How I Ended This Summer -- Film Review

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BERLIN -- The Arctic Circle makes people crazy. It's hard to find any other explanation for the poor decisions and, eventually, borderline madness of one of the two characters in "How I Ended This Summer," an existential nightmare set in that frozen wasteland.

It's a bit of a nightmare for a viewer too since Russian writer-director Alexei Popogrebsky spends over two hours letting viewers sink into the ennui and numbness of two men isolated at a meteorological station on an Arctic island, but not enough time to explain things. Things like what the two men are doing there in the first place and why one makes so many bad choices.

With some editing, "How I Ended" could play further festivals after its puzzling debut in Competition at the Berlinale. But theatrical opportunities outside Russia appear as remote as that Arctic island.
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Popogrebsky begins with a mismatched pair: Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) is gruff, stolid and stoic, a veteran of this dismal station. He takes his work very seriously. His new partner, Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), is young and foolish. Understandably bored out of his mind, he occupies himself with his MP3 and video games. These distractions allow him to screw up the simplest tasks.

The men seem to be monitoring radioactivity on the island. What lies buried there and what they are meant to do should these readings spike is never disclosed.

The movie's great puzzlement though is its dramatic raison d'etre, a decision Pavel makes seemingly without purpose or motivation. While Sergei goes fishing, somewhat foolishly leaving Pavel in charge, an urgent message comes through that Sergei's wife and child have been in a terrible accident. They may even be dead.

But Pavel never tells Sergei about this message when he returns. Let's repeat this: Pavel never tells Sergei.

Maybe it has something to do with Pavel oversleeping, missing a regular reading, then falsifying the logs. Or maybe Pavel is just scared of Sergei.

Whatever the case, he soon has reason to be scared since one lie compounds another to keep the cover-up going.

But where is the drama here? One character is terrified of his own shadow while the other is completely oblivious to the situation. When Sergei does learn the truth -- with the movie nearly two-thirds complete -- tension finally enters the scene as Pavel flees the station but knows he won't last long in that hostile environment without food, warmth or shelter.

Maybe the whole film is an expose of video games and how they cause the young to view the world as one of hunter and prey.

Dobrygin never is able to make sense of his nervous character, but Puskepalis' even-keeled performance could have anchored the drama were he not absent for long stretches.

Pavel Kostomarov's cinematography is the movie's one triumph. He doesn't just capture the desolation and weird beauty of the frozen landscape, he makes it play visual tricks on the eye, like mirages in the desert, that fool you into thinking the place is a living, breathing menace.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival -- In Competition

Production companies: Koktebel Film Co. with Russia 1 TV Channel
Cast: Grigory Dobrygin, Sergei Puskepalis
Director/screenwriter: Alexei Popogrebsky
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Alexandr Kushaev
Director of photography: Pavel Kostomarov
Production designer: Gennedy Popov
Music: Dmitry Katkhanov
Costume designer: Svetlana Mikhailova
Editor: Ivan Lebedev
Sales: Bavaria Film International
No rating, 124 minutes
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