THE CUCKOO, a miniature and pristine Russian gem from 2002, written & directed by Aleksandr Rogozhkin, tells a war story like no other. People who don’t go for war films will like this, as it doesn’t dwell on combat, gore and glory—there’s hardly any action, and it’s at a remove. Those who like the genre will appreciate its sense of authenticity, the little details and the mostly unknown setting, an isolated region of Finland in what was called the ‘Continuation War’, one of WW2s many sideshows. *
September, 1944, somewhere on the Russo-Finnish Front in Lapland (go north, keep going until you see reindeer). Suspected of disloyalty, young Finnish soldier ‘Veikko’ (Ville Haapasalo) is chained to a rock by his German Wehrmacht comrades, essentially a sniper/suicide position. At the same time, ‘Ivan’ (Viktor Bychkov), a loyal Red Army veteran, is being escorted to court martial by the Soviet NKVD, who falsely think he’s treasonous. Without divulging plot points, suffice to say that the two ‘enemies’ both end up at the subsistence farm of ‘Anni’ (Anni-Kristina Juuso), a Sami woman left husband-less and alone by the war. Speaking three different languages, none of the three can communicate beyond basics. How will this clumsy arrangement play out? Who gets the girl, or rather, who does she pick, since she appears to have more on the ball than the baffled warriors? Will a truce last?
The marvelous conceit of this fascinating little story is that you, reading subtitles, are the only one who knows what’s really going on. At first tense, then progressively amusing, ultimately quite moving, the microcosmic sliver of warm-blooded humanity bobbing on an immense sea of cold-blooded inhumanity shows up, without the theatricality of spectacle or speeches, the absurdity and pointlessness of men’s power struggles, puny quarrels amid the primordial vastness of the landscape.
Beautifully performed by the disarming trio, visually arresting with the settings (filming was done in Russia, around Kandalaksha and Murmansk), given a quietly effective score from Dmitry Pavlov, marked by a haunting ceremony and graced with a perfect coda, it’s a winner all the way. The creative self-sufficiency and good will of Veikko and the gradually revealed depths of skeptical Ivan find something really worth defending in Anni’s droll kindness, hardy practicality and unashamed sensuality. That seductive smile and tickled giggle won me over.
The budget looks to have equaled $4,000,000, and no box-office figures are available other than its limited-release US take of only $243,000. No doubt it was a hit in Russia, Finland and other European venues. 99 minutes.
* The Russian title is Kukushka: their word for cuckoo was also the nickname they gave to deadly Finnish snipers who nested in trees. There’s another connotation in the script that you’ll just have to watch in order to discover for yourself. As to the far-flung battering of the Continuation War, here’s your Free Nutshell Version: Hitler and Stalin’s 1939 pact allowed the demonic Adolf an easier way to launch what became WW2 and gave the devious Josef time to prepare against their eventual showdown. Part of the Soviet end was their 1940 attack on Finland, which proved a costly endeavor. When Hitler broke the pact in ’41 and attacked the USSR, Finland sided with Germany and for three years their part of the global conflagration raged through dense forests and frigid bogs. How many individual dramas went unrecorded in that colossal clash between the Nazis and the Soviets? This ‘sideshow’ alone accounted for perhaps 1,253,000 casualties.