Issue 38 (2012)
Aleksandr Proshkin: Expiation (Iskuplenie, 2012)
reviewed by Otto Boele © 2012
In the West, Aleksandr Proshkin is mainly known for his 1988 hit The Cold Summer of ’53 (Kholodnoe leto 53-ego), the first film to engage with the fate of the Gulag returnees and the wave of crime (real or perceived) that flooded the country following Stalin’s death in March of that year. Characteristic of the new openness of the Gorbachev era, Cold Summer proved to be an eye-opener for many and an exciting film to watch. Rather than having the villains captured by the police, Proshkin decided to assign the role of “good guy” to an ex-convict, a “traitor of the fatherland,” and resolve the conflict in a classical shoot-out. Although it would be inappropriate to speak of a happy ending, the hero’s personal fate still being highly uncertain, the dividing line between good and bad is still easy to distinguish. Called a “Western” on more than one occasion (e.g., Dobson 2009: 1-2), Cold Summer comes close to satisfying our sense of poetic justice.
Set in an anonymous town in the western part of the Ukraine during the winters of 1945 and 1946, Expiation is doubtless a more demanding film, both in terms of plot development and as a statement of Soviet reality in the late 1940s. Many scenes become clear only upon a second viewing and even a denunciation in the style of Pavlik Morozov turns out to be less straightforward than one would expect. In an interview in Moskovskii Komsomolets, Proshkin has explicitly urged his audience not to judge his heroine too harshly, but to duly consider the circumstances under which she was forced to live (Khokhriakova). Indeed, viewers preferring neatly defined categories of “good” and “bad” characters as in Cold Summer, will struggle to make sense of the heroine and her sometimes contradictory behavior.
Expiation opens with a highly symbolic scene that epitomizes the grimness of life in the Soviet Union just after WW II. Using a pair of pincers, a ten-year-old boy cuts bullets in two and throws them into a camp fire where they explode. His little brother assists him, taking delight in the loud bangs. It soon becomes clear that this is more than a reckless pastime of two vagrant children. The older boy melts the bullets’ jackets to cast his own brass knuckles, a vital asset for life on the street. When his younger brother throws a handful of intact bullets into the flames, the result is stray gunfire that makes passers-by intuitively duck. On this occasion, nobody gets hurt, but eventually the young perpetrator is killed in a freak accident when a group of waifs throws an unexploded German bomb into a mine shaft thereby causing a small, but fatal landslide.
While absent in Fridrikh Gorenshtein’s story on which the screenplay is based, the bullet-melting scene serves as a thumbnail for the rest of the film: the boys’ dismal playground (a snow-covered courtyard amidst the blackened ruins of houses) and the primitive, but effective weapons they produce remind us that everyday life has not necessarily become safer after the victory over Nazi Germany. Death waits behind every corner, be it in the form of severe malnutrition, crime, or anonymous denunciations. Although Expiation is not a pessimistic film, Proshkin makes no effort to suggest that people found any comfort in the nation’s military success or increased international prestige. His fictional characters are desperate to get on with their lives, but they cannot help looking back at the horrors of the past rather than at the radiant future of communism.
The inability to let the past go and look forward is particularly apparent in the two main characters, Sasha (Viktoria Romanenko), a hot-headed sixteen-year-old girl who terrorizes her mother (Tat’iana Iakovenko) for stealing food from work, as well as their lodgers (Natal’ia Gandziuk and Evgenii Kurshinskii), a couple whom she suspects of having collaborated with the Germans. Although she is quick to use the label “enemy of the people” and other Stalinist stock phrases, Sasha’s rigor stems less from her ideological vigilance than from her intense grief for her father who was killed in the war. When she returns home from her first New Year’s ball at the local Dom Kul’tury and catches her mother kissing the DK’s senior cultural worker, or kul’turnik (Andrei Panin), she takes revenge by reporting her mother to the militia for theft.
An even greater loss has befallen Avgust (Rinal’ Mukhametov), a Jewish pilot and war veteran, who upon his arrival in his native town learns that his entire family was singlehandedly killed by their neighbor, a member of the local Polizei. The thorny question of complicity and guilt acquires an even more problematic dimension when Avgust decides to exhume the bodies of his family and give them a proper burial. Among the people helping him to dig up the bodies are ordinary citizens, such as Sasha, hoping to earn a can of beef, but also a few convicts kindly supplied by the NKVD. Paradoxically, Avgust carries out his noble plan by pulling some strings with the police and using forced labor.
Soon a romance develops between Sasha and Avgust, but Avgust is unable to come to terms with the loss of his family and attempts suicide. Although Sasha prevents him from pulling the trigger at the very last moment, Avgust remains gloomy, publicly calling into question the price of victory and Stalin’s wanting leadership. Eventually, these comments will cost him dearly. After he leaves for L’viv to be officially demobilized, one of the convicts who helped him dig up his family reports him to the NKVD in exchange for early release. As in Gorenshtein’s story, the drama of Avgust’s arrest is not fully played out, but conveyed through Sasha’s agonizing uncertainty about her lover’s fate. When she visits an old acquaintance and ex-convict who apprizes her of Avgust’s arrest, she takes it out on the messenger calling him an “enemy of the people.” Frustrated and angry, she can only express her personal feelings using the venomous parlance of the regime.
The film concludes with a display of family happiness that comes somewhat unexpectedly, but is generally in line with the optimistic end of Gorenshtein’s story. Not only has Sasha given birth to a daughter, but so have her released mother and Ol’ga, the quiet and pious lodger who, together with her husband, had to endure Sasha’s wrath for so long. The life-affirming message of the closing scene, in which we see the three mothers giving their babies a bath and asking each other for forgiveness (in observation of Cheesefare Sunday) acquires a slightly ironic charge when the families sit down for supper and toast the future. The moment they raise their glasses, a power outage occurs and the house is plunged into darkness. The viewer is left to speculate how bright the future will actually be.
The film’s central theme of expiation or atonement is explicitly addressed in a discussion between Avgust and one of the convicts-cum-grave-diggers, a wooly professor of European literature (Sergei Dreiden) who becomes obsessed with the idea of establishing the exact year in which mankind will have atoned for its sins and justice will be restored. The two men represent two extreme viewpoints with Avgust denying that such tremendous suffering as was caused by the war can ever be atoned for and the professor being convinced of the opposite. On a more personal level, the question of expiation is pertinent for Sasha who reports her mother to the NKVD and then loses Avgust as a result of a similar denunciation. Whether Sasha is aware of this coincidence remains unclear, but the closing scene with the forgiving ritual suggests that she has grown more mature and less selfish. Thus a new life begins, if not for the nation, then certainly for her.
Despite the fact that Expiation was shot in color, its visual quality is dominated by the opposition of light and darkness leaving the impression that we are looking at a black-and-white movie. This is enhanced by Proshkin’s decision to set the entire film in the dead of winter, thus supplying the story with an appropriately chilly background (by contrast, in the closing chapter of Gorenshtein’s story, the narrator refers to the exceptionally hot autumn of 1946). The symbolism of the opposition of light-and-dark is not hard to grasp, of course, although there are plenty of instances where its meaning is rendered ambiguous. This is particularly obvious when Avgust uses someone else’s toast to the bright future (i budet svet!) to hurl a curse at Stalin: “Yes, [it will be] the same light [svet]– from the Kremlin.” The only “bright” scene is at the New Year’s ball for which the girls have dressed up, but even here the colors look pale and dusty. The kul’turnik’s clumsy opening speech and his frenetic efforts to kindle enthusiasm among the crowd (great performance by Andrei Panin) add to the overall impression of artificial festivity.
Expiation is packed with wonderful period details, for example, when Avgust and Sasha watch a German trophy film and the show is interrupted by a gang of hooligans. Equally convincing from a historical point of view are the discussions between the professor and his wife (Ekaterina Volkova) on cybernetics and dialectical materialism, and especially her attempts to “save” him for Russian literature. Most important of all, however, is the sensitive way in which the film presents the moral dilemmas that its characters must resolve. Aleksandr Proshkin has made an important film that one needs (and deserves) to watch again and again in order to appreciate the many treasures it contains.
University of Leiden
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Dobson, Miriam (2009), Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform after Stalin, Ithaca and London: Cornell UP.
Khokhriakova, Svetlana (2012), ‘Aleksandr Proshkin: Patriotizm – rabota, inogda khorosho oplachivaema,” (interview), Moskovskii Komsomolets, 22 August.
Expiation Russia, 2012
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Proshkin
Screenplay: El’ga Lyndina
Producers: Dmitrii Pirikulov, Iurii Stoliarov, Tat’iana Iakovenko
Cinematography: Evgenii Kachanov
Music: Eduard Artem’ev
Cast: Viktoria Romanenko, Rinal’ Mukhametov, Tat’iana Iakovenko, Andrei Panin, Sergei Dreiden, Ekaterina Volkova, Viktor Sukhorukov, Dmitrii Kulichkov, Natal’ia Gandziuk, Evgenii Kurshinskii, Karina Andolenko, Tagir Rakhimov, Boris Lapidus
Production Company: Kinomir
Aleksandr Proshkin: Expiation (Iskuplenie, 2012)
reviewed by Otto Boele © 2012