By Joseph Marshall
A distraught young man sits propped up against some rocks, panting and gathering his thoughts. In the background, choppy waters lap the shoreline. This is college student turned scientist Pavel Danilov and he is on the run from his armed and dangerous colleague Sergei. It’s a moment in which the audience as well as the man on screen can pause for breath, in what we assume is a temporary respite from his peril. But before we are given the chance, we have the dreadful realisation that his tormenter has bobbed into view again in the top left hand corner of the screen, aboard a small wooden vessel. He has a gun. Pavel unfortunately, is very much without a paddle.
How I Ended This Summer is about what happens when the relationship between a pair of ill matched meteorologists takes a dire turn for the worst. Sergei and Pavel have been posted to an extremely remote location, an arctic region called Chukotka, as far north in Russia as you can go. Here they must work alongside each other through harsh blizzards and long hours. Filmed on location at a genuine weather station, five hours from the nearest town, director Alexei Popogrebsk says that the actors fully submerged themselves in the experience, following the same routine as people who earn a living there.
He uses the intimacy of the setting to build tension right from the first scene where Pavel and Sergei are together. The two act like a bitter married couple, making sarcastic retorts, trying to have the last word and generally resenting each others presence. Sounds such as fingers punching numbers into a calculator are amplified, conveying the nerviness of the situation and we see through the pained facial expressions of both actors that they are struggling not to loose their cool.
Then a stomach churning change of events puts our youthful protagonist in a highly precarious situation. Whilst Sergei is away on a technically-against-the-rules fishing trip, Pavel, who’s been left to man the base, receives via radio the shocking news that Sergei’s family are dead. But instead of doing the right thing and informing his companion of his loss, he behaves with cowardice, doing everything in his his power to avoid revealing the awful truth. This has us on the one hand silently screaming at the screen for him to bite the bullet and unveil the tragic secret, but on the other knowing that things are likely to become violent if he does.
To make matters worse, his over sized companion has returned from his excursion in high spirits. Perhaps sensing his partner’s sudden lack of hostility, the two even begin to bond, sharing a sauna and a plunge in the icy sea. Here Popogrebsk cunningly uses Sergei’s out of character exuberance as a means of showing that things are awry. The happier he becomes, the more certain it is his mood will swing in the opposite direction when he discovers what has happened.
The part of Sergei, played by actor and director Sergei Puskepalis, accurately depicts the attitude of a life long labourer who has had his turf invaded by an outsider. He doesn’t take Pavel seriously and feels as if his presence is a disrespect to the tradition of those who have endured tough times at the polar station. If watching his on screen mannerisms you think Puskepalis seems well acclimatised, that’s because he lived in Chutkokta for nine years as a child, relatively near to where How I Ended This Summer is shot.
Grigory Dobrygin plays Pavel. He adopts a hapless, loping gait, not unlike Louis Theroux, to portray the part of this college student researching for an assignment on the work at the outpost. His best acting is displayed when he learns that the boat taking them home has been delayed. He flawlessly depicts the character’s desperation and cracking under pressure, almost entirely through facial expression and without the need for the camera to cut away.
The most harrowing parts involving Pavel are when he has been mutated by the elements. Like in a zombie film, his makeup makes him look gaunt and pallid. He looks in a way like the mysterious young boy in the anime Akira, who always emerges from the shadows like a spectre. Occasionally there’s a slight hamminess in his performance, most noticeable when he is ducking and diving about the shoreline and when he crawls through the grass after a rabbit. It seems as if the techniques employed here would be better suited to stage acting, but he more than makes up for it everywhere else in the movie.
There are some sunny moments in this picture too. A quirky montage shows Pavel joyously leaping between barrels of fuel and swinging wildly on a revolving satellite dish. Also, during the relaying of a text message from his wife, Sergei has to ask Pavel what a ‘smiley’ is. Something about the everyday nature of this interaction, coupled with the Russian pronunciation, which sounds like ‘smilek’, made me laugh. Taking into account the whole film though, comic moments are virtually absent, unless you have a particularly dark sense of humour.
One memorable shot gives a wide static view of Pavel trekking towards the horizon. There is a time lapse of night turning to day and we see that he has barely travelled any distance at all in comparison to the size of the surroundings. The scenery is displayed through beautiful cinematography, which makes the vast, barren expanses of land look like something out of Russian sci-fi classic, Solaris. And miles away from anywhere, with a radio communications device as their only form of contact with the outside world, Pavel and Sergei might as well be in space. The parts with the radio really stress this tenuous link to civilisation and are heightened by long pauses as well as the severity of the operators’ voices. In the score too, radio static is present throughout, just below our level of awareness and is mixed with the whistling of the wind to build a distinct atmosphere.
On the whole, I enjoyed the experience of this film a lot. It certainly wasn’t heart warming, but it was thrilling to see the characters trying to outwit each other and there were a number of unexpected plot twists to be enthralled by. The beauty of the camerawork gave the feature a unique quality. I haven’t given it top marks because there have been better films and I felt as if the overall message was lost on me, perhaps in translation. Still, this is definitely one to watch.
8 OUT OF 10