A prisoner in a Soviet labor camp struggles to survive. [ One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich credits: Dir: Casper Wrede/ Tom Courtenay, Alfred Burke, Eric Thompson/ 105 min/ Drama/ Britain, Norway/ Filmed in English/ Democide, Anti-Socialism]
“An important reminder to many who will no doubt soon forget what the Soviet system was all about.”
Enter the world of Ivan Denisovich, a political prisoner in a Soviet gulag.
As the morning wake-up bell rings, he rises from his cot in the freezing, unheated room he shares with dozens of other prisoners. He’s sick, but he must work anyway. He eats his breakfast, a thin soup of fish entrails. Afterwards he lines up like everyone else for work duty, and off the prisoners go into the frozen Siberian wasteland to raise by hand some building for the Soviet state. They are constantly watched, constantly under the gun. They must scrounge for everything just to get the job done, and getting the job done is important because food rations depend on work completed.
In this situation, only the canny survive. Ivan Denisovich is one of the canny ones. During the course of the day, not only does he manage to find needed building materials and tools, but he also successfully steals a spoon from the canteen, tricks the cook into giving him an extra glop of boiled grass (the gulag blue plate lunch special) and manages to get away with it all without getting beaten or freezing to death. It is, as the voice-over says at the end, a “good day” for Ivan Denisovich.
This film is, of course, based on Solzhenitsyn’s book by the same name. It’s intended to communicate what life was like in the Soviet concentration camp system known as the Gulag Archipelago, and for the most part it succeeds. The world portrayed here is certainly bleak. The food is bad, protection against the bitter cold inadequate, and everyone is living like rats in constant competition to survive. But despite all that, no one here dies or is near death, or even looks particularly unhealthy. That makes this telling a bit of an understatement. Actual Gulag conditions were so harsh that ten percent of inmates died each year, an estimated total of fifteen to thirty million people in the years 1918–1956.
In artistic respects, this is a quality production, shot on a barren Norwegian landscape in a spare style suited to the subject. It maintains an intellectual tone in its dialogue, some of which is philosophical. Although the film could have more effectively depicted the harsh conditions, it does at least leave the viewer with some sense of the emptiness and injustice faced by those lives ground under the wheels of socialism. And it also serves as an important reminder to many who will no doubt soon forget what the Soviet system was all about.