Panfilov’s 28

My discursion into Russian cinema in search of a high-T alternative to Hollywood’s low-T offerings has had mixed results.

The Guardians is Moscowood’s answer to the Avengers by way of a plot reminiscent of an Asylum film without the cheeky self-awareness.  The  opening twenty minutes offers a largely “as you know” block of exposition and backwards narrative presentation that comes off as clumsy and just plain dumb.  Smart writing can overcome a host of production limitation, while dumb writing can make the even the slickest productions look cheap.  What we get in The Guardians is writing as cheap as the CGI and obvious movie-sets.  To make matters worse, the film is only available in the English dub, and efforts to match English words to the Russian lip movements make and already bad script worse.  Well worth a miss.

Panfilov’s 28 on the other hand provides everything a guy could want in a war film.  A plucky band of brothers serve as the last line of defense standing between the German mechanized juggernaut and Moscow herself.  I can’t recall a single actress in the entire film, which revolves around how men bond and fight as much for the man next to themselves in the trench, and how they reconcile themselves to death as a hopeless gesture of defiance.

The English dub works well, though I remain on the fence as to whether the British accents featured throughout add to the drama or distract from the Russian-ness of the piece.  I bounced back and forth and recommend that works best to go with the subtitles during the slow burn first half of preparations for the battle, and then switch to the dubs during the massive second-half battle.  Then the words are few and the visuals stunning enough that you want your attention focused on the screen and not the subtitles.

It is a strange thing to watch so honest a film come out of Russia.  Several moments come across as jarring to sons of the Cold War, as much for meta-narrative reasons as for in-narrative reasons.  For one, the film acknowledges that the Soviets failed utterly to stamp out Christianity.  The political officer makes a reference to throwing those black and white crosses out of the motherland, but one soldier pauses to mutter a prayer in the quiet moments before battle.  Panfilov’s 28 also includes a number of Asiatic soldiers, Kazakh’s who question their orders to fight like Russians.  They are told that when the time comes to fight for Kazakhstan that they will all fight like Kazakh’s.  Both scenes provide a rare glimpse into the daily lives and workings of the minds of men under the Soviet boot-heel.

The film features stunning battle scenes with dozens of tanks belching smoke and shaking the earth, and blasting the holy hell out of an entrenched platoon.  The effects are fantastic, and no amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary.  The director manages to introduce the geography of the battle, and stick to it.  This gives the viewer several ‘hooks’, or ‘checkpoints’, to monitor to determine how well the battle is going at any given moment.  Is that anti-tank gun still operational?  How is its crew faring?  What about that heavy machine gun?  Why is it so quiet?  How close are the foremost tanks to the entrenchment?  How many improvised bombs do the Russkies have left at their disposal?

All of this helps to create a single narrative where the status of each side is laid bare.  You never lose sight of how close the Germans are to their objective, nor how little the Russians have left to halt them.  You also see how deadly the battle is for both sides as the bodies pile up in and before the trenches, and the field of blackened tank hulls sprouts more and more wrecks.

Although the early stages feature a heavy dose of “as you know” exposition, it comes across much more naturally than in Guardians.  These consist mainly of stories swapped by soldiers as they lay out dummy placements, dig the trenches in which they plan to fight, and trade with the locals for badly needed defensive gear.  Or just while away the hours before the German assaults.  It shows soldiers in their natural element, while providing a first-hand description of life in the Red Army.  It works, and helps establish characters and relationships, and the stakes while illustrating the taxing amount of labor that goes into preparing defensive positions.

If you are into war films, definitely give it a look.