Issue 24 (2009)
Andrei Kravchuk: The Admiral (Admiral, 2008)
reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2009
Before 2008 had even come to a close, a Moscow PR agency commissioned to promote The Admiral was trumpeting the film’s fiscal achievements. A series of confident assertions appeared online, culminating in the movie’s self-appointed status as “Number One Blockbuster.” Other, less partisan sources begged to differ and—in a more restrained register—noted that The Admiral had taken $33.4 million in 2008; this was markedly less than the $50 million gathered by Timur Bekmambetov’s sequel to the classic Soviet comedy, The Irony of Fate (Ironiia sud’by. Prodolzhenie, 2008) (“Nazvany”). Although objective figures will soon be established in order to end such squabbles, both the speed and volume of these declarations help to underscore the spirit of determination that surrounds Andrei Kravchuk’s historical epic.
That sense of purpose was initially felt in the film’s scale of distribution. Within two weeks of its autumn release, The Admiral had taken more than $13 million in ticket sales, thanks to a colossal 1,247 print run all across Russia (Birchenough). Other big numbers resulted from various aspects of the film’s creation, which needed five years in order to tell the story of Aleksandr Kolchak, Tsarist naval commander and subsequent head of White forces in Siberia immediately after the Revolution. Captured and executed by the Reds in 1920, his reputation was systematically demolished by decades of Soviet propaganda. Much work, therefore, was now required in order to construct a new, alternative biography. In fact it took 24,000 CGI frames, primarily of battleships, trains, and ramshackle cityscapes that no longer exist. This need to redo and rectify many aspects of domestic history is now so palpable that Moscow’s CGI studios are complaining Russia does not have enough trained artists to handle market demand (Holdsworth).
In a word, The Admiral puts $20 million dollars of work on display, much of that record-breaking sum coming from the coffers of state-run First Channel. Given this particular source of funding and Kolchak’s own background, one might expect the sound of large tricolors flapping in the background. And indeed the movie does go to extraordinary effort in order to reverse received views of Kolchak’s patriotism (or treason). This type of volte-face is traditionally managed through the demonization of an opposing social group. In Vladimir Khotinenko’s recent 1612 (2007) the necessary role of anti-hero was assumed by the Polish people; in Igor’ Kalenov’s Alexander: Battle on the Neva (Aleksandr: Nevskaia bitva, 2008), anybody tall and blond was subjected to continuous booing. Here, in The Admiral, we are invited to lob various objects at the screen with the appearance of Germans, or—heaven forbid—revolutionaries.
Decades of negative symbolism borne by the German people in Russia is offloaded by Kravchuk onto proletarian shoulders. What we have here is guilt by (pantomimic) association, rather than reasoned debate. In the words of co-producer Anatolii Maksimov, who defends these matinee binarisms: “A new historical truth is opening [in our movie]… we’re trying to give it an emotional argument.” To this historian Roi Medvedev has recently added: “Kolchak has been judged differently at different times in history” (Stott). Hence the fundamental interest of this film, as sociopolitical barometer. Kolchak and his acts bear no objective meaning; their shifting significance is fashioned by various affective “arguments” or, in this case, the “new truths” that are self-assuredly drawn across a sizeable screen by Kravchuk.
Cynics occasionally suggest that this kind of corrective swagger reflects the oil-rich chutzpah of Russia’s post-9/11 boom—which appears to be coming to an end; film production levels nationwide will certainly plummet in 2009. In the faster-moving and more fickle world of Russian popular music, journalists are already speaking—just as they did following the “default” ten years ago—of discernible changes in the way that music CDs both look and sound. Less money will be available for promotional materials, glossy dust-jackets, and studio time. Guaranteed a place in almost all magazines’ Top Ten lists for 2008, the new and swanky-looking double CD by Vladivostok’s Mumii Troll is, for example, already being interpreted as both a musical and economic denouement. “It’ll be interesting to play this CD again in a couple of years. By then it’ll sound like some kind of ostentatious testament to a pre-crisis age of Russian super-projects; a time of jacked-up oil prices and endless confidence in tomorrow’s GDP” (Boiarinov). In other words, if it’s possible to say what national confidence sounds like, then The Admiral is surely a visual counterpart. Over the course of 2009 it may also come—together with Fedor Bondarchuk’s Inhabited Island (Obitaemyi ostrov, 2009)—to epitomize the pinnacle of pre-crisis spectacle.
In writing of The Admiral, disbelieving critics have noted the unseemly pace with which Kolchak’s imposing and affecting “verity” is thrust before us; within minutes of the credits, he has single-handedly manned a cannon on the bow of his battleship, and then steered that same metal colossus through a densely-populated mine field—in order to lure German ships into danger. Next, with no time to spare, he’s back on shore, gliding across polished dance floors with dazzling women and then—at the same breakneck speed—falls deeply in love with another man’s wife. These acts of daring, both on terra firma and at sea, lead Nicholas II to put Kolchak in charge of the Black Sea fleet, just before mass mutinies begin en route to nationwide revolution. As the unfamiliar details of Kolchak’s private life become the rapidly cataloged milestones of Russia’s history, the basic narrative conflict emerges of one man against history. And we all know how that history ends: badly. Both for Kolchak, and (since the admiral is painted in such gloriously positive colors) also for the conflicting, “revolting” or tragically wayward nation that will slaughter him. The sense of loss is universal.
In the pithiest terms possible, then, one Russian scribe has suggested that Kravchuk’s insistent haste towards Kolchak’s post-Revolutionary experience produces little more than a visible inventory: “He commanded. He went away. He led some soldiers… and then he got shot” (Zel’venskii). The only difference, to quote producer Maksimov once more, is that received sympathies are reversed: erstwhile, morally bankrupt scoundrels become commendable types, and vice versa.
The other emotional maneuver that The Admiral attempts regards our attitudes to Russian filmmaking overall. Not only are we invited, in somewhat unsubtle terms, to reconsider our feelings towards Tsarist ne’er-do-wells; we’re also told that Russian cinematography (the very tool used to restate these sentimentally proper truths) has long since strayed from the straight and narrow. Russian cinema and the stories it tells are propped upright in a couple of scenes that both start and conclude the movie. In ways not dissimilar to the core conceit of James Cameron’s Titantic (1997), Kolchak’s love interest outlives him by decades, yet remains faithful to the end. And here there is indeed some coincidence with actuality. Once freed from exile, our hero’s beloved—Anna Timireva—returned to Moscow where, among other dalliances with Moscow’s cultural elite, she was briefly filmed in a ballroom episode of Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1968 War and Peace (Chizhikov).
In The Admiral, we see Anna (played by Elizaveta Boiarskaia) as an elderly woman on that same film set; the director is played by Bondarchuk’s son, Fedor. Father and son are—quite literally—reunited as one body, as a single, enduring, and upright tradition. “Bondarchuk” simply is. It’s an institution that doesn’t reproduce; it merely morphs and endures. When this visual device is placed side by side with the mechanisms of rebuilding—empathetically—our severed connection with Kolchak, then “it all becomes the same old story,” advocating a shared and singular stance. Familiar and familial metaphors do each other a big favor by stressing, somewhat doggedly, that “Russian filmmaking is, as ever, in the crapper, and only Fedor Bondarchuk is cool” (Zel’venskii).
The film’s superb website does even more to accentuate this sense of reestablished continuity: each day it contains information about what happened on the same date during Kolchak’s lifetime, both in terms of his biography and the tempestuous political or military events of the outside world. And yet, despite these grand, sweeping gestures of inclusion (of a reunited family) we’re left with one elemental contradiction. If this and similarly revisionist cinema is, rather coarsely, turning the tables on a tradition designed for the masses, then a small, long-lambasted and fundamentally elitist section of society suddenly finds itself atop a new, virtual hierarchy. One of the clearest and most strident objections to this celebration of a chosen few recently appeared in the newspaper Sovetskaia Rossiia:
The film almost blinds you with all its banners, icons, and highfaluting words about “glory” and the “nation.” It simply destroys any sense of true, fundamental or social justice, because there isn’t a single hero here from the working classes: everybody’s either “noble” or some upper-class officer. Simple folks are portrayed either as murders (specifically in the role of revolutionary sailors) or as some kind of faceless mass. They’re shown as cannon fodder, led out by their officers to be bayoneted in the name of victory. What victory, though? It’s all for a Russia where those same officers would horsewhip the rank and file; where they’d dine and dance at society balls, while the basic populace would break its back in the fields or mine shafts - all for a bowl of lentil soup. This is precisely the Russia that today’s leaders are building; they’re the supporters of people who were defeated 90 years ago. And that’s what this film is, too; it’s the revenge of the losers (Razzakov).
Not only the revenge, but also the resurrection are much in the spirit of Oleg Fomin's movie Gentleman Officers (Gospoda ofitsery, 2008), set in the same period. Made with substantial assistance from Russia’s Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography, it concerns the adventures of several White officers. In particular, these fearless young men are “committed to a desperate act. They will try to save Tsar Nicholas II and his family from captivity.” From the film’s subtitle “Save the Emperor!” it is patently clear the story will end no better than Kolchak’s.
We are not shown the royal murder on screen and therefore avoid the documentary nastiness of Gleb Panfilov’s The Romanovs: A Royal Family (Romanovy: Ventsenosnaia sem’ia, 2001). Instead, as Fomin’s story comes to an end, we discern a group of people resembling the Tsar and his family. Slowly and almost anonymously, in fact indistinguishable from the movie’s numerous gypsies, they roll across our field of vision on a ramshackle cart. Maybe they escaped, maybe not... The myth keeps returning: our gentlemen officers articulate their heroism and virtue in commitment to a mission that cannot succeed “historically,” yet as a gesture it outstrips the feeble constraints of quotidian reality. “From the many divisions that tried to save the royal family, not one soldier returned alive. Their fates are unknown to this day. In the minds of the Russian people, however, legends persist that the Tsar was saved…” Each failure simply reveals further potential(s); in actual fact, it’s only through such failure that the full, revolutionary potential of the act is unveiled. The scale of what it might be.
Here we start to overlap with some of Slavoj Žižek’s recent celebrations of “lost causes”; the disclosure of a revolutionary, endlessly subversive procedure through total and utter commitment, in ways that dismiss both extenuating and/or mitigating circumstance. Only by screwing up (by going beyond presumed limits, where further success may reside) can the complete, untested limits or virtual possibilities of an act become clear. The proper dimensions of Kolchak’s long-misinterpreted patriotism can only be revealed by his failure; their truth, in other words, is always virtual, since it is made fully manifest only through loss. What a fitting logic for the story of a man committed to love, nation, and faith in ways that (pre)determine his own demise. The same story is then retold in terms of a Lazarus narrative with bucket loads of CGI.
Here, in fact, in these Christological tales of guaranteed physical failure, it is not difficult to take issue with many arguments surrounding revisionism in The Admiral, and instead sketch some big, fat coincidences between Soviet iconography and the movie’s pro-Tsarist neo-Orthodoxy. In this light, the Vasil’ev brothers’ Chapaev serves a good and direct purpose. After all, with the film’s initial release in 1934 there circulated rumors that grubby little children would sneak back to movie theaters, time after time, incredulous of the fact that Chapaev was actually killed. Surely, with each and every failure, a new potential for unrealized possibilities would be opened up? Sooner or later, according to the law of averages if nothing else, Chapaev would escape…
In The Admiral we have several characters of direct or passing relevance to that same Soviet classic. The most obvious is General Kappel’, played by Sergei Bezrukov; in interviews Bezrukov has insisted that a radical reconsideration of the General’s status is both possible and desirable, since nowadays “we don’t really know anything [for sure] about that period. It was a time when nothing was more important than Faith or the idea of Homeland” (“Shans”).
Bezrukov has also defended the veracity of Kappel’’s famous “psychological attack” against Chapaev, depicted in the Vasil’evs’ movie as an almost inexcusably hazardous tactic: marching upon the enemy with no more than raised bayonets and an inflated ego. Although historians often dismiss the attack as pure legend, or even claim that Kappel’ and Chapaev never fought each other, Bezrukov holds his ground:
In the past Chapaev was made the hero—and the Whites went into attack smoking cigars, like real fops. In our film, though, they march onwards to the tune of ‘Slavianka’s Farewell.’ They do so without a single shot: they’ve got their bayonets held high, and nothing more. And that’s the truth. Soviet bullshit sits deep in our consciousness, even now. It’s all so sad. (“Shans”)
According to this associative chain, Kappel’ and Kolchak make claims upon Chapaev’s status, which was unfairly taken from them—and do so to the strains of “Slavianka’s Farewell,” which isn’t even Russian in theme. Written by Vasilii Agapkin to celebrate the fidelity of Bulgarian women during the First Balkan War, it would be hijacked on several occasions. Adopted by Kolchak’s troops in Siberia as their unofficial anthem, it was—by the early 1940s—then squeezed into the Soviet canon. Finally, in the early 1990s Russia’s liberal Iabloko Party wanted the tune to become the nation’s post-Soviet anthem. Just as Anatolii Maksimov and Roi Medvedev suggested above, none of these people, acts, or melodies bear any objective meaning: they are all simply sounding boards for successfully applied affects.
Although the core motifs in The Admiral of unreasonable, self-destructive commitment to failed causes seemingly house a radically revisionist content, it would seem that the raison d’être of a “Chapaev Redux” might be closer to home. The film’s opening scenes—mentioned above—in which Kolchak single-handedly (and with enviable accuracy) works a naval cannon are ostensibly an attempt to both reference and outdo the iconography of Chapaev’s Maxim gun. That legendary piece of hardware was also used eight years ago in Balabanov’s Brother 2 (Brat 2, 2000) by Viktor Sukhorukov; he shoves the hefty gun, taken from the Museum of the Revolution, through the rear window of a car in order to annihilate the pistol-wielding bandits pursuing him in another vehicle.
These games of phallic one-upmanship find their boldest expression in the theme of failure, in other words the size or dimensions of the realm for which a given character is willing to risk everything. Kolchak (played by Konstantin Khabenskii) is told by Anna Timireva that all he loves are “the sea and war”; these universal realms are matched only by an equally universalized faith. Both Kolchak’s rush through the maritime minefield and his appointment by royal decree to the Black Sea Fleet are enacted to the same request that “God’s will” prevail. Only Kolchak’s sympathizers have access to this incontestable assurance: “We’ve always beaten the enemy with God and a prayer,” says Kappel’… “And we always will!”
Since, as suggested, true and absolute commitment needs to fail in order to prove its equally absolute dimensions, Kolchak is shot dead. The film shows his body dumped unceremoniously into a cross-shaped hole cut into the frozen waters of a river near Irkutsk, the Ushakovka. Kolchak’s body was indeed disposed with in this manner on February 7, 1920. The filmmakers have taken apparent liberty with the calendar of these events, in that the ice hole would have been cut for Epiphany in the previous month. Nonetheless, Kolchak “does a DiCaprio,” so to speak; having refused a blindfold before the execution, he is granted a brief, epiphanic insight into the true extent of his commitment, which can only be grasped though losing everything in its name. Chapaev, walking across (or upon) the waters of the river Ural almost escapes at the end of Furmanov’s novel. With his back to the enemy, only a chance bullet cuts him down. Kolchak goes one better; he faces the opposition, takes one for the team, and falls quite literally into the core symbol of his faith.
One of the film’s most telling and frequently employed quotes can be translated as “Faith, Hope, and Love accompany us all. Of these three, Love is the greatest.” This, one should be forewarned, is adoration for a cause that will get you shot and fed to shivering fishes. DiCaprio, Chapaev, and Kolchak (an unlikely threesome, it must be said) are all blessed by the dignity of the T/thing outside; they “forfeit terrestrial life for it, so that their very defeat is their triumph, conferring onto them the sublime dignity” (Žižek). This starts to approximate the tautology of statehood, of the nation as the Thing itself. It doesn’t matter which nation or regime; as Maksimov and Medvedev have already told us, it all depends on a deft manipulation of the heartstrings. Battleships, bayonets, Maxim guns, naval cannons, and the radical contradictions of opposing ideologies; none of them, it would seem, are a match for a box of Kleenex. That’s a rather demeaning conclusion to a phallocentric smackdown.
As a result, this film is not “historical”; it neither makes proper, serious claim to objectivity, nor does it even see its core events in chronological terms. The remarks by producers of The Admiral, together with the establishment of a constant iconography, through both Kolchak and Chapaev, bring us closer to an act of mass therapy. Evgenii Grishkovets’s one-man play Dreadnoughts (Drednouty) comes to mind, its core conceit being that big ships with big guns, built by men with unsure egos, offer a profound insight into constant, a-historical states of mind: “Books about battleships contain the kind of information about men that you won’t find anywhere! You won’t find it in any novels! In those books about battleships there’s loads of stuff about men’s dreams, illusions, and ambitions” (Grishkovets). Parties and regimes come and go, but the desire to swing big guns around in the name of a universal constant is just as steady, if not more so. It’s an “emotional argument.” The tendency, however, to argue with one’s emotions usually goes by another, equally constant name: repression. The vigor and speed with which those same arguments are conducted in The Admiral also has a fixed designation: over-compensation.
University of California, Los Angeles
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Birchenough, Tom and Holdsworth, Nick. “’Admiral’ Steams to Russia Record.” Variety (12 October 2008)
Boiarinov, Denis. “Ot krizisa do krizisa: Glavnoe.” OpenSpace.ru (25 December 2008)
Chizhikov, Maksim. “Posledniaia liubov’ Kolchaka snimalas’ u Gaidaia i Bondarchuka,” Komsomol’skaia pravda (16 October 2008);
Grishkovets, Evgenii. Drednouty: P’esa dlia zhenshchin (2002)
Holdsworth, Nick. “’Admiral’ Takes Local VFX to New Heights.” Variety (24 October 2008)
“Nazvany samye kassovye fil’my rossiiskogo prokata,” KM.ru (30 December 2008)
Razzakov, Fedor. “Revansh proigravshikh: O fil’me ‘Admiral,’ i ne tol’ko.” Sovetskaia Rossiia (31 October 2008)
“Shans na bessmertie.” Trud-7 (29 October 2008)
Stott, Michael. “Latest Russian Blockbuster Fits Kremlin Script.” STV.Tv (7 October 2008)
Zel’venskii, Stanislav. “Admiral.” Afisha (11 October 2008)
Žižek, Slavoj. “Laugh Yourself to Death! The New Wave of Holocaust Comedies.” Lund University symposium paper (20 January 2000)
The Admiral, Russia 2008
Color, 124 min
Director: Andrei Kravchuk
Screenplay: Vladimir Valutskii, Zoia Kudria
Editing: Tom Rol’f
Cinematography: Igor’ Griniakin, Aleksei Rodionov
CGI Director: Sergei Savenkov
Art Direction: Mariia Turskaia, Aleksandr Zagoskin
Music: Gleb Matveichuk, Ruslan Muratov
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Sergei Bezrukov, Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Egor Beroev, Fedor Bondarchuk, Viktor Verzhbitskii
Producers: Konstantin Ernst, Dzhanik Faiziev, Anatolii Maksimov, Dmitrii Iurkov
Production: Film Direction, Dago Productions, Channel One, with the support of the State Agency for Culture and Cinema
Andrei Kravchuk: The Admiral (Admiral, 2008)
reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2009