Issue 51 (2016)
Anton Sivers: Vasilisa (2014)
reviewed by David McVey© 2016
“There was Vasilisa, the village elder’s wife, who struck down hundreds of Frenchmen…”
Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace vol. 4, pt 3, ch. 3
Stephen Norris chronicles how in the aftermath of the depressing 1990s there arose in Russia a desire to rekindle a sense of positive patriotism in public discourse (Norris 2012, 12). Russian filmmakers, whose craft had been central to the dissemination of official ideology for nearly a century, responded to this demand with various suggestions as to the shape such patriotism might assume (Norris 2012, 12–14). A theme ripe for exploitation in the reestablishment of cinematic national self-respect was the Soviet Union’s decisive victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Norris continues, “Beginning in 2002, and exploding on screen in 2004, films about the Great Patriotic War explored the one Soviet event about which contemporary Russians could feel pride” (Norris 2012, 14). In the wake of this initiative, a number of relatively high-profile films about the war have been released with a dualistic goal to inflate chests with love of country, as well as maximize box-office tallies. Some of these films, such as Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad (2012), have paid off. Others, such as Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun 2 (Utomlennye solntsem 2, 2010 and 2011), have not. Others still, such as Andrei Maliukov’s We Are from the Future (My iz budushchego, 2008), Aleksandr Kott’s Fortress of War (Brestskaia krepost’, 2010), and Karen Shakhnazarov’s White Tiger (Belyi tigr, 2012), have to varying degrees connected with audiences and scooped up accolades at ceremonies and festivals.
Indeed, the Great Patriotic War functions as a historical episode that offers Russians an occasion to contemplate the Soviet Union’s erstwhile military glory nostalgically. More than this, however, a selectively cultivated memory of the war promotes a sense of moral authority, if not superiority, over a materially more advanced, yet morally inferior Europe. This sentiment is topical more in 2015 than at any time since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Still, WWII opens the curtains of only one historical stage where Russia might act as the sole guarantor of Europe’s very survival. As recently as October 2015, before a gathering of the Central Council of the Russian Military-Historical Society (Tsentral’nyi sovet Rossiiskogo voenno-istoricheskogo obshchestva), Dmitrii Kiselev made the following pronouncement: “Russian [Rossiiskaia] military history is connected to the history of the entire world. Even now—in my view, in Syria we are saving all of Europe for the fourth time. The first time was from the Mongols, the second was from Napoleon and the third time was from Hitler, and now from ISIL” (Anon. 2015). This is a significant statement coming from the general director of Russia Today, the behemoth successor to RIA Novosti. After all, the mainstream media establish the parameters of the national discussion.
Because so many patriotic films now revisit Russia’s role as vanquisher of fascism, it only makes sense that for the sake of novelty directors might branch out to examine Russia’s other two historical moments of playing savior to Europe. Anton Sivers’ 2014 release Vasilisa (and the 2013 television series edited from the same footage) does just that, shifting the spotlight from the Great Patriotic War to simply the Patriotic War against Napoleon’s Grande Armeé. (An interesting fact is that director Sivers shares a surname with Count Karl Karlovich Sivers, an important Russian military leader who fought in the war. Cursory research did not produce evidence of ancestry.) Evgenii Ukhov asked Sivers in an interview, “Patriotic themes are much in demand right now. Is your film an attempt to tap into this trend?” Sivers responded, “For me this word [assumedly he meant ‘patriotic themes’] has never been a hollow expression (pustoi zvuk), and I did not just simply choose this film and this topic, and I will choose it again if it is offered to me. All of us labored with great sincerity, and, well, the fact that [the film] aligned with attitudes in the country is most likely a coincidence” (Ukhov 2014). But given the film’s subject matter, its polished production values, and its not-paltry seven-million-dollar production budget, Sivers claim strains credibility. The film was clearly pitched as a patriotic blockbuster, but one that at least admirably seeks to expand the boundaries of the genre. Unfortunately for Sivers—and for future possibilities of expanding the boundaries of the patriotic genre—Vasilisa turned out to be one of the biggest box office losses of 2014 in its initial theater run (Ivanov 2015). Evidently, the patriotic fare it served up was just not appealing enough for anyone to sample.
The film’s folk heroine, Vasilisa Kozhina, is a genuine character from history, albeit one whose contributions to the cause may have been romantically overstated. According to Russian historian Boris Frolov, Kozhina was the wife of the village elder of a farmstead named Gorshkovo, which was located in the Smolensk Province. French troops shot her husband when he refused to supply them with provisions. In retribution, “she organized a partisan detachment of teenagers, elderly people, and women, which acted effectively, inflicting substantial damage on the invaders” (Frolov 2005, 376). British historian Janet Hartley adds to the lore, “An old woman, Vasilisa, invited some soldiers into her hut, let them get drunk, and then burnt the hut to the ground” (Hartley 1991, 32). She sounds like a nineteenth-century Saint Olga. The legend of her participation in guerilla attacks on Napoleon’s troops, which even Tolstoy mentions in War and Peace, serves to highlight the fact that all Russians lent a hand to expel Napoleon. The resulting narrative is that in this “people’s war” (“narodnaia voina”), “[everyone in] the great country, both young and old, rose up to resist the enemy. People from every walk of life in the Russian Empire strove to make their own small contribution to the salvation of the Motherland” (Frolov 2005, 370). In a riff on Karamzin, Sivers’s film proposes that even a peasant woman can fight.
Another Karamzinian allusion crops up in early in the film. Vasilisa (Khodchenkova), is extremely beautiful, yet still unmarried. In addition to possessing stunning physical beauty, she also displays keen intellect; even though she is a member of the illiterate masses, she has somehow mastered French from interaction with her landowners. Just as Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939) romanticizes the antebellum South in the United States, Vasilisa applies a sheen of polish to feudal nineteenth-century Russia. The estates are perfectly sunlit, pruned, and orderly: the peasants pleasant, scrubbed, and hale. Living conditions are so favorable that Vasilisa and her lusty sister Dasha (Kristina Kuz’mina) are undeterred in their drive to climb the social ladder by angling for eligible landowning bachelors. Vasilisa, in fact, has been stealing away for moonlit assignations with a young landowner, Ivan Riazanov (Solomykin), from a neighboring estate. (The legend of Vasilisa omits any reference to passionate liaisons with noblemen.) Ivan has been attempting to ingratiate himself with the folk in Vasilisa’s village in order to be nearer to his romantic interest, but his presence is not particularly welcome. He receives a bullet in the biceps from an unknown assailant during a village wolf hunt. In addition to the film’s depiction of landowners as indecisive in the face of Napoleon’s onslaught, the serfs’ general disrespect for Ivan serves to delineate Russians into two camps: the Europeanized gentry and the authentic peasantry.
Ivan’s haughty mother (Rozanova) heartily disapproves of her son’s dalliances with a serf girl. She plots behind the scenes to drive a wedge between the young couple by pairing her son with a more suitable fiancée from his own caste. Although the overbearing mother’s scheme fails, Vasilisa believes that Ivan must marry a woman of his own social standing, in accordance with prevailing social conventions. Vasilisa is heartbroken, but she marshals inner strength in no time. Instead of drowning herself, however, she takes decisive action. In a move that forestalls the possibility of any future romantic love for her every bit as much as it is meant to hurt Ivan, Vasilisa agrees to marry the village starosta (Chernevich), a crude man twice her age, whom she does not love, and who openly detests Ivan. In response to Vasilia’s rash nuptials, Ivan chooses to distract himself from his lost love by running away with the Russian army to battle Napoleon’s advancing horde. When Ivan returns to the village on leave from the front, Vasilisa rebuffs his renewed advances. Similar to Pushkin’s Tat’iana, Vasilisa is now married to another and will remain faithful, even if she secretly still loves Ivan very deeply. Vasilisa’s connection to Tat’iana is not the only allusion to Pushkin in the film. In a random, non-diegetic episode, a prepubescent Pushkin is earnestly engaged in a snowball fight, as his boyish voice recites patriotic poetry, as the camera cuts between winter in Tsarskoe Selo and Napoleon’s carriage.
At this point, Napoleon’s troops cross the Niemen to invade Russia’s western provinces. One contingent, led by Commander Blie (Cusin) occupies Vasilisa’s village. Instead of currying the serfs’ loyalty, and thus turning them against their supposedly draconian landowners, French troops behave with unrestrained cruelty. They requisition grain, carry away livestock, take up residence in farmstead buildings, attempt to rape women, and eventually execute a serf family who have killed a French soldier in self-defense. When Vasilisa protests the ghastly actions of the French occupiers, Blie blithely wonders out loud how the peasants would now object to the very same treatment they receive at the hands of their masters. The last straw falls when the invaders shoot Vasilisa’s husband, as the old man intervenes to protect a child while the French ransack an Orthodox chapel. As the starosta lies dying in Vasilisa’s arms, the camera pans downward from her concerned face to a smoldering icon of the bogoroditsa. The connection is clear. Vasilisa must intercede on her people’s behalf. She becomes a patriotic heroine.
As the leader of a guerilla detachment, Vasilisa employs a two-edged strategy in fending off the French. The second edge is, in fact, every bit as effective as the first. Her gang executes surprisingly ruthless ambushes from the forest. However, the film’s attack scenes beggar logic, as the question as to where the peasant irregulars learned their combat techniques is never addressed. In addition, the inclusion of CGI splatter gore, which is more characteristic of cartoonish television series about ancient Greeks, is aesthetically discordant with the tone of the rest of the film. Much more convincing is Vasilisa’s simultaneous method of passive scorched-earth tactics, which deprive not only the French, but also her fellow Russian peasants of food and shelter in the face of the encroaching winter. After the execution of some villagers, Vasilisa grabs a sickle and rips open sacks of grain to prevent the French from commandeering them for nourishment. After her husband’s murder, she sets alight the French headquarters in the village, destroying provisions the Russians need to survive, as well as burning some French soldiers alive. To avoid capture, Vasilisa, sans victuals, leads her band into a dense pine forest, where they will have to survive on what they can scavenge. They periodically fall on the transient French troops and attempt to blow up an important bridge to halt their progress.
Vasilisa reckons the Russian folk can defeat their French invaders by out-suffering them. Indeed, this was a crucial tactic of the larger Russian Imperial Army. Napoleon’s troops required enormous quantities of provisions to keep functioning. Not only did Alexander I famously order the incineration of holy Moscow, he also commanded wide swathes of countryside along the French army’s path be torched, leaving the enemy with nothing to eat. Although this self-inflicted destruction also produced a deleterious impact on the local Russian population, Russians’ ability to weather extreme hardship proved instrumental in the rout of Napoleon. Thus, the film peddles the Slavophile maxim that Russia’s material backwardness, as well as the attendant strength Russians draw from their continuous endurance of challenging material conditions, is no disadvantage at all, but ultimately renders the nation invincible.
Vasilisa invites viewers to take pride in Russia’s supposed spiritual superiority over the West, which undergirds an ethos of self-effacement, yet promises ultimate triumph for the collective. The ability to endure extreme privation, a quality the film encodes as distinctly feminine and peasant, is a heroic essence viewers can regard patriotically. Vasilisa is the proverbial longsuffering, ever-devoted Russian woman, who embraces faith and sacrifice. Righteousness is firmly on her side. Early in the campaign, Vasilisa has a dream that Ivan is in peril. Indeed, he has been wounded in battle. In a breathless sequence of cross-cutting, Vasilisa prays for Ivan’s welfare. The fates heed her impassioned pleas, as a sudden downpour on the battlefield prompts a bayonet-wielding Frenchman to quit stabbing corpses and seek shelter from the elements. Vasilisa’s faith is rewarded. Ivan is spared.
Vasilisa’s commitment to sacrifice does not go unrewarded either. Whereas the Russian landowners tolerate French atrocities so as not to disrupt their comfortable lifestyles, the serf Vasilisa demands retribution and is prepared to go without. She is even willing to surrender her own life on several occasions. One such moment serves as the film’s stirring finale, in which the heroine finally terminates Blie’s continual overtures for her hand in marriage. During the occupation, Blie has persisted in courting Vasilisa, promising her a luxurious existence in France if she agrees to submit. But Vasilisa will not forsake her people for improved material living conditions in the West. Furthermore, she retains her spiritual fidelity to Ivan. In the film’s climax, it appears Ivan has slain Blie in a swordfight. As Vasilisa and Ivan embrace to celebrate this small victory, Vasilisa glances over Ivan’s shoulder, only to spy the wounded Blie as he aims his pistol at Ivan’s back. In a final demonstration of devotion to country and the man she truly loves, Vasilisa pivots Ivan 180 degrees so that Blie will have to shoot through her body if he wishes to kill Ivan. Her bravery is effective, as Blie lowers his weapon in resignation. This ultimate display of willingness to sacrifice one’s own life demonstrates to the audience—Ivan does not notice—the matchless spirit of the Russian narod. A peasant woman’s ability to fight and love can save the country.
The film’s financial failure is somewhat confounding to this Western reviewer, as Sivers seems to have created a work that should appeal to the many Russians who feel defensive against Europe, given the current geopolitical row between the two regions. Vasilisa’s depiction of peasant ambushes during the Patriotic War better parallels Russia’s current contretemps with Europe over the imposition of liberal values than does the Soviet Union’s rout of Hitler’s Germany, which posed a truly existential threat. Two of Napoleon’s spoken aims in the invasion of Russia were to liberate Poland and to sever Russia’s trading ties with Great Britain during the French-led blockade. Napoleon did not intend to occupy Russia, only to force it to capitulate to his agenda. No sane person believes Europe intends to conquer Russia in 2015, but many a Western liberal is perturbed by what is seen as Russia’s renewed embrace of oppressive laws. In addition, given the fact that the Putin regime is in amicable interaction in Western Europe with rightwing groups, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France (Beardsley and Flintoff 2014), perhaps a tale of effective defense against so-called progressive values imposed from the West is a more apt vessel for reactions to the current political antagonism than overtures to anti-fascism.
The potential of Vasilisa as a cinematic text of patriotism, which ultimately failed to connect with viewers, lies in its assignment of heroism not only to the military, nobility, or even the tsar, but also to common Russians, who bear the brunt of economic hardship during conflicts with Europe. The lower/working classes of Russia have fewer resources than the moneyed classes to weather Western-imposed sanctions and the struggling ruble. They have more to lose, yet they sacrifice so much for love of the Motherland. Indeed, such exhortations to tighten belts have recently issued forth from the Russian government during this era of sanctions: forgo European and Turkish foodstuffs, curtail your vacations to sunny climates, and endure the evaporation of your savings. This divine of communal sacrifice promises spiritual returns in the long run, as Russia safeguards the traditional values under assault in Europe. True, facing starvation while fighting in the forest is certainly more heroic than abstaining from Parmesan cheese, but the connection between the two scenarios is nevertheless established. There is patriotism, all right, but it is a patriotism based on self-abnegation, which is difficult to call positive. In any case, since Vasilisa failed to connect with audiences, the task of expanding the themes of patriotic cinema now lies with other directors. Depending on Russia’s ever-evolving relationship with China, other filmmakers may soon feel inspired to create works about the bravery of Muscovy’s medieval troops as they defeated the Mongols at Kulikovo Field.
University of Kansas
|Comment on this article on Facebook|
Anon. 2015. “Kiselev: borias’ s IG v Sirii, Rossiia spasaet Evropu v chetvertyi raz.” RIA Novosti 22 October.
Beardsley, Eleanor and Corey Flintoff. 2014. “Europe’s Far Right and Putin Get Cozy, with Benefits for Both.” NPR 26 December.
Frolov, Boris. 2005. Da, byli liudi v nashe vremia: Otechestvennaia voina 1812 goda i zagranichnye pokhody russkoi armii. Moskva: Amini Fortitudo.
Hartley, Janet. 1991. “Napoleon in Russia: Savior or Anti-Christ?” History Today 41: 28–34.
Ivanov, Boris. 2015. “Parad neudachnikov.” Film.ru. 6 January.
Norris, Stephen M. 2012. Blockbuster History in the New Russia: Movies, Memory, and Patriotism. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
Tolstoi, Lev. 1999. Voina i mir. Moskva, Eksmo-Press.
Ukhov, Evgenii. 2014. “Zhenshchina tozhe mozhet vstat’ vo glave: Interv’iu s Antonom Siversom i Svetlana Khodchenkovoi.” Film.ru. 5 December.
Vasilisa, Russia, 2013
Director: Anton Sivers
Color, 100 minutes
Script: Anush Vardanian, with participation from Oleg Malovichko, Dmitrii Meskhiev, Anton Sivers.
DoP: Il'ia Averbakh
Compooser: Darin Sysoev
Production Design: Konstantin Pakhotin
Cast: Svetlana Khodchenkova, Dmitrii Solomykin, Jérôme Cusin, Kristina Kuz'mina, Igor' Chernevich, Irina Rozanova, Andrei Il'in, Il'ia Noskov, Andrei Noskov
Producers: Mikhail Vavilov, Anastasiia Torlakian, Andrei Kuchinskii, Iurii Sapronov
Anton Sivers: Vasilisa (2014)
reviewed by David McVey© 2016