The new patriotism’s failure is the most salient trend in Russian cinema. Enough has been said about the crisis of ideas, but the crisis of patriotic films is deeper than in any other genre. Shooting of The Star, widely believed to be the first “new patriotism” film, began ten years ago. The conventional wisdom then was that one simply had to bring back the notion of “patriotism” into public domain, including in films. But no follow-up was made: The Star vintage 2002 is indistinguishable from an average war film of the 1980s, or, for that matter, from an average patriotic film of 2011. It is a rehash of the old Soviet material with a little bit of Hollywood thrown in. Yet both the Soviet and Hollywood war movies carry some universal messages, such as internationalism or freedom of the individual. Russian patriotic films of recent years have not come up with any such universal idea.
The government today has a strictly utilitarian approach to patriotic films treating them as a machine that needs to be filled with fuel (money, advertising, etc.) and set moving in the right direction, and the rest will take care of itself. That was indeed the case when there were no alternatives to television. The recent failure of the film The Edge by Aleksei Uchitel, in spite of massive advertising on Channel One, is very instructive. According to TNS Russia, Channel One captured 27% of the 18+ audience in 2004 and only 18.7% in 2010. Young people no longer watch television, meaning hundreds of thousands of potential viewers for The Edge simply did not see the adverts.
Our patriotic movies are the subconscious of the Russian authorities. The characters in these films say all the right things and pretend to be close to the people, but all this does not ring true to life, because the directors and the actors themselves do not believe in what they are doing. Such films either kowtow the official line (for example, such widely differing films as Vladimir Khotinenko’s 1612, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Twelve or Yaroslav.1000 Years Ago, were promoting the thesis that “there is no order in the country”) or try to lend an artistic form to ideas handed down from the top. The only coherent idea has been that of reconciling the Tsars and Soviet Russia, the Whites and the Reds, Church and Stalin. The most spectacular effort of this kind was made by Nikita Mikhalkov in Burnt by the Sun 2, all the more spectacular was its failure. The resulting aesthetic hodgepodge, leavened with necrophilia, was the director’s unwitting admission that one cannot combine incompatibles. Dmitry Meskhiyev’s film Our
Own was a more successful attempt. It showed that the Civil War between the Reds and Whites only ended in 1942 when the former adversaries forgave each other in the face of a common threat. Admiral portrays both as victims: think of the scene with Kappel’s attack; and in the television series Isayev by Sergei Ursyulyak the White imperial idea seamlessly transforms itself into a Red one. Attempts to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds often result in still a greater mess. Having raised some important questions, the state, as represented by the film makers, seems towards the end of the narrative to be frightened of its own temerity and soft pedals the final lest the audience take the film too seriously. The state both wants and is afraid to be “tough”: this duality, a combination of imperial ambitions and indecision is very noticeable in present-day patriotic films.
Another notable trend is an attempt to burnish the negative image of the secret police services. A security agent, a member of the NKVD, is an indispensable character in post-Soviet patriotic films: he may be a mere “cog-in-the-wheel” or a butcher. Even though more often than not they are negative types, they occupy a disproportionately large place in Russian cinema. The effect is often absurd. The philosopher Vitaly Kurennoi writes in his study titled Philosophy of Film: an Exercise in Analysis: “In many films people fighting each other end up … hating a common internal enemy, the NKVD. In Penal Battalion a German and a Soviet soldier fraternise while the real villain is an NKVD operative. It turns out that the domestic enemy is even more evil than the foreign one.”
The latest version of a domestic security man is presented in the film The Brest Fortress: the authors go out of their way to make him look “human”: he is framing up the future hero of the Brest Fortress, Major Gavrilov, but he does so in a half-hearted and gentle way. And he dies a hero’s death in his office next to a heavy desk piled high with “case files”. The moral of the story: secret policemen have atoned for their sins before their people with their own lives. We have been there before: after every “thaw”, propaganda exerts Herculean efforts to bring it home to the audiences that there is nothing wrong with the system, only there are some “bad” security men.
Patriotic cinema is unconvincing above all psychologically. It shies away from contact with the audience, from arguing and convincing: it still prefers to dictate. Our film makers revile Hollywood threatening to produce a movie that would be “an answer to Private Ryan” while using Hollywood clichés, techniques and stunts. They forget, however, that the super-hero in American movies logically embodies the American idea of the triumph of the individual. In the Russian context nobody believes in the super-hero, the reason being that in this country the state and not the individual has always been the hero. Unlike Hollywood, Russian patriotic movies must fight every inch of the way to assert “the hero’s right to be a hero”. The Edge is an example in point: the super-hero (played by Vladimir Mashkov) finds himself in the Soviet GULAG, but nobody needs his heroism, which serves no useful purpose.
Our cinema is unwilling or too lazy to explain the rules of the game to the viewer. As Vitaly Kurennoi has observed, our films still assume that “the viewer knows everything”, but that was only true in the homogeneous Soviet society. Nobody explains to today’s young viewer what the Soviet people, for example, in the Brest Fortress (directed by Alexander Kott) fight and die for. For all that, the directors make much of authenticity and reproduce period minutiae in great detail. Such thoroughness, coupled with the lack of logic in the film, brings to mind Pelevin’s expression, “a gold tooth in a leper’s mouth”.
Somebody has convinced our film officials and directors that patriotic films must be dumb and straightforward and that there is nothing to be ashamed of because “that is what this genre is all about”. The truth of the matter is that our patriotic films have to convince the viewer and prove their relevance. Our directors shudder at the thought that a patriotic film can be problematic in the sense that it raises questions but does not give answers.
The only way how a film of this kind can be made sincere is by rejecting pathos and clichés and deconstructing them. The author of the documentary Brest. The Fortress Heroes (2010, shown on NTV Channel), Aleksei Pivovarov, puts it in a poignant sentence: “… But there was something else to it. Something worn thin by propaganda but at the same time very personal, something that makes one stand up and face certain death without any slogans.” This monologue is an indictment of propaganda which has overworked such notions as “courage”, “heroism” and “self-sacrifice” to the point where their only usefulness today lies in the possibility of negating them. “Something other, something deeply personal”. That sentence amounts to the authors’ admission that they cannot understand what motivated the Soviet soldiers. Yet it is the most honest approach if one seeks to give due to the feat of a nation.
And yet these problems are not insuperable, while the main explanation of the failure of patriotic films is crude and simple: these films are unconvincing because the country itself is unconvincing.
Harking back to the best Soviet films we seem to act logically, even though some of them have challenged ideological tenets. However, even “anti-Soviet” films such as Road Tests, however, could only have been made within a homogeneous system, within a watertight and complete Soviet world. Within that framework there was room for films of “personal sincerity”, “life epics” and “war epics”. When the ideological and social core of society is immutable, the slightest deviation from that core thrills the viewer, giving rise to the phenomenon of “reading between the lines” and decoding without which the phenomenon of Soviet cinema cannot be imagined.
The fact that Russian culture has been focused on literature has astonishingly coincided with the tasks of the Soviet project: Soviet cinema relied heavily on the word, which lent it a certain depth, realism of characterisations and situations even in spite of ideological constraints. Soviet cinema was based on theatre, with scriptwriters dictating the rules of the game. As dramatist Anatoly Grebnev wrote in the 1960s book Notes of the Last Script Writer, “new reality has been brought by the script writer.” One can argue that the lack of truth in Soviet cinema was made up for by its depth.
In such a situation, even a “simple story” on the patriotic theme ended up with profound reflections on man and the world. This is precisely the universal appeal of Soviet patriotic films that we appreciate so much. It is significant that no “simple stories” about the war such as Zhenya, Zhenechka and Katyusha or Only Old Men Are Going to Battle are made today. These “simple stories” were only possible within a stable social structure. This is also the precondition of “experiments with evil”, so to speak: in the series Connoisseurs, Major Tomin “puts on the garb of a villain” (which creates the impression of authenticity). The authors went so far as to poke fun at such concepts as “the Soviet man”. There is a simple explanation to such audacity: in a stable social structure, evil can be given a measure of license; good is allowed to pretend to be evil or ambivalent. The sense of righteousness in Soviet cinema is so strong (talking about universal values) that it is not afraid of being compromised.
The integrity of ideology and of words collapsed simultaneously in the 1990s: the institution of film drama collapsed because it became “redundant”, and that applies to words as well. Today, creating an epic, in whatever sense, is impossible: the social fabric has broken down and is full of holes: semantic, stylistic and ideological. Patriotic films, more than any other art, depend on solid principles and foundations within the state itself. In their absence patriotic films cannot be convincing. Any patriotic film today can only be counterproductive attesting to the state’s attempts to supplant lack of ideas by giving a facelift to old and lifeless models or by absurd aping of things alien.