Vladimir Bortko: Master and Margarita (Master i Margarita, TV, 2005)

reviewed by Polina Barskova© 2006

As If from a Lost Culture: Musings on Vladimir Bortko’s Master and Margarita (2005)

Valerii Todorovskii, one of the producers of Vladimir Bortko’s Master and Margarita for Russian television and himself a film director, said in a recent interview: “I cannot say that Master and Margarita is a symptom of some kind of spiritual renaissance in our society. It is just... that the time has come to adapt it for the screen.” The keyword here is “symptom” and any analysis of Bortko’s recent work will have to address it. Now that the enormous expectations generated by the serial’s premiere have faded and several underwhelmed critical voices have been heard in the mass media,[1] the time has come to view this work as an indicator of certain tendencies and—possibly—anxieties surrounding the emergent form of the telenovela in contemporary Russia.

Bortko’s decision to take on a leviathan of 20th century Russian literature was audacious, but not entirely unforeseeable. Before him, film directors (Andrzej Vajda, Aleksandar Petrovic, Iurii Kara) and numerous theater directors had attempted adaptations of the novel, all to various degrees of failure. Bulgakov’s devilish text not only overwhelmed those who tried to adapt it to the visual arts; it teased and bewitched them, and rumors of a demonic curse began to spread. Iurii Kara’s all-star film version (1994), for example, supposedly just disappeared.[2] But no superstitions or rumors could stop Bortko, forearmed with the success of the most popular adaptation of Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog (Sobach'e serdtse, 1988) and his recent TV series based on Dostoevskii’s The Idiot (2004).

Master and Margarita, paradoxically, combines the strong points of the two literary works that brought Bortko success. Like The Heart of a Dog, an unrivaled favorite of Russia’s reading public, Master and Margarita manages to combine high and popular cultures, to connect the two in a unique way and to interweave sublime philosophy and human drama with circus-like trickery, magic spectacle, and satire. A witty journalist by trade, Bulgakov made his cat Behemoth announce ironically that “Dostoevskii is immortal!” For Bulgakov, this was due not only to the tortured and whimsical subtlety of Dostoevskii’s style: Mikhail Afanas'evich inherited from Fedor Mikhailovich his penchant for deriding and breaking genre boundaries. As much as Dostoevskii drew his sublime constructions “out of the trash” of the urban mystery novels by Eugène Sue and Jules Gabriel Janin, Bortko’s The Idiot returned the novel to its roots (a project Boris Akunin has been carrying out in belles letters). Instead of a Bakhtinian novel of ideas, Russian audiences happily received a slum novel, a somewhat ennobled version of Bortko’s first TV triumph, the series Gangsters’ Petersburg (Banditskii Peterburg, 2000). Those who doubted the value of reducing The Idiot to melodramatic criminal plotlines were in the minority;[3] the serial received 7 Teffi awards and ratings were astronomical. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, with its irresistible love story, charming villains, and Molotov cocktail of the grotesque, satire, and popular history seemed a logical candidate to be Bortko’s next victory. But it did not happen. Why not?

Part of the answer lies in Bortko’s penchant for unlikely affinities: he attempted to create a popular television series without compromising the literary text too much. At the same time, he attempted to produce a serious film adaptation without a radical creative transformation of the text. The result was typical for such compromises: everyone was equally disappointed. Viewers looking for entertainment were bored, while those hoping for an adaptation of the sort perfected by Grigorii Kozintsev, Aleksandr Sokurov, or Pier Paolo Pasolini were not amused.

In many interviews during the filming, Bortko stressed his intention to treasure Bulgakov’s text, to change the minds of the somewhat embarrassed audience about his choice of actors, and to present a convincing vision of the magic spectacles of the book: the cat Behemoth, Margarita’s enchanted flight over Moscow, and Woland’s Ball of One Hundred Kings. It is reasonable to construct an analysis of the serial around these three promises.[4]

Static camera work, hopelessly old-fashioned (and allegedly overpriced [5]) special effects, and sloppy editing make Bortko’s Master and Margarita something of a sentimental journey back to the good old days of Soviet TV-performances (fil'm-spektakl'). This genre had its brilliant achievements (for example, works by Anatolii Efros, Vladimir Basov, Sergei Iurskii in drama; Evgenii Macheret and Evgenia Popova in ballet). But it also had its strict rules, principally the rigorous concentration—in the absence of other distractions—on the actors and acting. This brings us to the most gaping inconsistency of the serial.

Although producer Todorovskii claimed that “thousands of sleepless nights were given to the choice of actors,” Bortko’s casting seemed odd to many. While the choices may be understood as part of the director’s attempt to bridge old and new Russian cinematic traditions, the casting might also be seen as a sign of gerontophilia: most characters are significantly older than Bulgakov’s originals. When Bortko’s Pontius Pilate (Kirill Lavrov) shouts at Kaiafa, “Don't treat me like a child!” a spectator may take this as ironic since Lavrov―a star of Georgii Tovstonogov’s BDT (Leningrad “Big” Drama Theater ) and the principal Lenin of the Soviet screen―recently celebrated his 80th birthday. To find any justification for this choice of casting, one might only come up with something like this: Lavrov, with his long list of theater and film credits portraying high Soviet officials, is well qualified to convey the social status of Pontius Pilate, a high Roman official. He is cunning, experienced, and―above all―tired, as are many other characters played here by veterans of BDT, once the leading Leningrad theater.

A great novel adaptation cries out for great actors, but faced with a more and more obvious lack of profound young actors, Bortko decided to recruit the old guard. This decision creates a somewhat eerie sensation: very old people present the novel according to the grand old tradition as if their participation is supposed to mean, “Hey, look, this comes from a lost culture.” [6] This is especially obvious in the case of Woland (Oleg Basilashvili). Bulgakov gives his Satan a certain age and look―he is in his 40s, thin, and tall. A superstar of Soviet film and stage, and a favorite of the Soviet intelligentsia, Basilashvili today is in his 70s, stout, and―again―rather tired and bored. Basilashvili himself comments on his understanding of the character as if justifying a certain bizarreness: “For me, Woland is not a devil; he is a High official of some sort coming to Moscow on inspection.” [7]

This reading significantly impoverishes Bulgakov’s character, robbing him of charisma and inner conflict. But at least there is a reading here! Among the younger actors, such as the well-known Sergei Bezrukov (Christ) or the not-yet famous Anna Koval'chuk (Margarita), one looks in vain for any trace of the actors understanding of their characters. Bezrukov, who had recently obtained the status of national hero by playing a New Russian version of Robin Hood in the television serial Brigade (dir. Aleksei Sidorov, 2002), plays Christ with robust enthusiasm and not without some sunny optimism. Consequently, the central conflict of Bulgakov’s book―and of modern history as well―between Jesus and Pilate looks trite and lifeless.

And what about Margarita? This casting choice remains one of the main enigmas of the film. Rumor has it that Bortko had rejected many remarkable actresses in favor of Koval'chuk, whose main virtue must be that she is a dead ringer for the Master’s real-life widow and Muse, Elena Nikolaevna Bulgakova. Unfortunately, this enchantress cannot act. For example, the actress marks the complex transformation of Margarita into a witch by erupting into raptures of nymphomaniac laughter and sheer vulgarity. Konstantin Klioutchkine, in his observant article on Bortko’s The Idiot in KinoKultura, notes that Bortko’s casting of famous Soviet actors (like his usual heavyweights Lavrov and Basilashvili) together with the stars of the New Russian Cinema is an attempt to mend the rupture felt now by many spectators who mourn the passing of the king (old Soviet film) without producing an heir. In the present case, Bortko’s effort is laudable, but comparisons of the fading glory of Soviet cinema with present-day mediocrity leave a bitter taste around Master and Margarita.

In conclusion, it is important to look closely at Bortko’s promise to take great care with the text of the novel. Whole monologues and voluminous dialogues survive intact onscreen, dulling cinematic dynamics and the general result is a mediocre fil'm-spektakl'. Some plotlines are, however, peculiarly skewed.

For example, the action of the movie is moved from the 1929 of the novel to 1937. This is an understandable decision with its specific pathos, but the consequences are disastrous. Woland’s merry band could coexist in the motley carousel of the last year of NEP, with its penchant for the grotesque. But at the height of the Great Terror, Moscow would be a highly dissonant locale for Woland’s amusement park antics. The second “shift” can be observed during the Ball scene, when Queen Margo suddenly becomes… Jesus Christ on the road to Calvary. Her ball costume is transformed into atrocious wounds flowing rivers of blood. And while, in the novel, Margarita is merely exhausted by her regal duties, here we find a strongly highlighted parallel between the characters. Such a parallel is somewhat astonishing and entirely farfetched. To this day, the most structurally sound interpretation of Master and Margarita belongs to Boris Gasparov, who established the existence of parallel character-motifs that “bridge” the novel's layers. [8] It remains unknown whether Bortko read Gasparov's work, but he follows the same strategy: connecting a GPU official with Kaiafa, Baron Maigel with Judas (played by the same actor), the Master with Christ, and Woland with Aphranius (voiced by the same actor).

Bortko’s double standard—trying to avoid truncations and “cinematizations” of the original text while injecting risqué plot manipulations—hints at the major problem of this work. It draws no vitality from either the older, high-art traditions of literary adaptions to film or the current popular telenovela form, while claiming the mantle of both. Master and Margarita is one of many TV adaptations that have emerged recently after the success of The Idiot. TV versions of Il'f and Petrov’s The Golden Calf (Zolotoi telenok; dir. Ul'iana Shilkina, 2005), Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle (V kruge pervom; dir.Gleb Panfilov, 2006), and, inevitably, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (dir. Aleksandr Proshkin, 2006) have just hit TV screens in Russia. The threat of Sergei Solov'ev’s Anna Karenina is in the air. Viewers’ reactions to most of these works have all too often been a cheerless tallying of those qualities that were lost in transforming a literary masterpiece into a telenovela. Can anything be gained?

A current favorite of Moscow’s fashionable crowd, the stand-up comedian Evgenii Grishkovets, was recently asked his opinion of Bortko’s work. The comic remarked that this TV serial is perfect for those who “did not and do not intend to read this novel… For example, it is great for students who, instead of flipping through hundreds of pages before the exam, can now digest a 'fast food’ version.”[9] Good times have arrived for those students.

Polina Barskova
Hampshire College


1] See Roman Korneev, “Master i Margarita ushli, a osadok ostalsia,” Kinokadr (30 December 2005) ; and Irina Kozel, “Nachalo bez kontsa,” Kinokadr (25 December 2005).

2] On the mysterious fate of Kara’s film, see “Ischeznuvshii fil'm Kary Master i Margarita uzhe videli nekotorye moskvichi,” Podrobnosti.ua (29 December 2005).

3] One of the leading Russian scholars of Dostoevskii, Igor' Volgin expressed his well grounded scepticism about Bortko’s The Idiot; see “Ostanovite Parfena (O fil'me Idiot V. Bortko)”.

4] See Leonid Pavliuchik’s interview with Bortko, “Nikakoi mistiki”.

5] Bortko had promised his viewers more exciting special effects than “those in Harry Potter”; see “Bortko snail Master i Margaritu,” Dni.ru (24 March 2005).

6] These words belong to literary critic Stuart Hampshire who thus attested his impression of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago; see, “Doctor Zhivago: As from a Lost Culture” in Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Victor Erlich. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1978:126-131.

7] See Vitalii Lukashov’s Interview “Master i Margarita—na priamoi linii”.

8] Gasparov, Boris, “Iz nabliudenii nad motivnoi strukturoi romana M.A. Bulgakova Master i Margarita,” Slavica Hierosolymitana 3 (1978): 198-251.

9] See Andrei Bil'zho, “Master i Margarita vyshli v liudi,” Izvestiia.ru (26 June 2005).

Master and Margarita, Russia, 2005
Color, 480 min (10 parts).
Direction and screenplay: Vladimir Bortko
Cinematography: Valerii Miul'gaut
Music: Igor' Korneliuk
Art Director: Nadezhda Vasil'eva
Cast: Sergei Bezrukov, Vladislav Galkin, Aleksnadr Abdulov, Aleksandr Adabash'ian, Oleg Basilashvili, Aleksandr Bashirov, Roman Kartsev, Lev Borisov, Anna Koval'chuk, Nina Usatova
Producer: Anton Zlatopol'skii, Valerii Todorovskii
Production: Rossiia Channel and Central Partnership

Vladimir Bortko: Master and Margarita (Master i Margarita, TV, 2005)

reviewed by Polina Barskova© 2006

Updated: 11 Jul 06