A Frozen World
The award-winning Russian film “Leviathan” shows the tragedy of everyday life in Putin’s Russia. It can now be seen in German cinemas. A review by Phil Butland
“Leviathan” has already won a Palme d’Or for “Best Screenplay” at Cannes, an Oscar nomination and many enthusiastic reviews. Now the epic Russian film can be seen in Germany. The new work of director Andrei Zvyagintsev is very ambitious – citing both the philosopher Hobbes and the Bible, especially the book of Job. The music comes from Philip Glass’s “Akhenaten,” an opera about the eponymous Egyptian king.
The film is about the mechanic, Kolia, who is about to lose his home to the corrupt mayor Vadim. Vadim is very much part of the establishment – a portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs ostentateously on his wall.
Kolia receives no more help from the Orthodox Church. A priest implores him to accept his suffering like Job, so that God can grant him a long life. The priest himself is well-dressed and lives prosperously. Even Kolia’s wife and best friend can no longer be trusted. Kolia and others drink heavily, unfortunate sex results and finally there is a fatality.
Fight against alienation
The rich and powerful prosper, while Kolia and everyone he knows struggle unsuccessfully against alienation. In a key scene, they celebrate a birthday by shooting photos of former Soviet presidents. Putin is spared (“until we have more historical perspective”), but it is clear that those firing the guns do not differentiate between any of their hated presidents.
Small wonder that director Zvyagintsev ran into trouble with the Russian authorities. The Minister of Culture denounced the film as “anti-Russian” and the pro-Kremlin political scientist Sergei Markov called it “a cinematic anti-Putin manifesto”. According to the Russian media portal Interfax, when unnamed officials of the Ministry of Culture threatened to prohibit “films that defame the National Culture”, it was “Leviathan” that they were thinking of when they made their pronouncement.
Financing by the Ministry of Culture
It seems strange, then, that 35% of the funding for the film was provided by the same Ministry of Culture. The Russian state is enthusiastically supporting “Leviathan’s” Oscar nomination. Some critics have argued that this is because the Ministry has no idea what sort of film it is financing. I actually think it’s more complicated than that.
The Ministry knows that, should “Leviathan” win the Oscar, the Russian state can bathe in the afterglow of success. This glow is actually brighter for a film that is critical of the government [I have written more about the contradictory nature of oppositional cinema in the article “Art needs movement” in the current issue of marx21 magazine.
No danger for Putin
In addition, I feel that ultimately the film poses no threat to Putin because of its overwhelming pessimism. From the very start it is quite clear that Kolia cannot win and that the church and state are too simply powerful.
In interviews, Zvyagintsev has made his position clear: “there is discussion in society, but it’s pointless. I have a feeling of the absolute futility of pretending to the right to have a say in any situation. I’ve turned 50 and I’ve never voted in my life. Because I’m absolutely certain that in our system it’s a completely pointless step.”
“Free Pussy Riot” in the background
We can let Russian civil society discuss whether elections in Putin’s Russia are meaningful. Even if they are not, there is still some resistance. The film acknowledges this is a small scene. Kolia is – as usual – drunk. In the background, a TV screen flickers. Suddenly a banner appears: “Free Pussy Riot”. A few seconds later it has disappeared. The actions of the Pussy Riot collective may not conform to Zvyagintsev’s worldview, but at least he acknowledges the possibility of resistance.
“Leviathan” is an ambiguous title. Thomas Hobbes argued in his eponymous book of 1651, that all people have to sacrifice a little of their liberty to the king or state, in order to create a peaceful and orderly society. Political scientists who are more influenced by neo-liberalism interpret the term “Leviathan” more as a bureaucratic apparatus which restricts freedom and prosperity.
King Putin remains unassailable
And then there is the original Leviathan – a sea monster from Jewish and Christian mythology. At the end of the film, we see the skeleton of a huge whale. We could interpret the skeleton as an equivalent to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s statue of Ozymandias – a symbol of an old order which has since been overtaken by history.
Next to the whale skeleton, waves dash endlessly against the rocks. Over the course of centuries, the rocks will be eroded, but we do not see any change. Maybe some time in the future the Russian oligarchy will meet a similar fate, but for the moment King Putin appears to be unassailable, even if the society is anything but peaceful and orderly.
Zvyagintsev’s pessimistic world view allows no possibility of rapid or revolutionary change. This is why his film is overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness – even the landscape is oppressively gloomy. The director’s rejection of tangible change is reflected in the pace of the film, which is excruciatingly slow, much too slow for my taste.
The film is still on the right side. Although we should reject the current anti-Russian propaganda in the German media, the film illustrates why Putin can never be a partner for socialists – in the East or West. Instead it shows working people searching for an alternative to the rule of the oligarchs – sometimes actively, more often because they feel that they cannot go on like this. As long as it raises this flag of resistance “Leviathan” provides a useful contribution to this debate, despite its various weaknesses.
The original version of this review appeared on the marx21 Website on March 11, 2105: http://marx21.de/leviathan-eine-erstarrte-welt/