As the French New Wave was starting to crest, and with the Cuban missile crisis just under a year away, Soviet film-maker Mikhail Romm directed what might have been the nuclear physicists’ version of Jules et Jim. This was the very intriguing Nine Days in One Year, now restored for its 60th anniversary. It’s a poignant love triangle, a story of broken hearts represented, in a rather David Nicholls-ish device, by the events of nine separate days over one year in the romantic lives of those whose duty was to the Soviet motherland – and to the great cause of the USSR gaining nuclear power.
Dmitri Gusev, played by Aleksey Batalov, is a dedicated scientist working on thermonuclear physics in Siberia, whose work has for years taken him away from his humble family in the country. His more playful and worldly scientist friend Ilya (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) is back in Moscow. They are both in love with the same woman: the passionate, focused, beautiful scientist Lyolya (Tatyana Lavrova). At the beginning of the story, Lyolya and Ilya are engaged to be married, but a visit to her former lover Dimitri reveals to Lyolya his heroic dedication and the fact that he has endangered his life with potentially fatal irradiation. Aware of a certain kind of patriotic and personal vocation, Lyolya nobly resolves to marry Dimitri instead, but Ilya, masking his feelings with a certain kind of cynical gaiety, remains in their lives, perhaps sensing Lyolya’s frustration and unhappiness in her marriage.
There is a dark, shadowy expressionism in the film, an occult sense of mystery and danger in the underground corridors of the lab. Irradiation is maybe a metaphor for lovesickness, but perhaps the symbol only works if we understand love to mean love of science, or love of country. This is a story of people who unquestioningly sacrifice personal considerations for the Soviet nuclear cause, and yet this lost love looms alongside the Soviet Union’s nuclear destiny with equal potency.