A tale of emotions
A review of Beanpole. A film directed by Kantemir Balagov, Russia, 2019.
The Belarusian writer and Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich begins her book, The Unwomanly Face of War, by stating that women have been taking part in wars since antiquity. However, their involvement in the Second World War was unique. They fought, in large numbers, in the British, American and German armies. In the Soviet Red Army, there were also around one million Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian female soldiers. They found themselves on the frontline as tank drivers, snipers, gunners or even in the infantry. It was their stories that Alexievich collected and published in her book, which provides a unique record of the war. This record is truly extraordinary as it is presented from an explicitly feminine point of view. Alexievich argues that “Everything we know about war we know with ‘a man’s voice’. We are all captives of ‘men’s’ notions and men’s sense of war … Women are silent.”
Alexievich gave these women a voice and made their stories known. It then turned out that their experiences were different than the heroic descriptions of victories and other military acts presented by men. Yet Alexievich also talked about heroic acts and victories. She just did it through the use of a different, more female language.
“When women speak,” Alexievich writes, “it is almost nothing of what we are used to reading and hearing about … How certain people heroically killed other people and won. Or lost … What equipment there was and which generals [were in charge]. Women’s stories are different and about different things. A women’s war has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words.”
A new, female perspective
War stories written by women are deprived of pathos. In Alexievich’s view, pathos has proven to be the least durable substance regarding memory. As a result, women’s stories are instead filled with psychology and feeling. A story written by a woman is thus not only more human, but also inclusive regarding all living creatures and filled with emotions. We can subsequently say that Alexievich’s writing proves the concept of l’écriture féminine, which assumes that men and women use radically different language, including grammar. While men focus more on the rational presentation of facts, women exploit emotions. “Writing from the margins”, as women’s writing is often described, allows writers to present the war from a lesser known perspective. This is the perspective of emancipated women, who have gradually departed from their stereotypical roles and started to see a new dimension in their femininity. This dimension concerns the fact that the war left a mark on them. Ultimately, this mark is what the Russian film Beanpole, is all about. Directed by Kantemir Balagov, the film is inspired by Alexievich’s writing on women’s perspectives. Women are the heroines of Balagov’s movie, while the men are depicted as weak and subordinate. It is the women who decide who they want to have sex with and why. It is also their decision who will be the breadwinner during times of hunger, whether their paralysed husbands should ask for assisted suicide or who should marry their son. It is a woman who comes to the wounded soldiers with gifts to thank them on behalf of their country – “the Motherland”.
It seems that, based on the stories, post-war Soviet women were also very self-sufficient. They only need men to father their children and to have someone help them paint their flat. The post-war world is indeed a world without men, as many of them had lost their lives on the frontline. Those who returned home often came back with physical and/or mental handicaps. As a result, the men who lived in Leningrad in 1945 were either inexperienced youngsters or elders. However, after the war nobody is the same as before. Women also stopped feeling feminine. Those who talked to Alexievich admitted that they had lost all of their femininity. For example, one woman explained how she had to spread salt and garlic on her baby boy’s body to make it swollen and covered with blisters. In this way, she could pretend that her son was sick with typhus, pass the German guards and deliver medicine and bandages to the soldiers.
Experiencing death and pain on a daily basis, these women stopped being care-giving mothers and turned into female killers. In this way, they fully personified the concept of “Mother Earth”. They were completing the whole cycle of life and death, playing the role of a mother who is both a source of all life and the end destination for all signs of life as it returns back to her womb. These women would later tell how their bodies were dying out during the war. They had no menstrual periods, nor any sexual desires. During the war, and right after it, they thought mostly about death, as death was omnipresent. During the war, women were also not giving birth. Illegal abortion was common, as was killing babies after birth. Women had to kill.
All these experiences turned women from mothers who give life into a hollow Mother Earth, just like the protagonists of Beanpole. This includes the main character Iya, nicknamed “Beanpole”, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Her symptoms include catatonia, which is the medical term for a lack of communication and movement in a traumatised patient. As a result of her symptoms, Beanpole is sent away from the front, where she had served as an anti-aircraft gunner. She took along her best friend’s son, whom she later treated and raised as her own. Soon, everyone believed that Pashka was her own son and the boy himself called Iya mum.
One day, however, Iya accidentally smothers the child to death while suffering an episode as a result of her PTSD. Once an adopted mother, she ultimately turns into a child murderer. Iya never wanted to have a child on her own, though. The idea of having sexual relations with a man appals her. Clearly, she would prefer to have a close relationship with Masha (Pashka’s real mother), whom she loves both platonically and as a friend.
Masha is also hollow. On her return from the frontline, she says that she wants to become a woman again. For her, to be a woman means being a mother. This role has been assigned to women for centuries – the guardians of the home. Women have been raised to become mothers and caregivers. For Masha, however, Pashka’s death brings an end to this dream. Even though she manages to find a young boy to sleep with her, believing in the miracle of conception, this miracle does not happen. The infertile Masha, after a series of abortions and serious surgery caused by a shell wound, can no longer give life. Hence, both women are doomed to live together and only dream.
The two women cannot become the women they were before the war. They are marked by trauma and war experiences that they cannot forget. For a long time, they experience an inability to adjust to the new reality – something Alexievich often wrote about. In a way, they will be soldiers forever; to the point that they even feel uncomfortable in civilian clothes. They had to learn everything anew, including how to wear civilian shoes, dresses and skirts. Masha experiences this in the film. In one scene, she is trying on a green dress. At first she wants to spin in it and see how it twirls, but her joyful spinning also turns into a failure. Masha understands that she can no longer be the woman she once was, even when she is wearing a dress.
Stories of contrasts
What has not changed is the need for heroic deeds. For these women, this means the need to continue on living despite all the war memories and difficulties adjusting to the post-war reality. Such life and heroism requires acceptance of a new identity – that of the hollow post-war woman.
In this way, Beanpole acts as a continuation of Alexievich’s book. It shows what happens to women after their return from the frontlines. It is a story about the brutality of the post-war reality, as people try to rebuild their lives on the ruins of war and start anew. It is a story about dreams and faith that a miracle can happen. The story about Iya and Masha is also full of physical experiences, such as gentle touches and the pain of the first unwanted intercourse. Others include the satisfaction of a one-night stand, the warmth of a baby’s fingers and the touching of the husband’s paralysed face.
This is a story of emotions: joy, embarrassment and fear. In the end, it is also a story about life and death, which includes both assisted suicide and attempts to conceive. These are the experiences of women who are both meek and strong; scared and heroic; fighting and retreating. It is a story about listening.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Kinga Anna Gajda is an associate professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.