Nobel on Film: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970)

Film interpretations of works by Nobel Laureates in Literature

Director: Caspar Wrede
Nobel Laureate: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


By Marilyn Ferdinand

This past Sunday, literary giant and Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died. His 89 years on this planet were dramatic and eventful—a true, larger-than-life Tolstovian existence. During my Russian literature phase, Solzhenitsyn was my favorite. He was contemporary, he wrote about lives I couldn’t begin to live, but to which I could somehow relate. He was a towering figure who lived in exile in my country during the years that I read his novels—I never thought he would return to his beloved Russia. But he did, and thankfully, that is where he died.

The first novel he published, in 1962, was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which chronicles his own experiences as a political prisoner in a work camp in Kazahkstan. The film of this work appeared the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Other versions have been filmed since then, but none took the risks director Caspar Wrede did by filming in the snow and cold of northern Norway and creating equally inhospitable sets for his players.

The film opens on a long aerial shot of pinpoints of light in a sea of darkness. As the camera moves us closer, the outlines of a prison camp emerge. Soon, as though we had been air-dropped into the camp, we enter a barracks and the mind of a man, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (Tom Courtenay). It is the beginning of his day, the reality of his life in bondage, and he longs to stay asleep. In voiceover are words from the novel:

Ivan Denisovich always got up at once. Not today, though. Hadn’t felt right since the night before—had the shivers, and some sort of ache. And hadn’t gotten really warm all night. In his sleep he kept fancying he was seriously ill, then feeling a bit better. Kept hoping morning would never come.

But it arrived on time.

Ivan Denisovich dallies in his bunk, an infraction that is punished, of course. Every human action that deviates from the deeply circumscribed routine of each day in the gulag is punished.

The inmates, once roused, are herded by work team into a ramshackle mess hall where they are served boiled grass and a disgusting-looking bowl of fish soup filled with bones the men chew laboriously to get whatever nourishment and relief from their gnawing, empty bellies they can. Ivan Denisovich balks, however, when he finds a large fish eye in his bowl. He shifts to his bowl of boiled grass, “Somebody’s bright idea, serving it instead of meal. Seemed they got it from the Chinese.” Never fills you up, but its one virtue is that it tastes like nothing.

Ivan Denisovich goes to sick bay, worrying that his team might be sent to a frozen wasteland called Sotsgorodok to begin construction on a cultural arts center in a place with no people. The orderly on duty says he can only exempt two people a day, and he has already done that. Ivan Denisovich insists he doesn’t feel well “all over.” “But I’ve already drawn the line.” Ivan Denisovich’s temperature is only 99.2. He’ll have to join his team.

“Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?”

Before the team is allowed out of the camp to the work site, they must be inspected for contraband. The inmates are forced to open their jackets. Anyone wearing more than one shirt must strip it off on the spot. One of the men (Eric Thompson) protests. This will cost him later in the film the worst of all physical punishments—10 days in an unheated cell without any blankets. The team is marched to the brick building they are constructing, hands behind their backs, four abreast, warned not to step to the left or right, as it will be considered an escape attempt. Once there, they must pound at the frozen tundra with pick axes to get material with which to make mortar.

On the work site, the team leader (Espen Skjonberg) must push his men to get their quota of work done so they will be paid the best price. He also must manage to keep his men alive and out of trouble with the authorities with everything from bribes to trickery. He tells one of his men to find something with which to cover the open windows. Ivan Denisovich steals off with one of the men, who has hidden some roofing sheets in the snow for just this purpose. Then, the hard labor of hand-tossing and carrying bricks, hand mixing and carrying flats of mortar up a flight of stairs, and laying brick as rapidly as possible commences. Ivan Denisovich finds a broken tip of a hacksaw; delighted, he slips it into his coat.

One of the “capos,” seeing the roofing covering the windows, threatens to report the theft of the roofing materials. The team leader, confronting him, says that if he squeals, that day will be his last day on earth. The capo backs off, knowing that informers often are found with their throats cut. As darkness descends and the various teams from different parts of the area start their march back to camp, Ivan Denisovich works even harder to try to make the team’s quota of bricks laid. The team leader tells his men to cover the remaining mortar with snow to hide it from inspection. Ivan Denisovich and the team leader must run to rejoin their team, but make it back in time. One of their number, however, is brought in by guards. He was asleep on a scaffolding and late to rejoin the group. The officer in charge tacks another 10 years to his sentence on the spot. People rarely leave when their sentences are served.

More scrambling for dinner, as Ivan Denisovich gets separated from his team and fights his way into the mess hall ahead of the other teams. Packages from home are inspected, destroyed, or confiscated, and the remains are handed back to the recipient. Before lights out, guards empty the barracks to inspect for contraband. Ivan Denisovich helps one of his team hide his cache of goods. As they get ready for bed, the guards do a second inspection. When it really is time for lights out, each inmate wraps himself sleeping-bag style in the thin blankets he is provided and hunkers down for the night. Ivan Denisovich bites into a small sausage the team member he helped gave him.

At the end of the day, Ivan Denisovich is feeling pretty pleased with himself:

A lot of good things had happened that day. He hadn’t been thrown in the hole (cells). The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok. He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinnertime. The foreman had got a good rate for the job. He’d enjoyed working on the wall. He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the search point. He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening. And he’d bought his tobacco.

I’ve duplicated text from the Russian-to-English translation of the book for this review, but the screenplay by Ronald Harwood mentions few names and uses the Russian-to-Finnish-to-English translation as the basis for his screenplay. This depersonalization of most of the characters except for Ivan Denisovich was intentional, according to Harwood:

“We were charged, therefore, with creating an understanding of one man’s existence, one man’s fate, so that a cinema audience could feel for him and with him, and at the same time grasp the enormity of the background, which was the herding together of people in great numbers, with the result that one ceased to think of them as human beings. This, we had heard, endorsed Solzhenitsyn’s belief that the problem he dealt with in ‘One Day …’ was not specifically Soviet, but a universal dilemma, and the main one of our time. At its crudest, we understood this to mean any system which, wittingly or unwittingly, causes human beings to be divided into people, individuals on the one hand, and things, objects, animals, sewage on the other.”

The small things that the inmates do to keep a measure of their humanity—refusing to pick cigarette butts off the ground, using a handkerchief as a placemat at meals—seem futile in the face of such atrocious living conditions. Yet, in the few conversations that take place, personalities emerge. Two men argue about the artistry or hackery of Sergei Eisenstein, one denouncing Ivan the Terrible, the other describing in fond detail the Odessa Steps scene in Potemkin. Ivan Denisovich talks about prayer and reveals his peasant background by repeating his belief that the moon is created anew every month and that stars are made from the exploded moon.

Despite these interludes and assertions I’ve read that this film is life-affirming, what comes out most clearly is just how reduced a life these men lead. Ivan Denisovich says he was arrested in 1941 and imprisoned in 1942; he can’t remember what his wife looks like. He does favors to get favors in return. This seems to work out for him in the film, but in the book, Solzhenitsyn emphasizes that there are so many volunteers, so many people wanting to exchange favor for favor. Are there real friends in this film or only people using and abusing each other to survive?

It was difficult for me to understand a lot of the dialogue because every actor spoke with an accent, some more recognizable than others from the British/Scandinavian cast. Copies of this film are hard to come by, so you get what you get. The images on the VHS tape I got from Facets were murky, and the colors were distorted. Many scenes take place in the dark, which can make for some difficult viewing on tapes like the one I saw. All of these inconveniences can take one out of the film to some extent, but it is the brutality of the life that had me wanting to run away, yet forcing me to keep with it. This isn’t a redeeming prison film like The Shawshank Redemption. It’s not really even a cry for reform. It is a chronicle and, at its base, the act of someone bearing witness to the soulless depravity of Stalinism. It reminded me of Michael Radford’s 1984, but it is far more chilling because it really happened.

It is “just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three were for leap years.”

Used VHS copies of this film are available on An uncensored English translation of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle is now available.

  • David Wrede spoke:
    23rd/09/2008 to 2:28 am

    Thanks for that very sound assessment and precis of my Father’s film. So much of what remains as ‘critical review’ in English film catalogues (Time Out etc) is tainted with political assumption and left wing Soviet apologia.
    Yes the events happened, yes the source is the Gulag (and yes they filmed it in -20 to -30 Celcius), but the themes are universal as Ronnie Harwood commented and that was certainly what Casper intended, his credo was always humanity above politics.
    I am glad you appreciated what you saw, but like you I am struggling with a sub-standard reproduction. I am trying to get the company that owns the film to re-release it on DVD or get Apple to put it on iTunes, let’s see,
    Kind regards & best wishes, David Wrede

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/09/2008 to 8:54 am

    I’m thrilled and honored that you stopped by to comment, and I hope your efforts to get a decent reproduction of this film released are successful. It was apparent even on this poor tape that your father shot a visually stunning film, and the power of his vision still came through.
    Having a pretty good familiarity with Solzhenitsyn’s work, I felt strongly his condemnation of the Soviet system. It was harder for me to see the universal in the story, particularly knowing that this was an autobiographical novel to a great extent. Nonetheless, I think the intentions of your father and Harwood would be realized for most viewers.
    Now all we have to get is a copy for people to see!

  • Saulle Granese Sr. spoke:
    19th/10/2008 to 4:42 pm

    Please excuse my grammar and spelling. I am a male senior, born 22nd day of Oct. 1936. Finding this web site, the film, and bio, come as a gift. Please allow me to explain: In 1984, I purchased a used vhs copy of this film, it became one of the favorites in my collection. It was lost along with the others when my apartment was vandalized when I lived in Jamaica, W.I.(1983-1999).I have tried to replace it over the years, but I was unable to do so as I had forgotten the title. Today {10/19/2008] It came back to me. I selected the search button on Google’s site and typed in ” A day in the life of ” And there was the listing and all of this wonderful information. I am now going to (or others) with the hopes of locating a copy. THANKS!!!!!!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/10/2008 to 9:57 am

    Mr. Granese,
    I am delighted you stumbled upon my site and that this review brought back fond memories and gave you a determination to restore this film to your life. I hopeyou are successful, and I hope that when you find the film again, you stop by to share your thoughts on it from today.
    Marilyn Ferdinand

  • Ignacio Fernández Rossi spoke:
    1st/05/2009 to 8:15 am

    First of all, congratulations for this amazing blog. I’ve entered here looking for some pics of Denisovich, for a script project I was writing months ago.
    When I read the book I got astounded. There’s so much things in that pages unfortunately unknown today… we must recall. Guantanamo is not pretty far from that. Even the mass murderers must enjoy their rights.
    I didn’t know there was a film about Denisovich, so I’m running to Youtube now.
    P.S: If you want to watch some of my scripts WMA clips, just type my whole name in Youtube.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/05/2009 to 8:41 am

    Sr. Rossi,
    Thank you for stopping by. I’m glad I was able to provide information you didn’t have before. I hope it helps you in your work, and I intend to look at your videos.

  • Barrie spoke:
    27th/01/2011 to 7:39 am

    I am someone who used this 1970 film on VCR to teach the novelette in the 1970s to high school children. Reading the comments above makes me compare the Samizdat secret memos under the Soviets, so sparse is the knowledge of this GREAT film today.

    About a very long and very horrible period of Stalinist history, from a truly historic novel [Krushchev read it!] by a very great 20thC writer and human being, yet it is virtually unknown – can I say suppressed? – in the ‘free’ West and Hollywood, which constantly revivifies the mere 12 years of Hitlerism while lauding Marxists.

    How astonished I am to find that even David Wrede must ‘struggle’ with an inferior version of this great film by his own father. How effective the Devil is at suppressing the true history of communism in 2011.

    Has anything improved in recent years with this film’s re-release?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/01/2011 to 8:50 am

    Barrie – Thank you for your comments, and for recognizing this film’s greatness and using it as a pedagogical tool.

    I don’t think it’s some conspiracy that has caused this film to go into eclipse. Many, many films fall off the map because the money that can be made from an older film is not considered worth the effort. Ownership of a film is always in question with the mergers & acquisitions that have moved movie libraries from one owner to another. Finally, it is very expensive to restore films, especially those in color, and/or the materials needed to do so (original negative most important) may be missing or destroyed.

  • Richard Brown spoke:
    6th/01/2018 to 10:44 pm

    Excellent commentary/review.

    Tom Courtney is an amazing actor.

    One of the saddest books I’ll ever read. I try to visit it every five or six years.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your work.

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