Vitalii Mel'nikov: Agitation Brigade “Beat the Enemy” (Agit-brigada “Bei vraga”, 2007)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2008

Director Vitalii Mel'nikov draws on his own published writings—Life, Cinema (Zhizn ', Kino)—for this tragicomedy about a group of artists sent along a remote Siberian river late in 1944 to spread the word to the isolated locals about the “inevitable” Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War. The group is an unlikely one indeed. Vera, a beautiful singer, has been exiled from Leningrad, and is joined on this venture by her lover, Vadim, an artist who has illegally exchanged his own place of exile for hers. A young boy, Radner, the son of exiled parents, and Zinaida, a local camera operator, provide the technical support for the group. They are led by Nikanor, a stuffy and officious local militiaman, who imparts (unwanted) pearls of propaganda wisdom to them at every turn. At his insistence, the exiles offer their own ironic name for the group: Agitation Brigade “Beat the Enemy.”

At turns humorous, nostalgic, and menacing, this film is a “road movie” of sorts, as the group rows along the river stopping at small settlements to sing traditional songs, perform a short propaganda piece, or show a short war newsreel or movie (most often the “Vasil'ev Brothers”'Civil War film, Chapaev [1934] ). Some scenes offer warm and evocative vignettes of Soviet propaganda efforts. A small group of villagers gathers in their one-room hut to listen to Vera's soulful ballads about love and loss, or to watch a grainy film about Soviet victories against the fascists; the whirr of the hand-cranked portable generator and the hand-cranked projector in the background; the children agog at this new technology. A group of young pioneers eagerly greets the propaganda group with slogans and songs and music. A village of free-spirited fisherwomen entertains them in an energetic and passionate evening of dancing and love. An illiterate, native hunter, Stepan, offers his food and friendship to them when the brigade is shipwrecked and marooned on a small island.

Each scene is defined though by its dissonant notes, and, as their journey progresses, the dissonance eventually drowns out the harmonious notes of their experiences. Some of the protagonists themselves are dissonant notes in the narrative; outcasts from Soviet society, their propaganda “message,” not surprisingly perhaps, is muted and half-hearted. The war, about which they have to spread such optimistic news is, at best, remote from their audiences and, at worst, irrelevant. Indeed, the only people who seem genuinely moved by the newsreels of German defeats and bloodshed are a group of deported Volga Germans they visit on their travels, and these people are clearly sympathizing with the Germans, not feeling the required hatred for “the fascists.” The fisherwomen with whom they carouse are war-made “widows.” The pioneers they visit are led by a zealous party member who has turned the local Orthodox chapel into a secular “club for interests” (klub po interesam), causing an old Orthodox woman to saw off the cross and carry it away, Christ-like, across her shoulder to the expressed sympathies of her fellow villagers. A religious sect shuts itself in a barn to burn itself to death rather than watch their propaganda films and hear about their war (“God commanded ‘Thou shalt not kill',” the leader tells Nikanor). In one of the most captivating vignettes, the brigade sails past a boat filled with Kalmyk deportees under guard. The action slows to reveal an entire culture on board, the camera poignantly lingering on men in traditional costume building a campfire on the deck, a young woman strumming a musical instrument, people chatting as if life were normal. The sharpest dissonance is offered by the arrival of the hunter, Stepan, who is immediately arrested by Nikanor when he reveals himself unwittingly as a deserter from the front. Stepan will eventually be summarily shot by the NKVD.

In road movies, we expect the individuals to grow with each fresh experience and the group dynamic to change with them. This is really only true of Nikanor, who experiences something of an epiphany. Always on the lookout for the “vestiges” (perezhitki) that weigh on the Soviet present, he is at first suspicious of the exiles entrusted to him. Often mouthing the rhetoric he had learned so well (the Kalmyks were “sons of bitches” and “traitors”), Nikanor's expression and body language increasingly suggest a softer sentiment. Although he had originally arrested Stepan and reported him as a deserter to the local NKVD (by sending a radiogram with a passing “floating prison” yet!), he nonetheless ends up defending him and openly opposing the NKVD official, Kol'chugin. When he is informed by radiogram that Stepan has been shot “while trying to escape,” he understands exactly what has happened and is disgusted by it. In the final scene of the film, Nikanor takes his charges back onto the endless river even deeper into Siberia, where “we will live,” as he puts it. Nikanor is the representative of Soviet officialdom who can be redeemed, once he realizes the disconnect between the Communist propaganda he espouses and the reality he experiences on this journey. “You may be a party member,” says one old villager to him, “but you have not lost your conscience.”

While the audience may embrace this softening of Nikanor's character and his growing affection for these social outcasts (and the narrative payoff it offers), herein lies part of the problem with Mel'nikov's mixed message in this film. For Nikanor is defined in part by his alter-ego, Kol'chugin, the NKVD man who is drawn in caricatured rather than human terms, the “real,” irredeemable face of Soviet brutality. Despite all of the brutality and violence—overt and not so overt—viewed by our protagonists on their journey, there is little sense of where this violence comes from. The director reduces the perpetrator of these crimes to a single caricature, outweighed in this film by a cast of sympathetic victims, Nikanor included, characterized by their innate resilience. “A person must have hope,” Nikanor tells his charges towards the end of the film. And hope is present in the Russian “spirit,” Mel'nikov seems to be saying, as displayed at their stops along the river, and especially in the overwhelming beauty and indomitability of the Siberian landscape (Mel'nikov was born and raised in the Amur region). In this way, Soviet history and its brutalities seem somehow separate from “real” Russia. Tellingly, whenever Nikanor's ideological certainties are undermined in his encounters on this journey, he renews himself by digging the earth to the point of exhaustion. He literally thereby returns to Mother Russia. Mel'nikov's film offers a nostalgic message about human (and Russia's) survival that may be at the expense of a deeper interrogation of the Soviet past.

Frederick C. Corney
College of William and Mary

Comment on this review via the Forum

Agitation Brigade “Beat the Enemy,” Russia 2007
Color, 123 minutes
Director: Vitalii Mel'nikov
Screenplay: Vitalii Mel'nikov
Cinematography: Sergei Astakhov
Art Direction: Vladimir Diatlenko
Composer: Sergei Banevich
Music: from the works of Tikhon Khrennikov, Edie Rozner, et al.
Sound: Asia Zvereva, Sergei Dement'ev
Cast: Anna Danilova, Aleksei Devotchenko, Nikita Leitland, Kirill Pirogov, Viktor Sukhorukov, Natal'ia Tkachenko
Producer: Oleg Urushev
Production: Kinokompaniia Iurga Fil'm and Lenfil'm

Vitalii Mel'nikov: Agitation Brigade “Beat the Enemy” (Agit-brigada “Bei vraga”, 2007)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2008

Updated: 13 Jul 08