Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 Dersu Uzala – a sprawling epic played out in the Russian wilderness – works wonderfully as a metaphor for man’s paradoxical feelings towards the civilizing process and its trappings.
Like the individual himself, society constantly struggles between the two ends of the civilizing spectrum. As it feels divided by such a battle within, it thus divides the people who it is made of. Romantics towards the misguided idea of the noble savage still exist, but none of them feel inclined to trade-off their modern comforts for a rough life. Because words and ideas are an abyss apart from actions and reality, we juggle moral platitudes and change nothing around us.
In 1910 Russia, Arseniev (Yuriy Solomin) witnesses a forest being cleared as he looks for the grave of an old acquantance, Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzu). The events of the year 1902, when Captain Arseniev met Dersu, are then shown. During a topographic expedition in Siberia, Arseniev and his group of soldiers encounter the tribesman Dersu, who is initially thought as uneducated and primitive. Gradually he gains the respect of the group as he goes about proving his astuteness and great wisdom. Dersu seems totally attuned with nature, and proves to be a compassionate hunter. Through the power of deduction, he becomes an invaluable guide. When they encounter a hut in the forest, Dersu repairs it and asks Arseniev to leave some food inside it so eventual passers-by would find respite from their travels.
Later, Dersu saves Arseniev’s life during a blizzard by building some shelter with long grass. When the captain collapses with exhaustion, he drags the man inside the straw hut. The next morning, as snow covers the ground and they avoid being frozen to death, they are finally discovered by the others. As they struggle in the frozen tundra, they are sheltered by a friendly family. Arseniev tells Dersu that he is next heading back to the city and invites him to come as well, but Dersu refuses and the next morning they separate. Five years later, in 1907, they are destined to meet again and rekindle their friendship. Once again, Dersu Uzala proves to be an invaluable companion, helping Arseniev to cross a dangerous river and killing a threatening tiger. However, Dersu is getting old and isn’t the same hunter. After trying to live in the city, he returns to the wilderness and then dies.
..The Most Advanced of Resources: Homo Sapiens.
How does one convince a tiger not to hunt, not to kill? Dersu tried and was unsuccessful. How do we convince an ‘uncivilised man’ to leave his land, his home behind and come to the city where the most amazing amenities exist? Arseniev, Dersu’s great friend, tried and was also unsuccessful. How does a man like Dersu Uzala – perhaps to us, an apparently simple man, but who in fact, understands sophistication better than us – convince Arseniev, or city boys like us, to try to live a more harmonious life, with more empathy towards the natural environment and other living beings? Many have tried before, none ever succeeded. Man marches on towards that elusive and yet irresistible light: progress.
The great paradox of the human mind has to be its intrinsic capability to sow the seeds of its own destruction. It is amazing to think about man and his relation to other animals on the planet. Physically weak, we then invent demigods of super-strength – think of Gilgamesh or Hercules – who are capable of fighting lions. We are however aware that our advantage within the animal kingdom has always come from our superior intellect. With arrows and bow, swords and shields, gun powder and tanks, the great cats and the other magnificent predators never had a chance. The problem with such power obviously lies on our total disregard for our own species. If a mighty tiger has no chance against us, imagine then a humble man…
Thus, standing on the shoulders of giants, collectively, man conquers his surroundings and constantly reasserts his own position of supreme dominance. However, individually, he feels weak and alone. Increasingly unable to connect on a deeper level with his fellow human beings, man turns inwards, and it is there that he most feels the irrelevance of his great power. Perhaps that’s the reason powerful people are usually very busy – in this way they avoid concentrating too long on their internal state. For true power stems from within. Sadly, for so many people, power expressed outside the individual only serves the purpose of masquerading the lack of self-worth on the inside.
Thus the less self-esteem one feels the more power he seeks. Similar, in fact, to the parallel of social advancement which brings about a corresponding loss in some primordial knowledge. Such a conundrum plays out in the film since the very beginning. As Arseniev maps the country for the future, thus advancing the knowledge Russian society has over its territory, he and his soldiers also display their ignorance of – or dare I say, incapacity to deal with – the wilderness. Even though one can argue that Dersu’s skills are outdated and unnecessary in modern societies, they seem nonetheless a better description of power. Especially power over oneself…
Perhaps all this reasoning does not automatically make sense for those who lack a direct experience of the emptiness that material fulfillment might induce. But for people like us, who feel and understand that power and money and status and social standing are for nothing if the hole in our hearts are not assuaged, then Kurosawa’s wonderful Dersu Uzala is the film not to be missed.