Issue 43 (2014)

Dmitrii Tiurun: Thirst (Zhazhda, 2013)

reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic © 2014

The film Thirst begins vertiginously,in mid-stride, with a young man climbing eight flights of a stairwell up to his apartment. The elevator is broken, many of the lights along the staircase are still out, and the echo of the man’s tromping footsteps joins the cacophony of complaints, cries and retorts among the residents, and the dyspeptic remarks of the woman who is being paid to the accompany him back to his apartment. Shouts, exclamations and decontextualized fragments of comments ricochet within the space. We alternately see the climb from the man’s point of view—glimpses combined with his gasping breath and resonant voice—and the perspective of a separate hand-held camera either just a few steps ahead or behind him, and which distinctly records the sonic field outside of the character’s head. As he reaches his apartment door, he is badgered with a question from a neighbor whom he has never seen before, and which represents the first fully coherent sentence of the film: “Do you have any cartoons?”

That trivial question—the first in the film, and asked by a woman who has a seven-year old son suffering from insomnia—unexpectedly reverberates throughout the sound space and thematic landscape of Dmitrii Tiurin’s film. The plot of Thirst provisionally rests on three veterans’ search for a friend who has disappeared, and which they scuttle with barely a shrug by the end of the film. All four men—the missing Sergei, Gena, Pasha, and the protagonist Kostia—served together in Russia’s Chechen campaign, and were decommissioned when an anti-tank rocket hit their Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). Over the course of the film, Tiurin gives us progressively closer looks into their civilian lives and military service, which operate to varying degrees of social maladjustment and anomie. Working together as brains and brawn, Pasha and Gena support themselves through a series of scams. In spite of a bond soldered by the heat of combat, both men distrust and often betray each other. Gena himself is a compulsive womanizer and brawler, and at one point senselessly comes to blows with Pasha himself. It turns out that the ne’er-do-well Sergei had vanished not in order to hide from loan sharks, but as the result of a debt that he successfully liquidated: he was forced out into the street after signing over his apartment to the owner of the gaming arcade located in the neighboring building. Kostia is estranged from his parents (who have divorced and remarried), and works off the books as a contractor and renovator for wealthy and upwardly mobile clients. As the film progresses, we are made to understand that the opening scene, which culminates with Kostia drinking himself into a stupor as a form of self-medication for PTSD, has been his evening routine—displacing his hobby of drawing—since returning to civilian life. Over the course of the film, his self-destructive rituals at the end of the day become increasingly offset by his storytelling, which calms Olga’s son Nikita into sleep.

With one significant exception—which I will discuss shortly—the eye of Tiurin’s camera hovers, freely roves, and intrudes into the performative ambits of the characters. The general freedom of movement and varied stylistic execution of the Mark Zisel’son’s camera may suggest to some an extension into color cinematography of Dziga Vertov’s ideal of the “cine-eye” replacing the human eye. Certain jump cuts draw our attention to the range of different chromatic palettes that are calibrated for each scene, such as warm sandalwood shading of the insomniac boy Nikita’s room as Kostia tells him a story, the bleached primary colors of the ramshackle kiosks and metro stations of the men’s search for Sergei, and the flashbacks to Chechnya, whose harsh metallic grays and burnished shades of blue serve to highlight the appalling pinks and reds of wounded and seared flesh. At other times, the film stock suggests an emotional quality that in fact runs counter to the action playing out in the scene. Aside from his intermittent sketching, the only emotional fulfillment that Kostia derives is from telling Nikita stories at night. His tales are of trauma, and yet help the boy fall asleep. As Kostia begins one of these, the camera suddenly switches to the recollection itself, from Kostia’s childhood. The rural summertime setting is idyllic, drenched in hues of sunflower and honey that to a Russian eye would synaesthetically suggest the bucolic tableaux of Afanasii Fet’s poetry. Kostia, his parents and a friend of the family are playing soccer in a field near the family dacha. Yet as the game turns nasty—with the father cheating, and punching his son after Kostia blurts out that he saw his father and the other woman kissing—we realize that this is no fond memory. Several scenes in Thirst operate in this internally contrarian manner, as if to underscore an ontological disjunction between setting and actor. In spite of the somewhat trite redemptive arc of the film’s narrative—which, as Larisa Maliukova (2013) points out in her review for Iskusstvo kino, the director may have inherited from his work on Russian television dramas—in his mise-en-scène Tiurin vigorously rejects the mainstream cinematic use of pathetic fallacy. 

zhazhda It is here, in Tiurin’s existential contemplation of agents who play within and push against arbitrarily set environments, that Thirst ceases to be exclusively yet another conventional realistic drama about the corroding social contract in Putin’s Russia, and emerges as an esthetically rather peculiar film. Zisel’son’s camera is highly mobile except when it enters into the sphere of Kostia’s social isolation. We are afforded a full look at Kostia’s face only twenty-three minutes into the film, when he, Gena and Pasha go to his father (now an assistant to the mayor of the city) to help them in their search for Sergei. What we—as well as Kostia’s father, who had severed contact with his son years before—now see for the first time is a gaunt man, with one half of his head fully covered with a web of pinkish burn scars. 

zhazhda Up to this point, the binaural soundtrack of Tiurin’s film often takes us into the muffled kinescope chamber of Kostia’s head, with its loud breathing and restless eye movements framed by the jutting visor of his baseball cap and the edges of his sweatshirt’s raised hood. With this border of cloth—analogous to the lens hood of a professional video recorder—Kostia’s eye has indeed become something like Vertov’s “camera eye.” Yet the shuttling of viewpoint between the prison of Kostia’s body, anonymous cityscapes that are powerfully evocative of Rashmi Varma’s conception of neoliberalism’s “ever-expanding urban conurbations” (whose haphazard pattern emerges as a “palimpsest of a messy colonial history”) (Varma, 2012: 16), and the pictorially vivid scenes of Kostia’s florid word-painting to the boy Nikita, raise the possibility of the film’s close relation to another, and more contemporary, medium: video gaming. The closely audible panting, and juddering and tentative loping gait, of “Kostia the camera” is certainly suggestive of a personal avatar, whose body movements are controlled through a gaming console. When Gena makes his first appearance in the film while visiting a badly hung-over Kostia, he installs a new game onto his friend’s computer. “Kostia, look what I brought you—this will take you back to the war!,” he cluelessly cheers. 

zhazhda Although Gena does not name the game, to many Russian gamers the images on the screen of Kostia’s PC would be recognizable as “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” Bearing over its multiple versions an increasingly tangential relation to Tarkovsky’s film, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R” (which, in its most recent version, added the phrase “Clear Sky”—Chistoe nebo) is an online game which, according to its website, has players from several countries in competition with one other. [“S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Chistoe nebo.  Glavnaya”]. Each player battles their way through a territory laid waste by a Chernobyl-like nuclear catastrophe, and populated by “monsters”—humans mutated by radiation—who manifest different categories of grotesque physical disfigurement. [“S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Chistoe nebo.  Monstry”]

Much of Thirst is filmed with the sly suggestion that it, too, is a game, with the audience entering into an environment that populated by monsters that are either obvious—and therefore possibly harmless—or covert, and more dangerous. The challenge (or game objective) for both Kostia and the audience is to tell the one from the other. Halfway through the film, Nikita tells Kostia that storytelling itself doesn’t calm him down anymore. In response, Kostia picks up one of Nikita’s drawings of cartoon-style monsters, and embellishes them. “Monsters should be funny,” he tells him. 

zhazhda When Kostia meets his half-brother for the first time at his father’s spacious and luxurious apartment, the boy (who is the same age as Nikita) looks at his older brother’s disfigured face and thoughtfully asks “what cartoon are you from [ty s kakogo mul’tika]?” Gena and Pasha use one of Kostia’s ballpoint sketches of Sergei in the search for their friend. At one point, Kostia shows them his entire notebook of drawings, which include both real and imagined scenes from the Chechen campaign. “Who’s this, our lieutenant?” Gena asks about one drawing. “But he died young, and didn’t have any children.” Kostia replies, “they could have been born later.” For Kostia, the act of drawing represents the full imaginative participation within a particular space, with the possibility of traducing or transforming it. The allusion to the gaming format in general, and to this particular game, also draws attention to the deeper parallels between Tiurin’s film and Tarkovsky’s Stalker,with its own story of three men who embark upon a quest in which (as Vladimir Golstein insightfully points out) the process of the journey becomes more important than the result or purported destination (Golstein 2008: 193).

In the interest of drawing attention to process rather than confrontation and trauma as the lever for genuine transformation, Tiurin skillfully uses the undramatic encounters that take place over the course of the search—such as Kostia’s conversation in a hospital with a recently married man, whose pelvis was crushed in an accident, about the nature of masculinity—as catalysts for the gradual revelation of character among all the players. One of the insights that becomes valuable to both Kostia and Gena is that much of what passes for being a man in contemporary Russia represents little more than a game. Certainly no Russian film since Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003) has cast such a withering look at the cult of authoritarian masculinity—what Shelley, in an eloquent turn of phrase, called “the sneer of cold command”—and at its corollary of wounded male pride. It doesn’t take long for Kostia’s father to drop his mask of kindness and penitence, and to abuse both his son and his second, much younger, wife. The kindly commander of Kostia’s platoon (who lost an arm in the attack on the APC) has the same patronymic (Mikhailych) as Kostia’s snide and homophobic stepfather, whom we see in a flashback wearing an officer’s green shirt and bullying a teenaged Kostia. In the mayor’s office, Kostia’s father works in the department of “patriotic education,” and (in an absurd effort to impress Kostia and his fellow veterans) draws attention to the fact that he has the official status of “colonel” (polkovnik). Kostia comes to realize that, in both military and civil organizations, decency and cruelty are often flip sides of the same coin.

zhazhda As this knowledge comes to the fore, Tiurin’s gradually dispenses with the diegetic conventions of video gaming: the camera separates from the echo chamber of Kostia’s head, and the identity of the St. Petersburg metropolitan region—from the affluent if sterile apartment building of Kostia’s father, located in the Petrograd side of the city, to the poorer town of Pushkin where Kostia and Ol’ga live—displaces his earlier mash-ups of disparate urban sites that are characteristic of gaming platforms such as Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto 4. Like the men in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (which may be understood as a presciently anti-gaming film), Kostia and Gena are both disappointed and surprised by what they find when they achieve self-knowledge, reaching their “room” of granted unconscious wishes. Gena realizes that he never felt such satisfaction as when in Chechnya he drank straight from a can of condensed milk in the room of a bombed-out building, during a cease-fire on New Year’s Eve. “Where I can I get that condensed milk now!” he exclaims to Kostia as they walk through a high-end atrium mall on Vasiliev Island. “You can buy it downstairs,” Kostia sensibly replies. Gena scoffs: “That’s not the same thing!” Kostia finds an equivalent space in Nikita’s room at the end of the film, where he draws a portrait of himself as a boy (free of scars) after pouring all of his vodka down the sink. “What happened to your thirst?” Ol’ga asks. “It passed.” “And who is that boy [on the drawing]?” “That’s me.” Both Gena and Kostia come to see their real selves as occupying a state of boyhood, rather than manhood. As Manohla Dargis memorably puts it in his review of Michael Mann’s 2004 Collateral, “[the film is] about men and work, and about how being a man is itself a kind of job” (Dargis 2004). Tiurin’s film sees the real work of men as consisting of a questioning of assumptions about masculinity. Nonetheless, the contrived ease with which Kostia claims to have achieved sobriety—and the Dickensian mawkishness of his fulfillment, in drawing a portrait of himself as a boy, in the presence of a troubled family on the mend—suggests that he, in the end, may be playing games with himself.

Alexandar Mihailovic
Brown University

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Works Cited

Manohla Dargis (2004), “Collateral: A Killer in a Cab, Doing His Job” New York Times, 6 August.

Vladimir Golstein (2008), “Energy of Anxiety,” in Tarkovsky, ed. Nathan Dunne (London: Black Dog).

Larisa Maliukova (2013), “Liubit’ cheloveka: Zhazhda, rezhisser Dmitrii Tiurin.”  Iskusstvo kino 8. 

Rashmi Varma (2012), The Postcolonial City and Its Subjects: London, Nairobi, Bombay (London: Routledge).

Thirst, Russia, 2013,
Color, 102 minutes, 1:2.35, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director: Dmitrii Tiurin
Scriptwriter: Andrei Gelasimov
DoP: Mark Zisel’son
Production Design: Vladimir Svetozarov, Marina Nikolaeva
Music: Tomash Dvorak
Editing: Ekaterina Pivneva
Cast: Mikhail Grubov, Roman Kurtsyn, Sergei Lavygin, Aleksei Guskov, Anna Banshchikova, Svetlana Smirnova-Martsinkevich, Gosha Solov’ev
Producer Iurii Sapronov
Production “Parabola” Company

Dmitrii Tiurun: Thirst (Zhazhda, 2013)

reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic © 2014

Updated: 18 Jan 14