While translation, or the lack thereof, remains an item of often animated discussion in the world of books, it is less of an issue in film: books, you see, cannot be subtitled. So the Russian-Ukrainian film Battle for Sevastopol was able to make it to Hong Kong in just a year.
The somewhat mistitled film tells the story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian Soviet sniper during World War II. The film opens when she is on tour in the USA in 1942, and introduced in a greeting line to none other that Eleanor Roosevelt. When told that the 25-year-old Pavlichenko had 309 confirmed kills, the First Lady asks, “You killed 309 men?”, Pavlichenko answers, “Not men, Fascists.” The unlikely pair strike up a friendship and Pavlichenko is invited to stay at the White House.
The film’s two plot-lines—that of Pavlichenko in the USA and her development from student to “Lady Death” during the siege of Sevastopol—switch back and forth, not always smoothly. Pavlichenko, steelily and affectingly played by Yulia Peresild, is a serious, strong-minded student who walks out on her not quite fiancé—a somewhat feckless doctor—during a performance of La Traviata to join the army. The war scenes are unrelenting, and Pavlichenko outlives three love interests—two officers and the doctor who ends up serving on whichever front where she is. In the United States, where her purpose is to agitate for the opening of “second front”, she is coached in public relations by Eleanor Roosevelt. Pavlichenko addresses an audience in Chicago where she famously says:
Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?
Woody Guthrie—he of “This Land is Your Land” fame—wrote a song for a Soviet sniper
Battle for Sevastopol, for which Peresild won the Best Actress Award at the Beijing Film Festival, is not without its faults. Peresild is not one of them. But the two main plot lines are not always seamlessly integrated, and most of the Americans in the film, with the notable exception of British actress Joan Blackham who plays Eleanor Roosevelt, speak heavily accented English that makes them sound more like the movie Soviet spies of yore than misguided American journalists giving Pavlichenko a hard time. And for those that care, some of the history seems to have been rewritten for the purposes of drama: had one known that the real-life Pavlichenko was already married with a young son before the War started, the various love triangles might have been seen in a different light.
But there is there is much in Sevastopol that feels one should have known. I suppose that some people knew that Woody Guthrie—he of “This Land is Your Land” fame—wrote a song for a Soviet sniper, and that some others knew and then forgot. But I never did. A close friendship between an American First Lady and Hero of the Soviet Union—Roosevelt made a point of visiting her on her 1957 visit to the Khrushchev-era USSR—now seems almost surreal. The film makes much of this shared history. And it can be hard to understand Russia today without remembering that World War II rampaged over Soviet territory, something the United States was blessedly spared: Pearl Harbour cannot really be compared to Sevastopol.
Sevastopol has the feel of a propaganda film: it would seem to have a clear purpose in reminding people today how the existential threats of the past were overcome. But Pavlichenko herself is left psychologically ambiguous: hardly surprising, under the circumstances. Her Party handler on the American tour is portrayed unflatteringly as a manipulative apparatchik. The Party is shown saving itself when Sevastopol falls, leaving soldiers and remaining residents to their fate. And in one truly bloodcurdling scene at a New Year’s celebration in the besieged port, a young girl, perhaps 9 or 10, recites a savage poem, snarling and baring her teeth like a wolf; she was applauded by the assembled adults.
But some messages are subtler. The film takes place in Kiev, Odessa and Sevastopol. Pavlichenko was Ukrainian; Crimea and Sevastopol were not yet part of Ukraine. The film—a joint Ukrainian-Russian production—portrays a shared history and perhaps destiny. But history overtook it: between the start of filming in 2012 and the film’s release, Russian-Ukrainian relations turned inside out. And Sevastopol is once again in Russian hands.