Issue 29 (2010)
Andrei Razenkov: Kromov” (2009)
reviewed by Jamilya Nazyrova © 2010
The theme of melancholy and nostalgia is omnipresent in Andrei Razenkov’s Kromov”. The unique moral dilemma that the film’s title character confronts is a pretext to emphasize the bourgeois flourish of the fin-de-siècle and to deplore its end. However, this emotional mood is not to be confused with real nostalgia and melancholy of emigration narratives. It is no reconstruction of historical emotions either, but rather an aesthetic object, an emotional frame for a fantasy story. In a similar way, the characters’ faces, voices and costumes do not pursue the aura of the historical epoch as they overtly represent our modern tastes, clothes styles, and behavior types. It is perhaps the disinterest in the sense of historical accuracy that is to be blamed for the film’s failure to create a narrative with firm connections of cause and effect. Despite being focused on exceptional historical circumstances, the film does not develop either into an adventure film or a psychological drama as it hovers in the emotional mood and sinks in aestheticizing.
Nevertheless, according to the director himself, the story of the historical figure of Count Ignat’ev, who served as model for Kromov”, is revised in the film in order to make him more cinematic. The events and characters are based on Ignat’ev’s biography known from his memoir Fifty Years in the Ranks (Piat’desiat let v stroiu). The director’s conscious choice was to rely upon the historical role of Ignat’ev, but not on the story told in his memoir. In an interview Razenkov admits: “We made a purely artistic work, of course, in looking back to the biography of Ignat’ev, but we did it all our way.” (RFI)
Count Ignat’ev was appointed Russian Military Agent to France in 1912. After the October Revolution of 1917 he left the Russian military mission but remained custodian of the funds that had been deposited in his name in French banks and intended to pay for the provision of the Russian army. Ignat’ev worked for the Soviet government and eventually passed the total sum of 225 millions rubles to the People’s Commissar of foreign trade, Leonid Krasin, in 1925.
The film is centered on the protagonist’s moral dilemma as he has to choose the recipient for the 250 million rubles (the sum differs from the one given in Ignat’ev’s memoir). Steadfast and patient, like a real warrior in a situation which he cannot change, Kromov (played by Vladimir Vdovichenkov) simply waits without taking any actions. The only action he is able to perform is to take care of the bank accounts and turn the Russian property remaining in France into money. Simultaneously, he is surrounded and followed by those who seek to appropriate the money.
The problem of this story of waiting is that, although interesting in itself, it does not lend itself to cinematographic interpretation. The protagonist’s refraining from action leaves the filmmakers with a chronic lack of events. Moreover, Ignat’ev’s memoir does not provide any material and detail, but a laconic reference to the people who annoyed him in their greedy desire for the money. Thus, Razenkov invents episodes, but nevertheless the film suffers from a lack of a story-line. Marketed as an action and adventure film, Kromov” goes trodden paths as it uses such narrative triggers as the evil will of villains as well as a cliché-ridden love story. Most of the events in the film are predictable, and although they suggest a sinister suspense, their structure is too loose and the pace too slow to create real tension. Although the level of cinematic craft is beyond comparison, the chain of cause and effect is not crafted and the events are put together in an almost mechanical and linear way.
The opening scene is a good illustration of the film’s narrative style. In a garden maze Kromov runs after a thief who has snatched his watch. The protagonist’s pursuit of the thief is obviously symbolic and conveys the idea of the labyrinth of history as well as the protagonist’s special attachment to obligations, moral scrupulousness and conservatism: everything that can be represented by an old-fashioned watch. The clarity of the symbol and the protagonist’s character is counter-balanced, however, by the ambiguity of the events. The theft turns out to be staged in order to pass Kromov the phone number of a mysterious person trying to get in touch with him. After the mysterious person —a diabolical trickster, who is both elusive and omnipresent—talks to Kromov over the phone several times, he abruptly disappears from the film without a trace, leaving many questions unanswered. He is probably one of those who tried to take possession of the money— but who? Why did he bother Kromov before the latter decided to transfer the money to a worthy candidate, but keep it in his account until he finds such a person? Should we assume that the mysterious caller knew of the impending Revolution as early as 1916 when the watch-chase takes place? Does he represent a political party or does he act on his own? In an adventure film, such a knowledgeable character requires introduction and context.
Kromov”, of course, is only an imitation of an adventure film with a strong emphasis on the emotional mood and visual aesthetics. The adventure link is introduced at the beginning of the film as a reference to the 1970s’ films about the October Revolution and the Civil War, such as Diamonds for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (Brillianty dlia diktatury proletariata, dir. Grigorii Kromanov, 1975) and His Highness’s Adjunct (Ad’’iutant ego prevoskhoditel’stva, dir. Evgenii Tashkov, 1969) as well as more the intellectually challenging and Aesopian Dangerous Tours (Opasnye gastroli, dir. Georgii Iungval’d-Khil’kevich, 1969). These films were supposed to be entertaining action flics, but simultaneously they were expected to recreate the bourgeois and aristocratic splendor of the fin-de-siècle era in the censorship-allowed frame, as the good guy and devoted communist pretends to be a lawful citizen of the monarchy or a white officer. There is a stylistic affinity to these films, which is emphasized through the meeting of the protagonist with the former chief of the Russian military mission (played by Iurii Solomin). Solomin’s casting in Kromov” is clearly symbolic, since he played the protagonist of the His Highness’s Adjunct, one of the most popular adventure series of 1970s.
The events of the story fall into two types. On the one hand, there are the hunters for the money; on the other is Kromov’s romance with the pianist Natal’ia Tarkhanova (Ksenia Kutepova). The two lines come together as Tarkhanova is shot by one of the money hunters. At the beginning of the film, when Kromov arrives in Paris, the story is centered on the growing estrangement from his wife Liza (Amaliia Mordvinova). Kromov does not love Liza, and his infatuation with Tarkhanova is obvious in the opening scene as he tears out her photo from a poster on the wall. Tarkhanova’s love for Kromov is also evident from the beginning of the film; in order to justify the protagonist’s eventual separation from Liza, she is provided with a few negative traits, such as her love for buying hats during the alarming times of the war, the lack of patriotic feelings and—a realistic psychological detail—hysteric raptures of almost groundless jealousy for Tarkhanova, with whom Kromov’s relationship started only two years after the beginning of the story. Despite all this, the couple’s relationship is not clear at all; thus, for example, we do not understand whether Kromov leaves Liza because he loves Tarkhanova or because he is tired of her hysterics, suspicions and lack of understanding. Liza’s main theme in the film is her desire to have a child, but she cannot conceive. At times, the impression is that she is punished for her infertility, even the more so when the theme of fertility vs. sterility returns at the end of the film. Conceiving a child is the culmination of Kromov’s romance with Tarkhanova. Soon after, in Paris, Kromov runs into Liza walking with a stroller. As he warmly congratulates her, it transpires that Liza is walking a neighbor’s child while she herself is still tragically alone and infertile. Although Liza’s sterility is presented as a key motif of her character, its psychological consequences are not elaborated within the narrative frame. It remains unclear whether the infertility lies at the root of her hysteria and, by the same token, becomes a reason for her obsessive jealousy. Or is it supposed to allow the viewer to accept the fact that the protagonist does not love her and leaves her for Tarkhanova, who conceives a child?
As soon as the triangle of Kromov’s personal relationship is outlined, the news about the October Revolution arrive, and Kromov leaves the Russian military mission. At this point the hunt for the money begins: Kromov’s former subordinates represent various camps of money hunters. One of them works for the Soviet government and two others are recruited by Colonel Steinbeck (Andrei Rudenskii), Kromov’s former friend from the military school, who becomes his main antagonist. Steinbeck continues the line of émigré desperadoes familiar to the audience of Soviet adventure films, as for example Aleksandr Kaidanovskii’s character in Diamonds for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The actor playing Steinbeck bears a physical resemblance to Kaidanovskii, although he obviously lacks the latter’s professionalism, and his movements, facial expressions and intonations are at times artificial and theatrical.
Colonel Steinbeck finds a faithful ally and assistant in his former acquaintance, and possibly his subordinate in the Russian army. Lazarev (Igor’ Gordin) is enticed by the hope to get 250 million, but also because the Colonel forgives him a card debt—a theme related to the issue of the officer’s honor, which is, however, introduced only in the finale when the discovery of Lazarev’s reasons to work for the colonel come almost belatedly. In the role of villains, they are both caricatured, with an exaggerated mysteriousness and theatricality. The complete lack of clarity about their intentions only accumulates frustration as they follow Kromov everywhere, but never undertake anything serious except causing the deaths of two secondary characters.
Another money-hunter is Sergeant Major Samarin (played by the late Iurii Stepanov) who served under Kromov for nine years and eventually turns out to be a Soviet spy. Samarin follows Kromov and makes sure that he does not give the money away to a third party. In several monotonous and inexpressive scenes the money hunters run into conflicts, trying to get rid of each other and to set up connections with the bankers and trade dealers hired by Kromov. Their naïve attempts are compromised by the fact that only Kromov’s signature is the valid key to the bank account with the 250 million. For the same reason Kromov cannot be exterminated, but only followed and either deceived or convinced into signing an agreement in favor of one or another party.
The element of progression and unpredictability is connected, however, with another money-seeker who does not belong to Kromov’s office and is left in the shadow until he fires his gun. A certain Mr Grushevskii (Sergei Iushkevich) gets acquainted with Tarkhanova at the beginning of the film and pursues her, moderately annoying her and seeking a meeting with Kromov. However, a meeting turns out to be impossible at that point. The tension in Kromov’s personal life increases as his mother (Ekaterina Vasil’eva) arrives in Paris to escape the Revolution. Biased by Liza’s suspicions, the mother takes the wife’s side and blames her son for being unfaithful. Kromov leaves all his possessions and money to the two women and moves away from Paris, to a small provincial town, thus disappearing for two years. Characteristically further details of his life during that period are omitted. Needless to say that these two years are not filled with any events, but some random escapades of money hunters who are looking for Kromov and eventually track him down. Mr Grushevskii informs Tarkhanova about his location in exchange for arranging the long awaited meeting with Kromov. She sells her apartment in Paris and moves to live with Kromov, thus revealing his truly vulnerable spot. Life with Tarkhanova is shown in a sentimental manner and void of content. The characters act in a bookish manner as they express their love through poetry recitals and dancing. Although it would be an exaggeration to say that the chemistry between Vdovichenkov and Kutepova works, their acting is subtle and professional, and they convincingly show affection and tender attachment. Finally, Tarkhanova is invited to give a concert in Paris. While she is waiting for Kromov before the concert Mr Grushevskii approaches her and blames her for not keeping her promise to arrange a meeting with Kromov. The film’s finale is the most illogical part: Grushevskii demands that Tarkhanova has Kromov sign certain papers, otherwise he’ll shoot him. However, when Kromov approaches, Grushevskii shoots Tarkhanova and runs away, only to be stabbed by Lazarev soon thereafter. Tarkhanova dies in Kromov’s arms, while Steinbeck and Lazarev wait by the hospital in a car. They realize that her death makes their still undisclosed plan impossible. When Kromov emerges, the Colonel orders Lazarev to shoot him, claiming that Kromov will not forgive them for having caused Tarkhanova’s death. At this point another of the director’s surprises is played out: Lazarev refuses to kill Kromov out of respect and sympathy. The film ends with the titles announcing that Kromov transferred the money to the Soviet government in 1925. In contrast to his prototype Ignat’ev, however, Kromov does not return to Russia and his trace in history is lost.
The changes made to Ignat’ev’s biography obviously allow the events to remain on the surface without going into political complications. Kromov’s story simplifies the relationship with Soviet Russia, whence Ignat’ev returned and where he served in high military and educational positions until his retirement in 1947. Whereas Ignat’ev worked for the Soviet government even before he passed on the money, Kromov retains independence from both Soviet Russia and the Whites, represented by the tragic figure of Kromov’s life-long friend Andrei Goncharov (Mikhail Gorevoi). After the defeat of the White Army, Goncharov helps people escape from Russia to France, and once he arrives in Paris, he starts drinking and ends up in a mental asylum.
Razenkov’s Kromov” can hardly be viewed as a solid and finished film. It is neither a character study of the historical prototype, nor an adventure story. The laws in story-telling make it boring enough to prevent a second viewing. At the same time, the film is too sentimental and cliché-ridden to be viewed as an independent artistic work. However, Kromov” could attract audiences in contemporary Russia as it puts into play patriotic ideology and nostalgia for the Golden Age of the pre-Revolutionary past.
Nevertheless, the ideology as well as the emotional mood are only a formal setting. What is interesting for a historian of modern Russian culture is the fact that the key theme is money, which grows into a full-bodied and powerful symbol. It is remarkable that the image of money is inflated by comparison to reality: 250 million in old Russian currency is a gigantic sum, but in the film it is further exaggerated: according to Ignat'ev's memoir, the amount was 25 million less. The image of money develops an enchanting and vivid illusion as it radiates through the expensive neighborhoods, interiors, clothes—and this is maybe the true cinematic achievement, which compensates for the lack of color and excitement in the story.
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Kromov”, Russia, 2009
Color, 112 min.
Screenplay: Andrei Razenkov, Konstantin Filimonov, Mikhail Petukhov
Director: Andrei Razenkov
Director of photography: Maria Solov’eva
Art director: Olga Kravchenia
Composer: Evgenii Doga
Sound supervisor: Ian Pototskii
Editing: Olga Grinshpun
Cast: Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Kseniia Kutepova, Amaliia Mordvinova, Mikhail Gorevoi, Andrei Rudenskii, Iurii Stepanov, Igor’ Gordin, Al’bert Filozov, Sergei Iushkevich, Ekaterina Vasil’eva, Juozas Budraitis, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Ville Haapasalo, Iurii Solomin, Valerii Barinov, Aleksandra Plaige
Producers: Konstantin Filimonov, Boris Daniliuk
Production: Konstanta Film
Andrei Razenkov: Kromov” (2009)
reviewed by Jamilya Nazyrova © 2010