The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #4 July / August 2013
At the Cinema
Kukushka - The Cuckoo
by Erik Zidowecki
July / August 2013 | 

Kukushka - The Cuckoo
PG-13 99 min
Drama / War / Comedy
12 September 2002 (Russia)
Country: Russia
Languages: Saami / Finnish / Russian / German

Someone suggested I watch this movie because of the language interactions, so I figured I would try it. From what I read, it involved soldiers during World War II, and, I confess, I wasn't really enthusiastic about watching a war movie. I have never been particularly drawn to the events of WWII, and rarely enjoy stories which revolve around them.

Fortunately, my worries about the movie were completely unnecessary. This movie was fantastic! It takes place at the end of WWII, but it isn't about the war. It's about two soldiers on opposing sides that end up together along with a Saami woman, and they must try to overcome their prejudices... or kill each other.

The movie also shows us how the language barrier can also lead to misunderstandings and trouble, even at the most basic level.

Viekko is a Finnish soldier who is a pacifist, and when the German soldiers he is with understand this, they fear he will desert. To punish him, they chain him to a boulder, leaving him with just a rifle, some ammunition, and a few days rations. They dress him as a German, so any Russians that might find him would be hostile and Viekko would have to shoot them. In essence, they force him to be a sniper, or, as they called it, a _kukushka_ ("cuckoo").

Ivan is a Russian captain who is accused of collaborating with the enemy. On his way to a court marshal, Ivan and the two men driving him there are accidentally bombed by their own planes. Viekko watches this from his boulder through the scope on his rifle. He also sees Anni, a Laplander, who is out scavenging for food, come across the bodies. She starts to bury them, only to find Ivan is still alive, but barely. She manages to drag him back to her house and works to nurse him back to health.

Viekko is finally able to escape from the boulder, but he still has a chain attached to his ankle, so he seeks out Anni's house to find a way to remove the shackles. All of this takes up the first half-hour of the movie, and there is almost no dialogue.

Viekko and the recovering Ivan meet, but they do not understand each other's language. Ivan believes Viekko is German, and tries to kill him with a knife. Viekko tries to explain to Ivan that he is done fighting and just wants to go home. Anni, speaking only Saami, doesn't understand either of them. Her husband went off to the war years ago, and she has managed on her own. She thinks both of them are behaving stupidly, as men do.

Now, the reason this movie is so interesting from a language point of view isn't just because of the languages used. All the characters speak in their own language throughout the film, so you get to hear a large amount of Russian, Finnish and Saami. What is interesting is how the characters interact with each other. They are able to get some of their ideas across with gestures and tones, but even those are misunderstood quite often. The humor of the film comes from seeing how completely they misunderstand each other.

Right from the start of their discussions is the classic question of names. Viekko tries to get Ivan to tell him his name, and instead, Ivan tells him "Poshol ty!" (Fuck off!). Viekko and Anni assume that is his name, so call him "Psholty". This name I only understood after reading a little about the movie. The English subtitles I watched it in gave his reply as "Get lost!", so they called him "Gerlost".

Ivan refers to Viekko several times as a fascist, which is a word Viekko does understand, and tries many times to make Ivan understand that he is done fighting by using the names of authors and their works to convey the message. He tells Ivan "Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms!", but Ivan just stares at him blankly.

Even while they are unable to understand each other, they never stop trying, so we learn about the characters through their needs to talk to someone. Both men work to help Anni, repaying her for her kindness; Ivan for her saving him and healing him, Viekko for the tools with which he removed the shackles, and both for the food and shelter she gives them. Anni, however, wants a little more than someone helping her collect fish or chop wood. She has been on her own for four years and managed fine with those things. She takes Viekko to bed with her, which makes Ivan jealous and feeling alone.


One of the more notable confusions is over mushrooms. Ivan happily collects some mushrooms, determined to make a nice stew of them. Anni sees this and tells him that eating the mushrooms will make him sick and crazy. When she finds Ivan is upset about her and Viekko having sex, she thinks he is ill because of the mushrooms, so tells him she will make an infusion to get rid of the mushrooms. She gives him the broth, which he eats happily, not understanding what it is. Turns out the infusion is intended to act as a laxative, and Ivan finds himself suddenly rushing for the privacy of the bushes. He is furious at Viekko and Anni, thinking they did this to humiliate him.

Shortly after this, a plane flies low overhead, and the two men figure it must be low on fuel and about to crash, so they run off to find the it. They come across the crashed plane with two dead Russian soldiers in it. The area is littered with small leaflets, written mostly in Finnish. Viekko reads one and learns that Finland is pulling out of the war. He is overjoyed, since he can now travel home without risk of being shot.

Meanwhile, Ivan finds a gun on one of the dead soldiers. He is angry that, as he believes, the Germans shot down a Russian plane, and approaches Viekko with the gun hidden behind his back. Viekko is excited and tries to explain to Ivan what it means by tossing away his rifle, but as he does so, Ivan thinks he is preparing to shoot him, so he shoots Viekko.

I am not going to give away the ending to the movie. You will have to watch it yourself to see what happens. You should watch it anyways just because of the many messages in it. It shows how three people who can not understand each other can still find a way to bond. The movie also shows us how the language barrier can also lead to misunderstandings and trouble, even at the most basic level. But most of all, you should watch it just for the beauty of the film. You will not be disappointed.

At The Cinema - Kukushka - The Cuckoo
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
• "Kukushka" Internet Movie Database <>
• "The Cuckoo (film)" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <>
All images are copyright CTB Film Company [ru], Sony Classics, Sony Pictures Classics

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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