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.
Michael Marczak (#1–10 of 2)
If Family Instinct sometimes plays like a Harmony Korine fiction, Michael Marczak’s At the Edge of Russia feels, in its early going, much like the work of a contemporary Romanian director. In it, a newly minted soldier lands at his first outpost, a border patrol somewhere on the northern edge of Siberia, and wanders through person-high snow to the shack he and a handful of much-older men call a base. Marczak takes his time to set the film up as a gentle hazing ritual/coming-of-age story. The soldier, 19-year-old Alexei, enters quiet and subdued but subtly cocksure, smirking when he’s given orders to dump the company’s human waste in a hole or being told how to organize his gear or properly wrap his feet in felt to avoid frostbite.