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Valerii Todorovskii: My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyj brat Frankenshtein) (2004)

reviewed by Adam Lowenstein©2004

In her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley writes: "And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper." Of course, Shelley could not have imagined just what a prosperous existence her "hideous progeny" would go on to lead, especially in the medium of cinema. She certainly never would have dreamed that her tale could inspire a story like the one told in Valerii Todorovskii’s My Stepbrother Frankenstein (2004), but somehow, I think it would have delighted her. For here is one of the few cinematic variations on Frankenstein that truly understands Shelley’s great novel for what it is—a ghost story brilliantly attuned to its allegorical power as social critique. Shelley’s ghost haunts the "Promethean" self-importance of the male Romantic poets and writers who surrounded her. The ghost in Todorovskii’s film haunts post-Soviet Russia’s fantasies of domestic "normalcy" thriving beside (yet magically untouched by) the wars waged by the nation.

My Stepbrother Frankenstein, which was written by Gennadii Ostrovskii, begins as a family melodrama: Iulik and Rita Krymov (Leonid Iarmol'nik and Elena Iakovleva) receive a letter from Pavel (Daniil Spivakovskii), a man claiming to be Iulik’s illegitimate son. This letter shatters the comfortable middle-class family life the physicist Iulik leads with his real estate agent wife, teenaged son Egor (Artem Shalimov), and young daughter Ania (Marianna Il'ina). Will the couple divorce over Iulik’s betrayal of long ago? Will Iulik accept Rita’s angry insistence that he recognize a child (now a grown man) he refuses to accept as his own?

Once Pavel arrives in contemporary Moscow to visit the family, the film shifts gears to become the more overt homage to Mary Shelley and James Whale promised by its title. Pavel, like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, has a frighteningly "unnatural" physical appearance. And Iulik, like Victor, as both a scientist and Pavel’s "creator," cannot acknowledge his own relation to his bizarre-looking "creation." But then Todorovskii changes the tone once again, focusing on the struggle between masculine and feminine gender roles within the marriage that ensues as Pavel joins the family. Pavel’s unnerving visage and erratic behavior stem from his recent traumatic experience as a soldier, where he lost one eye in combat (we assume he has served in Chechnia, but the film never states this explicitly). Iulik begins to warm to him as a brave warrior, a soldier he can admire for his mastery of a kind of potent masculinity that he himself yearns for but feels cut off from—at one point, Iulik reveals that he originally wanted to be a boxer, not a physicist. At the same time, Rita grows increasingly wary of Pavel’s presence from a maternal perspective, as she worries about how his unpredictable, sometimes menacing actions may threaten the children.

Tensions reach a breaking point during a party at the Krymovs, where Iulik defies Rita’s demand that Pavel be placed in a veteran’s mental hospital and instead brings him back home to be introduced to all of their closest friends. Pavel disrupts the party by telling a harrowing story about his military experience, an account of his participation in the massacre of civilians. One of Iulik’s horrified friends tells him that Pavel is a "fascist," while Iulik responds to his friend by threatening to "break his face." Rita restrains her husband physically, but then verbally assaults him by questioning his masculinity as well as his professional competence. The couple reaches a rapprochement later, but it is based on Iulik's guarantee that Pavel’s departure is imminent. When Iulik drives Pavel out of the city and into the country, leaving him alone with his belongings on a desolate road after handing him some cash and muttering an apology, the film appears to have come to an uneven but inevitable conclusion. After all, this high-angle, extreme long shot of the empty countryside visually suggests the arctic no-man’s-land where Victor Frankenstein and his monster share their final meeting. But Todorovskii has (at least) one more trick up his sleeve.

The final segment of My Stepbrother Frankenstein takes on the trappings of a suspense thriller, as Pavel "abducts" an unfrightened Egor and Ania and lures their parents to join them at their grandmother’s empty dacha. There, an armed Pavel defends the family from a siege by special police forces—men whom the family insists are only looking after their safety as "kidnapped" innocents, but whom Pavel believes are malignant "spooks." Pavel has referred earlier to "spooks" as the shadowy presence of the enemy he fought during wartime, and now, in the dacha, he feels the presence of war again. When Iulik entreats him to release Rita and the children into the hands of the police outside, Pavel refuses. "They don’t care, kids or no kids, like I didn’t care over there, back then," he explains.

In the end, Iulik and his family escape the dacha, but Pavel will not surrender. A lone gunshot (fired by the police? by Pavel himself?) signals the end of Pavel’s life, and the arrival of the moment that has eluded the Krymov family for the entire film—a moment of genuine intimacy shared together by all four individuals. But as the camera drifts from the huddled family to the police and military personnel who shake hands on a job well done, the ghost of Pavel hangs over the scene. The audience is left to wonder, ultimately, where and when does war exist? Over there, back then? Or right here, right now?

The very title of My Stepbrother Frankenstein suggests a somewhat optimistic answer to these lingering questions. If Ania and Egor can remember Pavel as "my stepbrother," as someone who truly belongs to their family and to their everyday lives rather than as a monster whose memory must be erased as alien, then Pavel will not have died in vain. He will have reminded his family that the lives they lead, however "domestic" and "normal," are part and parcel of the nation’s decisions to make war. These two realities may appear to be separate, but they are actually continuous. In his own odd way, what Pavel wants most of all is for his family to recognize this continuity—to look at him as one of their own. Perhaps this is what motivates his seemingly "crazy" desire to replace his lost eye not with a standard glass reproduction, but with a shimmering diamond. To make his wound a source of fascination, even beauty, would challenge the common impulse to look away from him.

Pavel never lives to see his dream of a diamond eye come true. But Todorovskii ensures that Pavel remains at the center of our vision by making his character as difficult to define as the twisting tone of the film itself. In a bravura performance by Spivakovskii, Pavel is by turns childlike, fearsome, generous, and violent. Sometimes he is bathed in precisely the kind of washed-out colors and prominent shadows that evoke Whale’s classic images of the Frankenstein monster, but at other times he is just another family member. There are moments when we wish the Krymovs would welcome him, and others when we hope he will disappear from their lives. The risks Todorovskii takes by allowing this volatile character to generate the film’s dramatic energy do not always pay off. At times the pacing seems uncertain and the reactions of surrounding characters (particularly Rita) poorly modulated, but in the end, Pavel is a ghost who haunts us deeply. "My heart was fashioned to be susceptible to love and sympathy," declares Shelley’s monster, "and, when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture, such as you cannot even imagine." Todorovskii’s film forces us to imagine this torture, and to recognize its true place within the family and the nation.

Adam Lowenstein, University of Pittsburgh


My Stepbrother Frankenstein [Moi svodnyi brat Frankenshtein] (Russia, 2004)

Color, 96 minutes

Director: Valerii Todorovskii

Script: Gennadii Ostrovskii

Camera: Sergei Mikhail'chuk

Art Direction: Vladimir Gudilin

Composer: Aleksei Aigi

Cast: Leonid Iarmol'nik, Elena Iakovleva, Daniil Spivakovskii, Sergei Garmash, Artem Shalimov, Marianna Il'ina

Producer: Leonid Iarmol'nik and Margarita Krzhizhevskaia

Production: Prior Premier with the support of the Russian Ministry of Culture


Valerii Todorovskii: My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyj brat Frankenshtein) (2004)

reviewed by Adam Lowenstein©2004

13/09/04