At the start of One Man Dies a Million Times, written and directed by Jessica Oreck, we’re told the movie is about those who lived through the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. In the next breath, we’re told the movie takes place in our near future. This appears to be an unsubtle way of avoiding the costs of a period piece, but such frontloaded explanations shouldn’t be necessary. Let the audience find their own way. If they don’t, who needs them?
But once the story begins in earnest, it becomes clear why this text was necessary. The film is so aloof that—even with the provided context—almost any meaning derived from it must be entirely supplied by the viewer. Stoicism is an admirable cinematic trait, considering how quickly movies tend to make the first move on the audience. But once the audience is taken in by the film’s distant, playing-hard-to-get persona and makes the first move, the film better be able to hold a substantive conversation. Pleased with the attitude and impressed by the austere, black and white photography, One Man Dies a Million Times had my attention, but I quickly found it to have the conversation skills of a potted plant.
“…as they struggle to survive in a city cut off from life by the Nazis.”
We follow a young botanist, Alyssa (Alyssa Lozovskaya), and her co-worker, Maksim (Maksim Blinov), as they struggle to survive in a city cut off from life by the Nazis. We witness their degradation not through a traditional storyline, but through a series of stray, vague happenings. For the most part, these are flat images that leave too much on the table. Spoon-feeding the audience is one thing, but leaving them to starve is another. Oreck doesn’t give us anything to hold onto. The characters are mannequins in a history exhibit, though Lozovskaya makes for a believable lead.
Some of these stray moments are moving, such as Alyssa—an adult, but still exuding a youthful innocence—chewing on a fatty piece of meat like a mangy dog in an alley. What’s more, food shortages were so dire during this time that cannibalism became the last refuge for many, which lays that classic Russian bleakness on just a little thicker. The scene reminded me of a passage in Dostoyevsky’s “The House of the Dead” that details how prisoners would find cockroaches in their soup. At first, they were disgusted. But after years of being served the same awful soup, they came to savor the cockroaches for its flavor. People adapt to their circumstances remarkably well.
“Spoon-feeding the audience is one thing, but leaving them to starve is another.”
Speaking of literary influences, the movie utilizes one of those disaffected voiceovers that Terrence Malick loves so much, and the writing is quite good. I was prepared to compliment Oreck on this until the end credits informed me that the dialogue for the voiceover was taken from poems and journals by real men and women who lived through the Siege of Leningrad. A voiceover analogizing the human body with a ship is particularly memorable.
Plot is the most overrated aspect of storytelling because the storyteller becomes a slave to his or her own arbitrary rules, then the audience feels the stiffness. But if you do away with plot, you must appoint a new master in its place. There’s a power vacuum on full display in One Man Dies a Million Times, which renders it little more than a succession of dreary images.
One Man Dies a Million Times (2019)Written and Directed by Jessica Oreck. Starring Alyssa Lozovskaya, Maksim Blinov, Vladimir Koshevoy, Alena Artemova, Konstantin Malyshev, Andrey Emelyanov, Alexei Yuferev. One Man Dies a Million Times screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
5 out of 10 stars