Issue 52 (2016)
Roman Shaliapin: Demons (Besy, 2014)
reviewed by Katherine Bowers© 2016
2014 saw two new Russian adaptations of Fedor Dostoevskii’s 1872 novel about a cell of revolutionary conspirators, Demons (Besy). This review is of Roman Shaliapin’s avant-garde version, which was screened in 2014 at the annual Window to Europe [Okno v Evropu] competitive festival in Vyborg and the Golden Phoenix festival in Smolensk. The film was directed by Shaliapin, and co-written and co-produced by Shaliapin and Evgenii Tkachuk. Demons is their first screenplay, and their first production credit; it is also Shaliapin’s directorial debut.
Dostoevskii’s novel sets the activities of the terrorist cell in a small town, and the social gatherings, petty quarrels, and gossip that characterize provincial life dominate much of the its plot. Only in Part III does the reader begin to see the revolutionaries in action, engaging in violence as the cell splinters apart. The other 2014 adaptation of Demons, directed by Vladimir Khotinenko, is a four-part television mini-series that fairly faithfully recounts the novel’s plot within a nineteenth-century setting. Shaliapin and Tkachuk’s film version is strikingly different, however, plunging the viewer directly into tense group dynamics as the cell unravels. Originally, Shaliapin and Tkachuk intended to create a 20-minute short film on a specific motif from Dostoevskii’s novel, but the motif proved elusive, and they eventually ended up creating a feature-length film (67 minutes). The film maintains the experience of a short, however, giving abrupt insight into its protagonists’ psychologies and, through these psychological perspectives and their attendant symbolism, allowing the viewer access to the complex web of ideas that underpinned Dostoevskii’s creative work.
The film is set in a non-specific time and place. Dingy walls painted in institutional Soviet green and a crumbling building filled with broken furniture and discarded rubbish form the main backdrop for most of the scenes, although one is set along a river in gloomy pre-dawn. While, in part, this choice of setting may be due to the film’s shoestring budget—less than two million rubles, with actors and crew donating their time and labor—it works well to convey the film’s universality. The costumes, too, are non-specific to a time or a place, contemporary, but with touches that make them timeless. Kirillov, for example, wears round glasses that could fit in as well in the 19th century as they might in the 21st. All the characters wear neutral, darkened colors. This lack of temporal or spatial specificity gives the film an immediate sense of urgency, and allows it to more easily transcend its original text. The terrorist cell depicted could be one in a neighborhood basement somewhere in Russia today.
Demons minimizes the contextual trappings of Dostoevskii’s work, boiling it down to an idea. At first, the viewer tries to place the action, and it seems that the events of the novel may simply be transposed onto a different backdrop, but the script quickly diverges from the source text. The film does away with the novel’s Parts I and II and much of Part III, but the script remains true to Dostoevskii in its essence. In an August 2014 interview on KinoPoisk, Shaliapin comments: “The writer himself said that if his novel were to be set in a theater, then the most important thing was the idea, whereas the plot and characters can be subject to change, they can be transposed or shuffled. Nevertheless, 90 per cent of the words in the film are Dostoevskii, another 5 per cent are Nechaev (the 19th-century terrorist and author of Catechism of a Revolutionary whose murder of the student Ivanov inspired Dostoevskii’s Verkhovenskii), and the rest are our additions, the result of our own improvisation.” (Anon. 2014)
Shaliapin’s connection of Dostoevskii’s idea with a theatrical adaptation points to his and Tkachuk’s larger vision of their film project. Both recent graduates (2006 and 2007, respectively) of Oleg Kudriashov’s course at the Russian University of Theatre Arts (GITIS), Shaliapin and Tkachuk are well-regarded stage actors (Anon. 2014). While the film medium enables Demons some effects that would not work on the stage, the acting is the heart of the film. Viewers are treated to an intense performance that leaves them with the visceral feeling of having had a live, almost black-box experience. This unique quality of Demons speaks to the theatrical background of its creators, who both also act in the production; Shaliapin plays Virginskii, while Tkachuk is Petr Verkhovenskii, the central character in this adaptation.
Tkachuk’s Verkhovenskii is particularly riveting to watch. While Dostoevskii contrasts Verkhovenskii’s radicalism with other major characters’ ideologies—Stavrogin’s nihilism, Kirillov’s search for meaning and immortality, and Stepan Trofimovich’s older values—Shaliapin and Tkachuk’s film seems more a single character study, with Verkhovenskii’s psychology as the central focus; the film’s penultimate part takes the viewer inside Verkhovenskii’s psyche, using other characters—Kirillov, Erkel’, Stavrogin—as foils. Dostoevskii develops his characters, but the film abruptly plunges into the action, a move that could result in the loss of the careful layers of development which give the reader insight into each character’s psychology. Film critic Sergei Sychev observes: “To underscore the tyrant’s path to his downfall, the authors made a number of changes to the characters’ fates, and they turn into exaggerated, parable figures, wearers of clearly defined masks” (Sychev n.d.).
Demons does assume some knowledge of the source text on the part of its viewer (a not unreasonable expectation given that this film’s target audience is an educated Russian one). The film at times makes viewers feel as if they have just read an intense Dostoevskii scene, but without the embedded tools to understand the characters’ motivations on more than a superficial level. This becomes particularly apparent when Verkhovenskii confronts Kirillov, urging him to commit suicide and take the blame for the cell’s activities. In the novel, Kirillov’s ideas are well grounded through lengthy discussions with others, while in the film Kirillov’s philosophy seems an afterthought, not integrated into the narrative. However, given what Demons is able to accomplish in its 67 minutes, the film is a remarkable achievement. In focusing mainly on one character’s psychology, Shaliapin and Tkachuk express a complex philosophical idea about the individual, the instability of power, and hierarchy.
Hierarchy is a major theme in the film, informing its setting and structure. The film’s first major scene is a meeting of the terrorist cell, and there is a distinct horizontality to the power dynamic depicted. While Verkhovenskii does most of the talking, the other cell members are able to interject, give their own viewpoints, and even act independently in some cases, as when Virginskii urges Shatov to flee or Kirillov hides behind a staircase. The equality of characters on this plane is reinforced through the lighting. The scene opens in darkness and characters’ faces are revealed only through others’ flashlight beams, recalling Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogic truth and outsidedness: “Our real exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space and because they are others… Outsidedness is a most powerful factor in understanding” (Bakhtin 1986: 7). This early scene introduces all of the characters, presenting them through the perspective of each other. By the end of the scene, however, Verkhovenskii has emerged as the leader of the cell, and the viewer is invited, for the rest of the film, to explore his psychology through a series of interactions with others.
As the film progresses, each of its subsections is set on a different level of a disused factory, slowly moving vertically upwards: from basement to ground floor (and outside), to an upper floor, a kind of crawl space above the upper floor, and finally to the roof. Each level also grows gradually lighter as time passes: the first scene is set at night, lit only by flashlights; the following scene in a gloomy pre-dawn; the next scene in an interior daylight; Kirillov’s suicide at sunrise; and so on until the final scene shot in full sunlight. The film’s structure also emphasizes this climb, as it too has a sense of forward motion about it, achieved through title pages. The film is divided into specific sections, each set off by a white screen with black script lettering describing the next scene’s contents, for example “The Five,” “The Victim,” “The Act,” etc.
Verticality informs Verkhovenskii’s relationships as he slowly transforms from a controlling cell leader at the end of the first scene to a cowering naked man marked for death in the last. This transformation is particularly notable in the final sequence. After Kirillov’s suicide, Erkel’ (a woman in this film) appears and pulls a gun on Verkhovenskii. He reacts by stripping naked. His nakedness seems to give him power in this scene, which he uses to intimidate Erkel’, ultimately raping and choking her. Verkhovenskii remains naked as the film cuts to a new section set off by a title called “Consumed by an Idea” [Ideia s”ela]. This title is a direct quote from the novel, referring to Verkhovenskii’s condescending observation about Kirillov’s motivation for suicide. Verkhovenskii says: “Know also that you didn’t consume the idea, rather the idea consumed you” (Dostoevskii 1990: 520). Dostoevskii’s Demons exposes the dark potential of fanatical devotion to an ideology, and Shaliapin and Tkachuk’s Demons uses this reference as a jumping-off point for exploring notions of adherence to and anxieties derived from ideology within Verkhovenskii’s headspace. The white backdrop of the title becomes the scene’s setting, creating an empty space in which Verkhovenskii interacts with each of the characters from the film and his own self before encountering Stavrogin’s hanging body/ghost.
The relationship between Stavrogin and Verkhovenskii in the film proves a striking demonstration of Verkhovenskii’s anxieties. While in the novel the two characters are juxtaposed as differing ideologues, with Verkhovenskii constantly trying to recruit Stavrogin to lead the cause, here their relationship is one-sided. Verkhovenskii’s dominance of Erkel’ starkly contrasts with his obsequious deference to Stavrogin; his nakedness before Erkel’ is a sign of his power, while his nakedness before Stavrogin and later in the film serves to debase him, rendering him more vulnerable. Moreover, it is intriguing that Stavrogin only appears as a corpse (or a ghost, as he is labeled in the film’s credits), and never speaks. Verkhovenskii’s deferral to and ingratiating behavior towards Stavrogin's inanimate corpse gives it power. The corpse’s malevolent presence informs the revolutionary’s thoughts and actions, essentially haunting the film (his ghostly image is superimposed over Verkhovenskii’s head in the poster). The corpse’s control over the man visually expresses Verkhovenskii’s obeisance to the revolutionary cause, the ideology that consumes him. Stavrogin represents this idea, whether he is a man capable of carrying out an act or an inanimate object. As the “Consumed by an Idea” scene continues, Verkhovenskii proceeds to climb Stavrogin’s hanging corpse, licking him in a reversed literal interpretation of the metaphor in the section’s title. Throughout the film various characters have called Verkhovenskii a bedbug [klop], and here he falls backwards off Stavrogin and is slowly consumed by the whiteness around him, until all that is left is his pubic hair, which becomes a tiny bedbug. The bedbug returns to Stavrogin’s hanging corpse/ghost and sucks him until it is completely red with blood.
This symbolism suggests Verkhovenskii’s multifaceted performances of power dynamics with various characters are largely products of his own mind and anxieties. At the same time, however, his disappearance into the white space echoes the disappearance of Kirillov into the white space of bright sunlight during his suicide earlier in the film. But can the viewer see Verkhovenskii’s debased consumption of Stavrogin and his transformation into vermin as a transcendent act of free will or an expression of a higher ideal? Ultimately, no. Even in the end, when the viewer sees Verkhovenskii in full bright sunlight, cowering naked on the rooftop, he remains far removed from the powerful figure whose monologues crackled with the intensity of conviction in the film’s opening scenes.
In the end, Shaliapin and Tkachuk’s Demons presents a version of Dostoevskii’s ideas that succeeds in capturing the terror and uncertainty at the heart of this violent novel, and introduces new ways of understanding the work through insight into Verkhovenskii. Shaliapin expresses this aspect of Dostoevskii’s novel as “internal, spiritual revolution.” “The film’s idea is a man who is on a path and wants to change everything except himself, but eventually he changes, but does not accept it and goes mad” (Zabolotskaia 2014). For Shaliapin, this idea takes on intensely personal meaning. As he says, in Demons, “[he] wanted to work through [his] own ‘demons’” (Volochkovskaia 2014). Perhaps it is for this reason that the film impacts its viewer to such a degree.
University of British Columbia
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Anon. (2014). “‘Besy’ Dostoevskogo v sovremennoi traktovke: Prem’era treilera.” Kinopoisk 7 August.
Bakhtin, Mikhail (1986). “Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff.” Translated by Vern W. McGee. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Dostoevskii, Fedor (1990). Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 15 tomakh. Vol. 7. Nauka: Leningrad.
Sychev, Sergei (n.d.). “V Vyborge pokazali ‘Besy’ Romana Shaliapina i Evgeniia Tkachuka.” KinoPro.
Volochkovskaia, Irina. (2014). “Kino na liuboi vkus.” Vyborg Press 22 August.
Zabolotskaia, Anastasiia (2014). “Interv’iu s rezhisserom Romanom Shaliapinym.” 365 Mag, 6 October.
Demons, Russia, 2014
Color, 67 minutes
Director: Roman Shaliapin
Script: Evgenii Tkachuk, Roman Shaliapin
DoP: Pavel Beklemishev
Composer: Anton Orlov
Editing: Sergei Zinevich
Cast: Evgenii Tkachuk, Nina Loshhcinina, Aleksandr Aliab’ev, Oleg Sokolov, Aleksandr Sazonov,
Production: Marmot Film
Producers Evgenii Tkachuk, Roman Shaliapin, Valerii Todorovskii
Roman Shaliapin: Demons (Besy, 2014)
reviewed by Katherine Bowers© 2016