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The Haunted Hero of Bondarchuk’s “Fate of a Man”

April 16, 2010

The object of nostalgia in Sergei Bondarchuk’s Fate of a Man (Sud’ba Cheloveka, 1959) is the hovering, tantalizing, maddening reality of a pre-war world. The image of this hopelessly lost terrain refuses to yield; it lingers in the mind as a promise and a torment. Andrei Sokolov (Bondarchuk), an escaped prisoner-of-war, has lost his entire family in the Great Patriotic War. For him, the past is more real than the present. He embraces the torments of recollected wholeness. We might guess that such memories would preclude Sokolov’s engagement with a present that is, for this bravest of men, unpeopled, undesirable, and even frightening—an empty map from a book about journeys one would rather not take.

But it is precisely the survival of memory, of the image of a longed-for past, that motivates Sokolov’s first, audacious step toward a workable future. Sokolov had once defined his peacetime identity by his love for family; he had become a husband and father in the brief era between the twin upheavals of forced collectivization and total war. Peace without family is for him a kind of grim joke. He can conceive of forward motion only through an echo of the past. He finds it in a tiny, towheaded orphan-beggar named Vaniushka.

After giving Vaniushka a lift in his truck and learning that the boy has also lost his entire family, Sokolov turns to the child.

“Do you know who I am?”

“No.”

“I am your father.”

The child throws himself upon Andrei with kisses and tears, and together they set off on a journey into the unknown, each holding close a phantom of a lost past to steady, direct, and sustain them on their way.

The union of these two lost and longing souls leaves some crucial questions to be resolved in the post-film world of the viewer’s mind: Will Andrei attempt to raise the boy as a replacement or reincarnation of his lost son (an expert mathematician and heroic wartime captain)?  Or will he focus his longing not on the impossible return of a departed son, but on the very real prospect of having a new one—of experiencing anew the longed-for feelings of family commitment.  In short, will he help the boy toward a future of his own?

The imagery of the film itself—Sokolov’s close attention to the boy as an independent and proudly self-aware creature (note the boy’s prickly greeting of the driver at the film’s beginning) seems to bode well. But when the words of Mikhail Sholokhov (upon whose writing the film is based) appear on the screen at film’s end, they strike a dissonant note.  After a tale that so boldly exposes the horror of war rather than trumpeting its glories, Sholokhov’s words pose the question of Vaniushka’s future as a purely martial one: Will Andrei raise a boy capable of going through what Andrei went through for his country? This is sheer ideological overlay, imposing final thoughts on a film that did quite well on its own in provoking thoughts.

Of course, it occurs to us that a father who has been so extraordinarily strong in the most beastly of circumstances, and yet lost none of his capacity for tenderness, may raise a brave and honorable son. But we have more fundamental worries about the future of Andrei and Vaniushka: Sokolov remains deeply damaged and far from recovered. At night, he tells the driver, he worries he’ll have a heart attack and die and frighten the child. He still laments, reasonably enough, that his life has been twisted and ruined. It is clear that Sokolov will need the boy as much as the boy needs him, and that the fathers and sons debate that will unfold during the Thaw years (who will teach whom?) is, as in reality, unresolved. Least of all are we concerned about how the child will grow up to serve the nation. Our concern is simpler. How will he grow up?

In this film, pain is not elegiac but raw, more realist than neorealist. Bondarchuk, as Andrei Sokolov, is not quieter than life like the heroically observant Alyosha Skvortsov of Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier (1959) or the suffering thinker-heroes of Tarkovsky’s films. He is, instead, intense and forever battling, a man in motion both physically and mentally. This motion of his mind projects onto his muscles, his jaw, his stride. He is, like the best creations of Brando or Steiger, filled with despairing rage and fierce despair. To this he adds an awkward gentleness, a halting language of hope, sustained and challenged by ghosts.

Greg Blake Miller

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