Ballad of a Soldier comes armed with a hefty reputation as one of cinema's great war movies. 8.2 on IMDb? Resounding raves with every review that one reads? A quick Google search should uncover words like "lyrical", "poignant", "understated", "poetic" and "humane". Criterion go so far as to describe it as "unconventional"!
The appeal of Chukhrai's "masterpiece" will lie solely with good-natured numbskulls who struggle to resist the simplistic trite that the director offers up for them. Ballad is a film that chooses to disregard the horrors of war in favour of a tentative romance between an ennobled young hero and a flawless young heroine. This is all very well and good (who are we to assume that such love stories cannot exist in times of turmoil?), and Chukhrai reveals wise judgment in situating a sizeable portion of his film within the enclosed space of a hay-filled train carriage, thereby extinguishing the necessity to comment on the external world. But Chukhrai cannot hide forever, and it is when finally obliged to leave his safety pen that he misfires so horribly. An early battle (the film's only one) prepares us for what is to follow: edited as if to resemble a chase sequece in a commercial monster movie, it typifies Chukhrai's audience-pandering aesthetics that cheapen the integrity of the war effort. As if this wasn't enough, the film's peculiar conception of Soviet life in this era is defined by the military's jovial camraderie and the everyman's ceaseless charitability. This presentation of World War II as a positive catalyst for community spirit and patriotic idealism smacks of propagandistic conceit, but its most bitter aftertaste is one of emotional manipulation. When destruction finally, inevitably enters the narrative, Chukhrai's blissful portrait is exposed as a detestable setup designed solely to extract greater dramatic weight for the viewer.
Late into the film, the protagonist (Alyosha) finally reunites with his beloved mother (lest we forget that Ballad is a vigorous proponent of traditional family values). Their tender embrace is perhaps the film's only genuinely poignant moment, but even here understated silence quickly regresses into melodramatic wailing. Thus, with partial redemption on offer the director insists upon maintaining the saccharine, insulting the intelligence of all innocent civilians unfortunate enough to experience his contemptible dirge in the process. For the 23 million Soviet citizens who lost their lives in the Great Patriotic War, Chukhrai and his superiors could not have crafted a better cinematic fuck you.
Well, fuck you too, Grigori Chukhrai. Tosser.