(Original Title: Kukushka)
If genuine hope and optimism is to be found among the vast scope of human conflicts, it exists in the minute details of individual people and actions, quite separated from the patterns of violence they would otherwise dissolve into. The Cuckoo takes World War II as its background setting, but solely focuses on a few gentle human interactions in a time of mass confusion and hardship—it is soft-spoken without being condescending, and at times plainly realistic without seeking to shock. In essence it is a character study removed from the war, but its characters are in a state of recoil from it—by choosing September 1944 as its setting, it accomplishes a clear gaze at their actions within a context that makes them especially significant.
We observe them with a fundamental sense of closeness that makes this work as more than a formula story. It is a resourceful film, as resourceful as the characters we watch: first for containing a limited number of characters and settings, and secondly for continuously drawing more out of them than what meets the eye. Veikko, a Finnish soldier left in the uniform of the SS, is more like an eager, talkative football player than the usual image of a soldier, much less a sniper. Anni, whose farm is the film’s main setting, is portrayed especially wonderfully—watch her eyes: she often gives a bit of an eye roll or keeps looking at one point as she turns her head to make a sideways glance, an extra point to compliment her sentences; it is often comedic and wonderfully expressive.
And in addition to those special touches, there is a scene that is especially intimate in a film this small, involving a healing rite—I think there are select moments in acting which call for a personal delivery beyond the standard expressive demands of anger or even sex. The film builds to this moment with the quiet reassurance of everything that has come before, and in a moment of suspense which quietly asks the audience to let our own guard down and trust in magic as much as her character does, Anni-Kristiina Juuso turns this fragile, potentially silly moment sublime.
But, befitting for a Russian film, I think the wistful, sadly tragicomic Captain Ivan Kartuzov acts as its subtle focal point. Once we arrive at Anni’s farm there is no real sense of external conflict—no ticking clock of low food supplies or an approaching army. And in this peace Ivan is still out of place, middle-aged beside Annie and Veikko’s natural harmony; stubbornly convinced that Veikko is a fascist who means him harm; the source of occasional tensions which rise and fall like a light breeze. He is the film’s deepest feature.
How does the film stay interesting without conflict, based more on the subtly posed question of Ivan’s adamant nature than an outright competition between him and Veikko? Well, conflict must not be the only way to engage a viewer’s attention—I think it works because the characters themselves keep you involved in what’s happening on Anni’s farm, and because the farm itself seems like such an enjoyable place to visit. It’s also worth noting that the camera tends to continually move in a slow creep that provides a level of visual interest—although the amount of lighting engaged for the same purpose occasionally goes too far; it’s awkward to have a character endowed with neat shadows and halo lighting before an open, evenly lit background.
The Cuckoo is an easygoing picture for one that addresses World War II, even obliquely, but its dedication to the nature of its characters gives it authenticity. The specific can be a window to the general; in those uniform crowds of soldiers rushing forward at each other, there were probably a few like Veikko or Ivan—and what happens when those personalities meet in a less predetermined context is the subject of this film’s truthful exploration.