restricted access Battalion [Batal’on] dir. by Dmitrii Meskhiev (review)
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Battalion [Batal’on] (2015)
Directed by Dmitrii Meskhiev
Distributed by Walt Disney Sony Pictures Releasing (Russia); DSPR (worldwide)
120 minutes

Battalion recounts the story of a women’s “death battalion” sent to fight at the front during one of the most difficult and decisive moments of Russian history. Following the February Revolution of 1917 and subsequent abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, Russia continued her war efforts under the command of the Provisional Government. As a consequence of these domestic political struggles, military discipline was breaking down and desertion was rife. Without effective military command, all hopes of winning the war appeared to be lost. Based on true events, the film depicts how, in an effort to raise the troops’ morale, the decision is made to form a women’s battalion under the command of officer Maria Bochkarëva (the unit’s actual commander, played here by acclaimed theater and film actress Maria Aronova). The official name of the film is written according to pre-revolutionary spelling rules to highlight the film’s temporal setting before the October Revolution (shortly after which orthographic reforms were implemented). In Russia, the memory of the First World War has long been overshadowed by the highly institutionalized remembrance of the Second World War (and, in the Soviet Union, of the 1917 Revolutions as well). The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War was commemorated in 2014, albeit very modestly in comparison to Western European countries. Most likely, it provided the occasion for the makers of Second World War blockbusters The Brest Fortress (2010) and Stalingrad (2013) to try their hands at the topic.

The film premiered February 20, 2015, to coincide with Defender of the Fatherland Day, a public holiday that is celebrated February 23. It deviates from the majority of Russian war films by granting the leading roles to women and largely omitting romantic developments in favor of camaraderie and (heroic) battlefield action. The fact that Defender of the Fatherland Day is generally seen as “Men’s Day” carries a certain irony. Those expecting a feminist portrayal of war will be disappointed though: in the end, the all-female battalion finds itself cornered and has to be rescued by male soldiers (whose morale, it has to be granted, the women’s battalion succeeded in raising). Although unusual, Battalion is not alone among [End Page 81] recent Russian films in highlighting the role of women as fighting soldiers and potential heroes. Battle for Sevastopol, which premiered April 2, 2015, recounts the life of legendary female sniper Liudmila Pavlichenko. This Second World War film, however, plays out along more conventional lines by placing a romance at the center of the plot.

Battalion repeatedly returns to the mounting tensions between the country’s elite and peasant populations that dictated the course of events in this period. Military officers of aristocratic descent are depicted in a state of desperation as they fail to maintain command over their troops. The women’s battalion, consisting of volunteers from all layers of society, is initially split along these lines as well, before they succeed in embracing a spirit of camaraderie and military discipline. The film puts forward an explicitly negative portrayal of soldiers supporting the revolutionary cause (e.g. Soldiers’ Committees that were formed within regular army units and interfered with the direct line of command) and deserters. Revolution is seen not as a sincere political ambition for reform, but as a pretext for cowardly abandonment of the defense of one’s motherland. Indeed, the “unmanly” behavior of these conscripts is underlined by the bravery of the female volunteers who are willing to give their lives in the name of their country, even at a time when all hope of victory had been lost. On several occasions, the film even suggests that the socialist ideal was inherently flawed because, instead of instilling the population with feelings of communal responsibility, it created an environment that allowed one to escape all (individual) accountability. Instead, the film argues, a certain level of hierarchy is necessary to take and guide action. Moreover, it is hinted at that some (i.e. the nobility...