Issue 71 (2021)

Konstantin Buslov: Kalashnikov (2020)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2021

kalashnikov-filmWhat would you expect from a biopic about the famous Soviet gunsmith, Mikhail Kalashnikov, released in the lead-up to Day of The Defender of the Fatherland? An informative, truthful tale of his coming-of-age and the detailed manufacturing story of his inventions; or a stoic, patriotic film celebrating enormous national achievement in the face of incredible obstacles; or a great symbolic exploration of the revolutionary and cultural impact of the AK47 on freedom fighters around the world; or a socialist realist portrayal of an idealized hero to mold the consciousness of the masses? Given that the film was released only in Russia and Estonia by Megogo Distribution sadly diminishes the chances for worldwide impact on the masses—as for the uninitiated this is an interesting tale of an uneducated Soviet inventor who rose to international fame.

Mikhail Kalashnikov was a Soviet tank mechanic and inventor of the world-famous machine gun, the AK-47. This weapon is credited with far more deaths than the two atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (Gunderman 2019). Directed by Konstantin Buslov, Kalashnikov is an uncontroversial portrayal of the inventor who is motivated to create a Soviet machine gun that is simple and reliable after witnessing the failures of domestic production during WWII. One of the world’s most famous gunsmiths, Kalashnikov was a soldier, an inventor, a small-arms designer, a military engineer, and a writer. The film is a coming-of-age drama in the context of WWII of a young inventor shaped by some romance, flashbacks, earnest voice-over narrated letters home, and some impressive close-up, fetishistic vision of the manufacture of a machine gun as its highpoint. The sound design of the mechanical moving parts and assembly of the AK-47 form the erotic soundscape that will send the blood frothing of any weapons aficionado.
 
kalashnikov-filmThe recent Russian biopic trend has focused on famous people from the Soviet past, much like the great Soviet biopics focused on the medieval past with such brilliant films as Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Groznyi, dir. Eisenstein, 1944) and Andrei Rublev (dir. Tarkovsky, 1966). In part, this current trend is empire-building through a shared retrospective history. The challenge is to balance ideological and commercial interests in establishing a patriotic cinematic nation-building. Some biopics, such as Admiral (dir. Kravtsov, 2008) about Admiral Kolchak, Legend No. 17 (dir. N. Lebedev, 2013) about hockey player Valerii Kharlamov, and Vysotsky: Thank You for Being Alive (Vysotskii. Spasibo chto zhivoi, dir. P. Buslov, 2011) found the right balance while modifying the socialist realist idealization of the hero with a modern, unvarnished approach to character portrayals that exhibited a degree of political criticism while also highlighting positive aspects of the Soviet system that facilitated these successes. Others, like Yuri Gagarin: First in Space (Gagarin. Pervyi v kosmose, dir. Parkhomenko, 2013) and Lev Yashin (dir. Chiginskii, 2019), were neither commercial nor critical successes, partly due to the uncomplicated idealization of their protagonists. Critics have been particularly skeptical and sensitive to the biopic’s potential for an overtly nationalistic approach as state-directed propaganda. While many films are state-sponsored and may appear to walk in lock-step with the regime, there is nothing overtly disturbing about this trend. What is more disturbing is the absence of future-orientated national patriotic ideals. As a mainstream genre, biopics tend to be more successful when devoted to sports stars such as Kharlamov, Eduard Streltsov in the film of the same title (dir. Il’ia Uchitel’, 2020), Natalia Molchanova (One Breath/ Odin vdokh, dir. Elena Hazanova, 2020) or counter-cultural musicians such as Viktor Tsoi (dir. Aleksei Uchitel’, 2020) and Vladimir Vysotsky. With sports and music there are clear barriers to success, competition against worthy opponents, conflict and huge crowds. The challenge for other forms of biopics is how to make the material engaging, unexpected, challenging and nuanced. 

kalashnikov-filmHow do you make the story of an inventor of machine guns compelling? The soundscape of metallic moving parts can be thrilling as can be the target shooting and the minute details of the manufacturing process. However, as for many biopics the central tension can be between the documented story and factual details and the necessities of representing an engaging, dynamic cinematic experience for a mainstream audience that may only know the broad legend without the details. It is how those aspects are blended without affecting the documentary purists that is an important measure of the accuracy of a biopic. Some people may know that Kalashnikov, one of 17 children, nearly died when he was six years of age and then again when his tank was hit in October 1941 and he was the sole survivor. Both events are documented in the film, but his near-death experience age six is presented without context, in a momentary scene where the camera flies over a young blond ruffle-headed country boy as he lies motionless on a wooden table. Other, more important events are ignored as they don’t fit the uncomplicated story. 

kalashnikov-filmA biopic needs conflict for drama—in sporting sagas that is easy: the competition, the games and the championships provide the tableaus for action, the highs, and setbacks, injuries and defeats that lead to the eventual triumphs that form the character of the nationally unifying sports star. With artists—whether it is writers, painters or musicians—the focus is on artistic setbacks that shape the artists’ career and personality and how they overcome the obstacles. For the inventor biopic—especially one employed to historicize the superior structures of state defense—the pivotal moment is harder to realize, as the character-shaping setbacks occur largely through the unseen forces of bureaucracy, the system and faceless decision-makers that prevent an invention from winning a competition. In the case of Kalashnikov (played by Iurii Borisov), his early design efforts are not rewarded, but it is unclear why: the manufactured prototype seems to work well, fires quickly and accurately but some unseen forces prevent the catharsis of celebrating a winning milestone. So, while Kalashnikov does not win the competitions, he is not denigrated but rather supported in his future efforts with continuing support through specialist personnel and workshops. Crestfallen, he soldiers on. It is difficult to determine what drives the young and untrained Kalashnikov: the joy of invention or the manufacturing process working with his hands and other hobbyists or romantic love or love for the Motherland. The most dramatic moment that acted as the key stimulus for the young inventor was the death of a comrade when his newly issued Soviet Shpagin machinegun jams just as he faces off against two German officers. The wounded Kalashnikov disassembles his comrades machine gun to work out why it jammed. It is clear that in this moment of detailed mechanical analysis, the motivation for improving the construction of Soviet made weaponry becomes the young man’s driving force, which guides him on his difficult journey in this industrial drama.

An interesting research project would be to compare Soviet-era biopics with the current fascination with sports stars, explorers and artists to examine the structural differences of the films and approaches to myth making. The films about Lenin, Aleksandr Nevsky, Chapaev, Lev Tolstoy and Rublev are very different to the current spate of films about Tsoi, Vysotsky, Streltsov, Yashin, and Molchanova. The recent films do not tend to heroicize their protagonists in the epic, optimistic and romantic style of the past.

kalashnikov-filmKalashnikov cannot be accused of being a Socialist Realist film (Shagel’man, 2020). While it has all the ingredients for creating a heroic portrait of a great inventor against the odds, the film fails to present the dramatic structures and shape the conflict to ensure this optimistic depiction. The problem with Kalashnikov is that everything seems to fall into place all too readily. His initial problem of not getting any support at the train building factory is quickly resolved when some of the old factory hands agree to help the young inventor in their own time. Kalashnikov’s lack of a formal education as a military engineer or designer is oft repeated throughout the film, but it appears more as a badge of honor that a provincial kid with no formal skills can scale the heights of becoming the nation’s premier small arms designer. There is little mystery and few dramatic turns. There are few antagonists other than the factory boss or the bitter NKVD officer, and the conflict with them is quickly resolved. Kalashnikov’s setbacks are momentary—he overcomes them easily through his pigheaded drive, will-power and peasant-boy doggedness. Like many recent biopics, the film takes some pleasure in showing its hero’s shortcomings, such as his awkwardness in wooing Katya, his future wife, or his abruptness with his work colleagues, but mostly his obsessiveness with his work to the detriment of seeing his family. Hardly shocking character traits for an inventor dedicated to defending the motherland. This is not a Socialist Realist portrayal, but an industrial film that prioritizes authentically depicting the production process, its sounds and rhythms and administrative methods rather than any great epic drama or overcoming major conflicts. “A machine gun needs to be simple, like a gunshot!” says Kalashnikov’s mentor, Aleksei Sudaev. Simplicity is theme that is regularly utilized in the film as Kalashnikov hones his designs to create a more rugged and reliable weapon. However, while simplicity may work for gunsmiths, it is less effective in the portrayal of complex human characters full of contradictions and foibles, and Kalashnikov's psychological issues do not generate much conflict.
 
The film employs flashbacks to Mikhail’s childhood to demonstrate that he had a talent from his youth for making guns. It could have been productive to examine his later career through flashforwards when he is a celebrated inventor and a political leader. In the final years of his life, Kalashnikov experienced considerable moral doubt. He wrote a letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, saying, “The pain in my soul is unbearable. I keep asking myself the same unsolvable question: If my assault rifle took people’s lives, that means that I am responsible for their deaths” (Gunderman 2019). The film avoids any moral or philosophical questions about weapons or the international impact of Kalashnikov’s invention and its symbolic power for many third-world nations fighting against colonial oppression, but also its use in various criminal activities that are far from the defense of the Motherland.

kalashnikov-filmDirector Konstantin Buslov’s first feature film Loot (Bablo, 2011) was a bright, snappy black comedy gangster-thriller shaped as a multi-stranded narrative following a suitcase of cash that is stolen and re-stolen by different groups across all social strata. He is best known as a producer, and the older brother of Petr Buslov, who is famous for Bimmer (Bumer, 2003), Vysotsky (2011, 2012), and the brilliant series House Arrest (Domashnii arrest, 2019). After Loot, Konstantin Buslov attempted another comic heist film, this time with big stars and an underwater treasure-diving plot, The Adventurers (Avanturisty, 2014), starring Konstantin Khabenskii, Svetlana Khodchenkova and Denis Shvedov in a love triangle. Unfortunately, this mainstream entertainment fare was neither a critical nor commercial success. In the past two years he has moved into biopics about engineers and inventors. Just a few months before Kalashnikov he released The Heavens are Measured in Miles (Nebo izmeriaetsia miliami, 2019) about the Russian aerospace engineer and founder of the Moscow Helicopter Plant, Mikhail Mil’; the film was released in December 2019 to little fanfare and a limited box office. Both projects attracted considerable state and commercial funding, but modest critical comments about their alleged state sponsorship. Konstantin Buslov is also the producer of Kalashnikov, along with Sergei Bodrov, who is also one of the screenwriters.

Kalashnikov attracted a box office $1,744,752 US according to Kinopoisk against a budget US$2,743,906. It appears as if the film was only released in Russia and Estonia, but it really deserved a broader distribution deal as along with vodka, the Kalashnikov is one of Russia’s most famous fast-moving consumer goods and it is important to educate the masses with its industrial history. We may have expected a coming-of-age biopic, but instead, just as in the old joke, we got a Kalashnikov—an industrial, Socialist Realism lite film.

Greg Dolgopolov
UNSW, Australia

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Shagel’man, Iuliia. 2020. “Vyekhali na avtomate.” Kommersant 20 February.

Gunderman, Richard. 2019. “World’s deadliest inventor: Mikhail Kalashnikov and his AK-47”, The Conversation 8 November.

 


Kalashnikov, Russia, 2020.
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Konstantin Buslov
Script Anatolii Usov, Sergei Bodrov, Aleksei Borodachev
DoP Levan Kapanadze, Maksim Shinkorenko
Composer Sergei Shtern
Production Design Evgenii Kachanov, Aleksei Kamyshov
Cast: Iurii Borisov, Ol’ga Lerman, Artur Smolianinov, El’dar Kalimulin, Vitalii Khaev, Valerii Barinov, Anatolii Lobotskii, Dmitrii Kulchikov, Aleksei Vertkov, Sergei Gazarov, Dmitrii Bogdan
Producers Konstantin Buslov, Sergei Bodrov
RB Production
Release 20 February 2020
Distribution: Megogo

Konstantin Buslov: Kalashnikov (2020)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2021

Updated: 2021