Dersu Uzala was a Siberian nomadic hunter whose friendship with Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev inspired a book and two films. The films combine Dersu's wilderness lore and animistic cosmology with nostalgia over the inevitable arrival of modernity, which will destroy his world.
The best-known version of the story must be Akira Kurosawa's 'Dersu Uzala' (1975), produced in the Soviet Union on epic 70mm widescreen. It tells of Captain Arsenyev's expedition to the easternmost part of Siberia in the early 1900s and their chance meeting with the hunter Dersu Uzala, who becomes their guide in the wilderness. Adopting a meditative pace, the film devotes much attention to their daily survival in the taiga, while the stunning nature photography emphasizes how the small hiking party is enveloped in and merges with the landscape.
The heart of the film, however, is the endearing character of Dersu, whose survival skills and simple wisdom continue to amaze the Russian soldiers. He teaches them what Gary Snyder, in 'The Practice of the Wild', called the "etiquette of the wild world", which combines skill and spirituality in an unbroken whole. Though Snyder's own experience was more of North-American wilderness cultures, his description fits Dersu perfectly:
People of wilderness cultures rarely seek out adventures. If they deliberately risk themselves, it is for spiritual rather than economic reasons. Ultimately all such journeys are done for the sake of the whole, not as some private quest. The quiet dignity that characterizes so many so-called primitives is a reflection of that.
Thus in Dersu's worldview there are people all around them: the wild animals, the water, wind and fire, to him all are people. Now the word may be an imperfect English translation of Dersu's imperfect Russian, but it's clear what he means: men, animals as well as the elements are spirited beings which must be respected in order to survive. Part of the film's power is in the matter-of-fact way it illustrates this animistic philosophy with Dersu's actions along the way.
Most spectacular is the scene where Dersu and Arsenyev get lost on an icy plain and are forced to spend the night there. Dersu manages to save them by building a makeshift hut of reeds. But equally memorable is the small gesture he makes of leaving a bundle of food, wood and matches in a cabin where they have stopped, not because he plans to come back but because "Others come this way. Find dry wood there. Food to eat. People no die."
The other, earlier film version, 'Dersu Uzala' (1961) directed by Agasi Babayan, tells much the same story yet is also strangely at odds with Kurosawa's version. It follows the same narrative structure, though more condensed (the film is only 80 minutes long, against Kurosawa's 140). It tells many of the same anecdotes about Dersu, and adds a number of spectacular scenes involving a forest fire, a bear fighting with a bee hive and a sable hunting a deer.
About halfway through, however, the film takes a bizarre turn, in what looks like an effort to incorporate Communist doctrine in the story. It happens when Captain Arsenyev finds a coal seam, which he marks on his map as "easy to dig" before explaining with sudden feverish excitement:
Someday, people will come here, build houses, factories... The city will grow. And all that, thanks to this coal here.
To which Dersu, who can't understand the excitement about this "black rock", replies with genuine concern:
Captain, you are a little sick. You need to rest for a while. And the sickness will go away.
But of course the sickness will not go away. With this scene the film - probably unintentionally - voices all of modernity's civilatory zeal and ideals of progress, which were just as strongly part of socialist as capitalist ideology. To be sure, Kurosawa's film contains this ideology as well. It is implied in Arsenyev's very mission: to survey uncharted territory and thus prepare the way for people, houses, factories.
But Kurosawa inserts this tension much more slily, and fully intentionally. As in a classic tragedy, the theme is introduced in the opening scene. Arsenyev is looking for Dersu's grave amidst the construction work of a new village. As he remembers it, "there were huge trees here, a cedar and a fir". A local thinks they were probably chopped down to build the settlement. And Arsenyev is unable to locate the grave.
It sets an elegiac tone for the rest of the film, which recounts in a long flashback Arsenyev's memories of Dersu, and their adventures in the wilderness. The tension between wilderness culture and encroaching civilization only resurfaces towards the end of the film. Dersu is getting old, his eyesight is failing, and Arsenyev has taken him to live with his family in town. Dersu is unable to adapt to 'civilized' life, complaining he "can't understand how people can live in a box". The divide between their two ways of life becomes painfully clear when Arsenyev, misunderstanding Dersu's complaint, suggests redecorating the room, "change the wallpaper, make it more comfortable".
In the end Dersu returns to the wilderness, where soon after he is murdered over the new rifle Arsenyev gave him as a present. This in itself a sign that the old "etiquette of the wild" is disappearing.
The final scene shows Arsenyev at Dersu's burial, marking his grave with a forked stick in a pristine landscape of falling snow. Just three years later people, houses, factories have appeared, Dersu's grave is gone and the land has become part of the Soviet frontier.
To conclude with Snyder, whose description of the American frontier is universal:
A frontier is a burning edge, a frazzle, a strange market zone between two utterly different worlds. It is a strip where there are pelts and tongues and tits for the taking. There is an almost visible line that a person of the invading culture could walk across: out of history and into a perpetual present, a way of life attuned to the slower and steadier processes of nature. The possibility of passage into that myth-time world had been all but forgotten in Europe. Its rediscovery - the unsettling vision of a natural self - has haunted the Euro-American peoples as they continually cleared and roaded the many wild corners of the North American continent.
In a Eurasian context especially, the story of Dersu is a rare and memorable example of such a "passage into the myth-time world". But told in flashback, as of a possibility of the past.
Update: For more on the historical background of both Russian and Japanese imperialism, see the essay 'What Was Kurosawa Silent About in Dersu Uzala?'