"Cargo 200": The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters By Raghavendra Mirle

in 48th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Raghavendra Mirle

The title of this piece is from an engraving by Francisco Goya and I thought its use would be appropriate in the context of a review of Alexei Balabanov’s horror film Cargo 200 (Gruz 200) about the monsters produced within the confines of a political system founded excessively on rationality.

The horror film is a genre with conventions that are not always easy to identify. Horror films are not necessarily about the supernatural because there is a kind of science fiction — Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) for instance — that follows its conventions. Horror films do not always infuse the spectator with terror because David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) is a horror film that arouses different emotions. But what can perhaps be asserted is that horror films tend to deal with the notion of contamination in one form or another. The Exorcist (1979) and The Omen (1976) are about the contamination of the Christian world by dark forces, while David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) is about the contamination of a human body by genetic material from a foreign organism. The zombie films beginning with George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead (1968) are about contamination as an infectious disease. Another class of horror film is about a contaminated site and most ghost stories for which films like Michele Soavi’s The Church (1989) are examples. If we define horror cinema thus, there is still a sub-category outside the definition exemplified by Psycho, John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Bruno Dumont’s Twenty Nine Palms (2003) which are all acknowledged as horror films. These films are not apparently about contamination, at least in the same sense, but it can be argued that they still involve the same notion although in a modified way. Alexei Balabanov’s Russian film Cargo 200 (Gruz 200), which is most usefully characterized as a horror film from the latter mould, may be understood more clearly through the category — although the extremity of its achievement makes it necessary for us to examine how it takes it further.

The four films just cited tell the stories of one person or a group of (usually inoffensive) people who venture into terrain away from the civilized mainstream and are subjected to bizarre and horrific acts by people who are nominally civilized but who have allowed civilization to slip away, as it were, and the protagonists are initiated by these ‘mutants’ into a new reality which destroys them. What these films also have in common is that no explanation is provided for why these ‘rejects’ of civilization have mutated. Psycho (1960) may appear the exception because of the detailed psychoanalytical explanation provided by the psychiatrist at the film’s conclusion, which is, virtually, the civilized mainstream reclaiming Norman Bates for itself, but this psychoanalytical explanation is unable to contain the emotions we have experienced in the film and the ‘meaning’ of the scientific discourse will be perennially interpreted and debated upon. Rational explanations, by and large, are not appropriate to horror films because horror (like wonder) is an emotion that tends to be defeated by them.

One rational/social science way of interpreting the kind of horror film to which Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre belong (films about a horrific initiation) in the light of the contamination criterion provided is that civilization and organized society are never able to achieve their ends because of the dark human psyche and that they unwittingly create cesspools of disaffection in which breed social mutants of various sorts. To provide an analogy, one is familiar with scum collecting in the nooks bordering fast flowing rivers and these nooks provide shelter to creatures that cannot survive in the flowing current. If one were to drink from a stream, one would do well to step away from these contaminated spots and dip into the flowing water instead. It is perhaps this deep sense of the contaminated crevice that David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) exploits when it shows us beetles and nameless vermin proliferating under a sunny patch of garden. Human order must fail in the end, the sequence seems to declare, because corruption and decay are natural processes that may be overlooked but not halted. Extending the argument we might say that the more a society is prone to a rigidly rational organization, the greater might be the unnoticed crannies where monsters could thrive.

Cargo 200 is set in the former Soviet Union 1984 just after the death of Yuri Andropov and with the gargantuan Communist system slowly but surely grinding to a close. The war is still going on in Afghanistan and coffins (codenamed Cargo 200) are returning every day. The naive individual subjected to the horrific happenings is Angelika (Agniya Kuznetsova), the daughter of a party official in the vicinity of Leninsk and a girl whose fiancé Kolya is a paratrooper in Afghanistan. Angelika is due to go on a picnic with her young friends at her father’s dacha the next morning but she runs into Valera (Leonid Bichevin) at a discotheque and the two dance into the late hours of the night. After the conclusion of the dance the already drunk Valera wants to buy himself some more vodka and visits a bootlegger several miles away in the darkness and that is when the film’s affinity to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) becomes visible.

It will not be right to chronicle the horrors that Angelika undergoes but the monsters that assail her are not of one kind but manifold, and all of them are apparently flourishing under the eyes of the Soviet system, which is a ‘civilized mainstream’ becoming narrower each day while the contaminated pools of disaffection get bigger. In fact the principal monster among them is actually a policeman named Captain Zhurov (Aleksei Poluyan). All this time, Angelika keeps threatening her assailants with severe consequences from her party-official father and her paratrooper fiancé Kolya, whose revenge might be fearful. The most shocking part of the film is perhaps her finding herself in bed with the dead Kolya who has just returned from Afghanistan in a lead-lined coffin.

Exceptional about Cargo 200 is not what has been related hitherto as much as the ‘discursive’ framework it provides through another major character Artem (Leonid Gronov), a professor of Scientific Atheism at the University of Leningrad and on his way to Leninsk. Artem provides the rational philosophical framework encouraged actively by the Soviet state but which the horrific irrationality of the events at Leninsk conclusively defeats because Artem sees almost everything but understands very little.

Cargo 200 is evoking a state of political collapse very similar to the one described in Gianni Amelio’s excellent Lamerica (1994) but it is a profoundly more shocking film because of the almost perverse viewpoint it chooses to take. Instead of dealing with a political situation in a naturalistic way it uses the conventions of the horror film brilliantly to evoke a political/social existence beyond comprehension, created by system founded on a rigid faith in science, rationality and social engineering. That Balabanov explains so little to the spectator — in terms of plot — reinforces the horror of it all, the unimaginable horror of a slumbering system that has trusted too much in reason.

Most of my descriptions of the film have dealt with the events in the narrative but the cinematography (Alexandr Simonov) needs special mention. The narrative is punctuated by stunning shots of the giant industrial complex at Leninsk, often for seemingly no reason. On reflection, it is evident that the film would not have been as effective without these shots because they suggest a monstrously impersonal system, entirely man-made, designed scrupulously for man’s betterment and working incessantly for him but completely oblivious of men. Another aspect of the film is its reliance on digenetic music — largely trashy Russian pop. This is a deliberate refusal to strive after emotional effects and it brings an austerity to the film that horror films rarely seek.

A characteristic of Cargo 200 that takes it away from the genre of the horror film and brings it much closer to Surrealism is its tone of dark irony rather than the extremity of its vision. Angelika is not innocent as the protagonists of horror films usually are but she is the privileged representative of a system in collapse. She undergoes experiences not far away but in almost familiar terrain. It is only that the slumbering state and the party have become so alienated from the society of their own creation that social mutants thrive under their noses. Balabanov steadfastly refuses to take sides — between the innocent victims and the perpetrators — because the victims in this case are actually implicated the creation of the monsters. If, as has been said, all major works should be identified by the way they transform a genre, Alexei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 is a major work that uses the conventions of the horror film to shed disturbing light on a profound political truth.