Women have had a protracted historical relationship with war. The Greek myth of the Amazons, a nation of warrior women, is a familiar one, with women said to be the archenemies of ancient Greeks. Hippolyta, Antiope, Penthesilea, and Thessalia: female warriors and queens who hated men, killed their male children, and cut off their breasts to better shoot from their bows. These supposedly fictional women have actually been proven to match a historical nation of people called the Scythians, whose women fought and hunted even better than their men. They lived a nomadic lifestyle, traversing the vast distances between the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and Mongolia. However, Scythian women aren’t the only warring women of our collective mythological and historical past. One can think of the Roman Catholic Saint, Joan of Arc, or Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra who defied the rule of the Roman empire and conquered Syria, Anatolia, and Egypt.
In Russia, women have had a particularly strong presence on the frontlines. In both of the World Wars, women served as soldiers, surgeons, nurses, gunners, snipers, and more. Svetlana Alexeivich’s The Unwomanly Face of War is a fascinating study of Russian women during wartime, both as combatants and otherwise. As the factual basis for the film Beanpole, it is a collection of women’s stories from their time during and after the war. In her book, Alexeivich wrote, “their war remains unknown… I want to write the history of that war. A women’s history.” This is the very history that The Cranes Are Flying and Beanpole explore. They dissect women’s involvement in and after World War II from different angles, examining how they interact with the societal expectations, constructions, and false narratives of the female existence.
The Cranes Are Flying is a cohesive, graceful film full of love and anguish. It is the delicate, syrupy, heartbreaking tale of two young lovers: Boris, who is sent off to war, and Veronika, who is left behind to pine, yearn, and emotionally punish herself. One suffers physically, and the other suffers in nearly every other regard. After the death of her family in a bombing raid, Veronika marries someone else in Boris’ absence — a marriage of necessity and shame moreso than romance. It is implied that Mark, who fraudulently avoided the draft, raped her, and forced her into marrying him, though the rest of the family has no idea. These circumstances challenge her devotion to Boris, and she is reminded of this when she must take care of an injured soldier, who is heartstricken that his girlfriend married another man while he was at war. Hearing the magnitude of her supposed faults over and over again sends Veronika into a self-loathing spiral; but despite all of her trauma, Veronika remains a sweet, pure person — one completely devoted to the man she loves, even in his absence.
Veronika is meant to be a manifestation of war’s demoralizing, daunting, and depressing impact on common people. As a character, she also poses the question of what a woman should be during World War II. Though she is undeniably feminine and delicate in some ways, she doesn’t represent the ideal model of the cheerful woman meant to motivate the soldier. She falls between two archetypes: not sweet enough to stay at home as a caretaker, but not strong enough to storm into battle. Thus, she provides an alternate framing for what a Soviet woman at war might look like — one who’s able to suffer and grieve in a feminine manner while still subverting expectations.
During World War II, there was a discourse revolving around the appropriate roles for women, who had earlier been encouraged by the state to fall into their roles as nurturers and life-givers. However, the impending arrival of Nazi forces caused a shift. Many women felt that joining the armed forces was a necessary form of resistance, and the only way to prevent Russia’s destruction. While men were expected to join the military, women were seen as an abnormality. Becoming a combatant was something that shed femininity — it was unwomanly. Regardless of how important these women were as faces of strength and turners of the tide, they faced a different societal response. While the male resistance to fascism was categorized as real, female resistance was categorized as a self-sacrificial support for men. Female soldiers were either stripped of their femininity, or lost the ability to call themselves resisters. Their violent actions in war are seen as a life-saving defense, rather than something destructive, which furthers the notion of the woman as a nurturer, and allows it to prevail even on the battlefield.
A slow-burn of a film, Beanpole unspools all the fixings of quiet trauma: trauma that does not scream or thrash, but can be seen in croaking seizures and silent wishes for death. Rather than the external devastations of war, Balagov focuses on the internal sufferings of his characters — the irreparable emotional and psychological damage. The external wounds that they do have only serve to bolster their emotional pain. There is no alleviating their hurt — their trauma digs so deep that they can hardly muster an emotional response to the death of their child. With a suffocating narrative of weariness and despair, Beanpole is plotted with stolid intention. Lanky, snow-dusted Iya was discharged from the frontlines of the war due to a strange form of post-concussion syndrome that causes her body sudden fits of paralysis in an uncanny sort of seizure — her voice is swallowed and her body belongs to some other force. Iya trails quietly around the corridors of the hospital where she works as a nurse — a place heaving with death — offering only minimal comfort to the traumatized soldiers she cares for.
However, Masha, a smaller woman, seems to come from an entirely different reality in comparison to the towering, sheet-pale Iya. The magnitude of her personality and brightness of her burnt red hair splash across Iya’s sincere silences and gentle words. When Masha arrives home from the front, their codependency, undeniable intimacy, and emotional manipulation become the forefront of their attempts to recover. Both are forced by circumstance to make both calculated and irrational sacrifices, and both suffer from some sort of delusion: Masha convinces herself of an impossible future, while Iya has strange irrationality.
Beanpole turns the conventions of women, motherhood, and post-war existence on their heads. Iya and Masha’s relationship stands as a direct contradiction to the messages of femininity, eternal strength, and motherhood we are often fed about women in post-war settings. They’re allowed to be violent and vengeful, infertile and impure, emotionally broken, and manipulative. Unlike Veronika, both Iya and Masha were combatants on the frontlines, making their relationship to the violence of warfare a bit different. When Iya was discharged for medical reasons, Masha stayed to take revenge on the men who killed the father of her son, Pashka. Rather than being packaged as a sacrifice for her country, Masha’s reasons are entirely selfish and violent. She may be undeniably strong and tough, but her motivations don’t stem from female self-sacrifice.
When Masha returns to Leningrad and learns that Pashka has died, she reacts with an almost complete lack of emotion, a reaction that directly contradicts the motherly characteristics placed onto women during wartime. To go even further, she and Iya have a relationship that deconstructs any heterosexual norm — a relationship that emerges from the splashes of red and green that cover the surfaces of their apartment and the clothes they wear. Masha sees a regular marriage as the solution to her trauma and the start of her recovery, despite how disingenuous it is to her, because she understands that doing what is expected of her will get her further than her anger and her violence will. Neither Iya nor Masha are exceedingly feminine, nor do they exude self-sacrifice, or seem anything like a metaphorical mother to their countries. Rather, they both suffer extremely through the warped, messy lives they lead.
Beanpole and The Cranes Are Flying demonstrate a more realistic, holistic understanding of Soviet women, who cannot possibly be shrunk down to two defining traits during World War II. They remind their audience that war doesn’t choose who it violates and damages, and its consequences know nothing of gender roles. Mostly, they allow Soviet women to have complex experiences. They allow them to be broken and unpretty.