in 44th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Peter Keough

War is hell, as films from “Birth of a Nation” to “Saving Private Ryan” remind us. But who knew it involved so much coughing? That, along with screams of pain, enigmatic bits of dialogue and occasional, barely audible strains of Bach, provide the background music to Alexei A.German Jr.’s harrowing, haunting chamber piece “The Last Train”, winner of the Golden Alexander and the FIPRESCI Prize in the Thessaloniki Film Festival’s International Competition. The images these sounds support are no less subtle and assaultive. Employing slow takes, long meditative pans and tracking shots, and a diffuse, monochromatic cinematography of surprising detail and depth of field, the camera discloses with renewed horror and pathos of the disintegrating Eastern Front during the Nazi retreat in the winter of 1944.

Dr. Paul Fistchbach (Pavel Romanov) is an unlikely hero in this frozen inferno. A rotund, bespectacled German surgeon drafted late in the war, he’s not unlike Tolstoy’s Pierre in a latterday “War and Peace”. Arriving on the train of the title at an outpost bracing for a Soviet advance, he’s driven by a continually coughing soldier through a snowstorm to the hospital to which he has been assigned. From the car window can be seen the pockets of freezing misery and occasional military hardware that is all that is left of the once mighty Nazi war machine.

The doctor arrives at the hospital to find that all the patients except for hideously burned soldier have been evacuated, and only a few staff members remain. When the officer in charge (in between the inevitable coughing fits) threatens to kill Fistchbach if he doesn’t flee, the doctor stumbles into the fog-shrouded, icy wastes where he befriends another straggler, a former postman with a fatalistic sense of humor, and the two wander through a featureless landscape punctuated by sudden atrocities.

Far from celebrating patriotism or battlefield valor, “The Last Train” poignantly underscores the absurdity of war and the value of simple human decency. Fitschbach and the postman exchange rueful, black comic observations and painful personal memories in between their coughing fits and nightmarish encounters with the disasters of war. Some of these incidents are almost funny. A Russian family holed up in a farmhouse “capture” Fitschbach and the postman with a pistol that proves to be unloaded. Other incidents, however, are among the most painful war scenes in cinema.

Although the 26-year-old German, son of the famed Russian director of the same name, indulges in the kind of excess (the coughing, for example) common to first time directors, his film compares with such similarly themed masterpieces as “Fires on the Plain”, “Kanal”, and “Come and See”. The epilogue alone, eloquently underlining the profundity and pointlessness of an anonymous act of kindness, elevates it to ranks of the finest films in the genre.