From the Tribeca Film Festival: The Last Train
In war movement is everything, but in cinema movement is generally thought as needing a purpose. This purpose is most easily formulated through narrative and Aleksei German’s debut film The Last Train
is about the failure of two kinds of movement to collate, that of war and that of narrative.
German’s film is almost prototypical in its art house obliqueness and relationship between aimless humans and the rustic landscape upon which they wander. The story takes place during one of the horrific winters in World War 2 somewhere on the Eastern Front and the inexactitude of location and time is carried on to the soldiers themselves who know not whether their army is advancing or retreating. The Last Train follows two German non-soldiers, a doctor and a postman, who not only fail to kill any enemies but also fail at their respective professions. On the frozen hinterland of the Russian steppes there is little mail to deliver and few bodies to treat; everyone is either barely alive or recently dead. Opening with a languorous and slow moving car ride that follows that doctor’s journey from a train yard to an abandoned manor house serving as a hospital near the front, the film seems most concerned with the aimless movement of war participants. The soldiers seem to know neither where they are going nor why they are trying to get there. The doctor is quickly separating from the army headquarters-if one can call an officer and his underling an entire headquarters-and the soldiers of the film seem to disperse into the unending Russian blizzard as if picked up by the wind and thrown off the face of the earth.
The doctor and postman end up lost in the hinterland and stumble their way through dense snowstorms with little purpose and no direction. Amid long stretches where the only sound is the whine of the snow on the wind or the trudging of boots through the terrain there are long one-sided conversations in The Last Train
where characters absently babble either oblique philosophy or report banal life stories. The two men meet an isolated cabin full of Russian women and a lost Russian soldier, as well as running into a band of partisans, but with no end goal in sight-“no plot” as the doctor puts it-and no narrative arc to a war that is confused and lost in the vastness of Russia these men have no where to go and nothing to do other than keep moving until they die.
In this manner German’s film is a unique and highly tangible meditation on war; a far more gutsy, not to mention pretentious, extrapolation of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line
which spent most of its running time watching its G.I.’s sit around or walk to battle rather than actually fighting. At its more entertaining moments The Last Train sometimes teeters between absurdism and horrendous bleakness. At first it seems that every soldier outdoors in the freezing cold is comically sniffling as if their lives depended on it, and when the doctor arrives at the headquarters he finds the captain in charge hacking and coughing to the point of ridiculousness. But once the doctor is discharged to wander around the “front” it seems everyone is suffering some the same obscure but common plight of inner sickness trying its best to leap out of the broken human bodies. As the people try to expel the disease by blowing their noses and racking their bodies with constant coughing, the dynamic, unrelenting blizzard outside seems to be an exterior manifestation of the inner condition. To what end it is never clear. Aside from the effectives of disturbing long takes that seem to track more the development of the snowstorm than the lives of the film’s protagonists, The Last Train
is an obscure work of unknown purposes. To be sure, it makes an stunning, odd, and effective picture on the philosophy of the narrative[less] of war and the way cinema can revise the generic portrayal of the war experience, but one can take only so much meandering dialog and unclear ideas.