Decimation* (Director: Wade Jackson, USA, 30 minutes)
Like any film featuring American actors set in a foreign country, there is something slightly askew about Decimation, at least until your brain has time to adjust. Much criticism was heaped upon Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie for not even attempting German accents for its English-speaking cast of Wehrmacht soldiers. But I tend to think that affecting a foreign accent is more of a gamble than a guaranteed win. Perhaps Enemy at the Gates (which receives a nice shout-out in this film) handled it best for an American audience, opting for the generic stand-in British accent for all of its Russian characters. Decimation, a film about a group of World War II Russian solders accused of cowardice, opted for accent fakery (with bits of actual Russian sprinkled in), and I don’t think it does the film any great service. The acting quality here is quite solid all around, but the accent work is variable, and my three years of Russian language made it difficult to separate the two as the film began. But before too long, I was absorbed enough in the story and cast that this detail ceased to bother me.
The strongest performer is certainly Roy Stanton, who plays Prisoner One, the unofficial leader of the group. The titular practice of “Decimation” refers not to the complete obliteration of a group, as it has come to mean, but rather the destruction of just one tenth of it to enforce discipline – in this case, a single soldier selected by Prisoner One for execution. He could even choose himself if he wished, but whichever man is chosen must be executed by the other members of the group. This practice featured prominently in a vignette in Max Brooks’ novel World War Z (also in Russia), and apparently there is a documented instance of it happening among Russians in World War II. But I give this film immense credit for using the practice as an effective metaphor for the unrelenting bleakness and indifference of warfare.
If you’re lucky, you won’t be in a war. If you’re luckier, you won’t be in a war in the Soviet Red Army. And if you’re luckier still, you won’t duck or hide in the face of enemy fire while a commissar is watching your back. Enforcing both the virtue of patriotism and the shame of cowardice was deemed essential in a war in which over 20 million Russian soldiers and civilians died. We get to see this struggle of ideology vs. survival play out in the face of pure, indifferent chance. Differentiating ten characters in the space of a 30-minute short must have been a daunting task, and the film does a marvelous job. Each character, whether the suspected Cossack, the Eastern Orthodox priest, or the doggedly patriotic teenager, gets his moment to shine. Making me care about each of these characters was essential; otherwise I would have a nice, long list of unimportant extras that I’d be happy to see up against the wall in the end. There were certainly a few who received very little screentime, but not one that seemed superfluous.
I’ve referred to a few short films from this weekend as a “solid first act”, but I think this may be the only “solid third act” that I saw. The film jumps effortlessly from one moment of character-loaded tension to the next, mostly justifying it with the acting, but never completely earning it with the setup. Even a few plot details are unclear from the start. I initially identified the prison commandant (Michael Patten) as one of the worst accent offenders (sounding more German than Russian), only to see him identified as “The German” in the end credits. How did a German come to work in a Soviet prison camp? We never know…but it must be a hell of a story. Despite this fundamental problem with putting feature-length complexity into a short film, none of these unknown details prevented me from feeling every moment of shock, sadness, and horror by the film’s end. And apart from that, the film is very well made. The score is dramatic and catchy – albeit slightly repetitive – but it never once commits the cardinal sin of pushing past the justified emotional content of the scene. The production design is budget-impeccable, featuring authentic weapons and real-looking uniforms*. In addition to the score, the sound mix features the slightly mocking twitter of birds just outside the cell, giving the constant [and false] impression that happiness and freedom are just a window-climb away. Very effective.
Bottom line – this movie is unrelentingly bleak, features some very strong performances, and is greater than the sum of its high-concept parts. For a 30-minute war film, I couldn’t have asked for more.
*Confession: I really don’t know if the uniforms were accurate, although they helped significantly with character differentiation. But the weapons (notably the PPSh and the Mosin-Nagant rifle) certainly looked legit. I spotted at least one German MP-40 rifle, but given that the Russians frequently had to deal with weapon and ammo shortages, I’m happy to justify that by assuming it was a captured item.
More info and trailers here.