Issue 48 (2015)
Aleksei Fedorchenko: Angels of the Revolution (Angely Revoliutsii, 2014)
reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2015
In 1934, Red Army soldiers and NKVD agents bloodily suppressed an uprising in Kazym, a town of Khanty and Nentsy in a newly established autonomous region of Western Siberia. It was the culmination of a series of actions by the state against local native populations who had protested the imposition of recent collectivization measures. The event, for decades unwelcome in the Soviet historical narrative of course, finally found its dramatic commemoration in Oleg Fesenko’s Red Ice. The Saga of the Khanty of Iugra (Krasnyi led. Saga o khantakh Iugry, 2009), an adaptation of Eremei Aipin’s story The Virgin Mary in Bloody Snows (Bozh’ia Mater’ v krovavykh snegakh, 2002). Fesenko offers an engaging, if quite traditional, treatment of the historical event as a clash of civilizations, replete with a doomed love affair between a Khanty girl and a Soviet political “missionary.” The didactically transparent message is relayed by the director’s sudden cut from rich and colorful scenes of local rites and rituals in a Khanty village to the brute arrival on screen of a “steel monster,” an agit-train, signaling a shift in the state’s approach to a more intrusive and unforgiving encounter with the locals. The civilization of the “noble savages” inexorably draws the recent parvenus into friendly relations, and the latter end up defending them against the Red Army and NKVD that were sent from Ekaterinburg to crush the rebellion. The spiritually rich Khanty culture is contrasted with the weak (in some scenes, physically weaker) Soviet culture, which is only able to prevail by using the overwhelming brutalities available in the modern age. The Soviet response is incommensurate with the actual Khanty threat, the film tells us, as an airplane is sent to bomb the Khanty rebel outpost back to the (ice)-age. In an especially heavy-handed metaphor, the airplane strafes innocent wolf-cubs trailing their mother in the snow.
Like Fesenko’s film, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Angels of the Revolution draws inspiration from the Kazym rebellion, but easy comparison and pat moralizing stop there. Fedorchenko had initially intended to adapt for screen Denis Osokin’s enigmatic cycle of tales Angels and Revolution (Angely i revoliutsiia. Viatka 1923, 2001), but was dissatisfied with his initial screenplay attempt, entitled Notes of a Chekist (Zapiski chekista). He finally decided to combine the two works in a film about the Kazym rebellion “in which individuals will speak in the magical language of Denis’ heroes” (Kichin 2015). With his earlier First on the Moon (Pervye na lune, 2005), Fedorchenko sought to reclaim some of the utopian spirit of the imaginative avant-garde projects of the 1920s (Prokhorov 2006). In Angels of the Revolution, he returns to this theme explicitly, creating a realm of often ineffably surreal and magical moments that seek to capture the essence of the two civilizations that exist alongside each other for this short period in the early 1930s. The Khanty myth of the cat goddess and the fantastic tales that inform their beliefs are set alongside the Bolshevik fairytales the avant-gardists tell themselves. These scenes often have a Wes Anderson-esque visual and acoustic whimsy about them, and create images that linger in the mind’s eye well after the scene: dogs in angel wings suspended above a red dirigible or floating Bolsheviks watched by white-winged angels.
The film profiles five avant-gardists who are sent to Siberia in order to act upon the local Khanty and Nentsy culture and bring them, kicking if necessary, to modernity. They are recruited for their respective artistic talents by their friend Polina (Dar’ia Ekamasova), a bona fide heroine of the revolution with an impressive pedigree revealed through a series of pre- and post-Revolutionary flashbacks. As a child in a travelling show, she shoots the heads off the angels on a birthday cake, a vignette both amusing and menacing. Each of the artists is introduced as they are recruited, first in their current occupations and then in a flashback that reveals their violent past. Only Ivan, a composer, is not presented thus. He is still fully engaged in avant-garde art, and the years do not appear to have dimmed his enthusiasm. Against the backdrop of a cartoon film made to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution in Baku, he enthusiastically conducts for Polina “symphonies for steam engine whistles, cantatas for air raid sirens, and arias for factories and plants.” His work is reminiscent of some of the most innovative of Soviet avant-garde work, including Nikolai Evreinov’s early mass spectacles or Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (Entuziazm: Simfoniia Donbassa, 1930). Significantly, he is the only one of the five who refuses to go to Kazym. “I don’t want to hold a gun,” he tells her, “I want to hold a conductor’s baton.”
Time has clearly taken its toll on the enthusiasm and commitment to their art of the other four, for whom the flashbacks reveal a dark past. Petr (Pavel Basov), a film director, made a film of a 1931 rebellion in Mexico, possibly using live condemned deserters in an execution scene. Zakhar (Georgii Iobadze), a photographer and sculptor, made a statue in Sviazhsk in 1918 in honor of Judas Iscariot, who “tragically perished in battle” with Heaven. The horrified model, who posed for the statue in exchange for a crust, destroys the statue and hangs himself from it. Nikolai, an architect currently busy building crematoria, the new “temples of modernity” for Soviet Russia, had, in Kamchatka in 1919, forcibly recruited locals to the Red Army at the point of a machine-gun in a bizarre “red baptism.” His friendship with Polina was cemented at that time by his decision to allow her to escape. Smirnov (Aleksei Solonchev), a Jewish theater director, ran the Moscow Latvian Theater in 1919, until his actors were carted off by the NKVD amid rumors of a Latvian revolt. The execution that follows is surreal. Come of age in violence, and worn down by the intervening years, these five individuals take their tearful farewells of their partners, promising—clearly vainly—that they will return. With these biographies, Fedorchenko tells us, violence will inevitably follow in their wake, even if not of their direct doing. He also tells us that they themselves are already doomed, their fate foreshadowed symbolically in a tableau of red, avant-garde coffins.
When the film returns to their present, it offers precious little evidence of any real influence on the local culture, the shaman-led locals seeming inscrutable at best, and hostile at worst. One avant-gardist lists the positive benefits Soviet power has brought to these natives, namely a boarding school, veterinary clinic, hospital, maternity clinic, and a Museum of Northern Peoples. But their outreach to the locals seems hopelessly naïve and condescending. They present a group of Khanty gifts of a cat, a bag, and a Lenin statue, all duly captured by the Soviet newsreel camera to record for posterity the reach and fruits of Soviet power. The local response to these modern blandishments is captured well by the scene of local women obliviously gutting fish and sewing animal hides as one of the avant-gardists delivers to them an impossibly technical lecture on the Archimedes principle and the physics of balloon flight. In a particularly droll example of this disconnect, an avant-gardist explains a series of suprematist paintings (black square, red square, etc.) to an assembled group of baffled Khanty. Only when a painting of a triangle is shown to them do the Khanty, unsurprisingly perhaps, react with glee when they recognize a tent. When the artist inverts the triangle, the Khanty see the artist’s wife in the shape. The question whether this seemingly self-sufficient local culture even needs these things is never asked. Indeed, when Polina becomes ill towards the end of the film, it is unclear whether she is saved by modern or local medicine. In truth, the convictions of these avant-gardists seem muted at best here, and they can be easily distracted from their instructional duties by the lure of vodka, to end up dancing drunk to Hava Nagila in a snowy forest. “Only art can domesticate them under Soviet power,” says one of the avant-gardists of the Khanty and Nentsy; “Beauty is above ideas.” But their experiences since the revolution have disabused them of the early utopian dreams they believed could transform Russian culture. The true impact on the Khanty and Nentsy will not, then, come from these avant-gardists, but come it will nonetheless, at the hands of more brutal local and central representatives of Soviet power.
The final bloody confrontation of the Khanty and Nentsy and the Soviet outsiders in 1934 is foreshadowed from the very outset of the film. When Polina is being recruited at the Commissariat for Nationalities, she triggers an enormous moose-hunting crossbow, the bolt landing squarely in the Kazym region of a wall-map. The opening sequences in Kazym show a group of local Khanty “liberating” their children at gunpoint from a play rehearsal organized by an avant-gardist. The film will close with bleak shots of the bodies of the avant-gardists, killed in the theater by the Khanty. In a surreal contrast to the Fesenko version of the final slaughter of the Khanty, Fedorchenko plays out the battle between the Soviets and the Khanty with puppets. Magical realism does not suffice here, however, and a final scene shows the Khanty shaman, his eyelids cut off, being dragged by his arms behind a reindeer sled.
These scenes, though, are bookends to Fedorchenko’s real story, which raises the question of which exactly is the endangered species here. The avant-gardists seem more remote from the Soviet culture of the 1930s than they have ever been. Even Polina, a Communist with an armored train named for her, is a reluctant recruiter. “We died a long time ago,” she tells a guard who recognizes this famous Communist fighter and wonders that she is still alive. Virtually press-ganged into this cultural outreach, the avant-gardists’ quixotic projects are animated, if at all, more by their own artistic aesthetic than by any belief in their socio-cultural benefit to the locals (or to current Soviet culture for that matter). They poke fun at their current standing, playfully wondering where they each rank on a list of Soviet Russia’s best avant-garde artists. The scenes they inhabit with the Khanty and Nentsy illustrate the gaucheness of their attempts to change local culture in any real degree. In the middle of a forest, Polina applies lipstick and eyebrows to a Khanty woman, who sits passively looking at her reflection in a mirror hung on a tree.
The avant-gardists shoot a film of these women, again for posterity, making them hold the mirrors in surreal shots. In another scene, the artists intend to fly a hot-air balloon, replete with a banner proclaiming the 17th anniversary of the October Revolution, so that the locals will be able to see that the sky holds no gods and spirits. In an especially revealing juxtaposition of scenes towards the end of the film, each culture displays its peak achievement. The avant-gardists set up a film projector to project surreal scenes through a window onto the smoke of a bonfire billowing into the night sky. In the very next scene, masked Khanty ritually slaughter a reindeer, chant over its dying body, and the shaman reveals that this has pleased the Khanty goddess. Both scenes are ineffably magical to each culture, and explain perhaps why the adherents are so passionate about their respective beliefs.
The angels of the film’s title may refer to all three groups at once here: the angels of death in the form of the Red Army and the NKVD; the angels of destiny in the form of the avant-gardists; and the angels of nature, the Nentsy and Khanty who will survive the predations of Soviet power. For as the end of the film reveals, only one of the cultures still survives, at least in fragments. In present-day Kazym, an old Khanty woman, the first to have been born in the Soviet maternity hospital built there, walks with the aid of a frame through an apartment with all modern conveniences. She softly sings a popular Soviet song, blended with traditional native folk imagery. She looks unhappily, or perhaps stoically, into the camera. Only the avant-gardists and Soviet power are extinct here.
Frederick C. Corney
The College of William & Mary
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Kichin, Valerii. 2015. “Letiat nad Rimom angely,” Rossiiskaia gazeta 24 March.
Prokhorov, Alexander. 2006. “The Redemption of Lunar Reality: Aleksei Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon (Pervye na lune), 2005,” KinoKultura 11.
Angely Revoliutsii (Russia, 2014)
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Screenwriters: Aleksei Fedorchenko, Denis Osokin, Oleg Loevskii
Cast: Dar’ia Ekamasova, Pavel Basov, Georgii Iobadze, Konstantin Balakirev, Oleg Iagodin, Aleksei Solonchev
Director of Photography: Shandor Berkeshi
Production Design: Aleksei Fedorchenko, Artem Khabibulin
Makeup: Polina Statsenko
Costume Design: Olga Gusak
Sound: Timofei Shestakov
Editor: Roman Vazhenin
Music: Andrei Karasev
Producers: Dmitrii Vorob’ev, Aleksei Fedorchenko, Leonid Lebedev
Production: Kinokompanii “29 fevralia” and “Krasnaia strela”
Aleksei Fedorchenko: Angels of the Revolution (Angely Revoliutsii, 2014)
reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2015