Tipping on the edge of the tracks and threatening to fall under the weight of its hysterics, this film conveys the dark humor and chaos that was post-war Russia.
Aleksei Uchitel’s steam punk masterpiece copped a 2011 nomination for a Golden Globe Best Foreign Language Film Award. It also railroaded the competition for three Russian Nika wins including Vladimir Mashkov for Best Actor, Yuri Klimenko for Best Cinematographer and Best Film. Together with another four nominations, “Kray” steamed off with nominations in half of all of the NIKA categories in 2011.
Not bad for a film with a half dozen actors and three old locomotives.
OK, they are great locomotives. So any of you steam engine aficionados should wait no longer and find this film in a theater near you. Two of the locomotives are standard issue refurbished and totally up to original, operational, gasket-blowing, huffing-puffing, hot-and-sweaty magnificence.
The third is more of a ghost than a conventional locomotive. It is Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and Klaus Kinski is channeled through the glaring, sweaty, snarling persona of Ignat, played with throbbing, twitching intensity by Nika / Geneva FF award winner Vladimir Mashkov.
The characters in this film have only first names. Isolated in a Siberian work camp, they become like brothers and sisters, like illegitimate lovers. They are free to escape any time. The problem is there is no place to go. Their love-hate relationship with each other blows out of the screen and into the audience. Ignat is a war hero who hates what he has seen, hates his homeland, hates those around him and hates himself.
He is a master engineer and his only love is the hot iron of the boiler in a steam locomotive. His only way of making love is to twist the iron ring that opens the steam valve to the pistons. The faster the engine goes, the better he likes it.
Ignat craves sanity and order. His problem is that there is no sanity and order. Stalin sent war heroes to slave labor camps to be reeducated. There are Germans there, too. In 1946, the Germans are lucky to be alive, and they know it. They are there, fearful of what awaits them in their homeland. The devil they know is preferred over the devil they do not know.
When Ignat arrives at the work camp, he immediately beats up the German engineer who is in charge of operating and maintaining the trains. The German built the train with his own hands, but it is rusting from poor maintenance. He knows more about thermodynamics than Ignat ever will, but he has no love for the engines. He can never understand why Ignat will tolerate no competitors in the engine cab.
Ignat hears a story, a legend, almost, about a deserted steam locomotive somewhere in the incomprehensively vast Siberian forest. He finds the locomotive grown into the forest, almost indistinguishable from the trees and brush covering it.
However, the engine is not alone; it is occupied by a girl. Like Ignat, she has fled the work camp and is hiding out in the forest, using the engine as her home. Elsa (Anjorka Strechel) actually is the daughter of the German engineer Ignat ran off the job at the work camp.
Elsa, Ignat and the locomotive become a family. Mother, father and child, except that the child actually may be in control of mom and dad. Their challenge is to get the engine running and repair enough track to take the train to freedom.
Theirs is a race against time because Fishman is on the way. General Fishman (played by Russian screen legend Sergey Garmash) is a ghost, a spirit figure, for most of the film. He is the ultimate authority, having life and death control of the people in the work camp. He stands for justice.
The problem is that justice, and Fishman, mean something different to everyone. Each person in the camp expects Fishman to make things right for them and nobody can agree on what right is.
In general, the higher up the ladder the person is placed, the less intelligent, skilled and moral he is. Most of the people at the top are men and most of those at the bottom are women. In this way the film is a celebration of socialist, at least as it is theoretically practiced. The story celebrates the people and denounces the bosses. This is expressed with the tools of dark comedy in the context of nearly total chaos.
The point of the film is the chaos of society contrasted against the order of machines. Unfortunately, there is almost too much chaos in the film. So many of the scenes leave the characters covered in dirt, mud, liquor, food and general waste that they become repetitive.
So many of the scenes are nothing but all out screaming and shouting that those, too, become repetitive. At some point, the viewer simply wants to get on with the story.
The overall cinematography and production of the film is great. Techniques and symbols are borrowed from filmmakers all over the world. Fights are never glorious; they are dirty affairs, rolling on the ground, with, of course, all the screaming and cursing. This will be a bit much for most audiences. The reward, for those who can get through it, is a good film, overall.
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Directed by: Aleksei Uchitel
Written by: Aleksandr Gonorovsky (story and screenplay)
Starring: Vladimir Mashkov, Sergey Garmash, Aleksei Gorbunov and Vyacheslav Krikunov
Release Date: None Planned
MPAA: Rated R for language
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Language: Russian / German with English sub-titles