Bright Lights Film Journal

Russian Cinema After Perestroika: Notes from the 2000 Thessaloniki International Film Festival

A heady tour of alternative world cinema from one of Europe’s oldest festivals

Repentant sinners, ideological misfits, vindictive peasant workers, obsessed lovers, and aging prostitutes are but a few of the miscreants who hurtle across the screen in a slate of contemporary Russian films shown at the 41st Thessaloniki International Film Festival in November 2000.

A common thread running through the festival’s program of 12 films, all made post-perestroika, was their often maddening impenetrability. So dense were they with historical references that it seemed as if one had to be a Russian history scholar to fully assess what was happening on screen. Aesthetically, the films wandered from pastoral landscapes and sedate compositions to the avant garde and visual pyrotechnics. Paradoxically, these elements made viewing the works more exhilarating (at least for this viewer) because passive watching was simply not an option: the films demanded absolute engagement from the audience.

Exemplifying the unfathomable was Alexei German’s Khroustaliov, My Car! (1998), a highly charged phantasmagorical romp through the last days of Stalin. Set in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, Yuri Glinski (wildly played to perfection by Yuri Tsurilo) is a Red Army general, a famous brain surgeon, and the head of a large family of assorted freaks and eccentrics. A bald giant with a sardonic grin, he splits his time between adulterous affairs, the hospital, and tending to his family – all the while imbibing copious amounts of vodka. Things fall apart when the KGB instigates an anti-Semitic “Doctors’ Plot, ” which drags the General into a sordid affair. He attempts to flee but is soon arrested and sent to the gulag, where he is tortured. In a second arbitrary shift of fate, the General is freed and taken to see Stalin, who is on his deathbed. He is asked to use his medical expertise to save the “People’s Little Father, ” but he is too late. Ten years later, we encounter the General on a train crossing Russia. He is now the leader of a gang of bandits. And the pandemonium continues.

Shot in high-contrast black-and-white over a ten-year period, Khroustaliov expresses the visceral cruelty and surreal chaos of the period with a visual force that is overwhelming. Images of constantly steaming samovars, hot white light burning through window panes, blackened spindly trees, endless maze-like corridors, and one of the most brutal rape scenes ever depicted, all deftly capture the sense of a world gone insane – the gulag as part nightmare, part carnival.

Displaying visual poetics of a more subtle but no less powerful nature, Moloch (1999), Aleksandr Sokurov’s latest work, is a complex allegory about redemption. The film focuses on a single day in the lives of Adolph Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun while they stayed at the Fuhrer’s Alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden during the late spring of 1942, a few months before the German defeat at Stalingrad.

Employing parody as a method of visualizing the “banality of evil, ” Sokurov presents us with images of Nazis as neurotic, petit bourgeoisie. Hitler – or “Adi” as Eva calls him – is a hypochondriac who spends his time moaning about defecation among other inane musings, Martin Boormann is a drawing-room swell, and propaganda minister Josef Goebbels is cast as an effete egghead who is tended to by his fawning wife Magda. Eva, the only person who dares contradict Hitler, is a frustrated lover, tired of the Fuhrer’s rantings but desperate for his affection.

Underlying these caricatures is a profound and disturbing thought: By humanizing evil, do we then open the door for the salvation of those who perpetrate such horrific crimes against humanity? During Moloch’s screening at Cannes in 1999 – where it received a mostly negative reception despite its award for best screenplay – Sokurov noted that Eva was the character that troubled him the most. “For a Christian, it’s through love that one finds the essence of salvation, but can one save one’s soul by loving a monster? Eva Braun, according to existing memoirs, was capable of sacrificing herself for love. Because of this, she was doomed for a tragic existence. She is the real main character of the film.”

Sokurov’s aesthetics add multiple layers to an already manifold work. Characters framed and dwarfed by landscapes, ominous swirling mist, the bending of perspective, soft focus, and murky colors recall German expressionism, particularly the work of Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. Russian actors speaking dubbed German enhances the effect.

Focusing on a present-day catastrophe, Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s Checkpoint (1998) takes a sharp look at the northern Caucasus and the interminable wars that plague the region. Based on a true story, the film centers on a group of Russian soldiers who botch a search of a Muslim village. A child is blown up by a land mine, and in the ensuing confusion two adults are killed by the panicking soldiers. As punishment, the soldiers, a ragtag collection of inexperienced young men, are sent to a remote army checkpoint where there is no battlefield but every local inhabitant is a potential armed enemy.

Without directly mentioning Chechnya, Checkpoint convincingly portrays the soldiers’ sense of futility and incomprehension about their purpose in a region that was forcibly placed under Russian domination. The use of voiceover and hand-held camerawork gives the film a documentary feel and imparts a sense of gravity.

Other notable screenings included Bratan (The Little Brother, 1991), by Bakhtiyar Khudoynazarov, a wonderful sketch of the love and rivalry between two brothers, Farruh and Azamat, who embark on a train journey across the steppes of Tadjikistan (beautifully shot on location) to visit their father, a doctor in a sanitarium; Barracks (1999), directed by Valerij Ogorodnikov, a tender-hearted look at a gallery of oddballs and victims of political purges living in a communal barracks in a small town south of the Urals just after Stalin’s death; and Lidia Bobrova’s In That Land (1997), an insightful view of the harsh realities of Russian rural life and the spirited nature with which the villagers meet their burdens.

Thessaloniki International Film Festival is held annually in mid-November in Greece’s second largest city, located on the Thermaikos Gulf of the northern Aegean Sea. The festival promotes alternative, unconventional works by mostly young, independent directors (the festival’s international competition is open to first and second features only) and emphasizes East European and Balkan cinema.