Issue 74 (2021)

Andrei Bogatyrev: Red Ghost (Krasnyi prizrak, 2021)

reviewed by Laura Todd © 2021

red ghostHow can Russia possibly find a new way to depict the Great Patriotic War? Does Russia (or anywhere else for that matter) really need another film about the Great Patriotic War? Who is still watching these films? The steady stream of war films released in Russia, often coinciding with the commemorations of Victory Day on 9 May, has continued unabated for decades. These have varied in their formats and styles, their genres and heroes, but all contain a very similar message. Of course, Russia is not alone in this tendency. As recent releases like Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019) or Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) have shown, there are still new ways of attracting World-War-weary global audiences and significant appetite to watch them. Andrei Bogatyrev has managed to cover some new ground in his film Red Ghost, but how new the war genre can ever be is open to interpretation. Red Ghost is a film about the Great Patriotic War, but it is not really a war film in the way we would expect a Russian war film to be. Its focus is on the micro-history as epic, rather than the macro-history of epic battles. Red Ghost has its heroes and villains, of course, its references to historical events, but it also has strong undertones of the Western, comedy, and action film genres too. Those familiar with Russia’s standard war film output will find that this sounds radical indeed. Those familiar with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), however, will not find this combination a surprising one at all.

It is Inglourious Basterds and the Western genre that have been the major reference point for discussions about Red Ghost. Iuliia Shangel’man says that Red Ghost is a ‘fully successful attempt of contemporary Russian cinema to tell the story of the Great Patriotic War through the language of the Western’ (Shangel’man 2021). Arsenii Zanin suggests that: ‘We are presented with an attempt to turn the story of the “unknown soldier” into a Western about a lone sniper, a deus ex machina […]’ (Zanin 2021). Filmic references to the Western, the use of dark humor, and graphic violence in places, all lead to numerous comparisons with Tarantino’s work (Shangel’man 2021; Zanin 2021; Shuravin 2021). Yet in many places, the film does not stray too far from the usual Russian war film path and narrative. Whereas Tarantino’s film openly presented an action-adventure of alternate history, in Red Ghost, the lead hero may be a fantasy figure, but he is an everyman figure, and the sober historical facts behind the film are placed in plain view.

red ghostRed Ghost is set in the icy, snow-bound landscapes of Western Russia in the first winter after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. It follows separate, but destined-to-intertwine, groups, centering on the horrific conditions experienced by civilians and soldiers alike in the Eastern Front’s Vyazma Pocket in late 1941, part of the Battle of Moscow. For those needing some historical context, the Vyazma Pocket and similar encirclements developed out of Soviet attempts to resist the progress of the German Army Group Centre towards the capital. After the initial slow reaction to Operation Barbarossa, Soviet soldiers held out surprisingly well, but found themselves nonetheless encircled and cut off from their units around the village of Vyazma in Western Russia as winter approached. Many fought their way through snowdrifts to find their units or escape to safety, but others used this as a perfect excuse to desert.

We meet two examples of these types of soldiers in Red Ghost. One is the Red Ghost himself, an unknown soldier and extremely effective sniper—conceivably a counter-nod to the Nazi super-sniper character of Fredrick Zoller in Inglorious Basterds; the other is a ragtag group of leftover soldiers and local resistance fighters. In the latter, we have a stock cast of characters, reminiscent of other recent Russian war film releases: the joker; the quiet one (a potential deserter, referred to as “The Frozen One” by his comrades, who find him nearly frozen in the snow); the professional soldier; the grizzled volunteer (an elderly village dweller with a shaggy beard re-forged as a partisan); the one-eyed son of the grizzled veteran; the soldier-hero (who is quickly killed off); and the token woman (a nurse and lover of the soldier-hero, who it turns out is pregnant, causing no end of problems). As is essential for a film on the Eastern Front, the horrors experienced by civilians caught in the crossfire is also referenced, albeit in passing.

red ghostThis is not alternate history. Bogatyrev ensures that the historical facts are presented near the beginning of the film to introduce the appropriate gravitas of Russian war films. Intertitles tell us that in these encirclements the losses to the Red Army consisted of around 400,000 soldiers who perished, and 500,000 who were captured or went missing, while only 85,000 soldiers made it out of the pockets. An unknown number stayed behind to help others to safety—and this is, presumably, what our leftover group represents. However, the timing of this information is interesting. Whereas many Russian historical and war films would place this introductory information right at the beginning before the action starts, setting a somber tone of fact and memorialization, Bogatyrev takes a different approach. These intertitles are placed after the Red Ghost first appears to save two civilians from execution, and after we are treated to a compilation of the cut-off soldiers making their way through the snow, inter-cut with the film credits. The audience is introduced to the Western genre and comedy, but is also reminded that all Russian war films must have a certain degree of gravitas.

red ghostThe factual roots and connections to the experiences of small cogs in the Soviet war machine are shown in other ways. This is a film about little people, not great heroes. When writing the script for the film, Bogatyrev and his team travelled around the villages of the Eastern Front and collected stories from elderly people in the area where the film is set (Zanin 2021). These stories and experiences, often horrifying but other times humorous, were then used to build the screenplay. There are references in Bogatyrev’s approach to the polyphonic and testimonial war literature of Svetlana Alexievich and Ales Adamovich. It is no coincidence that in his article for Iskusstvo kino, Zanin (2021) not only refers to death in Red Ghost “not having a woman’s face” [u smerti tozhe ne zhenskoe litso]—a play on the title of Alekievich’s U voiny ne zhenskoe litso, but also to the Red Ghost being an evolution of Flera, the child protagonist of Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985). The identity of the Red Ghost remains unknown throughout the film: an experienced killer, he successfully neutralizes large groups of Nazi soldiers, saving fellow Soviets without even speaking a word to them. He makes no grand speeches nor particularly promotes patriotism. His appearance reflects the brutality of the setting, from his torn clothing and bloodied bandage headband, to his animalistic muteness. Zanin suggests he is Flera ‘grown up in one night’ (Zanin 2021).

red ghostLet us examine the film as a modern Russian Western. Westerns are not and never have been a commonly seen film genre in Russia and the Soviet Union before. The very nature of the Western being implicitly tied to the expansion of the United States made it unsavory option for both domestic filmmaking and distribution. Nonetheless, some famous Westerns were released in the USSR, including Fred Zinneman’s 1955 musical Western, Oklahoma! (Gilburd 2018, 165). Moreover, it is recognized that one of the most famous Soviet war films, the Vasil’ev Brothers’ Chapaev (1934), has traits of the Western in its construction. There are several elements of Red Ghost that make it aesthetically feel, sound, and look like a Western, both in the genre’s traditional and Spaghetti form.

Perhaps the first thing that clearly marks the film as being influenced by the Western film genre is Sergei Soloviev’s score for the film. Parts of the score strongly resemble Ennio Morricone’s main theme for Sergei Leone’s 1968 film, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, as well as the composer’s music for other Westerns. Soloviev’s Western-inspired score becomes a leitmotif for the Red Ghost throughout, and engenders a connection between the nameless ghost and the lone rangers of America’s Wild West. This Western-style score is also used to introduce the deserted village where the group of soldiers and partisans are destined to meet both the Red Ghost and his antagonist, the sadistic Nazi officer, Braun (played by Russia’s favorite actor for such roles, Wolfgang Cerny). The deserted frontier town is clearly intended to remind viewers of the frontier town of the Western.

red ghostOther traits of the Western are perhaps less obvious. The vastness of the harsh, hot, and dusty landscapes, and the struggle to dominate nature were key traits of the Western film. This inhospitable frontier life is transmuted into the equally inhospitable snowy frontier of the Eastern Front. The harshness of the rural Russian winter becomes the equivalent of the West in Bogatyrev’s film. Indeed, Red Ghost would be very little without the ominous Russian winter as another lead protagonist. Here some credit must be given to the actors, who worked in real-life winter conditions in Eastern Russia. The snowbound landscapes evoke the Western, but also the historical difficulties of waging war in Russia and the local men who can rise above the landscape. As the Germans struggle through the endless sea of birches and snowdrifts, the Soviet soldiers are part of this landscape. The Germans travel on whatever roads they can find while the Soviets go cross-country on foot. Thus, each Soviet soldier can become the Red Ghost or the lone ranger of the Eastern landscape. As André Bazin has written about the US frontier: “Only strong, rough and courageous men could tame these virgin lands” (1971, 145). And the Red Ghost himself seems a character entirely at peace with his surroundings.

When the two groups interact, however, they (and the audience) discover that the lone ranger, the Red Ghost, is not as mythical or infallible as they had imagined—he is in many ways an ordinary (Soviet, or Russian) man. The shootout at the deserted-village corral that ends the movie demonstrates that the lone ranger’s role in the Russian context is more of a relay race than a marathon effort by one exceptional man. When the original Red Ghost is defeated in his standoff with Braun, another rises up to take his place, so the struggle goes on. Much as happened when, as the mythology goes, one Soviet soldier was killed in war, a hundred seemed to take their place. Perhaps this is a reference to the “Bessmertnyi polk,” Russia’s Immortal Regiment of the ordinary people who contributed to the Soviet Union’s victory in WWII.

red ghostThe question remains for whom exactly the film is intended. Like a number of war films before it, Red Ghost is apparently geared to young people, or “millennials” as Zanin (2021) puts it, who are not interested in the usual narratives of the Great Patriotic War. Thus, Bogatyrev seeks to evoke the success of Inglourious Basterds—to create an odd, at times incongruously funny, kitschy and violent film about an overwrought genre in ways rarely seen in Russian cinema. This is the Great Patriotic War for an audience more interested in Hollywood than in Soviet history. However, the film could perhaps also be seen as a counterpoint to another pseudo-war film of immense global popularity that distorts Russia’s war heroes—the Winter Soldier from Marvel’s colossal Avengers productions, another initially anonymous, masked seemingly superhuman Soviet killer. The red ghosts of Bogatyrev’s film and Russia’s history are the real winter soldiers—superhuman, but also normal, assassins of their enemies. Yet the Soviet red ghosts and winter soldiers completed a superhuman feat on their own; they do not need science to empower them, it is in their nature and the landscape that produced them. Along this vein, Marvel did in fact actually invent a supervillain called “Red Ghost” in the 1960s, a madcap Soviet scientist bent on beating the United States. Possibly, Bogatyrev’s Red Ghost makes a satirical nod to these comic-book stereotypes of the Soviets.

The on-screen fight is with fascist villains, but the off-screen fight remains the battle with Hollywood over Russian cinematic audiences. Bogatyrev is another Russian director trying to counter this dominance using Hollywood’s own style; the film is intended as a deus ex machina to the established Russian war film plot. He succeeds in part, but to do so he, like others, has had to produce a copycat of an American film with flares of Russia. The god, or Red Ghost, might be Russian, but it still comes out of the Hollywood machine, rather than the Russian one

Laura Todd
University of Nottingham

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Works Cited

Gilburd, Eleonory. 2018. To See Paris and Die: The Soviet Lives of Western Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bazin, André. 1971. “The Western: Or the American film par excellence”, in What is Cinema? Vol. II, translated by Hugh Gray. London: University of California Press.

Shangel’man, Iuliia. 2021. “‘Drang nakh vestern: “Krasnyi prizrak” Andreia Bogatyreva kak otvet “Besslavnyim ubliudkam”’, Kommersant 8 June

Shuravin, Vladislav. 2021. “Retsenziia na fil’m “Krasnyi Prizrak”’, 13 June.

Zanin, Arsenii. 2021. “’Krasnyi Prizrak’: Postmodern protiv postpamiati v vesterne o VOV”, Iskusstvo kino 16 June.

Red Ghost, 2021
Color, 96 minutes.
Director: Andrei Bogatyrev
Scriptwriters: Andrei Bogatyrev, Viacheslav Shikhaleev, Pavel Abramenkov, with assistance from Armen Vatyan, Sergei Krainev, Pavel Poluichik
DoP Nikita Rozhdestvenskii
Composer Sergei Soloviev
Sound Director: Dmitrii Malyshkin
Production Design Maria Turskaia, Evgenii Biurchiev
Cast: Aleksei Shevchenkov, Vladimir Gostiukhin, Iura Borisov, Polina Chernyshova, Wolfgang Cerny, Mikhail Gorevoi, Ol’ga Stashkevich, Pavel Abramenkov, Viacheslav  Shikhaleev, Oleg Vasil’kov, Konstantin Simonov
Producers: Tat’iana Voronetskaia, Konstantin Elkin, Andrei Bogatyrev, Elena Belova, Oleg Tumanov,  
Production: ABS Film Company, Russian World Vision, MovieArtFactory

Andrei Bogatyrev: Red Ghost (Krasnyi prizrak, 2021)

reviewed by Laura Todd © 2021

Updated: 2021