ONE MAN DIES A MILLION TIMES

Make Way for Tomorrow

(The 2019 SXSW Film Festival ran March 8-17 in the fantastic city of Austin, TX. Lead critic Chris Reed was on the ground in Austin and has his usual massive slate of reviews and interviews. Stay tuned! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

The Siege of Leningrad lasted almost 900 days, running from September 8, 1941, through January 27, 1944. Over a million people died from the German blockade of the city – most from starvation – abandoned by Soviet forces regrouping to the east. To create a dramatic retelling of the event is to wade into a rich vein of tragedy and heroism, no additional cinematic tricks required. Along comes director Jessica Oreck (The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga), however, with ambitions beyond the ordinary, transposing the traumatic events of yesteryear from the past to the present. Her film One Man Dies a Million Times is set in modern-day St. Petersburg (Leningrad’s old and current name), though shot in black and white and narrated using text written during the siege. Time is malleable, the search for meaning eternal, and infinity born out of specificity. The result? A haunting meditation on the nature of humanity and how to survive our own downfall.

Oreck chooses as her focus the N.I.Vavilov Institute of Plant Genetic Resources, where a group of dedicated scientists have created a seed bank to solve global famine crises. And then the bombing begins, the city soon closed off. Quick title cards walk us briskly through the progression towards scarcity, the seeds and grains inside the institute eventually seen by hungry Leningraders as a source of food. But to eat the research would destroy years of valuable data and jeopardize future breakthroughs. Still, dying is not an option, either, and so we witness a conflict within the larger battle. What does it mean to safeguard tomorrow when today seems hopeless?

The institute is real – then and now – as are the words spoken in voiceover by the protagonists, some from contemporaneous diaries, others from poetry by well-known greats like Anna Akhmatova, Lydia Ginzburg and more. The cumulative effect of the plaintive verses coupled with the expressive visuals of cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Golden Exits) creates an intimacy with the subject that bridges the displacement of events from the 1940s to our own era, making the siege more tangible than it would be in a straightforward reenactment. Perhaps all directors should adopt this technique for a while, the historical drama such a well-worn genre that it could use a reboot. Along with Christian Petzold’s recent Transit (another tale from the past set in the present), One Man Dies a Million Times reveals new and exciting possibilities ahead.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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