QUICK SNAP : LIVE FROM ROTTERDAM
The Eastern Front of the Second World War seems like it belongs to an entirely different war. Whereas D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge can inspire carefree action pictures and grimily realistic shoot ’em ups, the key film from the Eastern Front is Elem Klymov’s Come and See (1985). The obvious difference is the proximity of the Holocaust. Band of Brothers can wait until the end of the season before stumbling into the concentration camps. The Nazi’s ideology about the racial make up of the East meant that the killing fields were sopping with blood and atrocity was woven into the DNA of the warfare.
Maria Ignatenco’s second feature film Achrome portrays war in the Baltic states. Maris (Gregoriy Bergal) is an innocent seeming soul, content to lie on his back and look at the clouds. But his life changes when he and his brother join the Wermacht as auxiliary soldiers. He is the only volunteer not to have fired a rifle and he dumbly follows, impressed that the Germans have their HQ in the basement of a monastery. In fact, it almost feels as if Maris believes he has joined some kind of order. However, brutality is all around him. Prisoners are brutally murdered in the basement and Maris and his brother go out at night to rob the dead in their shallow graves. The thunder of guns can be heard in the distance and a doom might well be approaching, but in the meantime drinking and whoring silences the doubts and fears. Yet nightmares continue and Maris increasingly seeks a way back to his state of relative innocence.
Now I have my criticisms of this film but it is important to point out that these criticism to some degree reflect a preoccupation with the genre. These films from the east that relate atrocity all seem to do so with a set aesthetic of pale painterly beauty: two parts Tarkovsky to one past Vermeer, with a dash of Breughel the Elder thrown in. The woods are frosty and the interiors glow with guttering flame, casting that perfectly cosy teal and orange look. Everyone is brutish and cold; the victims are bodies in the moonlight. This aesthetics of atrocity can even be seen in the titles from Dénes Nagy’s Natural Light (2021) to Achrome, as if the titles were written by the cinematographers – who – Anton Gromov in this case – are uniformly excellent. But is this painterly excellence appropriate to the subject? Is it not letting us off the hook? The soundtrack doesn’t use music but it is as full of dripping branches and crackling firewood as your favourite ASMR video from YouTube.
Just to be clear. There is nothing wrong with this film. It is intelligent and sensitive. Maris tells us he has seen the face of war, ‘it has dehumanised me and made me a notch on the scale of history’. The trauma feels real. But when a group of German soldiers start to pose with the corpses of their victims , one can’t help but question our own act of looking, our own complicity even as we try to understand.
The International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR) is an online edition running from 26 January to 6 February.