Issue 32 (2011)
Aleksei Balabanov: Stoker (Kochegar, 2010)
reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2011
Mikhail Trofimenkov: It seems as if your sense of world catastrophe grows greater with each film.
Aleksei Balabanov: Of course. My relatives are dying. I myself am aging. (Trofimenkov)
In better times, Yakut stoker Ivan Skriabin (Mikhail Skriabin) had a stellar military career: he had been a sapper in the Afghan war, a Hero of the Soviet Union, a Major with a chest full of medals. Now, retired from the military with a severe concussion, abandoned by his wife, and barely supported by an uncertain paycheck, he lives alone in his workplace, a vast factory basement where he keeps the furnaces running day and night. He spends his leisure moments sitting on his cot, typing out what he believes to be his own tale of good and evil. In fact, the story, entitled “Khailakh,” had been written many decades earlier by Polish ethnographer Wacław Sieroszewski. It is a story that Skriabin had once heard, but now mistakes for his own story, all the more so as it eerily anticipates Skriabin’s circumstances, a tale of Russian banditry and Yakut sacrifice.
Skriabin has a beloved adult daughter, Sasha. She co-owns a Yakut fur outlet with Masha, Russian daughter of Sergeant, a veteran-turned-gangster. One additional character completes the main cast. Bison, Sergeant’s fellow gangster, is Sasha’s boyfriend, or so she believes. In fact, Bison is the lover of both women, though neither knows of the other’s liaison.
And so Stoker, at its barest level, is the story of five people: two fathers and their grown daughters, who share a man. Even without Balabanov’s signature violence, this could not end well. When Masha discovers Bison at her rival’s apartment; she turns to her father for help. Balabanov’s script— laconic, dense, and brilliantly inarticulate—resolves this conflict in a mere eighteen pages; the film’s inspired musical selections account for much of the 87 minutes of screen time.
Balabanov is often considered a divisive figure. I belong to those who consider him a genius, but it is not my primary intent here to plead that case. His emergent talent is usually traced from the 1997 release of Brother (Brat), but his gifts for wry whimsy were evident already in Happy Days (Schastlivye dni, 1991). After all, who is Stoker’s Ivan Skriabin if not a later instance of the nameless hero of Happy Days, played by the young Viktor Sukhorukov? These two hapless, neurologically injured men inhabit the same city, but remain similarly homeless. They are also distant kin to the hero of Balabanov’s short film Trofim (Trofim”), his contribution to the collaborative feature Arrival of a Train (Pribytie poezda, 1996). Already we see several elements of his signature style: the clueless, little man, who rises up against the accumulated indignities of the world; the city as modernity’s id, a theatre for staging the hero’s destruction; the battered trams, replicated in one form or another in many films to come; the tight narrative structure that interlinks characters in ways to which they themselves have little access; the preternaturally comfortable fit between brutality and sentiment. What Brother eventually adds is a military element: the debilitated city as the battlefield’s aftermath, its secondary killing field. Stoker continues this pattern.
The film may reasonably be described in two incompatible ways. It is a gory crime drama, post-Tarantino cinema, fixated on the most horrific aspects of human bestiality, rendered in excruciating detail by the same director who had earlier graced us with Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007), and before that Blind Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005), War (Voina, 2002), Brother, and Brother 2 (Brat 2, 2000). As in previous films, the setting is a deteriorated, late twentieth-century Russia. As ever, a feral masculinity dominates the dialogue, plot, and visual detail. As ever, the main supporting actor is the corpse.
At the same time, however, a second interpretation would quite adequately describe Stoker as tender-hearted to the point of sentimentality, Balabanov’s most lyrical film to date. Infused with fairytale humor and childlike simplicity, the film exudes innocence in its wide-eyed account of two scary stories: the one that is screened and the one that is typed. First, we see the scary story about the Yakut stoker; then we see a black-and-white, silent film of the scary story he had been typing. Both film and typescript are a mixture of sentimental story, fairy tale, or a spooky, nighttime yarn told at summer camp: the stalwart little hero whose world is clearly marked by “good people” and “bad people”; the neighbor girls who cuddle up with him to hear his fable of right and wrong; the killing of the bad people; the keen poignancy of his daughter’s lost slipper; the family photograph mournfully tossed into the flames; the hero who finally raises up his sharp lance against those who had wronged him. A kind of folk St. George, except that he himself is from the East and the dragons are both Russian.
These two versions—gory and sentimental—are intimately entwined and it is surely a mistake to choose between them. The first accounts for the film’s most evident genre features, at least in the world of cinema. The second accounts for a much looser set of conventions, reaching backward through literature into legend, ballad, fable, saga, and other oral forms. Balabanov is an auteur who plays with genre conventions—terms that, for all their fraught contradiction, I nevertheless find useful—and his games center on interplay of the cinematic and the oral traditions. Both texts offer us characters with muted interiority, creatures who survive in a universe of oral communication but—one way or the other—represented as bereft of speech.
Stoker has been promoted as Aleksei Balabanov’s thirteenth full-length feature film and the tenth film produced by Sergei Sel’ianov’s CTB. Shot in Kronshtadt, Losevo, and St. Petersburg, the film is set in the urban 1990s, a decade that has readily lent itself in previous films to Balabanov’s model of justice. The film’s production history was organized around a certain mystic ritualism: the first day of shooting began on Balabanov’s birthday (25 February) and the broad commercial release of this thirteenth film—whether because of superstition or marketing style—was 13 October 2010. As for its festival life, the film had debuted in August 2010 at Vyborg in the Window to Europe Festival, where it was awarded the Special Jury Prize (For High Professional Mastery), as well as a White Elephant from the Russian Guild of Cinema Scholars and Critics. It then found a sympathetic international audience at the 40th Rotterdam International Film Festival, where it screened out of competition on 29 January 2011.
Balabanov’s cast principally comprises non-professional or unknown actors. Its two professionals are both theatre actors: Mikhail Skriabin comes from the Sakha Academic Theatre; Petr Semak, a supporting actor who plays Colonel Minaev, is from Lev Dodin’s Malyi Drama Theatre. Skriabin will be familiar to viewers from several previous films: River (Reka, 2002), the ill-fated American (Amerikanets, 2003 unfinished), and most notably Cargo 200, in which Skriabin played the Vietnam worker Sun’ka. Beyond this duo, the only other actor-in-training is the theatre student Anna Karataeva, who plays Masha, Bison’s Russian lover.
The film’s camera delights in the kind of deep-focus and long panorama shots that remind us of the work in Cargo 200. Indeed, Balabanov’s cameraman, Aleksandr Simonov—who had first gained professional attention for his work with Ol’ga Stolpovskaia and Dmitrii Troitskii in the romantic comedy You I Love (Ia liubliu tebia, 2004)—was Balabanov’s DoP for Cargo 200 and Morphium (Morfii, 2008) before his work in Stoker. Here Simonov savors the texture of each dark interior shot. His exterior camerawork, often extreme long shots as in Cargo 200, linger on the postindustrial factory devastation, simultaneously signaling the degraded economy, the degraded self, and—now, suddenly—the grim efficiency of the urban crematorium. That efficiency is neatly compatible with the efficiency of the script, in which two cryptic words can suffice to contract a lover’s extermination.
Most noteworthy still in the film’s composition, however, is the soundtrack, which includes contributions by DiDiuLia, Agata Kristi, and Chernyi Lukich. As several critics have explored in greater detail, Balabanov’s soundtrack is a multidimensional, evolving project. As early as Happy Days, Balabanov has calibrated his visual register to a corresponding aural register. After Brother, which had tended to promote its musical choices, Balabanov’s work turned to an intricate game of commentary on the visual landscape. In Cargo 200 and now in Stoker, the music mocks the image and is suddenly mocked in turn by the circumstances of the plot. A track may lyricize a particularly vicious scene or turn a sober visual moment into utmost banality. The music may at one moment convey straightforward confirmation of a character’s musical tastes, a kind of musical homology; at other moments, it may undercut or run counter to a character’s self-presentation.
One might argue that Balabanov is replicating our real-life experiences of random elevator music that impinges on our poor thoughts at the most inappropriate moments, trivializing our intimate conversations and reminding us of the quotidian circumstances in which we live. But something else is at work as well. We remember from Brother, for example, that diegetic life beyond the compact disk seemed to have its own soundtrack. Such was the case, too, in Cargo 200. Now, however, his characters no longer wear headphones, carry compact disks, or turn on car radios. They are wired into a perpetual electronic download with its own grand sonic design.
Balabanov is the god of this grand musical download, set up as the master’s debate between sight and sound, allowing neither to hold authority in conveying some uncomplicated cinematic truth. DiDiuLia’s Sateen Coastlines (Satinovye berega), for example, with its breezy, beach-resort rhythms and casual Latin percussion, runs throughout much of the film’s horrific violence, but this is only one of Balabanov’s creative whims. This instance demands an understanding of “soundtrack” very different from Chernyi Lukich’s Funny Heart (Smeshnoe serdtse) at the moment of the stoker’s death. And each musical choice has its own paradoxical economy: while Balabanov’s inclusion of DiDiuLia is already lucrative for the Belarusian guitarist and his group, the filmmaker is in no sense promoting the music in the straightforward fashion that he had earlier promoted the music of his Ekaterinburg or St. Petersburg friends. As Balabanov has put it, it is not a musical film, but a film with a great deal of music (Trofimenkov).
One of Balabanov’s most beloved games has long been the tension between crude literalism and potential allegory. The film’s veterans are played by veterans; the cardsharp is played by a cardsharp; the bartender is played by a bartender. If these decisions are, in part, the economics of casting, they are not only that. They are also a challenge to critical interpretation. Why, for example, is the stoker a Yakut? As Balabanov has repeatedly said, it is because the actor is a Yakut. And why does the stoker’s wife relocate to Detroit? Is it because Detroit is another global, degraded industrial wasteland? No; it is because Balabanov likes the word “Detroit.” Sometimes the filmmaker takes pity on the critics: why is there fire burning in each of the film’s apartments? “Fire is a motif that unites the film’s space” (Trofimenkov). And what about the character Andrei Sergeevich, a gangster-businessman who orders a hit? The actor is none other than the (then) General Director of Lenfil’m Studio Viacheslav Tel’nov. What does this casting decision mean? To Balabanov, it simply means that Channel One General Director Konstantin Ernst had refused the filmmaker’s earlier invitation to play the gangster-businessman.
But this casting decision, riotously allegorical, cannot withstand an alternative interpretation, which suggests that the film is about filmmaking; the fireplaces are televisions screens; the Yakut is not only a Yakut, but perhaps someone else. The Yakut, after all, dresses like Balabanov, with his preference for an old floppy hat and a grungy vest. Like Skriabin—the concussed oriental, pathetically and incompletely reproducing Wacław Sieroszewski’s “Khailakh”—Balabanov had invested similar labor in his own adaptation of Sieroszewski’s The Limits of Sorrow (Predel skorbi; Polish title Na dnie nedzy), which formed the basis of the filmmaker’s River (River).
Russian critics have dubbed Stoker a misanthropic film, along with the rest of Balabanov’s work, by common opinion. After all, at the end of Balabanov’s last film Morphium, Doctor Poliakov (Leonid Bichevin) goes to the cinema and shoots himself during the screening, a barbaric double meaning of “The End.” Here in Stoker, as the hero meets a similar end, he is tenderly photographed by the little neighbor girl, Vera, who walks off with his manuscript. And looking backwards, we recall that, in the closing shot in Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1998), photographer Iogan (Sergei Makovetskii) steps onto the ice floe, heading out towards voluntary death. And before that in Trofim, the hero is led off to be hanged, while his film image is edited out of existence by the director (Aleksei German) and his assistant (Aleksei Balabanov). I cannot suppress the speculation that the director is writing his own wry necrology.
But is this misanthropy? After all, we are not watching Balabanov’s misanthropy at work in a vacuum. We are watching it in a venue that—historically, at least, and therefore in our shared memories—has us huddled together in a darkened cinema hall. We are experiencing misanthropy in what is perhaps the most collective of all contemporary popular arts, both in its production and in its spectator practices. I cannot help but wonder what kind of complex misanthropy is enacted here? My question has less to do with a yearning for a happy ending than with an intimation about the recurrent conditions in which this misanthropy (if that is what it is) can be most gratifyingly enjoyed—how else?—in each other’s company.
Much else about this film remains to be argued. A recurrent view, for example, is that Balabanov has transformed himself from nationalist to Russophobe. For me, the question is both too simpleminded and too complex. I will end instead by giving Balabanov the last word. One of his more interesting remarks—oft-repeated, but intriguing all the same—poses a wry intellectual challenge to contemporary Russian cinema:
Twice on prime-time, the [US] film was broadcast about Hannibal Lector, who opens someone’s skull, fries the brains, and eats them with a spoon. […] Mind you, this is a positive hero, a good person. I don’t like that kind of hypocritical stance [i.e., the Russian broadcast of the US film—NC]. If everything I said [in my films—NC] had been about Americans, no one would have objected. What is not forgiven is that it is about us. (Balabanov to Liubarskaia).
I am unconvinced that Balabanov’s film is “about us,” if “us” is limited to Russian-based content. A great deal is lost in that narrow redaction. All the same, as a local chronicler of the modern id, few directors provide a better portrait than Balabanov.
University of Pittsburgh
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1] Trams figure again most evidently in Brother and Stoker. They are part of a larger cluster of urban machinery including the belching coal-fueled steamboat in Of Freaks and Men; the repetitive automobile sequences of Dead Man's Bluff; the motorcycle and side car of Cargo 200; the steam engines and freight trains of Trofim, Freaks and Cargo 200. See an elaboration of this argument in Condee, pp. 217-36.
2] This count presumably includes his lesser-known From the History of Aerostatics in Russia (O vozdushnom letanii v Rossii, 1990), as well as his fifty-minute River, but excludes his post-diploma short Trofim, as well as (less problematically) his VKSR coursework shorts Earlier was a Different Time (Ran'she bylo drugoe vremia, 1987) and I Don't Have a Friend (U menia net druga, 1987) and his diploma short Nastia and Egor (Nastia i Egor, 1989).
3] The fusion style of Belarusian guitarist Valerii Didiulia and his group DiDiuLia (marketed in the West as DiDuLa) is best known to international audiences from the album Cave Town of Inkerman (named after the cave fortress near Sevastopol).
5] I have in mind here Balabanov's assignment in Happy Days of Wagner, the jazz song Too Many Tears, and a music-box melody to three visual planes of the film: the omniscient crane shot, the public medium shot, and the private close-up.
8] Balabanov, of course, has resisted this line of argument in interviews, proposing instead his affinity to the secondary character Captain Minaev. To this allegorical complexity I would add one more curiosity—distracting perhaps, except that (given Balabanov's resistance to inquiry) there is already little enough solid bedrock on which to ground an empirical argument. Kafka, so beloved by the early Balabanov that the filmmaker's Castle [Zamok, 1994] was an elaborate, two-hour rendition of the unfinished novel, is also author of a short story called—what else?—”The Stoker” [“Der Heizer”]. The short story, later intended as a first chapter to his unfinished first novel America [Amerika], sometimes referred to as The Missing One [Der Verschollene], was posthumously published in 1927. This tale of a stoker—a little man wronged by powerful authorities—may readily be linked to Balabanov's larger symbolic universe, but I will leave this task to others.
Condee, Nancy, The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Liubarskaia, Irina, “Glavnyi rezhisser,” Interview with Aleksei Balabanov, Itogi 41 (11 October 2010)
Mkheidze, Georgii, “V topku! Kochegar, rezhisser Aleksei Balabanov,” Iskusstvo kino 9 (2010)
Trofimenkov, Mikhail, “Nikakikh metafor,” Kommersant” 20 September 2010.
Stoker, Russia, 2010
87 mins, color
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Script: Aleksei Balabanov
DoP: Aleksandr Simonov
Music: DiDiuLia, Chernyi Lukich, Agata Kristi
Cast: Mikhail Skriabin, Iurii Matveev, Aleksandr Mosin, Aida Tumutova, Anna Korotaeva
Producer: Sergei Sel’ianov
Aleksei Balabanov: Stoker (Kochegar, 2010)
reviewed by Nancy Condee © 2011