Films from the Soviet Union have tended to fall off the radar in recent years and I’m not sure why. I don’t think it’s a case of the fall of the USSR making such films seem a little quaint with their propaganda quality. Sergei Eisentstein’s Potemkin (1925) is great filmmaking with or without the Soviet government. Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1959) has certainly vanished from the “great films” rosters, which is understandable, because it never was a great film—merely a good, simple movie that became notable as the first successful Russian film to come out during the Cold War. It hardly deserves its current obscurity, however.
Even in 1959, Ballad of a Soldier would have seemed a little old-fashioned, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and at the time it was probably considered merely a cultural difference. It is, however, a cultural difference dating back to the films of Pudovkin and Dovzhenko—though happily it’s more accessible than the works of the latter (I’m still waiting for someone to adequately explain the ending of Dovzhenko’s 1930 film Earth). There’s a sense of a little much of the lyrical peasant-farming movie in some scenes, and a feeling that we’re dealing with people who’d actually create something like the parody tone poem “Ode to a Tractor” from Silk Stockings (1957) and take it seriously. But with that also comes a formalist old-style beauty that is very appealing in its own right.
The story line is extremely simple. Aloysha (Vladimir Ivashov) is a private in the Soviet army during WWII who becomes a hero when he knocks out a couple of Nazi tanks (unlike his cowardly comrade who “deservedly” gets killed trying to escape). He’s given six days leave to visit his mother and repair her leaking roof (19-year-old Russian soldiers are, of course, very dutiful). Most of the film concerns his journey, which is interestingly detailed with various encounters—not the least of which is meeting a pretty girl, Shura (Zhanna Prokhrenko), and falling in love with her. There are also encounters with a one-legged soldier (Yevgeni Urbansky), whom—in a touching scene—Aloysha helps reunite with his wife (Eliza Lezhdey), a war scene with heroics, a scene of disappointment and so on. It’s fairly standard stuff, made into something more by a sense of humanity and a knack for avoiding outright schmaltz.
Humanity is probably the overriding quality of the film and it’s almost certainly what made it a hit and an eye-opener for American audiences in 1959. This was not merely Cold War era, but it came right on the tail of McCarthyism. Seeing the pleasant and inescapably human characters of Ballad of a Soldier must have been a shocking change after years of anything with the word “Soviet” attached being thoroughly demonized. Keep that in mind when you watch the film.