The Last Train

[Последний поезд]

Last Train film still

Russia, 2003, 82 minutes, Black and white
In German and Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksei German Jr.
Screenplay: Aleksei German Jr.
Camera: Oleg Lukichev
Art Direction: Viktor Drozdov
With: Pavel Romanov, Petr Merkur'ev, Aleksei Devotchenko, Irina Rakshina, Aleksandr Tiurin, Marina Radzhieva
Production: Pief Film Studio
Awards: Special Mention for debut film at Venice International Film Festival; Prize for Best Director at Kinoshok Festival (Russia); Grand Prix and FIPRESCI Prize at Thessaloniki International Film Festival (Greece); Grand Prix at Stalker Festival (Russia).

In several interviews Aleksei German Jr. recalls how his grandmother, together with his mother (then a very young girl), was being deported from Ukraine to a concentration camp in Germany during World War II. Somewhere en route the train stopped in the middle of nowhere and an elderly German soldier unsealed the locked doors of their train car and told the passengers to flee. If there was one such forgotten and nameless, but decent, German soldier amongst the invaders, then there must have been one or two more. In effect, The Last Train pays homage to these men: decent, nameless, forgotten, and struggling with their individual powerlessness in the face of cataclysmic events.

Pawel Fischbach ― an aging, overweight, and bespectacled military doctor who had served in World War I ― arrives in Ukraine on the last German train to make it through Soviet lines, moving against the tide of bodies. It is the bitterly cold winter of 1943, the exact midpoint of the Great Patriotic War when roles have been reversed and nothing is clear any longer: the invaders have become the besieged, soldiers have become invalids, advances have become retreats, frontlines have been erased. Fischbach makes his way to an isolated field hospital where he tries to minister to the wounded and dying. But when the hospital is about to be attacked by Soviet forces, an officer, who has remained at the hospital to look after one of his wounded men, throws Fischbach out into the killing frost and breaks his glasses. It is never certain whether this is an act of cruel mercy or merciless cruelty, but it condemns Fischbach and his companion, a skinny German mailman named Kreutzer, to wander without hope across an impassable landscape where it is impossible to identify or differentiate friend from foe. Their spatial disorientation becomes a visual marker of the ethical and moral chaos that has swallowed both of the warring sides.

In this peculiar war movie, the only on-screen depiction of wartime actions occurs as the film moves towards closure: Fischbach and Kreutzer come across the dead and dying bodies of a group of Soviet partisans who had earlier spared their lives. These partisans had been massacred by a detachment of German soldiers, who in turn have been annihilated in revenge by a group of Soviet soldiers. Kreutzer collapses under a tree; Fischbach opens his umbrella, sits on a crate holding the hand of a dying woman-partisan, and freezes to death

Films about World War II have been a staple of Russo-Soviet cinema since the German capitulation in May, 1945. The topos of war/patriotism runs through all periods of post-war Soviet film history―from Stalinism’s celebration of generals and “master plans” (Igor' Savchenko’s The Third Blow, 1948; Mikhail Chiaureli’s The Fall of Berlin, 1949; Aleksandr Ivanov’s Star, completed in 1949 but released in 1953), through the Thaw’s poetic vision of the ordinary Soviet soldier (Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, 1957; Grigorii Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier, 1959; Andrei Tarkovskii’s Ivan’s Childhood, 1962) and the Stagnation’s recreations of that war in epic proportions on the screen (Iurii Ozerov’s five-part film Liberation, 1968-71; his two-part Battle for Moscow, 1985; Stalingrad, 1989). German Jr.’s own father gained international acclaim for two such films: Operation “Happy New Year” (1971; released as Trial By Road in 1985) and Twenty Days Without War (1976).

Aleksei German Jr., however, has fundamentally recast the way this central event in the formation of Russo-Soviet consciousness is imaged on screen: the war here is seen through German eyes―through Fischbach’s eyes―that lack a clarity of vision both because the immediate present is senseless and because his glasses have been broken. Even more radically, German Jr. has dramatically changed the sound of war. On the one hand, his German soldiers speak exclusively in German (hence the film’s need for Russian subtitles when screened domestically); on the other, the sound of war is communicated less by gunshots and explosions than by the steady and almost uninterrupted coughing that runs through the entire soundtrack.

Aleksei German Jr.

Aleksei German Jr photo

Aleksei German Jr. is the son of one of the most important living filmmakers in the world. Although he was born in Moscow in 1976, German grew up and went to school in Leningrad. He studied for two years at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Theatrical Art (SPGATI), where one of his instructors was Pavel Romanov, who plays the lead role in The Last Train. In 1996 he was accepted into the Film Directing Department at the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in Moscow, where he worked in the workshops of Sergei Solov'ev and Valerii Rubinchik. He graduated VGIK in 2001 and his diploma film, Little Fools, was screened at several major film festivals. Since 2001 he has worked at Lenfilm Studios. The Last Train is his first full-length feature film.

1998 The Banner (short)
1999 Large Autumn Field (short)
2001 Little Fools (short; diploma film)
2003 The Last Train
2004: Prophets and Gains Debut Films at Pittsburgh Filmmakers STW [СТВ] Film Company Pygmalion Productions NTV-Profit Film Company

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