Issue 26 (2009)

Sergei Snezhkin: Bury me Behind the Baseboard (Pokhoronite menia za plintusom, 2008)

reviewed by Tatiana Moskvina-Yaschchenko © 2009

plintusPavel Sanaev’s autobiographical novella, Bury me Behind the Baseboard (1995), which St. Petersburg director Sergei Snezhkin used as the basis for his film with eponymous title, has seen numerous editions. The immense popularity of the novella owes both to its author, who is now a popular filmmaker, screenwriter, and translator, and to the famous prototypes for the novella’s main characters: above all, Grandpa (based on Vsevolod Sanaev), People's Artist of the USSR, known for his memorable role of a working-class guy in the film The Loved One (Liubimaia devushka, 1940, dir. Ivan Pyr’ev), but also Mom (based on the actress Elena Sanaeva, who was later well-known as documentary filmmaker) and Stepfather (based on the legendary actor and director Rolan Bykov), who played the role of Basilio the Cat in the, with Elena Sanaeva playing Alice the Fox in the children's hit film The Adventures of Buratino (Prikliuchenie Buratino, 1975). Bykov subsequently created many more unforgettable roles, and went on to become an acclaimed film director with his film The Scarecrow (Chuchelo, 1983). Bury Мe Behind the Baseboard is dedicated to Bykov, Pavel Sanaev’s stepfather, whom I recall telling how he tried to gain access to the boy’s world by trying to ignite his creative energies and writing secret letters that he would hide between pages of books on the shelves. The film shows the Bykov-Sanaev dynasty as a veritable personification of the Soviet intelligentsia—with all its virtue and vice.

The intelligentsia’s virtues were honesty, sincerity, and talent, whereas its main vice was corruption of the soul. Readers and viewers have to figure out themselves who was responsible for this corruption: the regime, the times, everyday life, the absence of genuine cultural values, or the intelligentsia’s own egoism. People who lived in the Soviet era remember its sore points and are not intimidated by the novella’s seemingly aggressive heroine who terrorizes her whole family. Grandma, who had lost her first son, is despotically overprotective of her beloved grandchild, the second-grader Sasha Savel’ev, and does not allow anyone to take care of him.  From her point of view, he requires a strict regime, heavy feeding, and the supervision by numerous doctors for his weak health.

plintusYet the grotesque focus on the sufferings endured by the little hero, from whose point of view the novella is written, carries a lyrical quality. The narrator begins his story with these words, “Mama traded me for a blood-sucking dwarf [the character’s stepfather—translator’s note] and hung me onto Grandma’s neck as a heavy cross. So, I have been hanging there since I was four years old.” The narrative style successfully renders the boy’s perception of the adult world and reveals what adults will generally not notice. The narrator’s point of view is puzzled, naïve, trusting, or helpless, but it is always sincere and enables the reader to feel the tension between the child’s perception of life and that of the adults. This tension highlights the trivial and vulgar aspect of Soviet everyday life and at the same time paradoxically shows its human dimension. The price of growing up amidst this tension, however, is the child’s soul. For the sake of emotional authenticity, the film director did not allow the crew to approach the child actor to comfort him during the shooting: he had to endure everything that his character did, in earnest and alone.

The conflict between the child and this Grandma “from the Soviet land,” or “from the land of advanced socialism,” exposes that Grandma’s values—social status, career, apartment, and car—are not enough for happiness and love, but that human relationships go deeper and are more complex. Despite her good intentions, she inadvertently fills her grandson’s life with callousness, disappointment, and fear.

plintusSnezhkin’s film emphasizes the figure of the heroine and demonstrates how her oppressive control of the boy clashes with his emotional reactions. Her passionate love for her grandson is expressed in a wide range of contradictory emotions: fear, pain, pity, irritation, and care, but not the kind of love of which the first Apostle Paul spoke: “Love is patient, love is kind. […] It is not rude, […] it is not easily angered […]. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). It is difficult to say when the last trace of his kind of love has disappeared from the heroine’s soul—perhaps when her hope for “simple, human happiness” with her beloved husband crumbled, when it became clear that his true love was the theater; or when their first son died. Sasha Savel’ev’s Grandma was far from being kind; she was always unhappy, complaining, and scornful of the whole world. It is for a good reason that the young boy wanted to run away from home in search of freedom and his mother, in whichever direction his feet take him. He endured a lot of emotional suffering before he tried to forgive his grandmother, “because only by doing that he could find happiness.”

In Sergei Snezhkin’s film the viewer sees the story not through the eyes of the boy, as in Sanaev’s book, but from the grandmother’s internal point of view, whose role is powerfully and grotesquely played by Svetlana Kriuchkova. She virtually steals the film, eclipsing the wonderful acting by the young St. Petersburg elementary school student Sasha Drobitko, of Alexei Petrenko as the Grandfather, Maria Shukshina as the mother, and Konstantin Vorob’ev as the stepfather. Kriuchkova is monotonously hysterical and at the same time fairy-like in every scene, as her heroine is fixated on her mission as the head of the family, mistress of the house and ruler of destinies.

The grandmother takes the overtone and embodies a character that destroys everything and everybody around with her compulsive and illusionary activity. The musty atmosphere of the apartment cluttered with furniture, souvenirs, pictures, glass vases, trinkets, mats and rugs, emphasizes her stuffy and closed inner self. Constant cooking, grocery shopping, laundry and other household chores have evidently made this grey-haired, disheveled, but not quite old woman forget that she was once attractive and can still be so. Otherwise, a handsome young actor from the Moscow Art Theater who was on tour in Kiev wouldn’t have carried her away. But Grandma never learned how to cope with everyday chores with dignity, and everyday life and its hardships made her forget everything except her own dissatisfaction, which she takes off on other people with great skill.

plintusSanaev’s confessional novella becomes on the screen a story about a single, unfulfilled life, recognizable in the tiniest details. Enthralled by Kriuchkova’s acting, the director does not seem to take much interest in the other characters. Vladislav Gurchin’s camera follows Kriuchkova’s every movement and emotion: on one occasion, Grandma’s rage turns into sobbing, on another, her selfless joy suddenly changes to irritation. Next, the viewer sees a close-up shot of Kriuchkova’s Grandma rolling on the floor in hysterics, like a child, scratching herself. When she has calmed a little, she daubs her scratches with iodine for disinfection, making herself look like an Indian chief. But that quiet moment does not last and she gets into action again. This is funny, but much more uncanny than in the book. In a scene in the kitchen, the heroine is making meatballs while telling the story of her miserable life to a friend on the phone. Her words are so moving that one wishes to forgive all of her shortcomings, even her exquisitely monstrous verbal abuse, which is becomes “attraction” coming from Kriuchkova’s lips. In yet another scene, Grandma is unbelievably graceful while dancing at her grandson’s birthday party. The music comes from a family relic, a foreign tape recorder, brought by Grandpa from some foreign tour. Sometimes she moves to the front of the screen; sometimes she disappears into the depth of the room, where each item is a reminder of unfulfilled possibilities. This dance is a continuation of her monologue about herself. The other characters in this scene exist as parts of the setting. There is the enormous grandfather, scrunched into a “Zhiguli” compact car; here is the doctor-homeopath in a private office in a country where there is no private business; and here, in a café with a large glass window at a train station, are the unlucky parents of the young hero of the film. Every year on his birthday they wait for their chance to see their son and wish him happy returns and hope to get him back from Grandma some day, despite her orders. It seems, however, that nothing can stop the despotism of the old woman, except her own death. Yet in the final scene of Grandma’s funeral, much to the boy’s horror, he hears in his mother’s voice some harsh powerful notes that remind him of Grandma. The baton of despotism has been passed on. Unlike in the novella, there is not a hint of forgiveness in the film.

This brings to mind a different film with a similar plot, The Decalogue by Krzysztof Kieślowski (Dekalog, 1989), in which, despite the command “Thou shalt not steal,” a mother and her daughter fight for their “property,” their little daughter/granddaughter. Out of good intentions, the grandmother wants to take away from her good-for-nothing daughter her little darling and raise her like her own child. The girl will never be able to call her true mother “mum.” Only in the farewell scene, at the train station, we see the grown-up’s sadness and understanding. This way, pain and fear stand next to love, and the theft of love, as the filmmaker understands it, is no less a crime than material theft. The director of Decalogue brings together many spiritual and religious meanings. The commandment “Thou shalt not steal” warns of a broken love no less than the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” just as good intentions are not an excuse for the broken promise of love.

In Sergei Snezhkin’s film, a lyrical story from the life of the Soviet intelligentsia in the second half of the 20th century turns into a story about hazing your loved ones. This is no longer the story of a single family, but the story of the whole country living according to the Soviet rules of love through hatred for almost 70 years. One had to learn that the rude call “You, foul, stinky jerk!” in that country expressed not the caller’s anger but his exaggerated and unrealized feeling of adoration or a desire to attract attention so that people would notice that he is a human being, and not an empty spot.

Ignoring the spiritual laws and adopting blatant materialism, Soviet people created a new type of person who was spiritually weak, incapable of tolerance, forgiveness, and selfless love. The psychopathic vicious circle closed itself but is still re-created in almost every Russian family every day, despite the fact that the country has been living according to different slogans for almost two decades.  This is what Pavel Sanaev’s novella Bury me Behind the Baseboard and the eponymous film by Sergei Snezhkin are about, despite their different emphases.

Translated by Sasha Rindisbacher

Tatiana Moskvina-Yaschchenko
Moscow

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Bury Me Behind the Baseboard Russia, 2008
Color, 117 min
Director Sergei Snezhkin
Scriptwriter Pavel Sanaev
Director of Photography Vladislav Gurchin
Production Design Maria Grin
Composer Sviatoslav Kurashov
Cast: Sasha Drobitko, Svetlana Kriuchkova, Alexei Petrenko, Maria Shukshina, Konstantin Vorob’ev
Producers Vladimir Zheleznikov, Mikhail Litvak, Leonid Litvak
Production “Globus”

Sergei Snezhkin: Bury me Behind the Baseboard (Pokhoronite menia za plintusom, 2008)

reviewed by Tatiana Moskvina-Yaschchenko © 2009

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