When Eastern Front – Vitaly Mansky and Yevhen Titarenko’s new documentary about the war in Ukraine – had its world premiere at the Berlinale Friday (February 24), it was exactly a year since Vladimir Putin’s forces rolled across the Russian frontier in an attempt to swiftly crush what the Kremlin insists of dubbing the ‘neo-Nazis’ in Kyiv.
Introduced by the festival’s artistic director, Carlo Chatrian, who urged the audience at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste cinema «to keep your eyes open», the film’s raw, frontline footage goes far beyond what anyone has seen on their television screens over the past 365-and-counting days.
Filmmaker and medic
In Eastern Front, Mansky teams up with a young filmmaker who also works as a medic in a frontline Ukrainian volunteer unit, the Hospitallers. Titarenko first volunteered as a medic in the early days of the conflict in the east, in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took over large swathes of the Russophone Donbas after Moscow had seized Crimea.
As a collaboration – where Titarenko catches death-defying images under fire on the frontlines, and Mansky structures the back story of the young men who make up the Hospitallers when they are on leave in western Ukraine’s Carpathian region far from the fighting – this is unlike any Mansky film you’ve seen before. Gone are the long, lingering and often static takes; Mansky’s colourful and vibrant images as the men relax with wives, girlfriends, family, and friends are intimate and relaxed. These scenes are in stark contrast to the footage shot by his fellow director.
Titarenko was woken up in his Dnipro apartment on February 24, 2022, by the sounds of Russian missiles hitting the city, and he grabbed his phone to record his reaction as the crump of explosions is heard in the background.
He immediately returns to duties as a medic and joins his team in an abandoned villa in the leafy bourgeois outer suburbs of Kyiv – then within spitting distance of the frontlines.
Titarenko takes enough time to introduce us to his fellow volunteers, the dogs and cats, even as outgoing artillery whumps just beyond their garden – and incoming has them racing for the cellar.
this is unlike any Mansky film you’ve seen before.
Drama and pain
If this were a press story, we could call this a «drop intro» – the relative peace and calm does not last long. A call comes in, and the team dash to their nearby ambulance to drive the short distance to the frontlines to pick up a critically wounded Ukrainian soldier.
Titarenko skilfully switches between hand-held cameras and head or chest-mounted Go-Pro video devices to capture the undeniable drama – and incredible pain – of the dash to a local city hospital. The soldier has suffered an abdominal wound («the abdomen is punctured; there is a shrapnel wound to his arm», a medic dictates on a live line to a surgical team being hurriedly assembled to meet them). We watch, frozen in the moment, as his uniform is cut off. As the ambulance sways through multiple checkpoints, zig-zagging between concrete blocks and iron ‘hedgehogs’ to cries of «Turning! Turning!» another wound is noted – the back of the middle-aged soldier’s neck. «Neurosurgeon! Bring a neurosurgeon too! Spinal trauma! Cervical damage!» shouts the young female medic trying to steady the man’s lower half.
The ambulance lurches this way and that – and as it approaches the hospital’s A&E department, bounces over ‘sleeping policemen’ speed bumps. «Hop-hop!» shouts the driver. You know those violent jolts are the last thing someone with a neck wound needs. There is a sickening inevitability here: as they pull into the hospital, they are already trying to resuscitate the man, whose deathly pallor and lack of response tell you more than you wish to know.
When I talked with Titarenko after the screening, I could not leave without confirming what I knew already. “Yes, he was dead about a minute before we arrived», the tall, dark-haired director says. «That bloody ‘hop-hop’ – they are killers. We hacked them out after that incident.»
As the war progresses, Titarenko’s crew are involved in ever-more dangerous frontline missions. The fierce fighting in and around Kharkiv pitches them into rescue missions so dangerous that, more than once, they lose members of their team. Ambulances are blown to pieces, along with medics and patients, by mines or shells. Their Mercedes minivans are shot full of holes. Finally, they secure an armoured Land Rover that offers a measure of security when they are called to frontline positions to pick up often seriously wounded men.
The film’s rhythm gives viewers time to breathe, take stock, to digest the violence of the images from the frontlines.
The Test of time
There is humour and joy in Mansky’s sequences from the rolling Carpathian countryside, where the summer colours soothe and allow respite from the bleakly sepia-toned images from the frontline. Here there is life and hope. There, only death. And death is everywhere there – seen in abandoned Russian trenches, in the cows trapped in a boggy dung pit, where they slowly drown in their own excrement, and in the crazed dog, left alone inside the fenced garden of a deserted villa.
It is unclear whether it is Titarenko who enters the enclosed space, a Go-Pro on his helmet, but when the dog suddenly attacks him, we see his automatic come up and shoot the poor animal. It runs off and is pursued to finish off the job. One of the other medics remonstrates with the shooter. It is to the credit of the filmmakers that they included this less-than-noble episode.
The film closes with some incredibly raw footage of grievously wounded Ukrainian soldiers being rescued from their dugouts under fierce Russian artillery fire. The walking wounded – or crawling – are ordered to go back alone. Those who have lost their legs cannot go anywhere – even when a salvo of shells sends everyone else scrambling into the nearest trench.
Some of the footage in Eastern Front is not for the faint-hearted. But among the early documentaries emerging from this brutal war, it is likely to stand the test of time.