ballad of a Soldier: The Criterion Collection

Forget the stereotypes of Cold War-era Soviet cinema. Forget collectivist farm tractors filmed with the same photogenic reverence given to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. The Criterion Collection is counteracting decades of Western decadence with simultaneous releases of 1959's Ballad of a Soldier and 1957's The Cranes are Flying, two beautiful, sophisticated, and celebrated elegies to the individual and personal experiences of Russians during World War II. Russia's fight against the Nazi war machine cost that country 20 million lives. Ballad of a Soldier takes a simple premise — one young soldier's journey home to visit his mother — and shapes it into a polished lens. Through that lens Ballad projects those 20 million, and at the focal point burns a humane, non-dogmatic meditation on the incalculably tragic cost of war.

The year is 1942. Soviet forces are retreating from the Nazi armies. The last survivor of a platoon, 19-year-old Alyosha (Vladimir Ivashov) is on the run from a German armored division. Thanks as much to luck as bravery or skill, the desperate soldier single-handedly takes out two tanks. His conduct on the battlefield makes him a hero, but instead of a medal he requests the rare privilege of enough leave-time to visit his mother and repair her leaking roof. His home village is a day away at peacetime; during wartime chaos the journey will be longer. His general rewards him with six days — two to get there, two to visit, two to return. Although Alyosha is in a great hurry, he does not refuse to help those in need. A boy of good nature, sensitive and honest and not yet eroded by life, he gives comfort to an embittered, legless veteran afraid to return to his wife in his present state. He delivers cakes of soap (a precious wartime gift) from a fellow soldier to his wife — only to fine that she has taken up with another man. He shares his meager property with others in need, notably a young woman, Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko), a fellow stowaway on an army freight train. Clearly a victim of recent abuse, Shura at first distrusts Alyosha to the point of almost leaping from the train speeding through the ravaged countryside. Eventually newfound trust turns to mutual tenderness, then to love. In an ideal world, the couple would be fated to journey hand in hand throughout long and happy lives together. But this isn't an ideal world, and Alyosha reaches home just in time to hug his mother and say goodbye.

We are told at the outset that Alyosha is killed at the front, never to return to his mother, to Shura, or to anyone else again. Ballad of a Soldier's conclusion strikes a single, clear tone with one of the most poignant of wartime questions — what if? What if Alyosha, decent and honorable and deserving of a full life, had not died in the war? What could he, and by extension some 20 million Alyoshas, have become? What could this everyday hero have contributed if he'd been allowed to fulfill his promise? Ballad doesn't answer the question. Instead it tells us that Alyosha dies a "simple Russian soldier" (a citizen of a country, not an ideology) because he never had the time or opportunity to be anything else.

Technically rich yet possessing a refining simplicity, Ballad of a Soldier is a quietly powerful work that could have diminished into soapy melodrama or government-stamped rhetoric. Instead, director/co-writer Grigori Chukhrai delivered a personal ode, one indeed as emotive and straight-shooting as a ballad, to his own postwar generation. He did so with then-distinctive attention to varying responses war brings out in individual people, with moments of unmistakable (and now sweetly chaste) sexual heat, and without resorting to the clichés, stilted symbols, or pompous phraseology that did so much harm to Soviet cinema. If handsome, virtuous Alyosha is an idealized emblem of the Soviet character, it's to the degree that, say, Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne personified America's images of itself. Ballad is artful without being at all inaccessible, and every element — cinematography, sound, and especially the performances of the two extraordinary actors playing Alyosha and Shura — is as energetic and sharply honed as any of the best Hollywood or Western European product.

During the early '60s, when Kruschev supported a brief thaw in Cold War tensions, Ballad triumphantly toured the international festival circuit. It was (and is) hailed as a gem-like representative of the period's "new Soviet cinema," and for Russians it became one of their most beloved movies while also earning awards in Cannes, San Francisco, London, Tehran, and Milan before winning the Lenin Prize at home. In 1962 it was Oscar-nominated for Best Writing (Story and Screenplay) and won the British Academy Award for Best Film From Any Source. Our vantage-point several decades later allows us a broader view of Ballad's resonant theme. What might writer-director Grigori Chukhrai or the previously unknown acting students — Zhanna Prokhorenko (who's as lovely and soulful as Ingrid Bergman in her prime) and Vladimir Ivashov (one of the best leading men Hollywood never had) — have achieved if politics and circumstances had permitted greater artistic back-and-forth between the U.S. and Soviet film industries? There's of course no answer for that, though this release of Ballad of a Soldier hints at what might have been.

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Criterion maintains its reputation for sterling restorations. The near-pristine 1.33:1 image sometimes could use more depth of contrast, but that quibble is more than compensated for by a gorgeous, nearly flawless black-and-white print of exquisite definition and clarity. The remastered audio comes in DD 1.0 monaural, though given that restriction you couldn't ask for better strength and clarity of sound than what's on hand here. The Russian soundtrack is supported by optional (and newly translated) English subtitles.

The disc also provides a 14-minute radio interview with the director and his two lead actors, presented with a gallery of images from the film, recorded at New York's Four Seasons restaurant in 1960. This then-rare example of Soviet artists permitted to go to America promoting a work as individual "stars" is slow-going due to translation-lag and a patience-taxing interviewer who apparently attended a year of film school instead of Riveting Interview training, but it offers a first-person discussion of the film's production and relevance.

Criterion rounds out its handsome keep-case packaging with an informative slipsheet.

—Mark Bourne

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