2018 Film Essays

You Want It Darker: A MoMI Series Depicts Vladimir Putin’s Russia as Violent and Corrupt

On March 26, 2000, Vladimir Putin became President of Russia, assuming that position until 2008. That year, Dmitry Medvedev took the role for a brief spell, before Putin returned as president for a third term on March 4, 2012, a position he holds to this day. Twenty-first century Russian cinema is concomitant with Putin’s presidencies. Putin’s Russia: a 21st-Century Film Mosaic — a series currently running at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York — presents a myriad of films made during the last 18 years that reflect the country during Putin’s time in office.

There has always been a history of political commentary, skepticism and cynicism in Russian cinema, particularly of the art house variety. The melancholic mood becomes several shades darker under Putin. The films programmed by curators Eric Hynes and Daniel Witkin — several of them structured around a journey — deal with bureaucracy and institutional corruption, violence and the cyclical nature of history. Using different generic and stylistic modes — documentary, social realism, science fiction — these films present narratives that further reify the country as a miasmic mass of disorder that stems from the top (government) down (citizens). Yes, there are a few exceptions: Alina Rudnitskaya’s observational documentary Blood (2013) shows a small roving independent team of nurses acquiring blood from Russians, often paying the low-income and impoverished for their donations; Aleksey Uchitel’s The Stroll (2003) is a romance that unfolds in real time and set during Putin’s first term as president. However, these more “positive” films (while still being critical) are few and far between. They are the exceptions that prove the rule that Russia is bloody and broken.

Russia is the largest county in the world by area, and many of the films in the series are set in the countryside, beyond Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. Journeying across the expansive rural terrain is quite precarious — as Dmitry Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie (2016) makes clear. The found footage film consists wholly of an assemblage of dash cam videos uploaded to YouTube (even out on the open road, technology is inescapable). Popular, these tiny cameras are in many Russian drivers’ cars. On the one hand, the in-dash cameras are a preventive measure against crime and neglectful/corrupt law enforcement, and on the other, they result in an endless supply of surveillance footage, documenting everything from the mundane to strange and bizarre Ballardian spectacles — cars crashing, animals hit and ran over, forests aflame, pedestrians fighting and much, much more.

At times, the wealth of imagery from these dash cams even intersects with major historical events, an indication of the film’s latent political commentary. In one brief moment in The Road Movie, so brief and unremarkable that one could easily take it for granted, there’s footage of a car driving at night. It’s pretty innocuous save for the timestamp, which marks the date as roughly 30 minutes past midnight on February 28, 2015 — a mere hour or so after the assassination of liberal opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

In Sergei Loznitsa’s films, the road returns, this time as an existential nightmare. Adapted from a Fyodor Dostoevsky short story, the ironically titled A Gentle Creature (2017) centers on a middle-aged woman journeying to find her husband in a prison town, where every person she meets poses as a threat. This later film is a kind of companion piece to Loznitsa’s My Joy (2010), his international breakout — another much darker road movie. People wander zombie-like along the highways that slice up the Russian backwoods. Villagers are terrorized; prostitutes idle by the side of roads; police officers and patrolmen will sure as beat you to a pulp as pull you over. The film treats violence as mundane, as part of everyday life. It even begins with a man — either unconscious or dead — tossed into a muddy pit and buried.

Loosely following a young man — seemingly the only decent, principled Russian in this corner of the country — My Joy makes organic digressions, giving time to other characters, their stories represented in unaccented flashbacks. At a certain point, inevitably, violence makes its way to the protagonist, a blow that renders him catatonic and passive for the remainder of the movie. Necessarily bleak, My Joy shows the country caught in the kind of circuitous violence that ultimately corrupts man. Nice guys finish last, at least until they’re no longer nice.

In My Joy, Loznitsa maps out a psychogeography of rural Russia. Blood irrigates and fertilizes the land, it seems, nourishing it in a never-ending cycle. History repeats itself — or rather, history has embedded itself in the present. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Loznitsa refers to a moment in the film: in a flashback, a teacher casually remarks to a pair of visiting World War II soldiers that the country will be better once the Germans take over and everything returns to normal; the duo murder him for his comment. According to Loznitsa, it’s a scene “that would almost trigger a schizophrenic attack in anyone who still adheres to a Soviet mentality.”

The affinities between Soviet and post-Soviet Russia are laced through both the narrative and the production history of Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God (2013). To describe German’s film is to unfurl a scroll of contradictory adjectives: gross, engrossing, putrid, beautiful, abject, immersive. It is based on Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel of the same name, and long in the making: German wanted to make the film even before his first feature, 1968’s Trial on the Road, and started/halted production several times over the decades, before finally returning to the project in 2000. He had nearly completed the black and white film when he died in 2013; his wife and creative partner, Svetlana Karmalita, and his son and fellow director, Aleksei German Jr., put the finishing touches on the post-production.

Set in the future on the planet of Arkanar, Hard to Be a God follows Don Rumata, a historian in disguise, sent to the planet from Earth to observe the native civilization as it’s about to enter its equivalent of the Enlightenment. But the Enlightenment never comes, and Don Rumata becomes ensconced in the medieval muck and mire, caught up in the skirmishes of feuding regimes. Depressive and moody, Don Rumata ambles through the wet wasteland. As some critics have pointed out, the bloodshed, corruption and power struggles of Hard to Be a God could be read as a commentary on Putin-era Russia. Yet the dense and multi-faceted nature of the film transcends contemporary political commentary. Hard to Be a God, to say the least, can be seen as a flexible metaphor for the unchanging state of both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.

Back on planet Earth, in contemporary Russia, there’s Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014), which is a film that synthesizes all of the elements discussed in the previously mentioned films (a countryside setting, corruption between citizens and public officials), serving this combination in the form of a capital “A” art house (wide shots and a deliberately slow pace) and social realist (a patina of naturalistic performances) work. The story is simple, so simple that Zvyagintsev plumbs its depths over the course of its 140-minute runtime. The film features irate citizens, a cynical, colluding Orthodox priest and a knockdown drunk strong-arm politician. A middle-aged family man, Nikolay, in northern Russia fights for possession of his home from a mayor, Shelevyat. The latter will do anything, using all of the weight of his administration to acquire the land for a “community center” he wants to build. One night, the public official, accompanied by a few bodyguards, strolls in a black SUV to Nikolay’s home and, incredibly drunk, threatens him. What follows is a Kafkaesque montage in which Nikolay’s friend and attorney draws up a statement of complaint. But when he files it through the proper channels of government, the document gets derailed through the bureaucratic machinery — and yet word of the document gets back to Shelevyat.

There isn’t a lot of physical violence in Leviathan, but it is in the air. It’s hinted at. And when it does inevitable come, it’s devastating, leading to multiple examples of loss for Nikolay and only ill-gotten gains for Shelevyat.

Leviathan is perhaps Zvyagintsev’s most internationally successful and critically acclaimed film yet. But in Russia, leading conservative figures (politicians, poets, church officials) lambasted the film. Oddly, however, Putin’s government did not publicly criticize the film. Be that as it may, Masha Lipman points out in The New Yorker that “the Kremlin may not have initiated the smear campaign against Zvyagintsev, but it bears full responsibility for emboldening his attackers.”

Loznitsa, Kalashnikov, German and Zvyagintsev — all are high-profile and rising directors making films that criticize Putin’s Russia, portraying the Kremlin as crooked and the country as brutal. For me, the picture that MoMI’s series paints is overwhelmingly bleak, perhaps teetering on the edge of excessive. An alternative title (or question) for the program could be supplied by Leonard Cohen’s last album: You Want it Darker? MoMI’s series is an unflattering depiction of Mother Russia that isn’t new, but these films in particular — and this series in general — provide narratives that illustrate the specifics of Putin’s disorderly government: the neo-Soviet principles, the rampant corruption and violence in the countryside, the clash between citizens and politicians.

Tanner Tafelski (@TTafelski) is a film writer and journalist based in New York City. He frequently contributes to Hyperallergic, Kinoscope and The Village Voice. Find him on Instagram, Letterboxd and WordPress.