An internecine feud within the Red Army is fought out in a German orphanage, with Nazi troops coming to the good guys’ rescue, in the surprisingly restrained drama “4 Days in May.” Set in the twilight days of WWII, this highly unlikely true story is another tastefully appointed effort from Teuton scribe-helmer Achim von Borries (“Love in Thoughts”), who again operates on the misguided assumption that aesthetically pleasing accouterments will magically provide a gateway into the characters’ hearts and the pic’s thorny thematic undercurrents. German release is skedded for Sept. 29; offshore action will be more limited.
Set on an isle off the German coast, the film early on includes the announcement, on May 4, 1945, that the Nazi army will capitulate on all fronts the next day. Hitler’s Wehrmacht forces are present on the island, as are Soviet troops, though the latter are down to a formation of just eight men led by the good Capt. Kalmykov (Aleksei Guskov). Having lost his entire family in the war, Kalmykov has become a father figure to his men instead.
Though the project was initiated by thesp-producer Guskov (“Ragin”), the main protagonist is 13-year-old Peter (Pavel Wenzel, very good), a foolhardy yet gullible German boy who takes the Nazis’ surrender as a personal affront. When the Soviets are quartered in the children’s home run by Peter’s baroness aunt (Gertrud Roll), the prim old lady needs to work hard to convince the liberators that her reckless nephew meant no harm when he pointed a weapon at them, wearing the uniform of a dead Nazi soldier who belonged to the huge, demoralized contingent camping out on the beach (they prefer to wait for a boat to Denmark than surrender to the Soviets).
The baroness was born in St. Petersburg, and she and her nephew both speak Russian — well, the aunt speaks badly dubbed Russian — which means the captain is able to realize, pretty quickly, that the Teuton lad simply needs some paternal warmth.
Von Borries, who extensively rewrote a screenplay credited to Russians Valentin Chernykh and Eduard Reznik, sketches his characters in broad outlines. It’s clear Peter lacks male role models and is familiar with the jingoistic, macho idealism of war, but he knows little of its quotidian reality. Kalmykov is his tailor-made opposite, while the handful of other Soviet soldiers and the women are stock characters.
The central relationship is believable but skin-deep, and von Borries has trouble integrating Kalmykov and Peter’s surrogate father-son rapport into the wider sweep of historic events portrayed here. Pic’s nominal raison d’etre, a tight-budget action sequence that pits Soviets against Soviets and sees the involvement of Nazi troops, feels like an afterthought insufficiently tied to what precedes it.
The smoke-and-fire setpiece, in an otherwise almost pastoral wartime movie, also opens up an entire can of WWII worms Borries doesn’t address, including a Nazi’s potential for goodness and the fact that the liberating Soviet army contained rotten and morally upright elements alike.
As in “Love in Thoughts,” the restrained but impeccable period re-creation can’t substitute for needed complexity.