A WWII German soldier makes a heroic, three-year trek home from a Siberian labor camp in “As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me,” a good old slice of widescreen entertainment shot in spectacular locations. Sophomore feature by former stuntman Hardy Martins — whose “Indiana Jones” rip-off, “Cascadeur — The Amber Chamber” (1998), showed at that year’s Toronto fest — is far more involving dramatically than his first effort, though its often piecemeal development hints at an even longer version for TV. Despite pic’s visual qualities, best experienced on the bigscreen, it unfortunately looks likely to end up on the tube in most territories, as this kind of large-scale adventure movie is a genre almost completely colonized by Hollywood. Still, a less clumsy English title would help it on its journey.
Josef Martin Bauer’s novel, based on a true story, was very popular during the ’50s and resulted in a TV series helmed by Fritz Umgelter in 1959. Martins has put every cent of his $6 million budget up on the screen, saving on any star actors and going for realistic locations from Siberia through Belarus to Uzbekistan.
Clemens Forell (legit actor Bernhard Bettermann) leaves his wife (Iris Boehm) and kid in August ’44 to fight on the Russian front but a year later is caught and sentenced by the Communists to 25 years in a lead mine near the Bering Strait. After three years living underground in appalling conditions, he plans his escape.
An hour into the movie, Forell starts out on his epic odyssey into a vast sea of snow in which he almost perishes until rescued by two hunters. After a cruise along some rapids on a raft, and betrayal by the hunters, he’s next rescued by Eskimos, enjoying a dalliance with the chief’s beautiful granddaughter (Irina Pantayeva) in the bargain.
By summer ’51, he’s off again, jumping a train in the Siberian tundra, narrowly missing capture by the labor camp’s commander, Kamanev (Anatoli Kotenyov, very good as Forell’s nemesis), and then ending up in Central Asia, where he’s befriended by a Polish Jew prior to trying to cross the border with Iran.
In its middle stretch, the movie becomes over-episodic, with big chunks missing in Forell’s journey (especially prior to his arrival in Central Asia) and some episodes (notably the Eskimo interlude, in which Pantayeva is squandered) suffering from drastic compression. The tireless pursuit by Kamanev gives a kind of structure to the movie — and a memorable finale on a frontier bridge — but Bettermann’s limited emotional scope means that the colorful supporting players are more engaging than the lead character.
The central problem of why on earth any Russians should help a German soldier is cleverly overcome by drawing all of Forell’s befrienders from social outsiders or those with an ax to grind with Communism, though the script never gets into any real discussion of such issues. Martins goes first and foremost for physical action-adventure and, at its best, as in the Siberian snow sequences, the pic makes engrossing viewing in its realism.
Given the already eye-catching lensing by Pavel Lebeshev, the score by Eduard Artemiev is rather too overstated. But in the final, very simple coda, the movie does finally engage at an emotional level.