Directors/Co-screenwriters: Konstantin Ershov, Georgi Kropachyov
By Roderick Heath
Nikolai Gogol’s story “Viy” was included in a volume of his story collection Tales of Mirgorod. Like his most famous tale, the historical novella “Tara Bulba” included in the same collection, “Viy” was a tribute to the wealth of history and traditions of rural Ukraine and southern Russia and the people who live there, particularly the Cossack nations. Gogol nominally based his story in real myths he harvested in the region, but the tale’s basic underpinnings have a vital similarity to ghost story traditions from right around the world, those stories in which a callow young man on the road encounters an evil spirit in the form of a woman. Gogol essentially invented his variation however, including the title character, a troll king who appears in the climax of the tale, whilst trying to capture the flavour of the parochial traditions he was steeped in and was trying to convey fervently, in an age when literature was often urgently engaged with trying to define the supposed ethereal quintessence of national cultures. Although his literature was often devoted to excoriating the absurd and backward aspects of his time and its culture, Gogol was a committed Slavophile, and eventually finished up subscribing to a brand of fervent religious nationalism. This faith first pushed him to try and extend his novel Dead Souls into a parable exploring the whole Russian character, before burning the new material he had written, depression and ill-health reinforcing his new conviction that art was profane. In the following century, the Soviet government was notoriously averse to morbid and mystical themes in art. When Viy was filmed in 1967, it was the first horror film ever produced in the Soviet Union.
Writer and filmmaker Konstantin Ershov and production designer Georgi Kropachyov joined forces to create a more faithful adaptation and shared directing credits on the result. Another filmmaker contributing to the script was Aleksandr Ptushko, known at the time in Soviet cinema for his special effects work and for directing fantasy films, including a 1935 version of Gulliver’s Travels, and the 1956 epic Ilya Muromets (which Mystery Science Theatre 3000 aficionados might recall under the title The Sword and the Dragon). Ptushko also provided Viy’s simple yet ebullient, ingeniously deployed visual effects. Perhaps to clear ground for a work in a genre held in such opprobrium by the authorities, Viy offers a wry, even comic take on horror film, albeit one that also works up a peculiar intensity in its second half. Gogol’s story was an ideal subject to break the moratorium. A work resting squarely in the classic canon of Russian literature, it was based in safely historical, distant regional traditions and without any suggestion of psychological metaphor or transgressive meaning. Viy is rife with black humour mediating the onslaughts of supernatural menace, with a streak of anti-clerical and socially critical humour that squarely mocks institutions of Russian society held as old, decrepit, and outmoded under the Soviets. “Viy” had already served as inspiration for Mario Bava’s great debut film La Maschera del Demonio (1960), although that story had taken the setting, a Slavic backwater, and the theme of an evil witch tormenting men of learning, and married it to a more traditional type of vampire story and Bava’s potent brand of erotically charged evil. Viy, on the other hand, is closer to “The Wurdalak” episode in Bava’s I Tre Volti della Paura (1963), in conjuring a sense of blasted, paranoid anxiety in the sharp opposition of the great expanses of the Steppes and a claustrophobic outpost under supernatural siege.
The opening scenes hit a note of raucous good-humour as it depicts a mob of young seminarians in a Kiev monastery being released into the unsuspecting world for vacation, molesting washer women, lampooning their rector by trying to make a goat read, stealing food from vendors, and generally running riot. The distinctly unholy behaviour of the religious students, told off by the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) for their wild ways before they flee into the countryside, sets off a tale where the vital tension lies between the way things are supposed to be and the unruly reality beneath, where the ultimate evil is a creature that can see all, as long as it can keep its eyes open. The seminarians travel on foot in gradually shrinking groups as they split and head towards their home towns. Three of the students, theologian Khaliava (Vadim Zakharchenko), rhetorician Tibery Gorobets (Vladimir Salnikov), and philosopher Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), are eventually all that is left of one of these travelling bands, and, as night falls, they get lost in the hinterland. Balking at camping under the stars, they keep groping in the dark until eventually they come across a farmhouse. They beg the old woman who seems to be the householder (actually played by a man, Nikolay Kutuzov) for a place to sleep for the night. The crone replies her house is already full of guests, but eventually agrees to stash them in different places. Khoma gets his bed in the stable on a pile of straw.
During the night, the crone enters the stable and advances on him with an apparently lustful look: “No, it’s Lent,” Khoma exclaims: “And you couldn’t tempt me for all the gold in the world!” But the crone picks him up with peculiar strength, manipulates him like a toy, and climbs on his back, making him carry her like a horse. Once she gets him outside, she grabs a broom and levitates, carrying him under her legs, for a flight across the countryside reminiscent of Faust’s journey with Mephistopheles in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film of that story. Khoma realises he’s in the clutches of a witch, and when the crone lands, Khoma grabs up a stick and furiously beats her. Suddenly, the crone turns into a beautiful young woman who gasps that he’s killing her, and Khoma recoils in shock. Leaving the battered and bleeding girl in the field, Khoma dashes off through the reed-choked swamps and eventually makes his way back to the seminary. But there he finds that his peculiar destiny is not going to let go of him. A gang of Cossacks from an outlying village has arrived in search of him, and arranged with the Rector to ensure he goes with them back to their village, to say prayers for a girl who has died. All Khoma is told is that he was specifically insisted upon by the girl’s father, and that he’s going to attend whether he likes it or not, as the Rector feels he needs a good punishment for his rowdy ways. When they reach the village, Khoma learns that the dead girl, Pannochka (Natalya Varley), named him as the man to pray for her, and her father is local boyar. He demands that Khoma pray in the church over his daughter’s body for the prescribed three night period on the promise of 1,000 gold coins if he fulfils the task or 1,000 lashes if he doesn’t. And, of course, Pannochka proves to be the witch he killed.
Viy has a strain of sly, even cruel irony underlying its playful surface that slowly emerges, as it studies a situation Khoma falls into and realises he has no way out of save death or triumph. To triumph means he must draw on resources he, as a man officially studying to become a religious and philosophical luminary, knows he doesn’t have. The tumult of the raucous, randy, hungry students fleeing the seminary at the outset gives way to glorious surveys of the open Russian countryside, a place of seemingly endless bounties. Only then does the scope of the drama compress, the trio of pompous scholars promptly getting lost in a field as the sun goes down. Khoma finds his world reduced first to the village he is brought to, a septic little kingdom where the boyar rules, and then to the confines of the village church, a place cordoned off from the normal rules of reality, where elemental battles will take place. Khoma however is a citizen of a grey zone that permits him no easy identity: unwilling to devote himself to religious strictures but, as an intellectual in a theocratic society, having no other recourse but the church, he’s been ripped from his roots in the Cossack village: he can still sing along with his fellows from the region, but is left an object of curiosity mixed with contempt. Much of which Khoma deserves. He is, by his own confession, a slovenly student and potential clergyman. Whilst trying to talk the boyar out of forcing him to make his vigil, Khoma denies he’s known for his piety: “I visited a baker’s wife on Maundy Thursday!” He’s better at carousing and eating, but these prove futile escapes from the duty he is obligated to perform. His attempts to escape the village constantly prove embarrassing jokes, as the boyar’s men easily corral him.
This aspect of Viy has a certain thematic similarity to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964), as an outsider finds himself trapped and pressganged into meeting the needs of a tiny, virtually forgotten community on the fringes of civilisation. A quality in Gogol’s writing that anticipated the later emergence of surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and the peculiar imaginings of Franz Kafka is also detectable. Khoma’s situation plays like an inversion of Kafka’s The Castle, in which the protagonist can’t escape being locked in rather than locked out (Dead Souls pivots on a similarly surreal notion, a plot to make money from serfs who are literally dead, but alive in a bureaucratic and financial sense). Meanwhile, the ritualistic structure of the churchman repeatedly going into battle with an evil force that possesses a young girl anticipates The Exorcist (1973), although that film’s iron-cast moral certainties are mocked well beforehand as the representative of holy certitude here is hardly an ideal avatar, and his battle against evil is more like an extended, drunken attempt to simply weather the storm. Ershov and Kropachyov play up the sardonic side of Gogol’s tale in regards to religion and also social power evinced by various forms of elder, be it the Rector who sends Khoma off gruffly to his fate, or the boyar who forces Khoma to do his bidding. In the style of the morality-play quality apparent in many a real folk tale, Khoma represents hypocrisy, drunkenness, and self-indulgence.
Under pressure, Khoma’s roots in the hard-drinking, hard-living Cossack way are swiftly revealed, whilst to the villagers he represents a momentary insight into a way of life usually cordoned off from their own: “Just what are you seminarians taught?” one demands to know: “What the deacon says when he’s in church, or other things?” Khoma, hardly paying attention, performs an expert trick with his vodka cup, making his drinking companions coo in wonderment, “What a great scholar! I want to be a seminarian too!” The filmmakers inject a visual joke as Khoma, thoroughly soused, sees three different versions of the same man emerging from three tavern doors. For all his faults, though, once Khoma feels the heavy hand on his shoulder the smiling face only briefly distracts from, and is forced to go through with his terrifying vigil, he has our sympathy, for his reactions are only to a strange, arbitrary, humiliating world only slightly more coherent than the manifestations of the supernatural that dog him. The sight of the old witch turning Khoma into her personal pony-boy, laced with perverse erotic suggestions even as it’s played for laughs, is echoed later when one of the villagers recounts how Pannochka ran off with one of the young men of the village, who carried her out on his shoulders. The villagers were well aware Pannochka was a witch; only her father had no clue, and although he senses something strange in her dying wish to receive holy rites from this specific, unworthy representative of religion, nonetheless he commits grimly to the task.
Although very different in style with its breezy, straightforward storytelling to the more esoteric aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov, two of Soviet cinema’s highest-profile talents of the day, Viy shares a spirit in common with their works nonetheless, for it tries to convey an authentically folkloric vision and a quintessence of one corner of the cultural inheritance. That’s the part of the psychic landscape within that inheritance, where the collective memory has hazy fringes, the place where ancestors lived and the things they took to be trye still takes on a type of reality, if only in the freakish fancies lurk and the monstrosities parents use to keep their children in line in grimly prophetic parables. The Viy itself, although made up by Gogol, has exactly that quality of something plucked out of a bedtime boogeyman tale. The actual root for the creation is, perhaps ironically, thought to be the Christian Saint John Cassian the Unmerciful, a religious hero who strangely gained a quality close to demonic in later folklore because of his reputation of extremely harsh judgement, and who had similarly incisive, excoriating vision that nonetheless was only selectively uncovered when he brushed back his long hair. Fittingly, Ershov and Kropachyov’s aesthetic in Viy’s fantasy sequences is rooted in stage pantomime and magic-lantern shows, rejecting the realism that was just starting to become dominant in Western horror cinema. Ershov, Kropachyov, and Ptushko utilise the space of the village church as a theatrical space where illusionism reigns. The old wooden carvings and creepy icons painted on the walls and carefully manipulated candle lighting sets the scene, surveyed upon first entrance by the slowly pivoting camera movements, like a bullring or battleground in a Sergio Leone film, ideal for the basic spiritual conflict all the infrastructure of the settled, Christian world is supposed to hold at bay. Stray cats and birds suddenly scuttle through the old, creepy space.
The mounting spectacle of Khoma’s vigils starts with the witch girl climbing out of her coffin and searching for him, whilst Khoma has, in obedience to Ukrainian folk ritual, drawn a magic chalk circle about the lectern from which he reads Bible quotes. The witch is blind to him and held out of the circle, meaning she can only frantically slaw at the invisible barricade, before the cock’s crow drives her back into her coffin. The second night sees the witch levitating her coffin and trying to use it to bash her way through the circle, flying around the church as if in her own personal zero-gravity dodgem car, whilst Khoma bellows panicky prayers and tosses boots at her. When she fails she curses him, leaving him momentarily blind and also with his hair turned snowy white. Moments of pure fairytale strangeness flit by, like a tear of blood sliding down Pannochka’s face as she lies on her bier. The staging in these scenes conveys both a sense of absurdist humour in the confrontations between terrified churchman and vengeful witch, and crescendo of the beguiling strangeness of the supernatural as envisioned here, with the camerawork suddenly turning frantic and aggressive, as when Pannochka furiously stalks around the limits of Khoma’s protective circle, and the sight of her trying to bash through the barrier with her flying coffin. These scenes also get a kick out of the peculiar manifestation of evil in the form of Varley’s pale-faced, dark-eyed teenage witch, a lovely visage possessed of a wilful desire to destroy Khoma. She anticipates Linda Hayden’s flower-decked pagan priestess in The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) in embodying malevolence with the most seemingly innocent, beguiling surface imaginable.
The special effects are lovable for their refusal of complex artifice, and retain that magic-lantern show quality. When the witch levitates with Khoma under her, it’s obvious that they’re on a rotating stage as if in some theatrical production. Khoma’s attempt to flee the village, charging through underbrush, is depicted through looping reversals of film stock, his complete inability get anywhere dictated by the film technique. The finale goes for broke as the filmmakers offer pantomime monsters and skeletal hydras whilst playing games with the visuals – Khoma remains in colour whilst the arising army of the night loom and leer around him in sepulchral black and white. Each of Khoma’s nights of vigil leaves him increasingly fraught and desperate to escape his lot, alternating with vodka-brave pronunciations. When he’s brought out of the church after the second night, he starts into a bizarre dance, an attempt to convince himself he’s just spent a brief, hair-raising time-out from the more important business of carousing, but succeeding only in testifying to his own fraying nerves and sanity. His dance is a pathetic but also vigorous sight, the only likeness I can think of being the infamous “Flashdance” scene in Dogtooth (2010), in depicting someone who knows they’re about to go mad if they don’t escape but also knows they can’t escape and so converts raw panic into a furious proof of life. Kuravlyov’s performance hits grand heights here.
The film reaches a riotous climax as Khoma ventures into the church for his third night with airy, drunken hopes for his future, only to face the final onslaught of the witch’s efforts to break him, as she calls up all manner of ghouls and goblins to attack him. The final monster she conjures is the Viy itself, a monstrous, misshapen troll with outsized droopy eyelids that conceal crystalline eyes that can see through the mystical protective barrier protecting Khoma: the Viy has to get other ghouls to lift its eyelids back so it can see, but then is able to point out their prey and the monsters attack Khoma just as the cock crows for dawn again. Khoma loses his battle with fate, dying from fright as he’s assaulted. But this proves the downfall of the witch and her minions too, as they perish dashing for the shadows because they’ve lingered into the dawn, the witch reverting to her crone’s appearance and her coffin disintegrating, leaving her exposed as a monstrosity. The sarcastic punch-line for all this sees Khoma’s two friends Khaliava and Gorobets back at the seminary, working on restoring artworks and supping vodka on the sly as they try to work out why Khoma failed in his vigil, eventually deciding he didn’t believe in his own spiritual authority enough to fight off the evil, when a true holy man would have simply commanded the monsters to go. Talk about Monday morning quarter-backing. Viy certainly never exactly goes for pulse-pounding horror, more a spry and mordant frisson that evokes the way you get scared when you’re six years old. It’s a delightful annex of the horror genre nonetheless.
An implicit faith in most science fiction is encoded in that name. It is the art of science, the act of understanding, comprehending, grappling with the real. But also an act of creation, of imagination applied to zones of the mysterious and the obscure, tethering the known, the possible, and the imaginable in brief harmony. It is still usually a bastion of a Victorian kind of faith that anything can be penetrated, broken down, conquered. Solaris, as written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, is remarkable as a rebellious work in the genre, a rejection of this basic precept as a way of seeing and thinking. Lem, like so many Europeans of his generation, had lived through the worst of World War 2 and the grimmest of lessons in the limitations of the human spirit. After the war he studied medicine whilst forging a name as a writer, concentrating on science fiction in part because it drew less censorship at the time. Lem’s fiction became reputed for its stringent and stimulating conceptual and intellectual gravity, and he became one of the most widely-read sci-fi writers of the day. Solaris, his most famous work, was an attempt to sketch that most vital of sci-fi themes, contact between humans and aliens, with the title referring to a possibly sentient planet at the heart of the mystery. But Lem set out to avoid the usual presumption of the theme, that such a meeting, for good or ill, would nonetheless be between mutually coherent entities, in a universe that, however vast and unexpected, is so often envisioned by we poor Earthlings as a realm that will contain beings like ourselves, or at least variations on things familiar, obeying similar rules in the spree that leads from protozoa to sentience. Lem often tackled this idea, from his early novel The Man From Mars on, and with Solaris Lem took on not just the problem of imagining a form of alien life entirely incomprehensible to us, but also wrestled with this human tendency to look for our own image in the aeons, the simultaneous yearning for enigma but also the urge to subordinate it.
Legend has it Andrei Tarkovsky vowed to make a film to counter what he perceived as the chilly, detached, unfeeling streak in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and chose Lem’s book as the right project to examine what Kubrick had left out of his vision. This was an odd move considering Lem’s preference for the heady, theoretical side of his writing, and Lem didn’t much appreciate Tarkovsky’s adaptation, which has since overshadowed the book by focusing squarely and unapologetically on precisely the human aspect of the tale. Tarkovsky wasn’t the first to tackle Lem’s book. Boris Nirenburg’s 1968 version made for TV is sometimes described as the most faithful to the author’s conception, insofar as it focused more on the attempt to understand the planet itself rather than on the human quandaries provoked by the planet’s habit of actualising their psychological preoccupations. Amongst Tarkovsky’s specific inventions was a lengthy first act establishing central character Kris Kelvin and the mystery of Solaris as viewed from the earthbound perspective, in which Kelvin is described as a man outwardly maintaining a forced attitude of rationalism but who Tarkovsky’s visuals suggest is actually a meditative, introspective, mournful nostalgic, a fitting non-hero for Tarkovsky’s annexation of sci-fi as another realm for the poet. The opening shot, of weeds waving slowly under the glassy surface of the lake neighbouring Kelvin’s family home, instantly immerses the viewer in Tarkovsky’s lexicon of obsessive imagistic refrains and establishes the mood of languorous submergence that defines Solaris as a film.
Kelvin (Donatas Banionis, who suggests a Russian Marcello Mastroianni) is a scientist and mathematician who is the latest brave soul to agree to travel to a space station orbiting around the distant planet of Solaris. An entire discipline of science, dubbed Solaristics, has evolved in trying to grapple with this enigmatic object, which seems to be a form of living or at least reactive entity, but no-one has been able to establish anything concrete about it. In the uneasy time before he’s due to be launched into space, Kelvin is visited at his house by a former astronaut who had spent time at Solaris, Henri Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who arrives with his young son. Kelvin, his parents (Nikolai Grinko and Olga Barnet), and Burton watch an old recording of the testimony Burton gave to the international body administrating the Solarist mission. Burton recounted how, during a search for two scientists who crash-landed on the planet, saw a mind-bendingly strange manifestation – what appeared to be a massively oversized human child, standing upon the oceanic surface of Solaris, gesturing up into the sky. Burton’s account was written off and mocked because of its unlikeliness and also because recordings of the flight offered no sight of the apparition. Burton, visibly aged and crushed by his dismissal, is still touchy but also anxious to communicate to Kelvin the reality of what he saw and the problems looming ahead for him. At the first sign of Kelvin’s disbelief he angrily leaves and journeys back to the city, only to phone him back and tell him an aspect of his tale he had not shared before: after returning to Earth he encountered the small son of one of the lost scientists, a boy who was the smaller but otherwise exact image of the mysterious child-giant. Kelvin, boding over this strange news and his own unstated anxieties, burns his belongings in a farewell to his past and his world, and speaks with his father, both knowing the elder probably won’t be alive if and when Kelvin returns.
This lengthy first movement is a slow and often cryptic introduction not just to the story but to Kelvin in elliptical fashion, looking at the world he has been rooted in, the sensual richness of the green Earth and and his fecund but decaying family, as a way of sounding out the quality of his mind. This is vital to getting at what Tarkovsky is delving into with Solaris, but also the film’s most frustrating facet. Usually Tarkovsky’s sense of pacing, deceptively slow and yet building a steady intensity and a system of images that become overwhelming, was masterful, but something seems off about this segment. The scenes of Burton’s drive back to town (with a district of Tokyo filling in for this vision of high futuristic human hive life), often provokes the feeling this is stretched out pedantically rather than artfully. Nonetheless the mysteries set in play here and sketched with cobweb-like fineness soon find their place as Kelvin is confronted with the great unknown in the guise of his own interior life. Sublime rhyme is suggested as Burton’s son encounters a girl in Kelvin’s garden – he looks at her, she regards him with preternatural scepticism and interest, and they dash off to play, first act in the eternal human roundelay, one that will preoccupy the rest of Kelvin’s journey even as he tries to reach out and touch the infinite. The gruelling, ritualised humiliation of Burton in front of the international space agency is depicted, with the contrast between Burton’s younger self and the dilapidated remnant actually present in the Kelvins’ house a before and after diptych warning Kris of the subtler dangers of the mission he’s undertaking. Tarkovsky employs a specific stylistic touch here in portraying the old footage in black-and-white to contrast the lustrous colour of the immediate (this was Tarkovsky’s first colour work), a cineaste’s format joke that also introduces a recurring motif for where past bleeds into present and certain realities seem to become blurred. Shots of the “futuristic” city violently contrast the natural landscape Kris takes refuge in, suggesting one hardly needs go to space to find environs alien and perturbing.
Meanwhile Kris tries to drink in every sensation of nature possible, including the rain gushing down upon his face, for the sake of memory for when he’s exiled to a distant and sterile bauble in space above an alien world that betrays no sign of land or substance, where, to fall asleep at night, the inhabitants tape slivers of paper to exhaust events to mimic the sound of leaves in the wind. Burton’s road trip serves to symbolise not just the looming journey through space but also provides a key into Burton’s pensive train of thought as he rides with his son and his thoughts turn to the most disturbing manifestation on Solaris and the suggested possibility of mysterious union between the mind and the physical possible on Solaris. Kris is forcibly sceptical, and speaks of the looming choice he might have to make, to either withdraw the orbiting satellite, and thus conceded defeat, or making an aggressive attack upon Solaris with heavy radiation, and finally conquer the mystery at the cost of creating a Roman desert. Burton is shocked by the possibility, setting in motion at least the shell of dialectic between scientific curiosity as transcendent and overriding value, or an act of ignorant immorality aiming to destroy what can’t be understood. His father berates him for offending Burton and notes that “the Earth has become used to dealing with people like you,” and indeed Kris is eventually revealed as a man who has habitually broken whatever he’s come into contact with. “I don’t have the right to make decisions based on impulses of the heart,” Kris warns Burton in deflecting his appeals: “I’m not a poet.” Kris’s fate is instantly set, to be forced to do make just those sorts of decisions, and become the instinctive poet of Solaris, a force of total ambiguity that nonetheless proves to have a function that Kris eventually learns to treasure, as it can make real what is lost or desired.
Kris’s arrival at the Solaris station is a terrifying tumble as he momentarily goes out of control. He eventually docks and disembarks safely, only to find the station, far from being a hive of scientific industry, has become a near-deserted husk, sterile and littered with rubbish. Only two fellows still inhabit it, the haughty, critical, nervously serious astrobiologist Dr Sartorius (Tarkovsky regular Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the shambling, distracted, philosophical cyberneticist Dr Snaut (Jüri Järvet). Kris is shocked to learn of the recent death by suicide by a third crewmember, the physiologist Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), who had been the brave intellectual leader figure in what’s left of the Solarist field. Now his body lies icy in a cold room on the satellite, to be taken back to Earth per his wishes. At first both remaining men seem anxious to fend Kris off, and Snaut advises him to take things slowly and carefully. Kris however witnesses inexplicable things, including a man sleeping in a hammock in Snaut’s room, and a dwarf trying to escape Sartorius’ containment. Kris watches a recording of Gibarian’s final moments, and sees flinching at the presence of a young girl, almost like a dogging familiar out of superstition. “Fechner died a magnificent death,” Sartorius declares, referring to the scientist Burton was looking for, but that “Gibarian was a coward.” But in his last message, Gibarian stated, “I am my own judge…It has something to do with conscience.” Soon enough, Kris awakens to find himself now supplied with his own miraculously conjured companion, this one taking the shape of former wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). Somehow, Solaris has the capacity to read minds and reproduce people from the storehouse of memory, with their remade bodies made of neutrinos. But such a visitation is as painful for Kris as it is disorientating and joyful, as the original Hari committed suicide years earlier, after he left her.
Tarkovsky’s approach to Lem’s source material realised the latent power of the idea of Solaris as a lodestone that can realise any aspect of the human thought patterns made for the perfect poetic metaphor, a mimetic tool that communicates the world of dreams, impressions, dynamic thought, but not actual, direct language, a notion that crystallises towards the end with the suggestion that Solaris mistranslates a vital aspect of Kris’s memories into a surrealist but emotionally exact manifestation with rain inside his old family house. Solaris sets in play an attempt to understand memory as a function of life Tarkovsky would return to with a more personal frame on The Mirror (1975), whilst also echoing back to the very sources of poetry in the western tradition in the myths of Orpheus, casting Kris as half-pathetic inheritor of the mantle of seer-hero who gets to resurrect his Eurydice during his visit to a zone of existence that’s over the threshold of reality’s normal demarcations – Kris’s space journey is his venture across the Styx. Solaris both indicts and celebrates the human mind that can only comprehend things that operate like itself. The magic spell Solaris weaves is double-edged, diagnosing the limitations of human perception, but also highlighting anew for Kris as he ventures deeper into this new realm just what that perception is and what has given birth to it. Tellingly, he loves the remade Hari far more than he was capable of loving the original. This simulacrum of Hari is like her in every way, or at least like the version of her that was alive in Kris’s memory, carefully tailored by selective memory and his own emotional responses to be a more perfect edition.
Kris is soon confronted by the fact that not only is Hari redux a sentient, entirely lucid being although she can’t recall her own grim end, but that she has astounding powers of healing and re-composition. At first she needs to maintain close proximity to him – she tears her way through the metal door of his cabin, leaving herself a bloody heap, only for the gashes and wounds to swiftly close up again. When she first appears there’s a telling flaw in the manifestation: the dress she wears isn’t quite right, so Kris has to cut it off. Kris at first tries to dispose of the companion Solaris has provided him with, luring the unsuspecting Hari into a rocket stored aboard the satellite and firing her off into space. This effort, which sees Kris almost burning himself up in the process, is envisioned akin to an elaborate act of self-mutilation or amputation, and Solaris immediately supplies him with another Hari, in full awareness that the first simulacrum is still drifting around in the rocket. He doesn’t try this again, and falls completely in love with the latest Hari. The second simulacrum eventually evolves into a fully-formed woman, capable of arguing for her own existence and autonomy with Snaut and Sartorius in spite of their sniffy, semi-wilful need to dismiss her. Their own embodied burdens are only suggested, although the tiny grotesque that harasses Sartorius seems like the projection of his own stunted emotional self. The way Kris talks early in the film, trying to talk himself into the role of cool rationalist and cordoned empiricist fighting the good fight for science and state, is Sartorius’ full-time persona. He describes Kris’s connection with Hari, half-disparagingly, half-jealously, as a form of “emotional contact” with Solaris. Ageing, gnomic Snaut is more open to the experience Kris and Hari are going through but retains his own brand of scepticism, noting, in the film’s most specific line of dialogue, that what humankind really wants wherever it goes is a mirror, a system that reflects our own obsessions.
Like works in the science fiction genre ranging from Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein through to Alien (1979), Solaris deals in its own way with the same theme of a man giving birth. Such a notion speaks not just of ructions in modernity’s constructions of gender and social role, but cuts to the quick of the entire scientific project in which science, so often characterised as a highly masculine business, tries to impose and rewrite the rules of natural order: all sci-fi might, on this level, be exactly that – a man giving birth. But Solaris squarely preoccupies itself with the most fundamental aspects of humanity; particularly love in all its infinite strangeness, territory sci-fi usually goes weak-kneed in, with Kris inadvertently conjuring a mate, that gate Frankenstein finally stalled before, at least until James Whale took charge of him. Kris rummages through the stages in his life and contemplates not just the manufactured reality of reborn Hari but also the memory of his mother, glimpsed as a loving yet ambivalent woman who used to hide behind the shed and smoke cigarettes whilst he wandered the snowy landscape, and whose youthful shade he calls on to coach him through a moment of interiorised crisis. Hari has vague memories of Kris’s mother disliking her, but for him of course they’re the eternal diptych of the cosmic feminine, alpha and omega to his lifespan. Kris and Hari’s renascent marriage seems to defy all limitations of time and nature, but can’t overcome the fundamental flaws of the human way of knowing, a flaw that echoes the problem with understanding Solaris. The human consciousness is locked within itself but reaches out to others, and what we know is always left incomplete by the limits of perception.
Remade Hari, although just as “real” as her model, is a perfect reproduction of Kris’s understanding of her, tailored, so to speak, by his own psyche to suit his nostalgic ideal. At first Hari is weak, passive, bewildered, unable to stand life without her lover at hand – a veritable caricature of a certain sentimental view of femininity. She gains independence and identity, but also crippling awareness of herself as a construct, experiencing the ultimate existential crisis: humans can deal with the vagaries of existence because of the myriad layers of experience that make us, whereas Hari is forced to confront her direct and inexplicable creation by an incoherent deity, realising the dream of millennia of would-be saints and prophets to know their creator but gaining only suicidal depression from the privilege. The images of Hari’s physical suffering, sliced up after she tears through the cabin door and later when she attempts suicide, reproduce in unnervingly visual terms the interior suffering of a woman who doesn’t seem to have been quite properly constructed in the first place for life in a mean world, now brought back to life and unable to find peace. Like 2001, Solaris is also about the hunt for god, or something like it. Where 2001 essentially presented a myth that made evolution a path leading to its own form of angelic transcendence, the novel of Solaris concluded with something more like an existential despair that god, actualised by Solaris, is an evolving creature as well, and therefore not omnipotent or all-wise. Lem also concluded with the suggestion that the transcendent love that becomes Kris’s refuge was an illusion. But for Kris and Tarkovsky the difference is moot – the fact that mankind yearns for a safe harbour from the ravages and transformations of time and whether it comes in the form of heaven or an alien planet that can offer such a perfect refuge makes for no difference at all. For Kris, encountering love through Solaris offers him a new form of the feeling that borders on divine revelation: “Maybe we’re here to experience other people as a reason for love.”
Tarkovsky’s debut feature, My Name is Ivan (1962), already set in motion many of the concepts and imagined landscapes depicted Solaris but in a more familiar context. Ivan depicted a cast of characters trying to fight the good fight for their identity and culture, adventuring in zones rendered near-abstract and dreamlike, as well as introducing one of Tarkovsky’s prize themes, the collision of innocence and faith with a violent, entropic world. The elusive search by a contemplative hero for a proof of faith and his attempts to understand systems of life at odds with his own understanding echoes his second film, Andrei Rublev (1969). Solaris stripped back much of the spectacle and baroque expansiveness in those films as Tarkovsky continued to search for new ways to tell stories and utilise the cinematic space, and offers a fantastic drama that purposefully avoids most manifestation of the fantastic. And yet Solaris is often held up as Tarkovsky’s most accessible and popular work, chiefly because of its lucid and powerful romanticism. That quality ironically can only be conjured in a remembered, mediated state. Some have noted that Solaris really bears more resemblance to Vertigo (1958) than to 2001 in depicting a man resurrecting a lover only to find the reproduction duplicitous, and in both the legends of Orpheus and Pygmalion are the deep roots.
The myth of Orpheus ties the artist to an eternal attempt to conquer death and conjure the ideal, something Solaris makes possible for Kris. The very act of creation is a constant refrain for Tarkovsky, and Solaris also takes up an unstated but self-evident concern in Andrei Rublev about how art is indeed all that is left of any one artist, their culture, their age, to speak to any receptive ear in the future, if often contradicting or denying the facts of the world that produced it. Rublev’s real, decaying, stylised and idealised artworks, surveyed by Tarkovsky’s camera in the end of that film, here give way to Kris burning his own share of the cultural inheritance, his books and artworks, in a scene that anticipates another variation on the same idea, in Stalker (1979), where a similar panoply of the human reliquary is surveyed left like rubbish in a stream. Tarkovsky is always trying to get at the preciousness and vulnerability of such inheritance as well as the urge of human kind to make such icons, to conquer death and time with such keepsakes but also the vulnerability of such an inheritance to the forces time brings – decay, neglect, the ravages exacted by humanity’s destructive impulses, always in a dance with the creative urge. A reproduction of Brueghel’s “The Hunters in the Snow” hangs on the wall of the space station’s library room, surveyed by Tarkovsky with its depiction, at once lively and haunting, of seekers returning to their community frustrated. This picture both echoes scenes Kris recalls from childhood when his family property lay under blankets of snow and his mother in her solitary, boding mystery, and also comments sarcastically on the enterprise he and his fellow scientists are engaged upon. The work is of art is no one thing, and that is its power and purpose. Solaris offers a device of perfect retention and transmutation, both the ultimate artistic device and a tool that renders art obsolete.
Tarkovsky’s drifting, tentative approach in the film’s first act, in his attempt to depict a state of mind and a way of seeing detached from immediacy even as Kris tries to luxuriate in the physical, gives way to the peculiarly visualised sequence of Kris’s brief, dangerous, almost disastrous shuttle flight from the ship that carts him across the void to the orbiting station. Space travel is represented by a bubble speeding out of the dark, with only Kris’s face, eyes highlighted by pencil spots, spinning before the camera, as if Tarkovsky is deliberately breaking down the distance between the hard and technocratic concepts of space travel and some Carlos Casteneda-like interiorised journey or a yogi’s ideal of astral projection. Solaris itself is glimpsed as a vast ocean that shimmers and teems with hallucinogenic hues, suggesting movement without cause or effect, a search for form in need of design, and sometimes even resembling the wrinkly matter of a brain. The footage recorded on Burton’s fateful rescue flight only seems to capture roiling fluids and white cloud, a survey of dreamy voids (a common visual refrain for Russian filmmakers of the period, transfixing Larisa Shepitko and Sergei Bondarchuk as well, in the search for the sensation of pure release in flight). The planet does seem to react to the interactions between Kris and Hari, the churning of its liquids speeding up and producing curious patterns that mottle the planet’s surface. The environs of the space station might well have influenced the later efforts of filmmakers like George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Peter Hyams to lend their sci-fi visions the grungy quality that is today much more of a norm, as Tarkovsky surveys this place, clearly designed as the sci-fi magazine ideal of a space station, like some big city bus station at the end of a long day – near-deserted, littered with rubbish, exposed wiring and circuitry. Such a dead space is a self-imposition created by the human need for wonder but also represents the failure of human imagination, created by a way of thinking that has a curious contempt for the roots of aesthetic in nature.
The aridness of the space station and the blank, protean canvas that is Solaris’s surface seem to offer no purchase for human feeling, and yet both are actually stages for just that, as Solaris the film ultimately becomes transfixed by the spectacle of feeling, the needful couple of Kris and Hari. Kris is eventually left feverish and nearly broken by the intertwined fear of losing Hari again, his awareness her continued existence is an egotistical dream made flesh and pain for her, and that they can have no future away from the zone of Solaris’s influence. Tarkovsky’s infinitely patient method builds to three extraordinary scenes late in the film. The first comes at the end of a lengthy scene in which Kris, Hari, Snaut, and Sartorius debate whether Hari can be considered alive, with Sartorius insisting she’s still only a figment in spite of her apparent self-awareness. A change in the station’s rotation sets everything on board, for a precious, transitory moment, completely weightless, untethered from all earthbound laws – a tray of candles and the hapless couple themselves all dancing through air to the inaudible music of the spheres. Hard upon this moment of incantatory beauty however comes Kris discovering Hari dead, having drunk a vial of liquid oxygen. She lies sprawled across the corridor, draped in frost and blood, victim of some forgotten piece of coding in her makeup that drives her towards self-destruction as well as the very real cues her impossible situation give her. The image of her in such a state seems to echo high Romantic poetry and Pre-Raphaelite art in its weirdly eroticised depiction of perfection in death –Wallis’ “The Death of Chatterton” or Millais’ “Ophelia.” Tarkovsky then turns exacting in its evocation of the corporeal as Hari, doomed to eternal life by her alien makeup that does not respect the roots of the human being in our ephemerality, revives, convulsing and shaking as her mangled flesh reorganises itself. This pivots again to recall another Brueghel painting, that of the dead Christ, which so fascinated another Russian artist, Dostoyevsky: the resurrection is only a miracle in the face of death in all its raw and ugly reality.
Kris collapses himself soon after in febrile need to withdraw from this perversion of his idyll, retreating into fantasies of speaking to his mother. When he revives, it’s to learn Hari has again killed herself, this time successfully, utilising a device Snaut and Sartorius built specifically for dispelling the neutrinos these free-radical beings are made from. They’ve also attempted communication with Solaris by beaming an encephalogram of Kris’s brain patterns down at it: now Solaris’s surface is rearranging and throwing up apparent land forms. Kris meditates on the question of whether he should return to Earth and resume his life even if he is haunted by the vast new possible he has grazed, or continue to try and make contact with Solaris. A plant that has sprouted in soil he brought with him from his home suggests new life is possible. But at first it seems that Kris does go back home, as he is next seen back in his old yard, albeit in winter’s icy glaze. A sentimental homecoming seems nascent as he nears his house only to be bewildered by the disturbing sight of a rain falling inside his house, his father contending with the damage to his books. The film’s epic last shot, retreating from high overhead, reveals the house and the grounds exist on one of the new islands formed on Solaris. Has Solaris understood Kris sufficiently to try and provide what he can’t return to as he’s attempted to commune with it in person, or still just mimicking the contents of his mind on a larger scale? Has the Kris we’ve been following been real at all, or just another simulacrum, a retained piece of code absorbed by Solaris and kept with a slight corruption in the file? All are possible explanations for what we see here. But it could also be that Tarkovsky thinks that in the end everyone longs for our own Solaris – that place where nothing ever dies, and we can find everything we ever left, just where we last saw it.
White Sun of the Desert has a stature with Russian moviegoers that can only be likened to the cultural currency The Godfather, Star Wars, or Gone with the Wind hold for western viewers. Lines of dialogue from the film have become everyday catch phrases. Statues have been erected to honour the lead character. Legend has it that to this day, Russian cosmonauts watch it as a ritual before going into space. Craters on Venus have been named after members of the gaggle of Muslim wives who feature in the film. Yet it’s a good bet most movie aficionados outside the limits of the old Soviet Union, even those with a taste for the exotic, haven’t heard of it. There’s nothing terribly unusual about this. Almost every national and regional film industry can boast this kind of big, native hit that, for whatever reason, just couldn’t be exported.
White Sun of the Desert wasn’t adopted as a lofty, arty darling of foreign critics, though some notable filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky, were approached as prospective directors. Konchalovsky later described the screenplay by Valentin Yezhov and Rustam Ibragimbekov as a masterpiece, though it was largely rewritten by Motyl and others during filming. Meanwhile, the breed of movie fan that readily adopted spaghetti westerns and martial arts films around this time would surely have been bewildered if confronted by such an oddity, a work that extends the mood of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s (1966) eerie, surrealist-tinged desert sequence into an entire feature. For a work of such renown and popular affection, even on such a localised scale, White Sun of the Desert defies expectations. Less than 90 minutes long, it’s not a grand and swaggering epic, intense action tale, or laugh-a-minute comedy, though it resembles all of these at various points, as well as a kind of chaste sex farce and portrait of existential absurdity essayed with an almost ambient, peculiarly Slavic brand of melancholic romanticism. If you can get onto the film’s specific wavelength, it reveals itself a rare treasure.
White Sun of the Desert is certainly full of familiar motifs of a good pulp yarn. A frontier setting. A charming and robust protagonist. A wicked villain. Damsels in distress. Helpmates to the hero who waver but reappear in time to save the day. And yet the way director Vladimir Motyl lays out his material is highly eccentric and peculiarly fashioned. White Sun of the Desert belongs to a popular but mostly bygone brand of Russian cinema, usually referred to as the “ostern” or sometimes as a “Red western” or “borscht western.” This was a genre readily comparable to the American western, crowd-pleasing, adventurous dramas set on the fringes of civilisation filled with action, horse riding and gunplay, but set in the wilds beyond the Urals and the fringes of the Caspian Sea, or amongst Cossack tribes. Osterns were usually set during the raucous and violent years of the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent civil war, and a consequential similarity of the western and ostern is the depiction of primal dramas unfolding in the context of upheaval and social flux, a shift in modes of life that will soon settle into a new civilisation. The traditions of the folk tale and folk song are also often invoked to describe Motyl’s work, and the tension between the immediacy of genre storytelling and the baleful meaning of a cultural relic is apparent in the film’s tone, which seems to be both merrily enacted and woozily remembered.
The early scenes of White Sun depict Red Army soldier Fyodor Ivanovich Sukhov (Anatoly Kuznetsov) wandering in the desert sands close to the Caspian seashore. Animated lines appear around him during the opening credits, blocked to trace out the geometry of the sand dunes, as if mocking the hero’s attempts to impose linear intentions on his entirely wayward fate. The lazily picked music on the soundtrack softly builds the mood of isolation, languor, and laconic attitude that defines the film. Sukhov has been away from home several years fighting for the revolution, but now he’s been mustered out, and is trudging his way home across the deserts of Central Asia. Sukhov passes the time by mentally composing letters to his wife, all of which begin with “Dear Katerina Matveyevna.” These mental missives are crammed with a mixture of pedantic and obfuscating detail, statements of po-faced patriotism, and workaday acceptance of the way great events mean a billion petty irritations, interruptions, frustrations, and dangers for him. Sukhov always envisions Katerina (Galina Luchai), in the midst of green and fertile fields for utmost contrast to his current surrounds, as an idyll of Russian homeyness, stout, stern, milky-skinned and rosy-cheeked.
Sukhov’s nature, as an easy-going, helpful-minded guy, and his reputation as a terrific soldier prove his own undoing, because life keeps throwing people who need or seek his aid in his path. In the middle of nowhere, Sukhov encounters a man buried up to his neck in the desert sand, as per local traditions in harsh punishment. Sukhov digs him out whilst noting that he’s already dug out two more like him, and the last one attacked and robbed him. His latest charity case, Sayid (Spartak Mishulin), was seeking revenge on his father’s murderer, the bandit Dzhavdet, but was instead caught by him and left to die. “I’ll have no peace as long as Dzhavdet is alive,” Sayid grumbles, and then, “Why did you dig me up?” “Sure, a dead man has no worries,” Sukhov retorts, “but it’s so boring.” The two men separate, but Sayid continues to shadow Sukhov, torn between resuming the hunt for his enemy and repaying Sukhov for his helpfulness. Soon, Sukhov is stopped by a unit of Soviet troops led by an officer named Rakhimov. The commander is eager to divest himself of a strange burden: nine wives of “Black” Abdullah (Kakhi Kavsadze), another, more formidable and active local bandit who also has pretences to being a guerilla warrior in the rebellion of the Basmachi. As the Soviets chased him, Abdullah was forced to abandon his harem because they were slowing him down: intending to execute them all to save them becoming other men’s wives, Abdullah shot two before the soldiers forced him to flee.
Sukhov is determined not to get caught up in any more adventures and won’t join the hunt for Abdullah. Rakhimov instead convinces him to take charge of the women and get them to a nearby coastal village, and assigns the very young soldier Petrukha (Nikolai Godovikov) to help. Sukhov leads the women, dressed in their utterly depersonalising, full-body burqas and only identifiable by height, across the sands to the coast. There they enter a tiny village distinguished by some oil tanks, a thatch of houses, and proximity to some ancient ruins that have been made into a museum (actually the old Silk Road city of Merv, a fascinating real-life location). Sukhov and Petrukha set up camp in the museum, but don’t know some of Abdullah’s men have remained behind. The bandits knock Petrukha out when he’s left behind with the women and ambush Sukhov whilst he’s bathing in the sea. Sukhov gives a display of why he’s famous and lasted so long: he snatches a gun from the hand of a bandit and shoots down two, whilst a third is lassoed by Sayid, who’s trailed his saviour. Sukhov realises that Abdullah is planning to return to the village, because a ship beached on the coast near the oil tanks is the only form of transport on hand that can get himself, his men, and his plunder away. The closest thing to authority in the town is the former Tsarist customs officer Pavel Vereschagin (Pavel Luspekaev), who used to battle the area’s copious bandits and smugglers, but now is an aging drunkard, mourning the son he lost in World War I with his wife Nastasia (Raisa Kurkina) and sitting on an arsenal of weapons that makes his house a matter of interest to both sides of the local conflict. When Sukhov sends Petrukha to find out if Vereschagin is still living in his house, Vereschagin literally drags the young soldier inside via an open window. Charmed by Petrukha, who reminds him of his own dead boy, Vereschagin sings songs for him until Sukhov turns up. Sukhov passes Vereschagin’s odd test of nerve when the old man responds to Sukhov’s request for a light for his cigar by throwing out a burning stick of dynamite; Sukhov lights his smoke and tosses the bomb further along without demur. Vereschagin is initially happy to join Sukhov in defending the ship and the women from Abdullah, but his wife begs him not to risk his life.
Like most seemingly simple, but vital things, White Sun of the Desert’s great popularity is surely bound up with the slippery and surprising density of its layering. The film swings between poles of drama and comedy with a spacey, sunstruck (or perhaps a vodka-glazed) head. The quiet, indolently catchy song Vereschagin sings to himself while plucking at a guitar and laying on his back with a bellyful of liquor, offers a fatalistic paean to the whims of “Your Honour Lady Luck.” The song by composer Isaak Schwarz and Bulat Okudzhava, which became a huge hit, is the only scoring, pervading many scenes like the crash of waves on the shoreline and the desert winds. When it was released in the United States, a critic dismissed the film as an escapist tale, and it is that. White Sun of the Desert is as light as a summer breeze, though dark and tragic moments punctuate the story, sustaining a truly unique blend of dogging nostalgia and idyllic optimism. Within its airy frame, White Sun of the Desert describes a sense of life as broad as a John Ford film; indeed Ford was one of Moytl’s singular influences, through the contrast of vast space and enclosed interpersonal drama in films like Stagecoach (1939) and 7 Women (1966), and perhaps the desolate situation of The Lost Patrol (1934), though that film’s feeling of nightmarish, assailed existential crisis is transmuted into blithe absurdity. Here, drama is elemental, the tone dreamlike, albeit mostly a daydream, the strange and jagged sense of locale and behaviour touched with just the faintest edge of surrealism as Motyl depicts as an array of boxes jutting out of the otherwise barren earth, a tiny space of civilisation wedged between zones of inhospitable elements, fought over by perverse emissaries of clashing societies. A light dusting of the otherworldly is apparent in the way Motyl films the actors treading the desert sand as if dissolving in and out of the earth, the way the nine faceless women strut in the sands, and the sight of Sukhov climbing the crest of a dune and being confronted with the endless blue of the sea.
Moments of slapstick comedy occasionally punctuate the more wry comedic texture, from a trio of aged Arabs having their caps blown off by an explosion to young Petrukha being told by an unseen voice to raise his hands and then being promptly grabbed by Vereschagin from out of the frame and hauled into a window above. Later, one of Abdullah’s villainous compadres, a White faction exile, is hurled bodily out of another of Vereschagin’s windows when he comes looking to steal some weapons: “His grenades are the wrong calibre,” the soldier tells a comrade after picking himself up by way of face-saving explanation. The Arabs have been sitting against a wall for so long that none of them can remember why, and one of them can’t be awakened by even the loudest blast. Far from the overpowering postures of Soviet Realism, Motyl surely found his audience’s heart with both the fondness and the lightly satiric attitude he turns on Sukhov and his sense of cause, as well as appealing through a story that evokes generations of Orientalist adventures.
Sukhov is undoubtedly an ideal Soviet hero, happily proletarian but blessed with good manners, down to earth, pure of heart, resourceful, and indefatigable. He has many of the qualities of a mythic hero in spite of his personal modesty, including a weapon with a suggestive backstory—his revolver is a personal gift from his commander—and his status as eternal wanderer, Odysseus with a Red Army badge. Sukhov also wields a terse sense of humour even at the most awkward moments: when a villain asks him if he wants to die or be tortured first and then die, Sukhov, ever a pragmatist, replies ever so coolly, “I’d like to be tortured.” Time is time, and even the slight delay Sukhov buys by annoying his captors through such glib gambits gives him a chance. When he springs into action, he blends speed and guile as well as innate survival skill, as when he guns down the bandits who bail him up with a show of agility and gunplay that would make a John Woo hero proud.
But Sukhov still needs help to win, because he is also a faintly hapless, occasionally flummoxed, very human figure who makes some costly mistakes. He’s reminiscent of the heroes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), his closest Hollywood relatives of the time, and in some ways looks forward to characters like Indiana Jones and John McClane, rugged, exceptionally competent action heroes who nonetheless definitely feel pain and often look at the dangers facing them with bedraggled, ridiculous incredulity. Yet he’s far more average and lackadaisical than either of those guys. He’s more like somebody crossbred Casablanca’s Rick Blaine with Andy Griffith. Surely much of the film’s appeal to the hometown crowd lies in the crucial dialectic it offers, one of the generations and the concepts of Russia. Sukhov appeals to Vereschagin for aid, a touch that echoes another of Motyl’s models, High Noon (1952). The old Tsarist officer reclines detached from the world in his house, with its walls clad in mementos of his youth and the world of the Belle Époque. Vereschagin wants to go out like a man, but he’s stopped at first by his wife’s desperate appeals. Vereschagin’s immobilised distraction and Sukhov’s forthright ethic seem directly opposed but are obviously two sides of the same coin. The two men are united by the cool, stoical attitude they wield, casually batting aside the irritations of life and getting on with their own business. Both can also sink a shot of vodka with aplomb. The spirits represented by Vereschagin and Sukhov permeate the very fabric of the film – the tensions of old and new, the haunted being and the hopeful, commitment and carelessness. As Sukhov contends with the problem of his nine female charges, Motyl makes a joke with more depth than it seems to have at first, contemplating the problem of bringing new ideas to people who don’t necessarily see what’s so great about them, and very lightly basting the officious creeds spreading them.
White Sun of the Desert is indeed partly a film about clashing cultures and values, though the avatars of these systems seem to collide rather than interact. Early in the film Sukhov notes that “The East is a delicate matter” (one of the film’s most consequential, and popular, lines), and Sukhov is still as fallible as any in this context. Ignorant of any other lifestyle, the wives immediately decide that, having been abandoned by Abdullah, Sukhov is their new husband. Sukhov is a good Soviet soldier and tells the ladies they are now free according to the gospel of Bolshevik liberation. “These nine liberated women of the East are precious things, too!” he tells the museum curator, who doesn’t want anyone upsetting the exhibits. Sukhov is fazed when he walks in on the ladies whilst washing, and they all impulsively grab their skirts and lift them over their faces, preferring to bare their lovely midriffs to him rather than their visages before deciding that as their new husband, he has the right. Their faces do indeed have more power than their bodies (except for one who has a thicker moustache than Clark Gable), sending Sukhov’s mind reeling, all hot coals in comparison to Katerina’s stolid creaminess. Sukhov houses them in a room of the museum and hangs a banner from the ceiling that reads, “Down with prejudice — Women are human beings. too!” The notion that the male hero is more of a feminist than the women he’s aiding is grand wit, but Motyl also disassembles this precept as Sukhov chooses the youngest of the women, 15-year-old Gyulchatai (Tamara Fedotova), who is also the most animated and easily distracted member of the harem, to be his official interlocutor with the other wives.
Gyulchatai interprets this as being appointed favourite, which gives her status over the others, but also make her the target of blame when Sukhov shows no interest in them. They suggest Gyulchatai dance before him and inflame his passions, but she succeeds only in bewildering the warrior. Sukhov tries to explain that the women can now cast aside their veils and each take a husband. Gyulchatai, working through this proposition, retorts that this means she would have to do all the work for one man that the wives currently share between them. “That’s the way things are,” Sukhov replies, breezily confirming the limits of his own revolutionary outlook. Contrasting both Sukhov and Vereschagin is the adolescent romanticism of Petrukha, the boy soldier, who notices Gyulchatai’s unruly side in spite of her correctness. He finds opportunities to talk to her, urging her to “Show your sweet face!” in a certain amount of hope, as he’s fascinated initially by a walking bag. The influence of the dreaded Eastern decadence insinuates its way into Sukhov’s thoughts, and he eventually indulges a daydream whilst lazing in the heat of the sun on guard duty imagining Katerina Matveyevna joining him and his new bevy of females as he lounges in a potentate’s costume. He immediately pays the price for this lapse, as a small army sneaks under his nose.
Motyl uses the setting as an organic stage, as enclosed and acausal as the settings of Beckett’s dramas, the plains of Dali’s paintings, the Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and the people wandering through it as hardboiled avatars of their mutual, intensely insular, cultural sensibilities. Motyl expertly mines this situation for its simultaneous openness and treacherousness: the vistas are vast and seem wide open, and yet the smallest sand dune can hide something nasty lying in wait, a curve in the shape of reality that can swallow you. Something of Sergei Paradjanov’s anthropological and folkloric sensibility, which also often called back to the blank, two-dimensional display of early cinema and photography, permeates Motyl’s palette, whilst the way Motyl uses the natural elements even recalls the theatrical machinery of Georges Méliès. Although the necessary sparseness of Motyl’s shots couldn’t be more different to the baroquely crammed images of filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg, he does nonetheless evoke them in the way his frames, even as they’re depicting moments of urgent action, retain a fragmented, pictographic quality, flowing by in momentary islets of vivid, oblique strangeness, from Sayid’s head suddenly revealed jutting from the sand like some lost Easter Island statue, to the frieze-like depictions of Katerina in her natural habitat. Motyl mimics Vereschagin’s collection of postcards, photographs, the squared-off display of such vintage keepsakes pinned to the walls of his house to evoke the cultural memory of a lost era. The viewer is forced to assume the same attitude as Sukhov, knowing something utterly odd might be just around the corner, and forced to take it as it comes.
Motyl, Belarussian by birth, had gotten into trouble with Soviet authorities with his previous film, Zhenya, Zhenechka, and ‘Katyusha’ (1967), for its “disrespectful” take on the Great Patriotic War, clearly identified with the displaced state of Sukhov and his pining for a place in the world. His setting and time frame here, as well as the delicacy of the humour he employed, allowed him to bring just the hint of a scallywag attitude to onerous official creeds whilst also earnestly celebrating his hero as an exemplar, and proved here at least that he understood his audience exactly. The film changes radically in emotional key if not in apparent style once Abdullah turns up, trailing a force including Sayid, who, after shooting down three of Abdullah’s men when they seemed to be attacking him, is convinced by the bandit to join his party for a better chance of avoiding being buried to his chin again. Whilst Sukhov snoozes with dreams of harem comfort, Abdullah and his force enter the museum, and Abdullah first sneaks into the women’s quarters and strangles Gyulchatai, and then uses her veil to surprise Petrukha and kill him with his own rifle’s bayonet. The key image of slaughtered youth, scanned in a high shot by Motyl’s camera affecting a godlike blend of dispassion and awareness, drives Vereschagin to rouse himself and help Sukhov in fighting off Abdullah. Abdullah is an immediately persuasive and eye-catching villain, as Motyl cast Kavsadze, a good-looking hulk of an actor who threatens to outweigh Sukhov not just in size but as a potent screen presence, one whose sadistic violence is just as offhand and unfussy as Sukhov’s heroism. Abdullah’s sense of entitled authority immediately manifests in his ugly killing of Gyulchatai and then asking his remaining wives why they haven’t saved him the trouble of killing them by doing it themselves in obedience to his will.
Fortunately, Sukhov manages to bail up Abdullah before he can kill anymore, holding a gun on him and forcing him to send his men off to prepare the ship for departure. This gives Sukhov time to spirit the women off via a secret, hidden tunnel out of the ruins shown to him by the museum curator. Abdullah avenges himself by shooting the curator dead. Sukhov and the wives are forced to take refuge in the only hiding place available, one of the large empty oil tanks on the shore, but the bandits quickly locate them there. Abdullah has his men pump oil from a rail tanker to pool around the hideout and prepares to casually roast them all alive within, but Sayid intervenes and blows up the tanker and some of Abdullah’s men with it. Meanwhile, Vereschagin enlists his wife to dispose of the arsenal, and then sneaks aboard the bandits’ ship and battles the villains aboard. He kills or throws them all overboard before taking command in a cheer-along display of grit and prowess, one made more affecting by the off-screen story of Luspekaev, a WWII veteran and experienced stage actor who acted in the film in spite of having both feet amputated because of war injuries; Luspekaev died not long after the film was completed. The bitter kicker here is that Vereschagin is unaware that Sukhov and Petrukha have booby-trapped the boat, and he inadvertently blows himself and the boat sky high in the moment of his triumph, disappearing in a plume of white water.
Inadvertent tragedy gives Sukhov the chance to elude and defeat his besiegers, climaxing in a memorable comeuppance for Abdullah that evokes the finale of White Heat (1949), as Sukhov guns Abdullah down on the oil tanker. The villain slides down the tank’s ladder, gripping onto rails, his death signed with fearsome, mythic display of his grip on life. Motyl winnows his drama down to a succession of finalising images of great power. When Sukhov plugs him, Abdullah’s fingers reflexively tighten on the trigger of his machine pistol, firing off shots one by one, his aggression suddenly impotent, possibly an even more directly phallic joke considering that the entire story has revolved around Abdullah’s sexual domain. Vereschagin’s wife walks the beach alone, approaching a solitary horse in the dusk as “Your Honour Lady Luck” returns to the soundtrack, soulfully underscoring the notion that in violent conflicts, each victory is another’s loss. The note repeats as Sukhov bids farewell to the wives but pauses when he reaches the missing space where Gyulchatai would have stood, the meaningful end to Motyl’s repeated tracking shock along the row, stricken through with a tragicomic awareness that the surface interchangeableness of the women was illusory, and a hole is left in the world precisely by Sukhov’s efforts to call them into individual consciousness. As for Sukhov himself, like many a legendary hero and western gunslinger, he disappears into the wastes he came from, sad but not disheartened. He’s heading for home once more, but of course in spirit, he’s still wandering out in the wilderness, where people will inevitably need his help again.
The creation myth for Sergei Eisenstein’s final work is as vast in scale and resonance as any epic movie. Like most other Soviet filmmakers, Eisenstein was forced to flee east during the German invasion and near-capture of Moscow during World War II. Away from the capital, Eisenstein, whose relationship with the state and Stalin had gone through many rollercoaster switchbacks, had been ostracised when his initially successful Alexander Nevsky (1938) had been embarrassedly put away following the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, and then rehabilitated after Operation Barbarossa. Eisenstein struck upon the idea of making a film about one of classical Russia’s most controversial figures: Tsar Ivan IV, the self-declared first “Tsar of All Russia,” whose nickname “Groznyy” (usually translated as “Terrible”) encompassed the awe-inspiring and fearsome figure he remained in the Russian memory. Stalin himself made no secret of his admiration and emulation of the man, and this helped Eisenstein get the project off the ground. The result was another of many fiascos that plagued Eisenstein: the second part of the proposed trilogy was shelved and left unseen for more than a decade, well after Eisenstein had died at only 50 years of age. Eisenstein’s film, whether deliberately or not, commences as an expressionist panegyric to ruthlessly strong leadership and curdles steadily into an hysterically gothic, insidious portrait of power corrupting. Ivan’s reign of blood, enforced by his cabal of loyal bodyguards, the Oprichniki, bore too potent a resemblance to Stalin’s purges and the horrors wreaked by the NKVD.
The actual film moves beyond the dead-ahead narrative simplicity of Alexander Nevsky, whilst pushing Eisenstein’s interest in stylising his cinema to the point where it started to resemble Wagner’s ideal of the “total work of art,” encompassing not only drama and visual artistry, but also music and a quality akin to dance, mime, and opera in the acting styles. During his stay in Mexico, Eisenstein’s friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had encouraged him to regard his movies as “moving frescoes,” a phrase which describes much of Ivan the Terrible perfectly.
The first film commences with young Grand Prince of Muscovy Ivan being crowned with splendid pomp as the Tsar of the new super-state and declaring his nation as the third and enduring Rome. Ivan’s openly announced plan is to break the power of the aristocratic boyars, whose in-fighting and factional cynicism he blames not only for the deaths of his parents, but for keeping Russia from achieving unity against its enemies. His young fiancée Anastasia Romonova (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) comes from a family that seems to be behind him, but Ivan’s friends are still few. At his wedding feast, one of Ivan’s friends, Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) still tries to woo Anastasia, his former flame, and another, Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov), announces he’s going to avoid the inevitable power struggle by becoming a monk. The feast is interrupted by infuriated common folk, led by hulking Aleksei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma) and the chained, seer-like Nikolai (Vsevolod Pudovkin), who threaten to kill Ivan if he doesn’t follow through on his promise to break the boyars. To everyone’s surprise Ivan blesses Basmanov and repeats his vow.
Ivan faces many formidable opponents, but the most formidable is his own aunt, the fiendishly glowering boyarina Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafima Birman), who wants to place her own simpleton son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) on the throne. Even neighbouring Kazan Khanate declares war on him, but Ivan, with Kurbsky as his general, musters a great military force and conquers Kazan instead. The potential power of a united Russia is confirmed, but Ivan falls ill while returning from the war, and the boyars, with Staritskaya leading, refuse to swear allegiance to Ivan’s infant son. Only Kurbsky emerges from this smelling like a rose, because while trying yet again to seduce Anastasia, he hears of Ivan’s recovery and so makes the pledge to the young prince. This pleases Ivan, who sends him off to war in the west against the Polish and Livonians, who are conspiring to stifle Russia’s trade with England. But Kurbsky, after losing a battle, goes over to the enemy, and Staritskaya sets out to assassinate Anastasia because her attachment to Ivan keeps her relatives in check. She tricks Ivan into letting her drink from a poisoned cup. After Anastasia dies, Ivan is convinced by his chief henchman Malyuta (Mikhail Zharov), Aleksei Basmanov, and Alexei’s son Fyodor (Mikhail Kuznetsov) to confederate a force of commoner supporters who will become totally loyal to him. Ivan does so, creating the Oprichnina, and then leaves Moscow for a small town to wait for the people to demand his return.
Eisenstein had moved a long way from Socialist Realism, as well as the mostly efficient, but rather stagy style then dominant in most western national cinemas. His work here is a constant flow of synergistic illustrations in which the actors are as angular and bristling as the set details and props. Eisenstein never meant, of course, for Ivan the Terrible to be his final, summary work, but that’s what it became, and it’s interesting that the film stands at a nexus, filled with allusions not only to the historical past, but also to cinematic past. It references silent film expressionism, particularly Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924, the last episode of which was a similar fantasia on Ivan), and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) throughout in the sheer organic tangle of the historical Russia on display. The amusing casting of Pudovkin, one of Eisenstein’s greatest colleagues/rivals of the silent era, adds to this impression. Yet it’s also a forward-looking work, newly sophisticated in the blending of Eisenstein’s belief in a symphonic, constantly flowing imagism and the techniques of sound cinema. Where Alexander Nevsky needed its Prokofiev score much more than it needed dialogue, here the anti-realistic dramatic exchanges are nonetheless important. The next generation of Russian directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov would build upon Ivan the Terrible’s precepts for constructing a totally immersive kind of cinema.
Eisenstein had become interested in kabuki theatre when visiting Japan in the late ’20s, and that experience bore fruit here in the intense, highly formalised gesturing and precisely choreographed movements and expressions of the acting. Such an element is easy to mischaracterise: within these theoretically stifling parameters the actors are still good, and Cherkasov pulls off the difficult demands made on his performance with fixity of purpose in uniting disparate and original approaches to filmic drama, particularly as his Ivan deepens from self-righteous crusader to sardonic, mocking ogre. But it’s also a long way from traditional realism. The architecture throughout the film’s elaborate set design subordinates humans to the caprices of space or the lack of it, like the many low doors that require the actors to bow to get through, and the Escher-like, criss-crossing stairwells and passages where nothing is either truly private or expansively free. Ivan the Terrible takes the historical remoteness and Byzantine atmosphere of dread and deceit as licence to paint the setting as a primal and psychologically manifest expression of a corrupt and dangerous world.
Initially, however, Eisenstein’s film enshrines a vision of Ivan that is idealised and idolising, and geopolitical resonances are easily and aptly mined. Ivan, first glimpsed as a fresh, energetic man in his prime who declares he’s going to take on the world and win with a young man’s self-conviction, is feted as a hero standing up for his nation and his subjects against entrenched aristocratic interests. He declares his plans whilst still in the cathedral, to the shock and outrage of both the boyars and the church, to tax everyone, maintain a standing army, and secure domestic control over seaports and trade routes currently controlled by other nations. Foreign envoys watch and peevishly predict his failure in his reforms and mock his pretensions to being Tsar of all Russia, except for a bespectacled Pole who notes, “If he’s strong enough, all will agree.”
Ivan is painted as the man willing to do anything to ensure the unity of his nation as the only way it can stand up to the invasions of other countries. This point is proven quickly when the envoys from Kazan come to declare war on Muscovy, and the delegate gives Ivan the gift of a knife with which to commit honourable suicide. Ivan instead reacts with exultation at the challenge, eager to prove the potency of his new super-state. When the band of furious common folk, led by Nikolai, invade the palace wanting to clobber boyar heads, Ivan comes to meet them and promises them that criminals trying to stir up panic by falsifying bad omens in the populace will be caught and executed, a promise that impresses them. “We will crush sedition, eliminate the treason!” Ivan declares in repeated variations, and even on the battlefield he’s being warned against the potential treachery of boyars, seeming to justify Stalin’s paranoid purges of the Red Army. A subplot invokes Ivan’s efforts to trade with England, sending envoys to tell the English to send their ships into the White Sea to Archangelsk, both a true historical detail and a neat echo of the convoy supply route between Britain and Russia still running when the first film was released. Ivan’s retreat from Moscow and subsequent restoration resemble that flight from Moscow by Stalin, Eisenstein, and the government when the Nazis reached the city’s suburbs.
Gold coins poured on Ivan at his coronation prove to be the first line of a narrative rhyme, for later, dishes are filled with coins by soldiers marching to war with Kazan, to be collected after battle to accurately count the dead: such is the precise totemic reflection of Ivan’s power over the people and theirs over him. The subsequent siege sees Kurbsky stringing up Mongol prisoners on the Russian barricades, the arrows fired by their brethren in the city killing the pinioned captives, before the sapping under the city results in a colossal mine blowing a hole in the fortifying wall. When Ivan falls ill after capturing Kazan, he begs the boyar grandees to swear allegiance to his son while sprawled weak and disoriented on the floor and pleading with physically helpless. but emotionally powerful despair. Their stone-faced gloating makes clear just how much he’s alienated them; Ivan’s determination leaves him increasingly isolated and lacking people he can trust, losing first Kurbsky, and then his wife, a lack he sets out to correct by forming the Oprichnina.
Ivan even begs Fyodor Kolychev to return to civic life and take over as Metropolitan of Moscow, but even he proves more an enemy than friend, as he lets his boyar relatives talk him into trying to curb Ivan’s power with his religious authority. When Kolychev tries this, Ivan ruefully declares, “From now on, I shall be exactly what you call me—terrible!” The general tone of the film is increasingly dark and twisted, played out quite literally in the acting styles, in the perpetual glower of Staritskaya and Ivan’s hawkish, increasingly gargoyle-like appearance, his swooping, bowing, and hunched-over stances. Yet there is still humour in the film, particularly in Eisenstein’s wittily framed, visual puns and dense, Brueghel-esque shots. Ivan’s European coronation guests, reacting in outrage to his plans, have great, frilled collars that fill the screen and seem to interlock, a wall of impressive, yet easily demolished starched cloth. The King of Poland’s court possesses a chessboard floor upon which the knights and bishops and pawns pose. At Ivan and Anastasia’s wedding, the camera peers directly down the length of the table as the guests strike their cups together over the rows of identical candelabra. Mulyata, to unnerve the boyars, stalks about the palace literally peeling his eye to remind all and sundry that he’s always on the lookout.
Interestingly, however, whilst the first part is generally regarded as the best, I found it merely a cheque that Eisenstein wrote and then cashed with the second part. Part II – The Boyar Conspiracy sees the rush of pageant-like, sprawling historical detail give way to only a relative few, almost operatic key scenes, and the flat, declarative, dramatic pitch of the first part likewise resolves into something more subtle and emotionally penetrating. I suspect the Ivan the Terrible diptych had a large influence on how Francis Coppola conceptualised the first two The Godfather films for the screen, for those gangster films follow a similar arc in setting up Michael Corleone as a self-justifying antihero, and then slowly revising the portrait into that of a craven, self-deluding monster. The second episode alters the meaning of the film considerably, as the characters and their different viewpoints become more substantial, and Ivan alters from posturing hero to sardonic, mean-spirited tyrant. The boyars likewise cease to be a mere implacable mass of impediments: the moral quandary of Kolychev is given credence as he tries to curb Ivan’s power and save lives. When the two clash in church before an audience of boyars, a piece of religious theatre plays out with children acting out a parable about the King of Babylon who would have executed three Israelites if not for an angel’s intervention, a part Kolychev is called on to play; the parable is pointed enough to make children watching realise Ivan is the wicked king. There’s a tacit acknowledgement here of the power of smuggled messages in drama that hints why the film’s portrayal of Ivan is being revised. Small wonder Stalin was so furious at Eisenstein the second time around.
In Part II, Ivan is still mourning Anastasia’s death, and, realising that she was poisoned and that Staritskaya was almost certainly responsible, faces a crisis that violates one of his few remaining ideals, the untouchable nature of the royal family. Similarly, he gives Kolychev permission to retain power over him in condemning people for the sake of retaining at least one nominal friendship, but this decision provokes another crisis: Ivan can’t be seen to be accountable. Instead, he lets the Basmanovs and Malyuta talk him into letting the Oprichniki off the leash. They scour the royal palace, drag out the boyars who had resisted paying his war tax or otherwise interfered with their plans, and slice their heads off. As this is happening, Ivan contorts in conscientious anxiety, but when he comes out and sees the dead bodies, he bows to them, crosses himself, and declares, “Not nearly enough!” Meanwhile the boyarina’s attachment to her dimwit son, whose high cheekbones and large eyes make him look more than a little like a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich, is portrayed as blending peculiar, discomforting impulses. One supposes initially that Staritskaya wants to put her son forward as Tsar because she can control him easily, but it also proves to be because she worships her twit of a lad. She cradles him comfortingly and sings a lullaby about a beaver being killed to provide him with clothing for his coronation, a display of maternal care that’s more than a little perverse and disquieting, least of all in how power, violence, and child-rearing have become inextricable in her psyche.
The portraits of a Vladimir as a man who can’t really grow up and a mother who’s all-controlling counterpoint a long flashback in which Ivan recounts to Kolychev his own childhood: he saw his mother die from poison and grew up surrounded by boyars who manipulated him and ran the state for him, until he finally rebelled and confirmed his own power by having a bullying minister dragged away. This tale lends psychologically deterministic weight to the portrait of Ivan, and also elucidates how his idealism is tempered by a constant, vengeful hatred that all too easily leaks out to infect his entire political life.
With Anastasia dead, he essentially marries his bodyguards. This peculiar relationship culminates in the film’s greatest scene (shot in colour), a bizarre, florid, homoerotic banquet sequence during which the Oprichniki dance in drunken hysterics, led by Fyodor Basmanov clad in drag, and sing a childish song about chopping off heads. Here, Sergei Prokofiev’s score cuts loose in dizzying, raucous strains as the Oprichniki stamp feet and clap hands in rows and fling themselves about in breathtakingly energetic kazatchok moves. It’s clear that Ivan has created a kind of morbidly erotic cult in his followers. When Vladimir drunkenly warns Ivan about an assassination attempt awaiting him when he leaves the banquet to attend to morning prayers, Ivan, instead of being grateful, mockingly dresses his guileless cousin in his own royal vestments, and then sends him out in his place to be stabbed to death by the lurking assassin. Staritskaya rushes out to crow over what she imagines is her defeated foe’s body, only for Ivan to strut out unharmed. The boyarina gathers up her son’s body and starts singing the same lullaby to him. Ivan won’t touch her, and even has the malicious gall to free the assassin, for he has “killed our greatest enemy.” He’s Ivan the Terrible, and he’s also a real stinker.
Andrei Tarkovsky is both notorious and adulated amongst movie fans as the maker of some of the most objectively forbidding films ever made, as well as several of the greatest. His patient, immersive, unique style represents one definitive extreme in how to fashion cinema. Tarkovsky’s movies are exemplified by their attempts to articulate things that are virtually inexpressible, and yet still, somehow, are part of the common pool of experience. Tarkovsky wanted to provoke his audience to higher levels of awareness and engagement with the processes occurring in the cinematic space before them, and to force them to deal with their own preoccupations and interpretations. As such, his films manage to convey two almost disparate visions of film as an art, as the working definition of eccentric, anti-populist, “challenging” cinema, and yet also the products of an artistic sensibility that prizes and respects the viewer’s receptivity. Tarkovsky’s approach could become enigmatic, even abstract, but at the same time he seemed to be trying to avoid mere obscurity or alienation: for the most part his images, conveyed through his famous fondness for long takes and extended shots that sometimes seem to be searching for some event or epiphany to give them purpose, are deceptively lucid, even guileless. And yet he knew precisely when and how to starve the audience’s flow of information, to force their interactive engagement with his material, the opposite of becoming absorbed by a standard narrative flow. For Tarkovsky cinema was not so much an intellectual game to be solved and broken down, but rather to be experienced on an emotional and intuitive level as well as the intellectual, but with a far broader and less forced definition of experience and emotion than that offered by most commercial cinema. Tarkovsky could offer some of the familiar elements of fine cinema, like smart writing, a vivid story, and nuanced acting, as much as any director, but subordinated them to his own cinematic ideals. In any event, his road less travelled represented a partial rejection of the hitherto definitive Griffith-Eisenstein model of filmmaking, even as Tarkovsky expanded on some of Eisenstein’s later impulses.
Stalker, his fifth film, was adapted by sibling writers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky from their own novel, and followed up Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971) as an eminently different kind of science fiction movie. Stalker commences in a hovel in an industrial wasteland, the camera scanning the three sleeping members of a family sharing a bed in seemingly perfect contentment, and also noting the objects sprawled on the bedside table, including two enigmatic pills. The man (Alexander Kaidanovsky) is the film’s eponymous protagonist: he’s known as Stalker, but he’s only one of a number who apparently share his profession as Stalkers. This one, our Stalker, awakens and dresses. He tries to sneak out without his wife’s knowledge, but she awakes and upbraids him for recommencing a dangerous line of work that’s already seen him thrown in prison. He meets up with two men in a local tavern that’s as seamy as his place. The two men agree at the outset to only use nicknames based on their occupations—thus “Writer” (Anatoli Solonitsin) and “Professor” (Nikolai Grinko)—and begin the difficult process of penetrating the Zone. The Zone is a mysterious area, so the Professor tells the Writer, that seems to have sprung up since some kind of meteorite or other mysterious object came from the sky and devastated an area of ground. A legend sprang up that a room in one of the buildings in the area had become a space where any entrant’s wish might come true. This, more than the fear of fallout or other danger, made the authorities paranoid enough to entirely fence off the Zone and place armed patrols around it.
Yet the authorities are also deadly afraid of stepping within the Zone for reasons the Stalker tries to sensitise his charges to: the Zone’s environment is constantly changing, full of unseen forces that can kill a man in the blink of an eye. He can only navigate about the place by gut instinct and by tossing objects, usually nuts tied up in cloth, in a random direction. Stalker was schooled in the way of the Zone by a man nicknamed Porcupine, who mysteriously became rich after leaving the Zone, and then killed himself a week later. Stalker spots evidence of Porcupine’s final, apparently malicious damage and rearranging of landmarks within the Zone, something that makes the already precarious job of navigation all the more difficult. Fragments of mysterious magic are glimpsed: the earth at one point seems to throb as if on fire within; later, two birds are seen to fly over a sandpit, with one disappearing and the other flying safely past. Yet none of the dangers Stalker warns about actually strike the Writer and the Professor: the latter turns back to collect his knapsack in spite of Stalker’s imperative command not to, and the Writer safely crosses the threshold of a sandpit before the Stalker shouts a belated warning. Debating about the nature of the Zone, about their own life assumptions and what exactly finding a room that grants a wish might entail, the trio steadily approaches the object of their journey.
Tarkovsky’s career is often considered in tandem with Stanley Kubrick’s. Tarkovsky’s first science fiction film Solaris is called a more romantic, less Nietzschean 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Stalker, in its way, also suggests the latter film’s notions of humanity on the cusp of great transcendence or total degradation and anticipates aspects of The Shining (1981) in exploring the ambiguities of empirical existence and presenting situations where psychological credulity and supernatural obscurity are difficult to distinguish. Stalker is an epic odyssey, a purified quest narrative with roots in the most ancient myth and the traditions of folkloric parable, which, ironically, involves only the most minimalist props and actions. In spite of the film’s ambling pace and stark yet dreamy, paranoid yet becalmed atmosphere, it’s a work of cerebral but clear-cut ideas familiar from both its essential genre of science fiction, and from a distinctive strand of Eastern European fantastic and satiric drama. But the ideas are almost entirely manifested through talk, gesture, and emotion, rather than visualisation: the world around the character rarely deviates from the same old solid, empirical reality. Stalker can be described, on one level, simply as a film about three guys who walk around an overgrown industrial site for three hours, except for certain moments when something amazing and bizarre happens, possessing a precise, coiled, yet still inscrutable strength.
The bulk of Stalker was shot around a disused hydroelectric plant in Estonia, and some believe the pollution around the site was directly responsible for Tarkovsky, Solonitsin, and several others who worked on the film all dying of cancer within a decade. If true, such a tragic real-life consequence feels nonetheless all too harshly appropriate considering some of Stalker’s essential themes. Retrospective analysis has recast the film as a prediction of Chernobyl, a notion that seems absurd, and yet there’s no deep mystery to this seeming echo of future horrors. Soviet industrialisation, not to mention Nazi invasion, had long been making an environmental hell out of swathes of the country. To this day, millions of hectares in Siberia are caked in oil spewed out by decayed infrastructure. Chernobyl was merely the loudest, climactic act in that process of breakdown and despoiling, and the dark imprint of industrialisation’s by-products were surely already quite familiar to Tarkovsky and the Strugatskys. Other aspects are equally suggestive: Stalker’s daughter is a slightly mongoloid-looking girl who can’t walk because she reportedly has no legs, and misshapen children are apparently common amongst Stalkers’ families. Such information is immediately redolent of thalidomide and radiation birth defects.
The haze of everything malefic in the modern industrial world therefore hangs over the film in a thick pall, both metaphorically and, in the early scenes, quite literally. There’s a bleak, totalitarian aspect to the world we catch glimpses of, with the roaming security guards who randomly shoot off guns to try to cut down infiltrators of the Zone, factories billowing out smoke and grime, and locomotives that thunder past Stalker’s house. It could all be a particularly scabrous portrait of the decaying Soviet Union, a notion that’s particularly hard to resist considering that Stalker, with his shaven head redolent of the Gulag, angrily states “everywhere is a prison!”, and the Professor contends with his threatening, authoritarian boss over the phone. And yet they may also be just carefully structured visions of a perfectly ordinary modern nation, most of which have their rust belts, petty official and state-sponsored thugs, and top-secret areas.
When the Writer first appears, he’s come directly from a party, still pretty drunk, driven to the rendezvous by a chicly dressed young woman in a slick car who wants to join the expedition. The pair could easily belong to any society circle: Stalker simply, strictly tells the girl to go, and she speeds away, her whim casually extinguished. The Zone can be interpreted as a bomb-testing site or battlefield that’s become overgrown, but within which radiation or landmines still lurk. Shattered, rusting tanks and armament litter the Zone, remnants of the ill-fated attempts by the government, so Stalker recounts, to penetrate the Zone with military force. The detritus of a pulverised patch of civilisation is likewise scattered: in a long, seemingly pointless, but actually vital moment half-way through the film, Tarkovsky’s camera drifts away from his protagonists to study the material scattered in a waterway. Icons, books, prints, documents, ornamentation, machinery, medical equipment, a gun, utensils, and sundry other remnants of civilisation lie in a kind of dreamy stasis in the water. The Zone itself is steadily reclaiming all human materials into itself, which, whilst seemingly dominated by nature, has its own withholding, inhuman mystery restored.
Meanwhile, the Writer and the Scientist bicker and debate as they follow Stalker. That they stand in not only for their different professions, but also for philosophical disparities, is all too obvious, and the Writer lives up to his part with moments of sodden boorishness and self-pity with a certain level of stereotypical zest. He needles the Professor, a physicist who worked for a government department that seemingly oversees the Zone, over the inadequacies of his empirical worldview in the face of a place like the Zone, and the universe in general. Stalker’s natural, almost primitivist, crypto-spiritual intuition stands in contrast to both men’s forms of intellectualism. Writer nicknames him, half-pejoratively, “Chingachgook,” after James Fenimore Cooper’s Indian hero, and “Pathfinder” would be just as apt for Stalker, who feels rather than thinks his way across the landscape. What lends these schematic figures weight is the way everything is both abstracted to the point where almost nothing literal and everyday is identified definitively, so that the drama unfolding here can stand in for any era and many potential parables, and yet it’s all composed of entirely three-dimensional images and settings so potent in the physical details that you can practically smell the landscape, the characters sharply played and defined. In a way, Stalker is akin to a children’s game—remember how you once declared some random object a castle, and the ground suddenly became lava, and you had to find a way over it?
A similar sense of random danger and reality’s familiar rules rendered capricious dominates in the Zone. Indeed, Stalker expressly describes the Zone as capricious. Stalker relates to the Zone as a religion, a god, and quotes scripture incessantly: one of his more suggestive quotes comes directly after that long view of the detritus in the water, in which he speaks of men who did not recognise Jesus when he came to them because of his altered garb, suggesting that something within the story – the Zone perhaps, or perhaps Stalker himself, or his daughter – may be another divine messenger. At another point, Stalker recites passages from Revelations, and the mysterious object that fell to earth suddenly suggests the “star called Wormwood” from the same book, thus shifting the resonances of the story towards the apocalyptic.
Stalker defines the Zone as a place for people in a state of crisis and without hope; only the desperate can survive the Zone’s caprices, and perhaps only the Wishing Room can solve their problem. The Writer comes to view the Zone essentially as a heart of darkness, a regressive place that will reduce one’s will to a core, key desire, one that will become the “wish” in contradiction of any false (civilised) value one holds and tries to assert. An idealist may also be driven by covert misanthropy, and this hidden aspect will then define the wish. This view seems highlighted by the recounted fate of Porcupine, an enigmatic tale the Writer slowly unravels thanks to some of Stalker’s stories. Porcupine lured his talented poet brother there to be annihilated, and then, breaching the Stalkers’ code, entered the Wishing Room himself and received wealth. His suicide upon returning to the world was because he regretted killing his brother, but when he returned to wish for his brother’s return, the Zone would not grant it, because the original wish was truer. The threat of the wishes of utopians and religious freaks is as terrifying to the Writer and the Professor as those of the vengeful and the vicious. The Writer suggests his crises of faith and imagination at the outset when he tells the girl, “The world is governed by cast-iron laws, and it’s excruciatingly boring!” Cynical and driven by doubt, as he readily, even proudly, admits, he also seeks a proof of a god that will imbue his efforts with meaning. And yet he ultimately doesn’t want proof: he begins to understand that his doubt is a kind of weapon. The Professor is so scared of the Wishing Room’s potential that his own personal mission is to detonate an atomic bomb he’s been carrying in his knapsack in the Wishing Room, thus ridding the world of the threat entirely. Stalker tries to stop this, but Writer instead holds Stalker back, accusing Stalker of enjoying playing God in helping people reach the Wishing Room.
Stalker defends himself merely as a mediator, a man who tries to lead other men to the edge of something restorative. He seems more like a holy fool, and when he returns home he convulses in pain, both physical and emotional—that’s what those two pills (aspirin) were for—as he frets over the misanthropy and distrust of the two savants. On whatever level he believes in the Zone, as manifestation of the alien or even of the imagination itself, he worships its power. The possibility that the preternatural qualities of the Zone are an invention of Stalker’s is mooted, for the Professor learned everything about the place from him. There’s certainly something strange about the Zone is certain, confirmed by an opening scrawl written by a “Professor Wallace,” who may or may not be the same Professor in the film, the efforts of the guardians to keep people out of it, and the warnings of the Professor’s boss, but the peculiarity of the Zone might not necessarily be what Stalker says it is. What is certain is that Stalker takes his devotion to his job as seriously as any medieval monk. Such devotion is echoed by his wife, who recites a monologue directly to the camera stating that in spite of her writhing ecstatic tantrum at the outset, she’s never been unhappy with Stalker, knowing what she did about the dangers and how their children often ended up right from the start. Whether this can be read as a simple encomium to devotion as a trait in itself, or connected more deeply to her understanding of his sense of mission, such familial completeness as is seen at the start is both outset and endpoint of Stalker’s own journey. Stalker considers, at one point, moving his family into the Zone, reasoning they’ll be beyond harassment there.
For all the oblique, pensively intellectual, arty qualities of the film, it’s worth noting how unfussy the visuals are, and the workmanlike expertise with which Tarkovsky builds tension, particularly in the long, brilliantly orchestrated scene in which Stalker has the Writer enter a tunnel he dubs “the meat-grinder” because of the number of people who have died trying to traverse its length, and his subsequent stumbling into the sandtrap. Likewise, a certain wry, even black comedy percolates throughout, as when the Professor disappears and Stalker gives him up for dead, only to come upon him eating his lunch with ingenuous calm. This aspect of the film provides a definitive punch line once the three are inside the centremost building, only metres away from the Wishing Room. A telephone starts ringing, which the Writer, who was in the midst of one of his rants, picks up. He listens to the voice on the other end, shouts “No this is not a clinic,” slams the receiver down, turns away, and then all three men freeze dead still in sudden awareness of what just happened: this moment is delivered with the comedic precision of a Marx Brothers routine. The Professor’s response to realising there’s still a working telephone in the Zone is to call up his boss, who forbade him going on this mission, to mock him and gloat. The shadows of Beckett and Kafka lay over much of this material, even if the film’s specific flavour is less bludgeoning and negative than their work, and closer in spirit to magic-realism.
Finally, whilst the debates, confessions, and petty in-fighting of the three main characters are fascinating, it’s in Tarkovsky’s images where true wonder and ambiguity lie, refusing any simple reduction of the many interpretations and dimensions of the story, moving beyond the literal, and the literary, and into a realm of total cinema. It’s as if Tarkovsky set himself the task of pitting his images against intellectual formulae, and, amazingly, winning. The Zone retains its threat and mystery when the Writer and the Scientist and even Stalker himself have done everything to reduce its meaning and potential within coherent boundaries. More matter-of-factly, the film’s atmosphere is palpable, and Tarkovsky draws out the strange, poetic beauty of industrial wreckage invaded and infused by rebellious nature, as if in the median ground between civilisation, past, and future.
Where the film’s bookend scenes back in the city are filmed in a near-monochrome with a faintly bronzed tint, the Zone is a sprawl of muted, lustrous colour that returns in two concluding shots of Stalker’s daughter, immediately zeroing in on her as the vessel for something as strange and wondrous as in the Zone. Stalker’s devotion to her, carrying her on his shoulders across the inhospitable landscape, is both pathetic and joyous all at once, almost Dickensian, and yet the very last scene moves into a new realm. Like another, more earthbound, yet equally wondrous version of 2001’s star child, the girl sits in her little hovel vibrating to the passage of trains, stares dimly at glasses on the kitchen table, and begins to move them about telekinetically. Stalker’s adventures in the Zone have resulted in his offspring possessing something deeply abnormal, perhaps inhuman, and potentially terrifying. Yet Tarkovsky lets a snatch of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” creep into the soundtrack, suggesting that where now the world shakes her house, some day she’ll shake the world right back.
In the decade after he reshaped cinema with his then-experimental technique in works like Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1928), Sergei Eisenstein became a peripatetic semi-exile when Stalin’s rise made life uncomfortable for him at home, and the international film scene beckoned. And yet he became a world-famous artist without a friendly harbour to anchor in. A visit to Hollywood had seen him patronised by David Selznick when he handed in his screenplay adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: “It was for me a most memorable experience,” Selznick wrote to RKO executive B. P. Schulberg, “The most moving script I have ever read…Is it too late to try to [dissuade] the enthusiasts of the picture from making it?” An attempt to make what Eisenstein described as “a shabby travelogue into a really major film,” Que Viva Mexico!, with the backing of leftist writer Upton Sinclair as his producer, resulted in an unfinished pile of beautiful fragments. Eisenstein slunk back to the USSR, fortunately missing the worst years of the Great Purge.
With geopolitics in an awful state—Soviet Russia was expecting conflict with Germany’s Nazi regime—Eisenstein’s return seemed well-timed as he commenced work on a film that would evoke historical parable for resistance against invasion. His credited codirector Vasilyev and coscreenwriter Pyotr Pavlenko were imposed collaborators, charged with the job of keeping the taint of “formalism” out of the project. When the movie had been completed and rushed into theatres, Hitler and Stalin signed their nonaggression pact, and Eisenstein found himself and his film embarrassedly stowed away, only to be rehabilitated when war between the two superstates finally did break out. In spite of all these weighty matters, Alexander Nevsky in many ways sits with some comfort amongst other historical adventure films in the late ’30s, particularly the Michael Curtiz-Errol Flynn films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Cecil B. DeMille films like The Crusades (1935). Unlike those brash, breezy, technically more polished films, Eisenstein pares back as much drama as possible to concentrate on the synergistic flow of his shots and carefully built rhythmic intensity. The storyline operates on the most primal of levels.
Set against the macrocosmic drama facing the assailed city-states of the Rus, with oppression by the Mongol Golden Horde on one side and the advancing fanatical forces of the Teutonic knights on other, Eisenstein pits characters who might have stepped directly out of a folktale: warriors Vasily Buslai and Gavrilo Olexich (Nikolai Okhlopkov and Andrei Abrikosov), best of friends competing to win the hand of beautiful Novgorod maiden Olga (Vera Ivashova), who declares she will marry the man who proves himself bravest in battle; Vasilisa (Aleksandra Danilov), whose father is executed by the Germans when the city of Pskov is captured through treachery by the Knights, takes up a sword herself and joins the massing Russian resistance; Ignat (Dmitriy Orlov), an aged armourer who becomes embodiment of native pluck in venturing into battle; and Alexander himself (Nikolai Cherkasov), warrior chief of Vladimir who gained the sobriquet “Nevsky” for beating off a Swedish army on the banks of the Neva, the embodiment of sober, conscientious kingship.
Alexander is first glimpsed when a train of Mongols dragging captive Russians off for forced labour pass by a fishing party, and the peasants and Mongol soldiers begin to clash. Alexander shouts from the water, “Quiet! The fish will take fright!” Striding ashore, he exchanges loaded words with the smiling, autocratic Golden Horde khan (Lyan-Kun). Apart from his cutting, commanding voice and bright, challenging, innately intelligent eyes, Alexander is indistinguishable in his manner and dress from the men he leads, and his casual willingness to get his feet dirty in leading the fishing party contrasts the Mongol, who has a soldier prostrate himself to make a step for him to get into his litter. This scene serves a double purpose: it helps the film overcome the inevitable problem in a Soviet work of the era of how to make a hero of a king, and, more pertinently, establishes Alexander’s character: making no more fuss than necessary and with a goal in mind, he’s receptive to any incidental intuition. Later, he gets the inspiration for his battle strategy from a bawdy joke. In my favourite moment of Cherkasov’s in the film, Alexander paces in distraction and quiet agony around his palace where two of his liegemen mend their fishing net, anticipating the call to fight the Germans and wondering how to beat this formidable enemy. Alexander contemplates the strands of the net, and then tears them apart in frustration: “This is delicate work…not like fighting Swedes…”
When the delegates do arrive to beg his aid, he declares with new life: “I know nothing of defence! We attack!” Alexander becoming captain to the Rus is preceded by a fierce communal argument in which the citizens of Novgorod, closest to the onward sweep of the Germans, listen to the testimony of those who have escaped from Pskov. Rich merchants and paid agents argue to make a deal with the knights, but the evidence of mangled survivors and treachery infuriates the patriots who shout down the rich men and demand competent leadership: Domash (Nikolai Arsky), a warrior of standing who is their initial choice, turns down the job, insisting that only Alexander can win for them. Alexander replies that the warrior elite of Rus can’t win, and calls for a national uprising; the very earth itself disgorges streams of peasants used to hiding from marauders converging on Novgorod for an exultant expression of fighting spirit.
Through his montage theory, probably no other director has had such a consequential impact on the development of cinema in general as Eisenstein, but Alexander Nevsky is the film of his that’s had a more particular influence. It’s the perfect model of the few-against-many, good-against-evil epic. Laurence Olivier pillaged it for his Henry V (1945), and it’s hard to imagine movies as popular and diverse as fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings series and Conan the Barbarian (1982), scifi works like the Star Wars saga, and a raft of historical action dramas (David Lean’s films, Spartacus , Braveheart , King Arthur ), without Eisenstein’s model. They quote his optical and editorial tricks, and replicate the dramatic dynamics of his Battle on the Ice sequence. A significant difference between Nevsky and most of the films it influenced, however, is not merely its immediate consequence as a tool for rousing the audience and telling a good yarn, but that it’s a work that channels anthropological and folk-art influences in an attempt to conjure a sense of the past as living tradition, not mere escapism. Nevsky takes the rules of Norse sagas and iconic art seriously to reproduce in part their aesthetics in the context of realistic ’30s cinema.
Sergei Prokofiev’s score, with its chorale commentaries on the action, entwines with recurring visual motifs that evoke that state of Rus in the mid 1200s—a land of bleaching bones after decades of massacres by the Mongols and stranded longboats redolent of the Viking founders of Vladimir and Novgorod—in painting a cultural context, and a harmonious concept of the drama about to unfold as part of Russia’s past and present. Prokofiev’s work on the film was and is one of the signal collaborations between a great cinema artist and a highly regarded classical composer, and it’s still certainly one of the greatest film scores ever recorded, especially if sheer dramatic necessity is a yardstick—the score is so deeply woven into the film it wouldn’t exist in the same way without it, making Nevsky a true pan-cultural creation. Eisenstein and Prokofiev used all available means of achieving that linked effect, composer writing music to the script and director cutting scenes to match material already written. Nevsky is negligibly lessened by a few overly arch moments of propaganda, but moreso by its technical problems. The film was made with an experimental sound system that had a muffling effect on much of the dialogue and especially on the score, and the rush to get the film in theatres forestalled any tweaking.
Eisenstein had one of cinema’s most perfect eyes for composing elements within a frame (think of a shot from a Michael Bay film, and then think of the exact opposite), and his efforts here both extend the high modernism of early Soviet cinema, evident in occasional semi-abstract arrangements, and enrich his visuals with the squared-off perspective of Byzantine-influenced Russian art. In the first half, his compositions are studiously geometric, his actors carefully posing in declarative attitudes: Alexander surveying the expanse of the green Russian dales with an old peasant at his side, or Buslai and Olexich assuming poses in contending for Olga, who constantly stands with back to the two hovering, towering men. This might sound flat and pompous, and yet it’s anything but. What’s remarkable is how Eisenstein uses these qualities to suggest powerful, composing forces, building tension through alternations of hypnotic quiet and tersely delivered dialogue, and violent communal arguments and celebrations on the path from panic and questioning on behalf of the frightened Rus folk to the moment of fearless readiness for the eruptive chaos of battle.
Just as deliberately flat, and yet still lovably vibrant, are the characterisations. On an almost pantomime level, good and evil are chiefly a matter of expression and dress. The Teutonic villains are so stylised in their evil they barely seem like part of the same species, which is very much the point. In their warrior regalia they seem less like an army of God, though they wrap themselves in religious paraphernalia and espouse Roman Catholicism as a totalitarian ideology, than stygian beasts: Ignat describes one as a witch after besting him. Even when they take off their helmets, they’re a mob of lean, grim, self-satisfied-looking bastards, the Grand Master (Vladimir Yershov) coldly declaring that anyone who resists them will be slaughtered, whilst handing out stolen principalities casually to his followers. The traitors who have delivered Pskov into their hands through connivance and rumour-mongering are shifty-eyed and dour, in contrast to the beaming, sunny Russians.
The contrast between Buslai and Olexich is one of two variations on the basic Russian character, made most amusingly clear when they court Olga: apple-cheeked, boisterous Buslai declares, “If you want a fun-loving man, marry me!” To which more somber Olexich retorts, “If want to be beaten with a birch stick every night, choose him indeed.” Olga and Vasilisa, too, form a diptych in thrilling at the great action unfolding before them, but each takes a different path: demure Olga makes her pledge to the two warriors, whilst Vasilisa dons a helmet and chain mail and go to war. It’s Vasilisa versus the Germans, and this time, it’s personal: her father, an elder of Pskov, has been executed before her eyes for denouncing the German invaders—hung from a belltower.
The sequence in Pskov, portraying the evil knights relishing having bound prisoners executed en masse with pikes and screaming children cast into bonfires with the blessing of pet churchmen, is extreme warning and spur to action (one of history’s saddest ironies is that Eisenstein’s apocalyptic manipulation here would soon come to appear too tame). And, of course, in movie language, we know these creeps are ripe to get their asses royally booted. After his advance guard is wiped up thanks to further treachery by the two traitors who are moving back and forth between the lines, Alexander, against the nervous objections of Buslai, decides to make his stand on Lake Chudskoye, on the boundary between Novgorod and Pskov. There’s actually a lot of historical confusion about just how big (and where) a battle took place on April 5, 1242, with probably far fewer warriors (some place the number at less than a thousand) taking part than is portrayed in the film, but of course, everyone wishes it happened the way this film tells it. The Battle of the Ice sees Eisenstein’s camera, as well as the heroes, let loose with symphonic ferocity, and it’s one of those few film sequences that can tear an almost physical reaction from me.
The vignettes of the battle are more memorable than most entire films: the early shots of the ranked Russians, Vasilisa and Ignat amongst them, waiting anxiously under stormy clouds on the great white nothing of the lake, peering into the distance as they try to make out the slowly emerging mass of German cavalry; Buslai and Olexich, after days of resenting each other, embracing before taking their posts; the Teutonic knights riding in with their encasing helmets looking like aliens, robots, steampunk tanks; Prokofiev’s music rising to its most menacing and tremendous swells, low chugging horns and high shrieking string, until the two armies crash into each other in whirls of steel and limbs; Olexich and Alexander’s charge to close the trap; Olexich hurling himself in front of Alexander to save his life and getting a chest full of spear points; the horrified expressions of the traitors in watching the knights lose; Vasilisa working up the courage to come out of her hiding place on a wagon, braver and braver in striking out at the Germans.
Particularly riveting is how Eisenstein switches from occasional long shots, in which the formations of the armies and tussling, fragmented gangs, form almost abstract patterns, to handheld shots within the melee, concussive in their immersive, you-are-there vigour. One moment, when Eisenstein cuts from Alexander’s victories over an opponent to the laughing faces of onlookers and the exultation of musicians cheering on the team, makes the battle reminiscent of a sports film. My favourite moment is when Buslai, losing his sword, is tossed a wooden spar by Vasilisa, with which he joyfully bashes in the stout helmets of the knights, releasing a whoop of exultation as he bounces the spar from hand to hand like a hot potato, high on his own conquering strength; later, when Buslai dresses in a fallen German’s uniform, he clobbers his way out from inside their ranks. Alexander’s final duel with the Grand Master sees him finally topple the villain before the Germans take flight and are swallowed in the Biblical moment when the lake’s ice gives way and plunges them into the frigid brine.
Fittingly, Eisenstein intended this sequence in part as a tribute to the other great progenitor of cinema language, D. W. Griffith—specifically, the ice-floe scenes in Way Down East (1920). Even greater than the battle, in a more subtle way, is the aftermath, the lake ice a charnel house of broken bodies, wounded and dying men calling for their loved ones, both Olexich and Buslai lying crippled as night falls. The women of Novgorod, including Olga, come out on the ice bearing torches to search for their loved ones, a female voice on the soundtrack voicing the sentiments of the scene in desolate fashion. Rarely has a film of this sort paid such attention to the cost of even heroic triumph. The final scene is, however, one of victory and resolution, as the traitors and captive Germans haul sled-loads of the wounded, and Buslai declares, in defiance of his mother, that neither he nor Olexich were as brave as Vasilisa, allowing Olexich and Olga to marry because he’s found his girl in Vasilisa, a delightfully neat clincher to the quandary. The result is one of those few films that makes the boundary between high art and blissful entertainment melt away. l
From amongst his too-few crop of marvels, Sergei Paradjanov’s best-known film alongside 1968’s Sayat Nova, was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and it was the one that made his name. Although rendered in a similar hallucinatory, totemistic, folk-myth design as Sayat Nova, Shadows is quite different in that it at least tells a concrete, discernible narrative, managing to conjure something like the immense, segmented sprawl of classical sagas in an hour and a half. Where the later film tackled the cultural landscape of Paradjanov’s native Armenia, Shadows, based on a novella by Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky, describes the culture of the Ukrainians of the Carpathian Mountains in the eighteenth century (as suggested by the flintlock pistols the men carry), but could, in truth, be of almost any time. Whilst Shadows offers up the dramatic and tragic life of Ivan (Ivan Mikolajchuk), and his Romeo-and-Juliet love affair with Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), the story provides a mere framework for Paradjanov’s visuals fugues and ritualised evocations.
Nothing has meaning in Paradjanov’s films unless it linked to the totality of the natural world and the chains of tradition. Shadows unfolds in a series of linked, but segmented chapters that both extend Ivanko’s story and portray the world in which he lives, a world that is elemental even in its spirituality. In the first few minutes of the film, the young Ivan (I. Dzyura) loses most of his family. Ivan is almost crushed by a tree his older brother Olexa is felling: Olexa dashes to push Ivan out of the way, and is killed himself. At the church funeral, his father Petyik Paliychuk (Aleksandr Gaj) mocks the wealthier farmer Guteniuk (A. Raydanov) who, he says, “gives money to God but fleeces the poor.” Enraged, especially when Guteniuk’s wife calls him and his wife beggars, Paliychuk pursues him outside and spits insults, until Guteniuk strikes him dead with his axe. Ivan’s mother (Nina Alisova), who’s already lost all her other children and now her husband, and thus cheated of prosperity, maintains a bitter hate of the Guteniuks, but Ivanko’s one redeeming light in life is a daughter of the hated clan, Marichka (V. Glyanko as a girl), whom he first spied at his brother’s funeral. In the melee that followed his father’s murder, he slapped her, but then chased her down and made friends; by the time he had forgotten his father, he was welded to her like steel, sharing a nature-child love, playing in the woods together without clothes.
When the pair grows into young adults, they’re still perfectly in love. But Ivan’s mother’s resentments against the Guteniuks have not faded, so their love can still only manifest beyond the boundaries of the town, in the woods and fields. Ivan goes to earn some money as a shepherd in the mountain pastures above the town. One night, when the land is wreathed in a thick fog and the shepherds work to keep their flocks together, Marichka wanders out into the forest, drawn by the light of a strange star. She comes across a lost black lamb on a steep ledge, and, trying to rescue it, plummets to her death in the surging river below. Ivan joins search parties looking for her and comes across her beached, frigid body. He spends the next few years in a state of unproductive grief, increasingly tattered and slovenly, his looks lost behind a beard and filth. He slowly returns to a normal life helping the local church, and especially when he encounters Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), a young woman with an estate; they share a charged moment when he shoes her horse and she laps up the sight of him. They are soon married, but the past and the future for these two soon prove sadly tangled.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is an immersive experience in the best sense, demanding a reorientation of narrative priorities and outlook, but rewarding that attention with a vigorous sprawl of fantastic images and vividly envisioned metaphors. Many filmmakers, especially more contemporary ones, would try to capture a sense of the historic and the alien through a kind of minimalist preciousness, but that was as alien to the madly inventive Paradjanov as blockbuster action. He created images with physical force and expressive enthusiasm, with some visions, like his grand crane shots plunging through forests and swinging over gorges, that seem to defy all physics of film photography. It’s hard then to write about the electric quality of such images as Ivan and Marichka embracing in the woods as a sun shower pelts them with glittering bolts of rain, as if the very elements are blessing them.
The spiritual is innately physical here, and the film’s soul, like that of the society it portrays, is Christianised, but often still reflexively pagan, even pantheistic. This contradiction is lessened in an environment where nature is all-powerful. Emblems of religion and spirituality are hewn out of the raw materials provided by nature, wood and stone, and the vagaries of the elemental world are cruel and haphazard. “Beggars like them shouldn’t be allowed in here!” the Guteniuk matriarch screams in the church as the Paliychuks mock them, and the church, linchpin of social ritual in the mountain villages, fades into unimportance as magic and misfortune become governing lights: the narrative of Shadows seems to move further back into the mystic past rather than forward with the world, as characters, stripped of what they want, choose deeper, darker alternatives. Marichka’s death, not even halfway through the film, is a truly shocking one that leaves both Ivan and the story in tatters, and picking up the pieces becomes the most arduous of processes. Paradjanov here uses the most effective and simple of devices, bleaching all the colour out of the film, snatches of gossip on the soundtrack charting the village’s reactions to his ruined state as he goes through his labours and bathing with a dissociated disinterest.
Paradjanov’s animated, often first-person camera constantly invokes the experiential, sensual world, tethered to the corporeal and yet charged with spirits unseen and lurking: from Ivanko’s father being bashed on the head by Guteniuk, blood running down over the lens, or the camera seeming to fall with the tree that crushes Olexa, to the whirling camera in the very final scene, life is a disorientating cascade for Ivan. In the most intricately orchestrated sequence, when Marichka is lost and drowns, and as Ivan and the villagers search for her, a hand-held camera chases Ivan and others through the gloom of morning, faces and bodies appearing out of the fog, tumbling down slopes, torches burning in the haze. When Ivan eventually boards a great raft with others to ride down the river in search, Paradjanov’s camera flies overhead in a stunning crane shot, as the vessel emerges from the murk and disappears again like a momentarily substantive dream. Clear geography and visual order are blurred, even as the setting is explored in the most atmospheric of fashions, so that one practically feels Ivan’s adrenalin-stoked, frantic leap to action, resolving finally in a slightly askew shot as Ivan sits on a stone in silent grief, with only the lower half of Marichka’s beached body in the frame. His energetic search, the whole logic of his life, the giddy rush of adolescent love, and the bounty of nature, come to an abrupt, sickened, motiveless halt.
In the second half, Ivan’s marriage to Palagna seems motivated entirely by mutual attraction, and their union, which sees a ceremonial yoke placed over their shoulder whilst they’re blindfolded, a revivifying one for Ivan. On their wedding night, Ivan strips Palagna bare and tears off the last item—a bead necklace, which shatters in his grasp—leaving her breathlessly, silently expectant, and rigidly cautious: a scene that’s teeth-grindingly erotic even as Paradjanov cleverly avoids nudity. Their marriage soon proves to be a haunted disaster, for though they labour prosperously together in the fields, Marichka, desperate for Ivan’s physical love, finds him increasingly unresponsive, and in their first Christmas together, Ivan is struck by the sight of a deer grazing near Marichka’s grave as one did just after she was buried. Both husband and wife begin attempting to commune with the spirit world, unable to face the one immediately in front of them, the sterility of which is confirmed in a wide shot of the couple eating their Christmas feast in silence. Ivan makes offerings of food to attract spirits, and Marichka seems finally to appear to him, gazing forlornly through the window, but Palagna doesn’t see her and pins up a curtain. Later, Palagna strips off her clothes and walks into the night to play shamanka, begging the spirits to make Ivan love her and give her a child.
Paradjanov’s psychology, symbolism, and sorcery come together now, as Palagna is approached by the local magician, Yura (Spartak Bagashvili), stricken with fascination for this transgressive woman who, like himself, is obeisant to older gods. Yura is glimpsed, in the film’s second brilliantly orchestrated sequence, working magic to turn away a destructive storm by enchanting a pair of horses he then rides out into the fields to create a counteractive wind. Exhausted, he falls to the ground, and when Palagna approaches to congratulate him, he begs her to come soothe him. A tree close by explodes in flames as the pair screw on the ground: an image conjoining Yura’s mastery of magical power and his masculine force, as he gives Palagna, who’s been associated visually with dead and barren trees, the orgasm she hasn’t been getting from Ivan. Yura, although not pretty like Ivan, draws all the potency of the physical and spiritual worlds into his frame, and he soon proves the most fearsome of cuckold-makers.
This cruel ménage soon enough comes to a head when Palagna and Ivan go to a tavern and sit at the same table as Yura, and Palagna, when her husband’s not looking, cuddles up to the magus. A friend tells her off, and Ivan fronts up to Yura, but the sorcerer strikes Ivan with a hex. Ivan reels outside, dazed and shattered, and glimpses Yura and Palagna, having clearly claimed each other’s affections. He wanders off through felled woodland, the smoking, severed stumps of what had once been forest perfectly reflecting his now-denuded existence and wasted psyche. As he drinks from a spring, he glimpses Marichka’s spirit, and chases her into the forest, both of them strangely greyed and deathly-looking; when Marichka finally reaches out to touch Ivan, he dies with a scream.
The stinging paradox of this plot—that fulsome, seemingly naturally imbued love isn’t strong enough to hold off a chain of destructive events and the inevitable process of decay, and yet imbues these paltry lives with legendary greatness—defies potential sentimentality, even if the finale’s suggestion that Ivan and Marichka are reunited on another plane isn’t so far from, say, Titanic (1997). That they could only find their fulfillment as shades tied to the forest is a fine and fair solution to the impossibility of their lives and also to the violent brevity of this way of life, and yet it is certainly death, whilst in the film’s very final scene Ivan’s fellow villagers get on with life, turning his wake into a rollicking party. Ivan essentially dies in the same way as his own father, though Yura does not strike Ivan with his axe, instead merely slamming it on the table to work his hex. The reduction of Ivan’s life story to that of an unlucky fool who dies a cuckold after a bar fight seems to contrast the charged atmosphere of mystical meaning, but the immediate and the spiritual are still bound together here, for Ivan’s final failures are offenses to nature as well as mankind. The tree that is Palagna, the living essence, is something Ivan fails to bring to fruit, chasing instead the wispy remnant of eternal, sterile love into the forest.
Throughout the film, events and motives are tangential, especially emotion, extreme passions driving events on with organic but illogical force: Ivan’s father denouncing Guteniuk to expel his grief over Olexa; Ivan slapping Marichka to punish her for her father’s violence and then forgetting his father when being with Marichka; Ivan marrying Palagna to forget Marichka, whom he loses in a totally capricious accident; Palagna’s acts to make Ivan want her putting her in Yura’s orbit and then forgetting her husband. Even the accidents and idiocies of this world are inspired by some other, possibly noble, cause. There’s a coarse, realistic kind of psychology here, where people sublimate one need into another, and small twists of circumstance throw lives entirely off course. Tribal microeconomics are also described with terse import, as the prosperity of the Paliychuks is degraded as their labouring menfolk have been steadily decimated (Mother Paliychuk recites the names of her many lost sons and her husband) and the Guteniuks’ rapacity contrasted, an imbalance with long-reaching, murderous consequences. Ivan is the victim of a world out of equilibrium before he even arrives in it. What holds that world together is communal ritual, the reflexes of which are a refrain of the film’s texture: from Paliychuk’s funeral marchers, tramping in single file across the snow-caked land, to the villagers dancing in a long line, Marichka and other adolescent girls arrayed with sprigs in their hands in the church, blessed in their youthful fertility, and the curious binding motif of Ivan and Palagna’s wedding: universal customs described in specific terms, of course.
The faces and bodies of Paradjanov’s actors are more important than traditional acting abilities; Bagashvili’s fearsome visage suggests a human intermediary with Noh masks. The earthy realism of the cast is so convincing, it’s hard not to believe they weren’t simply recorded for documentary purposes. Which is, of course, very difficult acting, and Bestayeva is particularly compelling, with her blend of desirous disappointment and dismissive pith, snapping with force at Yura when he comes upon her making her naked invocations, “What’s wrong with you? Never seen a woman before?” The achievement of the film is to make the historic and the alien seem as vivid as the life around you, and though Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a more conventional film than Sayat Nova, it is certainly no lesser. l
Is it an exercise in futility to review short films, either animated or live action? Outside of film festivals, the chances of seeing any short films is slim to none—that is, if you’re thinking about standard film venues.
Of course, the fortunes of short films have never been better. We may never get those cartoons before the feature films anymore, but I’d argue that short films are more numerous and internationally available than any other type of film. The Internet has made distribution a reality for both fledgling filmmakers who want to go on to full-length films and veterans of the short form who have been producing high-quality work for decades. Animation specifically has exploded with the advent of affordable desktop technology and multitudes of media schools like Flashpoint, “The Academy of Media Arts and Sciences,” which is a sponsor of the CIFF and where I viewed screeners for the festival on wide screens using the best set of headphones I’m ever likely to clamp over my ears.
It’s important for cinephiles to support short films as the proving ground for the great filmmakers and innovators of tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed watching our very own Jonathan Lapper of Cinema Styles master the short form and get the interest and opinions of cinephiles around the globe. I don’t know if the traditional movie industry will ever truly embrace short films as they once did, but through virtual film festivals, websites, and various social networking venues, film fans will once again be able to experience the unique pleasure of the short stories of cinema.
Ferdy on Films, etc. is considering making short-film reviews part of our regular fare. We’d like your opinions on this possible new direction. Email us or comment here.
And now, reviews of the 11 short animated films that comprise Shorts 2: Animation Nations.
Hot Dog (2008) Director: Bill Plympton
The latest in Plympton’s “Dog” series—Guard Dog and Guide Dog being his previous efforts—has our erstwhile hound deciding to join the fire department. After a brush-off from the fire chief, Dog chases (as dogs do) a fire truck, manages literally to hop aboard, somehow ends up driving the truck to the site of a burning building, and saves a damsel in distress. Of course, Dog fouls it up in the end, but not before Plympton creates classic cartoon animation that stretches the limits of the physical world and takes us inside Dog’s mind with visual balloons of great hilarity. I’m not always fond of Plympton’s animations, but his Dog series is a real winner and the type of cartoon short I’d love to see at the front of a feature film if that practice ever returns to the cinema.
Hot Dog trailer
The Black Cabinet (2007) Director: Christine Rebet
Using a flickering, mainly static-image style, Christine Rebet very obliquely comments on complacency in a dangerous world. The aristocratic roulette players in the bottom half of the frame applaud with amusement at a puppet made to dance for their amusement, a scene that replays again and again. I was reminded of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, as disaster of the aristocrats’ making seems inevitable. I thought the illustrations were quite interesting, but there was little to suggest to viewers a “story,” and I found myself unpleasantly puzzled until the last frames of the film.
Kizi Mizi (2007) Director: Mariusz Wilczyński
This crudely drawn animation by a well-known Polish animator, framed to suit the proportions of each scene and shot with intentional blurs, depicts a noirish love triangle between two cats who love the same mouse. The mouse loves only one of the cats, but the cat travels frequently; in her loneliness, the mouse repeatedly plays a tape of Fleetwood Mac’s “Need Your Love So Bad”. She eventually succumbs to the seductions of another. If you can picture a cat and a mouse French-kissing, you’ll understand how distastefully weird this film can be. But it is important to keep in mind that the story is introduced in the credits as a bedtime story. When we return to the world outside the story, a delightful surprise awaits us. If you have the patience to wait out the repetitiveness of this overlong short, you might end up with a laugh at the end.
Procrastination (2007) Director: John Kelly
This short discusses what the director/illustrator is feeling as he tries to get to work. Perhaps the favorite of the audience, the narration provides examples with which we all can identify, and the animation style is, in a word, cool. I managed to find the entire film on YouTube. See for yourself.
Trepan Hole (2008) Director: Andy Cahill
An inventive stop-motion animation that doesn’t have a narrative, Cahill’s short film plays with form as two ropey creatures move in and out of holes and tweak each other in a style the reminded me of some of Plympton’s transforming heads. Since the word “trepan” usually refers to holes drilled into skulls as an primitive treatment for mental illness, the creatures suggest “The Hearse Song” (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, The worms play pinochle on your snout…”). Trepan Hole doesn’t mean anything—it’s just fun to watch.
Stand Up (2008) Director: Joseph Pierce
An angry film, Stand Up shows a stand-up comedian introduced as John J. Jones, everyone’s favorite everyman, bomb in front of an audience when he starts to insult them and dwell on serious topics. Pierce does a wonderful job of taking an initially warm audience and slowly turning them sour. He shows the bitterness behind every clown, eventually having Jones strip naked before storming off the stage. The black-and-white illustrations are grotesque and fluid. This is a short drama that goes for the jugular.
John and Karen (2007) Director: Matthew Walker
This trifle has a polar bear apologize to his angry penguin girlfriend for criticizing her swimming speed and the size of the fish she catches. There’s not much to this short film, though I liked the line, “So you don’t catch whales. Nor do you need to!” The illustration style is clean, sweet, children’s book material.
Keith Reynolds Can’t Make It Tonight (2007) Director: Felix Massie
The opening dialogue by voiceover narrator Scott Johnson is, “This is Keith Reynolds, and today is promotion day. Having worked at the company eight years, he is the most senior Junior Business Analyst in the building. He’s been waiting for this day for a very long time.” My favorite short of this series, the idea for Keith Reynolds came from the years British animator Massie spent in the corporate world. The insanity of the passed-over middle manager has been filmed before, but the animation makes it simultaneously more funny and more serious as the figures have a crash-test dummy quality to them. I’d love to have this film in my private collection.
Keith Reynolds Can’t Make It Tonight clip
Lavatory – Lovestory (2007) Director: Konstantin Bronzit
This touching short film from Russia tells the story of a lavatory attendant with a secret admirer. The woman who watches over and cleans the men’s lavatory collects the coins the men drop in an empty mayonnaise jar at a turnstile she guards. As she reads a newspaper called “Happy Women,” she looks longingly at pictures of women who have a loving man encircling them. When she puts down the newspaper, she finds a bunch of flowers in her jar. Much puzzlement and craziness ensues as she keeps throwing the flowers out, only to have them replaced. The ending is sweet and satisfying. But do lavatories in Russia really have opposite-sex attendants? That’s something to mull.
Lavatory – Lovestory in full (9:39 minutes)
Out of Control (Fuera de control, 2008) Director: Sofia Carillo
Honestly, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this stop-motion animation from Mexico. The CIFF program says, “A chain reaction upsets the balance of a bizarre cycle.” OK, that sounds good to me, though I really didn’t see any cycle going before it got broken. The film has a deathlike quality and a very organic look. I liked the visuals even though that’s all I could appreciate in the noisy, but wordless, short film.
Lies (Lögner) Director: Jonas Odell
This strong, disturbing documentary from Sweden uses live-action animation to tell three stories of lies and deceitful lives—one of a burglar who managed to fool security guards at an office building and steal checks and merchandise, a young boy who confessed to a crime he didn’t commit and who then went on to become a thief, and a gypsy who was told by her mother never to reveal her true ethnicity and who bounced around the foster care system and became a drug addict. I found that this film from a young, but already celebrated, director, had an interesting and appropriate visual style—linear, mechanistic, muted in color. Because it uses interviews with the subjects themselves, the film is very dialogue-heavy and laden with subtitles, and that made actually watching the film difficult. Still, Lies is a compelling short. I couldn’t get this clip to download, but maybe you can.
In 2006, the world was shocked when a former member of the KGB and its successor after the fall of Communism—the FSB—named Alexander “Sasha “Litvinenko died in a London hosptial, a victim of poisoning from exposure to the radioactive compound polonium 210. His slow and agonizing decline and death were captured in a media circus, particularly in Britain, where he had sought political asylum several years before after going public with information that the FSB ordered contract murders and was corrupt.
Andrei Nekrasov, a Russian filmmaker torn by grief at the fate that had befallen his friend Sasha, set out to investigate the possible reasons for his murder. His journey took him through Russia, Germany, France, and England, where he met people who knew Sasha, worked with him, loved him, and hated him. What he assembled from archival and original footage is a wide-ranging, rambling scar of a movie—a cry of despair and outrage from its maker. Watching Poisoned by Polonium is an exhausting, confusing, sometimes mesmerizing experience in which Nekrasov piles up facts, events, and ideas without really making sense of them.
During the first part of the film, Nekrasov spends an inordinate amount of time on himself—literally. The camera rarely leaves his face as he absorbs what is happening to his friend and reflects on on-camera interviews he conducted with Sasha, presumably for another project, in which Litvinenko railed against what he saw as the nexus of corruption in Russia—Vladimir Putin. In pursuit of the truth, Nekrasov probes the history of late Soviet Russia and events up to the present.
For much of the scene setting, Nekrasov discusses the bombing of apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999, called by the government acts of terror by rebels from Chechnya that eventually precipitated war. In a technique Nekrasov uses frequently in the film, normal life in Chechnya is shown, only to be contrasted with the devastation of war. This rather unnecessary emphasis that war is hell is followed by another frequently used technique—changing locations before a new establishing shot pulls the viewer out of the previous one, thus thoroughly confusing Nekrasov’s point. He seems to want to say that the Chechens are the poor unfortunates by showing their bombed-out homes and war dead, but before we know it, he’s showing Russian war dead and grieving Russian mothers. Of course, this was reality, but then he moves directly to Russians saying that the Chechens deserved it for bombing the apartments and on to conspiracy theories that the FSB planted the bombs themselves to secure Putin’s rise to power. As someone with hardly a nodding acquaintance with current events in Russia, the timelines and particulars of these events were not familiar to me. Nekrasov does little to enlighten me.
What he does do is show how Litvinenko became notorious in Russia for outing the FSB’s corruption and murder schemes. Litvinenko contended that an FSB internal affairs agent Mikhail Trepashkin was framed by other FSB agents for weapons possession because he revealed evidence that the FSB was involved in corruption and may have been involved in the apartment bombings. He was found not guilty but immediately rearrested for revealing state secrets. Nekrasov is told that the judge who dismissed the charges was removed from his position and replaced by one “bought” to serve the FSB and government interests. Litvinenko himself said the FSB tried to buy his participation on their hit squad, but that he refused. He released videos taken through a hidden camera that show his boss Alexander Gusak and others talking about murdering certain individuals. Gusak is interviewed by Nekrasov about the hit squads and Litvinenko, whom Gusak mentored. Gusak now thinks of Litvinenko as a prick.
Another interview subject for Nekrasov is Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who, at the time of the interview, had just published an article about the rape of Chechen women by Russian soldiers. Nekrasov is shown going all over Moscow trying to find a copy of the journal that published her article—nobody is selling it. Abruptly, we move forward in time to Politkovskaya’s own murder in her Moscow apartment building. Obviously, criticism is taken very seriously in the new Russia.
The film is no marvel of cinematography or editing. Whoever was filming Nekrasov didn’t seem to know how to hold a camera or what to film. While I’ve read charges that Nekrasov appears self-indulgent in this film because he’s in so many of its frames, I’m inclined to think that he had so little usable footage to work with that he had to make do.
More importantly, do all these events and inferences add up to a plot at the highest levels to silence Litvinenko? Nekrasov seeks the advice of French philosopher André Glucksmann, who notes that Russians, subjected for centuries to czarist rule, have a slave mentality—they want a strongman to pull the strings. I admit that I have sometimes thought this myself, but if Putin was a strongman, he’s really not much different from George W. Bush, who was elected by the supposedly most democratic nation in the world. Russian lawlessness during the transition to democracy seems to have progressed much as one would expect in a country where basic deprivations still existed. As prosperity has slowly risen, social order has gained a foothold.
Nonetheless, Nekrasov’s impassioned document, returning belatedly to Litvinenko’s murder and his grieving wife Marina, left me wondering if perhaps there wasn’t something to his theories. I’m usually the first person to pooh-pooh a conspiracy theory espoused by the more-suspicious hubby. This time, the hubby pooh-poohed Litvinenko.
I decided to contact David Southwell, an author of books on organized crime as well as the recently published Conspiracy Files. I became a fan of his now-defunct blog English Dreaming, English Rain, where he and I became slightly acquainted. David mentioned the death of Litvinenko on his blog, and I wanted his opinion of the documentary and its allegations. Here’s what he said:
While I could not call Alex a close friend, we had talked, and he had provided useful contacts when I was writing about Russian organized crime. However, what a lot of people seem to have forgotten about him since his death was that he was a conspiracy theorist. His bogeyman was Putin, but often behaved in the same way as those whose see Freemasons or the Mafia behind every event from the death of JFK to the name change of Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC. At times, Alex on Putin was like Abbie Hoffman on Nixon circa 1970.
What I found disappointing about Rebellion is that it was short on context. Putin’s rise to power did not need the bombings; there was little exploration of how much of a failed state Russia already was or how normal this type of false flag conspiracy is. Often, the best you can do is find evidence of a conspiracy, but showing one existed will rarely tell you who was responsible for it. Rebellion failed to provide the tools for its audience to judge which allegations had genuine—and therefore frightening—substance and which, like the claims Alex so often made in person about Putin being a paedophile, were free from the burden of demonstrable facts.
Using the blunt scalpel on common sense and as much of an investigation as I could muster, I concluded last year that Alex was murdered not by agents sent by Putin, but by his friends. Irony indeed that he may have died in a false flag murder to provide a martyr, his strange, lingering death broadcast globally.
Although I am steeped in conspiracy research, I believe that probably only 5% would qualify as genuine conspiracies and even then, determining those responsible is exceptionally difficult. Plausible deniability often means that someone such as Putin would have little direct knowledge of any false flag operation being conducted in his name.
Nekrasov’s problem is that he takes that one conspiracy (the death of Alex) means proof of another. While I think there is good proof that the apartment bombings were a conspiracy, the death of Alex does not provide proof that they were the direct work of Putin. Nekrasov also seems so blinded by anger and grief, that the ‘investigation’ into the death of Alex is terribly lopsided. The film reminded me of a father whose son has been killed in a hit-and-run spewing out allegations, some of which may be likely and true (the bastard must have been drunk) but over which no evidence is presented. Some allegations that come from rage, frustration, and pain and say more about Nekrasov and the world view of those anti-Putin than they do about reality.
I have recently turned down writing a book on Russian crime because of the possibility of writing both safely and accurately is limited. The subject fascinates and is worthy of study, but I feared I would only end up producing another partisan, emotional mess like Nekrasov.
I’m sure you’ll agree with me that David’s thoughts are illuminating, and I thank him for allowing me to quote them here. As a Chicagoan, I’m more than familiar with corruption and violence among those charged with protecting citizens; just today, John Kass wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “Chicago politics have historically been important in the selection of police commanders and top brass. Just a few years ago, even the Chicago mob had a big say in who worked where in the top echelons of the department.” But I think I’d have to agree with David—when it comes to someone you know or something you care about, it’s hard not to end up with an emotional mess. If you can deal with that, Poisoned by Polonium has some solid information for the neophyte to the way Russia works today.