This film is set in 1941 Russia after the battle of Kiev (the box tells us that). It opens at a penal transit camp, where a new Major has arrived; his first job is to offer redemption to these prisoners. They are allowed to join a penal battalion. For those not familiar with how this concept worked, this was basically a death sentence, as the penal battalions were always given nasty and or suicidal missions. Surprisingly none of them volunteer.
The Major then instructs his Captain to send some guards with a dozen prisoners to a nearby ammunition dump - they are to destroy it to prevent it falling into the hands of the rapidly advancing Germans. So far so good, on the way they are attacked by German fighter bombers, and in the chaos, seven escape. There are two main characters, `Father' who is the nominal leader of the convicts, and `Picasso' so called because of his love of painting. He is a shadowy figure who says he knows of a hamlet that is not on any maps. They can make it to his aunt's house and hole up there.
His aunt is not there and appears to have been arrested for spying. Without doing any plot spoilers, they then discover she is incredibly well stocked up on food and ammunition.
Enter the Nazis; they too seem to know of the existence of the hamlet and the aunties house. They have parachuted behind the lines and are a nasty bunch. The Major has now seen Picasso's prison file and decides everything must be done to get him.
That is the scene setting for the crux of the film. The convicts are now faced with two enemies and have to decide what to do. This is a well directed (Sergey Chekalov) and acted film. It gets a bit confusing if you don't pay attention as the battle lines are some what blurred. The clothing and arms are very authentic, and the supporting cast all do a good job. It does have some action, but not throughout. This though is one of the better films that has come out of Russia of late and should be praised for tackling a unique part of WW2 in a different way. In Russian and German with good subtitles and a run time of 119 minutes, hard to compare it to other films, but if you like `Star' you will probably find this one appealing too.
on 9 July 2011
First a few specifics for you and thats the film is in Russian and German with subtitles which are optional so no dubbing for those who are not keen on subtitles.The feature is available to watch in 2.0 or 5.1 audio and there are no other features but scene selections at the main menu.
The setting is a Russian prison camp holding criminals during WWII,the so called black sheep.The German offensive will soon overrun the camp and so a rather sadistic and dare i say stereotypical Russian Captain is sent to close the camp before the Germans get there.Here we enter the main group of characters,prisoners that were already planning an escape and who are sent on one last working party.During this they escape and don a couple of Russian uniforms and weapons.Throw into this a local village devoid of male occupants who are keen on helping the escapees beleiving them to be brave Russian soldiers a German parachute platoon dropping in and being hunted by the sadistic Captain it all makes for an enjoyable film.
The prisoners are pretty diverse in their characteristics and are lead by "Father".All of the actors do a more than adequate job and are competently directed.The subtitles are clear,concise and easy to read which is always nice.As far as i am aware the weapons and costumes(military enthusiasts may know better) looked correct and detailed if only a little too new looking.There is very little cgi in the film and what there is has been done so its not too noticeable.Now the reason its getting three stars is because there isnt enough detail going in to why a certain prisoner(Picasso)was wanted more by the Captain than the others,what had he done which made him so special?.What was in his file?At times it was a little confusing as to who was fighting against who and what for.None of which is explained in the movie.My overall verdict is that it is an enjoyable little film which takes a not often trodden path of WWII films and one which i will watch again.It is better than a lot of war films released recently even if it was a little vague at times.
This is a single DVD, no English dub, special features, commentaries or other extras: you get a Russian language audio track with decent English subtitles and a very good film to watch. The photography is first rate, imaginative, pretty and a wonderful aid to the storey, audio is good but I find I paid less attention to the voices and more to the other sounds and subtitles. The only flaw I can describe is the way the film regularly breaks the story with a fade to black followed by a change of scene or location; it feels like the gap where a TV advert or end of episode should be. It does not ruin the film but it spoils the effect a little. Otherwise there is nothing to complain about: it's a good film.
I've seen a few Russian language films and they have been noticeably different from the US made films I'm more used to watching: one big example being I did not notice any bad language. Black Sheep is grim without being horrific, it shows death and suffering in sufficient detail that you understand what's happening but without needless gore taking your focus away from the events. That said it is not a cheerful film: it is about the Russian front during World War Two and this was not a time of great happiness so it's probably not something to show someone who is easily distressed. Sadness aside it is worth watching.
If you understand very little about the history. For many this is perhaps why the film appears confusing. This was no black and white affair but imbued with shades of varying grey.
"Picasso" is obviously a different prisoner to the "bandits," and is involved in the German offensive as a double agent. There are clues within the film, but you need to pay attention and stop standing open jawed at the uniform fetish. How else does he know about the village and its usefulness? How else did the Germans know about it, if it is not marked on a map? Why does he kill Germans and Russians?
Because he is a Finn.
This film is nit and grit throughout, and captures a speck of the blood reek of the 1940's like few others. One important non authentic quotium, perhaps, was the love conquers all redemption, running as a thin vein. Given the scale of killing in the East, people perhaps were too emotionally smashed to have any emotions left over for love, but there again, we all beer the tale of lust ripening in the 1940's.
The acting is superb, as the characters blossom and become multi dimensional, each emerging from their masculine prisons, stepping forward in fragmented lives. The camera work is claustrophobic, as the story becomes something expected from the East; a pitiless and pitiful depiction. Stand this up next to the Cruel Sea, Saving Private Ryan, Tobruk, Cockleshell Heroes to see how good it is. This is no patriotic flag waver, but a casts a caustic eye onto waves of human suffering, where, all is against all, trapped in a bleak carpet of wandering lost souls. Each is waiting for the bullet in the back.
The problem for these films is they attract the train spotters, who forget the plot and immerse themselves in an Osprey fetish of costume checking, reliving an Airfix moment.
In reality these boys/men were 16-30 year old, killing machines bent on obliteration "Fetish boys." Did you not understand the plot when the runaway speaks of wanting to join Hitler, but then dies killing Nazis, after seeing the reality? The bleakness is either to join Uncle Joe and die or join Adolf and die, perhaps there is a third way- find it for your yourself. The men find a meaning through discovering an escape hatch after a lucky break. Otherwise they were destined for the sausage factory of total war.
Perhaps not, that is where you can define when someone has truly lost the plot.
This Russian film displays a microcosm of the conflict occurring in Russia in the early 1940s and is concerned with a group of prisoners who escape from their internment and find a village so small it is not even marked on the map to hide out.
The air of the film is frankly one of dire pessimism since the prisoners have escaped from their penitentiary only to discover themselves in a much more brutal and boundaryless war with an ambiguous enemy and the constant threat of discovery and annihilation. History has taught us that WW2 was a meaningless and extended painfest for all involved so these somewhat likeable petty criminals, non-political, although "Picasso", so named it would appear as we first see him repainting the prison huts, definitely has an agenda, are doomed from the start.
The village is a somewhat otherworldly place, a place that has probably hardly evolved since the 19th century or before. The war is an intrusion; the conflict the women and elderly men witness is almost unfathomable. The simple, innocent lives are shattered first by the arrival of the escapees, Picasso knew the village as a boy and considers it a safe place to hide out, and then by a group of subversive Nazi hoodlums who mindlessly slaughter, rape and/or pillage anything that they can aim a rifle at.
If seen as a metaphor the film lacks conviction since the heroism is one of inhumanity and the stereotyping of many of the characters diminishes its strength, even the love interest has the quality of tokenism about it and the lovers are really the only two who, in Hollywood tradition, get to embrace at the end amid the destruction.
There is a lot of Magnificent Seven style shoot outs and the humour is reserved for a little pot-bellied official and the new Major Commandant's chilling killing of a prisoner whose aside is heard by him and is executed on the spot in the film's homage to Tarrantino perhaps.
It is, however, a joy to listen to the Russian language, indeed good to know that there are films of this calibre coming out of Russia
This film is very much a war film not simply because it is set during a war but because it focusses on men in combat, what motivates them, how they find inner strength (or not) and how they work as a team (or not). It felt very much like a traditional war movie. The story is one I'm sure has been doen many times though I'm struggling to name a single example.
The stroy starts in a Soviet prison camp worringly close to the front line. Criminal prisoners linger in wooden billets whilst a new commandant arrives with a mixture of propaganda and grim news. A small band of prisoners are tasked to assist a sapper in destroying an ammo dump before the Nazis reach it. One thing leads to another and they escape. There's an interesting dynamic in that the hard bitten criminals find themselves relying on Picasso (an imprisoned artist and considerably more of a sensitive soul than the others and it's hinted possibly the only political prisoner left) to lead them to his aunt's village which, he assures them, is sufficiently remote that neither the Nazis nor the Reds will find them. He's wrong, of course, but for a while we see the misfits trying to fit into the village under the ruse of being partisans. Unfortunately for them the village lies on the German axis of advance and there are already German paratroopers securing the area, partisans closing in and the commandant is hunting down his escaped prisoners with an aggressive single-mindedness. Of course, our escaped convicts find themselves forced to make a stand.
The first thing to note is that this film has a Russian and German soundtrack with English subtitles. Because it is not a straight shoot 'em up and there is plot development that means that you will need to concentrate to follow the film. And those subtitles are pretty literal so much so that some of the Russian dialogue just seems odd or inappropriate (there's a few of what I assume are folk sayings which don't make sense if you're not Russian). If you don't like subtitles then this is not for you (unless of coruse you speak fluent German and Russian).
The film has great aspirations to explore how humans (even those dehumanized by a totalitarian system) behave, bond and find their inner strength and a sense of purpose. This isn't just about the criminals but also about the villagers who have to endure a great deal. None of the characters are wholly sympathetic which is great as they seem that much more real and the development of relationships, the rebirth of a sense of honour and heroism actually involves a decision and is pretty believable - not least because they aren't left much option. Unfortunately, it somehow doesn't quite make it. Maybe it's watching it in a foreign language and missing some of the nuances of conversation but there still seems to be something missing between being ruthless criminals and stalwart, suicidely brave patriots. And whilst it is hard to consider portraying Nazis or labour camp commandants in a sympathetic light given the apparent aims of this film they probably needed a touch more humanity. It also doesn't help that two of the inmates look very very similar.
There is inevitably a lot of combat in this film and it is generally well done. There is a lot of soldiers and guerillas moving through woods, creeping in behind each other and the odd sniper duel. The uniforms, kit and equipment all look authentic (though I'm not an expert) and there's none of the Hollywood "it's just a flesh wound" reaction to being shot. But there are some scenes of men firing pistols whilst leaping sideways through the air, men engaging other men with pistols at 40 or 50 metres (way too far to expect to hit anything) and one scene of a ceiling beam being used as a weapon. It's a shame because there's not much of this but it turns scarily realistic battle sequences into slightly silly scenes.
Overall, I enjoyed but didn't love this film. It is good but not great and you are left with the feeling that it could have been a lot better with only a few minor changes.
There are lots of reviews for this film, so I will not go on at length. I will add that the whole feel of the film is completely authentic, from the motley crew of actors, to the dilapidated villages (and villagers) of war-torn Russia. Despite the formulaic ensemble of characters, I was gripped throughout, and really cared about their fate. During the scenes involving fighting, firearms, grenades etc, the director sensibly adopted the 'less is more' approach, so no unrealistic- never need loading - weapons, or ridiculously large grenade explosions. With a cast looking as if they were actually in the 1940's, muted colours, and depressingly real scenery, this is a highly recommended addition to the long list of WW2 films for the enthusiast.
on 12 July 2013
In order to put the film in its historical context,
I quote from William L. Shirer's
Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich
"The Jews and the Slavic peoples were the Untermenschen-subhumans.
To Hitler they had no right to live, except as some of them, among the Slavs,
might be needed to toil in the fields and the mines as slaves
of their German masters. Not only were the great cities of the East,
Moscow, Leningrad and Warsaw, to be permanently erased, but the culture
of the Russians and Poles and other Slavs was to be stamped out..."
It is late September 1941, and the Red Army is crumbling under the
relentless onslaught of the German Wehrmacht. Seven million troops
will fight in the largest confrontation in recorded human history-
the battle of Moscow. There will be two and a half million dead and wounded.
The film opens in a prison camp, near the rapidly advancing front-line.
Thieves, robbers and cut-throats, rejected by Soviet society as "black sheep"
are held here. They scornfully refer to the regime as "Reds", and some
gleefully anticipate the arrival of the invading Germans.
In a bombing raid, a gang of those manages to escape, together with
an unassuming political prisoner nicknamed "Picasso".
"Picasso" leads the escapees to his aunt's home, which is in a hamlet
lost in the forest, and unmarked in Soviet maps.
Meanwhile, the NKVD major who is in charge of the prison camp
receives an order to eliminate "Picasso", and proceeds to organize
a house-by-house search of all villages in the area.
It's not clear if "Picasso" fought with the International Brigades
in the Spanish Civil War. But he is hiding a dark secret, because in the cellar
of his aunt's house there is a cache of German explosives and supplies.
A group of German paratroopers are already on their way to the "unknown"
hamlet, in order to make use of these supplies in some unspecified "important"
operation. They are supposed to make contact with a second infiltration
unit in Russian uniforms.
Meanwhile, the gang has befriended the few inhabitants of
the hamlet. Men have been drafted in the war. There are only lonely women,
children, and elderly people. The escapees are warmly welcomed by these people,
and soon they begin to feel that they finally have homes, girlfriends, family.
Then the Germans arrive. One of them tries to rape a local woman,
and is killed by a gang member. The Germans mistakenly conclude that an
old man is responsible, and they hang him in retaliation.
Then the gang takes on the Germans, and most of them die in combat,
killing all of the German paratroopers in the bargain.
"Picasso" seems to have a change of heart. He tracks down the second unit
of infiltrators and eliminates them single-handed! Then the NKVD major
finally catches up with him, but before they shoot each other, they are
blasted by an explosion.
In a nutshell, this is the convoluted plot, of a beautifully shot film,
which, somehow, is less than its parts.
The basic point of the film is efficiently conveyed:
"Motherland" is our homes, our family, our friends, and our comrades.
So these "black sheep" gave their lives for mother Russia.
There's no shortage of films set during World War 2. Most are told from a German or Allied perspective. Black Sheep is set in Russia, told in Russian (with subtitles), and has Russian main characters. Not only is the tale told from an original perspective, it differs from most other war films by relying on solid acting performances and plotting rather than special effects and CGI...and is all the better for it. The plight of the main characters, a group of Russian prisoners who escape after their institution is captured by occupying Germans, is palpable as they flee into the countryside of their Motherland, pursued by relentless Nazis bent on doing whatever it takes to reimprison or kill the escapees.
I'm not usually a fan of war films, even those that are considered classics. Black Sheep, however, held my interest. The Russian prisoners - who are the main characters - start out as underdogs. When Nazis take over the prison camp, the convicts' situation goes from bad to worse; they become not just underdogs, but hunted underdogs. Regardless of what crimes the seven Russians committed to earn their prison sentences, I found myself rooting for them, largely due to the humanity and humour they display as the plot unfolds.
If you want a war film full of high-budget special effects and big-name Hollywood actors, Black Sheep isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you like the idea of an original film that's beautifully acted, well plotted and features wonderful settings, you could do a lot worse than giving this movie a whirl.
A prime example of how less can be more.
on 2 June 2014
Well balanced politically aware Russian WW2 film with good acting, characterisation and a good story too. The sets, uniforms and weapons all seem correct and the battle/skirmish/fighting scenes are very well done. Basically the Soviet blue capped NKVD vs escaped prisoners from a Russian penal camp, who also get hunted by a special ops Luftwaffe paratroop company (these Germans are well portrayed as soldiers doing their job). The film shows the brutality of war and the horror for the local innocent villagers.