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Some spectacular moments at the mercy of an uninvolving script
on 20 September 2011
Leningrad has got a raw deal from war movies in the past, partially because Stalin wasn't particularly fond of the city to begin with and didn't want people to be reminded of the grim realities of the 882-day siege that saw one and a half million die while he did little to relieve the city. Leningrad aka Attack on Leningrad is a fairly spectacular attempt to portray the brutal siege of the city that has the resources it needs but doesn't find a good enough script to really convey the horror of Hitler's attempt to exterminate by starvation. Scenes of air raids, food riots and people robbing and murdering for food are all too often used as linking footage as the film shifts its focus to Olga Sutulova's policewoman and Mira Sorvino's British journalist trapped in the city who, naturally, has a secret that sets the Communist Party after her blood. It's a surprisingly bold move to see the siege almost entirely through female eyes but even with some historical justification for her presence, Sorvino's character, like her boyfriend Gabriel Byrne, feels drafted in just to help sales in the west but simply leaves you thinking that the producers obviously wanted Cate Blanchett for the part before working their way down the list of female Oscar winners before they found someone who'd say yes. It doesn't entirely destroy the film but it often feels like a contrived diversion from the real business at hand, constantly running the risk of turning the siege into background for a not very interesting and underdeveloped story about a not very interesting and underdeveloped character.
Which is a shame, because director Aleksandr Buravsky has a good eye for striking visuals, particularly a low angle shot of a terrified horse as German planes roar overhead, and hides any budget limitations well. Although they don't get much screen time it's also quite good on the Nazis' tactics, with nocturnal air raids intended to prevent people fleeing the city because the more mouths to feed, the less calorific intake per person, the sooner the city would starve to death. It's the kind of thing the movie could do with more of, and it's a pity the film didn't widen its net to be more of an ensemble piece on both sides. (As with Admiral, this was released in two versions, a 110-minute feature film and a 200-minute mini-series, with some scenes from the latter shown in the fairly frank making of documentary on the DVD hinting that it might have had a slightly broader canvas in the longer cut.) Yet the human drama that could have drawn the viewer into the tragedy never works as well as the intermittent spectacle or vignettes of the increasingly ugly realities of survival, the vagaries on international co-production and presales all too noticeable in the casting of an American actress as an Englishwoman and the way it divides the aggressors into good German's (Alexander Beyer's suicidal pilot who hates targeting civilians) and bad (Armin Mueller-Stahl's ruthless general) to avoid alienating the German market. Yet there's enough in there that does work to make it worth a look - though perhaps that longer version, if it ever surfaces in the West, may be the better bet.
Metrodome's typically misleadingly packaged UK DVD offers a decent 2.35:1 widescreen transfer but the burned-in subtitles are so small it's not worth non-Russian speakers even thinking about trying to watch it if your TV screen is anything less than 40inches. Along with the aforementioned documentary there's also a 14-minute interview with the director.