Issue 43 (2014)
Konstantin Lopushanskii: The Role (Rol’, 2013)
reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2014
In one of the opening scenes of Konstantin Lopushanskii’s The Role, a Finnish psychoanalyst discusses his patient, the émigré Russian actor Nikolai Evlakhov, with the actor’s wife. The doctor concludes that he cannot understand what motivates Russians. It’s as if, he muses, they all live as though they are characters in a Dostoevskii novel. Lopushanskii’s film is framed around this diagnosis, offering what the critic Elena D’iakova has called “a master class in the Russian Revolution” (D’iakova 2013).
The Role debuted at the 35th Moscow International Film Festival and created a minor stir among critics when it failed to take home any awards, particularly for Best Actor. Writing in Sobesednik, the writer Dmitrii Bykov opined that the festival’s jury got things wrong by not rewarding Maksim Sukhanov’s performance because they did not want to be reminded that movies can be art (Bykov 2013). It is not hard to understand why Bykov and others cried foul. Lopushanskii’s Role is a fascinating film about acting, an intriguing statement about the boundaries between life and art in Russian culture, and even a profound meditation on the 1917 Revolution and subsequent Civil War.
The film tells the fictional story of Nikolai Evlakhov (played by Maksim Sukhanov), a great Silver Age actor who fled from the Bolsheviks and who settled in Vyborg, Finland. By 1923, when the film opens, Evlakhov is restless and, as his wife worries, possibly unhinged. The actor has turned down a variety of roles, refused to meet with foreign backers, and is instead preoccupied with a new project: the attempt to embody Nikolai Evreinov’s declaration that every actor should make a theater out of life. Evlakhov has become obsessed with the legendary Red Army commander, Ignat Plotnikov, with whom he bears a remarkable resemblance. The actor has purchased Plotnikov’s archive and smuggled it across the border. He has studied the life contained within it extensively and has hatched a plan to return to his homeland to “play” a resurrected Plotnikov. He desires, as one Russian critic noted, to transform himself from a decadent aesthetic to an ascetic revolutionary (Arsen’ev 2013).
Evlakhov’s obsession with Plotnikov stems from a Siberian encounter during the Civil War. The actor was on board a train fleeing from Russia when Plotnikov’s forces stopped it and demanded that all the passengers get off. As Plotnikov’s forces enacted cruel revenge on their class enemies, Plotnikov walked down a line of passengers and ordered several to be liquidated. During this life or death review, Plotnikov looked at Evlakhov and decided to spare him. Both men recognized their physical resemblance. Shortly after the episode, Plotnikov succumbed to illness and died. Evlakhov escaped and started to study his doppelgänger.
Years later, safely in Finland, Evlakhov has “rehearsed” his role as Plotnikov’s double and made the fateful decision to head back home and to experience the Soviet system. He arrives in wintry, desolate Petrograd, meets with some of Plotnikov’s former comrades in arms, and successfully convinces them that he has survived his death with just his memory affected. He also takes up the life Plotnikov would have led, gaining a room in a communal apartment, receiving a state medal for his service, and experiencing the new system and its transformative effects. When he writes to his wife, he notes that becoming Plotnikov has made him realize that the life of a revolutionary, and possibly the life of the new system itself, is fated to end badly. “The more I immerse myself in the character of Plotnikov,” he writes, “the clearer it becomes to me that he is doomed.” Plotnikov, no matter who is playing him, is ultimately a “tragic character worthy of a tragic finale.”
Evlakhov/Plotnikov attempts to enact Nikolai Evreinov’s Silver Age proposal that actors should strive to invert the stage and life. Evreinov came closest to realizing this vision when he received the task of staging the 1920 Storming of the Winter Palace spectacle in order to celebrate the 3rd anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. James von Geldern has written that Evreinov “considered the theatrical instinct to be part of a greater instinct for transformation, a need to assume a finer, more beautiful mask. Evreinov shared the symbolist passion for masked drama but with a difference: he was concerned less with the result of the transformation than with the process (Von Geldern 1993: 61).” His 1920 performance meant that he could test out this transformative process by staging history, one where “the facts were given an explicitly artistic organization” that “was a step beyond his ‘theatricalization of life’; it was a theatricalization of history, history as it should have been (Von Geldern 1993: 201).”
As Plotnikov, Evlakhov attempts to transform himself and with it, make his art become his life (and vice versa). He writes to his wife that his new role has brought him joy, that the dialogues he engages in are much more real, the scenes he acts are better because they are improvised, and that his playwright is “life itself.” He comes to embrace what he sees as Plotnikov’s inevitable fate: just as the real commissar dies, so too must he if he is truly to play the part correctly. He wonders if he has what it takes to make Plotnikov’s fate his own. In the end, he decides not to return to Finland as he originally planned. Instead, he wanders into the snowy landscape and is found near death. According to the end narration, Evlakhov spoke to a doctor who found him blathering some gibberish about “discovering the secret to Russian history” and that as he died he smiled and uttered only one word: “curtain.”
Lopushanskii has argued that his film is meant to be a commentary on the black and white divisions the Revolution created and that the Civil War fixed in place. Evlakhov, in becoming his double, Plotnikov, gets to experience both the White and the Red side of the conflict. In playing this role to the fullest, he seems to go mad; personalizing what the director has called “the madness of the era (quoted in Iakovleva 2012).” The Role ultimately envisions what the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick has pinpointed as a defining characteristic of the time; namely, the process of recreating oneself that many undertook after 1917 in order to “become Soviet.” During times of upheaval, Fitzpatrick argues, “people have to reinvent themselves, to create or find within themselves personae that fit the new postrevolutionary society (Fitzpatrick 2005: 3).” This process, as Evlakhov/Plotnikov discovers, prompts him to reflect upon who he really is and what sort of life he wants to lead. Is he an actor playing the role of a lifetime? A failed actor given a chance to temper his revolutionary steel in snowy Petrograd by becoming a legendary commander? A madman who loses all sense of reality during a mad era? Or, as the end narration suggests, just a “person lost in the wilderness of time”? These are the questions Lopushanskii raises, allowing the audience to reach their own answers.
Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)
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Arsen’ev, Pavel (2013), “Puteshestvie v odin konets iskusstva,” Seans , 12 November.
Bykov, Dmitrii (2013), “Tragediia fil’ma ‘Rol’’ i verneisheii put’ k gibeli,” Sobesednik, 4 July.
D’iakova, Elena (2013), “Master-klass russkoi revoliutsiia,” Novaia gazeta , 25 October.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila (2005), Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Iakovleva, Elena (2012), “Otkroi okno v ogon’,” Rossiiskaia gazeta , 23 March.
Von Geldern, James (1993), Bolshevik Festivals, 1917-1920. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
The Role, Russia, 2013
Black and white, 132 minutes
Director: Konstantin Lopushanskii
Screenplay: Konstantin Lopushanskii, Pavel Finn
Cinematography: Dmitrii Mass
Film Editor: Sergei Obukhov
Production Design: Elena Zhugova
Cast: Maksim Sukhanov, Maria Jarvenhelmi, Leonid Mozgovoi, Anastasia Sheveleva, Dmitrii Sutyrin, Alena Sidorova
Producer: Andrei Sigle
Production: Proline Film, Lenfilm, Belarusfilm
Konstantin Lopushanskii: The Role (Rol’, 2013)
reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2014