Issue 59 (2018)

Pavel Chukhrai: Cold Tango (Kholodnoe tango, 2017)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2018

cold tango With Cold Tango, Pavel Chukhrai rounds up his loosely defined Stalin-era trilogy, also including Thief (Vor, 1997) and A Driver for Vera (Voditel’ dlia Very, 2004). Set in Lithuania, this film did not make waves at international film fests, nor did it excite domestic audiences—in a posh multiplex in Russia I was the only spectator. The reasons for this lack of attention, however, may be different. Western sensibilities were, perhaps, confused by the mixture of genres: the darkness and solemnity associated with films on the Holocaust do not go well with the pure, sometimes garish, melodrama complete with red dresses, tangos, sultry looks and such. Many Russians today, on the other hand, are not at all interested in the fate of the Lithuanians or the Jews prior to, during, and after World War II. They don’t know much, and they don’t want to learn. At the same time, any criticism of the Soviet Armed Forces and the NKVD in those times is tantamount to high treason in their minds, which is reflected in hate outbursts on Russian websites. Propagandistic hysteria over the Soviet role in WWII has gone to unprecedented lengths. Victory Day is no longer one day; it is celebrated all year round. Jingoism, repudiation of former allies and self-pity masquerading as national pride are all having a ball. In this atmosphere of bigotry and ignorance, any attempt to make a film on a historical trauma that does not fit cozily into the brainwashed mind deserves a nod of approval, even if its shortcomings are numerous. The word “anti-Soviet” cropped up even in professional reviews.

cold tango I will not try to reconcile these positions in any way—they are irreconcilable—but simply present the facts of the story with some comments. The film opens with a terse introduction to the period: “In 1939 Stalin and Hitler divided Eastern Europe between themselves. In 1940 Soviet troops entered Lithuania and annexed it to the USSR.” Flashforward to Soviet Lithuania, 1950. In a slightly decadent cabaret-style establishment, a lady in red, Laima (Iuliia Peresil’d) sings a melancholy song while a midget peddles Herzegovina Flor, “Comrade Stalin’s favorite cigarettes,” and a sad young accordionist looks forlorn. Seconds later, another flashforward, when the accordionist, Max (Rinal’ Mukhametov), is interrogated by a stern NKVD officer about the history of his relationship with the cabaret diva. Surely enough, we are immediately sent back in time to a peaceful pre-war Baltic beach where the boy meets the girl. The number of flashbacks and flashforwards in this film is truly amazing; as is the unrelenting grimness of the proceedings, when tragedy strikes every minute.  

cold tangoIn the very next scene we are moved—skipping the Soviet annexation completely—to the German invasion of 1941. The boy and his little sister—they are Jewish—are sent to a concentration camp. The mother (Monica Santoro) is forced to choose, as in William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice, which child she will let live. She is unable to make this horrible choice. However, Max escapes, leaving his little sister to meet sure death and beginning a chain of betrayals that run throughout the story. He hides in his house, which is no longer his but has been repossessed by a Lithuanian family, whose 13-year-old daughter is the girl of his dreams, Laima. The family are opportunistic but not openly criminal—or so it seems. However, the father is a collaborator; not only does he provide coal for the Germans, but takes the valuables stripped off the Jewish victims for reselling. They reluctantly hide the Jewish boy, and he and Laima are soon in a teenage crush, despite the girl’s deep-seated anti-Semitism. One fateful day, a German soldier enters the house and rapes Laima. The boy commits another betrayal—by not interfering. The girl calls him a traitor and vouches she will never forgive him.

In post-war Lithuania, with the return of the Soviet liberators/occupiers, the grown-up Max and Laima continue their love/hate affair. Laima sees Max as a double enemy: not only did he betray her in the past, he is also a part of the Soviet presence now. Even so, she accepts his offer of work as a restaurant singer, which certainly beats her dreary job at a smelly communal laundry. That Laima sleeps around upsets Max, but he is still very much in love with her. All this brings us back to the opening cabaret number and the ensuing sex and the wedding.

cold tango Enter Major Taratuta (an always charismatic Sergei Garmash), a strict Soviet military commandant and simulataneously a self-styled free thinker who has never forgotten his Ukrainian roots. After an unsuccessful attempt at his life, thwarted by Max, Taratuta makes him an offer Max can’t refuse: join the NKVD to fight the “Forest Brotherhood,” a Lithuanian guerrilla force that sought to end the Soviet occupation. In the meantime, the radio informs us about 27,000 Lithuanian families being deported to Siberia for just for being rich or for supporting “bourgeois nationalists.” The Forest Brothers were first featured in the Soviet film Nobody Wanted to Die (Niekas nenorėjo mirti, 1965, dir. Vitautas Žalakevičius). The historical ambivalence of the movement was already present there, despite all the limitations imposed by Soviet censorship. This film goes one step further by showing the resistance which the staunch farmers put up to defend their land and freedom from the NKVD forces, including Max—a scene which does not produce much sympathy for the latter, for all the bravery on display.

cold tangoIt all ends very badly: Laima is sent off to exile in Siberia by the NKVD as a supporter of the “bandits,” and Max, swearing to rescue her, is murdered, minutes later, by the Forest Brothers retaliating for his activities as a Soviet agent. History’s meatgrinder has finally swallowed them all.  

The film is loosely based on Efraim Sevela’s novel Sell Your Mother (1981). Written by a Soviet émigré in Israel, the book’s accents were different: its main emphasis was on the survival of the Jews in various hostile environments, whether Lithuanian, Nazi German or Soviet. In the film the Lithuanian, Jewish and Russian perspectives are given roughly the same amount of attention. No one comes out unblemished, but, presumably, that was the intention.

cold tango In the final scene, a drunken, yet lucid Taratuta, now retired and foster dad to Max’s little daughter, screams out to the Baltic waves: “Ah, my land, my beloved, why are you so severe, so pitiless, so unforgiving!” Somehow, this scene goes above and beyond melodrama, and gives the film a tiny little ray of hope, making the viewer forgive its other faults and foibles.




P.S. I dedicate this review to an elderly Lithuanian woman who lived in exile in Ulan-Ude, Siberia, our next-door neighbor from the 1950s to the late 1970s. I was very young and I never learned her story properly. I don’t know her name. I only know that she was terribly lonely and she had a cat. When she died, in the middle of winter, her passing went unnoticed for days. This is in her memory.

Sergey Dobrynin

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Cold Tango, Russia, 2017
Color, 107 mins.
Director: Pavel Chukhrai
Screenplay: Pavel Chukhrai
Cinematography: Igor’ Klebanov
Music: Iurii Poteenko
Production Design: Raimondas Dičius, Iurii Grigorovich
Cast: Iuliia Peresil’d, Rinal’ Mukhametov, Sergei Garmash, Elisei Nikandrov, Anastasiia Gromova, Andrius Bialobžeskis, Dainius Kazlauskas, Monica Santoro.
Producers: Aleksei Reznikovich, Sabina Eremeeva
Production Companies: Belongers, Slon.

Pavel Chukhrai: Cold Tango (Kholodnoe tango, 2017)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2018

Updated: 2018