Aleksandr Atanesian: Bastards (Svolochi, 2006)
reviewed by Jeremy Hicks© 2006
Bastards is the story of teenage criminals facing the death penalty, who are taken to a special school in Kazakhstan in 1943 to be trained as commandos and dropped behind enemy lines. When the film came out in Russia on 2 February 2006, this apparently simple tale created an uproar as, despite the filmmaker’s earlier claims to be dramatizing a previously suppressed episode from World War II, none of this appears to have actually happened. Komsomol'skaia Pravda, for example, argued that the film’s pretensions to historical truth—claiming to tell an unjustly forgotten story and using verbatim quotations from various apparently documentary sources in the opening sequence—were probably no more than a promotional strategy. Before the film’s release, director Aleksandr Atanesian claimed that the plot was based on an episode from Vladimir Kunin’s autobiographical novel, Mika and Alfred (Mika i Al'fred) and was, therefore, historically correct. Just before the premiere, however, the FSB launched a press release asserting there was no evidence that such a school was run by the NKVD, but that the Germans had established one, recruiting orphaned children from occupied Soviet territories. At the Moscow premiere Atanesian backed down, admitting the whole thing was made up, a fact that Kunin had supposedly only just confessed to him.
What seems to have caused particular offence is the implication that the Soviet Union was more unscrupulous than the Germans and was willing to sacrifice children to win the war. Many viewers were particularly incensed that the greatest moral outrage at the use of child combatants is expressed in the film by a German officer. Predictably this has been seen as a distortion of Russian history made to please Western sensibilities. One reviewer even argued that the film’s distortion of historical truth was “Russophobic slander,” comparable to claiming that Russians were responsible for Auschwitz. The offence was compounded by the fact that the film was financed by 700,000 dollars of state money and that Kunin, who also co-wrote the screenplay, now lives in Germany.
Ultimately though, Bastards is more serious about entertainment than the war. When backing down from the earlier claim that it was historically true, Atanesian stressed artistic licence: “I take the position that art operates not with the categories of truth, but with those of artistic invention. Invention must be interesting and have emotional value.” Bastards can be seen as another attempt to make a commercially successful Russian war picture, following Fedor Bondarchuk’s Ninth Company (9aia rota, 2005). For those who appreciated the movie, the war was primarily a backdrop to the smooth narrative and attractive finish. Atanesian gained a reputation for well-made, well-paced genre films after his debut feature, 24 Hours (24 chasa, 2000), an adaptation of the Russian gangster theme to the sensibilities of film noir. At the same time, the director’s earlier association with Paradjanov is evident in the strong visual appeal of his films. Stunning shots of mountains and interesting camera angles are combined with the muted blue and brown colors associated with many war films. Yet for all the emphasis upon entertainment, the film is not especially accomplished in its action sequences and the computer generated images of planes and fire are particularly weak.
While entertainment is its primary purpose, Bastards nevertheless continues the tendency of recent Russian war films, such as Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Our Own (Svoi, 2004), to reassess World War Two through the prism of Stalinist repression, highlighting the ambivalent role of the NKVD. While penal battalions consisting of adult prisoners did exist, and have already been the subject of the television series Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat; dir. Nikolai Dostal', 2004), Atanesian’s film extends this premise to children. The theme of childhood had been used by a previous generation of Russian films in the Thaw period to symbolise an innocence that is antithetical to war. In Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962), Andrei Tarkovskii used a child soldier to express the tragedy of a lost innocence remembered only in dreams. Atanesian’s Bastards could be said to explore the same subject, but his is a world devoid of innocence from start to finish.
In its treatment of delinquents, Bastards also recalls another, older, Soviet film: Nikolai Ekk’s early sound film The Road to Life (Putevka v zhizn', 1931). Both films give us a flavor of the language and mores of the besprizorniki or homeless children, albeit at different points in Soviet history. However, whereas the street kids in the earlier film are redeemed through labor in a narrative of education and conversion, here there is neither redemption nor hope of conversion. The formula “expiate your guilt before the Motherland” is mouthed in a mechanical fashion and no one believes it: the juvenile criminals may be the bastards of the title, but those who run the school and those who set it up merit the moniker no less. No one here is morally superior. Probably the most offensive implication of the film, for many Russians, is that those who won the war were in no sense heroic or admirable.
Yet despite this morally bleak vision, the film does have a redemptive promise and ends on an uplifting note calculated to appeal widely: it is a buddy film. The two main characters, Kot (Aleksandr Golovin) and Tiapa (Sergei Rychenkov), forge an unbreakable bond of friendship. Yet this is not a relationship we see develop, as it seems to predate our first encounter with them in the scene of their arrest: unlike other members of the gang, Tiapa is unwilling simply to run off leaving Kot behind when the gang is surprised by the police during a robbery. The men in charge of the school, Vishnevetskii (Andrei Panin) and Uncle Pasha (Andrei Krasko), grow closer to the pair as they elicit information about their background, give them preferential rations, and show concern about their fate when they are sent on an almost impossible mission. But again, this relationship and the character of Vishnevetskii, who has been retrieved from the camps to head the school, are left undeveloped, as the narrative focuses primarily on the two boys and the wider group of teenage recidivists.
Essentially then, the film gives us characters as fixed values. Consequently, a key aspect to how it works is not just the portrayal of their friendship, but also its success in endearing the audience to Kot and Tiapa, who have a certain moral system of loyalty to each other. They are contrasted with those who murder their creditors or steal other thieves’ cigarettes. They follow a code that permits friendship.
The film’s subtitle—“neither love, nor melancholy, nor pity” (Ни любви, ни тоски, ни жалости)—is a quotation from a wartime poem by Konstantin Simonov, listing earthly emotions the poet will need to take with him to heaven. In the poem love, melancholy, and pity are human sensibilities he cannot live without. The film loudly proclaims its lack of these. However, it surreptitiously advocates friendship, echoing the same Simonov poem it attempts to travesty:
I’d take a true friend with me to heaven,
to have someone to party with...
[Взял бы в рай с собой друга верного,
Чтобы было с кем пировать…]
Queen Mary, University of London
1] “Rezhisser Svolochei priznal, chto siuzhet kartiny — vydumka.” Komsomol'skaia Pravda (3 February 2006).
2] Alisa Argunova, “Svolochnoi siuzhet” (3 February 2006).
3] “Fil'm Svolochi: Zaiavlenie ‘Antirusofobskoi ligi’.” Live Journal (5 February 2006).
4] “Rezhisser fil'ma Svolochi ne pretenduet na istoricheskuiu dostoversnost'.” RIA Novosti (1 February 2006).
Bastards, Russia, 2006
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Atanesian
Screenplay: Aleksandr Atanesian, Vladimir Kunin
Cinematography: Dmitrii Iashonkov
Art Director: Maksim Fesiun
Composer: Arkadii Ukupnik
Cast: Andrei Panin, Andrei Krasko, Aleksandr Golovin, Sergei Rychenkov, Vladimir Kashpur, Vladimir Andreev, Rostislav Bershauer, Aleksandr Nikulin
Producers: Iurii Kushnerev, Gevork Neresian
Production: Paradiz Producer Centre, with the aid of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography, and Ritm TV and Film Production Company
Aleksandr Atanesian: Bastards (Svolochi, 2006)
reviewed by Jeremy Hicks© 2006