The incredible ease in which we can now communicate with others has created something of a problem for filmmakers. The availability of so much easy-to-access technology means that it’s hard to create the same sense of peril when all a protagonist has to do is jump on a computer or whip out their mobile phone to call for help. Other than resorting to dubious scenarios where the signal drops out or the battery goes flat, all that filmmakers can really do is either set their films at least a decade in the past or set them in the few parts of the world where you plausibly won’t get reception. Russian director Aleksei Popogrebsky has gone with the latter and set How I Ended This Summer in a remote meteorological station. The two characters’ only contact with the outside world is a two-way radio; otherwise all they’ve got is each other. While they are physically in close proximity to each other as they carry out their work, they are psychologically very far apart.
How I Ended This Summer is not so much a film about cabin fever but a film about generational differences manifesting in extreme forms of persecution and paranoia. The film predominantly takes the point-of-view of Paul (Grigory Dobrygin), the youngest of the pair, in order to create something of a false sense of sympathy for him. We get a sense of how the monotony and grind of life at the station is stifling his carefree spirit. We also see how gruffly and sometimes aggressively he is treated by his older and more experienced co-worker Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis). When Pavel fails to pass on an important piece of information to Sergei and creates a situation that only gets worse the longer he withholds the information, we feel his growing anguish. However, when the situation spirals out of control our sympathies are challenged by the way Pavel responds.
The extraordinary panoramic Arctic landscapes captured on film for How I Ended This Summer provide a frontier-like space where humanity is on the brink of being reduced to its most basic elements. Popogrebsky often films at a distance and allows for the transitional scenes to play out slowly to convey the incredible distance, isolation and long time spent doing anything. Sound is also extremely effective with the howl of the wind reminding us of the threat of the natural world and the hum of a faulty radiation-leaking isotope beacon providing an ominous reminder that humanity has created its fair share of dangers too. Against this backdrop the drama between Pavel and Sergei unfolds not with any sudden acts of violence but with a creeping menace.
For all its scope and ambition How I Ended This Summer feels like a much smaller film about the way men from different generations relate. For all his faults Sergei ultimately comes across as man wanting to pass down his knowledge, experience and cautionary advice. While not exactly reaching out to create a friendship, Sergei at least seems to want to create a teacher/student or father/son relationship based on respect. The film effectively demonstrates why Pavel responds the way he does but the rationality of his response becomes increasingly dubious. Neither men are especially dislikeable but nor are they likeable either making How I Ended This Summer a fascinating character study that is beautifully filmed in a largely unseen part of the world.