It begins with the evocative, ethereal depiction of a mother, standing solemnly in a billowing field, looking on, despondent. Like the visually arresting Soviet masterworks of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and especially Dovzhenko — those carefully crafted pictorial proclamations with their prevailing sociopolitical underpinnings — Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier highlights the natural essence of the countryside, and the purity of those who reside there. Written by Chukhrai and Valentin Yezhov, this 1959 feature then shifts its focus to a dirt road, a narrow path weaving through the remote landscape. This is the primary route (perhaps the only route) to and from this rustic settlement. It is a route worn by the successive resident progress of birth, temporary relocation, and inevitable return. But this will not be the sequence of events for the protagonist of Ballad of a Soldier. As noted in the film’s opening narration, which casts a pessimistic cloud over much of what follows, emphasizing a lingering mortal transience, this young man never achieves a permanent reunion. Rather, he dies a war hero before he is able to mark his homecoming. Lauded as a champion, a liberator, to this woman in the field, played with tremendous sorrow by Antonina Maksimova, he is simply her son.
He is 19-year-old Private Alyosha Skvortsov (Vladimir Ivashov, in his screen debut). A Red Army soldier stationed along the Eastern Front, he is in the midst of an encroaching German bombardment. Navigating the blistering barrage, which climaxes in a topsy-turvy tank pursuit, the camera literally slanting upside down in the commotion, Alyosha amazingly makes it out alive. He modestly welcomes the resulting admiration of his superiors, humbly admitting he was in fact quite scared — so scared, corrects his general (who wishes all men could be so efficiently fearful), that he still managed to stop two tanks single-handily. Due a valiant decoration, Alyosha asks instead to visit his mother. Her roof is leaking, you see, and with one day’s leave, he’s sure he would be able to travel home and repair it. The general grants him six.
Alyosha doesn’t get far before his journey is thwarted, by regulations, weather, the war itself, and his fellow countrymen, like Pvt. Seryozha Pavlov (Gennadiy Yukhtin), who asks his comrade to deliver a note and some soap to his wife, as long as he’s going that direction. (The soap is a simple request, but it’s an expressive indication of the hardships faced by the Soviet populace, a deficiency of even these basic items). Alyosha has a can’t-say-no-decency, which stems from not only his admirable moral compass, but from the film’s pervasive brotherhood, based on nationalistic piety and mutual empathy.
Continuing on however he can — by jeep, train, on foot — Alyosha’s voyage conveys the scope of Ballad of a Soldier, expanding its view away from the battlefield to a topography mottled by cold faces, desperate faces, faces etched with the same war-torn misery that saturates their surroundings. Chukhrai’s film isn’t just about a single character and his heroic efforts on the frontlines. (If anything, the central conflict is quickly superseded). The film is about concurrent events elsewhere, the lives these soldiers leave behind, the families waiting or continuing on as best they can. And the pain of return is a very real possibility. It’s what haunts a tortured cripple named Vasya (Evgeniy Urbanskiy), whom Alyosha meets waiting for a train. Vasya lost a leg in the war and is hesitantly planning to reunite with his wife. They had undisclosed marital troubles prior to the war; what will she think of him now? Then there is Pavlov’s wife, Liza (Valentina Markova). While her husband has been away, she has been eating well and living comfortably with another man. When Alyosha meets the cynical adulteress, he takes offense on his comrade’s behalf, snatching back the soap and instead bestowing the gift to Pavlov’s invalid father (Vladimir Pokrovskiy), telling the old man what he wants to hear about his gallant and popular son.
Facing a series of impediments that steadily cut into his cumulative time at home, Alyosha’s most important encounter is with Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko, also her first film). Hitching a ride in the same freight of hay, at first startled by Alyosha’s presence, it doesn’t take long for this initially apprehensive young woman to warm up to the cheery soldier. Their train car constriction creates a forced intimacy (but not too intimate!), and a sweet uncertainty yields to an affectionate, compelling flirtatiousness, easing with every close-up. It’s an irresistible courtship, likely to be doomed but charming all the same. Alyosha retains a capacity for calm, reason, and tolerance, and Shura is instantly endearing, emerging from timid skepticism to attractive magnetism (the whole of Ballad of a Soldier is beautifully photographed by Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva, but Prokhorenko is granted a special kind of light: supple, rich, as if emanating solely from a sunbeam). Though they get harassed by a meddling sentry (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) who threatens the stowaways with a supposedly beastly lieutenant (Evgeniy Teterin), the alleged monster turns out to be kindly and indulgent, recognizing the fleeting joys of young love between Alyosha and Shura. They are two cute kids granted a brief reprieve from the danger and destruction; they find a demonstrative shelter, however transitory, secluding and shielding them from the brutalities of the world.
All means of interference seem to conspire against Alyosha, but it’s not that the fates are stacked against him in particular, but that the chaos is symptomatic of the peripheral madness. It’s a long slog home, a course Chukhrai lightens with jovial chatter and delicate touches, like Alyosha rolling a cigarette, using a newspaper clipping of his battlefield feat. Though his status as the principal character never diminishes, Alyosha becomes an emblematic vessel through which Chukhrai can reveal the adversity of others, their individual toils and the commonplace endurance of the citizenry. The duration of Alyosha’s trek takes its toll, with stops in bombed out towns crumbling as battered extensions of the war’s ravage, and with forlorn surveys of exhausted peasants working on the railroad, doing their part for the Soviet Union’s resolution. Standing tall and proud as they await news from the front, these thankless laborers receive a complimentary treatment from Chukhrai, their dignified monument-like posture mirrored later when somber, rigid mourners canvass a field of the dead. Though Ballad of a Soldier counters such melancholy with lyrical photography and an occasionally idyllic score, for Chukhrai, a decorated veteran himself, making what was his second of only seven feature films, this presentation is just enough to take the edge off, to emphasize the inherent, manifold textures of the region and its people.
Separating from Shura, Alyosha is tormented by the regret of what he could have said, of how their lives could have developed. But while Ballad of a Soldier seemed to be shaping up as a traditional, albeit satisfying, love story, that suggestion occupies a secondary place next to the anxiety of Alyosha’s trip. With time running out, down to one night, then a few hours, then mere minutes, he finally reaches his destination, momentarily meeting his mother, if only for an embrace and conventional words of paternal consideration. After she dashes through the field, driven by the intensity of her familial love and devotion, she remarks how thin Alyosha is, asks if he is shaving now, does he smoke? (As for her: “I don’t have time to be sick,” she laments as an overworked mother often does.) In the end, this powerful Mosfilm production forges a universal portrait.
Recipient of multiple international awards (and even an Oscar nomination for its screenplay), Ballad of a Soldier is an emotional work proffering patriotism over politics, honing in on the narrative simplicity of a distinct path and one resolute journey, and symbolically situating one man as a stand-in for the many, for a communal situation reflective of any nation during wartime. For Chukhrai’s and the contemporary Soviet audience, however, the immediate message was specific and pointed. For the final shot of the film, the camera assumes a ground-level view of the road, as Alyosha recedes into the distance. There is a slow tilt up to the sky … the voiceover resumes: “That’s all we have to tell you about our friend Alyosha Skvortsov. He could have become a remarkable man. He could have become a builder or beautified the land with gardens. He was, and in our memory will forever remain, a soldier … a Russian soldier.”