Issue 71 (2021)

Semen Serzin: A Man from Podolsk (Chelovek iz Podol’ska, 2020)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko © 2021

“Look from anywhere, and there is the Militiaman
Look from the East and there is the Militiaman
And from the South, there is the Militiaman
And from the sea, there is the Militiaman
And from the heavens, there is the Militiaman
And from the bowels of the earth...
But then, he’s not hiding.”
Dmitri A. Prigov,
transl. Charles Rougle

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”
Oscar Wilde

 

An Entertaining Study of Local Lore

Semen Serzin, who was once known only for his works in the theater, in Yaroslavl, Yekaterinburg, and Moscow, has become a filmmaker thanks to the light touch of the producer Natalia Mokritskaya. Serzin’s debut, however, is also connected with theater, more precisely with the play by Dmitrii Danilov, A Man from Podolsk. By starting with a screen adaptation of a popular repertoire performance (for example, I saw performances of the Moscow “Doc” Theater, the Drama Number Three Theater from Kamensk-Uralsky, and the Fifth Theater from Omsk) involuntarily means to allow for possible comparisons of different types of conventions, theatrical and cinematic. The space of the theater stage can be built in such a way that the play will turn into a parable, while the cinematic space is always detailed, material, and corporal. And the debutant Semen Serzin constantly uses this opportunity to represent bodies, things, faces, and poses on different levels, to edit sound and image.

man from podolskAt first the space is Kursk Railway Station (in Moscow), recognizable in all details, with gypsies and ticket offices, kiosks, the departure board, escalators, a lively flow of anxious people hurrying about, and familiar mass-produced state-supplied furniture from fiberboard in the offices of the police station, the neat uniform of police officers, the shovels of the yard keepers and the yard keepers themselves, all gastarbeiter.

Danilov’s play is constructed along the quite classical canon of unity of place, time and action, without engaging in a search for the reasons why the Man from Podolsk, Nikolai (or Kolia), has ended up in the police office. In the film, an introduction precedes the main line of events, namely Nikolai’s interrogation, from which it emerges that the series of troubles that have befallen the young man with headphones will only increase. He will face material and non-material losses: his wallet disappears without trace, and irrevocably the announcement about the train to the station Podolsk with all the intermediate stops will sound mockingly. Neither will his girlfriend Galia (Taisiia Vilkova) travel with him to Podolsk, as she has specially come to the station to tell him that their relationship is over, that she rented an apartment in Moscow and asks him to leave the guitar. With these two injuries which he has not quite manage to digest fully, Nikolai Frolov (Vadik Korolev) stayed on the platform of Kursk Railway Station. This short overture is enacted in the mode of a quite realistic, almost documentary narration, which observes the principles of determinism and their reliance on the relationships of cause and effect: a slightly slowed-down young man, having forgotten about vigilance in places of increased danger (such as a station), for some reason talks with a Gipsy and her (or not her) children, and is not even warned by the phrase “Good-bye, darling!” (after all, he is wearing headphones). The reaction to his girl’s news that she is fed up of going backwards and forwards from Podolsk to Moscow was also somewhat sluggish. In a word, everything should have forecast further troubles. They materialized in the form of the station police checking documents. Here the film’s documentary and realistic part comes to an end, and another part begins: phantasmagoric, absurd, and grotesque, but in the same way as the first, based on the detailed image of an objective reality. With the appearance of the policemen, the hope on logic and on the opportunity to find or establish relationships of cause and effect, also comes to an end. If in the stage performance we deal with a conventionality of events, in the film the director Serzin, drawing on the opportunities of film language, declares his mistrust in the classical logic by means of the detailed image of familiar objects in unexpected circumstances (a white bathrobe that is given out in spas donned by the police officer inside the station; the setting in the police office; the pool with curling and steaming clouds, reminding us of the pool ‘Moscow’ on Kropotkinskaya where today rises the Cathedral of Christ the Savior). In reality punishment is not always connected with crime, and the question “what for?” cannot at all assume a straightforward answer, while violence is not always in a bludgeon and a soldering iron. The director builds his own version of the logic of the absurd that once offered Eugene Ionesco in his play The Bald Soprano (La cantatrice chauve, 1950)the logic of modality that does not require a skilled check when from the note “someone called at the door” it does not follow that someone is at the door (in Ionesco it is the firefighter), and in some cases there may not be anybody. The director “works” with this contrast between recognizable household particulars and actions that cannot be checked.

man from podolskSo, Nikolai Frolov was detained, it seems to him, “for nothing.” He waits to see a logic in the actions of the police officers, and an answer to the question “What for?”, but he is told that according to logic, he should be beaten up and given some drugs, then the answer to the question would be obvious. Serzin designs the experience as if it were passed on genetically, an experience of the expectation of repressions, since Big Brother is always at work. And really, for some reason the first police officer has a VHS tape with a home video from Kolia’s 8th birthday celebration. But even that is not so surprising for Nikolai, or for the viewer. What surprises is that for some reason the police officers must be called Mister Senior Lieutenant (there are two in the film, the First and the Second, played by Vladimir Maizinger and Mikhail Kasapov), while the police captain is of feminine gender, Madame Captain Marina or simply Marina, since according to Marina (Viktoria Isakova), Madame Marina is like pornography. Maizinger plays his part with attention to detail, without vanity, deriving pleasure from the work and with the patience of a logopedist trains the man from Podolsk to pronounce open syllables, diphthongs “Pyi, Pyi,” makes some dancing steps and has the slow movements of a professional, who carries a high mission—to educate! In love with his work, he genuinely does not understand how Nikolai may not like his work as editor of the newspaper of the Southern Administrative District (Iuzhnii Administrativnyi Okrug, IuAO), The Voice of IuAO, which is “a source of artistic creation,” a seed from which “verses” grow. And before our eyes emerges a rap in which IuAO is rhymed with two beats, and then, instead of a grand piano in the bushes, a composition is born from a drum set, it gets complicated, and the second police officer (Kasapov) is not only a great musician, but also a dancer. Of course, he is not as impressive as his senior colleague, and not at all politically correct; he believes that all of Podolsk is stupid, but he is a fair judge of modern art. And Madame Captain Marina (as well as her colleagues) not only know of Noise Industrial, she even listened live to a concert of Einstürzende Neubauten. All these discoveries don’t cancel Nikolai’s question “what for?”, though he gradually accepts the rules of the game and studies the movements of the police dance for the development of neuro-connections, and articulates “Ay lyole, lolye, hey lyole” correctly, mastering the diphthongs.

podolskThe events in the police station remind us of a performance with a composed scenario, whose curators are the police officers. The scenario they suggest is provocative as all modern art, it is not likeable, just as it is difficult to fall in love with “4' 33"” by John Cage (as the First Police Officer calms Nikolai when he again wants to understand where he is).

The team of police officers/tutors/artists works with confidence, and in their track record they have the re-educated “Man from Mytischi” Sergei (Il’ia Borisov), a carrier of the “Stockholm syndrome,” who has become one of theirs, “a son of the regiment” in the department, and also behind bars is a certain person who has crammed in everything about the sights of the settlement Korolev.

podolskThe interrogation as main event of the film is absurd, and the representation of the absurdity requires distancing which is presented both verbally (screenwriters Iuliia Lukshina and Dmitrii Danilov) when the local history on Podolsk, relevant to a school museum or for a daytrip, can be heard from the cells of the police station, turning into an imposed repressive force of Kafkaesque scale; and in the graphic and visual design (cameraman Daniil Fomichev). The device thought up by cameraman and director to include the surveillance cameras in the narration creates the effect of doubling reality, absurd on the one hand, but at the same reliable because of the surveillance cameras which, by definition, don’t tell lies. A special role is played by the window in the frame, which appears several times, and through which we see the dancers in the falling snow (almost “Tombe La Neige” of Salvatore Adamo), gastarbeiter cleaners and yard keepers, swimming in the pool to the Moscow anthem of Isaak Dunaevskii, while against the window are pressed the faces of three men, three desiring men’s gazes (the police officers and Sergei from Mytischi), observing Madame Captain Marina who is gracefully floating in the pool. In cultural history the window has always been interpreted as an exit to the big world; here it is a sign of the impenetrable world of absurdity.

The culmination of the absurd performance and the justification of the transfer of the stage text to the cinema screen are the invented recreation zone where flowers grow along with greens and cucumbers (we remember that outside the window it is snowing) and the pool, where the divine Viktoria Isakova (as Madame Captain) in a bathing suit and without it continues her educational conversations with Nikolai. In the episode where Kolia receives not only a lesson of local lore, but also of housekeeping, we witness the preparation of a salad by the marvelous hands of Madame Captain Marina. We could follow Isakova’s hands cutting the cucumbers (“nothing is better than homegrown cucumbers”) for hours, but even a minute of screen time delivers the pleasure of recognition, because Isakova turns the routine movement into a gracious ballet. In general, Madame Captain can do everything: give maternal support, flirt and tempt men in a feminine manner, offer friendly advice, and be harsh in a police manner. We notice how cold and harsh she becomes when Nikolai violates the secret convention of the performance when he asks her in the pool how long this will go on for. Her icy tone, which replaces the previously seductive intonations, is a sign that Nikolai, unfortunately, has not become obedient and one of “theirs”.

man from podolsThere is a moment in the film when the performance could turn into a happening, i.e., depart from the planned course to a non-scripted finale. As viewer and knowing the play, I was delighted about such a course when Nikolai—the accused and loser working for the Voice of IuAO newspaper, the leader of the band Liquid Mother, who has gone on a tour to Amsterdam at his own expense, and accordingly the girl from the Wet Pushkin band has made the right choice to ditch him—suddenly wakes up and defends his right to not love Podolsk and love Amsterdam, and does so defiantly and bloodily (in the spirit of Tarantino), but alas, the protest presented again through the internal surveillance camera turns out to be a phantom flash of consciousness: the camera has once again deceived us, and Kolia, who has received a lesson to love the small homeland, is released and moreover given an award, a voucher for a studio recording of his group Liquid Mother. But this episode shows the range of opportunities of the non-professional actor but professional musician, the leader of the group OQJAV, Vadik Korolev. From the sluggish, phlegmatic guy he turns into a fighter able to protest.

The protest has not happened, but it could happen from the viewer, because Serzin has made a movie about the art of seduction, seductions of the power that replace political charges with aesthetic allegations, studying not only the laws of psychology, but also modern art where borders between the documentary and fictional or played in the document are erased, and where seduction always threatens with provocation, in which nothing can be taken on trust and everything must be checked by experience.

A Man from Podolsk is a film about the strange interrogation of a young man who is affected by an indifference to Reality. Reality, unfortunately, is such that the power exists not for the protection of the “man from Podolsk,” but for the search of new charges at his address, even if Maneki-neko waves at him with its paw.

Absurdist art possesses a very important pragmatical property: it offers man a position of stoicism. Semen Serzin has shown such a position, and together with Vadik Korolev, the spectator can try out this position.

 

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Lilya Nemchenko,
Yekaterinburg, Ural Federal University

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A Man from Podolsk, Russia, 2020,
Color, 90 minutes, 1:2,39, 5.1 Dolby
Director Semen Serzin
Scriptwriters Iuliia Lukshina, Semen Serzin
DoP Daniil Fomichev
Production Design Liubov’ Ivanova
Music Vadim Korolev
Editing Tat’iana Magai
Cast: Vadim Korolev, Viktoria Isakova, Vladimir Maizinger, Mikhail Kasapov, Taisia Vilkova, Il’ia Borisov
Producer Natalia Mokritskaya
Production Company New People, with support of the Ministry of Culture of the RF and the Foundation for the Development of Modern Cinematography KINOPRIME
Distribution (RF) New People Company
Release: Kinotavr 2020 (September)

Semen Serzin: A Man from Podolsk (Chelovek iz Podol’ska, 2020)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko © 2021

Updated: 2021