4 Days In May (4 Tage im Mai): Film Review

This war drama takes a lukewarm approach to potentially dynamite subject matter.  

German writer/director Achim von Borries' third feature dramatizes a true incident in the waning days of World War II through the eyes of a child.

LOCARNO — The latest in a very long line of war movies looking at conflict through the “innocent” eyes of a child, 4 Days In May is a squarely old-fashioned treatment of a remarkable stranger-than-fiction incident from the closing week of Wold War II. That conflict has been exhaustively chronicled in cinema over the past seven decades, and writer/director Achim von Borries'third feature, while intermittently engaging, doesn't rank among the more distinguished recent additions to the genre.

The inherent fascination exerted by this highly improbable tale — "based on a true occurrence", as an opening caption informs — might yield mid-range returns at the German box office in its September release. Despite its wide-screen cinematography, the film is a much better fit for the small screen. Foreign prospects are much dicier.

While its main protagonist is 13, 4 Days In May is essentially a talky affair more concerned with ideas and ideals than with the kind of action that might appeal to teenage audiences. Furthrmore, its themes are decidedly adult ones though actual nudity and violence are carefully kept off-screen. Peter (newcomer Pavel Wenzel) lives with his aunt, a Baroness (Gertrud Roll) in her mansion on Germany's strategically vital Baltic coast. Here the Baroness has sheltered dozens of orphans, Peter included, since the start of the war, which is now drawing rapidly to its conclusion.

With the Nazi defeat only hours away, an eight-strong unit of Russians led by Captain Kalmykov (Aleksei Guskov) turn up and move in, awaiting further orders. Soon a larger troop of Nazi soldiers is spotted on the nearby beach, leading to a tense, protracted stand-off as the Russians call for reinforcements, and the beaten-but-unbowed Germans announce that they will only surrender to British officers. This ultimately leads to a savagely ironic finale in which the “good” Russians, who have gradually forged friendly relations with their unwilling hosts, join forces with the “good” Germans to battle their own reinforcements, drunken, sex-starved thugs whose vile intentions towards the mansion's female inhabitants are unmistakeable.

The events depicted apparently really did happen, having come to light thanks to a recent opening of Russian government records. But their implausibility is less of a problem than the fact that while von Borries shows us both benevolent and malign Russians, onlyadmirable representatives of the German army appear on camera.

His underlying point seems to be that soldiers and indeed civilians take the moral compass from their immediate superiors, in this case the Nazis' Lieutenant Colonel (Alexander Held) who shares Kalmykov's tough-but-fair approach to matters of war. Many viewers will, however, feel uncomfortable at being expected to welcome the idea of Nazis riding to the rescue, as happens in the final reel of this German/Russian/Ukrainian co-production, although though this can in theory be defended on the basis that we're experiencing the tale from immature Peter's skewed perspective.

Von Borries, whose previous feature, 2004's romantic Love In Thoughts, another period picture, handles his explosive material with safe-hands caution, telegraphing each event and emotion by via Thomas Feiner's unadventurous score. Performances are solid enough — though some of the post-synch dubbing is distractingly sloppy — and Grigoriy Dobrygin andAngelina Häntschcan't do much to enliven a superfluous puppy-love subplot.

On the plus side, Guskov (also a producer here) successfully embodies a figure seen by his men as "our father and our brother too," to be obeyed without question, while bearish Sergey Legostaevmakes an impact as the most intimidating but, as it turns out, most genial of his underlings.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production companies: X Filme Creative Pool, Studio F.A.F.
Cast: Pavel Wenzel, Aleksei Guskov, Sergey Legostaev, Grigory Dobrygin, Angelina Häntsch, Alexander Held, Gertrud Roll
Director/screenwriter: Achim von Borries
Producers: Stefan Arndt, Aleksei Guskov
Director of photography: Bernd Fischer
Art director: Agi Dawaachu
Costume designer: Nicole Fischnaller
Music: Thomas Feiner
Editor: Antje Zynga
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 97 minutes