Issue 41 (2013)

Anton Megerdichev: Metro (2012)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova © 2013

metroProduced at Igor' Tolstunov’s Production Company (“Profit”) and screened at the Kinotavr-2012 festival, Metro was only released in February 2013. The film grossed 135 million rubles (nearly $ 4.5 million.) and topped charts in Russia in the first week’s box office. The film is based on Dmitrii Safonov’s novel, which is part of the writer’s “disaster trilogy” (romany-katastrofy): The Tower (Bashnia, 2005), Metro (2005) and Epidemic (Epidemiia, 2006). Two first novels are set in the northwest of Moscow, the area that underwent massive and poorly planned construction of high-rises under the mayor Iurii Luzhkov. In Metro, a water lock built in the 1930s on the Moscow canal, which connects the Moscow River with the Volga River, collapses and floods the subway tunnel between “Tushinskaia” and “Shchukinskaia” stations. When the administration of the Moscow Subway refused to give permission to the filmmakers to use the premises (ostensibly, to avoid additional pressures on the already over-congested rapid transit system), producers made a decision to move the action downtown Moscow and to film most underground scenes in the Samara subway. The latter, while in development since the late 1980s, is still in an embryonic state and is barely used by Samara residents. 

metroThe film enacts both existing Moscow problems (overcrowded subway cars and platforms, horrendous traffic jams, the rapid transformation of the city center into a megapolis) and a possible catastrophe resulting from those: the massive construction of news high-rises downtown leads to a shift in the Moscow river bed and the breakthrough of water into the subway tunnel. All this happens during the morning rush hour and the heaviest traffic jams. Unable to choose between her husband and her lover, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova) lies to her family about her time of arrival from a business trip, and the husband Andrei (Sergei Puskepalis) has to take the daughter to school by subway. Irina’s lover Vlad (Anatolii Belyi), a successful businessman who is late for his plane, also gets on the subway. The train that will be directly affected by the disaster carries the three protagonists through the melodramatic subplot. After the rushing water and the crumbling tunnel derail the train, and many passengers die, the three join several other survivors to try and get out of the death trap.

At a pre-release press conference the director Anton Megerdichev claimed that he wanted to show some pressing problems of contemporary Moscow. “[F]ilmmakers often create a lubok image of the capital, which has little to do with reality.” Metro focuses on such issues as overcrowded cars, hours-long traffic jams and uncontrollable construction in central Moscow. Despite these nods to a social problem drama, the film is a purely commercial flick, and a successful one at that. Shots of Moscow streets provide an authenticating stamp to the extraordinary circumstances. The Hollywood genre template works surprisingly well: the build-up (the anticipating signs of the disaster, the introduction of the protagonists who will be caught in an impossible situation), a well-calculated combination of natural elements and human error, and of human generosity and baseness, a personal/family drama playing out in the midst of the catastrophe, etc.

metroLikewise, critics’ references to the late Soviet disaster blockbuster The Crew (Ekipazh, dir. Aleksandr Mitta, 1979), while justified (Mitta’s film stands virtually alone as a successful example of the genre in Soviet cinema), are also misleading. The Crew might have thrilled its audiences with a volcano eruption, a flight on a damaged plane, and a spectacular sequence of the plane’s tail breaking off at landing. But the film’s focus was on a heroic and troubled masculinity, and its primary genre was melodrama. Moreover, the disaster struck in an unnamed foreign country, and the international flight provided little to identify with for the travel-deprived Soviet audiences. Metro, in contrast, exploits a premise and situations all to familiar to millions of people, and uses melodramatic elеments to individualize the disaster experience, rather than to replace it. Аs one review notes, filmmakers show both an understanding of the genre rules (a need for “at least one knight in shining armor, as well as a child, a couple in love, a vulnerable adult […], а joker […] and some kind of animal”), and a restraint in avoiding excessive naturalism (Stepnova). The film leaves plenty to the viewers’ imagination—a good thing, too, because the script is peppered with life-and-death situations (e.g., the electrocution by the third rail) that leave scores of people dead.

Metro gives a vertical slice of Moscow: from a penthouse apartment to the miles-long traffic jams to overcrowded subway stations and to the bottom of the Moscow river. It also quite elegantly incorporates a story about Stalin’s “secret subway” and ghost stations. Trying to impress a girl on the train, a young man tells a story of one such station, “Borodinskaia,” located between the real “Park Kultury” and the fictional “Sadovaia.” According to him, the station was conserved, because it is located in the unstable soil, and is only visible when lit by the oncoming train. For a brief moment, passengers and viewers see something flash in the dark, seconds before the train hits a wall of water and soil. The legend and the eerie vision provide an interesting counterpoint to the contemporary setting and Hollywood genre conventions, both because the soil indeed is “unstable” and because the physical depth of the Moscow subway for a moment transforms into an abyss of the troubled past.

metroThe first and so far the only Russian disaster film, Metro capitalizes on the technological know-how of the (Hollywood) genre tradition. The scene of the train’s initial impact lasts three minutes, shot in slow motion and with a bluish color pallet. Metro also features several underwater scenes; moreover, much of the action is set in the dark of the tunnel. To the cameramen's credit, the verisimilitude does not take away from the visibility. The film was partially funded by the Russian Cinema Foundation; the film’s producer Igor’ Tolstunov is a member of the Foundation’s Advisory Council. The relatively big budget (around $10 mln.) allowed for a large cast (800 extras in Samara alone), dozens of stunt men, a purchase of several train cars and the construction of life-size models of a tunnel and а train, as well as a gigantic pool.[1]  Мany of the film’s special effects used unique equipment created by the cameraman Sergei Astakhov (among his work are five of Aleksei Balabanov’s films).

Extraordinary circumstances test men’s true worth (and apparently open women’s eyes). Several times in the film, Vlad’s actions teeter on the brink of immorality. He throws the dog in the water to test for an electric charge, and when asked whether they should warn those who are wading through the water replies “No, but hopefully they’ll get lucky.” While Vlad’s actions at this point are not exactly heroic, he is not an anti-hero. At least not yet. It is only when the characters’ hopes of rescue are frustrated that Vlad launches into an irate monologue about Andrei’s non-existent intimacy with Irina and Irina’s readiness to sleep with anyone who is not Andrei. Andrei’s predictable reaction—and the climax of the love plot—is physical fight with Vlad during which he nearly drowns him. Only Galina’s miraculous resurrection de-fuses his rage. The chiaroscuro moral landscape should be enough: a hardworking father, husband and doctor (who saves a boy’s life at the start of the film) vs. a rich businessman, whose façade of love crumbles to reveal physical attraction but not much else. But it is not enough. Vlad is ostensibly different (ne nash): having left Russia ten plus year before, he resides in America and comes to Russia only for Irina. His repeated exclamations: “What am I doing here? HERE?” dispel any illusions of the two men’s equal worth.

metroThe representation of officials spans between a degree of verisimilitude (metro operators) and falsity (municipal authorities). Both station attendants and the police dismiss the linesman’s report of water in the tunnel as a figment of his alcoholic imagination. The police also ignore Irina’s information about survivors trapped in a bunker. City officials send a search-and-rescue team into the tunnel but immediately reverse the order, so the two surviving members of the team operate on their own, with no support. The absence of outside help create last-minute rescue situations that rely on characters’ wit, strength and cooperation. But the big decision—to “conserve” the disaster area by filling it with liquid nitrogen (which, as hysterical Vlad tells others, will promptly turn into a solid block)—is postponed, despite the danger to the entire city. While this imminent danger makes for a dramatic last-minute rescue and is a narrative cliché from a score of Hollywood disaster films, this simply does not ring true in the Russian context. Not surprisingly, the film blurs the time frame of this decision, and relegates authorities to the background.

Metro thus illustrates a popular and insightful quote from Il’f and Petrov’s Twelve Chairs: “Assistance to drowning persons is in the hands of those persons themselves,” which provides a touch of authenticity to the Russian setting and a solid motivation to the Hollywood formula. In order to escape their predicament the characters have to be individuals, and they are. But this only applies to men. In its gender representation Metro is as patriarchal and misogynistic as they come. Irina is guilty as sin: cheating on her husband, lying to her daughter, shirking parental responsibilities. For the bulk of the film she either lies naked in bed with Vlad or runs around Moscow, disheveled yet glamorous and in high heels. Her only independent decision—to break out of the standstill of a traffic jam through the oncoming traffic lane—immediately results in a collision with a “migrant worker,” who is left stranded with his wrecked car. One review of the film, in Obzorkino, conveniently and symptomatically conflated the character and the actress playing Irina: “I want to praise all the actors, except for Svetlana Khodchenkova, whose heroine is nothing but despicable” (Obzorkin).  

The female characters at the center of the survival plot each have a “handicap” that prevent them having any agency of their own: Ksiusha is a child, Alisa has asthma and needs an inhaler, Galina is a lumpen-alcoholic, who by the end of the film resembles a fool-in-Christ. Galina appears in the film drinking vodka in the morning in front of a subway station, and by the film’s end has undergone a radical conversion: she quits drinking and starts praying. For the bulk of the film, Moscow—both on and under the surface—looks apocalyptic. This makes the last sequence of the characters’ rescue quite compelling. The scene takes place in front of the Novodevichii Monastery, with the song by Bi-2 “The Prayer” providing a narrative and emotional coda to the film. Thankfully, the prayer is about the fragility of life and love, and the viewers are left suspended as to the resolution of the love plot. The ending can hardly be read as anything but a cautionary tale for unfaithful wives (all the “i”s have been dotted many times over), but the song is good enough for the viewer to keep watching. 

Elena Prokhorova
College of William & Mary


Notes

1] For details of production see the studio’s website,

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Works Cited

Obzorkin, Fedor, “Pervyi rossiiskii fil’m-katastrofa ‘Metro’,” obzorkino.tv, 13 March 2013

Stepnova, Svetlana, “Sprava—kudri tokaria, sleva—kuznetsa” (retsenziia na fil’m “Metro”), ruskino.ru

Stupnikov, Denis, “Moskovskii metropolitan sabotiroval s”emki fil’ma ‘Metro’,” km.ru, 15 February 2013


Metro, Russia, 2012
Color, 126 mini
Director: Anton Megerdichev
Screenplay: Denis Kuryshev, Viktoriia Evseeva, Dmitrii Safonov
Cinematography: Sergei Astakhov
Music: Iurii Poteenko, Aleksei HarDrum
Cast: Sergei Puskepalis, Anatolii Belyi, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Anfisa Vistingauzen, Aleksei Bardykov, Katerina Shpitsa, Elena Panova, Stanislav Dyzhnikov, Sergei Sosnovskii
Producer: Igor’ Tolstunov, Sergei Kozlov
Production: Profit

Anton Megerdichev: Metro (2012)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova © 2013

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