Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50
Aleksei Balabanov: Brother (Brat, 1997)
reviewed by Anthony Anemone© 2015
Almost 20 years after its release in 1997, Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother remains the greatest Russian movie about life in the first post-Soviet decade. An action movie that addresses the central social concerns of the age, and a popular blockbuster beloved by the critics, the film is a marvel of cinematic efficiency: crisply edited, the action develops with an almost mathematical logic, while the cinematography and music combine to create an indelible image of post-Soviet “Piter.” Balabanov does a remarkable job blending the very different acting styles of his mostly unprofessional cast: the naive and almost affectless Danila (Sergei Bodrov, Jr.), the cynical and mercurial Vitia (Viktor Sukhorukov), the farcical yet dangerous “Kruglyi” (Sergei Murzin) and his gangster minions, the amoral and hedonistic Kat (Mariia Zhukova), the wise and mature Sveta (Svetlana Pismichenko) and Hoffman (Iurii Kuznetsov). In addition to making stars of the director and hero, Brother destroyed the distinction between art house and popular cinema: after being screened at Cannes in 1997, it went on to amass the largest gross of any Russian film of the 1990s (Beumers 2003) while inspiring countless critical articles and dozens of imitations.
The film presents a remarkably vivid and resonant image of St Petersburg at perhaps the lowest point in the city’s recent history. In the years between the breakup of the Soviet Union and the reemergence of a strong central authority, the city suffered from an epidemic of unemployment, poverty, lawlessness, and violent crime. On the city’s streets the vacuum of power left by a failed and irrelevant government is filled by a new criminal class, as local mobs terrorize ordinary citizens, fighting it out with rivals for control of the local economy. Still, the more serious illness may be the loss of moral values as greed, hedonism, and violence dominate the new life of the city. A new hero arrives in the city, an apparently unremarkable, recently demobilized soldier who, almost by accident, climbs to the top of the local criminal underworld by defending the weak, humbling the strong, and upholding justice. In a world without laws, even heroes are outlaws.
And yet the strong man needed to lead Russia out of the wilderness of the 1990s is portrayed as more than a simple vigilante: he is himself a product as well as a victim of the collapse of the family that stands for the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Forced to make his way in a violent and unforgiving new world, Danila spends most of the movie looking to fill the various gaps in his life. Sometimes, he looks for concrete people and things to further the plot: his brother, new clothes, new apartments, Sveta the trolley-bus-driver, aspirin for his headache, a shotgun; but his deeper desires remain elusive and out of reach and his dreams of a new family, a father, a lover, a friend, community, and justice remain as unattainable as the Nautilus album “Wings.” The most moving scene in the film is when, taking a break from a stakeout, Danila follows his idol Viacheslav Butusov to a party, where musicians are talking, singing, playing guitars, shooting pool, and enjoying each other’s company. As he gazes with amazement on these people from another world, the camera shows us his desire for a life of friendship, community, and music. And when he returns to the scene of horror at the stakeout, the tragic contrast between his dream and his reality hits us like a punch to the solar plexus.
From the slightly mystical point of view of Hoffman, a father-figure to Danila rather than a conquering hero, he has fallen victim to the corruptive power of the city. In the struggle for survival, Hoffman explains, strong people lose their ethical bearings and the city saps their strength and eventually destroys them. At the very end of the film, after Danila has killed the gangsters who beat and raped Sveta and terrorized his brother Vitia, that is, at his moment of apparent success, Hoffman announces that he is lost. In defeating the criminal forces, Danila, like any man who uses violence even in a worthy cause, has lost his soul.
More than a morality tale about the conflict between survival and ethics in the lawless modern big city, the film also raises difficult questions about the changes in Russian life since the fall of the Soviet Union. Without being nostalgic for the Soviet period, the film is critical of a world where most meaningful personal relationships have been replaced by a “cash nexus.” While the criminal underworld is, obviously, an image of a world where all relationships are based on money, a more disturbing version of the problem is suggested in the character of Kat, the punk gamine whom Danila befriends early in the film. The first time he meets her, Kat tells Danila that, when he has money, he should come back and they will get high together. Although she doesn’t say anything yet about sex, the rest of the movie makes abundantly clear that her relationship with Danila is exclusively a business exchange—money for drugs for sex—and lacks all emotional connection. The climax of the movie, in this sense, occurs in the three parallel scenes when, after the mayhem is done, Danila visits Hoffman, Sveta, and Kat for the last time. While both Hoffman and Sveta reject him and his money, Kat takes the money and, shocked by him not asking for anything in return, abruptly leaves him before he can come to his senses. Like the gangsters, Kat lives in a world where money defines, and exhausts, the meaning of all possible human relations.
The film is also, as John MacKay suggests (2015), a demonstration of how to make films in an age of limited budgets, collapsed distribution, and minimal technology. With the help of a very limited schedule, shooting on location, free labor donated by friends, and crew members willing to accept minimum or no payment until the film had made a profit, Balabanov successfully pioneered the DIY approach in a country without a strong tradition of independent filmmaking. But the movie also inscribes DIY practices into the action: in two of the film’s most celebrated sequences, Danila creates weapons out of common household items, fashioning gunpowder and diversionary “fire-crackers” out of matches, a silencer out of a plastic soda bottle, bullets out of nails and empty casings, all to the music of Nautilus Pompilius. To survive and thrive in Russia in the 1990s, everyone—filmmakers, gangsters, and businessmen—had to be resourceful and creative.
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Beumers, Birgit. 2003. “Soviet and Russian Blockbusters: A Question of Genre?” Slavic Review 62.3: 441-454.
MacKay, John. 2015. “"Cinema as Salvage Operation.” Academia.edu
Brother, Russia, 1997
Color, 96 minutes
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Scriptwriter: Aleksei Balabanov
Cinematographer: Sergei Astakhov
Production Design: Vladimir Kartashov
Editor: Marina Lipartiia
Cast: Sergei Bodrov Jr., Viktor Sukhorukov, Svetlana Pismichenko, Mariia Zhukova, Iurii Kuznetsov, Viacheslav Butusov, Irina Rakshina
Producer: Sergei Selianov
Production: CTB Studio
Aleksei Balabanov: Brother (Brat, 1997)
reviewed by Anthony Anemone© 2015