Savina Petkova on Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘Kursk: The Last Mission’ (2018)
Quite surprisingly, Dogme 95 founding father Thomas Vinterberg has made a historical drama. The material of his new film, Kursk: The Last Mission, is provided by Robert Moore’s controversial novel A Time To Die (2002), concerning the mysterious unfolding of events around the sunken Russian submarine, “Kursk”. Following the tragedy in August 2000, investigations have been kept top secret by proud Russian officials, and the existence of a merciless film recounting the story makes sense when considering Vinterberg’s interest in the excessive and repulsive concealed under the surface of socio-political correctness.
Kursk re-affirms heroic group dynamics in the collective image of the submarine crew. Nevertheless, the main character is fictional Mikhail (a fine performance by Matthias Schoenaerts, a previous collaborator with Vinterberg), a young commander, who leaves behind his pregnant wife Tanya (Lea Seydoux, almost convincing as a feisty Russian) and three-year-old Misha (Artemiy Spiridonov). All characters bear the names of actual sailors on the Kursk, and the film pays tribute to the families who lost their husbands and fathers in the catastrophe. This begs the question: what does a cinematic representation of the European tragedy that marked the beginning of our century actually do?
The film eases us into the sailor brotherhood while we become part of an Orthodox wedding. With one of their crew members is getting married, the whole group decides to sell their watches in order to sponsor the wedding. A brotherly sacrifice of goods is just a primer for the blood sacrifices that will be given later on. In a bittersweet sequence it is choral music that sees off both the married couple as well as the submarine: the Russian choir becomes extra-diegetic as the Kursk dives in for its duty to the Motherland. We can define the somber tonality of the song as an ominous sign, even though it’s well-known how it all ends. The inevitability of tragedy is somewhat of an exquisite torturing device that enhances the viewer’s thirst for spectacle, as was probably the case with the first spectators of Titanic (1997).
With the submergence, the screen expands, the boxed aspect ratio of the prelude widens to give a full engulfing view of the events that are to come. The climax comes without a hesitation: there is no time to catch your breath before two big explosions destroy half the submarine. This accelerating thrust into the drama brings our tension to the boil, since it feels like we’re experiencing the incident in real-time. The frantic pace reaches the peak point when the survivors have to exhibit extraordinary swimming skills while paralysed by hypothermia and short on oxygen. All the heroic acts are filmed as an underwater thriller episode, with ticking clocks and Alexandre Desplat’s ever-present score, and we gasp for air as Mikhail comes back from the oceanic hell. The characters are a collective idealised vision of virtuous fighters, who cannot stand injustice. Brave, young, but depersonalised men. Family is the only motivating factor for them, which is equally reductionist and convincing, especially for this genre.
The second half of the film begins to drag, as in-land digressions lift the curtain to show the political (lack of) action which was proven responsible for the death of all 118 members of Kursk crew. Here we meet firm and shameless Boris Yeltsin (Max von Sydow), who denies the aid offered from British Royal Navy Captain, David Russell (Colin Firth). It is unbearable to watch the Russians failing to save their own (three times!) because of technical disadvantages. Vinterberg himself stresses that the film is not pointing fingers at Russia, but all the world has already done it. The bureaucratic secrecy, state security, and fear of exposure in the aftermath of the Cold War all of this amounts to a harmful negligence.
Kursk represents this banality of evil. It takes the narrative of an epic tragedy, fills it up with admirable characters with thinly sketched personalities, to make a point about the wounds we inflict upon ourselves. In a time of terrorism, debates amongst film studies and criticism are sparked by the question of representational adequacy and historical authenticity, and how the two of them can, in the end, undermine the director’s good intentions. Ultimately, it all amounts to the role of fiction in relation to historical reality. In Kursk, fiction aids the reworking of traumatic events, which never received full disclosure in the public eye. Nevertheless, Kursk is a film about self-terrorism with an unforgivable sentence: in the attempt to establish incompetent authority, we sink our own submarines.
Kursk: The Last Mission is available in the UK from 12th July 2019.