Inspired by the book of Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich The unwomanly face of war, Russian director Kantemir Balagov made his second feature film, Beanpole. Set in Leningrad in 1945 after the siege is lifted and the war is over, two young women, Iya and Masha, search for meaning and hope in the struggle to rebuild their lives amongst the ruins. Balagov manages to completely transport the audience to Leningrad in the autumn of 1945. The movie was shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival and will run in the Dutch cinemas starting 20 February.
Masha (left) en Iya. Photo's: stills from Beanpole
By Elsa Court
Around one million women fought in the Red Army during World War Two. Serving as not only as doctors or nurses, they also took on positions that saw the most bloodshed: partisans, snipers, tank drivers, pilots. Upon Soviet victory, the women who survived returned to their normal roles, and their stories were largely forgotten.
In 1985, the journalist Svetlana Alexievich published The unwomanly face of war, which recorded the oral history of the women whose bravery and tragedy were buried by the official Soviet narrative. 'Women’s stories are different', she wrote, 'there are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.' Alexeivich questioned why, 'having stood up for and held their own place in a once absolutely male world, have women not stood up for their history?'
Russian director Kantemir Balagov was inspired by this book to write his second feature film, Beanpole. Set in Leningrad, the story follows two women who fought together and now work in a hospital, petite and energetic Masha, and pale, silent Iya, nicknamed Дылда, the beanpole, because of her height.
The siege has been lifted, the war is over, and the start of ‘peaceful life’ is announced, but the trauma of what the women have seen and done sours any sense that normalcy is possible. Balagov paints an intimate and devastating picture as Masha and Iya care for male soldiers, while undertaking misguided attempts to heal their own deep internal wounds.
The main conflict revolves around Masha’s fixation on having a child, but an operation that saved her life at the front has left her unable to conceive. She turns to Iya to carry a child for her, doubling the meaning of her nickname. Iya cannot refuse after being emotionally blackmailed by her friend and reminded of an indescribable debt that she must repay. Masha’s compulsion to become a mother, to create new life after the years of death she has seen, drives the story to a devastating climax.
The specific female experience of trauma is pointed at through constant contradictions. Masha and Iya have learned how to kill, as nurses they know how to repair horrific injuries, and in uniform they appear mature and authoritative. But at the same time they are young girls, who don’t really know how to talk to boys their own age, or fully understand how children are made. The two are veterans but still carry a certain naivety; they act like mothers without properly looking after themselves. In one scene they are strong enough to carry loads and look after crippled men, and in the next fainting, bleeding, or falling unconscious in an episode of PTSD.
For a film that focuses so intensely on the war, it features very little violence, and no scenes of the blood, bombings, or starvation that Leningrad saw. Instead, there are constant, bitter reminders of the battles that the viewer has not witnessed. Upon seeing a photograph of his children, Masha asks a doctor if they are dead in the same tone as if she were to ask their names or age. Iya walks in a style that is somewhere between a march and a limp, while a dress cannot be tried on without spinning around the room until exhaustion, making up for the lost years when such an act was impossible.
Populated by women
At the same time, Balagov manages to completely transport the audience to Leningrad in the autumn of 1945 due to the eerily convincing sets and costumes. The war has wrecked the city and the lives of its inhabitants even at the smallest details- brief glimpse of a bloodstain on the back of a girl’s coat or the way young children can’t recognise the sounds of animals like pigs or dogs, 'because they’ve all been eaten'. The opening shots also show a city almost entirely populated by women, the handheld camera embedded deep within a crowd and at the height of their faces, creating the claustrophobic feeling that you are waiting to crush into a tram or metro carriage with them.
The stunning cinematography picks up on natural textures and sharpens splashes of greens and reds, stylising Soviet interiors into something akin to a Vermeer painting. In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, Balagov said that Dutch paintings were a main source of inspiration for him and his cinematographer, Ksenia Sereda. He considered filming in black and white, but felt he could more accurately portray the reality of people’s lives through colour and wanted to dismantle the notion that people lived through the era in monochrome.
The film’s style and subject matter suggest a writer and director well into his prime, but Balagov is not yet 30 years old (for that matter, neither is Sereda). Born in 1991, he grew up in Nalchik, a city of around 200,000 in the foothills of the Caucuses. His acclaimed debut, Closeness (Теснота), also takes a female perspective amidst the kidnappings and chaos of the 1990s in that region. Like Beanpole, it is a story of survival which does not judge characters or portray them as good or evil, but rather Balagov shows humans for what they are: flawed individuals who are faced with unthinkable choices because of the specific circumstances in which they are living.
Subtle references to Stalinism
For viewers with knowledge of the political context, both of Balagov’s films are interesting in that they portray human lives as both irreparably impacted by political decisions, and yet the characters themselves are so concentrated on survival, that any discussion on politics is superfluous. Instead, in Beanpole there are subtle references to the way Stalinism seeped into everyday life. A poster in the hospital corridor proclaims 'Children: Our Future!', mirroring Masha’s obsession with the state’s directive that women needed to fulfil their natural role.
The most outright critique of the Soviet regime in the film is found in his portrayal of inequalities in Leningrad, through the character of Sasha. As a boy the same age as Masha and Iya, his very existence is proof of his privilege - he was not sent to fight, instead helping at the hospital thanks to the connections of his parents. They live in a private residence, with fine china, a car, and even a dog (healthy and uneaten). Upon hearing that Masha was at the front, Sasha’s mother assumes she had the euphemistic role of ‘supportive function’, later conceding that it was an important job to give ‘our heroes’ comfort.
Much of Alexievich’s work deals with the silence that arose as a coping mechanism for these women. Part of the reason was trauma, part was that the gender stereotypes of combat - that women were nurses or undertook ‘supportive functions’ - never really broke down, as Balagov shows. She writes that before the war, there was not even a female form for positions like ‘tank driver’ in the Russian language. On victory, there was no room for their stories and even 75 years later, films like Beanpole are only beginning to shed light on their experiences.
See here where and when Beanpole is shown
Read here an article from 2015 on the Calvert Journal about other Russian films about women in WOII.