What did you do in the war? Red Army casts new light on the Soviet conquest of the world

Cinematekene er et samarbeid om felles digitale visninger på cinematekene i Bergen, Kristiansand, Lillehammer, Oslo, Stavanger, Tromsø og Trondheim. Montages setter gjennom ukentlige artikler fokus på filmene i utvalget. Dokumentaren Red Army vises torsdag 11. februar i Oslo, Bergen, Tromsø, Lillehammer, Stavanger og Trondheim. Cinematekene i Oslo og Bergen viser også filmen søndag 14., mens Stavanger kjører reprise 16. februar. Visningstider og info finnes her eller hos ditt cinematek. Les også Endre Eidsaa Larsens omtale av Red Army.


Gabe Polsky’s Red Army casts new light on the Soviet conquest of the world – of hockey. Americans may have been on the verge of ‘winning’ the cold war by the 1980s, but in the domain of ice-hockey their adversaries had never been more formidable. Gabe Polsky’s account of this world-conquering Red Army is a remarkable source of insight into the struggle of two rival visions of society.

Even if you hate ice-hockey you will still most likely love Red Army. So don’t just file this away under ‘sports documentary’ because it is so much more than that. For a start it’s the story of the cold war, at least as this was played out in the sports arena. This kind of master-class in filmmaking transcends all categories, genres or fields of interest, however. As such Red Army is powerful enough to prompt the uninitiated to new reflections upon the struggle between the forces of capitalism and communism, and upon the beauty which may be found in so unlikely a place as the hockey arena, with its precarious potpourri of dashing elegance and bone-shaking aggression.

Our theme is the meteoric rise to glory of the Soviet team. By the 1980s they had achieved the kind of global domination of which the architects of Soviet foreign policy could only dream. Then again, hockey was very much a part of Soviet foreign policy. What really brings Red Army alive is the in-depth interview-material with the team’s captain, Slava Fetisov. The filmmaker’s good fortune is the magnetic personality of this remarkable individual. The filmmaker’s achievement is to bring that personality to the fore and engage the audience in his story.

Through that story we encounter the terrible beauty of the project upon which Fetisov and his teammates’ expended all their youth and vigour from the time of their early childhood. The discipline applied by the now creaking but still powerful machine of the Soviet state was certainly terrible. More surprising is the strange beauty of some of its creations. Here we encounter a kind of double paradox, which Polsky pinpoints so clearly and yet never resorts to comment or judgement.

First, the victims and products of totalitarianism seem remarkably unbowed. Indeed, their spirit and individuality seem to shine all the brighter for their mangling encounter with decades of unbridled state power. Second, hockey fan or not, we cannot help but be impressed by what, together, as a team, they achieved. This is captured with great economy by a few choice clips of the Soviet’s number-one line, ‘The Russian Five,’ at their most fluent and sublime. We witness a kind of improvised ballet of stick and puck on ice, and the effect is simply breathtaking. Like conjurers, the players seem to defy the limits of what is humanly possible. We feel there is magic at work here and we feel ourselves enchanted.

At the same time we are drawn deeper into the complex politics of the cold war. After a long struggle the Russian players are finally allowed to seek their fortune in the North American Hockey League, and we witness the two sports cultures in wary interaction. The story of The Russian Five in America becomes a powerful metaphor for the whole relationship between East and West and their rival social systems. The relationship is thus revealed to be much more complex and contradictory than we might have supposed. Those expecting an encounter between rugged American individuals and the unthinking cogs of the Russian totalitarian machine are in for a surprise.

If there was an unthinking machine it was American not Russian. This machine demanded relatively simple tasks, essentially to block in defence and fire forward in attack. In this way it recalls the rigorous and mind-numbing division of labour of a modern factory assembly-line. Here Fetisov was the proverbial fish out of water. His creative invention was rendered futile in the absence of a reciprocal relationship with others, that is, fellow players attuned to what he could offer and able to offer their own invention in return. The Russian players were less like cogs in a machine – or rats in a maze – and more like musicians in a jazz ensemble, their improvisation expressing great freedom yet utterly dependent on the collective musical frame they comprised together. They were brilliant as individuals and yet together they were so much more than the sum of their parts.

At first Fetisov foundered in the brutal melee of Western hockey and commentators bemoaned the gratuitous ‘fanciness’ of his efforts. Then the coach of the New Jersey Devils had the bright idea of assembling an all-Russian line. The contrast was startling. Alone, the Russians were lost and impotent. Together they brought their superior craft to bear and walked away with hockey’s greatest prize, the Stanley Cup.

In its quiet, unassuming way, Red Army raises a truly earth-shaking question: who is really free? What is the worth of the Western freedom to choose among the array of relatively meaningless tasks comprising a system of production, be it of wares or sporting competition? How fulfilling are human relationships if these are reduced to a set of transactions and wedded to goals of production not of our own making? On the other hand, what price are we willing to pay for the social fabric of creative collaboration? The price paid by these melancholy alumni of the The Red Army seems awfully high. In the end, it is striking how much the cold war protagonists had in common. Their experiences demonstrate the necessity and potential beauty of working towards collective goals. The key questions in this respect are of course: to what purpose and under what conditions? We might reflect on the conditions of the cold war and say that the nature and purpose of collective endeavour left much to be desired in both ‘empires.’

The best films are layered in the manner, to return to the musical analogy, of melody and harmony, where the variations add richness without weakening the integrity of the unifying theme. So it is with Red Army. The cultural encounter on the rink is periodically revealed in another form, like a kind of descant, in the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. Polsky does this by sharing a few ‘off-screen’ moments where the apparently guileless interviewer is the brunt of considerable and yet strangely good-natured contempt from his interviewees. This seems to express more vividly than anything the cultural divide, tempered with a wary reconciliation, between Russian and American.

Though very much in the background, the persona of the interviewer plays almost as important a role as that of Fetisov himself. Polsky comes across as stumbling and ingenuous, the archetypal naïve American, and hence the perfect foil for Fetisov, the worldly wise, much travelled legend of hockey. Polsky the interviewer is in such stark contrast to Polsky the filmmaker – in all his fluency and authority – that it’s hard to believe they’re the same person.

The credits tell us Werner Herzog had a hand in this project and one suspects his influence has been felt. Herzog’s signature is the continual extracurricular wandering, creating those revealing, almost covert pre- and post-scene shots which seem to catch the subject unaware. Such Herzogian ploys bring out the personality of Fetisov as he takes care of ‘business’ on his telephone and dismissively waves the upstart Polsky away. This is a delightfully empirical kind of filmmaking, expository more than analytical, allowing the subjects to emerge in a way that seems profound, revelatory and compellingly authentic. We are never taught anything directly but rather prompted to think for ourselves.

We are led only by the attraction of a point of view, by the possibilities opened up by the filmmaker’s eye. This is an eye for detail but it’s also an eye for beauty, a capacity to find it in the places others may never think to look. One of the most memorable – and delightful – scenes of Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is a simple shot of the rubbish swirling in the wind against the backdrop of a featureless wall. There is something of Mendes’s sensibility in the beauty Polsky draws from his own – to some minds – unpromising raw material. It’s not only the beauty he finds in the game but also in Fetisov himself, whose brusque, arrogant manner is tempered with humour and even a strange, inscrutable integrity.

In the mythology propagated by the late Ronald Reagan, the cold war was a simple struggle between good and evil, much like the B-movies in which he had once starred as an actor. In reality the cold war was something much more complex and ambiguous. Both the ‘socialist paradise’ and ‘the land of the free’ are presented here warts and all, and, yes, there is ugliness here but also beauty – on both sides of the iron curtain. Sophisticated historical reflection is rare in film and almost unheard of where the cold war is concerned. Filmmakers seem bent on presenting an America in heroic mastery of a dangerous world. Take, for example, Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days, where sophisticated American leaders keep their wits about them during the pressures of the Cuban missile crisis, and save us all from nuclear war.

In these terms, Gabe Polsky has given us a rare, perhaps unique, insight into the historical period, and even what we might learn from it about the human condition. And yes, we may even walk away with a finer appreciation of the noble game of hockey!


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