Since the dawn of the Soviet state, when Lenin supposedly declared cinema to be “the most important art”, Russian filmmakers have borne an exceptional degree of cultural responsibility. Their task is to somehow provide a coherent picture of the largest country on Earth, to express the varied sentiments of the nation’s ethnically disparate and geographically isolated populations while at the same time showing the rest of the world what a centralised and resolute place Russia really is. To achieve this aim the Russian film industry has typically produced an extremely varied output of features. Sophisticated art films and literary adaptations designed for the nation’s urban elites and European festivals are counterbalanced with unpretentious genre pictures: war films, science-fictions and, more recently, melodramas and romantic comedies. Such diversity was again evident last month at the 4th Annual Russian Resurrection Film Festival where the most opaque of existential meditations played comfortably alongside the most formulaic of swashbucklers.
At the serious end of this year’s program were two directorial debuts that have garnered considerable praise internationally—Michael Segal’s Franz and Polina and Ivan Vyrypaev’s Euphoria (winner of the Little Golden Lion at Venice and the Grand Prix for Best Film at Warsaw). The latter is a small budget chamber piece that presents a ‘Russiafied’ version of the nihilistic road-movie genre so prevalent in the American independent cinema of the 1980s and 90s. Set in mid-summer amidst the yellow vastness of the Russian steppes, Euphoria’s drama—if that’s what it can be called—centres on a love affair between married mother Vera and the nomadic Pasha and the retribution suffered upon them by Vera’s older, alcoholic and thus hard-done-by husband. An impressionistic work with minimal dialogue, Euphoria conveys its themes of desire and metaphysical abandon less through plot than through sweeping movements of emotion. Otherworldly images, wondrously captured by cinematographer Andrei Naidenov, develop in unison with a superb score by Aider Gainlin to produce an experiential narrative, one in which the viewer’s understanding of the film is less a matter of comprehending the story than of intimately feeling the mise-en-scene, of sensing the atmosphere. At once deeply cynical and texturally beautiful, Euphoria signals a new kind of sentiment germinating in Russia today (one we have already seen in Kirill Serebrennikov’s recent black comedy Playing the Victim). Detached from tradition, here only the present survives, and through it the characters drift aimlessly, content not to think about it. “Thinking”, Euphoria informs us, “only makes it worse.”
franz and polina
More focussed and, I think, rewarding is Michael Segal’s Franz and Polina, so far the winner of Best Film awards at Biarritz and Listopad. Another tragic love story, it tells of an incommunicable bond between a Bellorussian peasant girl and a young German soldier during the tail-end of World War II, at a time when Nazi forces retreating from the Russian front incinerated the inhabitants and villages of occupied East European territories. Perhaps unforgivably naïve to his rulers’ intentions, when Franz suddenly finds himself implicated in the slaughter of innocents he turns traitor to the Nazi cause and escapes with Polina, running a gauntlet of war and merciless winter cold. Plumbing the lower depths of humanity, Franz and Polina (like the best of Russian films) frames its largely speechless human drama in wider horizons, tenuously maintaining an affirmation of life through vivid expressions of natural light and a focus on the living substance of the Earth itself. A finely crafted and beautiful work, it marks the arrival of a considerable talent in director Segal.
beat the enemy
Another film drenched in the Russian love of nature is 80-year-old Vitali Melinkov’s semi-autobiographical comedy Beat the Enemy. Also set in the dying days of World War II, it follows a ragtag propaganda unit’s mission to spread the word of imminent Soviet victory to isolated communities dotted along a remote Siberian river. Standing before Orthodox pacifists, bawdy fisherwomen and the ‘People’s Enemies’ of Soviet gulags, the team present the state’s message with varying degrees of success, prompting premature celebrations from some and the unwavering disdain of others. A gentle comedy, like cheering up a grief-stricken loved one, Beat the Enemy defuses its nation’s deeply troubled memories of totalitarianism with a well-worn Russian strategy. Ideologues (the source of all human suffering) are rendered as morons while the normal folk simply go about life as best they can under the shadow of ridiculous tyranny. Not a flawless approach by any means—after all, bullets have a habit of tearing through denial—but nevertheless one way to maintain a degree of dignity in the face of unfathomable cruelty. Beat the Enemy had its international debut at the festival, opening the seasons in Melbourne and Adelaide.
Now to the populist end of this year’s program, and to two films, Day Watch and Wolfhound, that emphatically signal Russian cinema’s ascension to a new level of high budget filmmaking. The hotly anticipated sequel to the huge international success Night Watch, Timur Bekmambetov’s Day Watch, picks up where the first film left off, utilising a wilfully daft narrative premise involving a shaky truce between good and evil vampires simply as a launching pad for delirious outbursts of cartoon violence and manic stylistics. A wild and genuinely funny ride, Day Watch is more expensive and ambitious than the original, layering its Gilliamesque world with a technical maximalism reminiscent of Hong Kong director Tsui Hark and the surface level aesthetics of the cinéma du look. At times verging on pure abstraction in its sound and colour designs, what Day Watch lacks in terms of characterisation and narrative logic drifts by inconspicuously beneath a lovingly woven fabric of cinematic excess. Less a story than a sideshow, Day Watch is yet another example of the contemporary action film’s reversion to the early cinema of attractions: an incomprehensible pleasure which will no doubt draw the young’ns away from their gaming consoles when Fox Searchlight distributes it nationally in October.
Unfortunately, the same kind of praise cannot be bestowed upon Nikolai Lebedev’s equally ludicrous sword and sorcery epic Wolfhound, which, somewhat inappropriately, opened the festival in Sydney. Adapted from the best selling novel by Maria Semenova, the film contains all the elements you would expect from something of this kind: a revenge driven hero, a blind magician sidekick, a benevolent princess, her conniving cousin, a powerful phantom menace, a fairy godmother, potentially disastrous setbacks on the way to victory and a delightful pet bat thrown in for good measure. Alas, the ingredients alone don’t make the soup, and where Wolfhound abounds in good intentions it remains seriously lacking in the sophistication of character and wit that international audiences now expect from such romps. Although a massive domestic success, this bell won’t ring in the West; further proof that when Russia tries to emulate the US it always comes off second best.
up off its knees
Other new films to feature on the festival’s programme included Andrei Eshpai’s
menopausal romance Ellipsis, Igor Maslennikov’s costume satire Russian Money, Rezo Gigineishvili’s sex comedy Heat and Pavel Lunghin’s monastic drama The Island, which I reviewed earlier [RT77, p19]. A disparate mix to say the least, but in all a strong indication of a national industry “getting up off its knees” (to use a current national slogan) and moving on with confidence. It’s been a long time down and out for Russia, from Stalin to Brezhnev to Putin. Now it seems the time has come for its resurrection.
4th Annual Russian Resurrection Film Festival, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Canberra, Aug 30-Sept 16
RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 22
© Tom Redwood; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com