Battle For Sevastopol (Bitva za Sevastopol)
Russia/Ukraine (2015) Dir. Sergey Mokritskiy
It’s seems almost unthinkable that Russia and the Ukraine could co-operate on anything in light of recent situations, which makes this biopic of the famed World War II Russian sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko something of a miracle. Ironically, give the theme of war, the film did run into problem when the troubles between the two nations started but it seems the love for cinema overcome politics on his occasion.
Despite her international fame at the time Pavlichenko may not be such a familiar name today which this film aims to rectify, as she became recognised as a top sniper with 309 kills to her credit by aged 25. As a teenager, Lyudmila (Yuliya Peresild) had a passion for shooting through her soldier father’s war exploits, surprising everyone with her marksmanship on her first ever turn with a gun at a shooting range.
As her reputation grows, Lyudmila is taken from university and placed at a shooting camp where she hones her skills. When Germany declares war on Russia in 1941 Lyudmila is drafted to the front line where she scores her impressive tally of victims, earning her the nickname “Lady Death” and drawing the attention of a visiting Eleanor Roosevelt (Joan Blackham), earning Lyudmila an invite to the White House. Meanwhile the Germans see Lyudmila as a serious threat and plot her elimination.
Pavlichenko’s story is fairly straightforward but nonetheless fascinating to those of us without prior knowledge of her. While this film serves as something of glowing portrait of a war hero it also tries to explore the plight of women at war, something largely ignored in favour of testosterone fuelled grandeur. Perhaps not as sensitive as it could have been, it isn’t sugar coated either, leaving no doubt the women on front line suffered just as much as the men.
On a couple of occasions eyebrows are raised by senior military officials when they call for Corporal Pavlichenko and a female steps forward. Later, when Captain Makarov (Oleg Vasilkov), one of Lyudmila’s suitors, is repeating his jacket, a colleague asks him why he is doing that when there are plenty of woman to do that for him! This doesn’t deter Pavlichenko who sees herself as a soldier, but later when she gets to the US, Mrs. Roosevelt gives Lyudmila a dress so people can see the woman in her.
Typically a romantic subplot simmers beneath the carnage and military drama, as if to humanise this one woman killing machine and while this may sound twee and contrived, it is needed to counter the robotic and fearsome portrayal in the rest of the film. The narrative is that it was Pavlichenko’s toughness and guile that made her so attractive to the men in the army ranks who courted her, but not so for caring pacifist doctor Boris (Nikita Tarasov).
The story flits between three timelines – 1957 where Roosevelt is in Russia again to meet up with Pavlichenko, 1941 to depict her time on the front line and 1942 for the US diplomatic mission at the White House. It is the latter two which dominate the screen time, the former bookending the film, dividing the content between military action and Pavlichenko’s personal experiences away from the battlefield.
It’s a simple format in which a small reaction, gesture or scar on Lyudmila’s body leads to a flashback to reveal how it happened. At one point Mrs. Roosevelt drops a frying pan and a terrified Lyudmila cowers behind the kitchen counter a quivering wreck. She then recounts her experiences with shellshock during the conflict which sees her sidelined, but the army insists she returns to action despite being unwell, rushing her back into the trenches far too soon.
With Russia not being the most popular country in the world at the moment due to Putin’s warmongering it requires some charity from International audiences to respect and admire Pavlichenko and her achievements. This film actually goes someway to doing this but the entire premise of Pavlichenko essentially being bred to kill – even if it is against the Nazis – dampens this enthusiasm somewhat.
At the time however, Lyudmila’s legacy was assured and her celebrity was such that the legendary Woody Guthrie wrote a song for her, which was shown in the film. But while the Americans adored her as a prolific sniper and female role model, the Russians saw her as soldier first and foremost, causing her more heartache than the horrors she witnessed and experienced doing her duty.
The cast won’t be known to anyone outside of Russia or the Ukraine, which makes the performances and the characters more believable. As Pavlichenko Yuliya Peresild is simply fantastic, and having read about the real women I am sure Peresild captured Pavlichenko’s spirit and integrity as much as she could. The character is taken on a real journey and every step seems astutely essayed by Peresild, relying on nuance and physical graft to make it feel convincing and credible.
Action fans may be disappointed by the battles being infrequent but they are largely well staged and decidedly violent when necessary, with severed limbs and splattered blood everywhere. The only niggle is the use of CGI for a needless bullet time shot and an air raid featuring mostly CGI planes, although the scene itself is quite the thrill ride.
Director Serhiy Mokrytskyi is noted mainly for being a cinematographer which explains why this is a great looking film, with great care gone into recreating the period with authenticity. Whether he did Pavlichenko justice with this film will depend on how well one know the subject, but Mokrytskyi is said to have rewritten the original script so it followed Pavlichenko’s life more accurately.
Even if you don’t know Lyudmila Pavlichenko before watching this film, Battle For Sevastopol is a fine introduction as well as being a superbly made, perhaps a little overly patriotic but evocative and different war film to boot.