The First World War may be overcome by the shadow of the globe-spanning second one, but in Russia, the conflict resembles a national nightmare, a memory so traumatic it’s best forgotten. The loss of territory, defeat of troops and — perhaps worst of all — the beating to ego is still a fresh wound.
The recent Moscow International Film Festival took note of the centenary of WWI’s commencement (which was on July 28th) with a presentation of footage and ideas from an upcoming Russian feature film titled "Battalion of Death." The story is based on real events during WWI, but the project is more than just a reenactment: Its production is being supported by the Ministry of Culture and, by extension, President Vladimir Putin.
What is the Battalion?
Maria Bochkareva was a Russian peasant who, after three years of serving in the army, attained the rank of non-commissioned officer in 1917. She petitioned the government to allow her to establish a battalion of female soldiers. Members of the military and administration were enthusiastic about the idea, believing that female soldiers would have powerful propaganda value. They thought it would revitalize the downtrodden and fatigued male soldiers, shaming them into resuming combat duties. Thus was born the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death, whose story will be chronicled in Dmitry Meshiev’s "Battalion of Death."
Fyodor Bondarchuk, producer and director of "Stalingrad 3D" (the biggest Russian film of 2013), came up with the idea for "Battalion," which was originally to be part of an ambitious almanac featuring contributions from all countries participating in The Great War. This international project fell through, but its producer Igor Ugolnikov continued with the idea and approached the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and the Russian Military Historical Society.
Propaganda in Russia Comes Full Circle
Cinema has been used as a tool for propaganda in Russia since the times of the Soviet Union. Film production was nationalized following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and documentaries and silent films were produced to bolster Lenin’s cause. "The cinema is the greatest medium of mass agitation," Joseph Stalin once said. "The task is to take it into our hands."
Cinematic landmarks such as Eisenstein’s "Battleship Potemkin," Pudovkin’s "The End of St. Petersburg" and Bondarchuk’s "War and Peace" originated primarily as propaganda. "Soviet leaders […] were always very concerned with the films made in their country, which had to show every aspect of the present and the past, not to mention the future, in the right perspective of the party’s dialectic line," said Screen International critic Dan Fainaru in an interview.
The Russian Military Historical Society, meanwhile, was formed at the end of 2012 following an executive order by Putin and is seen as a spiritual torch-carrier to its Imperial predecessor. Its Chairman is the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, himself. At the event, a representative from the Society announced that the body had acted as a consultant on "Battalion," and that there was no "bad patriotism" in the film’s script. "We want films to be based on historical fact," he said. "[Russia] has a 1000-year old history and we must depict it all."
Medinsky, whom locals have disparagingly nicknamed "Putin’s culture cop," complimented "Battalion" for being "completely true to history." He complained that there are many historical films based on half-truths or complete fantasy, citing "Saving Private Ryan" as an example. "It is about events that never happened in WWII and couldn’t have happened in WWII," he said.
By comparison, the battalion in the film, "made entirely of women, was the first such one in the history of human civilization. This war has always been badmouthed, but we hope [‘Battalion’] will restore some honor in the minds of the people about their motherland."
Whether or not the footage was "completely true to history," it was certainly true to several war movie clichés. The opening scene depicts a soldier returning to St. Petersburg and being shocked by the rising prices, as a horse puller grimly informs him of the hardships caused by the war. One scene finds the protagonist, a fresh recruit in the Battalion, being reduced to tears by Maria Bochkareva’s tough training regimen. The commander has the female soldiers slap each other around to prepare them for their opponents’ brutality. In a war sequence, the last part of the showcase, the Russian soldiers are shown as compassionate and God-loving warriors. As they stare at impending doom, they bid each other tearful farewells and invoke the Lord’s name.
The photography is lush, similar to Joe Wright’s "Atonement," and the scale of the public and war scenes massive. According to the director, in 85% scenes there are "more than 150 people on screen." However, the lack of subtlety — be it in the schmaltzy score or the larger-than-life, thinner-than-paper characters — underscore the propaganda-like origins of the film and its self-glorifying qualities.
Monetary Support: an Exception in Russia
Bondarchuk revealed that the Ministry had awarded the filmmakers RUB 50 million with the possibility of more funding later. This news is in stark contrast to the prevalent artistic climate in the country, which is hampered by a new censorship law — effective July 1 — that bans swearing in films. Offending titles will find it impossible to get distribution certificates for theatrical screening.
"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," a 2013 documentary about an anti-Putinist rock group, was banned in Russia, and its co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin believes the country is deceptively conservative. As David D’Arcy reported for Indiewire in a dispatch from the festival, "Russian government funding for independent documentaries [is] minimal and money for indie docs isn’t trickling down from the new moneyed Russian One Per Cent." The director added that "Russian money is a joke."
Variety critic Jay Weissberg said he was not surprised by the existence or nature of this project. "[‘Battalion of Death’] fits in perfectly with the Putin regime’s mimicking of Soviet propaganda, in which history must be controlled," he said. "The filmmakers themselves are clearly cogs in the Putin machine. It now appears that the president and his cronies want to ‘correct the record’ about this ‘badmouthed’ war."
Dodging the Truth
In spite of the entire hullabaloo, the Battalion didn’t actually achieve much in the war. In action during the Kerensky Offensive, its members had to retreat from all the territory gained in the offensive. After the 1917 Revolution, the Battalion disbanded due to intense hostility from male troops who wanted an end to the dismal war and despised the female volunteers for unduly stretching it. During the press conference, Viktor Matizen, a Russian film critic, pointed out how Maria Bochkareva’s story was akin to a senseless folly, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, and their fighting didn’t make any difference "because Russia was losing anyway."
Bondarchuk stonily replied, "Why do you have children if they will all die anyway?" and the crowd burst into applause — presumably because of his implication that just because some stories don’t have a happy ending doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be told. Matizen’s concern about whether the Battalion’s role in the larger context of the war would be recognized did not receive a direct answer.
How Will It Play?
The Russian Wikipedia page for the film claims its budget is RUB 250 million (around $7.5 million). Recouping the film’s expensive budget will be tough. It is not out of the question that — with an official seal of approval from the Ministry of Culture — attendance could be made compulsory for armed forces and schoolchildren.
A journalist from Proficinema, a Russian trade publication, asked about the release plans for the movie and if it will be converted to 3D. (The added dimension is still a huge box office draw in Russia.)
Bondarchuk replied that they never thought of shooting in 3D and converting it now would be a "wrong move." Looking at "Stalingrad" and its RUB 1.75 billion domestic gross ($52 million) as a benchmark, Bondarchuk wants "Battalion of Death" to gross RUB 2 billion. He added that talks were also in progress with a "major American company" and the international distribution strategy will be similar to the one employed for "Stalingrad," which was released in the US on February 28, 2014, giving the film "four weeks free of big releases."
Ugolnikov emphasized that the film will be completed and premiere this year, to commemorate the war’s centennial.
In response to continuing skepticism from some journalists over the film’s government ties, director Dmitry Meshiev lashed out. "Why are you so cautious about the Military Historical Society?" he asked. "Why such nasty questions? We have made a patriotic movie, and the [Society] gave us workers who devoted their lives."
Bondarchuk ended the press conference by pleading journalists to "have trust in us. And very good movies like ours."