How I Ended This Summer, 124 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas 7 April 2011.

(This is a slightly longer version of my review as  published in the April 2011 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)


The tagline for this new Russian film reads: “The Russian Arctic. A place to find yourself… or lose your mind”. This taut two-hander is one of the most extraordinary-looking films you could hope to see. It is set in a remote meteorological station on the Arctic Circle in far eastern Russia, in the Chukotka Autonomous District, between the East Siberian Sea and the Bering Sea: a long way from anywhere. It may as well be on the moon, so difficult is it to get to.

In some films, the landscape itself becomes a character. This is true of some of the better Westerns – particularly the films that Anthony Mann made in the 50s, such as Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953) and The Far Country (1954).

How I Ended This Summer isn’t exactly a Western, but there are similarities: the action does take place in a hostile, largely uninhabited landscape with a palpable psychological dimension to it. On a harsh Arctic shore, a story unfolds that pits one man against another in a standoff that will have you on the edge of your seat. But being a Russian film, this is a slow burner, so some patience is needed in the early stages.

The first part of the film shows us the grinding daily routine necessary to guarantee the integrity of scientific data that has been collected continuously by Russian meteorologists since 1935. One of our characters is an older man, Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) who is in charge of operations. He’s serious, dedicated, and clearly irked by his younger colleague, Pavel (Russian heart-throb Grigory Dobrygin) and his casual attitude to work.  Pavel is always listening to techno music through headphones, plays violent computer games, and has the short attention span that seems typical of Generation Y. Clearly, Sergei represents the old Russia and Pavel the new. The old Russia is also on display in the dilapidated huts at the weather station, the primitive conditions the meteorologists have to put up with, and the antiquated, almost Victorian-era equipment they work with.

The film brings its two characters into conflict by means of a radio message that Pavel fails to pass on to Sergei. The tension escalates from there, ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level by its director and writer, Alexei Popogrebsky. This psychodrama is intensified by the dramatic environment, with perils including fierce storms, impenetrable fog, bitter cold, malfunctioning equipment, rifles, and even polar bears.

It is only the third feature film of Popogrebsky, 38, but it is a very assured film. The film won two awards at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival: the Silver Bear for Best Actor was shared by the two leads, and it also won a Silver Bear for Best Artistic Achievement. It was named Best Film at both the 2010 London and Chicago Film Festivals, and it received an Honourable Mention at the Sydney Film Festival Awards, which was where I first saw it.

I’ve since seen the film again, and I found it just as thrilling and intriguing the second time. The achievement of the film makers is all the more astonishing when you consider that they had to spend three months in Chukotka, and that their film cost only $2.5 million to make.

Cinematographer Pavel Kostomarov uses the high-resolution Red digital camera to great effect, capturing textures of landscape, jagged rocks and sandy soil, but also depicting the characters’ weather-beaten faces in extreme close-up. Time-lapse photography graphically conveys the changing nature of the light and weather, as well as the longueurs of the job itself.

This tale of extreme endurance has something to tell us about the importance of endurance in another sense, too: the value of doing one’s duty faithfully, reliably and with attention to detail. It’s also a meditation on the distractions of modern life and how they could – in the right circumstances – push you into madness.