Michael Marczak’s At the Edge of Russia would make a good companion piece to Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. Herzog’s documentary looked at the lives of American scientists in Antarctica, while Marczak’s film follows the day-to-day routines of six Russian soldiers at an outpost on their country’s northernmost border. Even without Herzog’s existential musings, At the Edge of Russia paints a bleak and depressing portrait of human activity. At least in Antarctica the scientists were actively adding to human knowledge. For the Russian soldiers in the Arctic, their mission is without cause. They train and drill and go on patrol, but it’s obvious that nothing they are doing is very important. A title card eventually tells us what we expected all along: The outpost, built in the 1950s to protect Russia from northern invaders, has never seen any action and likely never will. The only real danger any of these men face is the weather.
The human comedy that takes place within the cramped confines of these huts, however, is as rich as any found in a Herzog documentary. The soldiers do their best to stave off boredom by exercising, fixing snowmobiles, holding patriotic ceremonies on the porch, cooking, getting drunk, and shoveling snow—and lots of it. At the center of the film is Alexi Zuberin, a young draftee who arrives in the Arctic inexperienced and a little scared. When asked why he’s in the army, he says he wants “to learn,” which draws mockery from his comrades. He’s put through a series of training exercises, grueling not because of their physical demands but their psychological toll. His senior soldiers confuse him with commands that, if obeyed, are dangerous—such as walking alone at night with a flashlight. He’s berated for his uncleanliness, although no one else seems to do any better. He spends a night alone outside in a self-made igloo, as much for hazing purposes as for survival training. He’s often called “stupid.”
Eventually Alexi starts to get the hang of life on the edge, but other characters show us what a man becomes after several decades in the service of Russia. Alexi’s mentor Walera is perhaps the best example. With a full beard and a face that has seen its share of disappointments, Walera is a captivating figure, quickly taking over the film and becoming its most interesting character. He likes to play the guitar and quote poetry, but he also gets drunk and rants about how he believes his wife is cheating on him. He’ll complain about people joining the army for the wrong reasons, but later allude to his own enlistment: When he was young, he fell into debt and signed up for a three-year term. Walera embodies the frustrations and despair of life on the edge.
Other characters provide complement this portrait: a man who lost his hand in a mining accident and talks about controlling your “inner energy”; another who glares at Alexi and calls him a “sneaky fox”; another who does handstands in the snow and hacks at a frozen animal carcass with an axe, the closet anybody in the film comes to actual violence. At least Herzog’s scientists had something to keep their minds occupied. Here there’s nothing. On one patrol, Alexi and Walera haphazardly wander across the Russian border. They joke about going “abroad,” but of course they can never really go anywhere. When they sing patriotic anthems, the words only confirm this: “There is no end to Russia. Russia is the world.” Even at the edge, they are trapped.
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 14 - 17.