I always find it difficult to write about a submarine movie without writing about submarine movies as a genre. My fascination with the format probably comes from the fact that, while the tropes are clearly defined, there aren’t enough such movies to qualify them for oversaturation. Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk hits a number of these. There’s the element of male camaraderie, of course; it should come as no surprise that Kursk fails the Bechdel test. There’s also the fact that, like most 21st century submarine movies, this one is a period piece; while the crew’s fandom of “Enter Sandman” era Metallica suggests the early 90s, the real events from which Kursk is (liberally) adapted took place in 2000. But Vinterberg gets to something deeper (no pun intended). Submarine movies, like spaceship movies, highlight the existential loneliness of death by locating its specter in a place completely cut off from the world.
During the first major Russian naval exercise in over a decade, the submarine Kursk endured two accidental explosions that killed almost the entire crew and stranded the boat at the bottom of the Barents Sea. A couple dozen survivors were left, without means of communication, in a small compartment while the Russian military attempted a rescue with outdated equipment and an outdated sense of paranoia and pride that delayed them from accepting foreign help.
If the scenarios are familiar to acolytes of the sub-genre (sorry), Vinterberg is able to elevate them with the help of his incredible cast. Matthais Schoenaerts is the de facto lead (the ranking officer after the explosions). August Diehl is another crewman. And Magnus Millang, largely unknown outside of Denmark, steals the show as the morale-boosting jokester among the survivors. Up on the surface, you’ve got Lea Seydoux, absolutely killing it and eliciting more than a few tears from this critic in the thankless role of the distraught wife. And then there are heavyweights Colin Firth and Max Von Sydow, as British and Russian admirals, respectively. Their scenes may be de riguer exposition but nothing livens up the obligatory like two of our greatest living actors.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle reteams with Vinterberg for the first time in over a decade. Mantle tried out his sea legs to great success in 2015’s otherwise lackluster In the Heart of the Sea. Once again, he’s able to locate energetic and compelling compositions amidst a drab and waterlogged setting, relying often on close-ups while utilizing different color temperatures based on what light sources are available to the survivors, from dim generator lights to neon emergency glow sticks. There’s also an attention-grabbing change in aspect ratio separating the prologue and epilogue from the rest of the film.
Kursk is a Belgian/Luxembourgian co-production featuring a Danish director and a pan-European cast with all dialogue spoken in English. One thing it is not is Russian. The right of Vinterberg to relate this story is debatable but the narrative seems so specifically critical of Russia that one wonders if it could even be made there in the age of Putin. At turn after turn, either the shoddy, outdated equipment or the heartlessness of the Russian military come under fire. In an echo of something Putin’s biggest fan, Donald Trump, actually said to the wife of a slain American soldier, von Sydow’s character coolly states, “They knew what they were signing up for.” There’s an irony, then, when Schoenaerts’ character assures his men by saying, “Everything we would do for them, they will do for us.” Maybe Russia’s just a stand-in, then, after all. Maybe Kursk is a film about the foolishness of placing trust in institutions.