A polar station on a desolate island in the Arctic Ocean. Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), a seasoned meteorologist, and Pavel (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a recent college graduate, are spending months in complete isolation on the once important strategic research base. Pavel receives an important radio message and is still trying to find the right moment to tell Sergei, when fear, lies and suspicions start poisoning the atmosphere"¦
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Expecting an audience to spend two hours watching two guys toiling at a dilapidated meteorological station on an Arctic island before a falling out is a big ask for this psychological thriller.
Alas, How I Ended This Summer offers few rewards as Russian writer-director Alexei Popogrebsky’s bleak film suffers from pacing which is as glacial as the icy environment, lapses in logic, a minimal level of tension and sketchy characterisation.
It must be noted the film won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement and the two leads shared the best actor award at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival. I wouldn’t quibble with the gongs for the actors but I think the Silver Bear was bestowed more in recognition of its bold aspirations than its muddled execution.
Working at this remote outpost are middle-aged meteorologist Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), who’s gruff, dedicated and humourless, and his callow young sidekick Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), a nervous, insecure type who’s prone to stuffing up the readings and gets his kicks by playing video games and listening to his MP3. Their exact duties aren’t made clear: something involving a Geiger counter and an isotope beacon. Much is made of their numbingly boring daily routine, interrupted occasionally by past-times such as taking a sauna followed by skinny-dipping in the freezing water.
As for their back stories, Sergei’s wife and young son used to live at the station until they were evacuated two years earlier and he dictates SMS messages to them via the base. Pavel is on a temporary posting. That’s it: virtually nothing is revealed of Pavel’s past.
While Sergei breaks the rules by taking time off to go trout fishing, Pavel gets an urgent message for him from headquarters: his wife and son, who had been visiting his parents, have had an accident and they’re gravely ill in hospital (if not dead). Sergei must contact the base immediately and a ship is being dispatched to pick him up.
For reasons that are never explained, when Sergei returns Pavel says nothing. Does he fear the older man’s reaction? Is this a misguided attempt to protect his colleague by withholding terrible news? We can only guess.
Beyond that peculiar development there is very little tension until Sergei is eventually informed of the accident, sparking a confrontation. The last half hour does generate some welcome suspense as Pavel flees, a temporary escape for where can he go as they’re trapped on an island? The ending is an anti-climax.
Popogrebsky has said he was inspired by the diaries of N. V. Pinegin, which were written in 1912 when Pinegin accompanied Russian polar explorer Georgio J. Sedov on a tragic attempt to reach the North Pole, but there’s no great, over-arching drama in this variation of men-in-the-wilderness tale.
As noted, the performances are fine from the two actors shot mostly in claustrophobic close-up. The third 'character' is the spectacular landscape in Chukotka, the easternmost tip of Russia, superbly captured by Pavel Kostomarov's cinematography.