The parable set-up of Dersu Uzala is somewhere between a war buddy drama and Rousseau: a military man in the Siberian wilds is saved by an almost magical, gnome-like rube named Dersu Uzala who helps him survive the ice, winds, storms. The strange logic of Akira Kurosawa’s ultra-Bazinian real-time take on the fairy tale, shot on location for two years in Siberia, is that his absolute abstractions preserve a fabulist dimension of essential type—the savage and the civilized—in a fantastical world: Kurosawa’s long takes of distant bodies toiling against horizons of snow and blistering sunsets make the leads look like figures in an unfinished canvas of Turner or Emil Nolde; their sum effect, like classic types, is how they appear.
The film can seem ornamental at first—a slideshow of expressionist dawns and dusks, all pretty as a Munch—but any monthly-calendar picturesque grandeur is leveled by the particular mechanics of building a hut and cutting a tree to salvage a man from a river, and by the fact that such mechanics are the necessarily feeble human responses to the entropy of a painted-harlot world. Basically Dersu Uzala, like a Flaherty character, uses nature against nature, tundra straw against blizzard and tree against river, to survive, and the folk characters become simply as they’re seen, walking, constructing, dancing, with only the primal demands of living; their ties to each other are roughly the same as the viewers’ to them, a matter of walking in their shoes, but ties anyway in the simple act of survival. When Dersu is offered the luxury of habit in civilization the filmmaking changes from the fluid sweep of winds and waters rising and falling on the soundtrack as orchestrations to abruptly defined, contingent geometrical spaces of domesticity, houses and streets, that gridiron the imp into a comedy of manners.
All of this—paupers vs. soldiers; the sentimental bonds of grizzled cowpoke farting on the range against the draws of the cavalry’s rank and file settling the frontier into order; a void and a system—is familiar from John Ford, but Kurosawa’s overhaul strips the story down to naturalist-expressionist material-abstract picaresque, the basic observation of nature and bodies at work with and against each other; a silent film with sound. Its basic format extended from L’Enfant Sauvage—doc shooting of vagabonds in spatially and temporally indifferent, probably enchanted forests, who must return to the internments of well-demarcated civilization—makes it the precursor to slates of contemporary “contemplative” woodland cinema, nevermind Avatar: Malick’s New World, Apichatpong’s Tropical Malady, Alonso’s Liverpool, Serra’s Quixote/Birdsong, Ben Russell’s Let Each One Go Where He May, even Raya Martin’s Independencia and Ben Rivers’ May Tomorrow Shine… But Dersu Uzala is less ethnographic platitudes of gaia’s universalism than the story of two individuals who meet and work together and, despite history, like each other. In its color and common sense, it’s easily Kurosawa’s most beautiful and moving film.