“Height” Review

Height [1957] – ★★★★

Italo Calvino, an Italian writer, said that “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” If we apply this quote to a film, then Height may be one of these classics, too. Based on a novel of 1952 by Evgeny Vorobyov, Height is a Soviet film that tells the story of a group of ironworkers who work re-constructing a blast furnace, often finding themselves at immense height from the ground, risking their lives. Even though the workers face danger and time pressure at work, as well as an awkward direction of their less-than-perfect boss Ivan Deryabin, they are still determined to have fun, both at work and, of course, in their free time. One worker, a free-spirited daredevil Kolya (Nikolai Rybnikov) soon notices an unlikely co-worker labouring beside him – equally vivacious Katya (Inna Makarova), and cannot help but get interested. In the meantime, foreman and lead engineer Konstantin Tokmakov (Gennadi Karnovich-Valua), whose wife supposedly left him, finds himself smitten with his boss’s wife Masha Dryabina (Marianna Strizhenova). Height reminds of the best work of the legendary Soviet director Eldar Ryazanov (Carnival Night [1956], Station for Two [1983])). Though the plot may not have a safe springboard from which to catapult its drama, which becomes rather uncertain and diffused, the film still charms with its good intentions, likeable characters, convincing performances, controlled direction and cinematography, and, of course, its now popular catchy tune (The March of Ironworkers). This is a very human story about work and love.

The Height script was written by Mikhail Papava, who co-wrote the adapted script for Tarkovsky’s phenomenal debut Ivan’s Childhood [1962], and the plot of Height is almost episodic. There is a little bit of drama there, a little bit of romance, a little bit of tragedy, a little bit of comedy, and a little bit of everything else. In the background of workers’ conflicts (Kolya does not get along with one worker because the latter bullies Katya, and his boss’s sense of responsibility is also questioned), there emerges a love drama of some subtlety because neither the emerging Katya/Kolya couple nor the barely perceivable couple formed of Masha and Tokmakov have the courage to confess their true feelings to one another, and, yet, they constantly and quite obviously, end up meeting each again and again.

Working at height means danger, but also adrenaline-fuelled wonder. The film shows how a dangerous, menial profession of an ironworker can still coexist with fun and boundless optimism. Critics may point out that these workers in the film, who undoubtedly suffered much in their lives (the World War II is still fresh in the minds of many), are too happy in this story, but were not Bert and his crew from Mary Poppins [1964] also “too happy” in their roles of chimney-sweeps? It was not considered “a class propaganda” in that Disney film. Both films show that, with the right attitude, humour, passion and curiosity, any profession can take the form of pure delight, especially if you have a supportive and friendly working environment. It is for that fair and nurturing environment the workers in the Height story fight. The film does not camouflage the still fresh wounds of the World War II, either. Katya tells Kolya about her childhood, and this story takes a horrifying turn. Both Katya and Kolya are the orphans of war, and now want to look at “a brighter side of life”, so to speak, find permanent love and settle down. They find that understanding person in each other.

Nikolai Rybnikov and Inna Makarova give the performances which can only be described as “star-making”, imbuing their characters with such lightness of spirit and lovable imperfection, one involuntarily feels much sympathy for them. In fact, far from presenting the expected, good-natured “Soviet stereotypes”, both Rybnikov and Makarova are in the roles of “the outsiders”, which is something atypical for a Soviet film. Makarova’s Katya is a tomboy who smokes, and no one takes her seriously, criticising her alleged “reputation”. However, Katya does not despair. She shows her strength of spirit and fights bravery the prejudice against her character, sex and upbringing. Rybnikov’s Kolya is also not one’s average obedient Soviet man. He is a rule-breaker who will not think twice before disobeying orders and doing what he thinks is right. Of course, both Kolya and Katya are good people, and have a strong inward sense of justice, but they are not as “pigeonholed” as one would assume at the first glance.

🏗️ Due its relatively weak main drama, Height may not necessarily be among the very best Soviet films, but it is still a soulful one, which exudes its own special charm. Capturing that optimistic period in the Soviet times that become known as “the Thaw”, it shows the lives of ordinary people working at height in all their eccentric ways, while also sending out the message about the importance of friendship, camaraderie, decency and responsibility. Thus, there is little wonder why this “feel-good” film is still the beloved of millions in the post-Soviet area.


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