Issue 39 (2013)

Svetlana Baskova: For Marx (Za Marksa, 2012)

reviewed by Polina Barskova © 2013

Svetlana Baskova’s film For Marx confirms her reputation as one of the most astute presenters of contemporary sociocultural trends in Russia. In this film, Baskova addresses the emergence of the New Left direction in the realms of art, drama, and especially literature, where works of prominent young authors such as Kirill Medvedev and Pavel Arsen’ev’s project “Translit” signal a newly perceived urgency of Marxism in Russian cultural circles.

for marxOne of the primary impressions embracing the viewer is an uncanny, imaginative repetition. The film’s poster proclaims the film to be the “new Soviet cinema” while the title references an influential text by Louis Althusser. One of the most obvious layers of creative digestion here is Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (Stachka, 1924), set almost a century later: Baskova requires us to witness the emergence of the workers’ cell—an independent worker’s union aiming to prepare a strike against deteriorating labor conditions at a steel factory. Baskova reintroduces all the elements invented by her predecessor; the plot is formulated as a series of conflicts between the workers and their capitalist oppressors, between the two labor unions (the “real” one striving for the workers’ better future and the “fake” one created by the factory owners pro formae), and between the worker’s desire to fight and their fear to lose their jobs or even their lives. 

for marxAll these conflicts cannot but erupt in violence, and here we witness the transformation of the genre of “production drama” (proizvodsvennaia drama) into the action/thriller. The murder of one labor leader leads another, witness to the deed, to betray the movement. All the elements of Eisenstein’s psychological mapping in The Strike (provocation, violence, and cowardice) serve Baskova to rehearse the same questions that for 70 years of Soviet rule seemed to exclusively the domain of official Soviet culture. Paradoxically, Baskova is crowned by the media as a leading voice of the alternative art circles where Marxism has recaptured the cachet of an underground, subversive ideology.

for marxBaskova enlists not only Marxism. The other cultural influences in play might seem out of place or even provocative if the film conveyed a sense of historical reality, but Baskova’s true intention seems to be the artful projection of a workers’ movement in post-capitalist and then post-communist Russia. Her greedy and ambitious factory-owners collect Rodchenko, her ideology thirsty workers get together to discuss controversial staples of Russian Marxism such as Mikhail Pokrovskii, and—crucially—they have their own film club where, without failing, they screen the Marxist works of Godard from his so called political (or “Dziga Vertov”) period, including Wind from the East and Until Victory.

for marxThe film viewings swing Baskova’s work firmly into the realm of utopias. She presents a subjunctive, wishful version of the contemporary worker’s movement rather attempting to discern what’s really happening in the lives of Russian workers today. Here her aspirations seem congruent to those of the young Eisenstein, whose versions of history were driven primarily by the complex reasoning behind his poetics rather than adherence to the documentary register.

The intertextual nature of Baskova’s plot orchestration is connected tightly to her visuality. Godard is present here not only in the workers film club—he is present in the camera’s multiple moves and choices; Godard’s take on cinema vérité is sensed in the main questions that overwhelm this film: the questions of ambivalence in regards to the realism of this spectacle.

for marxBaskova attempts to blur the line between the professional and non-professional acting; professional actors here act as if amateurs. Her film’s camera work often simulates artless documentary, turning artfully arranged mises-en-scène into fragments of life “caught unawares.” And yet it is difficult to miss the didactic qualities of Baskova’s aestheticized ideology, and here where she comes closest to the constructions by Vertov and Eisenstein.

While the presence of the New Left in the new Russian culture cannot be denied nor ignored this ideological direction produces at this moment more questions than answers. Baskova’s new film channels some of the most burning ones: can Marxism indeed be repeated in Russia? How might this new attempt deal with the earlier, problematic incarnation? Who will be its new interpreters and how will they discern a new theory from practice? All these anxiety-producing questions, raised vividly by For Marx, make it contemporary, controversial, and one of the most worthwhile film experiences of 2012.

Polina Barskova
Hampshire College

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For Marx, Russia, 2012
100 minutes, colour, 1:1,85, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director and Scriptwriter Svetlana Baskova
Directors of Photography Maksim Mosin, Egor Antonov
Production Design Svetlana Baskova
Sound Kirill Vasilenko
Editing Veronika Pavlovskaia
Cast: Sergei Pakhomov, Vladimir Epifantsev, Viktor Sergachev, Lavrentii Svetlichnyi, Aleksandr Kovalev, Vladimir Iakovlev, Denis Iakovlev, Mikhail Kalinkin
Producers Anatolii Osmolovskii, Andrei Silvestrov, Gleb Aleinikov
Production Ad Studio, CINEFANTOM

Svetlana Baskova: For Marx (Za Marksa, 2012)

reviewed by Polina Barskova © 2013

Updated: 03 Jan 13