Issue 68 (2020)

Iurii Bykov: The Watchman (Storozh, 2019)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2020

storozhIn less than a decade, Iurii Bykov has earned a solid reputation as a socially engaged director eager to expose the cynicism, corruption, and abuse of power of which the Russian authorities occasionally prove capable. In The Fool (Durak, 2014), the eponymous hero’s desperate attempts to have a crumbling dormitory evacuated in time are thwarted by the corrupt local maintenance service and the equally corrupt city authorities; The Major (Maior, 2013) revolves around a police cover-up of a deadly road accident and the many additional victims this operation requires. In The Factory (Zavod, 2018), a group of exploited workers decides to fight an impending round of layoffs by kidnapping the factory owner. Bykov’s films typically have short, laconic titles that do not invite metaphorical interpretations echoing the grim reality of the Russian provinces in which the stories are usually set. Adding to the inhospitable character of his fictional world are the dominance of male characters (physically imposing or trigger-happy thirty-somethings), the season (winter), and the time of the day. As a rule, most of the action takes place at night; when dawn sets in, the credits begin to role.

storozhAlthough Bykov has also made a number of films that are thematically and stylistically very different (as a co-director, he was involved in a “historical” sequel to the Yolki films, Yolki 1914), The Watchman appears to continue the provincial-drama strand in his oeuvre offering a considerable portion of violence and physical suffering, often in graphic detail. Between the first scene in which we see the title character (played by Bykov himself) start his day and the very last shot of the film showing the deserted building he is supposed to guard, we are witness to no less than two killings, two aborted suicide attempts, two torture scenes, a rape, and a makeshift operation carried out with cutlery. The scenery, too, looks quite familiar: low-hanging skies, a closed, typically Soviet sanatorium covered in snowdrifts, and a sense of utter remoteness provide the appropriately somber background we know so well from The Major, and more recently, The Factory. And again, Bykov’s preference for lapidary titles of no more than two syllables makes itself known.

storozhAnd yet, The Watchman departs from the genre of social exposé drama in a number of significant ways. In contrast to the other films, here none of the characters can be said to represent the state. Everybody acts on his own behalf: the permanently bickering couple Stas and Vera, who hope to save themselves and the money they stole from their former “business partners” by lying low in the sanatorium; the watchman, who lets them stay and even develops a sense of responsibility toward his uninvited guests, and finally, said business partners, who succeed in tracking Stas down and executing him in the very last scene. Just as in Balabanov’s gangster movies, the police are notoriously absent. The only person formally invested with authority is the title character, who turns out to be quite ineffective at guarding the premises and reluctant to wield even the little power he has. When he is beaten up and humiliated by three trespassers, he endures it meekly as though accepting a well-deserved punishment.

storozhThe reason behind the watchman’s reclusion and general submissiveness is disclosed relatively late in the film, not long after he has revealed himself to be an experienced surgeon by removing a bullet from Stas’ body. Growing indifference, physical exhaustion, and the influence of alcohol once prevented him from saving a patient’s life, a traumatic experience that caused him to abandon the profession and withdraw from society (all of this the watchman confides to Vera, Stas’ thoroughly unhappy and permanently intoxicated wife, who is still mourning the loss of their baby). While it is possible to interpret the watchman’s story as an indictment of Russia’s failing healthcare system, particularly in the provinces, the man’s personal tragedy and his efforts to atone for his mistake lend a more universal meaning to the film and add (for once!) a metaphorical layer to the title. Stas’ initial unwillingness to come to the watchman’s rescue, when the criminals start interrogating and torturing him, brings to mind Cain’s words to God (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”, Gen. 4:9); after all, the watchman has been a keeper to Stas ever since he showed up in the sanatorium. By eventually turning himself in, however, Stas reverses the roles and provides an affirmative answer to Cain’s question.

storozhBiblical subtexts do not necessarily exclude or undermine social or political criticism, as we have seen in Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan, but an Aesopian or “subversive” reading of The Watchman does seem rather contrived. If there is any social criticism to be found in the film, it is clearly overshadowed by a more philosophical question about the possibility (or necessity) of continuing life when, as the watchman describes it, “everything is shit (der’mo), people are shit, and you yourself are shit too.” This conclusion, reflecting the watchman’s desperate state of mind at the beginning of the film and causing him to attempt suicide by hanging, turns out to be premature; the moment fate confronts him with the fugitive couple, he rediscovers his talent for caring by putting them up, holding off their enemies as long as he can, and rehabilitating himself as a surgeon. It turns out, then, not everything is “shit,” and the watchman himself least of all.

storozhThe story of the suicide being distracted or otherwise disturbed in the process and then reconciling himself to life as he is forced to help a fellow human being is hardly original (in the context of Russian cinema Veronika in The Cranes Are Flying [Letiat zhuravli, dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957] is probably the paradigmatic example). In this case, it’s Vera’s drunken arrival in a SUV that violently interrupts the watchman as he is adjusting the noose. But this is not the story that Bykov wants to tell. The suggestion of a renewed sense of purpose in the watchman’s life is rendered problematic in the last scene in which he is nearly strangled to death by the criminals (echoing his own suicide attempt earlier) and Stas finally surrenders. When the shot that kills Stas resounds, a close-up of the watchman shows him regaining his breath and blinking his eyes. Is he really regaining consciousness or are we witness to his last agony? The ominous music and the watchman’s continued immobility in a fetal position suggest that the brutal interrogation has proven fatal, but Bykov seems unwilling to resolve the ambiguity. Even after watching the scene several times this reviewer wasn’t able to determine whether the watchman survives or dies.

storozhSo far, reaction to The Watchman in Russia has been mixed. Pavel Voronkov (2019) decries Bykov’s decreased social engagement and rejects the film as a failure, hopelessly ineffective, and unwittingly comical at the same time. In particular, Bykov’s continued reliance on imagery and clichés of the 1990s (criminals dressed in black, obnoxious sex workers) makes the film appear dated, not unlike The Factory which also seemed to be stuck in an undefined sort of post-Sovietness. According to critic Iuliia Shagel’man, however, Bykov deserves praise for not repeating himself and making a solid genre movie, a film noir, the story of which could have been situated in any country (Shagel’man 2019). Indeed, for the first ten minutes or so, The Watchman looks like the Russian equivalent of The Shining, especially in terms of suspense and setting. Whether The Watchman marks the beginning of a new stage in Bykov’s development, as Shagel’man conjectures, or is yet another failure after The Factory, as Voronkov maintains, it does appear to be less socially oriented and less topical than his previous films, focusing instead on ethical questions of a more timeless nature while retaining the doom and gloom of the “old” Bykov.

Otto Boele,
University of Leiden

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Works Cited

Shagel’man, Iuliia. 2019. “Vse der’mo, i ia der’mo: ‘Storozh’- pervyi fil’m-nuar Iuriia Bykova.” Iskusstvo kino, 28 October .

Voronkov, Pavel. 2019. “Tikhoe mesto: kakim poluchilsia ‘Storozh’ Iuriia Bykova.” Gazeta 24 October.


The Watchman, Russia, 2019
Color, 103 minutes.
Director and Scriptwriter: Iurii Bykov
DoP: Vladimir Ushakov
Production Design: Eduard Gizatullin
Music: Iurii Bykov, Ivan Is’ianov
Editing: Anna Krutii
Cast: Iurii Bykov, Vladislav Abashin, Alla Iuganova, Aleksandr Kuz’min, Artur Beschastnyi, Gela Meskhi, Oleg Zima, Aleksei Simonov, Nikolai Kozak, Dmitrii Blokhin, Evgenii Berezin
Production: Invada Film
Producers: Andrei Novikov, Aleksandr Kotelevskii, Igor’ Iesin, Ol’ga Filipuk,

Iurii Bykov: The Watchman (Storozh, 2019)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2020

Updated: 2020