Beautiful landscapes, a bizarre soundtrack and a wry sense of humour, a limited cast and an intriguing what-would-you-do style narrative makes for one of the most original films in recent years. How I Ended This Summer is a recent Russian film from director Aleksei Popogrebsky set entirely on a barren island in the Arctic Ocean.
Pavel (played with wide-eyed innocence by Grigory Dobrygin) is concluding his summer in an isolated weather research centre in the Arctic Ocean. He is alone but for the much older Sergei (played by Sergei Puskepalis), who is giving him training with the equipment. Pavel is bored and child-like, spending his days messing about and blasting rock music into his ears with headphones. Things get complicated when he intercepts a message for Sergei and fails to tell the older man the bad news. The relationship between the two men becomes fraught with tension, exacerbated by their isolation. Though largely a tragedy, the film is a darkly funny look at misunderstandings between two different generations played out in an inhabitable setting.
The characterization of Pavel is one of the many strong elements of the film. As played by Dobrygin, there is something very convincingly child-like about the character, though this is not overplayed. The film’s plot hinges on Pavel’s inability to pass a message on to Sergei, a device that could have been frustrating had the character’s plight been not so brilliantly defined. The power of the film, as a result, comes from its ability to show both sides of the relationship and the irreparable damage that can be done by a moment of mistiming or a simple misunderstanding. In the end, you sympathize with both characters and the events conclude in a manner that is both darkly humorous and heart-breakingly tragic. It perfectly sums up the attitude: “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
The harsh landscape, which acts as both the catalyst for the action and a further complication in the drama, is brilliantly photographed. The filming is rife with difficultly, making director Popogrebsky appear as a younger Herzog as for both filming is akin to athletic prowess and both deliver films of surpassing beauty. The mountains and the oceans, the mists and the winds all act as characters in the film, like the heavies in a film noir, faceless but key to the film’s overall mood of claustrophobia.
How I Ended This Summer is a film that starts of with a simple and rather everyday situation, which falls into chaos. One of its achievements is that the character’s movement from civilization to barbarism is never less than believable. As with many films of its type, for example, The Wave and The Experiment, the film does not simply jump suddenly for one to the other, but believably charts the descent as an ever-moving downward spiral. How I Ended This Summer, though a slightly overlong film, manages to sustain the tension within the characters and the suffocating isolation of the surrounding area throughout. As such, it is a very powerful film that speaks volumes about our world, if you want it to. Otherwise, it is a very good thriller.