Pavel Sanaev: Kilometer Zero (Nulevoi kilometr, 2007)

reviewed by Anindita Banerjee© 2008

Nevskii Prospekt. Except that in 2007, the center that the protagonists of Sanaev's film are hurtling towards is not Gogol''s locale of a new socio-economic order, but rather the famous landmark on Red Square called “ Kilometer Zero.” Moscow is the destination of Oleg and Kostia, two young men from Murmansk who meet in a train compartment and discover that they are united in their indomitable desire to “make it.” The insubstantiality of success—Oleg's project of reselling electronics at a 400 per cent profit and Kostia's determination to becoming a famous filmmaker from the humble starting point of wedding photographer—corresponds to the flickering between dream life and nightmare that Moscow represents. Despite the conventionality of its form and technique, employing every cinematographic Hollywood cliché, Kilometer Zero nevertheless succeeds in becoming a multilayered commentary on late-capitalist modernity in its particular Russian incarnation.

Like Gogol''s Petersburg, the production of Moscow in the film defines and even supersedes the tragicomic trajectory of the almost caricaturally naïve protagonists. I use the term “production” here consciously, following Henri Lefebvre's seminal insight that challenges the view of space as a homogeneous abstract entity upon which humans inscribe their thoughts and actions. Instead, Lefebvre argues that space is constituted from economic, social, and cultural relations, engendering their particular forms of inequity and dispossession and multiply connected to local, national, and transnational circuits of labor and exchange. Kilometer Zero engages intimately in the production of space; one might even say that it is a film about the production of space.

Oleg and Kostia get sucked, literally, into the making and breaking of space in the vast city that is rapidly transforming itself. Their lives get indelibly marked by contact with a plethora of agents, victims, and onlookers of this transformation. Wide-eyed, ogling the designer-clothed young women brunching on the sidewalk and avoiding the shabbily-dressed elderly and beat-up Ladas, their first learning experience on arrival is not only that an apartment can be had for the “bargain” of 500 baksov , but that the agency has cheated them on the deposit and already rented the space to a pugnacious middle-aged couple. Temporarily parked in the basement of a health club—the dark underbelly of another formative site where the bodies and souls of new Moscow are panting to define themselves—they fail to make any headway whatsoever into the professional world of wheeling and dealing or the mysterious “clubs” into which their targeted women disappear. Just as it seems as if all doors have closed on them, their luck turns in another symbolically charged space. In an amusement park, where the simulacrum of danger that makes the world outside seem safe and normal, Oleg and Kostia meet the two people who will mark the beginning of their “real” journey to Moscow: a purported businessman and his ethereally beautiful ex-girlfriend, Alina, whom he is trying to persuade to attend a mutual friend's wedding. While Oleg is offered a job in the real-estate firm that the man represents, Alina offers to set Kostia up on his first wedding-photography assignment in the parallel universe that the oligarchs inhabit.

Real estate—the primary determinant of socio-economic condition in our global economy and epicenter of its crisis at the time of this writing – is not only the index of well-being in the modern capital(ist) city but also the repository of a hallowed tradition in Russian literature. From Dostoevskii's impoverished anti-heroes to Bulgakov's Bolshevik cons in Heart of a Dog, apartment dwelling has provided a rich figural repertoire for commentary on the production of space. Oleg's new life in real estate represents a new twist in this continuum. His company deals in what might be called future imperfect apartments. Customers “buy up” opulent dwellings in the center of Moscow that are still occupied by aging pensioners. The arrangement, the boss explains to Oleg, is to supplement the pensioner's meager income from this initial investment, until they die and the apartment passes on to the customer. In the meanwhile, the space is modernized with the latest infrastructure and gadgets, ranging from kitchen appliances to broadband, which the old folk can use to “enhance their comfort in their last days.” Oleg innocently participates in this setup, reeking, once again, of Gogol''s Dead Souls, only to discover the reality underneath. Beneath the drywall, the workmen place radioactive material that causes the frail old bodies to waste away, hastening the vacating of the apartments for sale.

As “real” estate turns out to be a fragmented illusion, the virtual world created on Kostia's handheld camera becomes the repository of the real. It also becomes the last bastion of hope in the utterly corrupt space of Moscow where all things good and beautiful turn out to be mere facades. Kostia's plot constructs a counter-narrative to the production of space in Oleg's. His connection with Alina is inaugurated by a visit to “ Kilometer Zero,” from which point begins an uncontaminated love story. While Oleg's attempts at becoming the flaneur fail miserably when he becomes emotionally involved with a prostitute in one of the exclusive “clubs” of the Moscow rich—much like Gogol''s protagonist in “ Nevskii Prospekt”—Kostia finds a rare source of comfort in a woman who has technically been a criminal's moll. Embedded in their love is also an idealistic vision of cultural renewal. Alina, trained in classical ballet, hopes to modernize her form and go on the world stage: this ambition, in fact, is the thread by which her ex-boyfriend holds her hostage, because he has arranged her first performance in London. Space, not coincidentally, becomes the agent of redemption when Kostia intervenes in Alina's corruption.

The key element through which Kostia brings Alina back from the brink of selling body and soul is a video he makes of her dancing on a rooftop against the panorama of an almost unreal urban skyline. The timing of the film coincides with the liminal quality of Muscovite space, with its peeling apartments and MacMansions, beautiful people and wasting pensioners, Technicolor sunsets and neon illumination. It is with this clip that the dancer bypasses the middlemen and garners the invitation to London herself, but there is one catch: the London impresario would not let Kostia accompany her. Relations that bind the Moscow economy to culture, therefore, turn out to be no better than the ones which operate in the global cultural marketplace. Sure enough, the film's Hollywood ending resolves this problem by mounting an appeal to the space of the nation. Just as Kostia engineers Oleg's furtive return to Murmansk, his determination to remain in the city is reciprocated by Alina's refusal to go to London alone. The lovers reunite in the quintessentially shifting global landscape of the airport parking lot, sealing their pact of choosing home rather than cosmopolitan transnationalism.

Gogol''s “ Nevskii Prospekt” provides a critical space, as well as the space for critique, in Marshall Berman's insightful commentary on modernity, All that is Solid Melts into Air. This space brings to the fore the gap, specifically in the form of class relations, that are erased in the tantalizing dance between the real and the illusory in the modern urban landscape. Kilometer Zero both romanticizes and highlights these gaps. With the Moscow landmark the only utopia left at the end of the film, one wonders where Kostia, the late/postmodern Piskarev, will find a place to capture “the strange luminosity” of mean streets (Berman 194-96).

Anindita Banerjee
Cornell University

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Works Cited

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991.

Berman, Marshall. All that Is Solid Melts into Air. New York: Penguin, 1981.


Kilometer Zero, Russia, 2007.
Color, 87 min.
Director Pavel Sanaev
Scriptwriter Pavel Sanaev
Director of Photography Aleksandr Nosovskii
Production Design Iuliia Kozlova
Costume Design Irina Rodionova
Sound Leonid Vitkevich
Editing Veronika Chibisova
Cast: Aleksandr Lymarev, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Ivan Zhidkov, Aleksandr efimov, Konstantin Kriukov, Dmitrii Nagiev
Producers Dmitrii Nesterov, Leonid Litvak, Sergei Bobkov
Production: Film Studio Globus, Cinemotion Group

Pavel Sanaev: Kilometer Zero (Nulevoi kilometr, 2007)

reviewed by Anindita Banerjee© 2008

Updated: 15 Oct 08