Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 29, 2011

Siberia Monamour; The Edge

Filed under: Film,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

Something tells me that Russian film is going through some kind of renaissance. My first inkling was “Silent Souls”, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s meditation on love and loss among the Merjan people that I reviewed last month. Like “Silent Souls”, two recent films are set in Russia’s hinterlands and to be sure, there is nothing more hinter than Siberia. Last night I saw “Siberia, Monamour” that kicked off the Eleventh Annual Russian Film Week in New York at the Village East theater. If this film is any indication of the quality of the films being shown at this festival through November 5th, and I suspect it is, New Yorkers are strongly urged to check out the schedule and make time for something special. Also set in Siberia is “The Edge”, a striking mixture of life in the gulag and steam locomotives! It opens at the Laemmle Theater in Los Angeles on November 23rd. Both of these films capture the visual beauty of the Siberian taiga (mountainous forests resembling the Canadian Rockies) as well as its physical and psychological isolation. Superior story telling and performances mark both as well. While neither one is explicitly political, it is obvious that both represent attempts to come to grips with the Soviet experience.

Monamour, obviously a play on “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”, is the name of a tiny Siberian village in post-Soviet Russia that is suffering the effects of economic rather than nuclear fall-out. This is not the Russia of oligarchs in Gucci shoes driving Mercedes-Benz’s. The main mode of transportation is a horse-drawn hay cart that Yura (Sergey Novikov) uses to visit his young nephew Leshia (Mikhail Protsko) and Ivan (Pyotr Zaychenko), his father and the boy’s grandfather, in Monamour. When Yura’s wife discovers some canned goods buried in the hay that will help the old man and the boy make it through hard times, she withdraws them angrily. There is barely enough food for his own family, how can he give anything to others? It is obvious that in a devastated Siberia, individual need trumps solidarity.

Also buried in the hay is a hunting rifle that Yuri needs as protection from feral dogs that live in the woods. We first see these dogs in the opening scenes as they devour a deer that they have hunted down. As terrifying as they appear, one of the dogs is a frequent and friendly visitor to the primitive farmhouse inhabited by Leshia and his grandfather. Leshia calls the dog Fang in homage to White Fang, the wolf-dog in Jack London’s children’s adventure story. His grandfather hates the feral dogs since they have killed most of the game in the surrounding forests. In this Hobbesian universe, it is dog versus man—literally so, as we will eventually discover. In a world with little in the way of creature comforts or hope for the future, the grandfather relies totally on a religious icon that he prays to like clockwork, begging Jesus and God for relief that will certainly not come in this world. Looking at the miserable conditions such people live in, one wonders whether Communism managed to change daily life in Siberia in any sort of material way.

The only signs of modernization would seem to be the army patrols that are looking for the criminals who prey on rural folk and who are the human equivalents of the feral dogs. On his way to Leshia and Ivan, Yuri runs into a couple of soldiers who have lost their way in the forest. After giving them directions, he prevails on them to share some home-brewed alcohol and food that he has brought along. The older soldier, a Captain (Nikolai Kozak), is only too happy to drink with Yuri and they finish off the bottle, much to the chagrin of the younger soldier who takes his job seriously. As Yuri continues on his way—drunkenly—to his father and nephew, the two soldiers head to a local whorehouse where the Captain’s degradation only deepens.

The paths of the soldiers, a prostitute the Captain dragoons for his commanding officer—a degenerate who even the Captain will not forbear, Yuri’s family, the feral dogs, and two criminals searching for religious icons to sell as antiques become intertwined in a complex but deftly handled plot that combines sardonic humor and wrenching pain and suffering. Furthermore, the characters—both human and canine—are not drawn together through the by-now hackneyed coincidence device found in another dog meets human film “Amores Perros”, but through the iron necessity of social relations in contemporary Russia.

This is only the second film ever made by Slava Ross, who was born in Siberia in 1966. It is both a loving tribute to a land that he obviously finds beautiful despite its harsh conditions as well as a cry against the suffering of its people today. If it ever makes it to American movie houses, as it surely should, don’t miss this memorable work of art.

In the opening scene of “The Edge” (Krai), we see Ignat (Vladimir Mashkov), a veteran of the recently concluded war against the Nazis, on board a steam locomotive that is heading to a Siberian work camp. Trains are the only way in and out of the camp, where Ignat has been assigned to work as a mechanic and engineer on the colossal machines. In this film, the machines are as important dramatically as the feral dogs are in “Siberia, Monamour”. Director Alexey Uchitel told the Voice of Russia:

The film is consistent with many Western stereotypes of Russia – the taiga, bears, moonshine, naked women in the Russian banya (sauna) a KGB agent with a gun.  But the racing around on old locomotives, built in the early 20th century, is quite an unusual thing. In the film, trains made in the early 20th century build up astonishing speeds.

Our locomotives are great actors. They are like living creatures. They hiss, they blow off steam, they can be gentle and they get so angry that they derail. When we were shooting the last episode a huge train derailed knocking off all our projector lamps.  I think he was really tired.

The camp is made up entirely of people who have had some contact with Nazi Germany, either as friend (Wehrmacht prisoners of war) or as foe—Russians who were used as slave labor. As was so often the case with Stalin, such distinctions hardly mattered.

There is no barbed wire or walls to keep the camp’s inhabitants from escaping. As the commandant, a man who lost his right arm in combat, tells Ignat, there is no exit from the camp except for the trains that he has been brought to maintain.

Ignat is a man of few words. Striding into the camp like Clint Eastwood into a lawless Southwest town, Ignat speaks through his actions. He has a master’s touch with the locomotives, and is unbeatable with his fists and irresistible to women, including the beautiful but coarse Sofia who dumps her current lover—an engineer like Ignat. She is a Russian who was dragged off to Germany just like the young prostitute is dragged off to satisfy Russian soldiers’ lust in “Siberia, Monamour”. When she is sent to the work camp after the war, she brings back an orphaned German baby boy who is still treated as an enemy by a Stalinist functionary who keeps the inmates in line.

Ignat soon learns that there is some kind of ghost living on a nearby island. After standing up to the German military, this amounted to small potatoes. The ghost turns out to be Elsa, a German woman in her early 20s who has been hiding out from the Russians since the war began. She came there originally with her father, who was hired to develop the railway system during the short-lived German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. When Hitler invaded Russia, Elsa and her father instantly become enemies and flee for their lives. Bullets strike her father down, but she narrowly escapes with her life. Like the last Japanese soldier on a desert island in the Pacific, she is not even aware that WWII has ended–or begun for that matter. All she knows is that the Russians want to kill her, for what reason she does not know.

Also on the island is a locomotive engine in utter disrepair that Ignat is determined to salvage and make his own. After an initial altercation with Ignat, Elsa becomes his assistant and then his lover.

Like “Siberia, Monamour”, this is a raw and elemental work that only deals with the Soviet experience in an indirect manner. But there is little doubt that the director’s sympathies are with those who became its victims. While director Alexey Uchitel’s main intentions are to tell a good story with believable and sympathetic characters, his film is a necessary commentary on a system that became undone through its own irrationalities. The idea that Russians who were dragged off as chattel slaves to Germany should be suspected of treason and kept isolated in Siberia is pure insanity.

Russia has selected “The Edge” for its Best Picture Academy Award this year. While I have no doubt concurring with this decision, I would raise the ante and bet that it will surpass anything made in Hollywood this year. It is reassuring that despite the continuing decline of Russia in the post-Soviet era into a typical, class-divided petro-dictatorship, the film industry shows signs of great health.

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