Roman Kachanov: Ar'e (2004)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski© 2006

A Remedy for Holocaust Fatigue?

Roman Kachanov seems to specialise in revealing the funny side of things that are normally not associated with laughter. His 2000 comedy Demobbed (DMB), about the adventures of three conscript soldiers, mocks the atmosphere of mindless brutality for which the Russian army is notorious. Down House (Daun khaus), his 2001 modernised adaptation of Dostoevskii’s The Idiot, transforms the Christ-like figure of Prince Myshkin into a house music fan, who (with little regard for political correctness) is referred to as suffering from Down syndrome for his feeble-mindedness. As for Ar'e, Kachanov has found comic inspiration in the plight of Holocaust survivors.

Izrael (Iz'ia) Ar'e (played by the Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr), a Lithuanian Jew and a world-renowned Moscow heart surgeon, learns that he has only six months to live because of pancreatic cancer. He retires immediately and sets out to find his first love, Sonia Schworz (the Israeli actress Sandra Sadeh), with whom he shared an attic on a Lithuanian farm while hiding from the Nazis for a large part of World War Two. Their re-union takes place in Israel, where Sonia settled after the war. Although the couple has not seen each other for sixty years, it turns out that in the meantime they have been following similar life paths, not unlike twins separated at birth. Both have achieved enviable prosperity and enjoy the company of much younger bedfellows. To get these youngsters out of the way, Sonia unceremoniously dumps her lover Chaim (Yuval Levy), while Iz'ia’s pregnant wife Ol'ga (Angelina Chernova) is quickly persuaded to marry Sonia’s grandson Yossi (Aleksandr Balk).

Yossi bears an uncanny resemblance to the Lithuanian farmer Juozas (also played by Balk), who hid Sonia and Iz'ia as children (Zhenia Mel'nikov and Vera Ivanko; later Vitalii Rosenwasser and Bella Sarkisova) in 1941, and won over Sonia’s heart in 1944 in an unequal competition with the inexperienced Iz'ia. Although Juozas is killed by Lithuanian Nazi sympathizers, Iz'ia does not forgive Sonia for what he sees as betrayal, and refuses to follow her to Palestine when Lithuania is liberated. The irony of it all, commonly known as “Jewish happiness,” lies in the patterns that keep repeating themselves sixty years after: Iz'ia loses his woman (Ol'ga this time) to a Juozas look-alike again and fails to keep Sonia too (she suddenly dies in a terrorist explosion at Yossi’s and Ol'ga’s wedding). Apparently, Sonia’s and Iz'ia’s union was never meant to last, either at the beginning or at the end of their lives. On his deathbed, pondering on the lost opportunities, Iz'ia reiterates God’s commandment to multiply and replenish the earth (Gen. 1: 28) in the form of an impassionate plea to Ol'ga and Yossi to waste no time in going forth and procreating, presumably to contribute to the survival of the Jewish people, constantly threatened by extermination.

Was it worth it for Kachanov to labor for two years while auditioning some 250 children, overseeing a motley crew of amateur and professional actors, guiding the international leads forced to act in a language they barely know, and even getting a sunstroke when shooting on location in Israel―only to deliver this time-worn message with rather limited appeal? Paradoxically, Ar'e seems to be giving familiar clichés a fresh makeover, chiefly owing to the deliberate implausibility of the storyline (critics compared the film both to cheap and improbable post-Soviet TV series and to didactic Socialist realist cinema aimed at younger generations). The episodes involving the photographs of Iz'ia’s dead relatives (Mikhail Vladimirov, Elena Levy, and Aleksandr Gel'man) providing unsolicited advice and Iz'ia’s squabbles with his guardian angel (the rock musician Garik Sukachev) make the viewer forget that Ol'ga marries Yossi without bothering to divorce Iz'ia and to convert to Judaism (she is a Gentile). The mild humoring of Jewish mysticism and intrusive family relationships is accompanied by something unsparingly dark when it comes to matters of life and death. The septuagenarian Sonia confesses that she partly owes her outstanding physical shape to several suicide attempts, as the human body apparently mobilises all its resources to gain full recovery in such circumstances. Iz'ia makes the following comment: “Yes, try hanging yourself twice a year, and you’ll be fine and dandy (kak ogurchik).” In a similar vein, the mafioso Kerimov (the music critic Artem Troitskii), saved by Ar'e’s surgical art, says that he had to kill his personal assistant for underestimating the value of human life (that is, for refusing to pay Ar'e a million US dollars for the operation).

Needless to say, Kachanov’s treatment of sensitive subject matters will not be to everyone’s liking. There will always be a significant proportion of filmgoers and critics who would maintain, despite the success of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella, Italy, 1997), that humor and Holocaust do not mix. Furthermore, some would claim that, given the dearth of Russian films about Holocaust and its impact, Kachanov’s light-hearted take on the topic is a touch premature. In defence against possible accusations, it should be pointed out that Ar'e was co-scripted by the well-known playwright Aleksandr Gel'man, himself a Holocaust survivor, and the film was warmly received at the 21st Jerusalem Film Festival in July 2004. Another potentially controversial subject is Ar'e’s portrayal of Lithuanians enthusiastically plundering Jewish houses in Kaunas in 1941. This is counterbalanced by casting the veteran Lithuanian actor Juozas Budraitis as Juozas’s father (Budraitis’s own dad is reported to have harbored two Jewish children on his farm during the Nazi occupation).

All in all, Kachanov deserves credit for a brave attempt to make a Holocaust film with a difference. It is hardly surprising that in September 2005, at the Amur Autumn Film Forum in Blagoveshchensk, Ar'e was awarded the viewers’ choice prize.

Andrei Rogatchevski
University of Glasgow

Ar'e, Russia and Israel, 2004
Color, 92 minutes
Director: Roman Kachanov
Screenplay: Aleksandr Gel'man and Roman Kachanov
Cinematography: Nikolai Nemoliaev
Art Director: Aleksandr Tolkachev and Maksim Epstein
Composer: Viacheslav Ganelin
Cast: Jerzy Stuhr, Sandra Sadeh, Aleksandr Balk, Angelina Chernova, Juozas Budraitis, Garik Sukachev, Artem Troitskii
Producers: Stanislav Ershov, Faina Balk, and Sergei Khotimskii
Production: Gor'kii Studios (Moscow) and Polygon Eurasia, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema, Russia

Roman Kachanov: Ar'e (2004)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski© 2006

Updated: 05 Jul 06