Issue 72 (2021)

Pavel Kostomarov: To the Lake (Epidemiia, 2019)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2021


epidemiaIn the first half of 2020, while the rest of the world was in lockdown re-watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (2016), Marc Foster’s World War Z (2013) and Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995), Russian audiences enjoyed an opportunity to get ahead of the pack with To the Lake by Pavel Kostomarov (2019-20), a domestic, outbreak-themed series that addressed in a terrifyingly dramatic form the looming social crisis associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. The prescient film, and a follow-up television series, were released in Russia in 2019 and then worldwide on Netflix in October 2020. To the Lake was, as Irina Efimova (2019) characterized it, “a socially-engaged” series with “topical themes that raise painful issues for present-day Russian society.” This series presented a socially conscious, morally instructive pandemic survival primer that delivered a unique variation of the outbreak narrative that has been most prominently defined by Priscilla Wald (2008), largely in reference to American films. In this review, I contend that the series To the Lake was a fascinating example of pandemic-era exposure therapy and a prophetic social critique.

The Guardian reported in March 2020 that “streaming numbers for Contagion and Outbreak have been huge, suggesting people are choosing exposure over escapism. Viewers have been flocking to these films for a sanctioned version of exposure therapy, in which an inconceivable menace can be experienced and survived” (Bramesco 2020). Examining the current interest in pandemic cinema through exposure therapy maybe a productive approach. Exposure therapy is a cognitive behavioral treatment sometimes used to treat anxiety disorders. The technique involves assisting the patient to overcome their fears by exposing them to the source of their anxiety without the intention of causing any real danger, thereby easing their anxiety. It is a form of emotional preparedness that embodies the “face your fears” maxim and apparently has positive clinical outcomes through breaking non-adaptive habits where the general rule is “to find the cues that initiate the action and to practice another response to these cues” (Guthrie 1935: 138). It appears audiences began self-medicating by seeking out unimaginable outbreak tales in order to quell their anxieties through deep-end exposure to cinematic pandemic horrors, zombies and viruses so that the daily news would not form a source of subconscious fear due to their habituation. The resolution of the threat creates a sense of viewer euphoria especially when the dramatization of the threat is high. Therefore, the positive resolution of the pandemic films matters, where the threat is contained, and the participants survive and are positively transformed in the process. I argue here that despite the massive class, gender and regional divides the pandemic narrative, especially in the first half of 2020 and especially the broadcasting of the To the Lake series, have acted as a form of symbolic unification, bringing the society together around shared cultural values and a survivalist mentality. To the Lake along with other recent Russian outbreak films have created a form of pedagogy around some of the expectations of what could occur in a pandemic, turning the exposure therapy into a process of considered learning of adaptive behaviors. Prior to the current pandemic there has been little evidence that Russian audiences sought out cinematic exposure therapy to create adaptive habits for countering apocalyptic anxieties. It could be argued that cinematic exposure therapy is not required under conditions of actual lived fear of already existing exposure to apocalyptic visions.

epidemiaThe film The Outbreak (Epidemiia. Vongozero), directed by the celebrated documentary filmmaker Pavel Kostomarov and based on Iana Vagner’s debut novel Vongozero (2011), was released in April 2019 at the Moscow International Film Festival. It acted as a clever promotion for the follow up 8 x 50-minute television series To the Lake that began its run on the streaming platform Premier on 14 November 2019 and went through to January 2020 before a national release on TV-3 in October 2020. With a great deal of fanfare, the series was acquired by Netflix, renamed To the Lake and released internationally in October 2020 as part of the Netflix Originals category. It quickly reached the 4th spot on the Netflix platform and a ‘top ten’ in 56 countries (Al’perina 2020). Stephen King sent the publicity into overdrive recommending the series with a couple of positive tweets: “pretty darn good Russian series”, “think spaghetti western, only with snow and plague infested killer Russians” and “the cinematography is cool. Some stuff is filmed upside-down. Why? Dunno.” (Sprague 2020). The Netflix release catapulted the series into global prominence at the same time as bolstering the streaming service’s timely pandemic-era offerings. It has attracted largely positive reviews with film critic John Doyle lauding the show: “It’s superbly paced, thrilling, frightening and singularly enthralling. One of the finds of the year” (Doyle 2020). Even though To the Lake presented an apocalyptic world on the verge of collapse from a killer respiratory virus, it did offer a form of survivalist pedagogy that exploited its’ domestic flavor and that wasn’t just the liberal application of vodka for often non-medicinal purposes or the heavily snow-covered landscape. To the Lake presented an existential approach to the pandemic replete with a pedagogical protocol that instructed audiences of what to expect on a psychological and social level during a pandemic.

Ways of thinking about pandemic cinema
Scholarly literature on pandemic cinema representations has focused largely on “broader moral failings within society at large” (Han and Curtis 2020: 390), middle-class anxiety (Höglund 2017) and a “proliferation of images of the diseased body” (Ostherr 2002: 31). Priscilla Wald’s influential “outbreak narrative” (2008) provides a moral, racial and class dimension to examining films that present the spread of the disease as driven by marginalized, deviant and oriental groups infecting the developed mainstream society. In an attempt to make sense of the fear and fascination elicited by cinematic accounts of viral outbreaks in films, Wald identifies the construction of an established outbreak narrative that “follows a formulaic plot that begins with the identification of an emerging infection, includes discussion of the global networks throughout which it travels, and chronicles the epidemiological work that ends with its containment” (Wald 2008: 2). This may be true of western examples, but To the Lake follows a somewhat different trajectory. Although offering survivalist solutions, it does not end with any sense of containment or resolution. However, it positions the response to the pandemic in terms of “broader moral failings of society at large” but contends that the solution is in the unification of small, notionally antagonistic groups around shared practical morals as a way to rebuild the fractured corpus of society.

troubleThe limited history of Soviet and Russian “outbreak narratives” does not follow the schemata outlined by Wald. Soviet-era films such as the celebrated Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse (Dni zatmenia, 1988), Vasilii Ordynskii’s The Four (Chetvero, 1958), Aleksandr Stolper’s The Exceptional Spring (Nepovtorimaia vesna, 1957), Mark Orlov’s TV series Trouble Has Come to Town (V gorode prishla beda, 1966), Sulamif Tsybul’nik’s Quarantine (Karantin, 1968) and Savva Kulish’s The Committee of 19 (Komitet 19 1972) examine viral outbreaks and apocalyptic themes. These films were not designed to inspire fear and anxiety as in the western pandemic horror genre. Rather they could be considered as serious containment narratives where specialists help to avert a crisis using the best available medical science and considered epidemiological approaches. They present as science fiction blended with spiritual journeys and industrial tropes headed by somber characters—doctors, nurses, scientists and engineers. They combat the outbreaks with medical knowledge and collective action. There are also a number of celebrated films that deal with thematic variations of the plague topic, sometimes indirectly, such as Andrei Tarkovskii’s Stalker (1979),Mikhail Shveitser’s Little Tragedies (Malen’kie tragedii, 1979), Aleksandr Mitta’s The Story of Voyages (Skazka stranstvii, 1983) and Valerii Todorovskii’s Odessa (2019). Viral outbreaks set the context for these films’ narratives, but they tend to be about how people respond to the situation and how they are transformed, rather than directly engaging with combating the outbreak.  The films could be considered as therapeutic in that they forge positive associations between traumatic events and their depiction and the adaptive techniques of managing those narratives into adaptive learning that minimizes emotional distress for audiences. In the limited number of Russian and Soviet epidemic films we do not see the appearance or indeed the repetition of certain characters (such as Patient Zero and Superspreaders). What we see are dedicated scientists who are prepared to sacrifice their own lives for the benefit of society, and use science and logic in order to ensure future social benefits such as in Quarantine and Trouble Has Come to Town, Russian and Soviet outbreak narratives appear to be based on real events and usually focus on disease management through science to find appropriate treatments or solutions without generating mass panic. The display of fear or panic tends to be internalized by the characters and there are no depictions of mass, uncontained anxiety. The scene in Trouble Has Come to Town of a group of doctors covered in full protective garments arriving to the mournful ambulance siren at the home of one of the infected citizens is visually confronting. Like a swarm of stormtroopers, the white-clad doctors rush to work appearing in a full mask close-up at the door of their target. But their tone in convincing the orchestra conductor of the seriousness of the situation is calming in its professionalism. The film is a dramatization of the outbreak of smallpox in Moscow during 1959-1960 and its successful containment and universal vaccination. In this film the virus is not demonized as the outcome of mass moral social failing; it is seen scientifically, as something that can be measured, analyzed and contained. Soviet-era storylines do not often suggest that the virus emerged from the margins of the civilized world as defined by Wald who characterizes western narratives that show the virus coming from Asia or Africa or from immigrants (2008: 44-5). Indeed, several films (Days of Eclipse, The Exceptional Spring and The Committee of 19) feature Russian scientists going to Africa or Central Asia to help medically to fight viral outbreaks working with the local communities without any sense of anxiety of contagion that would destroy Russia. Clearly there were strong ideological connections between epidemiology and Soviet political ambitions.

Han and Curtis’s examination of the changes in social morality during pandemics suggests a possible method for making sense of the approach that To the Lake takes to the outbreak narrative. The series focus was not so much based on the fear of the virus outbreak, but on social morals that are threatened by people’s self-centered approach to survival, with the diegesis promoting a pedagogic accent on unity and forgiveness as a method for collective survival. Han and Curtis note that some films portray death from disease as a response to immoral behavior and sexual debauchery (2020: 390). They write that “many films focusing on outbreaks of epidemic disease focus on outbreaks of senseless violence indicative of a society completely out of control” (Han and Curtis 2020: 390). The Russian and Soviet epidemic-themed television and films concentrate on a group that make decisions collectively. The virus is not personified as the ‘enemy’ and there are no depictions of mass panic. In To the Lake the main source of danger, other than the rather passive victims of the virus, are the marauding gangs of racketeers using the chaos as an opportunity to steal from the rich and kill anyone standing in their way without consequences. However, unlike the Soviet-era epidemic films, there is no avoiding scenes of violence, blood, gore, fear and anxiety and panic—this is the development of the domestic iteration of the genre—mixing the zombie and thriller elements with the materialist outbreak narrative. The series examines the impact of the virus on declining social morality, providing testing examples of boorishness and selfishness as counterproductive to survival; indeed, businessman Lenya, Aleksandr Robak’s character, is devoted to displaying this reversed pedagogy as a transformed social morality.

The television series as savior
epidemiaThe series starts by dividing people into those who have fallen ill and those who have the means, skills and capacity to escape. It ends with the outbreak narrative that unites disparate people and brings them together, despite their differences, to act collectively. Accepting Wald’s key motivation for her research that the conventions of “the outbreak narrative have consequences” (2008: 3) it is productive to examine what objectives the To the Lake outbreak narratives privileges. The plot in some ways imitates that of Quarantine (1968) but mixes the psychological story with dynamic action and the need for thriller structure to support the episodic format. The story of Quarantine is about how an accident in a lab at an epidemiological institute was contained with the complex battle under quarantine conditions to bring the threat under control. Here science and selflessness triumph over fear and recriminations. The five institute employees tasked with solving the issue all are very different and all have significant moments of existential reckoning and personal conflict, but it is their eventual cooperation and scientific expertise that produces a containment denouement, ensuring broader social anxieties may be quelled, although not without a significant personal sacrifice. It is a trope that has been replicated in other catastrophe narratives such various cinematic iterations of the Chernobyl disaster. 

epidemiaThe action starts with a wonderful scene of a swirling bird’s eye view of a snow-covered forest before the camera drops down into the canopy and follows a disorientated, clearly sick man trying to drink water from a stream. His bloody mouth betrays that he is dying as he is seen from underwater, his blood flowing into the stream. It is a ghastly scene. But it is only a dream, or so it seems when Anya (Viktoria Isakova) the psychiatrist wakes up screaming. It is only later that she and her new partner Sergei (Kirill Käro) catch the television news that reports on a rapid-acting respiratory virus that has no known treatment or vaccine. The moment that the specialist begins to tell the truth about the extent of the virus spread, the propaganda channels cut him off with an ad for common flu tablets. Turns out that it is a global pandemic. It appears as a form of influenza that devours its victims in a few days with a rasping cough, bronchiectasis and eyes turning a translucent white the key symptoms before a painful and inevitable death. Everyone, rich or poor, is susceptible to infection. People are dying everywhere. The authorities cannot cope. Moscow seems to be the epicenter of the disease. Unidentified groups of heavily armed men patrol the streets—potentially they are security services or perhaps gangs of organized criminals—the absence of distinction is quite telling. Battles break out over petrol and food. There is panic, looting, desperation and utter chaos everywhere. Moscow is cordoned off and placed under quarantine. Beyond that, there is little evidence of action by the authorities. All state institutions no longer operate. People are left to survive on their own.

epidemiaMeanwhile, not far from Moscow, in a well-to-do area, Sergei and Anya and her son who suffers from Asperger syndrome are invited to his boorish neighbor Lenya’s house for dinner. Lenya is wealthy and self-centered, talking over the top of his pregnant new wife, a former stripper, while ignoring his daughter, a troubled, alcoholic, sex-addicted teenager. When Sergei realizes that there has been a deadly outbreak in Moscow he springs into action. The city may be locked down, but Sergei has an eight-year-old son who lives there with his ex-wife. Sergei must save them, himself, Anya and his son, and even, despite their differences, Lenya and his family. This incongruent band riven by mistrust and deep-seated antagonism must escape the marauding gangs and the fast-creeping virus and make their way north, as far north as they can go, to the northern Lake Vongozero. They are led there by Sergei’s father who has renovated an old well-equipped boat in the middle of a lake that can be their hope for salvation. A kind of ark for surviving the pandemic.

The first moral conundrum of the story is Sergei’s choice to rescue his ex-wife and son at the expense of protecting his new wife and her son as they wait at a country house that is attacked by looters. The conflict between the ex and the new wife escalates throughout the series. Indeed, the not-so-merry band of survivors are riven by conflict of class, taste and skills, and their personal enmity is only balanced by their survival instinct and constantly changing attitudes to one another. People who normally would never spend time together under the same roof are forced to support one another in order try to survive the virus, but more importantly, the social conflicts that spring up around the pandemic. In every episode they face various dangers, but they also need to overcome painful memories, family troubles and learn not only to survive, but also to forgive. While the out-of-control marauding gangs and the irrational movement of the virus shape the apocalyptic background to this series, the focus is on the survivors’ capacity to remain human under inhumane conditions, to find compromises despite the endlessly fractious relationship, and to maintain a sense of morality when all other forces of authority and social structures collapse.

epidemiaThe concept of a family or a group fleeing the vortex of a catastrophe to find salvation in nature is not new, but this series avoids many of the standard tropes associated with this subgenre. The tension between the characters is constant. The series explores the idea that if the virus doesn’t get you, other people will. The viral infection is not at the center of the narrative – it is really the stimulus that pushes the protagonists to try to survive, to make sense of their relationships, deal with their past indiscretions and memories (somewhat like the zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker). The escape from other people and the virus leads the protagonists to existentialist confrontations where they are forced to confront their personal fears and foibles and then to try to rebuild their relationships and morals in an increasingly pure white snowy landscape. Used symbolically as exposure therapy, the series continuously asks: how would people who find themselves in a similar crisis behave? What are they prepared to sacrifice in terms of their morals? Do the ends justify the means? As self-administered exposure therapy, the series prepared audiences with difficult and often unexpected choices. The majority of these moral choices are based on the survival demands of the protagonists, but they increasingly become more humane and not vengeful. Take for example the case of the old woman who cruelly locks up Lenya, his wife who has just given birth and his daughter in her cellar. When eventually they escape, Lenya (initially an odious, narcissistic businessman with shocking moral choices) chooses not to kill her out of vengeance, even though she had raped him earlier. Even the basest of the characters develops a higher sensibility during the course of their ordeal. 

Contrary to Wald’s rejuvenation denouement in the outbreak narrative hypothesis, where the outbreak is ultimately contained and that is where social reaffirmation comes from – the end of To the Lake is at once confusing and incomplete, and provides little resolution. Accidentally the group discover a treatment for the virus. Pavel (Aleksandr Iatsenko), the brilliant melancholic medic, who the group pick up along the way, is immune to the virus possibly due to long term exposure to various illnesses through his work at the hospital. He gallantly transfuses his blood to Anya, who is dying from the disease. After a few days of isolation and partial white-eyed blindness, she recovers. Pavel is then torn whether to develop his blossoming romance with Sergei’s ex-wife Irina (Mar’iana Spivak) or to return to ‘civilization’ and assist others with his newfound discovery.

In keeping with the traditional dramatic narrative denouement, the series does not have a happy ending. In the final episode, just as it seemed that the bedraggled travelers had finally reunited at the Lake and would go on to weather the winter and, hopefully, the outbreak far from other people and settle down to a neutral survival status, they are surprised. They are attacked by heavily armed Chinese paratroopers. No rejuvenation here - only seemingly more misery. This scene was not in the book and is not logical from a geopolitical perspective, as many viewers highlighted in their online reviews. It does, however, make sense in terms of the Russian narrative tradition and enhanced by the exposure therapy pedagogy of maintaining an audience vigilance against possible threats. As Oksana Bulgakova explained, “to this day, not a single Russian film has successfully disentangled itself from the mesmerising paradigm of the ‘unhappy ending’, which has been disregarded only in the amalgamated cinema of pop culture” (2012: 33). As much as cultural commentators such as Wald may seek an optimistic tone, not all outbreak narratives are formulaic in presenting a containment conclusion.

epidemiaThe characters in To the Lake are riven by class differences, personal enmities and troubled histories among one another. The fear throughout the series is not so much anxiety about catching the virus as it is about the competing desires of other people and the potential of being let down by members of the group. The travelers start off deeply disunited and disaffected. They come together due to extraordinary circumstances and are transformed. The unifying force is Sergei—he is the point of connection. Their quest is salvation. It would be a mistake to consider this as only a secular idea of physical salvation: that the houseboat on the lake saves them from the elements, that medicine saves them from illness and that education saves them from ignorance. The plot emphasizes that suffering is a way to find salvation.  But it is the characters’ incomplete escape from physical danger that withholds the symbolic transformation of their souls. Nothing cleanses contagion as much as suffering cleans the soul in a continuous pursuit of spiritual salvation. This is the domestic version of exposure therapy.

Given the context of its viewership, To the Lake became a pandemic primer for surviving an outbreak. The narrative focused not on individual endurance in the face of the apocalypse, but on social survival, family unity and shared goals in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe. There are no indications in director Kostomarov’s biography to suggest a predisposition to outbreak narratives. However, it is his background as a cinematographer that may explain some of the more innovative, unusual and provocatively heightened image sequences that visually dramatize the diegesis. He was the cinematographer on Aleksei Uchitel’’s The Stroll (Progul’ka, 2003) which featured an hour-long single take sequence that followed three young people as they strolled down Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg. Coming soon after Sokurov’s Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002), but operating not in the controlled confines of the Hermitage but on busy Nevsky Prospect, the three actors weaved between unsuspecting passers-by. Perhaps the most significant influence especially in the realistic depiction of real people’s capacity for ‘making-do’ was Kostomarov’s background as a celebrated documentarian. His credits include shooting the renowned Sergei Loznitsa ground-breaking slow-moving observational documentaries from Portrait (2002) to The Siege (Blokada, 2006). Kostomarov soon turned to directing his own work, from the extraordinary short absurdist documentary Transformer (2003) to Mother (2007) and the “beyond-the-documentary” trilogy of I Love You (Ia tebia liubliu, 2010), I Don’t Love (Ia tebia ne liubliu, 2012) and The Term (Srok 2012) where all three used participant contributed amateur footage that Kostomarov and his collaborator Aleksandr Rastorguev edited into largely festival-orientated films. He is at once a formalist prepared to explore challenging aesthetics and a humanist with a deep affection and care for his real-world actors and collaborators.

epidemiaAs well as providing an apt, albeit non-clinical, metaphor for the current fascination with the representation of a pandemic on screen, the television series To the Lake could be seen as a screen application of exposure therapy. It has informed audiences about how they could choose to act, feel and respond to the moral challenges that they face under the conditions of lockdown and multiple viral outbreaks and the continually rising mortality rate. Audiences’ choice of entertainment programming in the context of a pandemic are not controlled clinical trials of exposure therapy. But the concept of cinematic exposure therapy does provide a framework for understanding pandemic-era production and providing audiences with a scaffold for what could occur and to rehearse possible responses. The narrative of To the Lake privileges making positive moral choices in the absence of laws during the plague. Cinematic exposure therapy could facilitate accessing symbolic traumatic experiences and processing them with new, dramatized associations developed for more adaptive responses. Multiple and cumulative experiences of different outbreak narratives allow audiences to process new learning opportunities and develop the skills for physical and spiritual survival.

To the Lake respond to the pandemic with the focus on how characters react to the complexity, danger and suffering generated by the virus and ensuing quarantine. The series rated well on KinoPoisk with a high audience rating of 7.2 out of 16,170 respondents. Russian outbreak narratives, while sharing some aspects described by Wald (2008), tend to define their own structures and tropes. The cinematic depictions of chaos, without a resolution for the contagion, highlight the importance of a communally emotional sense of a shared amorphous morality in the face of suffering, of the reinforcement of customs and existing beliefs in order to make sense of the contradictions between mysticism and fatalism, on the one hand, and science and materialist philosophy, on the other.

Greg Dolgopolov
UNSW, Australia

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Works Cited

Al’perina, Susanna (2020). “Rossiiskii serial ‘EpidemiIa’ vyshel na 4-e mesto po prosmotram na Netflix’, Rossiiskaia gazeta 12 October.

Bramesco, Charles (2020). “Exposure therapy: why we’re obsessed with watching virus movies.” The Guardian 17 March

Bulgakova, Oksana (2012). “The Russian Cinematic Culture.” Repository University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Doyle, John (2020). “Weekend TV choices: Escape to caustic fun, or horror’, Globe and Mail 8 October.

Efimova, Irina (2019). “Russian Television Series: Recent Trends.” KinoKultura 66.

Guthrie, Edwin Ray (1935). Psychology of Learning. New York: Harper.

Han, Qijun and Daniel R. Curtis (2020). “Social Responses to Epidemics Depicted by Cinema.” Emerging Infectious Diseases 26.2. U.S. National Center for Infectious Diseases

Höglund, Johan (2017). “Eat the Rich: Pandemic Horror Cinema.” The Other’s Imagined Diseases. Transcultural Representations of Health 12

Litovchenko, Aleksei (2019). “U tebia gripp, i znachit, my umrem.” Rossiiskaia gazeta 23 April.

Ostherr, Kirsten (2002). “Contagion and the Boundaries of the Visible: The Cinema of World Health.” Camera Obscura 50 (17. 2): 1-40.

Sprague, Mike (2020). “Stephen King Recommends Netflix’s Terrifying Plague Series TO THE LAKE.” Dread Central (Blog).

Wald, Priscilla (2008). Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham NC: Duke University Press.


To the Lake, Russia, 2019–2020
Color, 8 x 55 mins
Director: Pavel Kostomarov
Scriptwriters: Roman Kantor, Aleksei Karailov, Iana Vagner
DoP David Khaiznikov
Production Design Mariia Pasichnik-Raksha, Marusia Parfenova-Chukhrai, Dariia Fomina
Music: Aleksandr Sokolov
Editing: Stepan Gordeev, Aleksandra Koroleva, Ekaterina Pivneva
Cast: Kirill Käro, Mar’iana Spivak, Aleksandr Robak, Viktoriia Isakova, Eldar Kalimulin, Natal’ia Zemtsova, Viktoriia Agalakova, Savelii Kudryashov, Michael C. Pizzuto, Kit Sheehan, Iurii Kuznetsov, Aleksandr Iatsenko, Anna Mikhalkova
Producers Valerii Fedorovich, Evgenii Nikishov, Dzhannik Faiziev
Production: 1-2-3 Production, Kinostudiia KIT, Production Centre IVAN, Premier Streaming Service, Netflix
Premiere in Russia (Premier) 14 November 2019
Premiere internationally (Netflix) 8 October 2020

Pavel Kostomarov: To the Lake (Epidemiia, 2019)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2021

Updated: 2021