Color, 74 minutes.
In Russian with English subtitles.
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Screenplay: Aleksei Fedorchenko and Natal’ia Meshchaninova
Camera: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Music: Vladimir Komarov, Atsuo Matsumoto
Cast: Marta Kozlova, Il’ia Belov, Sergei Fedorov
Producers: Dmitrii Vorob’ëv, Aleksandr Iashnik, Ol’ga Iuntunen, Maksim Loevskii, Andrei Savel’ev, Artëm Vasil’ev
Production: SAGa, Metrafilms, 29th February Film Company
Anna’s War joins an extensive legacy of films about children in World War II, from René Clément’s Forbidden Games (1952) in France and Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) in Japan to Andrei Tarkovskii’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) in the Soviet Union. Described as “a cross between Anne Frank and Alice through the Looking-Glass, Soviet-style” (Rogatchevski), Anna’s War shares many tropes with other films concerning children in wartime: hardship, alienation, and trauma infused with fantasy and underscored by resourcefulness. Like Forbidden Games and Grave of the Fireflies, the portrait of war that Fedorchenko paints is narrow, limited to a child’s point of view, and focuses on Anna’s minute (and often ingenious) survival tactics. The horrors of war are most evident in the film’s opening; beyond this, Anna’s war is one of strategy, inventiveness, and witnessing adult activities she is likely too young to understand.
The film’s opening scene is one of very few shot outdoors, but—like the rest of the film—it maintains a tight, claustrophobic frame. The camera moves haphazardly, fixating on the ground and the dead leaves littering it; it quickly becomes clear, even though the camera refuses to provide an establishing shot throughout, that it is moving over a mass grave. Smooth body parts and fragments of clothing extend delicately from the earth. The camera seems to search for someone in particular: a surviving child—Anna—who coughs herself conscious and struggles out of her dead mother’s grip, scrambling into a fetal position as the camera tracks backward to fit her wasted body within the frame. The scene finally cuts to black, making room for the film’s title. Anna’s War, therefore, begins with a birth of sorts: Anna must fight her way out of her mother’s body, now as an orphan, in order to survive.
Once Anna (Marta Kozlova) finds a hiding place in a school-turned-Nazi headquarters, she stays tucked away in a chimney during the day (peering through a cracked mirror at military goings-on and playing with the stray cat that frequents the building), emerging only at night to scavenge for crumbs and swig water from flowerpots or paintbrush jars. The diversity of languages that Anna overhears from her hiding place (among them Ukrainian, Russian, German, and Romanian), according to Fedorchenko, engenders “the universal language of war that has no nationality” (Nechayev). For her part, Anna does not utter a word throughout the length of the film; her silence and hideaway inside the walls endow her with an animalistic ferality. The repeated sounds of her chewing and swallowing seem amplified; her hunger and thirst “speaking” more plainly than words.
The sound design and cinematography lend discomfort and unease to the film’s atmosphere. Acute details magnify the film’s depiction of a vulnerable child suffering from physical ailments and emotional isolation, during a war for which she carries no responsibility. The camera’s proximity to Anna’s face indicates the cramped quarters where she must hide; as Rogatchevski notes, cinematographer Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev would stay with Kozlova in the tight space and capture her gestures, showing the passage of time through her minute movements. Anna’s War offers little relief, if any; Anna’s minor victories are infrequent and hard-fought, and any gratification is fleeting. Anna’s grueling fight for survival downplays any pleasure there might be in witnessing her ingenuity and reinforces the film’s bleak tone.
The film has been criticized for its narrative shortcomings—reviewers suggest that Anna’s actions lack credibility or that Fedorchenko’s minimalist approach obstructs emotional involvement on the part of the viewer. However, while Fedorchenko’s choice to focus a feature-length film entirely on a six-year-old character may seem risky, it demonstrates a consciously limited perspective of war and childhood, and what happens when the two overlap. This is Fedorchenko’s second foray into this topic; his first film, David (2001), is a documentary short about a young Jewish boy during and following the Holocaust, and Fedorchenko considers the two as companion pieces. Although Anna’s War is fictional, it is based on a true story, and Fedorchenko’s investment in portraying Anna’s survival realistically suggests that the 2018 film is, in many ways, his method of revisiting the earlier film.
Despite her critical situation, and even when she is sickly or starving, Anna’s eyes remain bold and alert. As her body grows gaunter, her eyes appear to widen. She resembles, with her unwavering gaze, another Anna (minus one letter) haunted by war—Ana (played by Ana Torrent) in Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973), the resolute child who becomes fascinated with Frankenstein’s monster. Anna, too, faces monsters in her war—both literal, such as when she stumbles upon a nightmarish Nazi Christmas dinner, and figurative, depicted in the map visible from Anna’s hiding place, in which the Nazi army’s pin flags mirror the invasion into the Soviet Union. But unlike Ana in Spirit of the Beehive, whose attraction to the monster reflects the inherited trauma of the Spanish Civil War, Anna’s experience of war’s horrors is all too real. The surrounding monsters hold no fascination for her. She simply wants to survive and to find comfort wherever she can. Anna’s War therefore asks—even if she does survive, what kind of physical, emotional, or intellectual trauma will Anna carry into her adult life? How can she persevere beyond the war, and how will the literal and figurative monsters she encounters affect her—and her children—after the danger has passed?
Aleksei Fedorchenko is an award-winning director from Ekaterinburg, Russia. His first film was the documentary short David (2001), and his subsequent films Silent Souls (2010) and Angels of Revolution (2014) have been critically lauded. Anna’s War is also receiving high acclaim; it won two Golden Eagle awards for Best Motion Picture and Best Director from the National Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences of Russia. Anna’s War also received the Nika Award for Best Film in 2019.
2018 Anna’s War
2017 Where Has the Time Gone? (Segment “Breathing”)
2014 Angels of Revolution
2012 Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari
2012 The Fourth Dimension (Segment “Chërnoe”)
2010 Silent Souls
2007 The Railway
2005 First on the Moon