New Films 






Vladimir Mashkov, Papa [Papa] (2004)

reviewed by Michelle Kuhn©2005

The 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 “authentic” father.

Papa 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 resolution. 


In 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.   

The 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.  

The 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 Conservatory.  

David 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.

David’s 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 Kuz'mich.  David 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. 

At 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. 

Before 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.

Papa plays 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.  

Michelle Kuhn, University of Pittsburgh

Papa (Russia, 2004)

Color, 94 minutes

Director: Vladimir Mashkov

Screenplay: Il'ia Rubinshtein and Vladimir Mashkov, based on Aleksandr Galich’s play Matrosskaia tishina

Camera: Oleg Dobronravov

Art Design: Vladimir Aronin

Music: Dmitrii Atovmian

Cast: Vladimir Mashkov, Egor Beroev, Andrei Rozendent, Sergei Dreiden, Ol'ga Kras'ko, Lida Pakhomova, Ol'ga Miroshnikova

Producer: Igor' Tolstunov, Vladimir Mashkov, Mikhail Zil'berman

Production: Production Company of Igor' Tolstunov, Transmash-Holding Co., and Russian Communal Systems, with support from the Film Department of the Russian Ministry of Culture

Vladimir Mashkov, Papa [Papa] (2004)

reviewed by Michelle Kuhn©2005