Essay: Hugo Emmerzael

Essay Hugo Emmerzael

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Condemn the present, examine the past or escape to a better future? Three films at the 69th Berlinale reflect upon Russian youth culture and its sensitive relationship to the traumas of history.

“Every film about the past is also about the present,” explains Russian director Alexander Zolotukhin. In his debut film A RUSSIAN YOUTH (MALCHIK RUSSKIY, Russian Federation) he makes that dynamic explicit by crosscutting a fiction film set against the backdrop of World War I with contemporary documentary footage of orchestra rehearsals for compositions of influential Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. His aim is to draw connections between the two eras: “In the fiction film a young and vulnerable person gets confronted with the historical chaos of World War I. Some of the same militaristic tendencies are now present again, so I fear for the young musicians in the documentary section. The traumas of their ancestors should not be forgotten, because they can come back to haunt us.”

This divide in A RUSSIAN YOUTH can be jarring. It disrupts the narrative flow, because it constantly reminds you of its anachronistic construction. For Zolotukhin this is a means to an end: “I don’t want the audience to be a mere witness of what happens in the past. I want them to reflect on it from their contemporary perspective. So I show the two worlds, the fictional world and the documentary world, in two distinct manners.” That is why the historical fiction of A RUSSIAN YOUTH is processed through a damaged celluloid-like grain filter that is still noticeably digital. The orchestra sections are presented in plain, digital shots. “I try to remind the audience of the distance between the historical and present world, so they can process what happened since the events of this film: the start of the communist uprising, the outbreak of World War II, political oppression and other historical traumas.”

Permanent surveillance

The fictional parts of A RUSSIAN YOUTH announce the genesis of the Soviet Union. 100 DAYS BEFORE THE COMMAND (STO DNEJ DO PRIKAZA, USSR) awaits its dissipation. Director Khusein Erkenov completed this debut in 1990, just a year before the official Soviet dissolution, but only managed to premiere it outside of Russia in 1994 in the Panorama section of the Berlinale – it is programmed again as part of the Panorama 40 retrospective.

Here, young soldiers of the Red Army are chewed up by the hollowness of the late Soviet system. They are abused, humiliated and dehumanised to the point that they are not even seen as themselves anymore. In the final scenes they are captured in stark green and blue shots by countless surveillance cameras. They become spectres, trapped in a Soviet video circuit with no way to break free. The last shot reveals that the camera operators at the other side of the Soviet Panopticon are not even looking at the footage. 100 DAYS BEFORE THE COMMAND forecasts a permanent surveillance state reprising past totalitarian regimes that never worked in the first place.

Erkenov’s film captures the disenfranchisement and anger of a generation fed up with the political reality of the late Soviet Union, while acknowledging how that reality is also a construct in itself. In its final moments the film lingers on a significant relic from the past: a worn-out mural in the control room depicts an illustration of a bridge, crowned by a colourful rainbow. It is the endlessly repeated promise of a better future that is proven time and time again to be futile and disappointing, yet somehow persists.
Reflecting on the relationship between past and present, Zolotukhin comments, “I feel like there’s a form of cultural amnesia amidst my generation. That’s why I try to bring the present to the past and vice-versa, but not every filmmaker has to do this.”

Filter bubble

The cultural amnesia described by Zolotukhin is vividly present in ACID (KISLOTA, Russian Federation), the only truly contemporary Russian film at this year’s Berlinale, where young men prefer to forget their histories and tend to hide in their present-day bubbles. In a sense it is still an effective documentary reflection of Russia’s post-Soviet state of mind. The purposelessness of its protagonists can be seen as a reaction to the defective world prophesied in 100 DAYS BEFORE THE COMMAND. What has changed is that they now have the total freedom to rebel against it in their own way, a freedom they somehow experience as extremely crippling. They resort to psychedelic drugs and excessive partying as a form of nihilistic escapism; a filter bubble #yolo-lifestyle as a complete disregard of the outside world. Are they conditioned to be like this by themselves or by the next iteration of a hypercapitalistic surveillance society? Are their troubles inherited or self-inflicted? “Our problem is the fact we don’t have any problems,” one of them observes.

The film works best when it captures this tormented mindset during the many surreal party scenes. Director Alexander Gorchilin shows how great he can be at capturing specific moments and moods. However, he fails to render how these escapist tendencies clash with experiences in the actual outside world. The inherited or self-inflicted ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude of its characters can be seen as a part of ACID’s own filmmaking DNA. Compared to the other two films, ACID feels the most confined to the limited perspectives of its protagonists. Like them, the film is unable or unwilling to clearly look outside of its historical specificity and gendered milieu anymore.

Examination as construct

A RUSSIAN YOUTH and ACID chart two distinct pathways for young Russian cinema, each with their own possibilities and limits. In ACID, the reality of one’s own small bubble is celebrated as authentically as possible. This approach gives an insight into the state of mind of contemporary youth culture, but might fail to explain how that state of mind fits in a broader societal reality. A RUSSIAN YOUTH is able to confront a troubled history in all of its artificiality and to bring it to the present, but the film can also end up feeling too constructed in itself to form a strong personal connection with the viewer.

Both of these pathways can be drawn to the dilemmas presented in 100 DAYS BEFORE THE COMMAND. Erkenov tries to stay truthful to the realities of his suffering protagonists, while at the same time being critically aware of the falseness of the larger reality they are part of. Taken together, these three films show the cyclical nature of recurring traumas from history. They depict struggles of pre-, post- and peak-Soviet history in distinct ways, but in all of them the Russian youth are in a perpetual conflict with their own political reality.

“You can always question the truthfulness of these depictions,” Zolotukhin notes. “Every examination of a past, a present or a future is a construct. In a way the past, present and future are constructs themselves. For me depicting it doesn’t mean representing the truth, but starting a dialogue.”

Hugo Emmerzael