A powerfully evocative film set on the Russian front in WWII, “The Last Train” heralds a major new filmmaking talent in Alexei A. German Jr., son of the acclaimed St. Petersburg helmer Alexei German. Detailing the brutal deaths of a handful of German and Russian stragglers cut off from their armies, the film has such relentless realism it’s often painful to watch. It should be a hit with festival auds but, while its exciting filmmaking will attract attention, the grim subject matter may make distribs think twice.
Throwing Soviet patriotism out the window in favor of Chekhovian humanism, the film recounts the tragedy of war without taking sides.
For most of its running time it compassionately follows Third Reich soldiers and particularly a corpulent doctor, Paul Fishbach (Pavel Romanov), who has recently been drafted. In a tip of the hat to German pere’s classic “Twenty Days Without War,” Fishbach arrives at a snowbound train station across the Russian border, where signs of Germany’s imminent defeat are already evident. Driven to a field hospital, he finds a general evacuation in progress along with a blizzard. The head doctor, hacking from pneumonia, sizes him up as a useless oaf who knows nothing about war and orders him out.
Herr Doktor is next seen freezing in the woods. He’s saved by an idealistic, half-crazed soldier, a former postman, and together they trudge through the snow toward an invisible front line. They run across a Russian family holed up in a hut, educated folk who have fled war in the city. The father almost shoots them, but instead lets them slip away.
Next they encounter a surreal shootout in which Russian partisans massacre a small group of German soldiers. They stumble back to the hut to find the Russian family murdered. Only one of the women is still alive and Fishbach, unable to do anything to help her, holds her hand while she dies. Film closes on this quiet act of unsung kindness.
Remarkably mature for a first feature by a 26-year-old director, “The Last Train” has a gripping moral power and realism. In its determination to show the “real” face of war on the East Front, it has half the cast coughing, wheezing and gasping for breath, a good idea that is overused until it becomes quite irritating. Bundled in army coats against the Russian winter, they create a sense of misery and dread without firing a shot. All the deaths, especially the woman’s at the end, are deliberately ignoble and disgusting, with the makeup department exerting much imagination on the details.
A relatively talky cast recites stage dialogue with frozen faces, except for Romanov, who has little to say and just looks frostbitten. Had he been allowed just a little more expressiveness, the subtle ending might have gained in clarity.
Much of the film’s power comes from its striking look. Oleg Lukichev’s black-and-white lensing is full of long tracking shots that gradually reveal details, while the driving snow gives the images a sober, otherworldly uniformity. The Dolby mix is extremely rich, contributing to the visuals’ creation of a strong physical presence.