'I Stop Time': Telluride Review

Courtesy of Tromso International Film Festival
A poetical documentary that illuminates the work of a Soviet war cameraman

Gunilla Bresky's documentary makes original use of World War II footage by Russian cinematographer Vladislav Mikosha

An archival-based documentary that uses exceptional battleground, homefront and travel footage to recast World War II as a sort of slow-motion black-and-white dream, I Stop Time expressively repurposes images taken by Russian cinematographer Vladislav Mikosha to create a poetic visual memoir of extraordinary places and times. Specialist audiences with a keen interest in the war, the USSR, Hollywood and artful cinematography will be most taken with the unusual use that's been made of an adventurous man's creative work.

"The war in no way resembles tales of it," wrote Mikosha, whose long life (1909-2004) pivoted on his experiences photographing some of the worst beatings the Soviet Union took at the hands of the Nazis. Via an incisive sampling of her subject's work, more often than not visually slowed down in a way that extends to even the most devastating events a quasi-hypnotic quality, director Gunilla Bresky takes advantage of Mikosha's serendipitous knack for being at the right place at the right time to fashion a soft impressionistic collage out of hard-edged raw materials.

Biographical details seep out amidst the plethora of unfamiliar images of a besieged USSR, courtesy of commentary from his late widow Gemma Firsova Mikosha and texts penned by Mikosha himself, spoken by Jonas Karlsson. An aspiring sailor as a youth, the 17-year-old Vlad fell in love with film when, working as projectionist, he watched Nanook of the North three times a day. "Cinematography, what a wonderful, secret world it is," he wrote, and he soon became an assistant to cameraman Sergei Semyonov, which enabled him to help photograph the enormous 1931 May Day Parade in Red Square.

Suddenly, as in a dream-turned-nightmare, images show the massive bombing of Sebastopol, then Odessa, then the Front, then back to Sebastopol, which now lies in ruins. The massively slowed-down projection speed creates the feel of sleepwalking through events one might have thought impossible to conceive, the destruction of cities and a nation, of vividly captured death. It was Soviet policy never to show defeats or suffering, except for personal sacrifices performed for the good of the people, so it's unlikely that much of the footage here was ever seen by audiences at the time. Mikosha himself admitted the difficulty he had photographing the horrors of war, but the great director Dovzhenko advised him to persevere, to "cry yourself but shoot."

In late 1942, the dashing-looking Mikosha and three comrades were attached to the Navy to film a convoy meant to bring munitions from the U.K. to the USSR. But heavy mining of the sea lanes scotched this plan and the four camera-wielding soldiers were ordered to return home — via the United States. Thus begins the interlude that, in its contrast to the rubble and carnage seen in Mikosha's Russian and London footage, elevates I Stop Time to near-surreal heights.

Who has ever before seen footage of the U.S. during World War II taken by a Russian? How many foreign soldiers got to visit Hollywood in 1943, meet Ingrid Bergman on the set of For Whom the Bell Tolls, watch the shooting of the pro-Soviet propaganda film The North Star, dance all night at the Hollywood Canteen with Hedy Lamarr (Mikosha never removed from his finger the ring the actress put on it that evening) and spend several hours with Charlie Chaplin at his studio, where the star screened The Circus for the men and they showed him their war documentary Heroes of the Black Sea?

And then there was the happy ending awaiting the foursome when they finally got home: the vanquishing of the Nazis, all caught in striking images, some showing rows of slowly marching German prisoners extending to the horizon.

The footage by Mikosha offered here is of outstanding quality, its value augmented by being unfamiliar to Western viewers and then notched up further by the sometimes hallucinatory use to which Bresky has put it. Nothing is said about the (long) remainder of Mikosha's life, but biography is not the point of this muted, lyrical and occasionally piercing film. For that, one would need to turn to the 52-minute documentary from 2009, Vladislav Mikosha: The Man Who Stopped Time, directed by Firsova and Yevgeni Tsymbal.

Production: BOB Film
Narrator: Gemma Firsova Mikosha
Director: Gunilla Bresky
Producer: Jan Blomgren
Directors of photography: Vladislav Mikosha, Gunnar Kallstrom, Igor Voronin, Seda Tas
Editor: Fredrik Ydhag
Music: Johan Ramstrom

82 minutes
 

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