How I Ended This Summer, Alexei Popogrebsky, 124 mins (12A)

This bracing psychological drama set in a decrepit Arctic weather station becomes a struggle for survival, and not only against the elements...

When Alexei Popogrebsky's How I Ended This Summer premiered in Berlin last year, everyone bet on it as a shoo-in for the main competition prize, the Golden Bear.

Why? Partly because it's a terrific film, but also because the jury president was Werner Herzog – and if any film was likely to appeal to him, it was this most rugged of wilderness dramas set on a remote Arctic island. In the event, perhaps Popogrebsky's film was too chilly and arduous even for Herzog – it ended up winning Silver Bears for its two actors and its cameraman – but I still think it should have won outright. To say it is a welcome blast of cool air might be putting it literally, but as spring hots up, here's a drama that makes you want to get your woollies and rainproofs out again – proper wind-lashed, elemental cinema.

Director-writer Popogrebsky visited some inhospitable places with his co-directed 2003 debut Roads to Koktebel, but that was just a warm-up. Here he's taken two actors somewhere truly testing, and claustrophobic – the far north-easterly region of Chukotka. The setting is a remote and decrepit weather station (shot at a real one), and on this evidence, running such a place is only marginally cheerier than lighthouse-keeping. The place is manned by Gulybin (Sergei Puskepalis), a hard-bitten, laconic veteran who's temporarily putting up with the presence of a young intern, Danilov (Grigory Dobrygin).

Danilov isn't having a great time: there's nothing much to eat but walrus meat, the island is desolate in the extreme, and work consists of reading out lists of numbers to a distant radio operator, or checking an archaic isotope beacon that crackles with excess radiation. One day, however, Gulybin goes fishing, and while he's away, Danilov receives an urgent radio message for him. But for whatever reason, the young man delays passing on the information, then goes out of his way to cover his tracks. The film tantalisingly keeps us guessing about Danilov's motives – although one reason seems to be abject fear of this unforgiving authority figure.

There may be more to Danilov's behaviour – but the film neither explains the mystery nor holds it in the foreground. What becomes most important is the way that Danilov digs himself into an ever deeper hole, until eventually his error overwhelms him. With Gulybin on the warpath, Danilov hides out in an abandoned building perched on cliffs that resemble a lunar slagheap with a spidery staircase attached, suggesting one of Mervyn Peake's gothic illustrations. There he sustains himself by hunting for eggs on a steep rock face. That's dangerous enough, but then he eats them cooked in a rusty old pan, which is really tempting fate – both for the character and for actor Dobrygin, who's clearly doing all this for real.

By the time Danilov is cuddling up for warmth to the isotope beacon, the combination of terror and the survival instinct has pushed him towards madness; suddenly realising how contaminated he's become, he panics and tries to scrub the radioactivity off his clothes. It's one of the film's boldest strokes that it makes us root for a sympathetic young hero, while gradually exposing him as a foolish and cowardly slacker. Meanwhile the initially menacing and rebarbative Gulybin increasingly emerges as a sympathetic figure – even while stalking the station with clearly murderous intent.

Bulky, grizzled and bearishly impassive, Sergei Puskepalis is more than imposing as Gulybin, a disciplinarian with a hidden softer side, the father figure in this grim oedipal battle. At the start, Danilov comes across as likeable, but feckless and childish; he's forever taking refuge in home comforts (video games, loud rock on his headphones) or using an old satellite dish as a makeshift merry-go-round. But as Danilov gets more desperate and ragged, Dobrygin's performance becomes ever more compelling and by the end, the actor has truly won his Outward Bound badge.

Apart from a gruff hint of homoeroticism – in the sauna, inevitably – there's also a touch of Beckett to this drama of two men in the middle of nowhere, tersely biding their time. But most of all, the film depicts specific physical demands – scaling rocks, diving into icy waters, braving swarms of flies – that bring the unmistakable ring of the Real that is so rare in today's cinema. It never feels more real, in fact, than when a polar bear suddenly appears in a rocky landscape – and starts loping towards the camera.

Pavel Kostomarov's cinematography captures an atmosphere of flinty severity that is often poetic, even dream-like – never more so than when Danilov heads out with signal flares in thickening fog. Popogrebsky's film is a compelling psychological drama as well as a nail-biting survival yarn – and, as the stunning closing time-lapse image reminds us, a picture of solitude, of life as it really is lived, at the end of the world.

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