The Unwomanly Face of War

Submitted by cathy n on 11 November, 2019 - 4:49 Author: Justine Kennedy

Kantemir Balagov’s film 'Beanpole' follows two female ex-Red Army soldiers working in a hospital in Leningrad after the siege, painting a striking and intimate picture of the febrile lives of Russians after World War Two.

The film’s titular character is Iya, nicknamed “Beanpole” for her long and lanky build. She is awkward and quiet and periodically suffers from fits of catatonic shock. Early in the film, her friend Masha returns from the front to join her working in the hospital.

In the beginning, there are flickers of happiness for the two women, until a horrific incident pushes them to face the tragic situation around them. They spend the rest of the film hopelessly and frantically trying to undo the effects of this incident and of the whole war.

The film presents differing ways young women in an unstable and misogynistic society relate to men. Iya seems repelled by and almost afraid of men her age, feeling only comfortable with the fatherly hospital administrator and the severely wounded soldiers she looks after. Masha on the other hand seems at ease with the company of men, replicating her experience on the front by using her relationships with men for protection and food in Leningrad.

'Beanpole' avoids a sensationalist narrative, allowing a sensitive depiction of Iya and Masha’s PTSD and opening the viewer to the varied ways in which trauma presented itself to Russians in 1945. Simply showing the intimate parts of life after the siege, when life was supposed to be getting easier, focuses the viewer's attention on the psychology of the characters rather than theatrical warfare scenes.

A secondary storyline is that of Masha’s relationship with a bureaucrat’s son, Sasha, which is a damning depiction of the privileged class. When Sasha and his mother visit the hospital, they give the dying and grievously wounded soldiers small, meagre presents. Their entire visit proves to be an empty gesture. The mother makes a speech thanking them for the efforts in the war, however, is interrupted when a wounded soldier becomes confused and wildy claps during her speech.

The bizarre act is clearly a result of his wartime injuries. However, the mother looks on with annoyance at the soldier she was moments before thanking, showing little compassion for him as he’s led away by nurses. The mother later belittles Masha as she retells her tales of being at the front. In this scene was see a glimpse of the bureaucrat family’s large house, with plentiful food and housed with servants.

The parallels of these two groups, the well off bureaucrats and the starved soldiers driven mad by the war, cuts to the core of the film’s misery. While a fictional story, the film was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s book The Unwomanly Face of War, a collection of first-person accounts of women who served in the Red Army. Iya and Masha represent the million Russian women who sacrificed everything on the front, only to be greeted at home with hollow praise and to return to life under an authoritarian bureaucracy.

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