Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50

Timur Bekmambetov: Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2005)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2015

“Dozor” as History: Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch and Day Watch

dozorAfter Timur Bekmambetov’s Day Watch set Russian box office records in 2006, the author and cultural critic Dmitrii Bykov assessed the phenomenon of the film and its predecessor, Night Watch (2004),in the journal Seans. Bykov surveyed Bekmambetov’s career up to that point, including his first film, Peshawar Waltz [Peshavarskii val’s, 1994] and his work on the famous 1990s commercials for “Bank Imperial.” Bykov concluded that the Watch movies should be understood as a logical extension of Bekmambetov’s work in the first decade of post-Soviet Russia, arguing that they are “the quintessence of the 1990s.” For Bykov, Bekmambetov’s films and commercials acted as a monument to that decade which, in his view, was a time when “authenticity [podlinnost’]” showed through an otherwise decrepit cultural landscape.

I watched the Watch movies again for the first time in nearly a decade and immediately recalled Bykov’s characterization of them. A decade after they first appeared, Night Watch and Day Watch depict a Russia on the cusp of big changes, a moment when the “post-Soviet” seemingly was over, but where the future was not yet clear. The Moscow that appeared on screen reflected these changes and in retrospect, captured a particularly important moment in recent Russian history. The Watch movies, at least in my view, were not so much the quintessence of the 1990s but the 2000s, and might be best seen as a monument to the cultural scene of the early Putin era.

When Night Watch first came out, many critics and viewers alike hailed it as something “new,” a successful answer to Hollywood’s perceived threat to domestic cinema. Bekmambetov’s film incorporated aspects of Hollywood movies—dazzling special effects, a storyline that attracted audiences, popular actors and celebrities in leading roles and cameos—and married it to a “Russian” content and “Russian” locale. It helped that Bekmambetov himself was relatively new, a talent whose skills emerged after the Soviet collapse. Night Watch seemed different and became, as producer Konstantin Ernst declared at its premier, “our cinema.”

dozorDay Watch only furthered these views. Its enormous box office success (it earned $38m and is now the fourth-highest grossing Russian film of all time) also confirmed that the two films were nothing less than a phenomenon. Numerous journals, newspapers, and book publishers put out responses to the “Dozor” sensation, including the Moscow publisher Falanster, which issued a collection of essays entitled Watch as Symptom [Dozor kak simptom]. Its 25 articles diagnosed a number of reasons for the popularity of Bekmambetov’s two films, ranging from hunger to desire to cultural disease for, as the two editors noted, the films had already become part of the intellectual life of Russia.

The “Dozor” phenomenon can also be detected in KinoKultura. David MacFadyen reviewed the first film for the issue 6, opening with the statement that “this is big cinema—or, to be more accurate, cinema that keeps reminding us of its bigness.” Viktor Matizen reviewed Day Watch in issue 13, noting that the films are “the first film-myth created in Russia that can legitimately aspire to be universal” even though they never quite broke through internationally in the way Matizen thought they might. Each film also inspired an article in the journal. Thomas Campbell listed “Five Theses about Day Watch” for issue 12 (worth a re-read) while I wrote an article about the politics of undead bodies in Night Watch for issue 16 (where I first hatched a theory that the film was about history). If the films had already become part of the intellectual life of Russia by 2006, when the Falanster volume came out, they also quickly became part of the intellectual life of this journal.

dozorThe plots to both films, as Matizen wrote, are difficult to summarize because they are “so thoroughly confusing and self-contradictory.” The main theme is that “others” exist in the world and have special powers, that an “other” has a choice between the forces of light and dark, and that the two sides have been at odds for centuries but agreed to a truce in 1342 (Night Watch opens with a scene from that year, a battle at Languedoc during the Hundred Years’ War). This truce, as the movies elucidate, is about to be broken. Throughout Night Watch the viewer is reminded that something significant, something ominous, is about to happen. When Anton, the protagonist, kills a dark other and is in turn grievously injured, Gesser, the leader of the Forces of Light, saves him, but mutters that the balance is changing and that “something is in the atmosphere.” As a vortex descends upon Moscow, to give another example, a weatherman on television declares that “history is about to be rewritten.”
Night Watch therefore suggests that 2004 should be understood as an important turning point in Russian history, a moment when the new was beginning to overshadow the old, when the economic depressions and chernukha culture of the late 1980s and 1990s were giving way to something else. This is a Russia on the cusp of something significant, and a 12-year old boy—who is the same age as the new Russia—is the catalyst. The truce between the light and dark has successfully survived all sorts of upheaval in Russia, including 1917 and 1991, but in 2004 it crumbles. Bekmambetov’s Moscow also captures the capital at a crossroads. Night Watch presents a city where decrepit, graffiti-strewn hallways, apartments, and abandoned buildings speak to the late Soviet and early post-Soviet city, but these sights compete with scenes of the revitalized capital, where flashy foreign cars drive in congested traffic, where new restaurants and cafes have opened, and where pop shows and video games indicate that the Soviet era is over. 

dozorDay Watch makes the New Year of 2006 into a time when Moscow became a hyperreal city and where Russians could identify the moment when the post-Soviet was over. The only way to prevent the world being plunged into darkness, as Anton finds out, is to find the mythical Chalk of Fate and rewrite history. The denouement of the film and with it, Anton’s quest to rewrite history, takes place in the Hotel Kosmos, just across from the VDNKh and Vera Mukhina’s statue of The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman. As the world seemingly crumbles around him, Anton uses the chalk to transport everyone back to 1992, the beginning of the post-Soviet era. This Russia created by Anton is a shiner, happier place. It is, in short, Putin’s new Russia of 2006 (Bekmambetov would contrast the late socialist era with Putin’s era even more explicitly in his next film, Irony of Fate: Continuation (Ironiia sud’by: Prodolzhenie, 2007), which posits that love and happiness are possible in Putin’s new Russia but were not possible in Brezhnev’s USSR).

The films capture how Russians should begin to view the end of an era: the Watch films recognized that the characteristics of the 1990s had ended and that a new era had begun. In an insightful article from 2008, Kevin M. F. Platt declared the post-Soviet was over and noted that one hallmark that pointed to its end was the way that the 1990s had moved from being seen as a period of transition to one of “anomalous social disorder.” The ruined Moscow that Anton encounters at the end of Day Watch illustrates the disorder of the 1990s; the “new” 1992 that appears after Anton uses the Chalk of Fate presents a new Russia that had become possible to imagine by 2006. The Watch films, in short, narrate the end of the “post-Soviet.”

dozorWhat made my recent reviewing of the Watch movies all the more poignant was the realization that the moment they captured has also passed into history. The films came out when the cinema industry had revived, when commercially successful films and smaller-budget art house films routinely investigated the past and the present critically. While no one mistook Vladimir Putin and his system for open ones in 2006--political scientists at the time debated whether or not his system was best termed a “managed democracy” or “stealth authoritarian”—certainly the Russian cultural scene was a vibrant, interesting, and multifaceted one. That this is no longer the case should not overshadow the fact that the Watch movies still matter and still count as important ones for understanding the history of yet another Russia that now seems lost.

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Works Cited

Bykov, Dmitrii. 2006. “Val’s-dozor.” Seans 27-28.

Campbell, Thomas. 2006. “Five Theses about Day Watch.” KinoKultura 12 .

Kupriianov, Boris and M. Surkov, eds. 2006. Dozor kak simptom: kul’turologicheskii sbornik, Moscow: Falanster.

MacFadyen, David. 2004. “Night Watch.” KinoKultura 6.

Matizen, Victor. 2006. “Is a Russian Hollywood Possible?” KinoKultura 13.

Norris, Stephen M. 2007. “In the Gloom: The Political Lives of Undead Bodies in Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch.” KinoKultura 16.

Platt, Kevin M. F. 2008. “The Post-Soviet is Over: On Reading the Ruins.” Republics of Letters 1.1

Night Watch (Russia, 2004)
Color, 115 minutes
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Script: Sergei Luk'ianenko and Timur Bekmambetov
Cinematography: Sergei Trofimov
Music: Iurii Poteenko
Art Director: Valera Viktorov and Mukhtar Murzakeev
With: Konstantin Khabenskii, Vladimir Men'shov, Valerii Zalotukhin, Gosha Kutsenko, Aleksei Chadov, Il'ia Lagutenko, Zhanna Friske, Rimma Markova
Producers: Anatolii Maksimov and Konstantin Ernst
Production: Tabbak Film Company, Bazelevs Production, commissioned by Channel One

Day Watch, Russia, 2006
Color and black-and-white, 140 minutes
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay: Sergei Luk'ianenko, Timur Bekmambetov, Aleksandr Talal
Camera: Sergei Trofimov
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Mariia Poroshina, Vladimir Men'shov, Galina Tiunina, Viktor Verzhbitskii, Zhanna Friske, Dima Martynov, Valerii Zolotukhin, Aleksei Chadov, Gosha Kutsenko, Igor' Lifanov, Nikolai Olialin, Mariia Mironova, Nurzhuman Ikhtymbaev, Aleksei Maklalov, Aleksandr Samoilenko, Egor Dronov, Rimma Markova, Anna Sliu, Sergei Trofimov, Sergei Ovchinnikov, Anton Stepanenko, Irina Iakovleva
Producers: Anatolii Maksimov, Konstantin Ernst
Production: Channel One and Bazelevs Production

Timur Bekmambetov: Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2005)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2015