Director: Stanislav Rostotsky
Screenplay: Stanislav Rostotsky
Based on the Novel by: Boris Vasilyev
Starring: Yelena Drapeko, Yekaterina Markova, Olga Ostroumova, Andrei Martynov, Irina Shevchuk, Irina Dolganova
Country: Soviet Union
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 157 min
A critical success in its time, taking home a prize at the Venice Film Festival and getting nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 1972, The Dawns Here Are Quiet is now pretty much forgotten. I certainly hadn’t heard of it until I was passed a copy to review. This DVD release from BIA Films is the first time the film has been released in the UK for home viewing and it’s about time the film was rediscovered as although it has its fair share of flaws, it’s an interesting and fairly powerful film that has lots to admire about it.
Corporal Vaskov (Andrei Martynov) is stationed in a small village in Karelia during WWII, and after his superiors discover the soldiers under his command are too distracted by local ‘pleasures’, they are replaced by an all-female team to man the base’s anti-aircraft guns. The group are more than capable of their task, yet Vaskov struggles to come to terms with the idea and fails to have much influence over their actions. After one of the women discovers two German soldiers in the forest nearby though, Vaskov takes five of his group to go after them and he learns to respect them along the way. Unfortunately this leads them to a large German platoon and the six under-equipped Russians have to be quick-witted to survive and prevent the enemy from making headway into friendly territory.
The Dawns Here Are Quiet is very much a film of two halves. The first sets the scene and introduces us to the girls and their backstories and the second concerns the mission in the forest and rarely ventures back to see how the rest of the soldiers are coping. It’s almost like watching two separate films as it’s closing in on 2 hours and 40 min (over 2 discs) and there is a massive shift in tone and energy. The first half was a real slog to be honest and contains most of the complaints I had with the film. It’s in no hurry to get anywhere and although I was still quite drawn to the characters and the set-up, it was all a bit too fluffy to have any sort of impact.
My main issue with the first half was the handling of its subject matter. I loved the fact that we were seeing a war film from a different angle (i.e. from a female soldier’s perspective) and it must have been groundbreaking in its time, but unfortunately the first half of the film spoils the chance of making much of a feminist statement through its setting up of the characters. Every time we get to hear about how each of the women came to join the army it’s linked to some sort of weak, sappy love story. The film, which is mostly in black and white, breaks out into colour and stylised imagery to present these frequent flashbacks which is a nice idea and often looks great, but too often the sets look very cheap and the constant big close-ups of dewy eyes as characters gaze lovingly at each other is nauseating, especially after the tenth time. Never once do any of the characters want to fight for their homeland or beliefs, it’s all purely to either take revenge on the death of or simply to get closer to some pretty-boy they still dream about, which to me ruined the impact of the film’s feminist slant.
I don’t want to sound too negative though. As I mentioned in my introduction, the film has a lot of great qualities and in the second half I was hooked back in completely. After a relatively light set-up the film gets much darker and unflinching in its portrayal of the horrors of war. What I especially liked was how understated this ‘action’ segment was. Standoffs between the small Russian group and the Germans are suitably tense and refreshingly small scale. Rarely is anything over-baked, even the deaths of several main characters are kept raw and unsentimental, although some moments towards the end veer in that direction. There are plenty of war movie clichés still, but with the alternative perspective on matters and the restraint in other areas, the film gets away with them for the most part.
It’s a handsomely shot film too with some meticulously framed black and white photography mixing with the occasionally more abstract and strikingly colourful work in the flashback sequences. The originality for its time is admirable too despite the grievances I have with the characters’ development. So I would still recommend people track down this forgotten gem, but would also warn them to have patience and persevere through the film’s slow and flawed first half.
The DVD was released late last year in the UK by BIA Films. The picture and sound quality aren’t amazing, but still respectable enough for a film of its age and there are even several special features including a documentary about women serving in the war and interviews with several cast members. I must admit I didn’t sit through them all as it was getting late, but they seem like interesting additions to the package and when a rare film like this gets any sort of special treatment it’s highly commendable.