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Come and Listen: Close-Up on Alexander Zolotukhin's "A Russian Youth"

Crosscutting a WWI drama with a present-day orchestra rehearsal, Alexander Zolotukhin’s debut feature offers a singular lest we forget tale
Leonardo Goi
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Alexander Zolotukhin's A Russian Youth, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from April 30 - May 29, 2020 in MUBI's Debuts series.
In the late 1910s, somewhere along the Eastern Front, a Russian teen joins the army to fight the Germans in World War I. A hundred years later, in St. Petersburg, an orchestra rehearses two works by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, his 1909 Piano Concerto No. 3 and the 1940 Symphonic Dances. Alexander Zolotukhin’s A Russian Youth unfolds along these two axes, weaving glimpses of the practice room all through the lad’s journey, so that the music doesn’t all too simply score the drama but shares with it a more singular relationship, a layering together of past and present. 
The boy’s name is Alexei (Vladimir Korolev), a blue-eyed kid whose cinematic ancestry stretches back to Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Come and See (1985). Like the two underage soldiers careening through Tarkovsky and Klimov’s dramas, he’s a teen propelled into adulthood against the backdrop of an ultra-violent, war-ravaged wasteland. But the barbarization Alexei experiences has a distinct sensorial dimension, which makes Zolotukhin’s debut feature an intriguing, sui generis affair.
Thrown in the trenches, Alexei can barely shoot a bullet before the Germans launch a gas attack that leaves him blind. Blind does not mean useless, however, and once the officers agree to keep him at the front, he’s swiftly sent to listen out for enemy planes through a massive pipe machine that functions as some early-warning system. Plugged to his headphones, what does Alexei hear? The faint roar of German aircrafts, but also the sounds of the landscape around him: the rustling of the wind, a lone bird’s chirping, the chatter and bickering of fellow soldiers, some of whom turn into a family surrogate, others into new torturers. Rumors of the imminent Bolshevik Revolution billow with the smoke, but writer-director Zolotukhin doesn’t seem particularly interested in straying beyond his one-man show, and Tatyana Kuzmichyova’s tight editing (A Russian Youth clocks in at 72 minutes) gives the film the scope of a novella, not a choral war epic.
All throughout it, Zolotukhin vaults from the horrors of the trenches to the rehearsal, Alexei’s scarred face jostled against the young musicians practicing Rachmaninoff. It’s an audacious choice, for the artifice does seem to forfeit a palpable intimacy with the boy, as well as our chances of communing with him. The intermittent back and forth between past and present, between war and concert, plucks us out of the action, a feeling that registers as all the more alienating when the jolts happen at the story’s most harrowing peaks. Seen in this light, A Russian Youth works opposite to Sam Mendes’s near-uninterrupted WWI drama 1917. Even as he singles out a face within the wasteland, Zolotukhin is far less concerned with offering a point of view of the lad’s apocalyptic journey than he is in questioning our position toward it, a hundred years later.
This is not to say A Russian Youth isn’t immersive, only that the kind of immersiveness it elicits needs better spelling. Alexei’s story has the looks of a weathered time capsule. Cinematographer Ayrat Yamilov shoots the war sequences with a damaged celluloid filter that dons them the aesthetic of some colorized archival footage. So while the child-soldier-thrown-into-hell premise aligns A Russian Youth with Soviet masterworks from bygone decades, its visuals bring to mind Peter Jackson’s heartrending 2018 doc They Shall Not Grow Old. By adding colors and sounds to archival clips of the Great War, that film vivified a scrap of History traditionally kept mute and monochrome. It was, in more ways than one, a lesson in how to bring the past back to life. 
A Russian Youth shares the same ethos. In its struggle against a collective amnesia, it questions our distance from the boy’s suffering, and our responsibility in rescuing it from oblivion. There’s an interest parallel to be made between Alexei’s perilous fate and the worn-out, scratched footage that crystallizes it. The movie’s most damaged fragments coincide with the tale’s most violent events, suggesting the footage succumbs to those same atrocities, that teen and film are just as vulnerable to the war and to the erosion of time. In this sense, the lingering danger A Russian Youth is suffused with may have much less to do with trench warfare than with the feeling of watching a memory evaporate, and our distance from Alexei’s nightmare—and its lest we forget plea—grow larger.
The recurring cuts to the orchestra only widen that gap, and the perturbing feeling that comes with it. At the same time, Rachmaninoff’s music challenges the primacy of seeing as the only entry point into the horror. As Alexei loses his sight, the film becomes more tactile (hence the emphasis on touching, tickling), olfactive (with Alexei orienting himself through smells), and of course, more aural. But it’s not just the concert that finds its way into the front; with it come the sounds from the rehearsing room, too. We see (and hear) Russian soldiers schlepping up heavy artillery and digging trenches in the mud, all while the instructions of army officers merge with the orchestra director’s, caroming in voice over. If the boy’s journey and the orchestra’s prepping make for a jarring visual contrast, Fonin Andrey’s soundscape offers a bridge between the two timeframes. It is here, in the realm of sound and music, that the film unfolds as a nearly uninterrupted conversation, teasing us with a faint connection to that senseless tragedy while reminding us that those memories, and their warnings, are fading. 

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