In a Leningrad hospital, two women deal with the aftereffects of their experiences in World War II, in a powerful examination of trauma by a young Russian director.
The trauma that happens to people in wartime is a theme so difficult that it almost seems impossible to portray in a film, but that hasn’t stopped filmmakers through the years from trying, so central and so important is this experience to the understanding of what war is, and why we need to stop making it. The challenge is taken up once again by a young Russian director, Kantemir Balagov, depicting the unspeakable cost to women in war, in his second feature, Beanpole.
The place and time are a Leningrad hospital in late 1945. The terrifying siege of the city has ended, a siege that lasted 29 months, and in which somewhere around a million people starved to death. After that, the Soviets drove the Germans out of their country and into eventual defeat in Germany.
Now, in the hospital, we meet Iya, a very tall thin woman played by Viktoria Miroshnichenko. She’s a nurse, and the wounded soldiers in the hospital generally like her for her kind and gentle demeanor, and have given her the nickname “Beanpole.” But there’s something a bit “off” about Iya. As we eventually discover, she’s a veteran herself, who suffers from what today we could call an extreme case of PTSD. Her primary symptoms are a sudden gasping for air, followed by freezing in place, as if she were paralyzed. After a few minutes, she snaps out of it. Her co-workers are so used to this that they barely notice it anymore and just wait for the fit to pass.
Beanpole is caring for a toddler, a boy named Pashka, that everyone assumes is her son. At one point, unable to get anyone to watch him, she takes him to the hospital ward. His small malnourished body evokes sadness in the patients. They see in him another example of their country’s brutal suffering. What they don’t know is that Pashka’s history is more complicated than it seems. It has something to do with Beanpole’s best friend, a woman soldier named Masha, played by Vasilisa Perelygina, who comes back and visits Beanpole after being a part of the Soviet victory in Germany.
Masha’s trauma is not only from her experiences fighting the enemy, but also from the way men on her own side have treated her. A scene where she has dinner with the family of a possible fiancé, demonstrates how even the most feckless man will be given the benefit of a doubt over a woman, even a woman who has fought and bled for her country.
The actresses playing Beanpole and Masha are two newcomers who’ve never appeared on screen before, which is incredible, considering the raw vulnerability of their performances. The director, Balagov, and his co-screenwriter Aleksandr Terekhov, show us the truth about the women’s situation through the behavior, which sometimes seems nonsensical or contradictory, of these two friends, who share a secret and a profound suffering.
In some ways this makes the film difficult, because instead of spelling things out for us as the average film would, in order to help us know what to think and how to feel, the movie expresses everything indirectly. There are scenes in which facts are revealed only through the eyes, and the way Balagov frames the close-ups on the screen. We witness the characters trying desperately to control their feelings, and reality only comes at us sideways, as it were. The result is a film designed to evoke in us a disturbing sense of something that’s not right, that’s out of sync, but we’re never exactly sure what; something that threatens to disrupt or maybe even destroy our minds. It’s an astonishing feat of cinematic poetry to create in the viewer the sense of lingering trauma, of a war that is still being fought inside, and a pain that lurks underneath our awareness. Beanpole deliberately unbalances our world view, so that we experience almost directly the maddening uncertainty of this trauma.