Aleksei Balabanov: Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007)

reviewed by Tony Anemone© 2007

Although it may be too soon to declare Cargo 200 the best Russian film of 2007, it is hard to imagine much competition for the title of most controversial. Borrowing freely from various cinematic genres (for example, anti-war, family drama, psychological thriller) and literary classics (especially Dostoevskii's novels), Balabanov has constructed a rigorous and unsparing film about the death of the Soviet Union that is guaranteed to shock even the most jaded viewers. According to Balabanov, Soviet society circa 1984 was the poisonous wreck of an industrial civilization tottering on the verge of collapse from the sum of its political, social, and individual vices: a hopeless foreign war of choice bleeding the country dry, a terrorized and infantilized populace, rampant alcohol abuse among young and old, complete police lawlessness (bespredel), a geriatric and out of touch government, a dismal and hypocritical popular culture, an arrogant and cynical intelligentsia, a nihilistic younger generation, and the soul-crushing hopelessness of everyday life for the masses. When the best representatives of the younger generation were sacrificed to vain and doomed imperial ambitions in Afghanistan, the future was put in the hands of amoral black-marketers (fartsovshchiki), the absolutely predictable products of a soulless, cynical, and materialistic culture, who would become the business elite of post-Soviet Russia. In this way, Cargo 200 represents the continuation of the search for the origins of the post-Soviet power class that Balabanov began in Blind Man's Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005).

Although Russian cinema of the late 1980s and 1990s reveled in the horrors of Soviet life (chernukha) , such films have become exceedingly rare in recent years. Indeed, not since Aleksei German's Khrustalev, My Car! (Khrustalev, mashinu!, 1998) have Russian movie-goers been treated to such graphic representations of social squalor, and sexual and psychological torture. The film's reception has been predictable: while many leading critics have hailed Cargo 200 as Balabanov's best and most important film, Russian theater owners have been reluctant to book it, and viewers have walked out of screenings in droves. [1] It is, truth be told, a shocking and cruel film.

But Balabanov's film is much more than chernukha . A society in crisis and on the eve of a social revolution, a profound generation gap, intense conversations about the existence of God and the soul, the symbolic confrontation between the materialist beliefs of the atheistic intelligentsia and the utopian faith of the common people, a philosophical murder mystery that results in a religious conversion, family dramas symptomatic of larger social and psychological pathology—all these motifs connect Cargo 200 to the themes and obsessions of the classic Russian novel and particularly to Dostoevskii's metaphysical murder mysteries. Like Dostoevskii in Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, Balabanov seeks to transform a horrifying crime story into a symbolic portrait of an entire society and civilization, and, perhaps, to suggest a way out of the current impasse. While one could argue that Balabanov's borrowings are more like Dostoevshchina than Dostoevskii, they are a testament to the director's seriousness, ambition, and his desire to engage in the national discourse about post-Soviet national identity, in which Dostoevskii is, of course, a critical figure. [2]

The plot of Balabanov's eleventh feature film, supposedly based on a true story, is constructed around the intersecting fates of several families in provincial Russia in the late summer of 1984. As the film opens, Artem Kazakov, (Leonid Gromov), a Leningrad professor of scientific atheism visiting relatives in the provinces, is complaining to his brother Misha (Iurii Stepanov), an army colonel in charge of the local recruitment center, that his college-age son Slavik won't study, spends all his time at hang-outs (tusovki), and despises his parents. Artem's domestic discontent and alienation from his son, it soon becomes apparent, are actually symptoms of the larger loss of confidence and changing values in Soviet society since the death of Andropov. After being introduced to his niece Liza's boyfriend Valera (Leonid Bichevin), Artem sets off to visit his mother in the nearby city of Leninsk. But when his car breaks down outside of town, he is forced to seek help from Aleksei, a mysterious moonshiner and ex-con, played with ferocious conviction by Aleksei Serebriakov. As Aleksei's Vietnamese hired hand Sunka (Mikhail Skriabin) repairs the car, the professor and the moonshiner eat mushroom soup, drink vodka, and discuss the “eternal questions”: the existence of God and the soul, the relationship between matter and consciousness, Darwin's theory of evolution, the morality of the communist party, and the possibility of utopia in Russia! Aleksei turns out to be a well read autodidact, a passionate believer in Campanella's utopian “City of the Sun,” which he is seeking to realize on his own piece of land, and a competent debater, more than a match for the “learned professor” whose arguments never rise above standard Marxist clichés.

As Artem drives away in his repaired car, Valera and Angelica (Agniia Kuznetsova), the daughter of the local party secretary, drive up, looking to buy vodka from Aleksei. But as Valera drinks himself under the table, Angelica finds herself pursued by the drunken Aleksei and the mysterious and creepy militia captain Zhurov, chillingly played by Aleksei Poluian. Despite the efforts of Antonina, Aleksei's much-suffering wife (Natal'ia Akimova), and Sunka, Zhurov finds Angelica, rapes her with a vodka bottle, handcuffs her to the sidecar of his motorcycle, and drives her to his squalid apartment in Leninsk, which he shares with his alcoholic and loony mother (Valentina Andriukova). Meanwhile, Valera disappears, Aleksei is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit, and Zhurov announces to his mother that the girl handcuffed to his bed is his wife!

Balabanov's depiction of the Zhurov family drama is alternately funny and horrifying. A corrupt and brutal cop, murderer, rapist, and sexually impotent voyeur, militia captain Zhurov is not only a sociopath, but a dutiful son and would-be lover and family man as well. [3] Sincerely believing that the captive Angelica really is his wife, Zhurov tries, in his own sick way, to make her happy and is genuinely pained by his failure. Meanwhile, his mother drinks herself to oblivion in front of the TV tuned to the worst kind of Soviet variety shows (estrada) and political speeches, and periodically tries to befriend her new “daughter-in-law.” Her blindness to the compulsion, violence, hypocrisy, and perversion that surround her corresponds, presumably, to Soviet society's blindness to the horrors of life in the USSR. Despite some moments of black humor, the psychological tension, graphic sexual torture, and increasing sense of madness, claustrophobia, and hopelessness make the film almost unbearable to watch to the end.

Astonishingly, and implausibly, Captain Zhurov is assigned the case of the missing party secretary's daughter and simultaneously asked to arrange for the burial of her fiancé, a Soviet soldier killed in Afghanistan and now on his way home (his coffin is the Cargo 200 of the title). In one of the film's best sequences, Zhurov and his men take possession of the just offloaded “cargo” from a military transport plane as a squad of soldiers boards the same transport, which promptly taxies down the runway for the return flight to Afghanistan. Although the Captain is finally punished in a sequence reminiscent of Balabanov's earlier gangster films, Angelica remains a prisoner, handcuffed to Zhurov's bed, sobbing uncontrollably, surrounded by the corpses of the men who “loved” her. In an epilog of sorts, the film moves to Leningrad, where the professor of scientific atheism repents his cowardly refusal to help Aleksei and, much in the manner of a Dostoevskian hero, turns to religion and seeks to be baptized by the local parish priest. Also in Leningrad, Valera meets Slavik, the professor's ne'er-do-well son, at a rock concert, and they make plans to go into business together. Before the final credits roll, a screen title announces: “These events took place in the second half of 1984.”

Among the many remarkable aspects of Cargo 200 are the tight plot construction, intense thematic focus, brilliant soundtrack, and the way Balabanov invests apparently ordinary objects, places, characters, and conversations with larger social and symbolic significance. Everything seen on the screen or heard on the soundtrack contributes to the plot or the overall theme. The clogged spark plugs of the professor's underpowered Zaporozhets, the run-down and poorly furnished Soviet apartments, the dingy provincial youth Klub, the clothing, hair styles, music and television broadcasts, and the giant chemical factory that blights the urban landscape—all recognizable aspects of Soviet reality of the 1980s—combine to form a symbolic image of a decrepit, morally empty, and hypocritical culture and society. Place names like Kaliaevo and Leninsk point to a historical context for the horrors of late Soviet life. [4] Despite the significant role played by coincidence, nothing is random in the world of Cargo 200 : ordinary conversations foreshadow future plot developments, apparently unrelated actions provide an ironic commentary on characters' moral dilemmas, chance meetings determine characters' fates. [5] You can be assured that the gun cleaned in act one will be fired more than once before the end of act five!

One of the hallmarks of Balabanov's directorial style is the importance that he gives to music, not as simple accompaniment to the film's action, but as a constituent part of the narrative. The first Brother (Brat, 1997) movie, for example, is inconceivable without the music of Butusov, which expresses everything that Danila Bagrov wants in life and the impossibility of his ever attaining it. Balabanov's remarkable ability to find music that expresses the historical moment of each particular film, characterizes his heroes' inner lives, contributes to the overall themes of the film, and sometimes even drives the plot is one of the secrets of his success. The soundtrack for Cargo 200 may be his most sophisticated yet. Although the individual songs may be unremarkable, together they take on an added significance, reflecting the desires, dilemmas, and obsessions of the individual characters, and suggesting some important truths about Soviet culture and society in the 1980s. Seen in the context of the film's vision of the decay of Soviet culture, the stereotypical dreams of romance, of escape to the freedom of the country, the powerful nostalgia for the innocence of childhood, and the bond between mother and son in songs like “The Raft,” “In the Land of Magnolias,” “I'll Take You to the Tundra,” and “Vologda” take on new and ominous meanings. When presented as the soundtrack to the death of Soviet civilization, these songs suggests a society dangerously out of touch with reality, the power of dreams of complete happiness, and the ease with which utopian dreams can turn into nightmares.

The result of all these textual, aural, and visual correspondences is a powerful sense of inevitability, even when the action on the screen is quite implausible. Absolutely everything in the film points to the crisis of Soviet values and civilization that came to a head in the mid-1980s: the breakdown of Artem's car, Zhurov's mother's blind and unquestioning love for her perverse and criminal son, the brutality of the organs of State power, the rape of the innocent and passive daughter of the party secretary, governmental incompetence, and an endless and pointless foreign war that is destroying the best of the younger generation. With a hypocritical and cowardly intelligentsia, a well-intentioned but ineffectual military, a brutal and corrupt police, a brutalized populace, and a cynically hedonistic younger generation, it is no wonder that Soviet civilization's days are numbered.

This is the film's strongest and, paradoxically, its weakest, point. Most who remember the Soviet Union in the 1980s will probably agree that Balabanov has captured some of the hopelessness, bleakness, and brutality of the period. The problem is that Balabanov overdoes it and the resulting picture of Soviet life is exaggerated and one-sided to the point of caricature. By focusing so relentlessly and exclusively on degeneration, squalor, and depravity, Balabanov may shock the audience but he simplifies history. [6] As a result, the film's warning against idealizing the Soviet past is weakened and the film as a whole feels forced and schematic. And this is too bad because, in a period of resurgent nationalism and imperial nostalgia, Russia needs images of the true complexity of the Soviet past more than ever.

Tony Anemone
The New School University

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Images courtesy of CTB.


Notes

1] When a friend and I saw the film in St. Petersburg this past summer, for example, not only was the theater almost empty, but several people walked out before the end.

2] For an interesting discussion of Vladimir Bortko's blockbuster 2003 television adaptation of Dostoevskii's Idiot in the context of contemporary discussions of Russian national identity, see Konstantine Kliutchtkine, “Fedor Mikhailovich Lucked Out with Vladimir Vladimirovich: The Idiot Television Series in the Context of Putin's Culture,” in Kinokultura 9 (July 2003).

3] In familiar Hollywood style (think Hitchcock's Psycho, 1960), Zhurov's pathology and sexual dysfunction are the result of an emasculating mother.

4] The village where the crime wave begins is named for the famous Socialist-Revolutionary poet-terrorist, Ivan Kaliaev, the assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich in 1907, while the hellish industrial city where both Artem's mother and the Zhurovs live is called Leninsk.

5] For example, Artem's automotive breakdown and religious conversion are foreshadowed in his first conversation with his brother; a troop of young pioneers walk past a poster proclaiming “Glory to the CPSU” as Artem explains to Antonina that he cannot help because he is a party member and the scandal could put his career at risk; a chance glance at a snapshot at the beginning of the film sets up the fateful meeting of Valera and Slavik in the epilog.

6] For a fascinating and nuanced account of how life in the Soviet Union in the 1980s was actually perceived by “the last Soviet generation,” see Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton UP, 2006).

Images from CTB website, press section.


Cargo 200, Russia, 2007
Color, 89 minutes
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Scriptwriter: Aleksei Balabanov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Simonov
Art Director: Pavel Parkhomenko
Sound: Mikhail Nikolaev
Editing: Tat'iana Kuzmicheva
Cast: Agniia Kuznetsova, Aleksei Poluian, Leonid Gromov, Aleksei Serebriakov, Leonid Bichevin, Natal'ia Akimova, Iurii Stepanov, Mikhail Skriabin, Aleksandr Bashirov
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: CTB Film Company

Aleksei Balabanov: Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007)

reviewed by Tony Anemone© 2007

Updated: 02 Oct 07