In this weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. This week, we introduce you to the Soviet-era war classic Ballad of a Soldier in remembrance of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
The way in which Ballad of a Soldier unfurls, constantly forgoing expectations and turning into a work of visceral emotion, makes it one of the best films I’ve watched in recent weeks. It has a supple elegance that accommodates a wealth of expression, particularly related to wartime transience and how a period of conflict and disruption is figured in temporal terms—namely, a state achieved wherein time is both essential to keep the affected stabilized, but also one where there is no sense of time at all. The film conveys this beautifully in several ways, from Skvortsov being constantly conscious of the fact that he only has six days to visit his mother before he must return to the warfront, to the fact that Chukhray never allows us the convenience of counting how many hours and days pass between scenes, so that we only have Skvortsov’s reminders as constants. Time also stands still when loved ones reunite after a long absence, as well as on the trains that take Skvortsov and Shura to their respective destinations. On these trains the two characters are clearly moving towards a particular locus since we see the scenery behind them racing by. But we are fixated on the developing chemistry between these two youngsters—their growing passion masks the fact that time is marching forward. This coalesces in a stunning shot reverse shot late into the film, the two silently and tenderly gazing at each other as the light from outside the moving train streams in and caresses their faces. My heart skipped several beats at how stirring this imagery was.
War “time” giveth and it taketh away. For every moment Skvortsov spends accompanying Shura, there is less and less time for him to spend with his mother, until cruel circumstance can only afford them a few precious minutes together. You feel those minutes with their fullest blow, since the prologue makes clear they will become elongated into a lifetime’s worth of anguish for this soldier’s mother. War “time” is weightless and a crushing weight, for it is time that sows the seeds of trauma and loss. The film does not depict it in any gruesome sense (save for maybe Vasya’s missing leg), but the way it keeps calling attention to the ticking clock hanging above Skvortsov’s head (both in terms of his leave and his prefigured fate) is enough to drive the fact home. It is, to me, one of the most beautifully realized meditations on war “time” that I’ve seen, finding in it a truth and poetic vision in which almost every element works seamlessly in tandem. What it delivers is more profound than I could have wished, and for that I can’t champion it enough.
Ballad of a Soldier is available on DVD from Criterion and can also be streamed on The Criterion Channel.