As of late few war movies about World War II have been black and white. Oh sure, you’ll still find films mired in simplistic jingoism, but the films that manage to gain international acclaim have all been more about humanity rather than good and evil. “Saving Private Ryan” boiled war down to its barest essence — kill and survive and go home; “The Thin Red Line” treated war as an inescapable nightmarish dreamscape where good and evil are abstract ideas; and “Band of Brothers” showed soldiers as men of vices, fighting not for causes, but to save themselves and each other.
Into this pool of ambiguity and gray walks the Russian World War II film “The Star”, set in the summer of 1944, with the Russian Red Army clashing with the advancing Germans along the Poland border. Having been pushed back, the Germans are preparing for a major counter offensive. The Russians, knowing this, sends scout units behind enemy lines for information. Two units have gone and not come back, leaving only one. Led by Lieutenant Travkin (Igor Petrenko), the unit, nicknamed “Star”, is dispatched to continue the suicide mission.
Visually speaking, “The Star” looks polished and realistic, seamlessly moving between Hollywood gloss and down-and-dirty grit. Cinematographer Yuri Nevsky does an excellent job of making the scouts, nicknamed “ghost scouts”, blend effortlessly into the world of marshes and thick foliage. The film’s best moments are sequences where the scout unit literally turns into ghostly images as they move fluidly through the fields. The film is mostly confined to the micro world of the scouts and their sporadic skirmishes with the enemy, although there is a major set piece where Russian bombers raid a German railroad station. Alas, one shouldn’t expect elaborately staged battles on a grand scale.
The script succeeds when it stays within the confined world of the ghost scouts as they move from silent engagements to wild gunfights trying to complete their mission. Things falter when the movie tries to extend beyond its range. This includes the use of voiceover, where we are supposed to be hearing a German officer “writing” reports about the actions of the scouts. The device makes “The Star” feel like one of those serials from the 1930s, where a radio announcer would come on periodically to report the progress of our heroes to radio listeners. But if the German voiceover seems awkward, so too does the movie’s score. The phrase “overly melodramatic” comes to mind.
The other distraction is the character of Katya (Yekaterina Vulichenko), a female radio operator tasked with keeping contact with the scout unit. Katya is a grown woman who nevertheless acts like a lovelorn teenager that has mistaken the brutal killing fields of war for the high school hallways of “Beverly Hills, 90210”. How else to explain the unconvincing love story between Katya and Travkin. It’s not just so simplistic as to be embarrassing, but this gratuitous subplot also threatens to torpedo the movie’s gritty feel. Thankfully a possible love triangle between Katya, Travkin, and another officer is never followed up on.
Like most war movies, “The Star” has a central lead and everyone else ends up being background noise. Except for a few soldiers, such as Travkin, Mamochkin, and Anikanov, the only other character in the scout unit that stands out is a character called Sparrow, the German-speaking but inexperienced soldier. (Isn’t there always one in every war movie?) The rest fades into their camouflage uniforms; even an Asian-Russian gets lost in the mud and blood. As the lead, Igor Petrenko does a fine enough job, not that the script requires very much out of him except to look stoic and brave.
Not that individual characterization really matters in a movie like this. “The Star” seems to be more about the heroism of a group — re: the Russian people — rather than individuals. Which, if you know your Russian history, is what is preached in Russia’s Communist days. Da, comrade?
At barely 90 minutes of running time, “The Star” is a brisk and entertaining film. It doesn’t get overly bogged down in the horrors of war, a theme most war movies sometimes become obsessed with at the expense of entertainment. A lot of money obviously went into the production, not that the film’s limited narrative requires it. Aside from the ill-conceived Katya character and the unsophisticated score, “The Star” might have been a great war movie. As it stands, it’s still pretty good.
Nikolai Lebedev (director)
CAST: Igor Petrenko …. Travkin
Artyom Semakin …. Vorobej
Aleksei Panin …. Mamochkin
Aleksei Kravchenko …. Anikanov
Anatoli Gushchin …. Bykov