In her 2007 study of the Russian war film, Denise J. Youngblood argues that while Soviet society was in a state of stagnation in the 1970s, the Soviet war film certainly was not: “The thematic gap between the war films intended for a popular audience and those for the intelligentsia narrowed significantly. None of the films were heroic in a conventional sense. All emphasised ordinary people stumbling blindly through the waking nightmare of war.” (1)
Aleksei German’s Proverka na dorogakh (Trial of the Road, 1971), arguably more than any Soviet war film of the period, compellingly illustrates Youngblood’s thesis. Made in 1971, and freely adapted from stories by German’s writer father Yuri, it tells of former Red Army soldier Lazarev (Vladimir Zamanskii) who, after defecting to the Nazis, switches his allegiance back to Mother Russia. He is captured by the partisans and treated with great suspicion before being given the chance to prove his loyalty through a series of operations against the German occupiers.
What makes Trial of the Road particularly stand out is its hybridity, the way it successfully blends elements from both popular and art cinema. While the film is chiefly concerned with exploring the moral complexities of war – the terrible choices forced upon both soldiers and civilians at a time of worldwide conflict – it also indulges in violent spectacle through a series of action set pieces, climaxing in a raid on a Nazi train depot in which the protagonist, having previously attempted suicide, turns into something of a proto-Rambo figure, single-handedly machine-gunning scores of Nazis.
The film’s opening – like later Soviet war films such as Shepitko’s Voskhozhdeniye (The Ascent,1977) – foregrounds the oppressiveness of the Russian winter. As heavy rain falls incessantly on a quagmire of a muddy landscape, two farmers watch helplessly as a Nazi convoy destroys their potato harvest by drowning it in petrol. Rain turns to deadeningly thick snow as we see Lazarev being captured by a guileless young partisan. “The dramatic conflict [in Trial of the Road] centres on what to do with [Lazarev]”, argues Youngblood. “Arrest him? Or allow him to rise from the dead like Lazarus (whom his surname recalls) and prove himself as a Soviet soldier? In the meantime, there are Germans to kill and bridges to blow up, and Lazarev offers another hand in the fight.” (2) Very little is ever revealed about the protagonist’s motivation and so the film proceeds on a knife-edge of uncertainty with each character in some way suspicious of the other. The real feat is that the group manages to control its internal divisions long enough to take the fight to their common enemy. There are several links to be made here with Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969), for not only does Trial of the Road question the myths surrounding a united resistance to Nazism, it is also pervaded with the Melvillean (or indeed Hustonian) sense of the futility of effort. Famously, this tone was one of the factors that led to the Soviet censors banning German’s film for more than 15 years: “According to internal memos of the state film agency Goskino, [Trial of the Road] ‘distorts the image of a heroic time’ – ‘the people it depicts could only have lost the Great Patriotic War’; the subtext being that German’s film ‘makes us someone other than who we want to be’” (3).
While Trial of the Road shares the monochrome palette of The Ascent, German’s bold widescreen differs in great measure from Shepitko’s stark, Bressonian 1.33:1. The latter, dealing mostly with the fate of two characters, draws its expressive power from close-ups. In Trial of the Road, the focus is more on the dynamics between a larger group; German alternates between fast-paced, crisply-edited action sequences and longer, more measured takes. In one of the most arresting images of the film, we’re presented with an overhead shot of a mass of Russian POWs being transported on a barge. The prisoners at first fill the frame but the camera then slowly pulls back to reveal a triangle of bodies crammed together – so many, in fact, that we cannot make out the boat’s edges (4). The film’s climactic set piece, rather than recalling any Soviet war pictures, seems to more closely echo high-octane Hollywood war adventures such as Von Ryan’s Express (Mark Robson, 1965), with Lazarev even sharing the same fate as Frank Sinatra’s eponymous hero. Youngblood, in her discussion of the film’s denouement, is understandably bewildered at the censors’ disapproval: “One might well argue that Trial of the Road, which was banned, is more positive than The Ascent, which was not. In the former, the collaborator Lazarev is redeemed through the sacrifice of his life for his motherland, whereas in the latter, Rybak is consigned to purgatory.” (5)
Undoubtedly one of the great post-Stalinist Soviet war films, Trial of the Road – in its blending of styles, its questioning of myths, its overall ambiguity – looks forward to German’s later works, most notably Moy drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1984). As Tony Wood has pointed out, “All German’s films focus on moments in which history and myth have become entangled, if not dangerously indistinguishable. He has described his films as ‘antipotochnye’,‘against the current’: disrupting certainties and undermining convenient truths.” (6)
- Denise J. Youngblood, Russian War Films: On the Cinema Front, 1914-2005, University of Kansas Press, Kansas, 2007, p. 184.
- Youngblood, p. 177.
- Tony Wood, “Time Unfrozen: The Films of Alexei German”, New Left Review no. 7, January-February 2001, p. 101. For more information on Goskino’s objections to Trial of the Road, see Alexander Graham, “Immersion in Time: History, Memory and the Question of Readability in the Films of Alexei German”, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema vol. 6, no. 2, 2012, pp. 177-216.
- The image recalls the earlier shot of muddy potatoes being drowned in petrol and there’s little doubt of the links German is making between the two.
- Youngblood, p. 184.
- Wood, p. 100.
Proverka na dorogakh/Trial of the Road (1971 USSR 96 mins)
Prod Co: Lenfilm Studio Dir: Aleksei German Scr: Eduard Volodarskly, based on the stories by Yuri German Phot: B. Aleksandrovsky, L. Kolganov, Yakov Sklyansky Ed: Anna Babushkina Prod Des: Valeri Yurkevich Mus: Isaak Shvarts
Cast: Rolan Bykov, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Vladimir Zamanskiy, Oleg Borisov, Fyodor Odinokov, Anda Zaice