Dersu Uzala: Kapitan, my Kapitan!

Big respect and thanks are due to the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge for screening a 70mm print of Akira Kurosawa’s little known Dersu Uzala last weekend. This film is a real oddity in the CV of its celebrated director – Kurosawa’s fame is due to the string of classics he directed in the 50s and 60s, most notably Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress (a direct influence on Star Wars), but by the 70s his fortunes had turned and, unable to get funding from the Japanese studios for his epic projects, he shot Dersu in Russia in collaboration with Mosfilm. It’s therefore the only Kurosawa film not to use the Japanese language and the only one to feature a predominantly Caucasian cast.

You don’t need to know any of that however to enjoy this film. While its title and description (an early 20th Century army captain is sent on a mission to chart remote regions of Siberia, where he enlists the aid of a local trapper) might lead you to expect a gruelling and austere arthouse folly, Dersu turns out to be charming and accessible, the sort of thing the BBC should be showing every Christmas to promote goodwill among mankind. The story couldn’t be simpler, with the film presenting a series of testing episodes during which the formally-trained but resourceful and open-minded Captain Arseniev and the ostensibly uncivilised but highly observant and never recklessly impulsive Dersu find their mutual respect and affection deepening. There are no sub-plots, no villains or unsympathetic characters, no metaphors and no subtext even, and its a blessed relief – apart from anything else, the stunning locations shown here really don’t need any spurious dramatic help to hold our attention. With the exception of a few short scenes towards the end of the film, we’re outdoors in completely natural environments all the time: autumnal forests, mighty rivers, ice floes and in the movie’s pivotal sequence a forbidding and seemingly infinite stretch of tundra, upon which Arseniev and Dersu are forced to desperately fashion an ad-hoc shelter out of reeds when it becomes clear they won’t have time to get to cover before night draws in. This scene is intensely dramatic and entirely convincing and shows that Werner Herzog doesn’t have a monopoly on capturing extreme natural circumstances on film.

Dersu Uzala is a joy, with its overall positive humanist message allowing one to forgive its occasional dips into mawkishness, and it’s the kind of film that just wouldn’t get made these days due to advances in technology and altered expectations of audience sophistication. The 70mm presentation beat my DVD hands down, both in terms of picture quality and sheer scale – a film like this really needs to be seen on the biggest screen available. Old movies should never die. Not if they’re as lovely as this one.

P.S. Apparently this is comedian Sean Lock’s favourite film. Good for him.

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