Valerii Ogorodnikov: Red Sky, Black Snow (Krasnoe nebo, chernyi sneg), 2005

reviewed by Oleg Sulkin© 2006

Barracks, Bazaars, and Bahnhofs

Red Sky, Black Snow is the second collaborative project involving the Petersburg film director Valerii Ogorodnikov and the Cheliabinsk scriptwriter Viktor Petrov. Their first was The Barrack (1999), which immersed the viewer in the grotesque, tragic-lyrical atmosphere of a provincial industrial town during the Second World War. Ideologically, that film very sympathetically demonstrated that collectivism was the main and sacred idea underlying the Soviet way of life, while on the aesthetic level it adhered to the principles of hyperrealism à la Aleksei German.

Comparisons of Ogorodnikov’s new film with The Barrack are inevitable insofar as the time of action is the same (the war years), the place of action is the same (the rear echelon), and the artistic principles are the same (“German-ism”). There are also differences, but I shall examine those later. Red Sky, Black Snow, like The Barrack, is filled with a multitude of characters, which always poses a problem of reception for viewers unless this multitude is simply a decorative backdrop as, for example, in the films of Sergei Parajanov or Pier Paolo Pasolini. It takes time and effort to remember all of the faces even superficially. It takes time and effort to begin following the characters and events with interest. It takes time and effort to understand how the relationships between characters take shape and what place they occupy in the narrative’s hierarchy. Clearly, a viewer who is in sympathy with the filmmaker’s design experiences the need to strain himself as an inevitable investment in a future pleasure.

We are called upon to solve this network of reception tasks from the very first shot of Red Sky: during the war against the fascists, we are caught up in the crush of bodies at a train station as a group of people tries to break out of the cars, which are jammed with passengers. Evidently they are evacuees. A second group tries to storm into the cars. Evidently they are refugees. Then there are people in military uniform, trying to establish some semblance of order in the midst of this obvious chaos. People run back and forth, scream, curse, fight. Brownian movement:[1] a blurring mass of faces and bodies shrouded in clouds of smoke from the train.

It is important to state at the outset that for Ogorodnikov and his very experienced cameraman, Dmitrii Dolinin, smokiness is conceptually motivated: it is a universal means to attain a “continuous” epic-scope. After all, an epic-scope in narratives is selectively applied in cinema; it occurs when an important plot line or the image of some pivotal character “heats up” or is “sublimated.” But when filmmakers set themselves the task (or, at least, one of their tasks) to render the entire narrative with an epic-scope, then the entire visual field has to be “heated up.” So smoke screens are a very handy device for filmmakers: it is visually effective, picturesque, helps to conceal the trivial, wraps the action with the magical gauze of incompleteness. It is no accident that smoke is released on the estrada stage at the culminating moment of a music show; it signals a change of register in the atmosphere from benevolent calm to ecstatic pathos.

This “epic” smoke, emanating from a variety of sources, enfolds the characters not just at the train station, but also at other places where people gather en masse―specifically, in the factory’s workshop, in the barracks, at the market, on the streets of the provincial town. While I did not use a chronometer, it seems to me that fully two-thirds of the screen-time is taken up with mass scenes. There is another striking formal device used in the film to achieve an epic-scope: the passage of German POWs through the town is “woven” into the action of the film several times. This is obviously a refrain: a brass band leads the procession, playing uplifting marches.

At least three faces stand out in the blurring mass at the smoky train station: a young, attractive woman with a child and a military man, a captain-commissar, who is also young, with a balding pate and wearing round glasses. We’ll be informed that Lidiia Stepanovna Saltanova (played by Elena Panova) was evacuated from Stalingrad, and that her son is called Misha—Mikhail Antonovich. The captain’s surname will also be pronounced—Shatrov—and his given name, Gennadii (Aleksei Devotchenko).

From one mass arena, the viewer is thrown into another—the barracks, which was sculpted so painstakingly in Ogorodnikov’s previous film. Lidiia Stepanovna is assigned to share a room with a young man, which is awkward for each of them. Moreover, the delegation escorting her to her new quarters encounters the young man in the company of his fellows, smoking and playing cards. But there’s no place else, and the uncomfortable co-habitation is sanctioned by the powers-that-be in the person of Captain Shatrov.

The ranks of characters swell with every shot; it’s barely possible to keep track. There’s Lina Mikhailovna, an authoritarian doctor (Nina Usatova) who wields unquestioned power in the local hospital, and her son, a conscientious and thoughtful young man. There’s Zinovii Iakovlevich Zal'tsman, the director of the factory (Igor' Skliar), a master conniver and poseur who is skilled at getting into the souls of his subordinates and anticipating the actions of his superiors. There’s the head of the penal colony, major Vakhterov (Aleksandr Pankratov-Chernyi), a dodger, thief, and officious brute who is a straight arrow to his commanders, but who also strikes out with his fists for any reason whatsoever at his inmate-slaves. There’s Fedor Evlampievich Galimbievskii (Petr Semak), the factory-foreman, who is a skirt chaser and colorful guy with insidious and semi-criminal habits.

In order to ensure that viewers do not get confused and clearly recognize the main figure in this kaleidoscope of characters―and the characters described above are indisputably striking, with very expressive personalities and modes of conduct―the filmmakers grant captain Shatrov an exclusive right to flashbacks. From time to time, surrealistic images flicker through the contused captain’s imagination―accompanied by the trademark smoke (again!)―of his unrealized wedding, fragmented episodes of battles in Spain. Shatrov is a man with a tragic destiny: his bride-to-be drowned and in his struggle against the Spanish fascists he lost his health. I should mention in passing, that Lidiia’s husband, a pilot, also died in Spain, leaving her alone with the child.

The scriptwriter’s intention of linking Shatrov with Lidiia is both transparent and clear almost from the very beginning, when they meet each other at the train station. Drama requires a rival and this role falls to Galimbievskii, who also has eyes for Lidiia. The situation is made more complicated (and more entertaining) by the fact that Galimbievskii is co-habiting with Sima (Elena Kalinina), a hysterical babe and pickpocket who specializes in stealing ration cards. Sima is devoted to the powerful and cruel foreman because he saved her from being gang-raped.

It is curious and significant that this complicated love triangle does not dominate the rest of the string of subplots; it is simply inscribed as an autonomous figure within the global polyhedron of plots. Even the most elementary analysis suggests that this collision will be more important than any of the others. But Ogorodnikov is evidently not concerned with developing the plot line about Fedor’s, Gennadii’s, and Lidiia’s relations. He is not bound by the laws of psychological realism. He is just as interested in the interrelationships and actions of the other characters as he is in the major collision. Like a painter-chronicler of the Dutch School of the 17th-18th centuries, he records everything around him with a democratic omnivorousness and a somewhat naïve inquisitiveness. He does not think in terms of solo, monologically artful experiences. Virtually every episode plays out as a completed novella with its own inner dramaturgy and independent poetics, at times as pathos-tragedy, at others as social commentary, and at still others as vaudeville comedy.

Three examples.

These micro-plots (and there are dozens of them) are staged tastefully and in detail, with Ogorodnikov’s gift for recreating the environment and atmosphere of those years. He very carefully arranges even the secondary and tertiary planes, paying special attention to the soundtrack, following the principles of making a multi-layered cake. As the main dialog takes place—raw, uncinematic, “unformed”—fragments of other conversations are heard on the soundtrack, which also captures entirely marginal sounds: scraps of some kinds of songs, laughter, coughing, footsteps, scraping, barking. In his zealous creation of hyperrealism, Ogorodnikov undoubtedly follows the example and uses the devices of Aleksei German, and since he is a very diligent and skillful adept, he frequently uses the master’s “lotions” in ways that imbue them with a decorative purpose. In a word, nothing is simple; on the contrary, everything must be complicated and with a bit of affectation: the steel founder proposes to his co-worker against the backdrop of flaming furnaces and the deafening noise of the factory workshop at its height. Galimbievskii has sex with Sima, the half-idiot and semi-thief, in a barn on the most improbable love nest―goose down. Under stress the commissar, Zhora, impales a head of cabbage on a nail in the wall. The film’s rhythm can only be compared to the hyperventilated breathing of a medium falling into a trance. Everyone is overflowing with emotions. Everybody loves one another, and if they don’t―then they hate them. The director strings together narrative beads, episode after episode, as if he cannot stop the racing camera on any one thing. He is interested in everything.

This is precisely the point on which the chief difference between Red Sky and The Barrack is crystallized―in the breadth and scope of the perspective chosen by the director. If in The Barrack, the role of society was “delegated” to the handful of residents of only one building―residents who quarreled and made-up, loved and betrayed, but in the end came together in a touching scene of drunken ecstasy after heroically recovering the hero’s firearm from a sewer pit (the scene must be seen to be believed!)―then here, everything is more expansive, multi-faceted, epical (a crucial word!). In the first film there was one barrack; here―barrack, market, train station, factory, the zone. Yet I cannot agree with Elena Stishova, whom I deeply respect, who sees Red Sky as the anti-phase of The Barrack (Art of Cinema [Iskusstvo kino] 7, 2005). In my view, Ogorodnikov’s newest film is a consistent development of the same “German-istic” poetics and the same philosophy of “communal spirit” (“sobornost'”) but based on new material. As in The Barrack, there is the same “quasi-historical trance”―hermetic, sign-bearing, in ways that are penetratingly deep and in others that are demonstratively superficial. The collective Good conquered in The Barrack, and it conquers as well in the new film, punishing the evil-doers with pathos and restoring the truth that was concealed until then.

The final scenes of the film close the circle on the story of “Love―Russian-style” in a classical way. Driven into a corner and exposed as a double-dealer, Galimbievskii shows his wolf’s bared-teeth: he takes Sima hostage, who is pregnant with his child, and threatens to slit her throat. Soldiers and civilians take aim at him, but fear they might hit the girl. And at that moment, Lidiia exits from the crowd and with her arms thrown wide-open walks towards him. Galimbievskii softens, he moves aside his “living shield,” and immediately gets shot by a fatal bullet from an armed guard above him. In accordance with tradition, we are immediately returned to the smoky, frenetic, over-populated human mass with which we began our acquaintance with Lidiia, Shatrov, and the other characters of the film. Guys who have matured after listening to Shatrov’s lessons on military preparedness set off for the frontlines. It would be historically incorrect to call the film’s finale a “happy end,” but the smoke of the Fatherland has an undeniably sweet smell.

Oleg Sul'kin (Film critic, Novoye Russkoye Slovo)

Translated by Vladimir Padunov


Notes

1] Robert Brown (1773-1858), Scottish botanist. In 1827 Brown identified the chaotic motion of minute particles of matter in colloidal suspensions; named “Brownian movement.”


Red Sky, Black Snow, Russia, Germany, and Switzerland, 2005
Color, 100 min
Director: Valerii Ogorodnikov
Screenplay: Viktor Petrov and Valerii Ogorodnikov, based on Vasilii Kon'iakov’s story “Don’t Hide the Violin in the Case”
Cinematography: Dmitrii Dolinin
Art Directors: Viktor Amel'chenkov and Andrei Vasin
Music: Georges Bizet
Arrangement: Vladimir Shuliakovskii
Sound: Aleksandr Gasan-zade
Cast: Elena Panova, Petr Semak, Elena Kalinina, Aleksei Devotchenko, Igor' Skliar, Aleksandr Pankratov-Chernyi, Nina Usatova
Production: DAR-Film and Rossiia television channel, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema (Russia), and with the participation of VIA Filmproduktion (Germany) and MonteCinemaVerita (Switzerland)

Valerii Ogorodnikov: Red Sky, Black Snow (Krasnoe nebo, chernyi sneg), 2005

reviewed by Oleg Sulkin© 2006

Updated: 16 Jan 06