The documentaries on display at Berlinale this year all have had an intimate, personal connection between the filmmaker and subject matter, and The Son is no different. Alexander Abaturov’s piece on the training process of young Russian Spetsnaz troops is motivated by his familial connection: a cousin of his, Dima, who was shot in the head and killed during an operation, shortly before his 22nd birthday. While Dima’s death doesn’t take up the sole focus of the film, the information looms over all the proceedings – the training drills for these young men take on an even more disturbing air in light of this information.

But even without this, Abaturov’s starkly and expertly shot footage ranges from the disturbingly cult-like to the comically bizarre. For every one scene where a man is made to fight until his face is stained red from blood, there’s another where a Russian veteran uses a prosthetic leg in a training exercise in a way only comparable to J. Walter Weatherman from Arrested Development. Throughout, the young soldiers are pretty happy with how things are going, though they are wrestling with having seen the death of their young comrade; one even speaks of dreaming of him.

However, the juxtaposition of the footage of Dima’s grieving parents with the training of new soldiers only ever seems to hint at any kind of thesis, and the goals of the documentary remain unclear until the very end. There’s not a lot to latch onto, and any feeling that you might be expected to take away from it feels slight as a result. For the most part though, the implication alone is enough.

It’s only in the final, astonishing shot where The Son transforms from a simple series of images into a documentary with an authorial vision, though it feels like slightly too little, too late.



DIRECTOR: Alexander Abaturov

WRITER: Alexander Abaturov

SYNOPSIS: In 2013, Dima Ilukhin, the cousin of the film’s director and a soldier in the Russian army, died on duty in the Republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus. He was 21 years old. This incident marks the starting point for Abaturov’s reflection on the military.