Artem Antonov’s Polumgla revisits familiar terr itory in Russo-Soviet film, once again taking on the topic of World War Two. However, in telling the story of a northern Soviet village inhabited by both Russian residents and German prisoners, Polumgla deviates from typical war film narratives by focusing on daily life away from the front. In his “retreat” from shooting the frontlines, Antonov casts off the mythologized Soviet war hero, favoring depictions of the “little man”—both Soviet and German. With a lack of action in the film, other elements are pushed to the foreground in Polumgla. The heightening of emotions, close attention paid to relations, and in-depth psychological portrayals compensate for banal scenes that feature little plot development.
The film opens in a hospital where Grigorii Anokhin, a wounded and haunted soldier, hopes to recover, return to the front, and fight against the Nazis. After escaping the hospital and forging documents in order to return to duty, Anokhin is caught and put in charge of a group of German prisoners. All are sent to a remote village, Polumgla, with orders to construct a radio tower. The arrival of Anokhin and his men, both Soviet guards and German prisoners, creates conflict within the village, whose inhabitants meet the men with pitchforks. Anokhin’s guards react to the cold greeting by justifying the building of the tower, saying that they and their prisoners will perform the “heroic task” of serving the motherland. The film, however, overshadows any notion of heroism as the completion of the tower is a wasted task, and the object itself serves only as a temporal marker in the film.
The village of Polumgla leaves no place for heroic acts. The village, whose name can be translated as “twilight,” exists almost in a vacuum, far away from both the events of the war and the grasp of Soviet power. The village’s men have been sent off to war long ago, leaving women, the elderly, and children as the village’s only inhabitants. Their sole link with the outside is through a postal courier who arrives by dogsled to announce the war casualties. The enclosed setting eventually normalizes life between Russians and Germans, and with many wives either widowed or waiting for the return of their husbands, relationships eventually begin to form. Although the Soviet guards consider these acts treason, the film portrays these relations as not only acceptable, but humane and necessary for survival. The re-evaluation of the “us” versus “them” (svoi – chuzhoi) narrative breaks down, with the villagers shocked and horrorified when NKVD officers abruptly arrive and execute the German prisoners at the film’s close.
A scandal surrounding the film’s ending arose when Antonov re-shot the final scene. Igor' Bolgarin and Viktor Smirnov’s original script featured a farewell between the villagers and prisoners, yet Antonov chose to end the film with death. The revised scene runs against the grain of Soviet tradition, which avoided showing massacres of innocent prisoners at the hands of Red Army soldiers or state agents. Bolgarin spoke out against the release of the film, labeling it “immoral” and “anti-Russian.” The changing of the film’s ending represents just one way in which Polumgla reworks war narratives, creating a disjuncture with what was once unified in past films: Soviet ideology and audience expectations.
Despite problems between Antonov and his screenwriters, Polumgla has won multiple awards since its debut at the 2005 Window on Europe Festival in Vyborg, where it won the Film Critics’ Prize in the best debut category. The film went on to win best debut film at the 1st New Montreal Film Fest in 2005; Grand Prix at the 2nd Vologda Film Festival in 2005; the President’s Prize at the 2005 Pure Dreams Film Festival in Saint Petersburg; the special jury prize at the 2006 Ashdod International Film Festival; and the prize “For the most humane message to mankind” at the 8th annual Baku Festival East-West in 2006.
Artem Antonov, born in 1978 in Leningrad, studied in the screenwriting and directing division of the film school studio “Kadr,” a part of Lenfil'm Studio. Entering Saint Petersburg State University in the Department of Film and Television in 1999, Antonov studied under the tutelage of Igor' Maslennikov and Nikolai Koshelev until his graduation in 2004. His diploma film, Metropolitan Express, was screened at both Cannes and Karlovy Vary international film festivals, and was nominated for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 2004 “Honorary Foreign Film Student Award.” Polumgla is Antonov’s feature-film directorial debut.