When we go to a screening that takes modern history to the workshop, we should do it with awareness of a solid dose of pathos awaiting for us (sometimes one can be quietly moved if the artist manages to awaken empathy in us and induce moral reflection). The contrast between peace and war or peace and conflict (internal, external, physical, psychological, etc.) is such a strong stimulus that – if it is skillfully prepared by the filmmakers, with viewers demanding the spectacle – it is a self-fulfilling theme.
You know, the soldier is leaving to serve his country, the family is in suspense waiting for him to return. The horror of waiting reaches a status almost equal to the war on the front. We know many such stories. When Robert Rodat (screenwriter, Saving Private Ryan) is responsible for the script, we are unlikely to expect a fresh dish, although of course stale tales can be tasty, but we have the right to expect something more from Thomas Vinterberg.
Kursk tells us a story of a Russian submarine that tragically sank in the Barents Sea during the Northern Fleet maneuvers in August 2000. The story begins with the wedding of one of the sailors, building a well-known contrast. The hardships of women waiting for their husbands will be intertwined with soldiers fighting for survival in an underwater cage. Fortunately, Vinterberg is looking for a neutral, golden mean, without stripping women of their identities, and not reducing their role to mouners taking care of children. The portrayal of women’s solidarity and social struggle to extract the truth from hermetic command of the Russian navy and authorities determined cutting themselves off from the world (aftermath of the Cold War) is somewhat comforting.
Of course, this kind of approach should not be treated as something special. In contemporary cinema, equal treatment for sex is something that we can (and must) naturally expect. Vinterberg will play by the rules. The problem is that this safe game is not enough for a good movie prescription. It is also not enough to deftly draw attention to the need for international cooperation above scissions. It has all been before and sometimes it has been better.
The greater the pity that there are flashes of brilliance in Kursk. The changing format of the image, the camera range expanding at the moment when the idyll ends and the sailors go out to the sea. For a moment the convention is broken. Here the claustrophobic space of the submarine will be shown through a wide frame. The interior of the ship will seem huge – and in a sense is, after all, Kursk was over 150 meters long – able to contain not only heroes, but also spectators. Soldiers will be imprisoned not only by damage to the ship and the explosions of torpedoes on board, but also by the sea reaching to the horizon. Return to a more limited format will also mean the sailors returning to home. As Tanya (Léa Seydoux), the wife of one of the men trapped under water, notes, everyone who returns is changed by the sea.
Vinterberg did not avoid something that will be unbearable for many viewers. To provide a comfortable immersion for international audience, the creator decides to narrate using English. The British side will differ from the Russian side only in a fake accent – it will infuriate the ears of every purist and those who know the tune of the Russian language. Instead of the desired immersion, the viewers will be irritated by the linguistic masquerade.
The Danish artist has proved many times that he is a good director. Against the background of his other works, Kursk presents itself as an unexploited lost potential.