Written by Films

How I Ended This Summer

I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not too up on Russian cinema. Although to be fair, there’s not a great deal that makes it to the UK. What we do get tend to be the more commercial films like Nightwatch and Daywatch alongside the odd fantasy title like Wolfhound. Then there’s the odd breakthrough arthouse pieces, and, er, that’s about it.
How I Ended This Summer is nothing like any of those. Any film set somewhere near the Arctic circle at a remote weather station is always going to get my attention. So this film ticks all the boxes.
Sergei and Pavel are the lone pair of workers who have to monitor the various weather related measurements in quite simply as a remote a weather station as you can find. They are so cut off from the outside world that their only communication is a shortwave radio. At regular intervals they have to broadcast the latest data to a faceless voice thousands of kilometres away. For the rest of the time they are completely self-sufficient.
The film opens and we observe them carrying out their work. The older Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) is in charge and he’s trying to shape up the younger Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin) who spends his spare time mucking around, eating his stash of sweets and playing first person shoot-em-ups.
They are in a wilderness as wild and barren as any committed to film. We get long shots of the beautiful, and yet desolate vistas. At times, the gorgeous cinematography shows us these panoramas over long timelapse periods. And as the title suggests, events take place in the summer. So while it’s not exactly warm, it does mean that the sun never truly sets and it’s always daylight.
Then one day Pavel is on the radio and gets a piece of bad news that he needs to pass on to the absent Sergei. How should he go about this? From this one small germ, things begin to break down and we get into the heart of the film.
It’s perhaps unsurprising to learn that director Aleksei Popogrebsky is a psychologist by training, since it’s the human condition that this film is really a study of. The interplay of the two main characters is key to the piece, as is how they react to what’s going on.
Time is almost unimportant in this kind of self-sufficient environment. And it’s clear that it takes a certain kind of person to man one of these bases. In a post screening Q&A, Popogrebsky told us how Arctic tales of derring-do from times gone by inspired him. In one instance a ship that was already on a year long expedition got stuck in the ice, and the captain calmly told his crew that it meant they’d be there for another year. He compared this to a Twitter generation where we have few seconds and even fewer characters to make considered judgements (Popgebsky’s not a fan of Twitter or Facebook, although he is making his next film in 3D. We shall have to see…)
The cinematography of this film is simply stunning. The remote location, where the crew of twenty made the film over three months meant that film was out of the question. Transport was so irregular that they’d never be able to see what they’d shot. So they used the RED camera, and it’s terrific. You wouldn’t actually know it was shot digitally it was that good. That said, we saw a print that was very much film, and disappointingly scratched. It didn’t diminish the experience however.
There’s one shot that totally stands out for me, and it’s a shot that simply could not have been planned. At one point in the film, Pavel is out walking in search of Sergei and he has a flare in his hand to try to attract a helicopter that has been sent for them. But thick cloud cover means that he’s not seen and the helicopter leaves. In a single shot we see Pavel drop the dying flare on the permafrost, and walk away. As he does so, the cloud cover lifts, falls again, and lifts some more. All the time, it’s changing from just about no visibility to kilometres of visibility. The shot lasts at least a minute and possibly longer. It reminds me in many respects of that famous shot of the desert horizon in Lawrence of Arabia.
And it’s not just the visuals that make this film. The sound is simply exceptional. At times we know something is coming because we can hear it, slowly, but inevitably. It’s beautifully put together by someone who really cares about their craft. It makes you realise how dreadful and overbearing so much sound is these days.
Overall, this is an exceptional film, and I’m delighted to have seen it. It’s out in about three weeks, and although I can’t imagine the distribution will be too wide, it’d be a shame not to see it on the big screen. Now I’ve got a list of other Russian films that I need to find on DVD.