Vladimir Mashkov, Papa [Papa] (2004)
reviewed by Michelle Kuhn©2005
theme of fatherhood occupies an increasingly central place in the work of
Vladimir Mashkov, recurring with greater intensity in several of his recent
films. Having played at fatherhood
as Tolian in The Thief (Pavel
Chukhrai, 1997), Mashkov then presented a multiplicity of make-believe fathers
in his directorial debut, the New Year’s film Orphan
of Kazan (1997).
Mashkov’s latest film, Papa (2004), an
adaptation of Aleksandr Galich’s play Matrosskaia
tishina (1956), confirms the trend and allows Mashkov finally to become an
is the Bildungstale of David Schwartz, and through the telling of his life, the
viewer encounters the theme of fatherhood in various manifestations: in family
relations, in the fatherland, and in god-the-father. The
film’s structure corresponds to the first three acts of Galich’s play,
omitting entirely the fourth, with its happy ending, and thus avoiding a final
the first part of the film, the action takes place in the Ukrainian village of
Tul'chin, where the young David practices the violin and aspires to leave his
provincial roots and alcoholic father to study in the Moscow Conservatory. The viewer watches David move through the rituals of boyhood:
the often abusive games in which he partakes with other village boys and awkward
exchanges of first loves with the neighbor girls. David spends much of his time dreaming, weaving romantic
stories about the distant places pictured in the postcards filched from his
father’s prized collection. One
of these stories involves Matrosskaia Tishina, a place David fantasizes to be a
graveyard for ships and a peaceful retirement for sailors.
establishing shots, sweeping panoramas of the bright landscape, are themselves
like postcards, mirroring David’s youthful romanticizing.
However, medium shots confined to the dark interior of the home soon
interrupt the sprawling, storybook landscapes.
Only David and his father, Abram Il'ich, inhabit this space.
Their interactions in it, and soon their interactions outside, are marked
by schizophrenic moments that demonstrate alternatingly tenderness and abuse.
Another mentoring male figure magically materializes when Mayer Wolf
returns to Tul'chin after living abroad for several years, again evoking the
fairytale with the return of the distant traveler.
Mayer tells of his pilgrimage to and subsequent disillusionment with
Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall, a story incomprehensible to David and the
viewer, but one that nonetheless prefaces the narrative of David’s own life.
Tul'chin episode gradually grows darker, haunted by the sounds of a train
passing in the night, and fades completely.
It is replaced by the sound of a booming orchestra and the same kind of
postcard-like shots, this time of Moscow streets, members of the Komsomol on
parade in their white uniforms, red banners and balloons, and a portrait of the
ever-watchful Stalin hanging above it all.
David is realizing his dream and is a rising star at the Conservatory.
He seems to have shed all connection with his home and past.
Having moved from the domestic space of his provincial home to the
political space of the capital, a corresponding father figure appears, Ivan
Kuz'mich, the Conservatory’s party secretary.
His paternal nature also features both nurturing and punishing
components; like Abram Il'ich and the angry god of the Old Testament,
Ivan Kuz'mich “giveth and taketh away.”
In his capacity as party representative, he informs David that he will
participate in the All-Soviet Competition of Violinists, but also condones the
expulsion of his close friend and roommate from the Komsomol and the
continues to cling to fantasy, but his idealism becomes more difficult to
maintain. The process of his
disillusionment parallels the growing disparity between appearance and reality
in Moscow itself. The city’s dark side disrupts the bright facade with increasing
frequency. Dazzling metro stations
bustle with happy citizens by day, but greenish bread trucks transport enemies
of the people by night. The depot
for these traitors is an anonymous building on a street called none other than
Matrosskaia Tishina. The site so
positively constructed in David’s imagination turns out to be a graveyard for
human bodies rather than ships. The
ironic play on systems of transportation suggests that the Soviet Union’s
physical structure reflects the same problematic schema within which David is
constructed as an individual. The
metro, the positive articulation of official ideology, the ideal, is located
underground, while the negative reality that should be concealed (the use of
bread trucks to transport traitors and, later, trains to transport injured
soldiers) is located on the surface. The
reality on the surface is not hospitable to the dream; the dream must defend
itself against the challenges it encounters when it moves to the external world,
a situation that automatically reduces it from its status as ideal.
domestic and political worlds come into conflict in the Moscow episode when
Abram Il'ich suddenly appears at a party, presided over by “the
political papa,” Ivan
perceives his birth father’s visit as a dangerous rupture in the new,
politically correct life he has created for himself. The
confrontation that occurs after his father’s arrival in the capital allows
David an opportunity to actualize his fantasy of completely rejecting his roots,
and he does so by demanding his father leave Moscow.
With the dangers of
political betrayal so close to David’s everyday life, it is not shocking that
he refuses his personal history in exchange for the politicized domesticity of
the Conservatory. The
expulsion of his father is an idea about which David has dreamed since
childhood, and now the circumstances of his new life have reversed the power
relations of the parent-child roles and enable him to enact that fantasy.
This traumatic moment completes the second part of the film, a conclusion
that reverses the finale of the first part: the haunting whistle of the train
yielding to the booming Soviet march becomes David’s violent playing of
Chaikovskii fading into the sounds of medical trains taking wounded soldiers
from the frontlines of the war.
the beginning of this third and final episode, David, seriously wounded, is
loaded onto one of the trains. The
train, as so often happens, becomes the site of storytelling in one form or
another: an incoherent story told by a fellow injured soldier; the story from
home that David’s nurse, a former schoolmate, tells him; and the stories that
David and his father share when Abram Il'ich appears from the dead in a mystical
moment. Abram Il'ich tells David
what happened when the Nazis came to Tul'chin: how he lived in a ghetto, how one
day the Jews were rounded up, how their belongings were taken, and how he was
killed. David continues the story
in his own life and tells of his return to Tul'chin with the army in a
voice-over. This episode echoes
Mayer Wolf’s story of his journey to Jerusalem and his reflections upon his
return to Tul'chin: the return to the birth home (rather than to the spiritual
or political home) proves to be the authentic pilgrimage.
The camera tells much of David’s story for him: Tul'chin was completely
leveled, except for the old, stone city wall.
These panoramas are nothing like the opening postcard shots.
Instead, they, like much of this episode in general, offer themselves as
pseudo-historical documents. David
can appreciate his childhood home only when he is inadvertently taken there once
it no longer exists. The old wall
becomes his own Wailing Wall.
he disappears forever, Abram Il'ich promises David that their story, their
family history, does not end with Tul'chin’s end, but will continue through
David’s own son. In Galich’s
play, this possibility is performed in the fourth act, in which David’s wife
and son maintain his memory. The
film, however, stops here, promising the future continuation only through the
hope offered in the telling of stories and, visually, through the forward motion
of the train passing across a gray landscape.
What the original play offers as temporal continuation, the film
summarizes in the movement of the train through space.
on the theme of fatherhood in three ideological manifestations: the domestic,
the political, and the spiritual. Throughout
the film, David as the central subject constructs notions of what each of these
“fathers” means only to have those notions destroyed in encounters with them
in reality as highly defamiliarized objects.
At times, he finds new fathers to his surprise; at other times, he is
disappointed not to find fathers in the places and forms in which he expects
them. Memory and its manipulation,
as embodied in the numerous stories told within the film, and nostalgia, as
aesthetically expressed in the recurring train images and soundtrack, create the
unifying devices of the film. These
sentimental elements often overpower the psychological and satirical themes that
are more pronounced in Galich’s Matrosskaia
tishina. The omission of the
play’s fourth act, however, which was possibly added to appease Galich’s own
political fathers, avoids a resolution that ultimately stifles the power of the
themes presented in the first three parts.
Papa weaves an often
sentimental tale about history-making through the telling of David Schwartz’s
personal history, ultimately implying the artificiality or constructed-ness of
ideological edifices, while remaining expressively bound to the concept of
fathering as a moment in that construction.
Il'ia Rubinshtein and Vladimir Mashkov, based on Aleksandr Galich’s play Matrosskaia
Design: Vladimir Aronin
Vladimir Mashkov, Egor Beroev, Andrei Rozendent, Sergei Dreiden, Ol'ga Kras'ko,
Lida Pakhomova, Ol'ga Miroshnikova
Igor' Tolstunov, Vladimir Mashkov, Mikhail Zil'berman
Production Company of Igor' Tolstunov, Transmash-Holding Co., and Russian
Communal Systems, with support from the Film Department of the Russian Ministry
Vladimir Mashkov, Papa [Papa] (2004)
reviewed by Michelle Kuhn©2005