Issue 52 (2016)

Vladimir Kott: The Lower Depths (Na dne, 2014)

reviewed by Irina Anisimova© 2016

lower depthsThe brother of another prominent film director, Aleksandr Kott, Vladimir Kott is best known for his debut film, Fly (Mukha, 2008). Fly is a story of a troubled teenage girl and her complicated relationship with her possible father, the truck driver Fedor. Kott’s new film, Lower Depths, contains some similarities to his debut film, such as concern with social issues and a prominent and charismatic teenage protagonist. However, Kott’s new film approaches these topics from a very different angle.

The Lower Depths is a loose adaptation of Maksim Gor’kii’s eponymous play, and the film received a special prize “for a relevant adaptation of the classics” at the Vyborg festival “Window to Europe” [Okno v Evropu]. This prize points to the way Kott’s film uses the original early-twentieth-century play to reflect on life in contemporary Russia. In this respect, the film can be compared to two recent adaptations of Aleksandr Pushkin’s works: Vladimir Mirzoev’s Boris Godunov (2010) and Aleksandr Vartanov and Kirill Mikhanovskii’s Dubrovskii (2014). Both films use the combination of the present and the past to comment on contemporary social problems.

Mirzoev’s Boris Godunov and Vartanov and Mikhanovskii’s Dubrovskii illustrate two different approaches to this kind of “relevant” adaptation. Boris Godunov does not alter the original Pushkinian text, combining it with contemporary settings. In contrast to this approach, Dubrovskii uses Pushkin’s novel as a source and updates the details of the plot to reflect contemporary social issues. Despite their different approaches to adaptation of Russian classics, both films make similar statements on contemporary Russia and the nature of Russian history. Both films present Russian history as a repetitive cycle, where each new period brings the old social problems into new social context. In this view, contemporary corruption can be seen as an extension of the corruption in sixteenth- and nineteenth-century society. The films point to the various feudal elements characterizing contemporary Russia.

lower depthsKott’s approach to adaptation can be placed midway between the very free adaptation of Vartanov and Mikhanovskii’s Dubrovskii and the transposition of the original text into contemporary setting of Mirzoev’s Boris Godunov. Kott makes substantial changes to Gor’kii’s play, but, at the same time, preserves much of the original details of the plot and many of the original dialogues. The limited nature of these changes does not allow for an explicit social critique. At the same time, because the film does not fully preserve the original text, its innovative style does not attract much attention of the viewers. 

Kott replaces one of Gor’kii’s characters, the old man Luka, with a fourteen-year-old boy (Semen Treskunov). In his interview to Vecherniaia Moskva, Kott explained that a young boy would be more believable as a messenger of change. Kott’s explanation for this alteration is very instructive, since it reflects his interpretation of the original play. Whereas Gor’kii’s play is primarily a philosophical rumination on the viability of truth in unbearable circumstances, where the character of Luka tests the boundaries of truth and belief, Kott’s reinterpretation places more emphasis on hope and employs Christian symbolism. The character of young Luka, who mysteriously appears among the characters and eventually dies a sacrificial death, acquires religious symbolism. Exemplified by the change in the character of Luka, Kott’s adaptation shifts the genre of the work from a philosophical play containing social critique to a social drama with a religious undercurrent.

lower depthsAt the same time, Kott’s heavy reliance on Gor’kii’s original, both in the situations and dialogues, with their clear references to the early twentieth century, limits the film’s relevance to contemporary social problems. Moreover, certain details, such as the relationship between Vasilisa and her sister Natasha, appear artificially constrained by early twentieth-century social norms. In the twenty-first century a young woman does not have to completely depend on her sister and her sister’s husband, whereas in the early twentieth-century, this situation would be more believable.

One of the most prominent changes in dialogue and character development introduced in Kott’s version is the role of the actor, played by Mikhail Efremov. The actor turns into a more central character and is given a modern update to the reason for his downfall. A proponent of Russian psychological theater of Konstantin Stanislavskii, the actor could not successfully adapt to the new post-modern age. Moreover, he feels that he lost his soul and talent through playing in the endless TV series. While Efremov is very convincing in his role, it is certainly an unusual perspective that cheep TV entertainment is the most prominent social problem of contemporary Russian society. This detail is especially strange given Kott’s own work on television series, such as NTV’s Family Exchange (Rodstvennyi obmen, 2005) and Channel One’s Hunter (Okhotnik, 2006). Underlining the prominence of this theme, one of such distasteful shows appears on a TV screen towards the end of the film; an insertion of film shorts, presumably shot by Luka, creates a sense of self-referentiality of Kott’s adaptation.

lower depthsThe most original and obvious departure from the Gor’kii’s play is the film’s setting—the new lower depths are represented by a working landfill. With its unusual landscape, found objects and uncanny birds, the landfill is also the film’s most interesting cinematic element. According to Kott, shooting at this location required much perseverance on the part of the film crew. In addition to their apparent perseverance under harsh conditions, the actors show much talent in performing their roles, which helps to mitigate the deficiencies of the script poorly fitted to a contemporary setting.

On a symbolic level, the landfill serves as a site of discarded memories. In the same interview, Kott describes filming at the landfill as “the connection to human memory.” Discarded cultural products, such as a piano, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, present contemporary society as a cultural wasteland. The symbolism of discarded cultural products well connects to the actor’s lost career and the theme of the death of Russian psychological theater.

With its complex connection to economy, environment, and criminal underworld, the landfill can be seen as a dark microcosm of contemporary society. Unfortunately, Kott does not develop the rich possibilities of such a setting. Similarly, he is determined not to address the contemporary aspects of poverty and homelessness, focusing on its psychological aspects.

Irina Anisimova
Miami University, Ohio

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Works Cited

Zaozerskaia, Angelika (2014). “Vladimir Kott: ‘Ia ne nastolko ekstremalnyi rezhisser, chtoby iz p’esy Gor’kogo sozdat’ fil’m-zhest’ ili chernukhu’,” Vecherniaia Moskva 18 August.

The Lower Depths, Russia, 2014
Color, 133 minutes
Director: Vladimir Kott
Script: Vladimir Kott, Maksim Gorkii
Director of Photography: Andrei Kapranov
Production Design: Oleg Ukhov, Sergei Shchepilov
Music: Anton Silaev
Cast: Mikhail Efremov, Semen Treskunov, Aleksandr Trofimov, Sergei Sosnovskii, Nikolai Averiushkin, Boris Kamorzin, Evgeniia Dobrovolskaia, Tamara Tsyganova, Iurii Lopyrev, Oleg Vasilkov, Agniia Kuznetsova, Olga Beshulia, Igor Gasparian
Producer: Evgenii Gindilis
Production: Tvindie Ltd.

Vladimir Kott: The Lower Depths (Na dne, 2014)

reviewed by Irina Anisimova© 2016