Soviet director Vitaly Kanevski is a relative latecomer to the world of film making. At age 55, he has produced his first feature, Freeze _ Die _ Come to Life. But this harrowing look at life on the frozen frontier of the Soviet Orient has lost nothing to time: Kanevski's attention to detail etches itself on the mind's eye, probably because the story is intimately autobiographical. Freeze _ Die _ Come to Life challenges the American notion that cinema is escapism and movies are meant to make the viewer feel good. As relentless as the snow- and rock-covered taiga, Freeze forces empathy as we watch two resourceful children confront the devastation and decay in a Soviet labor camp at the end of World War II, a place where mere survival represents a considerable achievement and triumph of the spirit.
The film's main character is Valerka (Pavel Nazarov), a boy of about 12 who possesses that rarest of physical characteristics, yellow blond hair and doe-brown eyes. Valerka lives with his mother (Yelena Popova), a woman whose drunken promiscuity brings her little joy or relief. Nonetheless, Valerka's mom loves her son and imbues him with a sense of honesty, which unfortunately makes little sense in their circumstances.
Suchan, the Eastern Russian town where Freeze is set, has two sets of inhabitants: coal miners and prisoners of war. It is difficult to tell them apart, though, so defeated are the inmates of both.
The landscape of filthy snow, rotting barracks and ominous mountains of coal is mysterious and compelling but never beautiful. Kanevski uses a highly mobile hand-held camera as well as an unusual grade of film that renders the black-and-white starkness of Suchan in an astonishing number of shadings, from snowblind white to smoky gray and impenetrable darkness.
Amid the heartbreaking atmosphere of the mine and the POW camp are two feisty spirits, Valerka and his neighbor/best-friend/guardian angel Galiya (Dinara Drukarova). Theirs is an intensely affectionate relationship, but one often expressed in conflict and frustration: Valerka and Galiya are competing vendors for the tea concession at the local flea market, and the two hurl rocks and epithets at one another as often as they collaborate in various escapades.
Nonetheless, the pair make the best of their awful situation, although Kanevski's point seems to be that only death, not even incredible will, can deliver them from the despair of life in Suchan.
Kanevski cast two non-professional actors in the key roles of Valerka and Galiya, and his gamble paid off remarkably well. Drukarova's round-faced, open determination is endearing but never cute; Nazarov conveys Valerka's humanity deftly, even when the boy is involved in a series of criminal misadventures.
Freeze _ Die _ Come to Life contains some surprisingly arty sequences that segue neatly into its otherwise docudrama style. Most memorable is the dreamlike quality of a train wreck _ the locomotive huffs gently over on its side like a tired ox as the sound track is eerily silent.
In a peculiar Brechtian touch, Kanevski's voice is heard at the beginning and end of the film, giving directing orders to start and end the action. At the end, his instructions are ignored _ the tragedy he has set in motion has taken on its own terrible momentum, suggesting impotence in the face of overwhelming chaos.
Freeze _ Die _ Come To Life
Director: Vitaly Kanevski
Cast: Pavel Nazarov, Dinara Drukarova, Yelena Popova
Screenplay: Vitaly Kanevski
Rating: Not rated; probably PG-13
Running time: 105 minutes
In Russian with English subtitles