How I Ended This Summer, a Russian movie from 2010, exists in a world of its own. Two men, alone for months, track weather data at an isolated Russian research station at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. There is nothing to do but their duties, carried out in near freezing weather. Everyday one or the other of the men must leave the shabby cabin built a generation or two ago to trudge out into the cold and snow to record data and measure radiation from a once strategic and now abandoned nuclear generator. The director, Alexei Popogrebsky, takes us on an unsettling journey, with little dialogue, involving these two men. The movie starts with a premise of adventure, moves into paranoia territory and winds up as a psychological thriller - all complete with beautiful, barren, windswept scenery, icy weather and wind, and set in one of the worst places imaginable to spend a summer.
Sergei Gulybin (played by Sergei Puskepalis) is big, silent and experienced. He's served at this station before. He has a wife and child he rarely sees. He's in his late forties or early fifties and has little respect or patience for Pavel Danilov (Grigory Dobrygin), just out of college. Here's old Russia, stolid, doing a job without questioning its worth, aware of all the others who spend their lives doing the same job because once the job had value. And new Russia, a bit sloppy, bored, uneasy with old Russia, not quite knowing where he stands.
Into this world of unremitting drabness and cold, where all communication with the outside world is by static-filled two way radio. Pavel receives a message to deliver to Sergei, who has left the station to fish for arctic trout. The message involves Sergei's wife and child, and Pavel cannot bring himself to deliver it. From here on Pavel descends into guilt and then fear, and Sergei, when he finally learns of the message, erupts. Convinced that Sergei will kill him, Pavel flees the cabin to face two daunting questions: How to survive the Arctic cold and how to survive Sergei. Pavel might have to find a way to kill Sergei.
How I Ended This Summer is not an adventure movie. Paranoia and fear may or may not be justified. By the time we reach the end we've come to understand these two and how fragile our minds make us. In an unsettling twist, however, their survival may not last long.
The movie almost drifts along at first. We have the time to appreciate the beauty and the desolation in which the two men find themselves. There is an explicit and lengthy lesson in how to gut and dry Arctic trout. We shift our initial impressions of the men and of the kind of story we're watching. The movie hooks us as we realize the misunderstandings and their consequences (At least, I was.)
I finished the movie glad I took a chance on it.
For some, How I Ended This Summer might bear a resemblance to Zero Kelvin, a fine Swedish movie with a similar premise but a different outcome. It features Stellan Skarsgard, sullen, violent and unrecognizable.