by Alvin G. Burstein
This is a brilliant, daring 2019 Russian film directed by Katimir
Balagov. It takes the American viewer to a place that many of
us have never been, one in which survival is an open
question. The circumstance of its actors being unknown to us
makes them more real, gives their anguish more bite. The
trials of their lives, grinding poverty, agonizing shame,
crippling post-war injuries, are not familiar to many of us, but
the central question posed by the film is stark and existential:
what makes life worthwhile?
The question is not glib. Its answer is not a given. Not in this
The setting is 1945 Leningrad. World War II is over, but the
city is in shambles. Food is scarce and many buildings
remain in ruins. We see a hospital staffed by overworked
nurses and doctors with only primitive and limited resources
at their disposal struggling to care for injured soldiers not yet
recovered from their battlefield injuries.
The film’s central characters are Ilya, nicknamed Beanpole
because of her slenderness and height, now working as a
nurse in the hospital, and Masha, her battlefield companion in
the past, who has just left the military and is returning to
Leningrad to join her former colleague as a nurse at the
The two veterans, intimate friends, contrast strongly in their
appearance and behavior. Ilya is blonde and pale-eyed, her
height intensifying her fragility, Masha is short, red-haired,
dark-eyed, vibrating with tension and purpose. Ilya suffers
from what the subtitles call “post-concussion syndrome” but
seems a form of catatonia. She experiences seizures, during
which she becomes mute and unresponsive, though not
unconscious, lasting for minutes. Masha had left a physically
challenged young son in Ilya’s care, but Ilya had suffered a
seizure during which the child died. Only when she arrives in
Leningrad will Masha learn that her only child is dead, and
that her wartime injuries have made her unable to bear
This intensely tragic situation has a counterpart. Stephan is a
veteran whose injuries have left him quadriplegic, completely
paralyzed from the neck down, with no chance of recovery.
His wife comes to the hospital to see him and learns for the
first time of his hopeless condition. They talk about what this
means to them and their children. Given their economic
situation, they recognize that he cannot be cared for at home.
He thinks of a transfer to a nursing home as a dark and
humiliating slide into death. They find the courage to ask his
doctor, Nikolay Ivanovitch, if euthanasia, a mercy killing,
could be arranged. Nikolay, concerned about the risk to his
career, arranges for Ilya surreptitiously to give Stephan the
The tragedies ratchet up. Masha has an intense, almost
monomaniacal, need to have a replacement child. Because
her injuries foreclose that, she pleads with Ilya to become the
surrogate mother and wants Nilkolay to be the father. Both
are shocked, and in different ways, repelled by the notion.
With manipulative cunning, Masha, having learned of the
doctor’s complicity in Stephan’s death, threatens him with
exposure, and taxes Ilya with guilt for having permitted the
death of Masha’s son, pressuring the couple to carry out her
design. Ilya agrees, finally, but with a stipulation. Masha must
be in the bed when she and Nikolay have sex. They comply.
There is more to the film. Masha’s frail son. Her feckless
suitor. His mother’s privileged elegance.
The movie ends with a flicker of hope, but those questions
nag: What is a life worth? When is it worthwhile?