England! (2001) is yet another high calibre graduation feature film from the German Film and Television Academy. It maps out the journey that Valeri (Ivan Shvedoff) takes to reach his dream destination—which, interestingly enough, is not the Cote D'Azur or Bali or Mexico, but dreary old England… A quirky but, as it happens, quite realistic choice, as Valeri does not have long to live: he is dying of radiation sickness. He is one of the thousands of seemingly unsuspecting young Russian conscripts sent to clear up after the explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1986.
We see scenes of him and his best pal Victor driving about laughing in the bleak Chernobyl landscape; their carefree attitude contrasts starkly with Valeri's reaction once he has been given the death verdict in a sterile white doctors' surgery.
But the story takes an unexpected turn, in that it does not follow the protagonist into a world of either self-pity or denial. Instead, Valeri shows a stoic acceptance of the situation and chooses to spend the remainder of his life in pursuit of his dreams—the most compelling one being to reach England. Unfortunately, if you live in Russia and your best mate lives in West Berlin, this is not as straightforward as it may seem to someone living in Cologne or Munich.
Valeri's "journey" is fraught with difficulties of a physical and an emotional nature. To escape from Russia he must paddle across the border in the freezing winter. He has too little money to even buy a new blade for his electric razor, and thus cuts himself badly whilst shaving. Worst of all is the discovery that his friend Victor has committed suicide after he too became very ill.
It is to the credit of the director and his co-writer, Karin Astrom, that England!
does not become predictable. That is, Valeri neither gives up in order to die once he discovers the death of his best friend, nor does he immediately race over to England before time runs out on him as well. Instead, he decides to live a little, research into the life of Victor and earn some money at the same time. His dream is fulfilled only at the very end of the film. A new friend, Pavel (Merab Ninidze), decides to look after him and make sure he reaches his goal.
Scenes avoid descending to the pathetic and are surprisingly simple in their depiction of Valeri's slow, painful demise. The effect on the viewer is that, rather than feel sorry for him, you feel his pain with him. They are punctuated by comic visual elements that lighten the heavy subject matter. The flapping ears of Valeri's big woolly winter hat, for instance, repeatedly brought a smile to my face.
The only omission, to my mind, was that the Chernobyl disaster element of the plot had not been explored more fully. Valeri may as well have been poor, dying and desperate to see England once before his death without having been at Chernobyl.
I therefore asked myself: Why go through the effort of setting the scene in Chernobyl? The political and moral aspects of the clean up operation were only fleetingly touched upon. From this perspective, England! seems to me a missed opportunity to discover something about the long reaching effects of a disaster which is all but forgotten now. Unfortunately, the story the director chose to tell, the yearning to fulfil one last aspiration prior to dying, is not nearly as original.
Elke de Wit, 18 June 2001