Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50

Aleksei Balabanov: Cargo 200 (Gruz-200, 2007)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2015

gruz200Retrospective or “second-look” reviews of films that were thoroughly and publicly discussed years before, at the time of their release, can have an air of artificiality and self-indulgence about them. Why is someone re-reviewing a five-, ten-, or fifteen-year-old movie? In the case of this review and the others in this celebratory cluster for KinoKultura’s fiftieth issue, however, a series of second looks is in order. This is in part because of the changes we have seen in the Russian film industry, and Russia itself, in the dozen years since Birgit Beumers produced “issue zero” (Feb. 2003) of this journal almost single-handedly (of the five reviews in that issue, four were by Birgit and the fifth—of Balabanov’s War—was by Sergei Lavrentiev). The years that have passed since then have seen (to put it mildly) a renewed attention to the production (and content) of cinema and other mass media on the part of the Russian government, as well as significant domestic political events (partly stemming from the “Snow Revolution” of 2011-12, the events in Ukraine since 2014, and a series of well-publicized new laws dictating “appropriate” content for visual and other texts). These changes provide us with a new background against which to talk about the extrinsic meanings of films made in the period. In the case of Cargo 200 specifically, recent revisions to the official (and popular) attitude towards the Soviet period, including its twilight years during the Stagnation period, a popular object of nostalgia, add another layer of perspective.

We are also able to place the film in another, more intrinsic new context, that of Aleksei Balabanov’s entire life’s work; the director made three movies after Cargo-200, before his death at age 54 in 2013. At least one of those films—his swansong Me Too (Ia tozhe khochu, 2012)—is particularly illuminating when considered alongside the earlier work, and I will conclude my review by doing just that.

For those of you who have not re-watched Cargo 200 in past eight years, here is a concise plot summary from the “about” page of the official PR site for the film:

USSR. 1984. The end of the Soviet era. Provincial Russia. After going out to a discotheque, the daughter of the regional Communist Party secretary goes missing. There are no witnesses. The perpetrators can’t be found. The same night, there is a brutal murder at a house on the outskirts of the town. The accused killer is the owner of the house. Both investigations are conducted by police captain Zhurov…

This brief blurb is accompanied by a quotation from a review by the television station STS:

Balabanov’s … film is about the small death of totalitarianism in a particular country. It’s the eve of perestroika, 1984, when the gloom of life under Soviet power was at its darkest … In Cargo 200 the director promises to explain everything about himself, and about his country and its heroes. And in a much harsher way than in his previous pictures…(emphasis added)

The notion that the film was in part at least “about” Balabanov himself (a notion that the filmmakers considered accurate enough to put on the front page of the official website) opens a conduit of meaning that is largely absent from (at least the English-language) published commentary on Cargo 200. It suggests new, more metaphorical, even philosophical, readings of the film, readings in which the meticulously reconstructed visual, verbal and musical atmosphere of the USSR in 1984 itself plays a more symbolic role than is typically acknowledged. This is not to say that Cargo is any less brutal a portrayal of the Soviet project and its effect on human behavior; it certainly is this, and in particular it thoroughly rebuts any suggestion that the Stagnation period should be viewed with nostalgia. But the years since the film was made have revealed it to be more than a historical exposé. 

gruz200Cargo 200 is set in and around Leninsk, a bleak industrial town in the northern part of European Russia, in the late summer of 1984. It begins with a conversation between two middle-aged brothers, Artem, a professor of scientific atheism, and Mikhail, an army colonel. They chat about current events—the recent change of leadership in the country (from Brezhnev to Andropov to Chernenko in the space of less than two years); the ongoing bloody Soviet war in Afghanistan—and the palpable, nascent changes in society that the men in part attribute to those events. Artem voices complaints typical of the father of a teenager: his son Slava does not respect his parents, is indifferent towards his studies, and is only interested in partying (tusovki). Mikhail tells his brother that twenty-eight local boys have already been killed in Afghanistan, returning in lead-lined coffins referred to as “cargo 200.”

Mikhail’s daughter comes home with her boyfriend, Valera, who appears to be dating the girl so her father will help him avoid service in Afghanistan. In subsequent scenes, Valera becomes the focus of the narrative. He meets a girl named Anzhelika at a club, and the plot soon takes a sharp turn towards the thriller after she is kidnapped by a psychotic police officer (Captain Zhurov) when the couple stops to buy some moonshine. There are few of the expected horror film elements, however, and none of the mollifying safety and escapism of a kitschy genre picture. Other themes are woven into the plot: atheism versus faith (Artem comes to question his own lack of religious faith as a result of the events of the film), and the on-going and bloody Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Anzhelika discovers, in the grisliest possible fashion, that her boyfriend has been killed in action when the ghoulish maniac Zhurov manages to bring the soldier’s actual corpse to his flat and throws it into the bed to which Anzhelika is chained.

On the level of visuals and its fabula, Cargo 200 is certainly the starkest latter-day example of the chernukha trend (and with the more aggressive censorship of the past few years, possibly one of the last examples). Even before Anzhelika is brought to the nightmarish interior of Zhurov’s apartment, which he shares with his infantile, Rabelaisian mother, the setting is a catalogue of elements familiar from numerous films of the late-1980s and early-1990s: drab squalor, madness, alcoholism.

Notwithstanding all of the film’s place- and time-specific horror, which elicited most of the commentary and outrage on the film when it was released, rarely is it noted that Cargo-200 is also a literary adaptation, and not even of a Russian work. It is based on William Faulkner’s 1931 novel Sanctuary, and many of the most scandalizing elements of the film (rape, including rape-by-proxy, murders, criminal insanity, alcoholic binges, moonshiners, kidnappings) are taken more or less directly from the work of that Nobel laureate who, not unlike Balabanov himself, sought in some of his works to deploy a complex artistic sensibility (arthouse cinema; literary fiction) in the service of popular genre storytelling (commercial cinema; pulp fiction).

Balabanov’s hand as a writer and director is constantly on the lens, zooming in and out and back again from individual lives, families, towns, and the entire country. Criticism of the last of these was the final taboo of the Soviet period; while one’s own private life, family, job and social environment was fair game for criticism, drawing a line of causation between the inconveniences (or horrors) of everyday life and the entire system as a whole was not. An exchange in the first scene of Cargo 200 demonstrates this:

Mikhail: You know what’s going on in Afghanistan. Even in our little backwater 28 coffins have come back. They call it “cargo 200.” Imagine what’s happening in the whole country…
Artem: Careful, Mikhail.

The film’s thorough deconstructionism extends to a central tenet of Stagnation nostalgia: that people in the late-Soviet gloom managed to construct comforting “small motherlands” in the form of informal, private relationships and collectives that provided stability and solace as the big-C Collective of the Soviet People disintegrated around them. There is neither stability nor solace in Cargo 200.

gruz200One of the major themes of the film, and one that leads naturally to political interpretations, is the constant interplay between power and impotence. They coexist here in a way that resembles neither the Soviet socialist-realist (or more recent Russian nationalist-realist) film nor the filmmaking that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s to replace and often rebut that older, partially discredited tradition. Power and its opposite appear to be randomly distributed among characters and institutions in Cargo-200. The weakness of the political leadership is apparent in the figure of the regional Communist Party secretary, who is powerless to find his missing daughter, Anzhelika. Likewise, the girl’s repeated warning to her captor that she has a powerful father is utterly ineffective. The frequent shots of television screens, when they are not showing the light, musical-variety fare common to Stagnation-era Soviet TV, remind us of the decrepit, septuagenarian Soviet leaders of the immediate pre-perestroika period.

The social groups and forces that would presumably replace the old order, however, are also without moral power. The potential positive hero (and representative of the optimistic future) Valera, the black marketeer, vows to the frightened Anzhelika that he will protect her and bring her to her doorstep in one piece at the end of the night, a promise whose emptiness and falsity is exhaustively exposed by the rest of the plot from that point. No group or institution is a safe haven, even those still on the outside (rock culture, small-time private enterprise) that would become normalized within a few short years.

As for the intelligentsia, Artem’s own repeated announcement of his credentials as the head of the Department of Scientific Atheism at Leningrad State University and member of the Communist Party earns him no favors, respect, or immunity from the brutality of the social atmosphere. Indeed, his credentials provoke a torrent of contempt from Aleksei (the bootlegger, Balabanov’s namesake, who is the closest thing the film has to a moral center).

The theological debate between Artem and Aleksei is the verbal center of the film. Aleksei rebuts Artem’s textbook Soviet atheism and hyper-rationalism with the familiar objection that without God, people are free to behave however they wish, with no moral restrictions. Artem responds with more Marxist logic, but here as elsewhere in the film the visual and narrative plane of the film serve to prove Aleksei’s point, while also thoroughly destroying the view of the Stagnation environment as a sort of post-historical, ironic idyll marked by an atmosphere of  “tender gloom (laskovyi morok) in which it seemed that everything in this world (and especially in this country) had already passed, and you could quietly live your own life (saving up for a car, reading samizdat, sipping port wine, or combining these and other pleasant activities),” as Andrei Nemzer (1997: 3) once described it.

gruz200Artem’s comment to Aleksei that he does not believe in the supernatural also becomes a position to be challenged or disproven in the remainder of Artem’s character arc. In this respect, he is like Berlioz or any number of other characters in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. But here the “seventh proof” of the existence of powers beyond human control is established in Artem’s mind not via phantasmagoric events in the plot, but as a result of his seemingly random participation in (or at least observation of) a series of horrific events in this supposedly uneventful corner of the ideological state in which he believes and which he serves. The only hint of the “supernatural” are the unlikely Zhivago-esque coincidences that tie the various subplots together. Artem meets Valera in the first scene, at Artem’s brother’s apartment, and then later they both visit Aleksei’s farmhouse. The two are further linked at the end of the film, when Valera meets another guy in the crowd at the Leningrad Rock Club who is in fact Artem’s son, Slava.

And here is where we are able to contextualize Cargo in a way that was not possible in 2007. Balabanov’s last film, Me Too (Ia tozhe khochu, 2012) follows a group of characters on their way to a mystical “zone” in which they believe some of them will be granted a rapture-like passage to the next, better world. Me Too thus presents a similar view of human existence to that of Cargo: the powers beyond our control are engaged in a seemingly random selection between those worthy of grace and salvation, and those undeserving (and thus doomed). Me Too gives us a world in which there are indeed unseen forces controlling human life, but in which those forces are an impenetrable mystery. At the end of Cargo 200, acknowledgment of that mystery is the only remaining path for Artem, who goes to a church and tells an old woman there that he wants to speak to the priest about “the baptism ritual” (obriad kreshcheniia). She instantly corrects him: “it’s not a ritual, it’s a sacrament (tainstvo, which also means “mystery”)”.

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Works Cited

Nemzer, Andrei. 1997. “Desiat’ bukv po vertikali.” Anketa. By Aleksei Slapovskii. St. Petersburg: Kurs, pp. 3-6.

Cargo 200 , Russia, 2007
Color, 89 minutes
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Scriptwriter: Aleksei Balabanov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Simonov
Art Director: Pavel Parkhomenko
Sound: Mikhail Nikolaev
Editing: Tat'iana Kuzmicheva
Cast: Agniia Kuznetsova, Aleksei Poluian, Leonid Gromov, Aleksei Serebriakov, Leonid Bichevin, Natal'ia Akimova, Iurii Stepanov, Mikhail Skriabin, Aleksandr Bashirov
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: CTB Film Company

Aleksei Balabanov: Cargo 200 (Gruz-200, 2007)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2015