Historically speaking, Russia’s military aggression in eastern Ukraine is nothing new. Just ask the Cossacks—if you can find any left. There is one particular Cossack woman an elderly German man would dearly like to find. His connection to the Cossacks is news to his granddaughter, but their family does not talk very much. However, she might finally get to know the old man before it is too late in Nick Baker-Monteys’s The Final Journey, which screens during this year’s KINO!: Festival of German Films in New York.
The recently widowed Eduard Leander was always a prickly cuss, but when he suddenly leaves on a seemingly inexplicable Ukrainian voyage, his daughter Uli still feels duty-bound to dispatch his slacker granddaughter Adele to retrieve him from the station. Much to her chagrin, Adele finds herself train-bound for Kiev instead. Old man Leander is somewhat put out having her tag along, as is she, but at least she finds some companionship with their hard-partying compartment mate, Lew.
Of course, once they reach Kiev, they realize his life is much more complicated than he prefers to let on. Lew is ethnic Russian, but still identifies as Ukrainian—as well as Russian. It turns out he is the only member of his family with such divided sympathies. He was a Maidan supporter, but his brother Boris has become one of the few fig-leaf separatists in Donetsk, providing cover to the plain clothes Russian troops. However, those connections make Lew the perfect guide for Leander as he searches for the mysterious Svetlana.
Frankly, Baker-Monteys and co-screenwriter Alexandra Umminger are tepidly cautious in the way they depict the fighting in Donetsk, preferring to cast it in brother-versus-brother terms, as if it were not unlike the American Civil War, then the conflict of neo-Soviet imperialism that it is. However, they clearly address the repression and ethnic cleansing suffered by Cossacks like Svetlana, whom we learn spent years in a Soviet Gulag (as did Leander, which is quite a surprise to his family).
In some ways, Final Journey is highly formulaic, but that also means it will be very accessible to non-German, non-Ukrainian audiences. In fact, one of its greatest merits is the appealing chemistry that develops between Adele and Lew. Petra Schmidt-Schaller’s turn as Adele is unusually subtle and earthy, while Tambet Tuisk is genuinely charismatic as Lew. Oddly, veteran movie bad guy Jürgen Prochnow largely relies on cranky old man clichés, at least until old Leander’s big third act pay-off.