Opening at the Film Forum in New York City Beanpole is a Russian film set in Leningrad just after the Second World War has ended. In addition to the shattered buildings left behind in the 900-day siege, there are also shattered human beings who survived by their wits and a stubborn desire to enjoy a normal life once again.
Among those who will have the hardest time living a normal life again are the veterans in a military hospital who have suffered either grievous wounds and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. The nurses caring for them have suffered as well, including Iya, who is nicknamed beanpole because of her towering height and willowy build. When we first meet her, she is standing as still as a statue in the nurses’ quarters. As a former anti-aircraft gunner, her PTSD is manifested by unpredictable freezes that last for a few minutes and that made her unfit for further duty.
When she is not caring for the patients, she is in her room looking after Peshka, a toddler who craves both her attention and food. The first she can easily supply, the second on a hit-and-miss basis. Although the siege has ended, the population is just one step ahead of feeding on cats and dogs as had been the case during the war. One day, as she was playfully roughhousing with the boy, she freezes up when he is beneath her and becomes collateral damage of the Nazi’s genocidal attack.
Not long after the boy has died, Iya’s sister anti-aircraft gunner Masha shows up at the hospital to reunite with Peshka, who has been left in her friend’s care. Iya breaks the sad news that the boy has died but in his sleep rather than under her immobile body. Having been robbed of normal human reactions by four years of fighting on the front lines, Masha takes the news in stride and even remains dispassionate after learning later on that Iya was at fault.
After taking a job as a nurse, Masha hopes to rebuild her life. With her husband a casualty of the war, her top priority is finding a man who can provide the seed she needs to create a new life. Learning that battleground wounds have left her sterile, she insists that Iya must become pregnant on her behalf. Since Iya is suffering from PTSD and had little interest in men to begin with, that becomes a demand that threatens to destroy their friendship.
Unlike any film I have seen in decades, Beanpole hearkens back to the golden age of Russian cinema as seen in And Quiet Flows the Don or The Cranes Are Flying. Like the second film, it is a wrenching tale of the emotional and physical costs of WWII. Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 classic is a tale of redemption and concludes with the characters looking forward to life of peace and socialist prosperity. Given the post-Soviet sensibility of the 28-year old director/screenwriter Kantemir Balagov, hopes are placed most of all in the sisterhood the two principal actresses share.
In the director’s statement that accompanies this film that is the Russian entry for best foreign film in the upcoming Academy Awards, he stresses the importance of telling not just the story of the two women but a city that perhaps one day will be renamed Leningrad in honor of the resistance it made famous:
Beanpole is my second feature film. It is very important to me that my story takes place in 1945. My heroes, like the city they live in, are mangled by a horrible war. They live in a city that has endured one of the worst sieges in the history of warfare. This is a story about them and about people they meet in Leningrad, the obstacles that they have to overcome and the way they are treated by society. They are psychologically crippled by the war and it will take time for them to learn to live their normal lives.I am interested in the fates of women and especially women who fought in the Second World War. According to data, this was the war with the highest participation of women. As an author, I am interested in finding an answer to the question: what happens to a person who is supposed to give life after she passes through the trials of war?
Louis Proyect blogs at louisproyect.org and is a member of the NY Film Critics Online.