Five Soviet women from German-occupied territories, branded traitors for bearing children fathered by enemy soldiers, await evacuation from their remote island prison camp in “One War.” Based on real events, the engrossing drama allows a tragic, little-known chapter of WWII history to emerge, rendering it with sympathy and understanding. With its humanistic themes, strong, credible performances and impressive widescreen camerawork, Russian helmer Vera Glagoleva’s fourth feature has already been a repeat winner on the international fest circuit, most recently in Sofia, Bulgaria. Affecting pic could land niche arthouse and broadcast play in select territories; further fest travel is assured.
The action begins on May 8, 1945, on a rocky, windswept island off the north coast of the Soviet Union, where the women spend long hours gutting, salting and drying fish under the benign supervision of a kind-hearted sergeant (Alexander Baluev). A curt major (Mikhail Khmurov) arrives with orders to prepare the island for a future military training site, and the prisoners — who know nothing about it — are fated to be dispatched to labor camps and their children to orphanages.
When the Germans surrender the next day, pic derives considerable tension from the women’s naive hope that their “treason” will be forgiven and forgotten. The sergeant, who not-so-secretly loves Nina (Julia Melnikova), the liveliest of the prisoners, tries to intervene on their behalf.
Marina Sasina’s terse script allows the backstory of each woman to emerge naturally during snatched conversations. Alexandra (Natalia Surkova) had to rely on the Germans to obtain food for her starving children; half-mad Masha (Natalia Kudryashova) was repeatedly raped by soldiers. Their sin was the desire to live; actual desire had nothing to do with it. Only silly, romantic Natasha (Ksenia Surkova) felt love for the father of her child.
Keeping a taut pace, Glagoleva’s confident direction prevents the material from sliding into the melodrama of Martin Ritt’s similarly themed “Five Branded Women” (1960). The women’s naturalistic performances don’t contain an ounce of glamour, while the men clearly evoke an internal struggle between obeying orders and following their human feelings.
The desolate island location shooting and appropriately stark craft credits prove essential to the period mood.