Issue 27 (2010)
Karen Shakhnazarov: Ward No. 6 (Palata No. 6, 2009)
reviewed by Lars Kristensen © 2010
The theme of the “Yellow House” (mental asylum) has preoccupied the Russian mindset for centuries. In orthodox faith, the holy “fool” has been hailed as a prophet, a person who could “see” what went undetected by mere mortals, and the transgression between “normal” and “not normal” has been viewed as a thin line that geniuses precariously walked. A symposium on the subject of the “Yellow House” in Russian cinema was held in Pittsburgh in 2005, describing it as “a locus, a demarcated space of disorder and treatment, confinement and refuge”. The demarcation of (in)sane within the framework of the “Yellow House” lies at the heart of Karen Shakhnazarov’s and Aleksandr Gornovskii’s film Ward No. 6, based on Anton Chekhov’s short story and adapted for the screen by Shakhnazarov and Aleksandr Borodianskii.
Ward No. 6 tells the story of Doctor Ragin (Vladimir Il’in), who—working at a provincial psychiatric clinic—suddenly looses his belief in the righteousness of his doings and ends up among his patients on Ward No. 6. Ragin is a bachelor and has only the local postmaster, Mikhail Averianovich (Aleksandr Pankratov-Chernyi), for intellectual company during long evenings; drinking alcohol is one of their pastime activities. Ragin is a man of literature, music and culture, and a great believer in the capabilities of the human mind—he believes in the advances of the sciences and the human spirit. But it is the encounter with one of his patients, the young dropout student Ivan Gromov (Aleksei Vertkov) that makes Ragin lose his professional energy, belief and, consequently, his reason. Ragin, we are told through several flashbacks, lost all love for life after the realization that progress is not possible: everything perishes, and everybody is mortal.
Chekhov seems to be in fashion with Russian filmmakers: in recent years, Kirill Serebrennikov made Ragin (2004), which centres on the same Chekhov story. Moreover, Aleksei Balabanov filmed Sergei Bodrov Jr’s script, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s story (another doctor-writer) when he made Morphia (Morfii, 2008). Both films are period pieces, which illustrate the lure of medics to neglect their professional duty and surrender to the temptation of a transgression into insanity and experiments with altered states of consciousness. Ward No. 6 sits in-between an adaptation into a contemporary context and a costume drama, which professes fidelity to the original. The contemporaneity of Ward No. 6 is provided by the present-day monastery/asylum in which the film is set, while the plot from Chekhov’s story is meticulously followed.
In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ward No. 6 was initially conceived as an Italian-Russian co-production with Marcello Mastroianni in the lead role of Doctor Ragin. However, the Italian producer jumped ship and, instead of realising Ward No. 6 Shakhnazarov and Borodianskii made The Assassin of the Tsar (Tsareubiitsa, 1991) with Malcolm McDowell as Timofeev, a contemporary mental patient who believes to be Iurovskii, the executioner of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. The film screened in the competition program at Cannes and thus confirms the endurance of the theme of the mental asylum not only for Russian audiences. In this regard, Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) has become a classic, but as Forman’s first success after emigrating from Czechoslovakia in 1968 also echoes the significance of this theme for the former eastern bloc. The hospital setting is also pertinent for recent Eastern European films, such as Cristi Puiu’s film, The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, Romania, 2005). Although not about the “Yellow House,” it interrogates the status of the human body in the space of hospital environs and confirms the West’s fascination of former Eastern European medical and mental institution.
Significantly, Andrei Konchalovskii’s House of Fools (Dom durakov, 2002) was chosen to represent Russia at the Oscar Awards in 2003. Konchalovskii’s film showed a mental asylum as a refuge from the crazy world of contemporary Russia and, more particular, the Chechen War. Coincidentally, Ward No. 6 was also chosen to represent Russia at the Academy’s long-list for “best foreign film” for 2010, which underlines that the “Yellow House” narrative is seen as exportable and comprehensible (its chances of receiving an Oscar, though, is debatable, see Griffin). However, Ward No. 6 is cinematically far more intriguing than House of Fools; where Konchalovskii’s film demarcates the inside/outside of the mental asylum with dramaturgical clarity, Ward No. 6 does not seek the same simplistic line of division.
The force of Shakhnazarov’s film lies unquestionably in its cinematic style(s) and setting. The film opens with interviews of patients from a sanatorium near Moscow. The interviews are filmed with a static camera capturing the speakers, while the questions of the interviewer are enunciated from behind the camera. This approach establishes the film within the documentary genre, probing into the internal world of the people inhabiting the hidden space of a psychiatric ward. The questions asked are both of biographical and personal interest with the interviewees stating where they are from, what they do and what they believe. A recurrent question concerns their dreams, turning the session into an onscreen “investigation” that proves the uniformity of the inmates. Despite different religious beliefs, they all dream of getting out of the institution, and several dream about having a family; or just meeting girls (only one does not dream at all).
After these interviews, a monk and two nuns make their way through over grown woodlands; the voiceover of a girl explains that they are the founders of the monastery. However, the scene moves us closer to the Chekhovian text. The impenetrable access to the ward and the deer grazing, seen by one of the nuns, are both elements that can be tied to Chekhov’s story. The break into dramatised history (or docu-soap) mimics the costume drama, but Ward No 6 reverts back to documentary, giving historical details about the monastery. In the next scene, the young Doctor Khobotov (Evgenii Stychkin) introduces the viewer to the current inmates, which deepens the fictionalisation further, because here a fictional character mixes with the real patients. When introducing Ivan Gromov (yet another identifiable Chekhov character), Khobotov reveals the history of Doctor Ragin, a patient on his own ward. Once Doctor Ragin is identified by the handheld camera, we get various statements from neighbors, friends or old employees, again in the style of a docu-drama). Later this evolves into a series of flashbacks of Ragin’s life filmed by Mikhail Averianovich’s broken digital camera (no sound) or recorded on his dictaphone (sound only).
This mix of styles draws the viewer’s attention, as the audience can never be sure of its role. Neither the soothing fiction nor the actuality of the documentary suggest a resting place for the spectator. Rather, the audience observes the constant zigzagging between fiction and non-fiction, which led critics to compare the film to the South African District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009), which also uses a quasi-documentary style (see Zhigalov). While Ward No. 6 does not suggest a demarcated line between the world outside and on the ward, the border between fiction and non-fiction and actor/non-actor is never in doubt. The spectator is always aware of this border, be it through the recognition of a star actor, such as Vladimir Il’in, or the language of Chekhov’s characters. Il’in commented that on the set, it was a question of “maximising the non-acting” (see Grishin). Paradoxically, the non-performing features foreground the fictional characters within the film. On the one hand, the style is one of flat non-fiction around scenes of the off-screen interviewer but, on the other hand, Chekhov’s fiction is distinctively drawn out and accentuated.
A question remains concerning the dividing line between actors (Chekhov’s fiction) and non-actors (the film’s actuality) as a comfort zone created for the spectator or for the filmmakers, not allowing a complete, uncontrollable transgression of the actor into “insanity” or vice versa. Ward No. 6 stays within the widely practiced form of acting insanity, from Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character in Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988) to Lars Von Trier’s Idiots (Idioterne 1998). However, it is from its actual setting that Ward No 6 gains as a film. The location adds vitality and intensity to Chekhov’s narrative, but by isolating the fictitious text in its contemporary surroundings, the filmmakers fail to completely collapse the distinctions between what is considered normal and what is not.
Surely, by taking the story out of the space of make-believe (i.e. the studio), the filmmakers anticipated a certain effect for the final product, which is not unlike the working practice of filmmakers like von Trier. But contrary to von Trier, who chiefly provokes moments of actuality by pushing the actors to their limits, Ward No. 6 seeks its impact of actuality through the location, which is also why the border between actor and non-actor becomes incriminating. In particular in the final image of the Christmas dance this becomes evident: actors dance with actors, inmates with inmates. This raises ethical questions about the use (or abuse) of non-professionals in the film. While the interns of the sanatorium, who chiefly perform in episodic parts, give the film urgency and immediacy, they are denied agency and intervention. They cannot become actors, but are poised as backdrop to the action.
However, Ward No. 6 never makes the attempt to tell the story of the inmates; the dreams revealed at the beginning of the film serve to reflect Doctor Ragin’s own lonely bachelor existence on the outside and the Christmas dance on the inside, where Ragin, Gromov and the others dance “happily” with the opposite sex. The story of Ward No. 6 is Chekhov’s story and no contemporary one. This is true to Chekhov’s position: “In writing [Ward No 6], Chekhov had in mind nothing so local as the condition of the Russian Empire. As always, it is with the human that he is preoccupied” (Malcolm 187). Contrary to The Assassin of the Tsar, which had a real murder (story) to probe and thus seemed less engaged by the theme of insanity, Ward No. 6 has no “real” history to explore, despite its documentary style, and therefore seeks the connection to the asylum as its locus classicus, asking, as Chekhov did, whether mankind makes any progress at all. It has been argued that Ward No. 6 loses focus through its contemporary setting and that Chekhov cannot, or should not, be “modernised.” I disagree.
Reading Chekhov, one always senses the change of time, progress and decay, present through same image or metaphor: the distant sound of a train or the description of telegraphic wires cutting across the landscape. Twenty years is a long time for a script to be developed, but Chekhov’s story is still relevant enough in yesterday’s light of capitalist (post-communist?) belief in growth, without growing any mould.
University of St Andrews
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Griffin, Rose. “The Fate of a Foreigner,” Russian Profile, 12 November 2009.
Grishin, Boris. ‘”Palata No 6”: umnaia beseda’, ROL: tvoi internet, 29 July 2009.
Malcolm, Janet, Reading Chekov: A Critical Journey. London and New York: Random House, 2001.
Zhigalov, Dmitrii, “Palata bez talanta (Palata No 6),” Novosti Kino, 7 September 2009.
Ward No. 6, Russia, 2009
Color, 83 minutes
Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Script: Karen Shakhnazarov, Aleksandr Borodianskii, based on Anton Chekhov
Producer: Galina Shadur, Karen Shakhnazarov
Music: Evgenii Kadimskii
Cinematography: Aleksandr Kuznetsov
Editing: Irina Kozhemiakina
Production design: Liudmila Kusakova
Costume Design: Alla Oleneva
Cast: Vladimir Il'in, Aleksei Vertkov, Aleksandr Pankratov-Chernyi, Evgenii Stychkin, Viktor Solov'ev, Aleksei Zharkov.
Karen Shakhnazarov: Ward No. 6 (Palata No. 6, 2009)
reviewed by Lars Kristensen © 2010