Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Last Train

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE LAST TRAIN

5/10

Posledniy poezd : Russia 2003 : Alexey A GERMAN : 82 mins

things are never quite as bad as they seem... Thoughts that chug into and out of your mind during The Last Train

1) Get a move on
2) Funny that a picture about World War Two should be made by “a Russian” named “A German”
3) War is hell
4) There’s always somebody worse off than yourself
5) Things are never quite as bad as they seem
6) For f*ck’s sake, get a move on

So, we’re somewhere in Russia. End of the war. Icy winter in stark monochrome. The Germans know the jig is up, but we’re a long way from the main ‘theatre’ here so it’s a kind of limbo. The characters know they are no leading men in this drama: one of them reveals that he once hoped to play Hamlet but had to settle for Rosencrantz instead. Bit-part players adrift in a cold-war purgatory, and don’t they just know it: “No plot, no drama… pointless!”

Your classic breath-freezing-in-the-air scenario. The surroundings not so much landscape as tundra, beautiful to look at but not a nice place to be either outdoors or indoors, especially when indoors has become outdoors because the buildings are in ruins, doors and windows a cruel memory. Portly German surgeon Fishbach (Pavel Romanov) arrives by what’s presumably “the last train” if that not-so-cheery title is to be believed. He finds the “hospital” to which he’s been posted. It’s a wreck, crazed pistol-toting Nazis running casually, psychotically amok (no need to say “freeze” in these temperatures). Everybody coughing their guts out. A Tarkovskyish horse clip clops through a room.

Fishbach flees, slowly, into the countryside. Populated by consumptive old soldiers on the verge of fading away, hapless civilians hiding in rudimentary shacks. A minor but vicious battle eventually barrels its chaotic way through the area. Casualties everywhere. Frost descends. More hacking coughs (are they paid per great expectoration?) “I had a dream today. I don’t remember it.” Hypothermia beckons as the coldest circle of hell slowly freezes over. Night refuses to fall – too cold. Stasis horrors at zero and below. Dialogue at a minimum, but chunks of existential philosophising nonetheless… Dramatic inertia… An exercise in grinding misery? “No one will come for us. We’ll all die here.” Hmm.

German is the son of another Alexey German, the director of a handful of acclaimed pictures over the last 30 years or so, including Khroustaliov, My Car! (1998). This lineage perhaps explains why so many critics have been keen to give German Jr the benefit of the doubt. That and his virtuouso camerawork, his eye for cool compositions. The audience at the Edinburgh Film Festival’s public showing on the afternoon of 24th August 2004, perhaps not knowing of German’s ancestry, didn’t seem quite so charitable – excited anticipation was rapidly eroded by the picture’s punishing tedium. Mutterings of discontent as the disappointed punters shuffled through the exits.

And yet, such a reaction is presumably exactly what German is after. Paradoxically, the more grindingly unbearable the movie, the greater his success. The clear intention is to show that war is a dehumanising, bone-chillingly awful business. And the most direct means of getting across this message is to make the film as grim and bleak as possible, to pile on the misery to the point of self-parody and beyond – though Andrei Tarkovsky didn’t need to go anywhere near so far with his rural-set, WW2 debut, Ivan’s Childhood. For German, however, war – rather like movie-making – turns out to be long stretches of tense waiting punctuated by disorienting blasts of semi-chaotic action.

In theory, The Last Train should ideally last four or five hours at least: Bela Tarr would surely have prolonged the agony way beyond conventional feature length, safe in his reputation as “challenging” auteur. This is German’s debut, however, and all he dares risk is a relatively skimpy 82 minutes, which means we’re kind of in and out before the film really been able to exert its full brain-freezing horror. But we nevertheless get the point, and it’s still advisable for audiences to load up on Red Bull or black coffee – or both – before entering the cinema.

6th September, 2004
(seen 24th August : Filmhouse Edinburgh : public show – Edinburgh Film Festival)

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by Neil Young