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The action takes place shortly after the end of the Second World War in the Siberian hinterland, among Russians and Germans with damaged personal stories and a strange transformation: the victors seem to be crawling into the skins of the defeated, and vice versa. Ignat, is the embodiment of the larger-than-life image of the Soviet victorious warrior who, in fact, proves to be shell-shocked, sick and broken, although not completely destroyed. Trains become fetish for the heroes of the film, and speed becomes a mania; they virtually become one with their steam engines, while the machines take on human names. The heroes set up an almost fatal race in the Siberian forest, risking their own lives and those of others. Written by
Best train chases since Buster Keaton's The General
I saw this at the Toronto film festival on September 11, 2010, under the title, "The Edge". I walked in prepared for a heavy dose of Russian gloom. I like Russian literature, especially Chekhov, but I'm always reminded of these lines from a David Massengill song: "What's wrong with the Russians? Have you read their novels? They all die in brothels." In this case, there is nothing wrong with the Russians. This movie grabs you from the start and doesn't let go. Don't get me wrong, this is not a lighthearted movie; it has serious subject matter and complex issues that the characters must deal with . . . and there is plenty of gloom to go around.
Here is the situation in Siberia: At the beginning of World War II, while Stalin and Hitler were still honoring their non-aggression pact, Germans and Russians were co-existing in a remote labor camp. Eventually, Stalin sends his thugs to oust the Germans and declare the Russian inhabitants to be collaborators. At this point the film opens with a young girl running for her life. Four years later, the fighting is over and a Soviet war hero has arrived to work on the town's steam engine. The only Germans left are the illegitimate child of one of the Russian women . . . and don't forget that running girl.
I found myself missing some of the subtitles because I could not take my eyes of the compelling characters and the actors who play them. The standouts are Vladimir Mashkov as the hero and Anjorka Strechel and Yulia Peresild as the women who love/hate him. But his true passion is the steam engine, which he races through the snowy Siberian woods.
The steam locomotive chase sequences are the best put on film since Buster Keaton spectacularly crashed a Union train into Oregon's Rock River in The General (1927). It's as though director Uchitel is rebuilding the train and the bridge Keaton destroyed eight decades ago and a half a world away.
Unlike Keaton's masterpiece, which should have won an Oscar in 1927, this film is Russia's entry into the 2010 Best Foreign Film Oscar competition.
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