The Power of Denial

in 61st Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Jurica Pavicić

After the closing ceremony of the 61st Berlinale, most of the critics and commentators agreed that this year’s Berlinale competition was rather weak, full of average if not mediocre films, and that Iranian film Nader and Simin — A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) had won its Golden Bear perhaps too easily in such an undemanding competition slot.

Although I mostly agree with such complaints, I must say that I regret that a couple of rather interesting or even very good films had not gained the attention which they deserved during the ten Berlinale days. One of these hidden gems of the Berlinale 2011 was the film Innnocent Saturday (V subbotu) by Russian screenwriter-turned-director Alexandr Mindadze. Mindadze’s film received mixed reviews at Potsdamer Platz, gained very little attention, and, at the end, left Berlin with no awards at all. Which is a pity, beacause that Chernobyl catastrophe-themed drama was one of the most exceptional films to be seen in the ten Berlinale days.

The most famous nuclear disaster in the history of civil nuclear energy, the disaster in Chernobyl happened during the night between Friday 25 and Saturday 26 April 1986, in a nuclear plant near the small Ukrainian industrial city of Pripyat. When a nuclear reactor exploded causing radioactive contamination of the whole area, local authorities first reacted with denial, then with hushing-down, and evacuated the city of Pripyat only 36 hours after the incident, early morning on the Sunday. Innnocent Saturday by Alexandr Mindadze takes place during these 36 hours of delay and expectation. The main character of Mindadze’s film is Valerij, a young nuclear plant engineer and party member who is slowly climbing up the hierarchy of local politics. As a plant engineer and communist insider, Valerij (Anton Shargin) finds out very early about the true scale of the disaster. At the very beginning he overhears a party meeting and has to swear to the executives that he won’t say a word to anyone. Valerij is tempted to alert all the people he knows, but if he does that, he could be prosecuted and shot as a provocateur or panic-mongerer. Nevertheless, he looks for his girlfriend Vera (Svetlana Smirnova) and warns her that they have to leave Pripyat as soon as they can. The next 24 hours — the whole Saturday — Valerij spends trying to leave Pripyat, which seems almost under a spell, and magically sealed from inside. First he and Vera miss the train because she wore high heels. Then, she spends the nice, sunny Saturday morning shopping. Later on, she has to sing at a wedding because she already accepted the payment, and she cannot warn the musicians from the band without compromising Valerij. When the drummer of Vera’s band falls asleep drunk, Valerij — a former member of the band — has to jump in and play drums instead. He cannot say no, because he is racked with remorse: long ago, he dobbed his rock’n’roll buddies in to the police for singing “decadent western music”, and from that moment on started climbing up the communist party ladder. As times goes by, Valerij tries to leave Pripyat again and again: by climbing onto a shoe factory truck, by cargo train, on foot. Each time, the thick, invisible glue of interpersonal relations, guilt, or fear keeps him from leaving, while the contamination grows.

In Innocent Saturday, the city of Pripyat becomes almost like a socialist version of the dining room from Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (El angel exterminador, 1961): no one can leave it, and we don’t fully understand why. If Bunuel’s classic is often interpreted as a film about a bourgeois class unable to cross social boundaries, Mindadze’s film is, at the same allegorical level, a film about the impossiblity of communist society — or any society — of coping with reality outside the predictable box.

Innnocent Saturday could be easily pidgeon-holed as an “issue film” about the Chernobyl catastrophe, or as an allegorical film about the failure of communism and its bureaucratic inefficiency, stupid decision-making and disregard for human lives. But I think that Innocent Saturday is a film with a much broader aim. Deep down, it’s a film about the human need for denial. From a historical perspective, we often ask the question of how people couldn’t see obvious catastrophe knocking at their door. We often ask why Jews didn’t flee Germany while they still could, or why Yugoslavs didn’t foresee oncoming wars, or why we fail to react to approaching climate meltdown.  Innocent Saturday by Alexandr Mindaze is a film which in some respects discusses such questions. While on the outskirts of Pripyat the nuclear reactor burns and invisible radiation pollutes their hometown, the citizens of Pripyat buy shoes, ride their bikes, play in the park and dance at a wedding, continuing to go about their everyday lives protected by an impenetrable armour of denial. Only in occasional glimpses, the true terror of reality bursts in, amid mundane trivialities: in one such scene, Valerij reminds his pal (and groom at the wedding) Petro (Sergej Gromov) that his wife is pregnant. The shadow of horror on Petro’s face shows that he has connected the dots, and understands what’s going to happen in his life, and his wife’s life. In the next moment, that shadow disappears and Petro starts mechanically devouring food from his plate, one spoon after another, like a madman. That scene, directed with a skillful sense for acting and rhythm, condenses the whole meaning of this great, neglected film.