Every year I look forward to the “slow cinema” selection at the Oak Cliff Film Festival. As the programmers who introduce the movie usually joke, “Some of you are here because you love this kind of cinema, and the rest are here because you’re hung over.” I happen to fall into the former camp (even when the latter has been true). Slow cinema is an acquired taste, and in my experience, you either love it or hate it. Sure, you can learn to appreciate it, maybe even endure it, but if you really love the form, you just know from the start.
So, it was with great excitement that I watched Jessica Oreck’s stunning One Man Dies a Million Times. Photographed in lavish, deeply saturated black and white, the film tells the story of two seed bank workers as they contend with starvation and the terrors of war in a modern day updating of the story of the Siege of Leningrad. As the conflict lingers on and resources run low, scientists Alyssa and Maksim are forced to make increasingly difficult decisions about what to do with the seeds, potatoes, and wheat they’ve been entrusted with.
This moral conundrum runs through the film, and what begins as mere discomfort for the protagonists, slowly melts into exhaustion, and mental and spiritual agony. Oreck captures the slow deterioration of the characters’ world, beginning with the announcement of the war during a sun-dappled spring when Alyssa and Maksim first fall in love. From here, the film unfolds in chapters that grimly detail the gradual collapse of society. A smuggled bottle of vodka shared by the lovers soon gives way to people bickering over mouthfuls of seeds, people dying in the streets, and in one harrowing moment, implied cannibalism.
Over all this, Oreck has woven diary entries and poetry written during the original Siege of Leningrad. Haunting, elegiac, and at times disturbing in their honesty, these sound bites from another time underscore the action on the screen, endowing it with a sense of tragic grandeur. The words of Leningrad survivors compete with the film’s other main soundscape--the oppressive ticking of a clock. As if it is literally counting down the last moments of our protagonists’ lives, the sound of a clock ticking gives the quiet, meditative film a sense of anxiety and urgency.
It would be possible to debate the film’s morality forever--should Alyssa have allowed some of the seeds to be sacrificed to help the people around her live? Were their cases where an exception could be made? Is Alyssa ultimately heroic or heartless? The film refuses to pass judgement on her or her actions, but I think that’s the least interesting (though most disturbing) aspect of this film.
As a lover of so-called “slow cinema,” I was enraptured with One Man because, for me at least, it’s the purest, best representation of the genre. Meditative, with an emphasis on beautifully composed shots, a sense of slow-building tension, all perfectly woven together with the voice-over and ticking clock, this movie is at once a harrowing look at one of the darkest chapters of World War II, an apocalyptic warning, and an exploration of altruism. It’s not light viewing by any means, and as the narrative builds, the desperation and desolation of characters can be difficult to bear. But if you hang on, One Man Dies a Million Times is a rewarding watch.