The setting of this Russian film is the remotest section of Siberia in 1945, just after the end of
World War II. There are a few dozen people living together in a labor camp on
the edge of nowhere. Because of a state-approved German/Russian co-operation in
earlier times, the central government is half convinced that the people in the
camp were German collaborators and, at any rate, post-war Moscow has more important
priorities than this tiny encampment on the border of hell, so the people in the
have basically created their own societal organization. There is an officer in charge,
at least theoretically, but he has a weak will and a missing arm, so he just doesn't care
what happens as long as he is personally comfortable. People obey him only when they feel like it,
so the situation
is not far from anarchy. Into the camp comes Ignat, a battle-hardened
sergeant who specializes in the maintenance of locomotives. Ignat suffered
some physical and psychological damage when we was fighting at the front, so he
has some problems of his own, but he does
understand and love trains - loves fixin' 'em, loves drivin' em, you name it.
The officer tells Ignat that he's now number two in command, but Ignat is not
impressed with the dumpy camp at all, and is the tougher of the two guys, so he
says he'll just keep moving on. The officer responds that Ignat has to stay, not
because it's an order, but because there's nowhere else to go. To go back is to
face court martial and/or hard work, and there's no going forward because the
railroad tracks end a few miles down the line.
In spite of those facts, Ignat soon finds someplace to go. The railroad line
ends at a large body of water, but it did not always stop there. Beyond that is
a partially damaged bridge which used to lead to an enormous island. It seems
that the island was once used as a joint German/Russian logging camp which was
supposed to be a model of international co-operation when Stalin and Hitler were
still buddies. The railroad bridge had been used to bring the timber from the
island back to the mainland. When Germany broke the non-aggression pact, all
hell broke loose, things got ugly, the bridge got damaged, and a locomotive got
abandoned on the island. When Ignat finds out about the island's history, he
knows it may be his personal heaven. Given the lack of authority in this outback
location, if he can get to the island, repair the train, and patch up the
bridge, he can actually have his own personal locomotive. And he does love him
some trains! Of course, even if he can make it to the island, people believe
that some armed Germans are still living there.
The rest of the plot is for you to discover.
This is an outstanding film, one of the best in recent years. It is dazzlingly
original in concept and execution, the cinematography is both spectacular and
inventive, and the film is just ... big. The themes are larger than life, the
orchestral score is majestic, the locations are
spectacularly rugged, the action scenes are epic in scope, and the ideas are
important. But the film is not self-important. It's filled with curious local
color and plenty of humor. It has a little bit of everything. There's a crazy Russian man and a
young German girl working together to build a makeshift bridge over some raging
water, and then driving a locomotive at top speed hoping to reach the undamaged
portion of the bridge before their jury-rigged trestle can collapse. There is
the romance of the mighty steam engines:
two dramatic locomotive races, one in good weather and one in the snow, plus
a locomotive test of strength with two of the giant engines pushing
face-to-face. There's a gigantic "immortal" bear who seems to be everywhere.
There are fascinating characters, all of them unique, colorful, and slightly
damaged - sometimes more than "slightly." Best of all, in comparison to many
other Russian epics, it is not suffused with fatalism, and doesn't end with
everyone dying face down in the snow. There's hope for some of the characters,
there's more than a little inspiration, and there's a satisfying ending.
Hell, there's even a naked catfight between two women who are
surrounded by several other completely naked women.
It goes without saying that not all of you will be interested in a Russian-language movie about a remote and barely civilized camp in Siberia in 1945, but
if the idea of watching something like that doesn't turn you off, I think you'll
be very impressed by this film. It strikes an excellent balance between artistic
achievement and gritty realism, with just enough old-fashioned Hollywood-style
schmaltz to make it fun to watch.