Category: Russian cinema

Leviathan (Russia 2014)

The Leviathan trapped in the bay . . .

The Leviathan trapped in the bay . . .

Leviathan is certainly a beautifully-made film with excellent performances, great cinematography and a richly-layered narrative. But I’m not sure whether I’ve completely grasped it on a first viewing. Perhaps I was over-tired but I did sense the narrative intensity slow around the mid-point. I also noted some missing connections – again perhaps I simply didn’t see them. I suspect that my fears will prove groundless after a second or third viewing.

There has already been a great deal written about a film which is currently vying with Pawlikowski’s Ida (review coming here soon) for top European film of the year. I’ll try not to cover the same ground but I need first to introduce the background to the story. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin got the story idea from an American news report about a man in the Mid-West. The set-up is both universal and very Russian. The film’s title refers to both the sea monster of the Book of Job and Hobbes’ book on the philosophy of the ‘contract’ between the state and the individual. The only thing I can remember about Hobbes is his description of life as “nasty, brutish and short”. I think I saw recently that Russia is one of the few places where life expectancy for men was for a period falling – largely because of excessive vodka drinking. The man at the centre of Leviathan is Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov). He has built a house and a workshop on a headland overlooking a bay on the coast in the Murmansk Oblast (that’s northern Russia’s Arctic coast – or the Barents Sea). Now it appears that the corrupt local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has successfully conspired to seize the house and its land. The legal process is nearing completion. Kolia’s last resort is to send for Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), his former ‘junior’ officer in the Russian Army and now a slick Moscow lawyer. Dmitri’s arrival has unexpected consequences for Kolia and his little family – his young teenage son Roma and his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova).

Kolia's house

Kolia’s house

The three things that struck me most about the film were the sense of place, mainly achieved through the ‘Scope cinematography, the attention given to the church and the eroticism of Lilya as the woman caught in the middle of what is essentially a male narrative. I haven’t seen the director’s earlier films but I do have a DVD of The Return which I’m now determined to watch. Even so the Russian landscape (and local culture) seemed familiar partly because I’d seen the short documentaries shot in the Murmansk region that were shown at the Bradford Film Festival earlier this year and partly because similar landscapes are found in Northern Norway. I presume that Leviathan is set in summer since there are only small pockets of snow – but it still means that the land has a hard and cold beauty rather than the lushness of summer further south.

Hobbes always struck me as offering the bleakest possible view of humanity and forms of governance – in which survival is only possible because the majority agree to surrender all power to a single strong ruler in order to avoid civil war. Russia seems to be a society that has never escaped from the grip of this kind of pessimistic view of the world – apart from brief periods. Hobbes also included the strong connection between the church and the absolute ruler. One of the features of Leviathan the film, is the role played by the Orthodox church leader (a bishop?). This character makes two important appearances in the narrative and seems only interested in consolidating his own power. But director Zvyagintsev also offers us a priest whose activities include feeding the poor.

Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov) and Lilya (Elena Lyadova)

Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov) and Lilya (Elena Lyadova)

The film’s narrative offers us a man who fights for his family and his home. He is irascible and prone to lose his temper but he is passionate about his beliefs. He’s up against a system that is presented as absurd in its adherence to procedures when decisions have already been taken by corrupted officials. This is neatly visualised in a pair of scenes. In the first, one of three women on the bench of the local court reads through a judgement at breakneck speed confirming that Kolia’s appeals are worthless and in another in the Mayor’s office, under a portrait of Putin, local officials are berated by the Mayor and reminded of what they need to do to protect their corrupt local power base. Much has been made of the fact that the film is supported by state funding/recognition but that it appears to be condemnatory. This is a good example of how films can be read differently by different people in different circumstances. Zvyagintsev has made various statements about the film’s themes and these have been interpreted in almost completely opposed ways. There is far too much going on in the film to make any kind of glib interpretation. It is important to note that the key moment in the narrative is perhaps the ‘shooting party’, a birthday celebration and another excuse for serious drinking. This includes some interesting ‘commentary’ (‘jokes’) on Russian gun culture, the legacy of military service and attitudes towards Russia’s leaders of past and present. It also provokes the incident which triggers the excess of the family melodrama. This returns us to the roles of women in the film. I almost feel like I need to see the film again before I can say anything about the female roles and it does seem to me that everything I’ve read about the film has come from men.

I wonder if I’m trying to read the women in the film as pragmatic – concerned with family, work, love, sex etc. rather than power? Do the women who agree to support the mayor do so because it makes life more tolerable and allows them to do the more important things? If you start to feel that getting on with life instead of resisting corrupt power is the only way, what does that mean? At this point I realise that most of the UK population don’t go out of their way to resist the corrupt power of the financial-political élite who rule in the UK. Somebody suggested to me recently that Leviathan was the most depressing film that they’d seen for a long time. I have to disagree. It made me think and when I think, I’m still alive. I’m not depressed. I would recommend Leviathan to anyone who feels the same way.

BIFF 2014 #18: Shorts

The two brothers in 'Whale Valley'

The two brothers in ‘Whale Valley’

Portrait Without BleedBradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.

I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.

Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.

BIFF 2014 #9: Brother (Brat, Russia 1997)

Sergey Bodrov as Danila in 'Brother'

Sergey Bodrov as Danila in ‘Brother’

Portrait Without BleedThree films from the Russian director Alexei Balabanov were screened at BIFF last year and they proved very popular with festival regulars. Sadly the director died in May 2013 aged only 54 – as did the star of Brother, Sergey Bodrov, in an accident during a film shoot in 2002. Screening Brother was therefore both a follow-up and a tribute.

Brother was both a big box office hit and a critical success (but also creating controversy with claims that it was fascistic and ‘not Russian’ in its appeal to Western audiences). The film exhibition business was still recovering from almost complete obliteration in Russia in the 1990s so much of that ‘box office’ must have come through video copies, legal or otherwise. It isn’t difficult to imagine younger audiences quickly latching on to Sergey Bodrov as an attractive young man dealing out a form of ‘justice’ on the streets of Leningrad/Saint Petersburg.

Bodrov plays a young man just demobbed by the Russian Army who arrives in his home town, quickly gets into trouble and is packed off to Saint Petersburg to find his older brother who his mother believes is in a respectable job. He isn’t and soon he has recruited his younger brother to help him in a battle with local gangsters. What follows is mostly conventional for the gangster film across all major film industries. What distinguishes this film is the setting – the city still recognisable as the Leningrad of Eisenstein except in colour – and the young hero Danila who makes things happen as quickly as the young Corleone in Godfather 2. Danila repeatedly tells people that he was only a “clerk at HQ” but he is adept at handling weapons, modifying them and using them imaginatively. He kills without compunction but with efficiency, but he has a sense of honour and he keeps his word. He enjoys Russian rock music and he has an eye for women including a tram driver. (The ancient open tram is the star attraction in the mise en scène of the city.) It isn’t difficult to see why Bodrev became popular so quickly.

The charges against the film are not easy to explore. Danila befriends an old man in the vegetable market who turns out to be German but this may be a code for Jewish. Either way, Danila needs a supportive group and he works with them whilst making noises about other groups that suggest ‘learned’ prejudices. There is a reference to gay characters and I don’t feel able to properly discuss the range of representations – Russia is generally presented as a hard-drinking society with social behaviour to match (although Danila also visits a post-hippy party as well). Based on the reputation for extreme violence in the films shown last year (which I didn’t see) Brother seems to keep within the boundaries of mainstream entertainment cinema and on that level I enjoyed it very much.

Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, USSR 1971/1985)

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The Leeds International Film Festival excelled itself with this tribute to director Aleksai German who died earlier this year aged 74. I didn’t do any research before the screening and I was completely blown away by some of the scenes as well as intrigued by the overall ideological discourse of this anti-war film set during the bitter fighting in the Western Soviet Empire in the winter of 1942/3. It was only after the screening that I realised that I did know about German (or Gherman/Guerman to distinguish the hard ‘G’). I’m fairly sure that I saw My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1987 but I remember little about it except that I liked it very much. (The film is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian films.)

German was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet censors and it wasn’t until perestroĭka under Gorbachev that his films began to be seen in Russia or in the West. Trial on the Road was completed in 1971 but not released until 1985 (the date on the 35mm film print screened at the Hyde Park Cinema). The film is based on a story by German’s father Yuri, a legendary writer who wrote films for the director Grigori Kozintsev and acted as a war correspondent during 1940-5. He also wrote short stories and novels, one of which, Operation Happy New Year, became the basis of Trials on the Road. When the younger German began to show an interest in cinema he worked first under his father’s old colleague Kozintsev in the late 1950s. Find out much more about Aleksai German’s films from this interesting blog.

Trial on the Road (there are other English translations such as Checkpoint etc.) is a film about The Great Patriotic War and therefore in the 1970s expected to show the heroism of the Red Army. There is heroism in the film, but it’s complicated and there is realism and humanism to the fore. The ‘Eastern Front’ was the major theatre of the Second World War in Europe (or ‘Eurasia’). Many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states opted to or were forced to fight for the Nazis or the Red Army as they were occupied by one then the other. Others simply became refugees. Many must have changed sides to stay alive. It wasn’t clear to me where exactly this film was set but there are references to Estonia and to the railway line to Pskov – a town in Western Russia close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia.

Lazarev is a former Red Army soldier who defected to the Germans but now wants to change sides again and fight for the partisans behind the German lines. He surrenders to a group of partisans who might just be expected to shoot him as a traitor. (And this has been argued as one of the reasons that the film was not released under Brezhnev – it was seen as counter to the conduct of the war.) Instead the militia leader (or ‘Senior Citizen Lieutenant’ as the subtitles put it) Lokotkov decides that Lazarev could be useful in an audacious plan to steal a food train. Lokotkov also demonstrates a basic humanity. The ‘trial’ of the title refers to the various struggles within the partisan group over Lazarev and the plans for the train. Lazarev proves himself in an attack which captures a German military car. In doing so one of the other partisans is killed and the Red Army Major attached to the partisans tries to blame Lazarev for the death. But Lokotkov (the leading character in the film) gets his way and the plans are brought to fruition. The actor playing Lazarev, Vladimir Zamansky, is said to have been cast because he was not a celebrated actor or a recognisable face. He struck me as an enigmatic but attractive figure, often silent but with a face that could light up – the only flaw in the casting for me was the notion that he had been a taxi driver before the war (I probably have the wrong view of taxi drivers). The main point is that although he does perform ‘heroically’ in redeeming his earlier conduct in going over to the enemy, he can’t be the official ‘hero’ required by the censorship authorities under Brezhnev.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

This is warfare of the most brutal kind carried out in an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of snow-covered plains, ramshackle villages and sparse woods. German shot the film in black and white with three different cinematographers used for his complex tracking shots across the terrain. Two of the set piece scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen. In one German soldiers appear as wraiths out of the fog overwhelming a Russian lookout. I know that’s been done before but the handling of the scene is terrific. I won’t spoil the second example which was just stunning. The ending of the film celebrates the advance of the Red Army into Germany, but again the director avoids the triumphal and the super-heroism decreed by Soviet socialist realism. Instead he hones in on comradeship and a meeting of the principals from the food train hijack.

This is a must see. I discovered that a free download at reasonable quality is on the Internet Archive website (with links to an English subtitle file. None of German’s films is easily available on DVD outside Russia yet his high status as a filmmaker is not in doubt. If anyone else is brave enough to screen this in a cinema near you, drop everything and go.