Director: Aleksandr Kott
This blog has featured plenty of films that deal with war indirectly, including The Patience Stone (Afghanistan), Rachida (Algeria), and most recently A Bahraini Tale (Bahrain). All of these films have focused on civilians – those who do not take part in the war itself but feel its consequences nontheless. Fortress of War is the first true war film I’ve watched for this challenge, with all the guns, tanks, explosions, and yelling that such a film entails.
It’s also obviously the highest budget film I’ve written about so far. The production values rival that of any Hollywood historical war drama from a major studio. This is likely due to the financial backing that the film received from sources in Russia, which some purists might say disqualifies it from being a Belarusian film. They might have a point, but Fortress of War was filmed on-location in Belarus, and produced by a Belarusian film studio, so that counts for something. Besides, I wasn’t able to find any Belarusian films that were not international efforts to some degree, so this will have to do.
The film recreates the defense of Brest Fortress in Belarus by the Red Army against the German Wehrmacht in 1941. A small garrison of soldiers holds out against impossible odds, and the final result seems inevitable even to those who aren’t familiar with the real world events.
From a technical viewpoint, Fortress of War is an absolute triumph. The visuals are stunning, the battle scenes are bombastic and enthralling, the costumes and set design are flawless, and the score is grand and sweeping. But in stark contrast to a lot of the films I’ve covered recently, there’s not a real focus on character here. At times it’s hard to tell characters apart – one of the issues with making a film about soldiers is that they’re all dressed the same. It gets even harder once they’re all coated in blood and dirt.
Instead, we’re asked to root for the defenders as a collective. Their individual acts of bravery and sacrifice add up to create a sympathetic mass-protagonist that’s contrasted with the cruel, inhuman Germans. In this way, the film is reminiscent of another Russian-influenced epic, Sergie Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.
Fortress of War is the kind of patriotic, good-versus-evil war film that most countries have made at some point or other. Maybe every country’s entitled to a few of them. And after a run of several character-driven films in a row, it was a refreshing change of pace to just be swept away in some jaw-dropping set pieces for two hours.