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Vladimir Khotinenko: 72 metres (72 metra) (2004)

reviewed by Oleg Sulkin (Novoye Russkoe Slovo) ©2004

A Non-Standard Yardstick: 72 Meters As the Rehabilitation of Russian Heroism

A Soviet military factory is being converted—that is, it needs to turn swords into plowshares. A decision is made to manufacture vacuum cleaners, an especially peaceful consumer good. The workers try with all their might, huffing and puffing, but instead of vacuum cleaners, machine guns keep rolling off the conveyor belts. This old anecdote about the enormous power of habit is grounded in something specific. Today Russian cinema is also grounded in something specific: in restoring the pride of Great Russians, which in the view of many patriotic circles has been abused, demeaned, and ridiculed during the years of the so-called perestroika and the ensuing troubled times of Yeltsin.

72 Meters has been mistakenly and groundlessly categorized both as a heroic action film based on American models ("our answer to Harrison Ford") and as an existential thriller akin to Luc Besson's The Big Blue (1988). Yet neither of these comparisons is appropriate. The steering wheel of the submarine Slavianka takes it into completely different waters, waters that are epic, legendary, sacred.

The film has long been awaited in Russia. The tragic loss of the submarine Kursk, which stunned all of Russia, has become a litmus test for humanity, a test that the Russian military high command resoundingly failed. Vladimir Putin, the president and commander-in-chief, demonstrated indifference to the fate of the military men who found themselves in danger. He didn't even return from his vacation during those critical hours when the sailors trapped on the Kursk might still have been alive. The commanders of Russia's naval forces were inexplicably tardy in organizing a rescue mission, while offers from foreign governments to provide outside assistance became bogged down in bureaucratic negotiations.

Many viewers assumed that Vladimir Khotinenko would represent, at least in some small way, the reality of the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Kursk. After all, films about submarines had not been made for a long time in Russia, roughly since the 1960s (in 1985 Vasile Breskanu shot Forget About Returning―also known as The Submariners ―in the Moldavian SSR), and here was such a fitting occasion. Viewers placed their hopes on Khotinenko, a socially engaged, masterful filmmaker, whose contemporary parables—Mirror for a Hero (1987), The Swarm (1990), A Patriotic Comedy (1992), Makarov (1993), The Muslim (1995)—fully represented the introspections of contemporary, marginalized individuals. His films conveyed (even if only partially, but very expressively) the paranoia of a society driven into a dead-end and desperately seeking a way out, just as the hero of his most talented, early film, Mirror for a Hero, sought to escape from a different time and space.

But there is not a hint of the former Khotinenko in 72 Meters, a strange film that is filled with inflated pathos that probably marks a turning point in the director's creative work. The film was commissioned by Channel One of Russian television and was adapted from a script by Valerii Zalotukha, who based his script on stories written by Aleksandr Pokrovskii, a former officer-submariner, long before the tragedy of the Kursk. The film contains direct references to the powerful Soviet tradition of the "revolutionary-military" film, as well as to the so-called patriotic fiction and publicistic writing of post-Soviet years. There are also some innovations, but of this later.

The submarine genre naturally has its own implicit conventions and loud stock-phrases, which are practically impossible to avoid—for example, the binge drinking by a member or members of the crew before the ship sets sail. Simply recall the scene from Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen, 1981)—in my opinion the best film about submarines in all of world cinema—when before setting out to sea the officers are "blessed" by the urine spray from sailors who are falling-down drunk.

The screen-time's introduction focuses the viewer's attention on Petr Orlov (obviously a significant surname) [the Russian root of the name is "eagle"― trans.], a young, impudent, and to some degree a hooligan-like charmer-navigator, complete with a hussar's bad habits. The actor Marat Basharov spares neither words nor temperament in demonstrating the ravishingly-negligent "manliness" of his character. It is clear that Orlov is one of the narrative's major characters, since the viewer is immediately immersed into his subconscious (even before the Slavianka submerges), into his surrealistic dream-nightmare, in which ranks of valiant naval officers in white uniforms march straight into the sea. No one bothers to crawl under the skin of a minor character. We witness the paternal and affectionate gaze with which the commander of the submarine, Senior Captain Gennadii Ianychar* (Andrei Krasko), regards Orlov on the gangway as he arrives at the very last second for the ceremonial assembly before the ship sets to sea on an important mission.

The character of the beloved captain, "a servant to the tsar, a father to the soldiers" [a quotation from Mikhail Lermontov's famous poem "Borodino," describing a colonel of the Russian army in the battle between French and Russian troops in 1812― trans.] is depicted entirely within the tradition of the Russian military comedy. Krasko plays the role in a way that recalls the vaudevillian portrayal of Kutuzov in The Hussar's Ballad (El'dar Riazanov, 1962) or the soldier Sukhov in the ironic "eastern" White Sun of the Desert (Vladimir Motyl', 1969). The captain's completely comic-book wife, Katiusha, wearing a touching head-scarf comes to see him off; she is clearly related to the "unforgettable Katerina Matveevna," Sukhov's wife. As his subordinates affirm, "the father to the soldiers" is strict, despite his gentle manners and unprepossessing appearance. When he lectures a semi-literate but zealous blockhead about the great and powerful Russian language, the latter is transported with joy by his self-abasing luck. Since viewers, however, never get to witness the captain fulfill his promise to turn a derelict sailor "skin-side out," some doubts inevitably arise concerning his cruelty. One thing, however, is clear: his subordinates adore and worship him, both while he is alive and after his death. The scene in which Orlov, having found the captain's corpse in the central compartment of the submarine after it has hit a mine and sunk (this is a critical jumpcut to a scene closer to the film's finale) is very symbolic: Orlov carefully wraps the captain in a sheet, which resembles a funeral shroud. Even in death the captain must de differentiated from everyone else on board.

The captain's narrative line intersects several times with Orlov's, and both times Captain Ianychar turns out to be "a regular guy." This is especially true of the comic retro-episode of "potato harvesting," when an old lady offers the idle sailor a bottle of vodka to slaughter her cow because she does not have the guts to do it herself. "The servant to the tsar" is even more faithful and devoted, as will be demonstrated in the stilted, propagandistic flashback in which the Russian sailors collectively refuse to swear an oath of allegiance to Ukraine. Valiant Ianychar contemptuously straightens his shoulders, rejecting the promises and exhortations of the cunning "Ukes," and reaffirms his loyalty to the Russian flag. The captain dashingly leads off his fellow loyalists from the square to the strains of "The Slavianka's Farewell," which will always remind viewers of the scene of Veronika's farewell from Boris in The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957). The detested "Ukes" are thoroughly lambasted in the film, reflecting the seeming political-ethnic point of view of the filmmakers.

If we examine the distribution of ethnicities throughout the film, we can see that the film is thoroughly imperial, Russophilic, ideally conforming to the spirit of "Putin's restoration." The Russian-ness of the major characters is emphasized, even harped upon. On board the submarine is a midshipman, Krauz (Sergei Garmash). When the new addition to the crew asks whether the midshipman is German, he is told that Krauz is a pure Russian. The Asian Mukhambaev, a slightly dim-witted but zealous veteran, whom everyone orders about with open contempt, represents the ethnic minorities, "chuchmeks," on board the ship. This is one of Russian cinema's beloved clichés: the faithful Mongoloid half-wit who constantly hovers on the periphery of the plot.

The ethnic background of another of the major heroes, Chernenko (Sergei Makovetskii), who is an outsider, a physician on temporary duty, remains disturbingly unresolved until the final moments of the film. Everything indicates that there is something rotten in the ethnicity of this reflective, nervous guy, filled with all sorts complexes―either a black sheep or an intellectual white crow in the midst of ordinary submariners. And, therefore, the attentive viewer is not surprised by Chernenko's final admission that his mother is Ukrainian and his father is "who knows what." It is clear to all Russian viewers that this alien stinker is disingenuously alluding to his father's Jewishness. But the filmmakers evidently refrained from dotting all of the conceptual "i"s.

Chernenko is a pivotal figure in the film in several respects. The construction of any plot involving a submarine urgently requires the intrusion of an outsider among the crew. Any motivation will do, whether logical or fantastical. What else can motivate all of the explanations for the viewer concerning specific details of life on board a submarine? But without such explanations neither the narrative can develop further, nor can the ship move further into watery space. Recall that in Petersen's Das Boot the function of the outsider is carried out by the courteous and impressionable journalist working for a naval newspaper; in Jonathan Mostow's U-571 (2000) by the two mysterious special ops agents whose mission remains secret for a long time; in Kathryn Bigelow's K-19: Widowmaker (2002) by the inexperienced mechanic in the reactor compartment who at the last moment replaces the veteran, drunk as a skunk.

The intellectual-outsider, a refined aesthete surrounded by sea wolves, is an exceptionally effective character to experience the indecent practical jokes and gross humor of military men, which are used to enliven the heart-rending pathos and growing depression of a plot about the collision of a submarine with a mine and the sufferings of the doomed crew. Yet Zalotukha and Khotinenko for some reason decided to represent Chernenko as a complete idiot, a weirdo who (for example) takes at face value the practical joke that the shipment of Swedish latex dolls on board is intended to relieve the submarine officers of "stress" during lengthy voyages. In the context of patriotic mainstream, smart but ordinary people traditionally demonstrate contempt for clever fools with obscure backgrounds. And so Chernenko is condemned to behave clownishly, but is not funny. Makovetskii, the eccentric actor, deploys his entire rich arsenal of mime to fulfill an artificial assignment.

The central artistic-fictional "essence" of the film is located in the intensifying personal drama between Chernenko, on the one hand, as the outsider and, on the other, Orlov as the rejected Romeo in his romantic flashbacks-retrospections. In the battle for the hand and heart of tender and astrally sensitive Nelly (Chulpan Khamatova), Orlov had lost out to Ivan, his friend and rival. The film sets up a clear-cut ideological distinction. The rotten babbler, whose constant bustling fails to find him a place in life or in the submarine's compartments, is contrasted to the ordinary and crude Orlov (a direct descendant of Klim Iarko, the hero of Ivan Pyr'ev's Tractor-Drivers [1939]), with his crystal-clear pursuit of a passionate love.

It is very telling that Khotinenko is not in the least interested in the pragmatic narrative line of the film―the crew's struggle to save themselves, the main component of any ordinary narrative in films about submarines. Khotinenko is not interested in the fate of the Kursk, or the Komsomolsk, or any other unfortunate factual reality. Instead, he is engaged in an alchemical search for the formula that defines "Russian ethnic identity." This explains the lulls in the plot, as well as the significance of images-symbols (for example, the goldfish that miraculously survives the explosion or the consistent attempts to pass Nelly off as the reincarnation of Assol' from Aleksandr Grin's story "Scarlet Sails"). Action suddenly comes to a standstill, like a sailboat stranded in a windless calm, while the gaps are filled in with shots of seagulls (flying across the sky, squawking on the pier, sitting on the shore) or oranges (so beneficial to the health of submariners that they migrate from one film to the next) or eggs (which somehow do not break in the supply room of the ship's galley after the catastrophe). Actually, professional submariners who have seen the film have remarked on many blunders and inconsistencies.

What about the race to rescue survivors, the unwritten tradition of all submariners? What race? The rifle hanging on the wall is demonstratively not fired. The viewer hears the sententious declaration that there are 12 hours of air left on the submarine after the explosion, and so he turns on his conceptual chronometer with some hope. All for nothing! There will be no race. Later we learn that only one of the protective evacuation suits is usable, due to Krauz's and his assistants' negligence. But instead of sending to the surface an experienced sailor who will rush to organize a rescue mission to raise the ship (after all, the depth is relatively shallow and, on top of that, the submarine is practically near the shoreline), they send Chernenko, the incompetent, helpless weirdo. In another scene we see an officer, one of Ianychar's classmates, point to a map, indicate precisely where the Slavianka is submerged, and even pronounce the correct depth―72 meters. So the viewer awaits further developments. There aren't any.

Khotinenko has absolutely no interest in any bustling Hollywoodism. Consciously or not, he has made a film that is quasi-religious, poetic, elemental, ontologically pure, in which the theme of rescue is paradoxically turned "skin-side out" to use Ianychar's expression. The rescue of the crew is achieved through the heavenly path of self-sacrifice. Gathered around the captain's funeral shroud, the collective of submariners-martyrs expels from the holy depths the hateful alien element in the person of the clown-intellectual with his suspicious ethnic credentials. By the same token, he, having surfaced and gloomily surveyed the surrounding ocean panorama from a hilltop, is evidently condemned to eternal suffering. The conspirators cleverly conceal their true choice by invoking some higher humanitarian considerations. In a similar way, sectarian-suicides are a nuisance to ordinary mortals until they swallow their fatal poison, stretch out on their piles, and await divine ascension.

In his own way, Khotinenko has made a programmatic Russian film marking a new century and new mentality. Don't be fooled by the rational concreteness of the title, 72 Meters. The title is simply to camouflage the fact that the film's creators have tried to turn a familiar series of adventures into a sacred-metaphysical poem about the non-standard Russian yardstick.

___

* I should observe that Ianychar's surname is as significant as Orlov's. The "Ianychars" were Turkish soldiers famous for their devotion to the state and cruelty to their enemies. In 19th century Russian culture, "Ianychars" had become synonymous with excessive vandalism and sadism during wars with Christian nations, even though these soldiers were mostly children of Christians captured by the Turks and forcibly converted to Islam.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov


72 Meters (Russia, 2004)

Color, 116 minutes

Director: Vladimir Khotinenko

Script: Valerii Zalotukha with the participation of Vladimir Khotinenko (based on stories by Aleksandr Pokrovskii)

Cinematography: Il'ia Demin

Art Director: Konstantin Mel'nikov

Composer: Ennio Morricone

With: Sergei Makovetskii, Andrei Krasko, Marat Basharov, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Garmash

Production: Studio TriTe, commissioned by ORT (Channel One)


Vladimir Khotinenko: 72 metres (72 metra) (2004)

reviewed by Oleg Sulkin©2004

14/07/04