“I’ve never seen you smile. It suits you.”
World War II is over and Siberia still holds its Russian prisoners with nowhere to go. They have stayed in a prison camp without guards, living the best way they can in a logging community that survives on its single train. Ignat (Vladimir Mashkov) is a war hero for Russia, but an accident put a hole in his head and a tendency for blackout seizures, banning him from driving the locomotives as he always had, sending them to their tipping point in speed. He’ll have none of the supposed man in charge Kolivanov (Aleksei Gorbunov) with only one arm and who never saw actual action in the war, so he pushes his confidence and power around, taking the better train from Stepan (Vyacheslav Krikunov) as well as his girl Sofia (Yulia Peresild). Besides the penchant for passing out into dreams of living steel engines racing the tracks, his stern demeanor creates a standoffish atmosphere and his stunt to race another conductor on the wrong side of the tracks steals his engine away, sending him on a search for another. His life at Край [The Edge] has begun.
Nothing is really as it seems in this smoky, steampunk, industrially metallic town in the middle of nowhere. Ignat himself is a decorated hero and idol of the fight that has ended, but he is a broken man without the strength to do anything more than be exiled to a post with no real responsibility. The workers, mostly Russian women, have laughed in the face of Kolivanov, refusing to follow his orders, but doing their jobs because they need to in order to survive. He threatens them with rumors of Fishman (Sergey Garmash) coming, a force that instills fear in the people for his ruthlessness. Ignat isn’t worried about any of it; he just wants another chance behind the coal oven of a train engine, to feel the speed beneath his feet as he barrels down the tracks. Once Stepan’s engine is taken from him, however, he is told of a second locomotive, long lost on an island whose bridge to the mainland has fallen into the water. With nothing else but his new girlfriend and her German, mute son at the camp, Ignat embarks on the journey to find the engine and bring it back as a trophy.
He finds more than he bargained for, though. The story of the train came with one of a dead body washed up onto the land four years before. Instead of finding the poor soul, Ignat comes across a German girl of twenty, dirty and feral, aiming her rifle at the intruder who has come to disrupt the isolated existence away from even the knowledge of war. They do not understand each other, but somehow find the common interest to awaken the idle beast coined ‘Gustav’ from its slumber and bring it home. Amidst the construction of the bridge and re-laying of the iron tracks, Elsa (Anjorka Strechel) begins to remember her arrival to the Siberian outpost on the other side of the water. She had come with her father, an engineer who built bridges, and his apprentice Gustav. It seemed a jovial, planned escape to work and help the German cause, traveling in by train while an almost legendary bear that shows his face often follows and disrupts the conductors. What it is that caused Elsa to be stranded and alone, we don’t find out until later as the memories of persecution, mirrored by the Russian women’s cold reception of her and Ignat upon his return, flood back.
Written by Aleksandr Gonorovsky, Kray weaves an intricate tapestry to bring the past into the present with its lone survivor thought of as a walking ghost. She is the enemy and Ignat’s bringing her back puts him in as much ill favor as she. Even his girlfriend Sofia takes umbrage with her presence at his side, fearful she has replaced her in his mind, joining the others in making her stay hard and unwelcome. The plot makes it worse for Elsa as everything she and her companions brought four years ago has now been taken and used by the prisoners living free. She sees her old pot, Gustav’s briefcase, shoes, and a dress that were hers before, but now being given as though gifts. Unable to understand or be understood, her emotional attachment to Ignat grows as he too cultivates a bond of protection, seeing the brutality of the others while they’d rather throw her to the wolves than show compassion. The townsfolk try so relentlessly to make her run away that they forget Fishman is on his way back, himself uninterested in their wants and desires, seeing not one German enemy to be taken away (Elsa), but two (Sofia’s young boy).
Aleksei Uchitel uses his visual aesthetic to juxtapose the snowy browns and greens of the Siberian forest with the cold, metallic iron cutting through. Everything within his film rests on the shoulders of these behemoths, their power making them weapons to be wielded against one another. Mashkov’s angry train engineer needs one to regain the strength he had before his accident; he knows only he can achieve the full potential of the engines under his control. On the edge of Russian and German allegiances, the melodrama surrounding the coal-streaked world forgotten pulls him back and forth until he must pick a side. It’s either a role of machismo with a Russian woman in Sofia who relishes the subservient role, stuck to wallow in this forsaken place with no way out, or a place as equals with Elsa, a girl who always knew he’d come and save her, even if he looked different in her dreams. Beginning and ending with the trains, his decision comes down to survival and his might to take on Fishman—the man and the train for which the name designates—against Gustav to prove his heroism once more and find his way towards happiness.
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival