Dir. Alexei German Jr. Russia, 2003. 82 mins.

Alexei German Jr.'s debut rounds up an impressive year of achievements for young Russian cinema. Winner of both Best Picture and International Film Critics' Awards at Thessaloniki, this fearsome, uncompromising humanistic anti-war statement is a choice item that shows German to be a formidably gifted visual artist. As such his personal style is more than a little indebted to his father, Alexei German Sr, one of the most original and least accommodating film makers in the former Soviet Union, whose films were more often than not banned by the Kremlin for their provocative implications. The film also played in New Territories at Venice but has really taken until Thessaloniki to be recognised.

Stunningly shot on widescreen in black and white, with each frame composed with a painter's eye, The Last Train is bleak, forbidding and offers no reprieve at any time with its compelling portrayal of humanity submitting blindly to its own self-destruction. While it will be a tough proposition for mainstream audiences, its desolate portrait of pointless death and destruction, perpetrated for reasons that are unfathomable to the victims on both sides, will be appreciated by hardcore film buffs everywhere. It will also establish German Jr, who is only 27, as a regular presence to be watched in future.

There isn't much of a plot in this study of frozen immobility taken in the midst of the hectic, disorderly retreat of the ravaged German forces on the Eastern front during the early winter of 1944. The Soviet counter-offensive is pushing them back and the Germans are pulling out in a hurry, dismantling their camps and field hospitals, shooting in the process anyone they think is not one of theirs. Meanwhile, the enemy partisans are coming out of the woods to ambush and kill those German soldiers who might have been lost or separated from their units.

None of this, however, looks like classic movie war scenes, but rather a series of remote, ghostly proceedings, bathed in a grey, dreary, cold mist, in which human beings, impossible to identify once they step just a few feet away from the camera, move like shadows in the Nordic semi-darkness of winter. Sound is all important, whether it is the constant coughing that seems to never stop, explosions and gun shots heard in background, and more coughs.

All these noises are in the background. In the foreground emerges a kindly, older, portly German doctor, a civilian drafted in at the last moment and sent to the front, wrapped in layer upon layer of clothing. Every step he takes is a major achievement, as he walks through a devastated hospital and the barely human remains wrapped in soiled bandages still lying there, or stumbles on a group of Russian refugees hiding in a ruined shack, all of them tattered, miserable, sickly and dying.

The one person he gets to talk to is an elderly military postman, just like himself. The two reminisce about the past, trying but failing to make any sense of all the madness around them Left behind by the retreating, defeated army whose uniforms they wear, they are doomed to join the anonymous masses of corpses strewn all over the snow-covered landscape, to be covered just like them by muck and other corpses.

Anonymity is the key here, whether the subjects are Russian of German, soldiers or civilians; everyone in this film is just a human casualty to human folly. And the folly is anonymous as well. As such it is an approach seldom encountered in traditional Russian cinema, which has always made a point of identifying the heroes and the villains in WWII movies.

Slowly paced, with very long shots proceeding at an imperceptible speed, in what seems to be an insistently horizontal direction - the camera moves right or left but almost never up or down - every detail in every frame is carefully planted to insinuate the terrifying aspects of this icy hell, from dried-up trunks of dead trees, to the frost-bitten, tortured faces bandaged in dirty rags. Oleg Lukichev provides masterly camera work, while German's compellingly consistent and precise set-ups are rarely to found in first films. All images dissolve into white, and with the exception of a single mournful Bach passage, there is no other piece of music to relieve the unbearable sights on the screen.

Prod cos: PIEF, Film and Experimental Film Studio, St. Petersburg
Int'l sales: Non Stop Productions, Moscow,
Prod: Viktor Izvekov
Scr: Alexei German Jr
Cinematography: Oleg Lukichev
Ed: Olga Laboskina
Prod des: Victor Drozdov
Costumes: Anna Nekrasova
Sound: Sergei Sokolov, Anatoly Gudkovsky
Main cast: Pavel Romanov, Peter Merkuriev, Alexei Devotchenko, Irina Rakshina, Alexander Tyurin, Marina Radzhiyeva