Blog

https://www.rt.com/pop-culture/593114-alexey-balabanov-sixty-five/‘Soon your America will be over’: Why Alexey Balabanov is one of the most prominent film directors in modern Russia

Today, the renowned Russian film director Aleksey Balabanov would have turned 65 years old. In the course of his career, Balabanov shot 14 full-length films, including the incredibly successful movies ’Brother’, ”Brother 2’, and ’Dead Man’s Buff’, the scandalous ’Of Freaks and Men’ and ’Cargo 200’, and the absurdist films ’The Castle’ and ’Happy Days’. His creative career spanned 21 years, but Aleksey Balabanov left behind a great cultural heritage and today is considered one of the most prominent film directors in modern Russian history.

New country, new artist 

In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transition to a market economy affected virtually all aspects of life in Russia. Cinema was no exception, and in a short period of time, the movie industry switched to commercial standards. Soviet and Russian filmmakers had to come to terms with the fact that a film had to pay off its budget. Of course, the movies of the ‘90s weren’t always shot with market principles in mind – in those years, organized crime flourished, and many gangs laundered money through the film industry. In fact, audiences never really knew whether the movie they were watching was a sincere creative endeavor or another hasty project that benefited criminal structures. 

During such difficult and unstable times, filmmakers had to find a balance between their artistic ambitions and the ’behind-the-scenes’ criminal environment, which they could not ignore. The same was true for young directors who were just starting out. 

It was in 1991 – the very year when the USSR collapsed – that young filmmaker Aleksey Balabanov released his first feature-length film, ’Happy Days’. This was a screen adaptation of several short stories by the great Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, which Balabanov merged into a single movie and storyline. In fact, by choosing Beckett as the source and inspiration for his debut film, Balabanov set the general direction for his future work. Beckett is considered one of the founders of the ’theater of the absurd’, and in one way or another, almost all of Balabanov’s future films touched upon this theme. 

We’re talking about the filmmaker’s individual style, which Balabanov was known for. But every director also has their own creative and ideological style. And the latter became both a blessing and a curse for Aleksey Balabanov.

Love, hate, and national acclaim 

Aleksey Balabanov’s films have always caused controversy. Moreover, the disputes are usually centered on the political aspects of his work.

In 1994, the director made a screen adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel ‘The Castle’, apparently confirming his rootedness in the genre of absurdism. But his third film, ’Brother’, was quite different. It looked like Balabanov had betrayed his principles – he wrote an original script and the events unfolded in modern times. ’Brother’ is popular to this day, and is considered one of the best films in the post-perestroika period. 

‘Brother’ is the story of a demobilized soldier, Danila Bagrov, who returns to his hometown. Tired of the monotonous provincial lifestyle, he goes to St. Petersburg, where his older brother lives. His mother tells him that his brother has made a successful career and will help him out. But reality turns out to be depressing – his older brother makes a living as a hitman. He has a lot of money, but Danila can’t come to terms with the moral aspect of his brother’s ’work’. 

The film became an instant hit with audiences and at film festivals. It received the Grand Prix at the Kinotavr Film Festival and people started quoting the movie. Audiences love the movie to this day, and many of its phrases have become as popular as the catch phrases from legendary Soviet films.

After the release of ’Brother’, Balabanov earned the reputation of a talented, original, and extremely controversial film director. Despite the awards and the film’s popularity, it was also criticized by many people. The disputes around Balabanov’s films were always centered on the ideological aspect – no one questioned the director’s talent and skill, but his creative statements gave rise to moral, ideological, and even political conflicts. 

The movie was accused of racism, nationalism, and chauvinism. The great Soviet filmmaker Alexei German even uttered the terrible word ”fascism” in regard to it. The media accused Balabanov of expressing racist ideas – something that was unheard of in Russian cinema. As a result, some journalists and critics called the picture a disgrace. At the same time, audiences loved the movie, and it won major Russian film awards, eventually becoming a classic.

A year later, Balabanov released the film ‘Of Freaks and Men’. This time, the action unfolded in the beginning of the 20th century – the early years of cinema. However, it wasn’t a story about the history of cinema, but about how the genre of eroticism and pornography originated inside the cinema, and how an underground erotic photo studio turned into a real porn studio. Once again, Balabanov was criticized – this time for decadence, debauchery, propaganda of sadomasochism, and so on. 

And then, the director shot ’Brother-2’, where the character played by Viktor Sukhorukov kills a member of the Ukrainian mafia in the United States with the words, ’You bastards will answer for Sevastopol’. The film was released in 2000, and already then, Balabanov understood that the Russia-Ukraine issue was not just a dispute about stolen gas. He saw that the problem was much deeper than that. Phrases like ”Strength is in truth,” and ”Soon your America will be over” – are from ’Brother 2’. Balabanov turned the sequel of ’Brother’ into an action movie in which Danila Bagrov goes to the US to rescue his friend. And he hit the spot once again. But this time too, an avalanche of political accusations descended upon him. Strangely, the opinions contradicted each other – while some people accused the film of Russophobia, others talked about imperialism and xenophobia. The discussions around ’Brother 2’ resembled disputes in a madhouse. 

Two years later, Balabanov again touched a sore spot with the film ’War’ – a story about the armed conflict in Chechnya in the ‘90s. This time, the director’s reputation worked against him. Balabanov approached the difficult subject in a very ethical and respectful manner, but the flood of contradictory emotions which it caused seemed endless and unstoppable. 

Scandals and politics

Two of Balabanov’s movies – ’Dead Man’s Bluff’ (2005) and ’Cargo 200’ (2007) – gave rise to particularly harsh political disputes. This time, the politicians themselves spoke out. ’Dead Man’s Buff’ is a satire on the ruling bureaucracy. The movie starts off in the distant future – a teacher announces the topic of the next lesson: the initial accumulation of capital in Russia in the ‘90s. The film then goes on to tell the story of two bandits from Nizhny Novgorod who get involved in the complex illegal schemes of rival gangs. The movie has many scenes showing gunfights, corpses, torture, and is sprinkled with Balabanov’s famous black humor. In the end, it turns out that the main characters ceased their criminal activities and became respected government officials.

In ’Cargo 200’, the action takes place in 1984, in the midst of the war in Afghanistan. Balabanov vividly portrays the brutal moral standards of a provincial town in the final years of the USSR, when the country is starting to lose its identity. Young people no longer strive to ’build communism’, but only dream of disco clubs and popular music. Meanwhile, the older generation tries to rely on the ideological principles of the Soviet Union. All this happens against the background of the war, and the constant arrival of ’special flights’ transporting ’Cargo-200’ – a codename for coffins with bodies of dead soldiers. 

‘Cargo 200’ was called ’the most anti-Soviet film’ and was compared to the ’Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. It was even called a black comedy and an unsuccessful philosophical experiment in denialism. 

Coincidentally, Balabanov was even accused of working for the authorities. In both movies, critics found certain aspects that supposedly portrayed the events in a favorable light for the authorities. 

Today, everyone knows (and most people knew it at the time as well) that Balabanov was an independent film director and never carried out anyone’s orders. He simply sought out themes that were relevant for him. Whether it was the screen adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s story ’Morphine’ (Balabanov was then accused of nostalgic feelings about Tsarist Russia), or the thriller ’A Stoker’ (criticized for showing a totally negative view of reality), his movies were never about politics. These are sincere films made by a man who deeply loved his country and wanted to talk about things that were important to him.

Unfinished stories

In the course of his career, Aleksey Balabanov shot only one melodrama – ’It Doesn’t Hurt Me’. This is indeed a light movie, which doesn’t imply multiple interpretations. Here, Balabanov used a different approach and avoided exposing reality in the same way as he did in his other films. The main characters are pleasant, there are no antagonists, and it’s a love story that everyone will understand. 

Aleksey Balabanov’s last film, ’Me Too’, was released in 2012 – less than a year before the filmmaker’s death. Many people see it as a mystical prophecy, as if the director had foretold his passing. ’Me Too’ is a metaphorical study of death. In the film, a group of five people go to a mythical radioactive site somewhere between St. Petersburg and Uglich, where there is a bell tower that can supposedly make people happy. The movie is a kind of homage to Andrei Tarkovsky’s ’Stalker’, but at the same time, an original artistic statement which is thematically different from ’Stalker’. The film indeed became prophetic, and turned out to be the last in the director’s life.  Balabanov himself played a small role in the movie – his character is a film director who starts telling an interesting story but isn’t able to finish it, because he suddenly dies. In fact, the analogy with Balabanov’s own career is striking – he still had many stories to tell, but did not have the time to do so. 

Aleksey Balabanov shot 14 full-length films, most of which evoked a wide public and political response. But Balabanov himself was not a politician and did not make political statements. He had a gift for telling stories that struck a chord with people, and he wanted people to understand the reality around them.

The Balabanov paradox

What is so paradoxical about Balabanov’s movies? Why did public figures, journalists, and even politicians criticize and praise his films at the same time? To understand this, we should keep in mind the simple rule taught in film schools all over the world. 

Most films are based on the simple principle: what draws and keeps the viewer’s attention is the ability to relate to the protagonist. However, Aleksey Balabanov had shamelessly broken this principle (and many others) in ’Brother’. The movie dissected the minds of the gangsters and hitmen of the ‘90s with surgical precision. All those chauvinistic and racist statements were uttered not as loud proclamations, but in a completely natural way – because that was how the criminals spoke and acted in real life. 

In ’Brother’, there are no positive characters. In fact, all of them are quite unsympathetic. But the film does not force the viewer to empathize with anyone – it merely paints an extremely accurate picture of the time and the people who lived in it, some of whom held truly outrageous views. Such people really existed, and they cannot be ignored. Balabanov’s films encourage viewers to keep a certain emotional distance from the characters. These movies do not claim that everyone has their own truth or that anyone can be justified if we understand their motives. They just describe the lives of people who have been depraved by the world around them. And it’s up to the viewer to criticize them or sympathize with them.

We need to remember that Balabanov’s films make the viewer think and encourage him to push through the surrounding darkness and horror in order to understand how ordinary people lived in different periods of Russian history. It is also important to keep in mind that the scandalous phrases in the films are spoken not by Balabanov himself, but by the characters – in other words, by broken people who cannot come to terms with reality and are unable to find their place in society.


dwnews

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button