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The Edge

[Край]

Russia, 2010
Color, 119 minutes

Director: Aleksei Uchitel'
Script: Aleksandr Gonorovskii
Cinematography: Iurii Klimenko
Design: Vera Zelinskaia
Music: David Holmes
Cast: Vladimir Mashkov, Anjorka Strechel, Iulia Peresil'd, Sergei Garmash, Aleksei Gorbunov,
Viacheslav Krikunov, Aleksandr Bashirov
Producer: Konstantin Ernst
Production: Rock Films and Studio Teleshow (with financial support from Russian State Railroad)

We must understand the title in several different ways in order to appreciate fully the significance of this film. Edge [Krai] is both the name of the settlement and its geographical location. It is located at the edge of navigable space, beyond which there is “no place else to go.” The word also suggests the edge of civilization, the furthest point from the center—Moscow. We learn early in the film that the population of Krai is made of up outcasts pushed off to the edge of the social body. In both the geographical and social coordinate systems, the word thus designates a limit up against which one can press or be pressed. Finally, we can also understand the word in reference to human character—the people who populate the film are in various ways “pushed to the edge”: to the limits of their strength, of their sanity, of their abilities, and of their very humanity. This latest film by Aleksei Uchitel' is about all of these things. It is also about trains.

Despite the presence of railroads and trains in Russian culture throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it has been many years since Russian cinema has produced a strong “train movie.” There can be no mistake that this is the film’s primary generic orientation: in place of the (until recently) ubiquitous financial support of the Russian Ministry of Culture, the reportedly $12 million budget of The Edge was financed largely by the Russian State Railroad, which seems to have required from the film little more than a peculiar style of product placement. The action of the film is set in September 1945, only several months after the victory of the USSR over Nazi Germany. The film’s protagonist, Ignat, served as a tank driver during that war, but his service in a tank followed a recklessly daring stint as a train engineer. Having arrived at Krai, Ignat remains a Russian man of iron with a single-minded determination to realize himself by driving and racing locomotives along the “iron roads” of Russia’s great expanse. Trains of several different vintages and in various states of disrepair constitute a secondary, non-human cast of characters. As the trains repeatedly go beyond their technical limitations of speed and endurance, the film suggests that the trains overcome their mechanical limitations through a kind of metaphysical bonding with their engineers. Uchitel' emphasizes the “personality” of the trains repeatedly and in various ways: the conflation of the name of one train with the identity of the NKVD officer in charge of it, the naive reaction of one young girl that an old abandoned locomotive is nevertheless “alive,” and the much too heavy-handed symbolism of smoke, the color of which marks the moral character of each locomotive/engineer tandem.

Yet despite the importance of the film’s genre markers and overall rhythm, this is all somewhat extraneous to the notion of the edge, without which the film would amount to nothing much more than an ambitious but ultimately forgettable train movie. Despite the overwhelming physical presence of the locomotives, the film nevertheless directs our attention to the very human characters in and around them. Human relations and relationships have, after all, been one of the enduring themes of this director at least as far back as His Wife’s Diary. The first thirty minutes of the film introduce us to Ignat, a profoundly damaged individual (he has suffered several concussions in the war), and follows his initial difficult introduction to the settlement populated by people treated as “damaged” goods by the State. Krai, as it turns out, has been settled with enemies of the people, which in 1945 included most anyone who had the misfortune to live under German occupation during the war. The settlement is one large labor army, producing lumber for the State. Hardened by their experiences during and after the war, both Ignat and the laborers have adapted to a dog-eat-dog system of ethics in which one’s fellow human beings are seen largely in terms of how they can satisfy one’s own needs. Ignat quickly deprives the local train engineer of both his job and his woman, and finds himself as an outcast in a society of outcasts. His irrepressible drive and ambition lead him further out toward the edge, where he seeks and finds his own locomotive and, as part of the bargain, a German girl, Elsa, who has been hiding in the wilderness since before the war began. As Elsa is rejected by the Soviet laborers, the working relationship between Ignat and the German girl begins to grow into affection and, ultimately, love. Elsa puts her desire into concrete terms when she expresses the wish to see Ignat smile. She achieves this feat only once during the action of the film, but the unexpected and incongruent achievement of this feat makes the smile much more than simply an expression of affection. It marks the complex relationship between personal and group identity.

Ultimately, the significance of the “edge” (and of The Edge) derives from the way that this outer limit is defined by the status of the outcast. We come to understand how the outcast can be both victim and perpetrator. The film’s treatment of this idea is subtle and sensitive to the moral ambiguities of life “on the edge,” and it is remarkable that Uchitel' manages to avoid moral judgments in his characterizations. Neither Ignat, Elsa, or any of the major characters in the film (with the possible exception of “Fishman” as portrayed by Garmash) is marked as simply positive or negative. Despite the damage done to them by war and political repression, these very human beings are capable of both cruelty and compassion, ruthlessness and heroism. Their inconstancy bears witness to their capacity for growth and development. The one problematic exception to this generally positive feature of the film is the behavior of the collective personality of the laborers. If this collective forms any kind of identity, its radical changeability from hateful rejection of Elsa to fierce defender of the same is unconvincing and leaves the viewer with a troubling uncertainty about whether the human virtues of solidarity and compassion retain any integrity at the level of the social, to say nothing of the political. Although we are reminded several times that Russians never hurt cripples, we are reminded even more often that this society of outcasts greets every new arrival with a “lousy welcome.”

The Russian Film Academy in 2010 awarded The Edge four “Golden Eagles”: for Best Director (Uchitel'), Best Lead Actor (Mashkov), Best Lead Actress (Strechel), and Best Supporting Actress (Peresil'd).

Gerald McCausland

Aleksei Uchitel' (b. 1951)

Aleksei Uchitel' was born in Leningrad and, despite residing in Moscow, still considers St. Petersburg his home. In 1975 he graduated from the department of cinematography of the State Institute of Filmmaking (VGIK). He first made his mark as a documentary filmmaker before turning to feature films in the 1990s. In 1992 he became the artistic director of Rock Films, where he continues to direct and produce feature films. He is the recipient of numerous prizes for his films, and in 2001 was honored with the title “People’s Artist of Russia.”

Selected Filmography

Note: A complete filmography would include some 20 documentary films dating back to the early 1970s.

2010 The Edge
2008 Captive
2005 Dreaming of Space
2003 The Stroll
2000 His Wife’s Diary
1995 Giselle’s Mania
1993 Butterfly (documentary)
1990 Lateral Canal (documentary)
1987 Rock (documentary)

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