Aleksei Fedorchenko: First on the Moon (Pervye na lune), 2005

reviewed by Oleg Kovalov© 2006

The worse a government’s state of affairs, the more fantastical the legends of its former victories become. Inherited myths no longer suffice, so the time for accomplishing those non-existent feats is pushed back into such an oh-so legendary past that present-day inhabitants are forced to celebrate events about which they know nothing―the battle on Kulikovo field or the expulsion of “Polish occupiers” from Moscow.

Commissioning patriotic legends has also been imposed on Russian filmmakers, as can be seen in various blockbusters. It is surprising, however, that the most fantastical national myth that can be made up―about how Soviet astronauts made it to the moon back in 1938, but the world simply didn’t learn of this accomplishment―was actualized by what would appear to be some of the most modest means of production; the film was not shot in the capital, but in the provinces—at the Sverdlovsk Film Studios.

The glossy side of the flier advertising Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon designates the film’s genre as a “postmodernist mystification”―something that can’t be explained without a lengthy elaboration. On the flip side of the flier are rave reviews about the film: “A fresh and successful continuation of the wonderful tradition of the great Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983), of Evgenii Iufit’s splenetic phantasms, and of Sergei Kurekhin’s funny practical jokes like Lenin-Mushroom (Lenin-grib, 1992),” according to Anton Mazurov (Utro.ru); “This grandiose con requires a word that simultaneously expresses chagrin (they fooled me!) and rapture (but how they did it!). And the word for all this would be this: ‘cool’,” writes Kirill Alekhin (Utro.ru). What kind of language is used by this “young and unknown generation”! They write things like “all this would be this”… When someone who does not read takes up a pen, his texts occasionally recall the courageous endeavors of the literary surrealists.

The sloppy jargon of the flier is capable of eliciting the opposite reaction; who in his right mind today, recalling previous experiences, would risk going to a “postmodernist mystification”? Such spectacles long ago became sites of commercial culture―that is, the culture of leisure. So it is no accident that the blurbs contain all these buzzwords about “cool cons,” “funny practical jokes,” and other such crass phrases taken from amateur improvs (kapustniki), “tele-gatherings,” and glossy publications.

These young critics align Fedorchenko’s film with works that are close to them; it is simply easier to experience it as an amusing spoof (steb) that is played out with a serious mein―that’s what spoofs are about, after all. However… the film doesn’t in the least recall Kurekhin’s “funny practical jokes,” it’s as simple as that. What is “funny” in this focused narrative, filled with pathos? And how does it resemble Iufit’s films? Because it, too, depicts scientific experiments? But… if films are to be compared in these grounds, then Company 9 (Sergei Bondarchuk, 2005) and (Federico Fellini, 1963) are “twin brothers”―there are people in one, and people in the other.

Iufit dismisses with irritation all discussions of “the social” in his films, insisting that their action takes place “nowhere” and “everywhere.” Yet his telephones inevitably have dials, are massive, glow with a buttery-black sheen; don’t expect anything good to come from their piercing, always unexpected rings. The radios are always inevitably single-band, with cheap plastic casings; they hang in the most impoverished interiors and pour out dull, monotonous rubbish day and night. The gloomy interiors of the “cathedrals of science” resound with loud commands broadcast over speakers; the oscillographs are enormous and antediluvian; there is something squalid, frightening, and perverse in the experiments being conducted; the pressure chambers resemble either torture chambers or wooden outhouses in the countryside, while the experimenting enthusiasts resemble a cult of masochists. Matched to this inhospitable world are its inhabitants―shaggy, scruffy, and, to top it off, militarized ragamuffins, dressed in leg-wrappings, riding breeches, and military shirts, with shoulder belts, cartridge pouches, and even wooden holsters from the time of the Civil War hanging on them (nothing more or less than the caricatured “Bolsheviks” used by the West’s propaganda to frighten people in the 1920s). Their eyes are swollen, they appear wild. These unfastidious beings live in barns that are keeling over and in holes in the ground, but most frequently they spend the night in open fields, in damp ditches, and under bushes.

“No date. The day had no date.” Poprishchin, the hero of Gogol'’s “Diary of a Madman,” inscribed these immortal words in his diary at one point. Yet, behind the atmosphere and setting of Iufit’s films, behind the “bestiality” of his heroes with their rapturous masochism, backwardness, and the mystical power of “orders” over their dulled consciousness, there does not arise simply “a time of no time,” no matter how much the filmmaker tries to persuade us. Iufit locates his world within “Soviet” latitudes. All of the details here are clear, but this is neither some sort of grotesque, nor a social satire. More importantly, it is very difficult to find any signs of “funny novelty” in Iufit’s gloomy films. He literally actualizes some sort of dream of Soviet reality, representing its concentrated visual formula, the incarnation in images of some eternally enduring “Soviet time.” Iufit’s world is metaphysical precisely in this sense. He is an introvert and, on principle, he is uninterested in which specific year of Soviet history to tell his story. To him they are as indistinguishable as gray mice in the dark.

For Fedorchenko, this is extremely significant. He is an extrovert and it is almost as if he is open to all the winds of time. It is not the plot that makes his film stunning, but the subtlety with which each fragment of the action conveys not just the historical time, but also its refined gradations, all of which are totally clear to his contemporaries and to every Soviet person. Every decade has its own colors, odors, nuances, and between its beginning and its end there is an historical abyss. It is only in television serials that it is sufficient to hang in some interior a crimson calico cloth with the slogan “Proletarians of the world unite!” and to put nice clean, red kerchiefs on the heads of the actresses to declare that outside―there’s “Soviet power.”

The masters of the French “New Wave” were called “children of the cinématheque.” Fedorchenko is their direct heir. He has learnt the archive of his native Sverdlovsk studio by heart; it seems that he can walk along the shelves of his film archive with his eyes closed and find by touch the footage he needs. It seems that he is from the “pre-computer” era and knows all of cinema literally by heart. Television magnate Konstantin Ernst, a man who has nothing to do with film production and to whom it is something alien, permits himself superciliously to make fun of materials that are sacred to filmmakers: “… black-and-white film, crawled over by flies, elicits nothing other than irritation from film viewers” (Seans 25/26: 292). [1] Fedorchenko could not say something like that. For him, film print is a living and breathing being, and every scratch on the celluloid―run thousands of times back and forth on the good old editing table, using hands and feet (after all, the editing tables are pedal operated)―is familiar and dear to him.

If it is possible to recognize Iufit’s hand in any one frame of his films, then Fedorchenko virtually remains in the shadows of his film. It is almost as if the story of First on the Moon has been assembled from scraps of archival footage that have been edited together in the most naïve way possible and as if the director, like a television commentator, merely explains who is appearing on the screen. In filming the pseudo-documentary, Fedorchenko does not imitate the arbitrary “flow of life”; instead, he imitates the normative aesthetics of officious film-journals―educational, instructional, and other types of applied films intended for use in “official work.” He reproduces precisely this method of staging … it is distinctively “an imitation of an imitation.” Obviously, what would most “resemble” the example of these commissioned films would be standard images with the filmmaker erased. Fedorchenko is not concerned about this; he achieves the illusion of this boundless impersonality. “I do not try to make sense of the events here,” the modest director seems to announce in advance, “but there are some things that are more important than self-expression―for example, the cosy rattling of the film print as it spools through the projector. In that alone lies a limitlessly enchanting poetics.” In experimental films, filmmakers announce their presence in the most provocative ways; but Fedorchenko’s film can be seen as a poem to impersonality.

He creates a genuinely monumental image of a unified aesthetics. It is important to remember that in a commissioned film, shots of an official parade are different from shots of a sports parade; that the political leadership was to be filmed in one way and ordinary citizens in another; and that in different periods of Soviet power these norms changed. It is striking how Fedorchenko’s stylization carefully reproduces these seemingly insignificant―and interesting today only to a select few―shades of intonation. It only appears that his film is built around a single strong device; the variety of tones fills the film with artistic breadth.

Every shot in the film seems to have been taken with a camera of the period represented on the screen; so it appears that the film has been shot with dozens of cameras. Every piece of “film-footage” comes with a made-up “history”; the skillful imitation of defects in the footage (or, on the contrary, their absence) suggest how each was shot and where it was stored. Fedorchenko lovingly reproduces the intertitles found in film-journals and even the fonts used in old subtitles… While there is a mass of external gradations in the texture of the images, the “super-quality” of Fedorchenko’s shots lies in the fact that they graphically convey the gradations of historical time.

And so, nonplussed Nazi officers “end up” in the footage of secret experiments from the mid-1930s; they appear carefree, as if at home, even though they find themselves on Soviet testing grounds. Characters in the film―who are watching this long-lost “commissioned” footage―openly wonder on the soundtrack what the Nazis are doing there. It does not make sense in their minds. Obviously the flood of publications about Soviet-Nazi ties has bypassed our enthusiastic conquerors of the cosmos; their hands have not gotten to any of the history books and, besides, it is more convenient to live with myths than with books. It has never occurred to them that the “Great friendship” of the brotherly regimes began long before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (about which they probably also know nothing); that the Nazis came to the land of socialism as part of an exchange, clearly not for the first, nor the last time. The post-war footage of a circus arena on which “a patriotic attraction”―echoing motifs from Sergei Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevskii (1938)―is being performed strikes a nerve just as effectively. It is obvious that the “struggle against cosmopolitanism” is in full swing outside the circus tent and the show fulfills the superpower’s need to propagandize the Russian spirit and to rattle Russian arms.

When watching Fedorchenko’s film, it is possible, of course, to think of Zelig, but… as the astounded priest in Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style (1961) asks the heroine who, swallowing her tears, tells him the identity of her seducer during confession: “My daughter, couldn’t you have found someone closer?” Fedorchenko’s film opens with a stream of stylized “newsreels” that immediately bring to mind some—at first glance—unrelated films like Citizen Kane (Orson Wells, 1941) and Man of Marble (Andrzej Wajda, 1976). The official newsreel of these films’ openings draw commissioned portraits of the heroes: two-dimensional and high-flown, with insolent force proclaiming propagandistic stock-phrases and wailing banalities. This language of lies and its synonyms are weapons in the hands of those in power and are the enemies of truth. This self-confident idle prattle elevates social myths that serve the regime. And from the very beginning, Wells and Wajda sweep them away, “clearing a space” for their own, truthful representation of the “life and fate” of the American millionaire Charles Foster Kane and the Polish bricklayer Mateusz Birkut.

Close to these films is Sergei Livnev’s frightening Hammer and Sickle (Serp i molot, 1994), whose plot also contains a brilliant parody of official newsreels. The film’s hearty fecklessness obscures the awfulness of the story about how Stalinist scientific profiteers―in the name of something very elevated―“re-make” a gentle maiden into… a passionate man.

This contrast between myth and reality seems to be missing from Fedorchenko’s film. Also seemingly absent is the filmmaker’s personal, piercingly subjective―and, therefore, artistically “truthful”―view of the fates of his heroes. The story of the flight to the moon, prepared in “the heroic year 1937,” is told exclusively in the artificial language of contrived film clichés. It might appear that Fedorchenko tried to create a grandiose grotesque, a Russian analog to Paul Verhoeven’s under-appreciated masterpiece Starship Troopers (1997), in which the “cosmic” environment is used to analyze the mechanisms of total propaganda and the birth in society of the germ of fascism.

Some people see “funny practical jokes” in Fedorchenko’s film; others proclaim with pathos that the film is “‘a song of glorification,’ glorifying our fathers and grandfathers, whose dreams were capable of mastering space and the whole universe” (the monthly newspaper NIKA, September-October 2005: 2). The director himself agrees with such a patriotic interpretation of his film, declaring with conviction: “I made a film about the Generation of Titans” (from the same newspaper).

A powerful stylistic device is capable of being “smarter” than its creator, while the creator’s talent “corrects” questionable intentions. The accelerated motion―as with “Old Tyme” projection―of the characters in the footage creates the impression of a Theater of Marionettes and not some grandiose Time of the Titans, especially since the film includes a performance by an ensemble of Lilliputians and one of the heroes-astronauts is the miniscule Misha Roshchin, a “Man-Cell” from a provincial circus.

The characters of the film are under the control of the CheKa, who secretly film every one of their steps with a hand-held camera. It is interesting that precisely this surveillance footage of their “private life” seem to “fall outside” of the structure of the film. Supposedly this footage was shot using a portable camera, but on the screen we see very effective images shot in wide-angle, so beloved by avant-garde filmmakers. Shot in shallow-focus, the “Stalinist Empire-style” buildings appear like cyclopean armaments and the squares in Russian cities appear boundless and deserted. Human forms likewise seem lost in these expanses―lonley figures that cast lengthy shadows as in Giorgio de Chirico’s “metaphysical” paintings. It even seems that the “fish-eye lens” in this film has an “organic,” rather than technological ancestry. This is the eye of an unimaginable monster that breathes off-screen, the incarnation of a sinister, invisible, and anonymous power. The images themselves declare that the mechanism of surveillance and control of individuals in Russia has never died and has no intention of dying, and that its very indestructibility contains something metaphysical, as in de Chirico’s paintings.

The very atmosphere of bondage is communicated so palpably in the film that simply the sight of the crudely shaved skull of an imprisoned person or the footage of “rehabilitation through labor” of the mentally ill scrapes across the flesh like a blast of frost. What “postmodernism” or “play” with material? This is Russia! This is reality! The longer you watch Fedorchenko’s film, the more you are astounded not by its artistry but by the fact that the totalitarian monster has still not given up its grip even on the consciousness of the very “newest” Russian film directors―see, for example, Aleksei German, Jr.’s The Last Train (Poslednii poezd, 2003), Il'ia Khrzhanovskii’s 4 (2004), Sergei Loban’s Dust (Pyl', 2005).

Fedorchenko’s film shows so much that is oppressive that the filmmakers’s patriotic pathos may be surprising. But it is understandable: when he says that he made a film “about how the government breaks its best sons and daughters” (NIKA, September-October 2005: 2), it becomes clear that he is filming a bitter variation on Nikolai Leskov’s story “The Lefty,” where the master craftsman, having achieved fame and glory abroad, is finally destroyed in his homeland. Fedorchenko’s conception is simple and, in general, flattering to patriotic consciousness: our people are heroic but they just have no luck with their leadership. It is pointless to repeat that the leadership of a country does not drop down from the skies or that one consoling myth is no better than another, but… the imagery in the film shifts its impact to a different level of meaning.
The longer one watches Fedorchenko’s film, the more it recalls Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), through which runs a single motif: the image of a hand with a gun protruding from an array of leaves in a park and visible because of massive photo-enlargement. The same thing occurs here: the fabric of the film begins to vibrate in an alarming way, sending us disturbing signals, imparting bitter knowledge or riddles of existence.

“But there was no fear… Everything was boiling inside,” thoughtfully recalls the surviving astropilot. Memory is deceitful; in one of the dormitory rooms, the “Komsomol goddess,” Nadiia Svetlaia, beloved by everyone, softly whispered about her fear, and this secret confession is dispassionately recorded by the camera of the invisible spy… In general, however, it is difficult to see even the shadow of fear or suffering on the open faces of the test pilots. Genuine fear―and even a kind of silent question―is recorded in the film only in the eyes of Dus'ka, the experimental monkey. As we watch Fedorchenko’s film, we seem to learn only what the biased, false and falsified documents claim about the characters. The filmmaker did not set himself the goal of communicating to the viewer some revealed truth about them; instead, he forces us to stand with our heads bowed next to the scrolls of film print that have buried all knowledge of the dead heroes.

Oleg Kovalov (Film director and film critic)

Translated by Vladimir Padunov


Notes

1] From this follow the attempts by this irresponsible person to imitate “old” footage on television via staged “reconstructions” of events, up to and including the inane idea of recreating (!) “non-existent” footage of the Great Patriotic War. While the mechanism of falsification has been launched and its effects are in dispute, the results inevitably elicit pride in Ernst himself: “I am pleased with the results”; that is, he himself could not distinguish between the real and its imitation (Seans 25/26: 292). The new barbarians are no longer satisfied with merely appropriating the country’s natural resources for their personal needs; now they want the country’s past as well.


First on the Moon, Russia, 2005
Black and White and Color, 75 minutes
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Screenplay: Aleksandr Gonorovskii and Ramil Iamaleev
Cinematography: Anatolii Lesnikov
Set Designs: Nikolai Pavlov
Cast: Boris Vlasov, Aleksei Slavnin, Andrei Osipov, Anatolii Otradnov, Viktoriia Il'inskaia. Producers: Dmitrii Vorob'ev and Aleksei Fedorchenko
Production: Sverdlovsk Film Studio and Film Company Strana

Aleksei Fedorchenko: First on the Moon (Pervye na lune), 2005

reviewed by Oleg Kovalov© 2006

Updated: 15 Jan 06