Release Date: December 7, 1970 (Sweden); May 16, 1971 (US)
Starring Tom Courtenay, Espen Skjonberg, Alf Malland, James Maxwell, Alfred Burke, Maxwell Thompson
Directed by Caspar Wrede; Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
Going into this weekend, my goal was to kick back and enjoy a few movies. The blizzard and freezing weather in the Northeast inspired me to find a winter themed movie to fit my surroundings, but this turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought it would be. My old standby for this weather is John Carpenter’s amazing The Thing, but I had already covered this film in my retrospective of The Summer of ’82. I looked up other films set in winter and noticed most had a holiday theme and I had seen them in the weeks leading up to Christmas. But out of the blue I remembered the film adaptation of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and I decided to track it down.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic novel about life in Stalin era labor camp was required reading for me sophomore year of high school. It stayed with me over the years, even inspiring me to study Russian language in high school and college. But I first learned about the film version several years ago as a result of a random IMDB search, and since then it’s been a curiosity for me because it’s extremely hard to find (except in terrible quality on YouTube – my only option) and the book hasn’t been tackled as a feature film again. But what I find more curious was how this film could be completely forgotten in the first place.
Director Caspar Wrede’s opening shot of the film establishes the feeling of pure isolation as the camera makes its way toward the lights of the Soviet prison camp in the pitch dark early hours of a winter morning. Prisoner C-854 Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (played by the great Tom Courtenay), serving his eighth year of a ten year sentence, wakes up feeling ill and hoping to get an exemption from work that day. His day begins with punishment for not getting up on time, but rather than being led to “the cells” his guard orders him to clean the floors of the stark, lifeless officer’s lounge. As Denisovich scrubs the floors with a bucket of ice cold water under a framed photo of a smiling Josef Stalin (referred to as “Old Whiskers” in Solzhenitsyn’s book), one can only imagine what “comforts” were available to the camp guards and staff, and if their tenure in the camp was as much of a sentence for them in their careers.
Denisovich is unable to get a medical exemption and is forced to work in sub zero temperatures laying bricks at a construction site. The inmates must work if the temperature is above -40 degrees Celsius, and at 27 below zero they won’t be getting a reprieve that day. This chapter of the book stood out the most for me (I still can’t fathom the idea of working with mortar at 27 below zero), and 25 years after reading it on the page, I finally heard Denisovich yell “Mortar!” as they worked fast to lay each course of bricks before the mortar froze. It’s during this sequence of the film that we learn more about the inmates of The 104th (the 24 man squad of prisoners that Denisovich is assigned to) and the “crimes” that led them to the gulag. Denisovich was captured by the Germans during World War II, escaped, but was accused by the Russian Army of obtaining his freedom from the Germans in exchange for spying.
Tthe film has a simplicity that allows the audience to look at the most mundane activity (meal time, waiting on line for parcels, bumming a cigarette, etc.) and feel the inmates’ loss of freedom and the weight of incarceration in the gulag without exaggerating or over dramatizing the day to day life of the camp. The set design and wardrobe are stark and simple but effective in representing the bleak living conditions from the old, cramped wooden bunk beds to the filthy rags of clothes the inmates bundle together to protect themselves from bitter, unending cold. Ronald Harwood’s screenplay has a faithfulness to the book’s tone, and the voice over dialogue taken from the book adds additional context to Denisovich’s plight and the day to day life in the camp. Over ten years later, Courtenay would star in (and receive a Golden Globe award and Academy Award nomination) for his role in 1983’s The Dresser, also written by Harwood.
Film adaptations rarely match up to the original books they’re based on, but the film version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a good film in its own right and faithful to Solzhenitsyn’s novel. Tom Courtenay’s performance is powerful and the representation of life in Stalin’s gulag is gut wrenching. This film does not deserve to be forgotten and I hope it gets a release on DVD or streaming video soon.