Sergei Ursuliak: Liquidation (Likvidatsiia, 2007)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2008

This 14-episode TV series or “multi-episode film,” as many television directors now prefer to call their productions, became yet another TV event of the year. Having premiered on the Rossiia TV channel on 2 December 2007, the day of the Duma elections, Liquidation or at least its first few episodes, got a 20% rating, steering viewers away from post-election political shows. For Ursuliak, this is the second project for television (he made a TV adaptation of a story by Agatha Christie in 2002) and his first TV series.

It is 1946 in Odessa and the traces of the Great Patriotic War are everywhere. Crime, which got out of hand during the war, is still at a record high and the newly appointed (or exiled) head of the Odessa Military Region, Marshal Zhukov (Vladimir Men'shov), is “greeted” with a railroad explosion. The head of the Department for Fighting Banditism, lieutenant colonel David Markovich Gotsman (Vladimir Mashkov) has his hands full. More bad news awaits him and his investigative brigade as they discover a hidden stockpile of weapons and Soviet uniforms stolen from a military warehouse. The clues take Gotsman through a chain of thieves, counterfeiters, and cardsharpers, to a certain Chekan (Konstantin Lavronenko) who commits these crimes wearing a captain's uniform. The chain-smoking Gotsman never eats or sleeps. He is street-smart and respected both by the law-abiding citizens and by seasoned criminals. He also loves Odessa, his rowdy Jewish neighbors (Svetlana Kriuchkova and Aleksandr Semchev), and his two buddies: Fima-the-half-Jew (Sergei Makovetskii), a former thief—now an amateur detective—and Mark (Aleksei Kirichenko), whose war-time head injury has left him an invalid.

The retro style cinematography at times makes the color film seem like black-and-white documentary footage. Mikhail Suslov's camera takes the viewer from the legendary and dangerous Odessa catacombs through the rough and colorful streets and yards to the Black Sea shore. The first episodes are spirited, energetic, and quite stylized. The centerpiece is folkloric Odessa itself: its larger-than-life characters, its carnivalistic atmosphere, Jewish jokes, a melting pot of accents and cultures. Mashkov's character is at home in all of these milieus.

There is no doubt that we are watching a remake of Stanislav Govorukhin's The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed (Mesto vstrechi izmenit' nel'zia, 1979), with the added linguistic and cultural “Odessa flavor” and a hodge-podge of popular culture references: half a dozen songs from the 1930s-1950s, the screening of the Scout's Exploit (Podvig razvedchika; dir. Boris Barnet, 1947), and posters for a dozen more films. As in Govorukhin's film, Soviet popular culture is the glue that unites the entire community. Unlike the 1970s, however, when populism worked as an antidote to ideological orthodoxy (and creative bleakness), the 2007 production problematizes the “common culture” theme. For instance, Leonid Utesov's concert brings together the entire city; Party leaders, the military, and Odessa thieves join in “By the Black Sea,” while Gotsman is remembering the war-time bombing of Odessa. This idyll, however, is staged on Zhukov's orders to arrest criminal bosses. Equally ambiguous is Zhukov's lonely celebration of this purge, with a toast to Stalin's portrait and the soundtrack of “Felt Boots” { Valenki ) performed by Lidiia Ruslanova.

Some iconic scenes are reproduced in passing, as for example, the scene of the “trial” over the coward—traitor; others are used as red herrings by building on the viewer's expectations. As in Govorukhin's film, the boy who witnesses a burglary tries to warn the police. Govorukhin uses his off-screen murder as an efficient trigger of audiences' emotional response: no matter how funny and pleasurable Zheglov's interrogations of criminals are, we know he is fighting a brutal enemy. The little homeless whistle-blower, Mishka-Carp, in Liquidation not only survives his brave act, but is the first to identify correctly the nature of the enemy: “Fascists are killing our people again!”

Despite these and a dozen other recycled characters, phrases, and motifs, Ursuliak categorically denies a connection to this famous Soviet-era mini-series. This is a losing battle; even the Rossiia TV Chanel showed excerpts from The Meeting Place in its trailer of Liquidation . According to Ursuliak, the only things similar between the two productions are the time of action (early post-war), the protagonists' jobs (the Department of Fighting Banditism in the Moscow and Odessa police, respectively), and their physique: both Vladimir Vysotskii and Vladimir Mashkov are far from supermen but very charismatic (Al'perina). Is Ursuliak just being coy in denying the rather flattering heritage? Or is he aware of the fact that the striking similarities are just icing on the cake and that the two series are as far apart as Moscow and Odessa?

For his recipe, Ursuliak picks the same fool-proof ingredients as Govorukhin: the war myth, the tough populist hero, the romantic gangster myth, and the city myth. The detective plot is garnished with romantic stories: one story in the five-episode The Meeting Place, three in Liquidation. In The Meeting Place these audience pleasers, as well as the central ideological conflict between law (Sharapov) and justice (Zheglov), were incorporated into a tight genre scheme. Neia Zorkaia, in fact, traced the plot of The Meeting Place to an archetypal fairy tale or dime-novel narrative, the detective investigation culminating at a monster gathering, presided by a ruthless hunchback (92). In The Meeting Place the gangsters terrorized people for food and clothes. Govorukhin knew that a detective plot and an anti-Soviet conspiracy plot were apples and oranges; but his confidence in Soviet mythology also suggested that the desired associations would be established anyway. Villains did not need to be former Nazi agents; just feasting on sausage and butter amidst starved Moscovites sufficed. [1]

Liquidation, by contrast, takes the folkloric elements of the detective narrative and legendary Odessa lore, and earnestly attempts to make a historical-political drama out of a popular culture brew. In the process, the filmmakers undermine their own promising beginning. The combat between Gotsman & Co(mrades) against Chekan and his gang is a definite success in the series. Konstantin Lavronenko is as good in the role of Chekan as Aleksandr Beliavskii was in the role of Fox. Both are daring, smart, and good-looking, defying the stereotypes of a conventional enemy. Both are popular with the ladies: Fox leaves behind a trail of heart-broken females, some of them as corpses; Chekan is a one-woman man. His romance with the Pole Ida Kashetinskaia (Kseniia Rappoport) draws on the stereotypes of a romantic gangster and a femme fatale. Even Chekan's Nazi past—the only photo of Chekan in the police's possession shows him in a German uniform—does not initially spoil the detective plot.

Something else does—the script. The number of Nazi collaborators and agents rapidly grows. Gotsman realizes that one of the people working at the regional MGB headquarters—or one of his own people—is leaking information to the criminals. The enemy operations are controlled by a certain Akademik (Mikhail Porechenkov), who was highly valued by his Nazi handlers. What Akademik and Stepan Bandera's Ukrainian nationalists are after is no less than toppling Soviet authority and taking control of Odessa. [2] Solving these problems is clearly out of Gotsman's jurisdiction. To top it all off, the newly appointed Zhukov is eager to take a bite out of crime and issues an order to wipe out all Odessa thieves. With the nature of criminal activity shifting from burglaries and mugging to anti-Soviet conspiracy, what is Gotsman to do?

The second significant point of divergence between Govorukhin's and Ursuliak's productions is the opposition between law and justice. There are no “Sharapovs” in Liquidation, only “Zheglovs.” Zhukov and the chief of Counterintelligence twice give the order to clean the city by all means possible: rounding up criminal bosses at the theater, where the entire city is united in the enjoyment of Leonid Utesov's orchestra, and later “shooting-to-kill” gangsters in the streets of Odessa. Outwardly, Gotsman argues with both orders, and is even arrested for talking brashly with the “marshal of victory” and drawing a parallel between Zhukov's plan and the Nazis. Gotsman's argument, however, has little to do with Sharapov's “abstract humanism” and the insistence on the rule of law. To Zhukov he says: “Germans shot people and burned them in incinerators—and look what happened.” Yet his discourse to the Odessa mob bosses is quite different. Charging the criminals with helping the police to find the arch-criminals who rob military warehouses and stockpile weapons and uniforms, Gotsman threatens to use essentially the same measures as Zhukov. To the gangsters' objection that it is against the law, Gotsman replies: “Against the law—but in tune with the soul, and it is empty.” Gotsman is, thus, provided with a personal reason to choose justice over law (revenge for his friend Fima's death), but his objection to Zhukov's plan has pragmatic rather than moral ground: the massive elimination of criminal bosses will unleash mass riots, looting, and carnage.

But any extraordinary measures are justified because Odessa is a war zone. The war remains the only plot-sustaining and coherent structural element—and myth—in today's Russian cinema. In Liquidation, epic mass scenes dominate the film: mob riots, attacks on military warehouses, equipping the anti-Soviet nationalist insurgency, on the one hand, and cleaning the streets of Odessa of crime and left-over fascist collaborators, on the other. Three times the city is under threat of annihilation: twice from the criminals and once from the secret police.

Of all these operations and plans, by far the most sinister and disturbing (at least to this reviewer) is the operation “Masquerade.” Chusov, the head of Counterintelligence, gathers an army of civilian-dressed men and women in an immense industrial building. They are the cream-of-the-crop, the elite force of Soviet agents, who are ordered to pose as easy targets for Odessa street criminals. The order is to shoot/stab these latter on sight, no questions asked. If detained by the police, no answers should be provided. The first night, this silent, faceless troop of dressed-up clones of the system kills a hundred criminals. With every succeeding night the body count continues to grow; murders do not register emotionally in the viewer, but all those unsolvable cases end up in Gotsman's lap.

These scenes of purges, accompanied by the repeated memorable musical score by Enri Lolashvili, punctuate the series with a mechanical precision . Granted, to be successful, a contemporary detective series needs these fast-paced, montage sequences. Yet in Liquidation, these scenes are not simply—or not at all—designed as action scenes in the conventional sense. This is the moment when the narrative changes its direction, when individual agency—of criminals, of agents, of detectives—is erased. With Gotsman and his team of investigators sidelined , the viewer is left with a different narrative.

Nothing signals this change more than the dialogue. “Odessa talk” was at the center of many film reviews. Dense at the beginning, the stylized atmosphere evoked a carnival. We know this is not Isaak Babel''s Odessa, that the actors are over-compensating for their Russian-ness, and that Sergei Makovetskii's Fima-the-half-Jew is putting up a terrific performance. But it is a joyful and liberating spectacle. How much so, we notice only when Fima is killed, and his disappearance also seems to drain everyone else's speech of the Odessa flavor. It is especially noticeable in Gotsman. By episode five the only two linguistic quirks left to him are “ sho ” (instead of “ chto ”) and “ tudoi ” (instead of “ tuda ”), the latter a part of Gotsman's comic exchange with his driver: “ David Markovich, kudoi? — Kudoi, kudoi… Tudoi .” When the driver dies while saving Gotsman's life, the latter's speech becomes standard Russian.

This is the point when it dawns on the viewer that, contrary to the repeated assertions, Liquidation is not a film celebrating Odessa culture, Jewish culture, or even male bonding. The “three buddies” theme, outlined in the beginning, evaporates, together with Gotsman's personal crusade. The idyllic communality with Jewish flavor provides occasional comic relief, but is not at all integrated into the plot. Instead, the narrative foregrounds the “normalization” of post-war life by the erasure of those very diverse, unmanageable, “messy” elements that emerged during the war. It is not about the historical veracity of Zhukov's operation or the ethnic make-up of the city in 1946, but about the re-establishment of legitimate state power.

“Liquidation” of whom and for whose benefit? The first part is clear: of anybody who does not fit the state's definition of law and order, who carries an unsanctioned gun, who ends up in a dossier. The answer to the second question seems obvious too, at least within a particular ideological system: it is all done for the people of Odessa. The problem is that, busy with the many “operations,” the series does not really portray “the people.” The only people are the old Odessa thieves, whose relatives and friends are the rest of the city's inhabitants. Despite their impeccable war-time behavior and Gotsman's mediation, they get promptly wiped out before the series' end. Once they are out of the way, not only Gotsman and Chekan, but also Zhukov becomes superfluous, a pawn in the operations of the secret police. Incidentally, the three love stories—Chekan's, Gotsman's and, quite improbably, Akademik's, take front stage in the last several episodes. After all, the characters need something to do on screen.

Gotsman begins the series as a colorful, rebellious, independent character, and we witness a gradual stripping away of his idiosyncratic features. He endorses the very same operations that he saw as damaging to the city, becoming the Chief of Counterintelligence's confidant. Twice Gotsman is arrested by the secret police: once by overzealous toadies of Zhukov for his brazen response to the marshal, the second time to trick Akademik into believing that the police force is headless and that Akademik is cleared of suspicions. Twice Gotsman comes out of the clutches of the secret police. This miracle is not a miracle; it is a reforming experience. Gotsman becomes a man of the system, whose initiative has been castrated. It is his non-participation in the final operation that is his major contribution to state service. Even Gotsman's vigilance is down. Knowing full well how dangerous Akademik is, he orders to take off his hand-cuffs for a smoke. In response to this, Akademik shoots the guards, wounds Gotsman, and uses him as a shield against the troops.

Like Sharapov in The Meeting Place , the protagonist gets a consolation prize for winning the battle but losing the war. In return, both acquire a family: an adopted orphan and an ideal woman. For Sharapov, the war is over when his fiancée gets demobilized from the police; Gotsman marries “Nora” (played by Ursuliak's wife), the widow of an NKVD investigator, who was executed before the war. Sharapov's tragedy is personal: he was betrayed by the man who was his friend; Gotsman is defeated by the system, which saves his family from Akademik but strips him of independence . Heroes like Gotsman, who has a heart condition due to “an excess of adrenalin,” are certainly good for the myth, but it is a clone of the system who will write the story. The scriptwriter for the series, Aleksei Poiarkov, states in his interview that the original script outlined the fate of several characters: Zhukov was sent to the Urals military region, the head of Counterintelligence was arrested, Gotsman died of a heart attack, while Nora went to Moscow with Mishka, who became a film director—a tribute to the director and actor Nikolai Gubenko, who graduated from the same “elite diplomatic boarding school” ( internat ) in Odessa (“Gotsman umer”). Killing the protagonist after an eleven-hour marathon might have upset some viewers; yet a melodrama would be certainly preferable to the feeling of indifference brought about by the anti-climactic ending.

Was it the desire for additional funding that made the filmmakers continue the series beyond all narrative potential? Or was it the dream of standing apart from the many TV clones, of being worthy of a discussion not only by TV reviewers, but also historians and writers? If so, the filmmakers have achieved their goal, giving Aleksandr Prokhanov a cause for celebration:

Ursuliak's TV film Liquidation is not only about the liquidation of the left-over Bandera supporters in Odessa; it is also about the liquidation of “soap operas,” vulgar TV serials, treacly glamour, jeering postmodernism, which engulfed [our] culture. A black-and-white, ascetic, Stalinist film has appeared. […] The appearance of Liquidation is the sign of the time. It points to the fact that Russian history has emerged out of the liberal swamp […] For the first time in twenty years [a film] shows Stalin's military state machine, impeccable in its imperial beauty…

Ursuliak's and Poiarkov's next “remake” is a TV series about the young years of Comrade Stirlitz. [3] The series uses many of Liquidation 's actors, minus Mashkov. Will the “spirit of the time” inspire them once more?

Elena Prokhorova
College of William and Mary

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Notes

1] It is significant that even such straight Soviet TV show as The Investigation Is Conducted by Experts (Sledstvie vedut znatoki; various directors, 1971-89) chose not to stray into political issues. The criminal in the second episode“(Your Real Name?,” 1971) is a foreign agent masking as a Soviet bum (bomzh). Yet after the team of police investigators hand the villain to the appropriate authorities, for the next 17 years they stick to investigating economic crimes.

2] Many reviewers called this premise absurd because the insurgents, nick-named “Forest Brothers,” were hiding in the woody areas of western Ukraine. Odessa, by contrast, has no forests around it. This detail in a 2007 production, however, points to a contemporary, not historical, concern: post-Soviet anxiety of national/ethnic separatism.

3] The alias of the Soviet super-agent hero in the hit Soviet television series Seventeen Moments of Spring (Semnadtsat' mgnovenii vesny; dir. Tat'iana Lioznova, 1973).

 


Works Cited

Al'perina, Susanna. “Mesto vstrechi izmenit' mozhno” (interview with Sergei Ursuliak). Rossiiskaia gazeta (13 December 2007).

“Gotsman umer ot infarkta, a Nora s Mishkoi uekhali v Moskvu.” Izvestiia (27 December 2007).

Prokhanov, Aleksandr. “Kartina maslom v imperskoi rame.” Zavtra (26 December 2007).

Zorkaia, Neia. Fol'klor. Lubok. Ekran. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1994.

 


Liquidation, Russia, 2007
Color, 14 episodes, 44 min each
Director: Sergei Ursuliak
Scriptwriter: Aleksei Poiarkov; with Aleksandr Koren'kov and Zoia Kudria
Cinematography: Misha Suslov
Production Design: Aleksandr Kondratov, Tatiana Lapteva, Lyudmila Romashko
Original music: Enri Lolashvili
Starring: Vladimir Mashkov, Mikhail Porechenkov, Sergei Makovetskii, Vladimir Men'shov, Konstantin Lavronenko, Kseniia Rappoport, Lika Nifontova, Svetlana Kriuchkova, Fedor Dobronravov, Kolia Spiridonov
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Sergei Danielian, Aram Movsesian, Iurii Moroz
Production: Ded Moroz Studio and Central Partnership

Sergei Ursuliak: Liquidation (Likvidatsiia, 2007)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2008

Updated: 13 Jul 08