Issue 30 (2010)
Sergei Loznitsa: My Joy (Schast’e moe, 2010)
reviewed by Peter Hames © 2010
Before discussing the complexities of Sergei Loznitsa’s debut feature, it is useful to consider its production context. Originally planned as a German-Russian production, it was refused Russian finance and was finally completed as a German-Ukrainian-Dutch co-production. Loznitsa, who was born in Belarus in 1964 but raised in Ukraine, studied film at VGIK under the Georgian director, Nana Djordjadze, graduating in 1997. He has made three feature-length and eight short documentaries in Russia but has lived in Germany since 2001.
In an interview with Kirill Galetski, he commented that he had a Ukrainian passport and that at a certain point, Russia stopped funding people with the ‘wrong’ passport. As a German resident, he has the best prospect of raising money for his work, while his films remain culturally Russian. His collaborators on My Joy included actor Vlad Ivanov and cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who had both worked on Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian award-winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile, 2007). Mutu was born and raised in Moldova, and Ivanov came from a Romanian village near the Ukrainian and Moldovan borders; both were therefore familiar with Soviet reality. My Joy represented Ukraine in the main competition program in Cannes and competed at the Kinotavr festival of Russian films at Sochi, where it won the Best Director prize and also the Critics’ Prize.
Most of Loznitsa’s documentaries had been shot in the Smolensk, Novgorod, Karelia, and Pskov regions, and it was here that he found the stories that he included in his screenplay. Had he filmed My Joy in Russia, he would have chosen the region of Novgorod: “The story could happen practically anywhere, but not quite. It is after all, the European part of Russia. It is the land before you reach Moscow, the territory that saw the events of World War II. It is near the place where Belarus, Russia and Ukraine meet.” In the end, the film was shot in the north of Ukraine near the Russian border.
The film begins with a pre-credit sequence in which a body is dragged into a pit full of cement, and then buried under the earth by a bulldozer. Like all of the film, nothing is explained and we are left free to interpret this. Unless we take it as the burial of one of the characters we later meet in the narrative, it is tempting to view this as symbolic. The film could be about what lies buried beneath the surface—in this case a body, but it could also be related to the burial of history, collective memories, personal trauma—the realities that lie beneath the present.
The film focuses on a central character, Georgi (Viktor Nemets), who embarks on a journey. He calls first at an apartment where a woman we assume to be his wife pretends to be asleep. He leaves money for her. Having left home, he is stopped by two traffic police, who have already stopped a woman in a red sports car. The two police seem to be mainly concerned to indulge the sadism and victimization that their position permits. They routinely write up reports on minor and even fictional offences. In this instance, their principal objective is to exact sexual favors from the woman in the car.
When Georgi returns to his truck, he finds that an old man has joined him in the cab, informing Georgi that he is giving him a lift, and offering to tell him a story. When Georgi takes him up on this, we move to the first of two flashbacks set during the Second World War. The old man tells the story of how he returns from the war with a dress for his bride and is invited to spend the night in the quarters of a frontier officer at a railway station. There his belongings are effectively confiscated. As the train he is on pulls out of the station, he shoots the officer. Since then, he says, he has lived with no name. When Georgi pulls into a filling station (where cards are successively placed in the window announcing “no petrol” and “no diesel”), the old man disappears.
Georgi is next held up in a tailback caused by a road accident. Here he encounters a young teenager (Olga Shuvalova) selling sexual favors during the school holidays. He asks her if there is a way round the hold-up and they take a side road leading to her native village. When he offers her money for her and her mother to buy food (turning down her offer of sex), she indignantly rejects him, saying that she would rather work for her money.
Left on his own in the market, there is then an extraordinary documentary-style scene of characters and faces (presumably authentic) that extends for several minutes and exists in its own right. It is effectively ended when a man, for no apparent reason, barges through the crowd and off into the woods. This is the first hint that Georgi may indeed have entered a world which is not only threatening, but incomprehensible and alien.
Georgi’s journey takes him down progressively more obscure roads until he is forced to rest up for the night. When he catches three men attempting to rob his truck, they light a fire and invite him to join them as a mark of reconciliation. He asks them where the road goes or how to find the road back so that he can continue his journey. However, the road leads, they inform him—nowhere. One of the men is referred to as Mute and cannot speak because of a childhood trauma resulting from the murder of his father; another hits Georgi over the head with a piece of wood but they abandon the truck in disgust when they discover that it contains only flour.
It is at this point in the film that Loznitsa abandons his road movie structure, marking as he puts it, a progressive move from realism to the grotesque. It is not clear what he means here but it is worth recalling Meyerhold’s notion of the grotesque as a synthesis of opposites allowing access to the “vast unfathomed depths” beneath the surface of life. The next story introduces the film’s second wartime flashback, although this time without apparent motivation. An ex-teacher and his small son live in a cottage in the country—the scene is bathed in sunlight and there is a sense of the idyllic (although we subsequently learn that the little boy’s mother had died of a heart attack). Two soldiers returning from the front knock at the door and ask for shelter. The following morning, they knock out the teacher, take him behind an outhouse, and shoot him. The little boy is left alone in the yard.
We can assume that this is the story of Mute, but the next scene shows the same—or an identical—house in winter. Inside, a woman is looking after a mute man. We assume that it is Georgi, although he now has a beard, since his truck is outside and they are making a living by selling flour in the market. One could conclude that the trauma of the little boy was that of Mute, and that Georgi has inherited both his condition and his house.
It is at this point, according to a number of critics, that the film lapses into incoherence but, in some senses, the question of whether the new hero with no name is or is not Georgi, is irrelevant. He serves to link a new set of episodes and stories. In any case, there is enough evidence to suggest that it is Georgi (and he is played by the same actor). As Loznitsa admits, the film consists of many episodes whose only link is the central character and that there are around 38 characters in all.
The episodes in the film’s second half include: Georgi’s visits to the market by sleigh; his imprisonment by the police and subsequent escape when a fellow prisoner knocks out the guard; the “sale” of the truck by the woman; and him being picked up by the old man from the film’s beginning after he has collapsed by the roadside.
A second major theme is introduced as a mad old man walks along the road, muttering about how he shot people and put them in a mass grave for the sake of the fatherland and world peace, so that children would smile and the stars would shine. This hardly needs interpretation, but with its references to what has shaped the present, it can be linked symbolically to the buried corpse of the film’s opening. Two soldiers in a van stop and ask the way and the old man attacks them with his stick. They are travelling with a body in a zinc-lined coffin searching for the man’s mother (this is presumably a body from Afghanistan or Chechnya). One of them fears that they will drive around endlessly until the locals kill them. He begins to break down after seeing or imagining a hanged man in the woods.
Eventually, they arrive at Georgi’s house, which he is now sharing with the old man from the film’s opening. They want to leave the coffin in exchange for a signature. The next morning Georgi finds the old man dead in the yard and the soldiers gone; he pockets the old man’s gun, and sets off to trudge along the roads.
He is picked up by a truck driver who, despite his silence, explains his philosophy. “Never interfere. Everything bad comes from interfering.” In the meantime, a car has been stopped by the traffic police from earlier in the film, and they take the driver off to their office (he has a faulty headlamp). When they discover that he is a high-ranking police officer (a major) from Moscow, they handcuff him to the pipes and subject him to abuse. In the meantime, the truck with Georgi is also stopped and they bring both him and the driver to the office. As the violence escalates, and one of the police draws a gun, Georgi unexpectedly shoots them—and then everyone else as well, including the wife of the major. This cumulative breaking point is not too far from the contemporary headlines in more than one country.
The film’s episodic structure has attracted a good deal of criticism but this seems surprising given the fact that classical narrative has been challenged regularly since the 1960s—as if there had been no Antonioni, Tarkovsky, or Béla Tarr. In any case, journeys along roads certainly consist of episodes, and so do lives.
In terms of overall structure, there are clear parallels and developments. The film effectively consists of two halves, each of them featuring a key engagement with the traffic police (representatives of mindless and unpredictable power). The story of Georgi parallels that of Mute. The house in the country is either the same as or a parallel to the house where the father and son live during the Second World War. When the father’s body is dragged through the yard, it links to the pre-credit scene and also to the death of the old man. The two soldiers who arrive at the door in the flashback mirror the two who later arrive with the coffin. The framing of Georgi in the house before he finds the dead old man precisely mirrors that for the little boy in the wartime flashback. The truck’s arrival at the police checkpoint is in each case preceded by a car being stopped and an aggressive encounter. Georgi trudging down the road parallels the mad old man (and also scenes from Béla Tarr’s films). Loznitsa comments that it is quite normal to encounter such walkers. In other words, while the film does not create an orthodox dramatic structure but one based on incidents and episodes, there is nonetheless a thematic unity and a structure not unlike a road movie, overtly so in the film’s first half.
The film’s Kafkaesque dimension derives not only from its journey into the grotesque and absurd but also from a number of verbal suggestions—that in this area no one has friends (from the young prostitute); that the road leads nowhere; that it is a dead end, a direction rather than a road (the three robbers); that it is an area where bad things have happened; that the police never venture there.
If the film is interpreted as an investigation of current reality, it is a reality fatally affected by the experience of the Soviet era and of the Second World War. Underneath the poverty, indifference, eccentricity, and occasional kindness, lies a routinized despair, and violence that is ever ready to explode.
Formally, as Loznitsa points out in his interview with Galetski, the film is shot mostly in long takes (up to 5 minutes long). “We may start with a close up, but each camera movement would be associated with the movement of a character. We used a handheld camera mounted on an Easyrig. The close up could turn into a medium and then a long shot, but it would be in a single camera movement”. He noted that there were only about 140 cuts, while the average film would have over 1000. One effect of the constantly moving camera is to reinforce the sense of journey. Focusing on Georgi’s point of view, we are drawn towards an unknown future, with the travelling of the lorry in the first half of the film half paralleled by the trudging figures in the second.
If one accepts the notion that the distinction between fiction and documentary film is an arbitrary one, then My Joy can be regarded as a document—a compendium of stories reconstructed and assembled as a portrait of experience. The film is both art and entertainment, in that it is constantly involving and surprising. It is also a tribute to a fierce and demanding experience. Of course, there are literary parallels—Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Gogol’s Dead Souls—but there is no sense of derivation or literary allusion. The film makes its own authentic report and statement.
Speaking of his work in documentary, Loznitsa told Anton Sidarenka that he wanted to push his viewers towards self-knowledge and self-awareness, to think about what they had previously not thought about. At his Cannes press conference, he mentioned some of the film’s themes: What is a personality and how does individuality start? What does it mean to be human? How do we behave in situations without hope? Accepting the fact that his work is intended to be provocative, it is clear that he raises themes and establishes parallels, but he provides no interpretation of the stories he has retold. The meaning rests with the viewer who is provided with a certain set of evidence, a statement that is ultimately about history.
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Kirill Galetski, “Q&A: Sergei Loznitsa,” The Hollywood Reporter, 17 May 2010.
Vsevelod Meyerhold, “Balagan” (1912), in Edward Braun, The Theatre of Meyerhold: Revolution and the Modern Stage, 1986.
Anton Sidarenka, “Sergei Loznitsa: Conversations on Cinema—‘A Master of Time’,” KinoKultura 25 (2009).
My Joy, Germany-Ukraine-Netherlands, 2010
Color, 127 mins
Director: Sergei Loznitsa
Screenplay: Sergei Loznitsa
Producers: Heino Deckert, Oleg Kohan
Cinematography: Oleg Mutu
Art Direction: Kirill Shuvalov
Editor: Danielius Kokanauskis
Cast: Viktor Nemets, Vlad Ivanov, Maria Varsami, Vladimir Golovin, Olga Shuvalova
Production: ma.ja.de. filmproduktion (Germany), Sota Cinema Group (Ukraine), Hubert Bals Fund (Netherlands).
Sergei Loznitsa: My Joy (Schast’e moe, 2010)
reviewed by Peter Hames © 2010