Russian Director Aleksey German Jr. Talks His Controversial War Film ‘Air’ and Calls for Dialogue Over Ukraine: ‘It Is Impossible to Cancel Russian Culture’ (EXCLUSIVE)

As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its second anniversary, leading Russian director Aleksey German Jr. (“House Arrest,” “Under Electric Clouds”), is currently giving “Air,” his state-funded WWII thriller, a commercial release in Russian cinemas.

With ferocious action and cruel detail, “Air” has been called out for being a patriotic film. It depicts the struggles of a group of female pilots to be allowed to fight alongside male colleagues on the Russo-German front lines in 1943-44. Grudgingly, they are given their chance. While many die along the way, those that survive buck the established patriarchy and gain the recognition they crave – as heroes and professional killers.

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Variety spoke with German Jr. at the recent Festival of Young Cinema in Macau, which was only the second festival to play the film following its premiere in Tokyo late last year.

German Jr. makes no apology for his stance on the current war, but says that excluding Russian films and talent from overseas festivals is unhelpful when culture and dialogue should be the road forward.

Is it correct that the screening in Macau was the second overseas screening of “Air”?

It had its premiere in Tokyo in October, where, in my opinion, the screening was a success. It is a difficult film, but it was well received.

Why do you say it is a difficult film?

I had no idea if the audience in Tokyo was at all familiar with the incidents of this film or of all the problems connected. I was scared about its reception.

Before we dig deeper into “Air,” please explain your position on the war in Ukraine.

My position is very simple. In 2015, I had the premiere in Berlin of “Under Electric Clouds.” That film started with a dialogue about globalization and how globalization will not save us from a big war. Many people questioned what I meant by this.

I answered at the time that the absolute misunderstanding by both sides resulted from and caused the impossibility of any dialogue and compromise. And that would lead to war. The tragedy which is now happening is the result of 10 years without any attempt at dialogue between the West and Russia. Unfortunately, this war was predicted.

Russian films and filmmakers have been excluded from attending many film festivals since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. How does that make you feel?

Russians have also been excluded from international sports. Musicians are also banned. And filmmakers. It is absolutely stupid, because culture must support dialogue.

Aleksey German Jr
Russian director Aleksey German Jr at Cannes FF in 2021

Some things that happened were really astonishing. My previous film, “House Arrest,” which was in Cannes in Un Certain Regard in 2021, and was [made] without state support but [included] French money from MK2, was rejected by later festivals. Screenings were canceled at the last moment.

We replied, “If you don’t want to see this film, then don’t.” But Russian culture is impossible to cancel. Russian cinema, Russian literature and Russian music exist even without us [attending festivals].

Historically, a large number of the films of [celebrated Russian director] Andrei Tarkovsky were never shown in international festivals. And the most important films made by my father [Aleksey German] were never shown in festivals. Is that a reflection on their quality?

Anyway, sooner or later we will have to re-start the [East-West] dialogue. Culture is the first tool for that.

Do you understand the exclusion of “Air” from most overseas festivals based on its Russian state funding?

I started making “Air” in 2018 [before the beginning of the war in Ukraine in 2022].

But, in any case, state support is behind 80% of the film output in my country. You almost can’t make films without it. There are indie projects, but they are very few. We regard the cancelling [of Russian works] as a matter of irony. We don’t think it is right. But it is Europe that decided this.

Aren’t you aligning yourself with the Russian state by going ahead with the production of a patriotic war film during a live conflict?

The theme of my film is the enormous price paid by the Soviet Union for victory. Secondly, I have obligations to the people involved – actors, crew, financiers – to finish what I started. I’m grateful to all these people for supporting me. I was not able to betray all these people, stop and blame a change of circumstances. Third, [during all this process] nobody forced me to change anything in my film. There was no censorship.

Did you ever consider halting production of the film?

No. But there were definitely moments when we were not absolutely sure that we would be able to finish it.

You talked about, and the film shows, the huge human cost of war. But it focuses only on the Russian losses and humanizes only a single German fighter. Why is that?

Maybe we have a different Weltanschaung, a different point of view from the European people. During WWII, from 1941 to 1943, Russia was in a fight for survival. People were cruel. The siege of Leningrad alone had one million of victims. I was filming a war. That is about hate. About killing others in order to survive. I’m not saying that it’s a good thing.

As a filmmaker, you have to stay in the mood, be in the battlefield with your actors, to see and film this fight for survival and how people become killers. And if you are seeking a true representation, you cannot simply rethink and take the other’s point of view. I don’t believe that I needed to present other points of view at that moment. The mood was already black. Tragic.

Moreover, my first film “Last Train” was about a German doctor during WWII. In that case, I largely showed a German point of view. I understand that these days there is peace between France and Germany and it’s a wonderful new world. But maybe we [Russia] are not Europe. We [the Soviet Union] lost 27 million people in WWII, probably as many as 35 million, because the Soviet Union chose to lower the official number of casualties. This number is six times bigger than the Holocaust.

A line that comes up a couple of times in the film is whether nation or individual is more important. Given what you’ve just said, could you elaborate on those thoughts?

My opinion is, as I said in the film, in Russia, they are of equal weight.

That is the conclusion the character comes to the second time it is asked. The first time, she struggles for an answer.

And that is why Russia is a huge and complicated country. We have huge diversity. It is very conservative, very patriarchal. Russia has been at war for almost all of its history. We are permanently paranoid. The only thing that keeps together this huge territory and this huge number of people is this balance between the personal and the state or national interest.

When the part of the state becomes too great we get tragedy, like Stalinism. When the state part is too weak we start to kill each other like bandits. Russia, for me, is more interesting and maybe more important than other subjects. I’m trying to understand Russia, but Russia does not always understand me. I’m still trying to make sense of it.

Maybe constant war is what keeps this enormous country together?

If you’re pushing me to say how I see things, truly, I will. No one desired this war [in Ukraine]. But if you ask the simple people of Russia, 80% will say that NATO provoked this war.

When I spoke about “Under Electric Clouds” in Berlin in 2015, I spoke to journalists from several countries and warned them. But nobody published this. The country has a bloody history over hundreds of years. I’m not saying that we didn’t invade other countries. We did. But we were invaded, too.

Our paranoia has really deep roots. Historically, we don’t trust the West. You’re right that war can keep people together, but I say again that no one desired this war. It happened very suddenly. In order to avoid tragedy, we need to try to understand each other. Unfortunately, we lost the capacity for dialogue. We have even lost the common vocabulary.

We are all on the same planet. We cannot escape each other: Russia from Europe or Europe from Russia and the United States. I don’t believe that Russia will break up into many small states. And I think that Europe will also remain united.

Was the women’s story a vehicle for you then to discuss war in general or did you have a specific interest in the role of women fighters in WWII?

Russian film "Air" directed by Aleksey German Jr.
Russian film “Air” directed by Aleksey German Jr.

The role of women in war is not often discussed. And that is not right because, from the Soviet side, officially at least 800,000 women were involved. We still don’t have the real figures. Female pilots were often not acknowledged, so their enormous loss is not discussed. I was interested to show the young girls as pilots. Many died. It is interesting to show how tenderness becomes cruelty and women become killers.

In the film, and in this conversation, you discuss discrepancies between different sources of information. What are you trying to say about this?

Of course, things are seen as propaganda from the other side. But, remember that the archives of the Soviet Union are in a really big mess. So much of it was lost. As a result, we are still arguing about WWII – whether it was 27 million or 35 million deaths.

You also make a point about how the women fighters were not acknowledged at first by state media. But later in the film, they are celebrities on the front page of every Soviet newspaper.

Yes, that’s exactly what happened.

Please describe the technology used to deliver a film full of exciting aerial battles, shown in close up and which appeared extremely realistic.

From the beginning we had the ambition to make something as spectacular as “Dunkirk,” but 12 times cheaper. There were enormous technical difficulties because the real planes of WWII are missing. I don’t see anyone in Europe or Asia using the technologies that we came up with. We used CGI. We used models of the planes. And we filmed in the air, sometimes using small sports planes to create the dog-fights and then changed the footage, shot-by-shot.

We also designed and built a special mechanism that lifted the actors and their planes 10 or 12 meters into the air inside the studio and filmed using virtual production techniques in front of LED screens. That means that when you see the Earth from the air, it was real. And that when the planes were rocked by explosions it was not CGI.

What are you doing next?

I have not yet decided on my next project.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Russian film "Air" directed by Aleksey German Jr.
Russian film “Air” directed by Aleksey German Jr.

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