[10 February 2011]
It seems inevitable that marketers would label Alexei Popogrebsky’s How I Ended This Summer a “psychological thriller.” It takes place in the ceaseless daylight of a Russian arctic weather station, pitting two men against one another at the end of the world. But glacial pacing, more Tarkovsky than Hitchcock, undercuts any generic tropes, and instead seems a meditation on the precariousness of life. And while mortality might come into clearer relief against the Arctic desolation, the film suggests that lives are everywhere equally fragile.
The film opens on Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), a scruffy recent college graduate. He stares out to sea with his headphones on; the ice shelf before him seems to shift, barely, as wind-whipped snow blows across it. Pavel is a dilettante of isolation and a dabbler in survival. With his music blasting, he wanders through the barren landscape, in it but not of it, confident in his ability to go home at any time.
Graying Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), a veteran of the station, has no such illusions. While Pavel retreats into music and videogames, Sergei understands that here, nature bears down. Like his subtly animate surroundings, he seems not to survive so much as persist. He says little, intimidating Pavel into his own uneasy silence. Pavel wants Sergei’s respect, but the older man sees him doing nothing to deserve it.
A conflict seems inevitable, though it emerges gradually. Their only connection to the mainland is a radio whose interference drones on in an incessant, unearthly howl. When the radio comes to life with a terrible message for Sergei, who’s out fishing, Pavel panics. Unable to relay the message, he engages in a series of deceptions that set him and Sergei against one another.
Here the “psychological thriller” begins in earnest, turning a case study in claustrophobia into an Arctic meditation with intermittent gunplay. This is perhaps a turn too much, and the film seems to acknowledge with its meandering pursuit of clichés—the shootout, the chase, the tension-building break-in, and so on. These scenes are intercut with lengthy takes of the static landscape, underscoring environmental influences but dissipating any narrative momentum.
As the surroundings overwhelm the plot, How I Ended This Summer invites predictable comparisons. Among the most frequently quoted is Berliner Zeitung‘s, which calls it “Tarkovsky at the polar sea!” thereby fulfilling the critic’s obligation to frame every Russian film in terms of the incomparable Andrei. (I’ve met mine above.) This movie’s fascination with natural environment does evoke Solaris and Stalker, as does the languid pacing. And Popogrebsky slyly acknowledges the obvious: Pavel plays a videogame called S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, heavily influenced by the 1979 film.
Stalker had more on its mind than does How I Ended This Summer, though, from metaphysics and philosophy to poetry. Here, death, (apparent) madness, and reconciliation all have roles, but they’re not articulated so much as they hang over the horizon. This renders the men mysterious or sketchy, depending on your point of view, as neither does much to explain himself.
To that end, both actors give restrained, complex performances. Dobrygin especially has several long scenes reacting only to a voice on the radio. Here the camera pins him, capturing every twitch and blink as he constructs his lies. And when Sergei finally begins to open up to Pavel, he does so while gutting fresh-caught trout. Teaching Pavel how to prepare the fish, he falls into a reverie about his wife. The two men make no eye contact, focusing on the knives and their bloody hands. As Sergei, Puskepalis never acknowledges how his tone has slipped into a casual, fatherly intimacy. Dobrygin conveys Pavel’s despair with a few small gestures: he has noticed the change in tone, and knows he can never be forgiven for keeping his secret.
Two men of few words struggling to survive in a land indifferent to them: that seems the real story of How I Ended This Summer. That they find themselves at odds comes across as irrelevant as it is inevitable. The film’s most important question hinges on whether they can overcome their antipathy and recognize their shared mortality. Doing so is, perhaps paradoxically, a path to survival.