April 20, 2015
Movie of the Week: 9th Company
This is a weekly Fort Russ feature (to find the earlier editions, just click on the Movie of the Week) tab above the title. The idea behind it is very simple. Russians (and the rest of the world) do watch US movies, and through them they learn a great deal about the US. But the opposite is not true, which makes the US public far more easily influenced by lies and propaganda spread by the government and the mainstream media (from Fox to NPR and everything in between). And there is a lot to be learned by watching them, especially movies that were made for the Russian audience. So here’s the latest installment in the series, the 9th Company, which is arguably the most important film made in Russia about its war in Afghanistan, and which is also much more than that. The whole film is here, English subtitles and all:
It is an enjoyable movie to watch, with a great deal of (black) humor and many realistic depictions of “facts of life” in the Soviet military, including the training regiment the young soldiers undergo. However, it also contains some pretty important statements on the basic facts of life in this world, as seen from the Russian perspective. These facts of life are communicated to the young recruits by one of the films chief protagonists, Senior Warrant Officer Dygalo (for whatever reason the subtitles insist he is a Lieutenant, but the subtitles are simply wrong on that score), played by a renowned Russian actor Mikhail Porechenkov, who recently made headlines by visiting the Donbass and thus inspiring the ire of Ukrainian nationalists everywhere.
Dygalo is a battle-scarred (literally) combat veteran who, beneath his rough exterior, actually genuinely cares a great deal about his charges and wants to prepare them for the rigors of combat in Afghanistan. He does not spare himself or his subordinates, and one gets the impression he blames himself for the deaths of soldiers under his command during his own tour in Afghanistan. While at first glance he seems similar to many similar “crazy drill sergeant” characters present in US movies (Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket comes to mind), in actuality he quite different from most of them (with possible exception of Sergeant Hulka from Stripes) in that everything he does is made to toughen his troops, both mentally and physically, even though they themselves may feel it’s simply abuse.
In fact, it’s hard to find a single negative characteristic about him, so much so that he comes across as the ideal leader type, a sort of a “Drill Sergeant Stalin” who will do whatever it takes to ensure the survival and victory of his unit. No matter what the cost.
The movie is, alas, not perfect, because while the first half which deals mainly with the training is truly outstanding, once the troops get into Afghanistan it deteriorates sharply as the battle scenes bear little resemblance to what combat actually looked like in that war. It’s as if Bondarchuk (who appears in the movie) saw one too many Hollywood action flicks and tried to emulate them, but in the process he lost the movie’s plot a little. Incidentally, Bondarchuk also recently directed the 2013 movie Stalingrad which came under similar criticism as being overly “Hollywoodish”.
Therefore I would recommend skipping through most of the second part of the movie all the way to the end where the original plot resurfaces once again and you remember what the movie is actually about. This being a Russian war movie, most of the characters die along the way. Only one of Dygalo’s trainees survives, Private Oleg Lyutayev, and the movie all the way from the starts drops hints as to who of the original squad will live and who will die. So when watching the first part of the movie, note the weaknesses, the fatal flaws, that will ultimately get all other squad members killed, and the unique aspect of Lyutayev’s character that will enable him to survive.
That quality happens to be a very simple one: he is an orphan. He has learned from a very early age that life is hard, the world is dangerous, and only the strong survive. If you can’t find that strength within you, you will perish.
This “orphan as hero” motif is not a unique one in Russian films–in fact it’s something of a norm. In Brest Fortress, it’s the orphan Sasha Akimov who proves to be uniquely qualified to carry the Red Banner out of the besieged fortress and who is the only one of four main characters to survive.
Sergeant Naidyonov in White Tiger is also an orphan of a sorts, since he can’t remember even his real name, let alone his relatives, after he miraculously survives his tank’s destruction and fire.
Even Zvyagintsev, who in general is critical of this particular approach to Russian storytelling and does not believe in the need for Dygalo-like “tough love” leadership, somehow could not help but make the main protagonist in The Return into a semi-orphan who does not even remember his father.
The reason for this thread running through these and many other Russian movies is very simple. Russia, as a country, is an orphan. Once in the orbit of the Eastern Roman Empire, it has had to find its own way in the world after the collapse and destruction of its Byzantine “parent”, it has had to become a civilization unto itself, self-reliant in the face of threats from all directions. So whenever you watch a Russian movie and there happens to be an orphan character in it, watch that character really closely, because that character represents Russia itself.