Movies you might have missed: “Destiny of a Man”

In the Second World War, the Soviet Army inflicted eight out of ten of the casualties the Germans suffered in the course of the conflict. The Soviets were etching new names in a pantheon of heroes long after the capitalist nations of Europe had capitulated or collaborated with the Third Reich.

This all consuming experience in the Soviet psyche, one that cost the young nation 20 million lives, resulted in many films that portrayed the incredible heroism of the Soviet people.

The 1959 film, “Destiny of a Man,” however, is a simple story of survival and renewal and is short on victory parades and martial music.

When you witness the poetry and woebegone beauty of this picture it comes as no surprise to learn that it is adapted from a story by the acclaimed author Mikhail Sholokhov who claimed the Lenin Prize, Stalin Prize, Nobel Prize, and Hero of Socialist Labor among his many accolades. But the film version does not shrink from it’s inheritance and employs the accomplished Sergei Bondarchuk, who was the youngest person to ever be awarded the title, ‘People’s Artist of the USSR’, as both lead actor and director of the film.

The film opens with Bondarchuk in the character of one Andrei Sokolov, resting on a river bank, waiting for a ferry and killing time by sharing his life story with a fellow veteran.  His story begins after the Russian civil war. With the conflict at a close our hero is happily building a home for his new family, but just as his son begins to grow to maturity war once again interrupts, this time in the form of a Fascist invasion.

Sokolov leaves for the front but he isn’t there long when he is taken prisoner during the first days of the Nazi advance. In a chilling scene their Fascist captors seek out the Jews and Political Officers amongst the POW’s and murder them on the spot. Eventually Sokolov will be deported to Germany where he labors as a slave in the factories and the fields. He catches a break when he is assigned as a driver for a Wehrmacht officer and it is this position that aides him in escaping back to the Soviet lines.

Once safely back in the arms of his comrades he is allowed a leave, but when he returns to his home he finds it devastated by the war. He then re-enters the Reich as part of the victorious Soviet army. With the war over he is determined never to return to his hometown and in his postwar wanderings he encounters a young orphaned boy. It is this meeting that results in a scene so poignant that it dwarfs entire films devoted to the subject of war, loss, and redemption.

Bondarchuk, with his countenance a finely detailed combination of exhaustion and determination is the perfect choice to portray the world-weary character of Sokolov. The films imaginative direction combined with the crisp black and white photography that comes courtesy of the considerable skill of Vladimir Monakov leaves one visually exhilarated and creates many memorable moments in the film, from an aerial shot of Sokolov resting in a wheat field to a dizzying sequence that takes place in a stone quarry.

“Destiny of a Man” is a war film, a character study, and a tribute to the perseverance of the human spirit in general, and the Soviet people in particular.

“Destiny of a Man,” 1959
Directed by: Sergei Bondarchuk
106 mins.