4 Days in May (Vier Tage im Mai)

Published on May 9th, 2012

By Calum Logan

Writer & Director: Achim von Borries
Starring: Pavel Wenzel, Aleksei Guskov, Grigory Dobrygin, Ivan Shvedoff, Sergey Legostaev
Length: 90 min.

Ambiguities about identifying friends and enemies – and the reflexive questions for the self such confusions pose – form the basis of 4 Days in May. These are interesting questions with which to open the Canberra leg of the Audi German Film Festival, particularly as we witness some significant challenges to the European integration project.

Evoking the feel of a country house mystery, the film documents the last four days of the Second World War in and around a Prussian Estate on the Baltic coast. Having only exhaustion in common, three groups find themselves sharing a nervous proximity: a handful of Russian soldiers awaiting victory, Wehrmacht stragglers desperate to avoid Russian captivity, and the staff and children of the orphanage that have occupied the property during the war. A German youth provides the film with a liminal protagonist; neither adult nor child – and helpfully fluent in Russian – he is capable of flitting between the worlds swirling about him.

As J.G. Ballard observed in Empire of the Sun, wars are fairly safe while they are underway; the beginning and the end are the particularly dangerous times. In these periods of flux everything is uncertain and familiar signs that formerly assured a safe, ordered life become treacherous.

Established order begins falling apart upon the Russians’ arrival. Whilst spelling death and rape for some, others – contrary to expectations – are spared. Indeed, as the initial panic subsides and the Russian main force departs, an uneasy respect between the inhabitants and the remaining handful of guards begins to emerge.

Complicating the dynamic, a much larger party of German soldiers takes up position on the beach below the house. Initially the boy is ecstatic, feeling that safety and freedom are at hand. However, the German soldiers are only interested in a boat across the Baltic. Similarly, the heavily outnumbered Russians are happy to avoid any more heroic deaths. Thus, as peace approaches the boy’s every turn proves false: his effort to see off the Russians singlehandedly ends in failure and affectionate captivity; his attempt to hide the object of his affections from certain rape ends in her falling for a Russian soldier; and his heroic German army won’t fight.

Stripped of bearings with which to navigate the world our boy responds as most might: he rebels, acting out in vulgar parodies of the identities that once made sense. Though, as the interregnum ends and peace is declared, forgotten corners of the war are suddenly remembered. The sinister return of formal authority to the house soon overshadows both the adults’ relief and the boy’s petulance.

Individual pragmatism is no match for the violent pedantry of power structures. However, having discovered humanity the soldiers who previously valued only survival prove unwilling to return to the roles demanded of them. Although in its dénouement 4 Days in May indulges in melodrama, it successfully poses a stark reminder of where the triumph of ideology over pragmatic humanity can lead.

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