Issue 23 (2009)
Oleg Fomin: Gentlemen Officers: Save the Emperor (Gospoda ofitsery: Spasti imperatora, 2008)
reviewed by Olga Rudich © 2009
The collapse of the USSR in 1991 and its disintegration into independent states boosted the former Soviet republics' national awareness and their aspirations to revive their cultural identity. Beginning in the second half of the 1990s, Russian cinema has increasingly produced films that address the themes of Russianness, national pride, religion, and what the directors see as the glorious past. Oleg Fomin's Gentlemen Officers: Save the Emperor (2008) covers all of these topics in its exploration of Russian “officerhood.”
Officers depicts post-revolutionary Russia devastated by the Civil War, when the country was divided into two opposing ideological camps: the Reds, led by Bolshevik revolutionaries, and the Whites, the tsar's allies, who still hoped to restore the monarchical order. The plot is fairly straightforward. In July of 1918, a group of eight White Guard officers from the West-Siberian army is sent on a mission to rescue Tsar Nikolai II and his family, captured by the Bolsheviks and detained in Ekaterinburg. The operation appears virtually doomed from the very beginning after the White colonel Grigor'ev (Dmitrii Prodanov) informs the Red camp about the officers' plan to save the tsar. A double twist occurs when one of the eight officers, Captain Iurii Vasnetsov (Aleksandr Bukharov), who happens to be Grigor'ev's charge d'affaires, turns the officers over to the Red detachment that is specifically sent to liquidate the mission group. The officers are headed by staff captain Andrei Davydov (played by the director himself), the only White Guard officer who returns safely to the White headquarters , though now on a mission of his own— to execute the traitor Grigor'ev. Ultimately, the officers fail to save Nikolai and, since the improbable survival of the last Russian tsar (a recent theory that Fomin mentions in his interview and seems inclined to believe) still remains a legend, such a finale comes of no surprise to the viewer. On the whole, the tsar's rescue is not the major focus of the film, as Fomin emphasizes in his interview. The film is actually about “officerhood,” and praises essential officers' qualities of valor and honor.
Despite Fomin's claim that his film carries no ideological bias, his presentation of the Reds and Whites shows clear sympathy for the latter. Fomin's portrayal of the two forces undermines Soviet cinema's rigid stereotypes of idealized revolutionaries and their vastly demonized opponents. To the best of my knowledge, Soviet period Civil War movies offer no appealing or complex images of the White adversaries. While depicting exemplary revolutionaries who fight for the “bright future,” the Soviet directors produce a collective image of a demoralized White enemy.
With the end of the Soviet era, contemporary Russia cinema revisits the pre-Revolutionary past and at the same time reveals the inadequacy of some “old methods” of the communist regime, which proved to be insufficient in achieving the ultimate goal: socialism. Consequently, significant shifts occur in the themes and presentations of main characters. Fomin demonstrates such shifts in his Officers by reversing the roles of “good” and “evil”: heroes in the past emerge now as enemies, while the former foes appear as brave men of honor.
As opposed to the biased portrayal of the Reds (which will be discussed further), Fomin depicts the White camp more realistically, employing diverse (positive and negative) characters with their individual, though very superficially developed life stories. The ideas of honor and dignity are especially reinforced through the character of Lieutenant Liubavin (Marat Basharov), who severely punishes several White officers for abusing prostitutes. Obviously, Liubavin has no concern for the women's occupation when it comes to the protection of their dignity. In the execution scene, Liubavin shows no regret. Instead, picks up the guitar and sings a “farewell serenade” when facing the military tribunal for violating military discipline.
Throughout the film, the officers become either the subjects of the viewer's admiration, as in Liubavin's case, or utmost sympathy, as in the case of the two Cossack characters, Frol Neiasnyi (Sergei Batalov) and his son Semen Neiasnyi (Stanislav Duzhnikov). Sadly, Frol experiences a personal drama when he loses his son in routine combat with the Reds. The extreme close-up of Frol crying over his son's grave calls for the viewer's compassion, simultaneously inducing even stronger disdain toward the Reds.
In Fomin's film, only White officers, presumably, are capable of redemption. Captain Vasnetsov's betrayal of the gang, including his best friend Davydov, is ironically attributed to his strong sense of honor to fulfill his obligation to Grigor'ev. Having deceived his companions, Vasnetsov redeems himself by rescuing them at the cost of his own life. Vasnetsov's case, as well as Liubavin's, explicates the director's intention to shoot a film not only about “officerhood” (whether they are Reds or Whites), but more importantly, about the qualities of honor and dignity that should be crucial and innate to any officer. Only by analyzing the essence of the protagonists' personalities and understanding what motivates their actions can one understand Fomin's objection to interpreting the tsar's rescue as the major theme of the film.
And yet, the director evidently fails to remain impartial in his depiction of the two opposing ideological sides. In fact, his nearly chauvinistic exposé of the Reds appears overstated and idealistic, precisely in the spirit of typical Soviet cinematic portrayals of Whites. In The Officers, attractive and engaging Red images are merely nonexistent. The major antagonist, a red commissar named Alvar Beitiks (Anatolii Belyi), is the Party's representative and the incarnation of its revolutionary beliefs and radical methods.
Paradoxically, in Soviet cinema the commissar's resolute actions would be viewed as a keen devotion to the common cause. In Fomin's film, by contrast, Beitiks's willingness to shed blood in the name of the Revolution is presented as a sick obsession, manifested partially in Beitiks's unhealthy physical condition. The scene in which Beitiks deceitfully shoots Esaul Dzhagaev in the back completely debases the commissar's character: it is something that a man of honor would never do. Predictably, Beitiks is defeated by Davydov in their one-on-one skirmish towards the end of the film, and, unsurprisingly, by the time the scene takes place, the viewer is cheering for Davydov and wishing the bad guy (Beitiks) to be punished, as he deserves.
As the film progresses, Beitiks's numerous attempts to purge the group of officers continually fail. The commissar's subordinates, including his “man” Pankrat'ev (Iurii Sysoev), evidently prove to be unreliable and value their lives over the Party's orders. Thus, when Pankrat'ev faces a choice between saving himself and betraying Beitiks, he firmly states that he will not sacrifice the only life he has in the name of the Revolution. Such a portrayal of the Reds gives the impression that the film persistently imposes on the viewer a biased image of a red soldier, who is entirely deprived of any sense of honor and/or social duty.
The ultimate message of the film is proclaimed by the anarchist Krasovskii (Evgenii Stychkin) who conforms to no ideological convictions, because he is “tired of seeing how Russian people kill each other.” Written by Fomin exclusively for this picture, the phrase conveys the director's pacifist standing. Nonetheless, one may find it ironic and scarcely convincing that a character who values gold over life and dies for it speaks the utmost truth.
Along with various male images, only one leading female character, Davydov's fiancée Varia (Anna Azarova), appears in the film. Seemingly very feminine and beautiful, she is desired by the two rival leaders, Davydov and Beitiks, whose ideological clash becomes even more intensified by the personal conflict over the woman. On the whole, Varia's representation, as well as her role, is very marginal. Even her aspiration to follow her beloved in war does not make her sympathetic, while her sophisticated personality and indecisive behavior in the battles with the Reds only complicate the officer's mission. On the other hand, why should we expect to see strong female images in a film that predominantly promotes the idea of masculinity?
In the early 1990s, the demise of the Soviet empire for a brief period challenged the patriarchal order, established and shaped, as Andrew Horton and Michael Brashinsky argue, entirely by men (101). Eventually, the patriarchal society paradoxically experienced a perceived masculinity in crisis, manifested in cinema of the 1990s in “aggressive, disoriented, and inept” images of Russian men (Hashamova 196). Fomin in turn offers an entirely different take on the issue. By presenting the officers as determined and honorable (along with no strong female characters) the film revives and reinforces the myth of a masculine society.
The ending evidently proposes no happy dénouement – all officers, with the exception of captain Davydov, perish during the operation. The viewer can only speculate what happens to Davydov after he shoots the traitor Grigor'ev. The final scene is particularly powerful due to its cause-effect close-ups sequence. From the close-up of Grigor'ev's dead body the camera shifts its focus onto the pile of gold, revealing the cause of the colonel's betrayal and, consequently, his death. Davydov's fate remains ambiguous, since his frozen image in the final shot may evoke various interpretations, including the possibility of his execution by a military tribunal.
In conclusion, while challenging the highly idealized image of the revolutionary hero (imposed on the viewers in the era of communism), the director constructs a prominent and exceptionally honorable image of the White officer, earlier depicted in Soviet cinema exclusively as the internal enemy of the Russian nation. Fomin's action film or, as the film was labeled in the Russian press, his “eastern” with its simplified narrative, vivid battle scenes, and underdeveloped romantic story, instantly suggests a Western action movie with no particular cinematic qualities. For example, the scene in which Semen blows up the ferry and coolly walks away, while a soaring fire wall is raging behind his back, can be found in nearly every Western (and now Russian) smash hit. Although the scene is somewhat humorous, the trick is in no way original.
Overall, the film's lack of innovative cinematic or photographic techniques, and its predominant use of eye-level shots, does not convey a highly artistic, individual style on the part of the director. The only flashback—of Davydov going on a horse by Varia, waving and smiling at her—seems somewhat trivial and does not really elaborate on their romantic relationship in the past. Even the most skillfully executed fight scenes are not sufficient to create a real work of art, unless they are complemented by remarkable cinematic techniques, shots and angles, mise-en-scène, etc. I believe that the excessive influence of modern action cinema, which presumably appeals to a contemporary viewer, ultimately prevents the film from conveying a reasonably genuine atmosphere of post-revolutionary Russia.
Ohio State University
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Hashamova, Yana. “Castrated Partriarchy, Violence, and Gender Hierarchies in Post-Soviet Film”, in H. Goschilo and A. Lanoux, ed. Gender and national identity in twentieth-century Russian culture. DeKalb: Nothern Illinois University Press, 2006, pp. 196-224.
Horton, Andrew and Brashinsky, Michael. The zero hour: glasnost and soviet cinema in transition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Horoshilova, T, “U kazhdogo – svoia prisiaga.” Soiuz Belarus-Rossiia 355, 17 April 2008.
Gospoda Ofitsery: Spasti Imperatora, Russia, 2008
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Oleg Fomin
Screenplay: Sergei Kuzmin
Cinematography: Vasilii Sikachinskii
Production design: Iurii Konstantinov
Sound: Sergei Figner
Music: Aleksei Shelygin
Cast: Oleg Fomin, Aleksandr Bukharov, Marat Basharov, Evgenii Stychkin, Anatolii Belyi, Stanislav, Sergei Batalov, Duzhnikov, Iurii Sysoev, Iurii Maslak, Anna Azarova, Dmitrii Prodanov, Aleksei Frandetti
Producer: Iurii Obukhov, Aleksei Riazantsev
Production: Karo Film Production
Oleg Fomin: Gentlemen Officers: Save the Emperor (Gospoda ofitsery: Spasti imperatora, 2008)
reviewed by Olga Rudich © 2009