“I killed 152 people with 154 shots”, boasts a Russian sniper. Lyudmila Pavlichenko quickly outshines him: “I killed 309”. This is how the Russian-Ukrainian production Battle for Sevastopol sets out its mission: to recreate and to celebrate the life and the bloody feats of a real-life female soldier.
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union during WWII, university student Lyudmila Pavlichenko (Yulia Peresild) becomes a fighter in the 25th Rifle Division of the Soviet Army. She fights in the Battle of Odessa (in the Ukraine) and then in the defence of Sevastopol (in Crimea). After 309 confirmed kills, she is sent to the United States in order to campaign for American support, where she becomes a close friend of the first-lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Joan Blackham).
Battle for Sevastopol is a very mainstream war movie with few audacious and innovative elements, apart from the topic of a female on the frontline – far more common on the Soviet frontline than in British and American army. The film examines both the personal and war battles faced my Lyudmila, including a rollerscoaster romance and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, all with a very formulaic and aesthetically-conservative cinematic devices. The film is full of trenches, airplanes and sea battles, in very good old-fashioned Hollywood style.
The events in the movie are far from controversial. They depict an enemy common to Russians, Ukrainians and Americans: the Nazis and the Fascists. This probably helped the film to pick up its $5 million budget, a reasonably large one for Russian standards. After all, everyone wants to fight against the evil Germans.
The film is also a powerful reminder of the importance of Crimea, the island currently under de facto Russian control but claimed by Ukraine. Just last week, the 2016 Eurovision winner Jamala from the Ukraine stirred enormous controversy and was nearly stripped of her title for doing a political song about the controversial region.
Russian films often portray unlikely soldiers. In this case, a female university student, while in Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood a 12-year-old child was sent to war. The difference is that the Russian classic from 1962 examines the pointlessness of war, while the modern war flick seems to celebrate it instead. The Soviet might is inclusive, resilient and enviable, the movie seems to tell audiences.
The acting in Battle for Sevastopol is average, but never remarkable. The cinematography is very beautiful on the trenches, where the red blood and fire are contrasted against nearly black-and-white imagery, but in other parts of the movie it is mediocre, sub-Hollywood. This is a studio film, with some of the cities depicted – such as Sevastopol and Odessa – hardly recognisable. The script lacks dramatism, and the film is not as engaging as the also-Americanised Russian thriller Night Watch (Timur Bekmambetov, 2004). The soundtrack is mostly cheesy Russian pop.
The result is a mostly sanitised film that is interesting to watch for its historical content, but is not outstanding in any way. It is neither electrifying like an action-packed thriller from the United States, nor does it have the breathtaking photography and the auteur trademarks of Russian filmmakers like Alexander Sokurov and Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Arrow Films released Battle for Sevastopol in DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week. You can buy it by clicking here, and you can watch the film trailer below: