Fedor Bondarchuk: Company 9 (9-aia rota), 2005

reviewed by Dawn Seckler © 2006


The Who’s Who of contemporary Russian cinema reads like a family tree. Sergei Mikhalkov, the famous writer of children’s literature and the author of both the Soviet and Russian national anthems passed the torch of reigning cultural figure to his sons: Nikita Mikhalkov and Andrei Konchalovskii. Petr Todorovskii, who directed the archetypal Stagnation-era film Intergirl (Interdevochka, 1989), is not to be confused with his son—the internationally-acclaimed director and producer Valerii Todorovskii. Sergei Bodrov Sr. directed Prisoner of the Mountains (Kavkazskii plennik, 1996), in which his son Sergei Bodrov Jr. played his first role. Acting success helped to launch Bodrov Jr.’s directing career, which, sadly, was cut short in 2002 when he died in an avalanche while shooting his second film. To this cursory list of famous fathers and sons we can now add Fedor Bondarchuk, whose debut film Company 9 was released in Russia on 29 September 2005. Fedor is the son of Sergei Bondarchuk, who directed the Soviet classics Fate of a Man (Sud'ba cheloveka, 1959), War and Peace (Voina i mir, 1966-67), and Boris Godunov (1986), in which Fedor played his first of many cinematic roles. [1]

In 1991 Fedor graduated from the Russian Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK), where he studied to become a director. He used his directing talents and well-woven web of connections to open the studio “Art Pictures,” and together with his partner Stepan Mikhalkov (son of Nikita) he made music videos for Russia’s greatest rockers, including Boris Grebenshchikov, Alla Pugacheva, and the group "Dva Samoleta". With the recent shift from short music videos, or “clips” as they are called in Russian, to a feature film of epic proportions, the opportunity arises to pose the question whether directorial skill is an inherited trait passed from one generation to the next. If Fedor Bondarchuk’s Company 9 is any indication, the answer is a resounding no.

In her review of the film, Tat'iana Moskvina comments on her experience of watching Company 9: “I never regarded Fedor Bondarchuk as the son of Sergei Bondarchuk, that is to say I didn’t think about it and didn’t sense any continuity.” [2] While no rule of primogeniture exists that demands a son to follow in his father’s filmmaking footsteps, Bondarchuk, at least initially, hoped aesthetically to evoke his father’s great 1959 war movie. According to the film’s scriptwriter Iurii Korotkov, Bondarchuk originally intended to make a contemporary sequel to his father’s Thaw-era masterpiece, a Chechen war film called Fate of a Man 2. [3] Later, when they became convinced that a comparison of the Chechen conflict with World War Two would prove difficult if not impossible, Korotkov and Bondarchuk agreed to make a film about the Soviet Union’s 10-year war in Afghanistan. In Korotkov’s opinion, the Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan fought for an honorable cause: “[they] fought for the motherland.” (Korotkov, 87) For him, two significant clues hint at the soldiers’ own pride: first, many of the soldiers volunteered to go to Afghanistan; and second, veterans of the Afghan War regard it as the happiest time of their lives. (Korotkov, 87-8) The validity of these claims is debatable. However, the following is undeniable: Company 9 was conceived from these ideas.

According to Bondarchuk, “I didn’t make a film about the Afghan War. I was making a film about the friendship, comradeship and love of boys whose state I remember from being 18 in the army in 1985.” [4] The director’s nostalgia and the patriotic themes of the movie mix oddly with the film’s visual aesthetic system. Rather than employ the specifics of the Soviet or post-Soviet war movie genre, Bondarchuk, as several reviewers (Moskvina, Kishkovsky) have noted, replicates the visual markers and narrative tropes of American films about the Vietnam War. Like many Vietnam War films, Bondarchuk divides his movie into two narrative blocks—boot camp followed by battle.

The first half of Company 9—the story of the soldiers’ physical and psychological training at boot camp—borrows liberally from Stanley Kubrick’s classic Full Metal Jacket (1987). Reminiscent of Kubrick’s opening scene in the military barbershop, the young soldiers entering Company 9 are shown having their heads shaved. In both films the soldiers are given nicknames: in Full Metal Jacket the monikers include Private Joker, Private Pyle, Private Cowboy, and Private Snowball; in Company 9 there is Liutyi (Fierce one), Chugun (Iron), Vorobei (Sparrow), and Gioconda. These soldiers are led by a stereotypical drill sergeant, Officer Dygalo (Mikhail Porechenkov). Like Senior Sergeant Bob Barnes (Tom Berenger) of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), Dygalo’s most notable physical feature is a scar on his right cheek. And like Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) from Full Metal Jacket, on whom his character is most closely modeled, he greets the soldiers with insults and punches to the stomach. As part of his greeting, Dygalo barks: “Here you’re not smart, not stupid, not good, not bad, not artists, you’re nobody! You’re not even people—you’re shit!” This speech echoes Hartman’s significantly more poetic version: “You’re pubes! You’re the lowest form of life on earth! You’re not even human fucking beings! You’re nothing but unorganized pieces of amphibian shit!”

Both films track the soldiers’ physical progress: military drills that were initially difficult become easy. While lined up in the barracks at the end of their beds or in front of sinks, the soldiers repeat slogans in unison: “Who’s a Soviet paratrooper? A Soviet paratrooper is the force, the beauty, and the pride of the Armed Forces! Who’s a Soviet paratrooper? A Soviet paratrooper is the model and the envy of all good-for-nothings and civilians,” just as Private Joker and company repeated their military mantras. Among the wide array of social types represented in the battalion one soldier is initially characterized as unfit for battle (Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket and Vorobei in Company 9). In both movies the quick succession of short scenes suggests temporal duration as the recruits learn never to abandon a comrade in battle, to handle their weapons properly, and to unveil their killer instincts prior to being inducted into the military at an official state ceremony. Also, the boot camp section of Company 9, like Full Metal Jacket, concludes by dispensing with the commanding sergeant. However, whereas Sergeant Hartman is shot and murdered by Private Pyle, who has been transformed all too successfully into a dehumanized killing machine, Sergeant Dygalo is last shown wallowing in a field of red poppies—he laments that he will not be able to return to Afghanistan to fight for the Soviet Union.

It is precisely this opposition that differentiates the films. Biting satire and critical commentary of the war and its proponents permeate every shot in Kubrick’s movie. Bondarchuk’s, by comparison, abounds with sentimental regard for the war, maudlin emotionality, nationalistic fervor, and nostalgia for the fallen empire. For this reason in particular Bondarchuk’s decision to model Company 9 on the Vietnam War movie makes little sense. Full Metal Jacket, like Platoon, shows soldiers and commanders who have become dehumanized by war. The most valiant, brave, and manly characters are also the most absurd: their thirst for war makes them monstrous, not heroic. The films present war as brutal, futile, and, therefore, tragic. Bondarchuk, conversely, continues to value and believe in the war and its heroes. Despite the tragic end of all but one of the soldiers, the film does not question the war, does not ask whether the war can be justifiably considered a Soviet victory, does not wonder whether the young soldiers lost their lives for a legitimate cause.

Rather than pose any questions or raise any criticism, Bondarchuk continues to advance the tired notion that to sacrifice one’s self to the nation is to perform an unproblematic patriotic act. Even the single female character in the film is used to highlight this theme. Belosnezhka or Snow White (Irina Rakhmanova) watches the boys as they fulfill their military drills at boot camp. Her fairy-tale name, pale skin, rosy cheeks, simple peasant attire, and kind smile all suggest her purity. For the boys, she is legendary. She is the Dostoevskiian whore with a heart of gold, who makes herself sexually available to all of the soldiers (first in rapid succession, then simultaneously) before they depart for battle. That is her sacrifice. Poetic as Bondarchuk’s intentions may have been, the result is an offensive gang-bang scene presented as intimate, loving, respectful, and even transcendent. It is truly a new low point for contemporary Russian cinema, which has notably few roles for women.

Five years in the making and with a budget of nine million dollars, the highest of any Russian film ever made at the time of its production, Company 9 was produced to be a blockbuster. The film is packed with Russia’s best young male actors, including Aleksei Chadov (War [Voina; dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 2002], Night Watch and Day Watch [Nochnoi dozor and Dnevnoi dozor; dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2004 and 2006]), Ivan Kokorin (The Suit [Shik; dir. Bakhtier Khudoinazarov, 2002], The Star [Zvezda; dir. Nikolai Lebedev, 2002]), Nikita Mikhalkov’s son Artem (Barber of Siberia [Sibirskii tsiriul'nik; dir. Nikita Mikhalkov, 1998], 72 Meters [Vladimir Khotinenko, 2003]), Artur Smol'ianinov (The Suit, Mars [Anna Melikian, 2004], Papa [Vladimir Mashkov, 2004]) and Fedor Bondarchuk as well. No expense was spared: the latest cameras, top-quality special effects, and sound editing done by the London studio Pinewood Shepperton combine to make a professional feature film with undeniable mass appeal—it grossed $23.47 million in its first month on the big screen. Still, one expects more from a director so familiarly interwoven into Russia’s cinematic history.

Dawn Seckler (University of Pittsburgh)


NOTES

1] Fedor Bondarchuk has appeared in over fifteen films including Down House (Daun Khaus; dir. Roman Kachanov, 2001), Our Own (Svoi; dir. Dmitrii Meshkiev, 2004), Mama Don’t Cry 2 (Mama ne goriui 2; dir. Maksim Pezhemskii, 2005), and Counselor of State (Statskii sovetnik; dir. Filipp Iankovskii, 2005).

2] Moskvina, Tat'iana. “Vsem stoiat'!” Iskusstvo kino11 (2005): 43.

3] Korotkov, Iurii. Interview with Natal'ia Balandina. Iskusstvo kino 7 (2005): 87.

4] Quoted in Kishkovsky, Sophia. “From a Bitter War Defeat Comes Russia’s Latest Blockbuster Action Movie.” New York Times (29 October 2005): A23.

 


Company 9, Russia, 2005
Color, 126 minutes
Director: Fedor Bondarchuk
Screenplay: Iurii Korotkov
Cinematography: Maksim Osadchii
Art Director: Grigorii Pushkin
Cast: Aleksei Chadov, Artur Smol'ianinov, Konstantin Kriukov, Ivan Kokorin, Artem
Mikhalkov, Mikhail Porechenkov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Aleksandr Bashirov, Irina Rakhmanova.
Production companies: Slovo, Art Pictures, STS, Ukrainian Mediinaia Group, 1+1, and Matila Rohr Productions

Fedor Bondarchuk: Company 9 (9-aia rota), 2005

reviewed by Dawn Seckler © 2006

Updated: 26 Apr 06