How I Ended This Summer: a meandering character study of two individuals coping with extreme isolation and one another

Alexei Popogrebsky, “How I Ended This Summer / Kak ya provel etim letom” (2010)

Out of a very threadbare and unbelievable plot, Alexei Popogrebsky manages to craft a fairly interesting character study about human frailty, the need that people have for connections with one another, isolation in an extreme environment, modern humans’ relationship with nature (and how they have damaged and poisoned it) and forgiveness. A young university student, Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), is sent to a meteorological station in the Russian Arctic to work with Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), an old-timer set in his ways who takes pride in the work he does there. Pavel finds the work of making daily periodic reports on the Arctic weather and tidal conditions monotonous and boring. Sergei sees Pavel as lazy and immature because the younger man is easily distracted by boredom and plays video games when he should be learning about the environment around him so he can write his essay. The two men do not get on at all and can barely tolerate each other; Sergei even cuffs Pavel on a couple of occasions when the latter makes minor errors in his work. Pavel is easily intimidated and becomes quite paranoiac.

One day Pavel gets an urgent message from their superiors at the State Meteorological Service while Sergei goes out on an unauthorised 2-day fishing trip: Sergei’s wife and only child have died in a car accident. Pavel is supposed to tell Sergei straight away of the news and to get him to contact their employer who is sending a ship to collect Sergei. Because of his fear of Sergei, Pavel neglects to tell him. This failure to pass on important news sets in train a series of events that escalate in seriousness and results in life-threatening danger for both men in very different ways: Pavel through his paranoia and stupidity has several brushes with death and exposes himself and Sergei to radiation poisoning from an abandoned isotope beacon.

Filmed on location in Chukotka, close to Alaska, the movie features stunning scenes of wild subarctic landscapes and vast skies changing colour as the season passes through mid and late summer into early autumn. Long immersive shots of nature reinforce the sense of extreme isolation in this harsh environment where to make one mistake – as Pavel does, and he makes more than one mistake – could mean the difference between life and death. This of course means the film is quite slow in pace and stretches the thin plot almost to breaking point. There is very minimal dialogue which puts great demands on the two actors, particularly Dobrygin, to express emotions and motivations through their characters’ inexplicable behaviours. Both actors do excellent work in portraying two generational types: Sergei representing the stoic older man who puts duty, self-sufficiency and responsibility before personal feeling and comfort (and who sometimes bends the rules whenever he wants to spend time fishing), and expects Pavel more or less to do the same; and Pavel as the young, impulsive and immature fellow who wants to have a good time but is dependent on a disapproving older man who maybe has spent too much time away from other people and is lacking in current social graces.

The cat-and-mouse chase that occurs in the latter half of the film is ludicrous as Pavel is convinced that Sergei is unhinged and is out to kill him, and he plots to outwit Sergei. (The irony here is who is really unhinged, Pavel or Sergei.) The result is a climax that is grim and devastating in its stark and minimal delivery as Pavel confesses what he has done to the fish Sergei has been drying outside their hut and which the older man has been eating. At this point, one expects Sergei to really go ballistic and take his rage out on Pavel but the denouement that follows is just as jaw-droppingly unexpected as Pavel’s confession.

Perhaps the one major weakness of the film is that, having revealed Pavel’s weakness of character, it does not show his redemption, if indeed any has taken place with or without Sergei’s participation. Sergei’s acceptance of his family’s deaths and possibly his own impending death appears unbelievable, at least to Western audiences. Obviously Sergei has forgiven Pavel for his immense moral baseness in poisoning him but how this forgiveness has taken place and under what circumstances is never shown. We cannot tell if Pavel has grown in maturity as a result but we have to assume that he has.

With the themes it has, the film might have been expected to be heavy-going but with minimal dialogue and long scenes of nature and silence, it carries its message lightly. Yes, humans have done great harm to nature and to one another, but when faced with extreme dangers, they must band together for survival no matter what they have done to one another in the past, and forgiveness and acceptance of one another’s faults and crimes must at times override such insults, no matter how awful, horrific and even life-threatening they are. Unfortunately by the time the film reaches this point, it has meandered on and on for so long that this message has the feeling of being tacked on just to round off the narrative and give it a raison d’être.