“Den Zverya,” a new film by Russian director Mikhail Konovalchuk, must be one of the few foreign films screened this year at a North American film festival without subtitles. That’s because the movie, which runs 84 minutes and is titled either “The Sniper” or “The Day of the Beast” in English, is completely without dialogue. The richness of “Den Zverya’s” other sounds, however, makes the characters’ silence almost unnoticeable after the first few minutes.
The film, which finished a brief run on September 6 at the Montreal World Film Festival, where it screened out of competition, follows a young German sniper (Johannes Van-Utr) hiding out in an abandoned building at the end of the Second World War. Though the lack of dialogue makes his mission unclear, he has apparently been ordered to assassinate an officer who may visit the house — or perhaps he is simply acting on his own, trying to kill any enemy soldiers he can.
Long stretches of “Den Zverya” are not only without dialogue, but without music as well, echoing the sniper’s months of solitude. In parts, especially at the beginning, the film is nearly monochromatic, suffused with the white snow and pale skies. Instead of color, sounds dominate the film: boots crunching on snow, the whisper of the cloth the sniper uses to clean his rifle, and the constantly blowing winter wind. When the orchestral score does cue in, it’s all the more dramatic.
The sniper spends his days watching the house where his mark is supposed to appear, his eyes peeking through the wooden slats covering the windows of his hideout. A small Jewish family lives in the house, and Konovalchuk spends much of the film following their daily tasks in long, unmoving shots. As the sniper marks off the days — or maybe the weeks — that he’s been there, the father, mother, daughter and grandmother who live in the house seem to charm him. He laughs warmly, for instance, as the father chases chickens in the snow.
The sniper’s real affections, though, are for the daughter (Svetlana Pati), whose thin frame and blonde braids are often reflected in his eyes. Though they never meet or even really look at each other, a slow romance begins to develop as the Russian winter gives way to spring. The girl — in her late teens, perhaps — seems to know, and even secretly enjoy, his gaze.
At times, the film is almost sexy; in one scene, the girl slowly lifts the rim of her dress, examining her body in the mirror as the sniper watches from his hideout. Konovalchuk keeps the edge of the shot level with the rising hem of her dress, revealing nothing while deliciously heightening the tension. Later, both the sniper and the girl seem to dream of seducing one another, with their lips never quite meeting. She wakes in her bed, her bare left leg protruding from the covers, with a start.
While the program notes for the film describe the sniper as a German and the girl as a Russian Jew, this motif barely registers in the film. Indeed, “Den Zverya” touches far more on universal feelings of loneliness and isolation than it does on any aspect of the Second World War.
The sniper’s mission, though, is a violent one, and that theme eventually takes over the film. Some of the longest, most carefully constructed shots depict the sniper and his weapon; in one, the camera focuses on four bullets as the sniper carefully sets each one on a ledge. When he finally loads his rifle to fire, the sharp, metallic sounds startle almost as much as “Den Zverya’s” tragic conclusion.