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Karen Shakhnazarov, A Rider named Death [Vsadnik po imeni smerti] (2004)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell©2005

                  

 

At the beginning of this century, Moscow experienced first-hand the destructive violence that has for years besieged the Russian Federation’s peripheral republic of Chechnya.  Ordinary Muscovites have been profoundly shocked and outraged at the cold-blooded terrorist assaults on their peaceful lives.  The attack on the Dubrovka Theater (23 October 2002) became Russia’s “9/11,” in the sense that it brought home the geographically and psychologically remote hostilities, importing the war into the very heart of Russia.  The wave of suicide bombings that followed in 2004 has left almost everyone in the country with the sense that no place is safe and that no one is immune from terror.  As the Russian government trumpets its successes in “normalizing” the situation in Chechnya and wages war on “international terrorism,” Russians continue to live in a state of constant fear that further generates ethnic intolerance and hatred.  The tragic reverberations of this new socio-political phenomenon have recently spawned a number of cinematic responses by Russia’s leading directors, such as Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii’s Anti-Killer 2: Anti-Terror (2003), Karen Shakhnazarov’s A Rider Named Death (2004), and Valerii Todorovskii’s My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyi brat Frankeshtein, 2004). 

 

Among these, Shakhnazarov’s Rider stands out as a historical production, set in Moscow in the mid-1900s, when a series of carefully planned terrorist attacks on high governmental officials seized the minds of the Empire’s ordinary citizens and the ruling elites alike.  The filmmaker views these acts of violence that ushered in the “century of destruction,” as a prelude to the “apocalyptic” twenty-first century (see his interview for Itogi).  Rider is the veteran director’s second film―after The Killer of the Tsar (Tsareubiitsa, 1991)―that explores contemporary mores through the lens of traumatic events from the Russian past.  The film’s narrative is based on V. Ropshin’s short novel Pale Horse written and published in 1909.  Ropshin is the penname of Boris Savinkov, a prominent Socialist Revolutionary and a leader in the party’s Combat Organization, who in 1904-5 organized and guided a series of anti-governmental terrorist acts, most notably the killings of the Russian Minister of Inner Affairs, Viacheslav Plehve, and the Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich Romanov.   

Drawing upon the fictional depictions in Ropshin’s novel, as well as on factual data from Savinkov’s memoirs, the film follows a group of Socialist Revolutionaries who prepare to assassinate the Moscow Grand Duke (Vasilii Zotov).  Envisioned as a “psychological drama with elements of action,” the movie heavily employs facial close-ups with blurred backgrounds, expressive make-up and lighting, and slow-motion sequences to document the terrorists’ anxiety, their personal torments, as well as their moral deliberations and crises that form part and parcel of their self-sacrificing “work in terror.”  Each of the small combat unit’s members represents a recognizable social or intellectual type, and nearly all of them articulate their reasons for joining the Combat Organization.  Fedor (Rostislav Bershauer), who comes from the emerging working class, embraces terror as a means of meting out social justice and avenging the death of his fiancée at the hands of tsarist troops.  Vania (Artem Semakin) is a poet, whose profound religious faith brings him to terrorism as a way of practicing Christian love in a spiritually disconnected society.  Despite recognizing the grave sinfulness of killing, Vania is convinced that “there is no greater love in the world than sacrificing one’s soul for others, not [just] the body, but the soul.”  Genrikh (Aleksei Kazakov), a student, believes in terror’s power to annihilate autocracy.  Erna (Kseniia Rappoport) risks her life preparing bombs because of her passionate, but unreciprocated, love for George.  After a number of failed attempts upon the Grand Duke’s life, the group’s leader and chief manipulator, George, brings the assassination plan to fruition.  The most mysterious and aloof of all the terrorists, he lets nothing stop him from achieving his goal, yet never answers the question about his motives for joining the Combat Organization.  George’s fetishistic preoccupation with and psychological attraction to his victim becomes the focus of the director’s investigation into the nature of terrorism.  Against the background of this fatal obsession, George’s hedonistic love for Elena (Anastasiia Makeeva), a beautiful woman associated with nature’s vital force, symbolizes the character’s desperate but futile wish for higher meaning and purpose.   

 

 

    

In the interview with Itogi, Shakhnazarov explained that in making Rider he intended to explore the psychological motivations that impel individuals to embrace terror as a means of political struggle.  Such a philosophical approach to the issue (adopted from Ropshin’s novel) helps to explain, but does not entirely justify, the film’s transplanting of the characters’ physical actions and moral deliberations into a rather unspecified setting.  Nor does the film consistently apply this historically detached perspective, especially with regards to sets and characters. 

Thus, Shakhnazarov invests a large portion of the film’s budget into a historically authentic (albeit far too pristine) in-studio reproduction of pre-revolutionary Moscow streets, only to suspend the action that takes place there in what seems almost an historical vacuum.  The film, for the most part, shuns references to the social strife, discontent, and anxiety that plagued Russian society at the time of the Empire’s humiliating defeat in the bloody Russo-Japanese War, the government’s repressions against academic institutions, and its brutal suppression of rapidly-escalating social unrest.  In its failure to reflect Russia’s critical socio-political condition, the film creates the impression that the terrorists are involved in terror for terror’s sake, rather than as a response to the gross injustices of Russia’s autocratic regime.  Fedor’s briefly outlined social grievances, Vania’s religious love for humanity, and Erna’s romantic love―all ring hollow when juxtaposed with the disturbingly graphic imagery of innocent bystanders’ mutilated bodies in the wake of a failed terrorist act.  The viewer starts wondering why the characters even bother philosophizing in the face of such condemning evidence. 

 

Further imbalance in characterization concerns the film’s two main adversaries: the Grand Duke and George.  While an informed viewer can connect the otherwise unnamed Grand Duke to the historical figure of Sergei Aleksandrovich Romanov, the film paints a very abstract portrait of this personage.  The visual markers of his image―an open young face with handsome and noble features, a neatly trimmed beard fashioned after that of Tsar Nikolai II, a thoughtful and intelligent look in his eyes, and his non-threatening posture―all suggest a benevolent aristocratic ruler, not a reactionary responsible for the persecution of the Jews, the suppression of the progressive press, and the Khodynka tragedy of 1896.  The character of George, by comparison, extends beyond his novelistic counterpart, incorporating some inglorious aspects of Boris Savinkov’s post-revolutionary biography into the film’s epilogue.  As opposed to his victim’s humane features, George’s face is heavily made up and frozen into a semblance of a mask.   

The theme of masks and theatricality, central to the novel, takes on a different meaning in the film.  Ropshin’s character perceived himself as a soulless marionette in a universe devoid of higher ideals.  This late Symbolist perception of the world as a puppet-show moved by an unfathomable force accurately described the mood of despair and defeat that reigned in the Socialist Revolutionary Party after the suppression of the 1905 revolution and the unmasking of a secret police agent-provocateur within its governing committee and the Combat Organization.  Much as Ropshin’s character deplores his own spiritual degradation, he sees himself as a product of the despotic regime that turned the entire country into a bleak prison.  The George of the film, however, acts out the role of the master-manipulator staging his violent play with an extraordinary sense of detachment and poise.  The final moments of this show are played out during the closing act of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, performed at the Bolshoi Theater.  As George enters the Grand Duke’s private box and aims a handgun at his helpless victim, the two men are framed against the background of the masked ball enacted behind them on stage.  In Verdi’s opera, a small group of self-absorbed conspirators use the anonymity and confusion of a masked ball to assassinate a benevolent and popular king.  After George fires the lethal shot and escapes from the theater, he is shown lying on a bed in his claustrophobic room as the opera continues on the soundtrack.  The chorus’s condemnation of the assassin―“Death and infamy to the traitor!  Let the sword of vengeance cut him down!”―resounds over George as the camera rises above him assuming the high-angle position (repeated in the final shot of the film) of a moral judge.   

                  

The terrorist’s moral bankruptcy reaches its apex when he moves from politically- to personally-motivated murder.  By killing Elena’s husband, George extinguishes the last spark of humanity within himself.  The spiritual void that eventually consumes his soul is embodied in a wooden effigy of an unspecified pagan deity that George keeps on his bedside table.  In the context of George’s story about his acquaintance’s military post in the Congo, where the colonial soldiers kill local tribesmen out of mere boredom and get killed in return, the wooden idol epitomizes the bestiality of murder.  This reference seems to suggest that regardless of what religion or ideology the terrorists may use to justify their acts, they all pray to the same graven image. 

Rider, thus, paints an overall biased image of terrorism.  While successfully de-romanticizing the heroic freedom-fighter, the film at the same time idealizes the Russian state in the figure of a benevolent ruler and brushes off the social, political, and ethnic tensions that give rise to terrorist resistance and dissent.  In this sense, the film upholds the political values of Vladimir Putin’s presidency with the latter’s emphasis on centralized strong-hand rule as a guarantor of national (or imperial?) order and stability.  President Putin expressed indirect approval of Shakhnazarov’s project when he paid a visit to the film’s sets in November 2003 as a part of the Ministry of Culture’s larger tour of the Mosfilm Cinema Concern, where Shakhnazarov holds the official post of General Director. 

 

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell, Oberlin College


A Rider Named Death [Vsadnik po imeni smerti] (Russia, 2004)

Color, 106 minutes

Director: Karen Shakhnazarov

Script: Aleksandr Borodianskii and Karen Shakhnazarov

Cinematography: Vladimir Klimov

Composer: Anatolii Kroll

Production Designer: Liudmila Kusakova

Costumes: Svetlana Titova

Editor: Lidia Milioti

Cast: Rostislav Bershauer, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Anna Gorshkova, Dmitrii Gusev, Aleksei Kazakov, Anastasiia Makeeva, Andrei Panin, Kseniia Rappoport, Artem Semakin, Valerii Storozhik, Vasilii Zotov

Producer: Karen Shakhnazarov

Production: The Mosfilm Cinema Concern and the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation.


Karen Shakhnazarov, A Rider named Death [Vsadnik po imeni smerti] (2004)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell©2005

15/04/05