The Kursk was their destiny

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In 2000, the Russian submarine Kursk sank. The Danish director Thomas Vinterberg turns the tragedy into a purely Western propaganda drama.

The first explosion comes suddenly. The defective torpedo, which the submarine has on board for an exercise, detonates before it is fired. A fire roller makes its way through the narrow corridors and rolls over the sailors. The boat sinks to the bottom of the Barents Sea. Then a second and a third bang, a huge bubble inflates around the submarine and collapses. Of the 118 crew members, two dozen survive the explosion. In the rear part of the steel coffin they wait for their rescue, which will never come.

Whether the tragedy of the Russian nuclear submarine “Kursk” took place like this, nobody can say with certainty today. Even 19 years after the accident many questions remain unanswered, large parts of the investigation report remain under lock and key. Nevertheless, the pictures that the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (Das Fest) finds for the accident are impressive. They look like Hollywood, but are “made in Europe”. The drama is a Belgian-French-Norwegian co-production.

“Kursk” is based on the book “A Time To Die” by the US-American television journalist and former Russia correspondent Robert Moore from 2002. From this template Robert Rodat has knitted a script: a specialist for scripts in which questions of political conviction (The Soldier James Ryan, The Patriot) are not necessarily answered in a differentiated way.

August Diehl and Matthias Schweighöfer in Russian uniforms

Russian participation in “Kursk” is in vain at any rate, both in the crew and among the actresses and actors. The Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts brings the necessary physique and sadness with him for Captain Lieutenant Averin: an undaunted leader who keeps awake the will to live of the cluster of survivors on the seabed. Around him: familiar faces like August Diehl and Matthias Schweighöfer in Russian uniforms – and they all speak English to each other. Shortly before leaving, they watch a performance of the metal band Metallica on the TV they brought with them, when things get tight, they sing an English sailor song to the melody of “O Tannenbaum”.

On land it doesn’t get any more Russian: Léa Seydoux plays Averin’s wife Tanya. She doesn’t have much more to do than hope, wait and denounce the attitude of the military, who for fear of embarrassment and possible espionage by international aid organisations would like to sweep the misfortune under the carpet. Admiral Petrenko, a relic from the Cold War played by the Swede Max von Sydow, represents this. He rejects the offered help of the British Commodore Russell (Colin Firth) until it is too late for the last sailors aboard the submarine wreck.

“Kursk” suggests the potential for reconciliation that would have lain dormant in a joint rescue operation. At the same time he uses the tragedy to illustrate the negligence and dishonesty of the Russian authorities. As well-founded as this criticism may be – presented in a purely Western film project, it seems strangely yesterday.

“Kursk” is a breath of topicality

The same applies to the classic story of a men’s group that holds out despite dwindling oxygen. One of them grows beyond himself, another one becomes a safety risk because of his rising panic. Another one provides comic relief with his sayings in the face of the approaching end. It all seems familiar, not least because of the new edition of “Das Boot”. For most of the time, the movie is still a bit reserved with pathos, though.

Despite the déjà vu: “Kursk” has a touch of topicality. Last week, a fire on board a Russian submarine cost 14 officers their lives. The scene of the accident: the waters off the Kola peninsula, pretty much where the crew of the “Kursk” came to an end 19 years ago.
In 9 Berlin cinemas, OmU: Bundesplatz, Delphi Lux, Filmkunst 66, Il Kino, Kulturbrauerei, Rollberg

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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