Kira Muratova’s Anti-Cinema

By Ol'ha Papash and Stanislav Menzelevsky (Kyiv Mohyla Academy)

© Ol'ha Papash and Stanislav Menzelevsky, 2009

The starting point for our interpretive project can be found in the unusual effect generated by Kira Muratova’s films. Usually a film lasting one-and-a-half to two hours is viewed “in one breath,” from start to finish, since film, as is well known, is an unbreakable stream; by interrupting it one distorts the cinematic impression and experience. In the case of Muratova, however, uninterrupted viewing becomes problematic. Her films can be viewed in several different ways. One can interrupt a viewing, dividing it into several installments, with intervals, breaks for a few hours/days, and returns to previous episodes. One can, of course, also force oneself to focus and finish watching the film, “clenching one’s teeth” as it were. However, in such case the viewer may encounter an unfortunate incident like sudden falling asleep (this is what at least has happened to the authors of this article on multiple occasions). In the end, the viewer has to re-watch the films several times. The tautology of viewing thus is superimposed on the signature tautology of dialogues in Muratova’s films, giving them the characteristics of a bona fide soporific.

What is this “soporific” quality tied to? A representative of an auteur theory of cinema would undoubtedly answer that the ones falling asleep are viewers not ready for comprehending masterpieces of auteur cinema, a category to which Muratova’s films undoubtedly belong, and therefore would attribute the difficulties to the personal drawbacks of the recipients. However, we would like to see here a symptom pointing to a peculiar nature of these very films. Radicalizing the terminology somewhat, one can assert that these films “rape” the viewer brought up in the classical narrative tradition. Therefore, Muratova’s cinema in a sense in “anti-cinematic.” Admittedly, the extent of this “anti-cinematicness” varies from film to film, but one can still indicate an institutionalization of a certain “device” that could be termed, within auteur discourse, a “signature style.”

Muratova’s films, audiovisually excessive and challenging, literally put us to sleep, as if they had been created for a different, physically more refined audience. To elucidate this feature, we have inscribed our reflections on Muratova’s films into a broader conceptual framework.


We have begun with a thesis that Muratova’s films, which impact the viewer in a manner very different from classic cinema, enjoy a very peculiar status in the cinematic field. However, this otherness and specificity are difficult to pin down. Therefore, a brief excursus below to help understand the characteristics of “classic cinema” from which Muratova’s films differ so radically.

Not making it our goal to answer the age-old question, “What is the essence of cinema?,” we will start from afar, from the features that had already been noted, each from his or her own point of view, by the early proponents and antagonists of cinema. The latter occasionally were truly insightful, if we allow for a mirror reversal of values, the rejection of the roots of the power of this new art form, cinema. One of such early “cinema-haters,” the French writer Georges Duhamel, was convinced that cinema is first and foremost a spectacle, moreover a spectacle “which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence […], which kindles no light and awakens no hope other than a ridiculous one of someday becoming a ‘star’ in Los Angeles” (quoted in Benjamin, 239).

The conclusion of Duhamel’s reflections is, “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images” (Benjamin, 238). Side by side with pathological fear, cinema is accused of violence: the viewers’ perception and imagination are squeezed into the limits of the frame; thoughts are replaced by images; associative chains break; analytical operations become more complicated. Reason loses the position of priority. Hence the characteristic dissatisfaction with cinema, since it “mortally wounds” the thinking subject, exposing its weaker sides. The viewer is in direct dependence on the on-screen dynamics.

A fuller, more expanded critique of cinema along a similar vein is offered by the Russian-German art theorist Boris Groys in two if his essays, “The Endurance of Depictions” (“Prodolzhitel'nost' izobrazhenii,” 1990) and “Media Art in a Museum” (“Media-iskusstvo v muzee,” 2000). Groys’s argument is built around a logical accent on the passivity of the film viewer. This is what distinguishes the “seventh art” from its predecessors. In a situation characteristic for “high art,” the subject of perception is independent and active, in control of the moment of communication and of all its parameters, while the static-ness, self-identity of art objects (their changes limited to physical age) solidifies the subject’s exceptional status. With the arrival of cinema, the situation changes: the viewer is immobilized, “paralyzed,” while film is more than dynamic. “The movement of the cinematic image replaces for the viewer the movement of thought and language. The viewer experiences not only a physical, but also an intellectual immobilization—film, so to speak, fetters the viewer, transforming him/her into a living automaton in whose head an external program is operating […]. For the movement of language, logic, and rhetoric also is a quasi-corporeal movement, a particular variant of movement as such […] The ability to move freely within space […] is the necessary condition for the emergence and further development of thinking capable of verbalization” (Groys, 299-300).

It is telling that the problem of substitution (movement—thinking) is formulated by Groys much in the same terms as Duhamel (“My thoughts have been replaced by moving images”). However, the tolerant form and, at first glance, convincing argumentation hide a fatal sentence for the person of Western culture, a product of cogito. This is the context for the reception of the thesis about the stasis of intellect during the viewing of a film. The inhibition of thought automatically points us to the Cartesian formula (cogito ergo sum), and Groys’s rhetoric constructs an unattractive sequence: automatization—programming—instinctiveness—thoughtlessness—soullessness. Denying the film viewer the faculty of thinking, Groys puts into doubt his/her existence as a subject.

Similar observations are also characteristic of the opposing camp, the fervent supporters of cinema. Take, for example, the renowned cinephile Siegfried Kracauer. He stresses that viewers “crave […] for once to be released from the grip of consciousness, lose their identity in the dark, and let sink in, with their senses ready to absorb them, the images as they happen to follow each other on the screen” (Kracauer, 159-60). The less famous Edgar Morin seconds him: “Darkness was one element not essential […] but energizing for participation. [In the movie theater] darkness was organized, isolating the spectator […] dissolving diurnal resistance and accentuating all the fascination of the shadow” (Morin, 96). As we can see, the thoughts of cinema’s apologists follow the same path as those of its detractors. The moving images, the darkness of the movie theater, the immobility of the viewer—all this inhibits consciousness, enchants the viewer, and so forth. This is obvious for Duhamel as well as for Kracauer, for Groys as well as for Morin. The question is only in the extent to which this or that author is ready to accept the “anti-intellectual,” esoteric character of cinema, the extent to which he is ready to let go of the ideal of an active, self-identical, integral rational subject. If he is not ready, then he accuses cinema of thoughtlessness and mechanicalism, whereas if he is ready, he elevates cinema’s “anti-intellectual” potential through a comparison with such an a priori unconscious yet life-giving process as dreaming. The immobility, “magic” of film viewing in a dark hall, the hallucinatory effect of moving images—all this has led dreaming to emerge as one of prioritized phenomena used to analyze the specifics of cinematic perception. “The state of a film viewer resembles the state of a sleeping person. The darkness in the hall, the relaxing music, shadows flashing on a bright canvas—all this lulls the viewer and he sinks into a half-sleep where the impact of visual images resembles the actual visions in our dreams,” wrote René Clair in the far-away year 1926 (Clair, 162). The tradition of drawing such analogies arose almost simultaneously with the emergence of cinema itself and has not stopped to this day (although this analogy has come to be seen as so overused that Christian Metz in his article “The Fiction Film and Its Spectator,” on the contrary, tries to distance the practice of film viewing from dreaming). From thereon the idiom of “wakeful dreaming” became a familiar cinematic metaphor which simultaneously legitimizes the “naivété” and “infantilism” of even experienced spectators. Recognizing that in from of them is only a combination of effects of light and darkness, they persist in believing in the “reality” of on-screen events.

The analogy with dreaming includes the above-noted characteristics of the viewer’s state: passivity, the weakening of the rational faculties, and so forth. hence the feature that can be singled out as key for determining the specificity of traditional cinema (“cinematic-ness”), namely, the automation of cinematic perception and, consequently, the hallucinatory experience of cinematic reality as actuality (according to Metz, it is more proper to speak about the “impression of reality” rather than a hallucination, still, this does not alter the essence of the question). It is worth noting that the representatives of certain schools of film theory (for instance, the cognitivists) believe that the specificity of traditional (“Hollywood”) cinema lies in its narrative character (as witnessed by the telling term “narrative cinema” used by them). We, however, as may be obvious from the above, lean towards the view that if a certain cinematic norm can be signed out, it is determined precisely by the problem-free illusion of reality that arises from a feeling of being enchanted by the cinematic image—rather than the less specific narrative, which is far from a priority in cinema. This is precisely why Kira Muratova, who methodically fights against the automation of perception characteristic of “ordinary” cinema (as noted, for example, by Aronson, 205-17, and Iampolski, 236-38) and first of all rejects the devices aimed at creating the illusion of reality, and only in the second place rejects the narrative (actually, the narrative remains intact in her films, only it is masterfully disguised and hidden from the viewer).

However, the oneiric cinema never literally puts the viewer to sleep. Thanks to the above-mentioned automation of perception and the play with identification traditional film comes to dominate the viewer, holds his/her attention from the beginning to the end (ideally). Muratova’s films, however, resist automation and unfocus the viewers’ attention. They are so a-typical—and the typical plays a fundamental role within the cinematic—that the situation becomes completely “anti-cinematic”: in this case there is no point in talking about unproblematic viewing and the sleep of reason. These films demand an extra-powerful intellectual effort. By creating “difficult” cinema Muratova consciously goes into conflict with traditional dreamlike cinema. The price for this may be in literal sleepiness with which the viewer must struggle.

muratovaWe came to consider this topic appropriate to a large extent due to Muratova herself introducing it in her cinematic discourse in The Asthenic Syndrome (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1989). The film consists of two parts mediated by a character suffering from asthenia (disturbance of the sleep function). He first falls asleep precisely in the dark hall of the movie theater, at the opening of the nameless film about the impossibility of life after a funeral. This excessive, fragmented, complex film, or more precisely “film within a film” is offered to us along with a group of on-screen viewers who God knows why ended up at this screening.

According to the emcee, we are viewing not simply a film, but a “serious” film, a film that must be discussed (among exemplary auteur brands of such cinema mentioned by him are German, Sokurov, and Muratova herself [sic!]). The actress playing the main part has been invited for a discussion with the viewers. But serious cinema fails to resonate with the audience brought up in the traditions of a different cinema, the cinema/dream. “Why such films,” sighs the duped viewer, “My life is bad as it is. I am so tired, I want to be entertained, to listen to music . . . And here they walk, wail, bury, talk about various things.” Showing the infuriated viewers than flee the hall, Muratova acknowledges total lack of illusions concerning the homogeneity of the audience that understands her films. The homogeneity of this diverse public is revealed only in the mass exodus after the film. When soldiers leave the hall in an organized fashion (they were viewing the film in the similarly organized fashion, answering the command, “Watch!”), the only viewer that remains is the one that will become the protagonist of the second half of the film. However, the paradox is that this champion of endurance was able to withstand the “torture of serious cinema” only because of plunging into “life-giving sleep.” Playing in an unforced fashion with the triad “cinema—sleep –cinema,” Muratova demonstrates how clearly she understands the “anti-cinematographic” nature of the cinema she creates.

Let us recall a saying by the French film theorist Raymond Bellour: “Films are hard to analyze because they are easy to watch.” The ease was always simultaneously an advantage and a drawback for the cinema. An advantage, since film is arguably the most “democratic” of all art forms. A drawback, since “easy” cinema, cinema based on the illusion of reality, is incapable, due to its specific features, of touching upon the problems that should not be squeezed out of the cultural sphere. Muratova not only steals the “ease” from cinema, she grants a voice to entire spheres that usually remain within the zone of silence.

Muratova creates an entirely new regime that we have named “anti-cinematic.” This “anti-cinematic” quality, naturally, should not be understood as cinematic incompetence—the way the films of weak directors are sometimes called “uncinematic” because of, say, their overuse of dialogue. Muratova’s anti-cinematic quality consists in her interrogating everything that is traditionally considered cinematic, in her bringing into discursive sphere the zones of silencing, revealing the seams of such seemingly seamless construct as film. Thereby Muratova restores “intellectuality” and the analytic quality to cinema, and conducts this project against the background of truly poignant plots.

Contemporary art (and cinema in particular) circles around a group of themes, among which death occupies a prominent position—and due to this it cannot be accused of “unseriousness.” Moreover, in his essay “Art as Anti-Fiction” Odo Marquard makes a paradoxical statement: contemporary art takes over the functions of reality, particularly the functions of work with fundamental traumatic themes, such as death (Maquard, 35-54). We push traumatic phenomena out of our everyday existence to the marginal spheres, and this has a therapeutic effect. We live as if death did not exist, as if we are to live forever and it does not concern us. Through this therapeutic displacement we live our own immortality. Thus reality becomes fiction, and art emerges as the only means for thinking through and experiencing death.

What is, however, the use value of this “experience”? In the classic cinematic regime death (murder) is treated in such a conventional fashion that in it very little remains of death as such. Death and “cinematic death” could hardly be equated: death in cinema loses the ultimate closeness to the borderline aspect of actual death. Its representation rather blocks its excessiveness and anesthetizes viewer perception. Death as a locus communis of human existence and as a phenomenon that resists rationalization cannot break out of the zone of clichés and stereotypes. This is linked, for instance, with a principled distancing of representation from the depicted reality, of the viewer from the actor that had been pointed by Lotman and Tsivian (Lotman and Tsivian, 14-15). Between the addresser (actor) and the addressee (viewer) of communication there exists a series of technical obstacles, between them is the institution of cinema (the camera, the screen). Body in cinema turns into a metaphor, and corporeal practices thus lose their lifelike features, their excess and obscenity. In fact, conventional representation of death has an effect that is the opposite of what is expected: the higher the number of deaths on screen, the fewer reasons there are to argue that this film reflects upon the theme of death. Or, the more there are representations of “death” in cinema, the more intensive the displacement of death as such. Taking death out of the zone of silence where it had been placed by stereotypical representation becomes in essence one of the main vectors of Muratova’s intellectual effort that continues in nearly all her films.

three storiesThe price paid for the “culturing” of death in traditional cinema is first and foremost its dramatization (staged, decorative deaths) and the elimination of the impossible product of death, the corpse. Amos Vogel links the latter fact with the need for unproblematic functioning of the technocratic society, which requires quick and effective disposal of byproducts that bring into doubt the self-identity and coherence of society (criminals, madmen, corpses; see Vogel, 263). Naturally, all this is strongly tied with a non-contradictory image of the ego, the Enlightenment ideal of the rational subject, and so forth. Making a broader generalization, one can say that murders get on screen very frequently (in fact, much too frequently) while the corpses of the dead disappear without a trace, as it were melting or dissolving into thin air. Muratova works with corpses in her own peculiar manner. We frequently see the deceased, the camera often lingers on the dead body, but we do not always see the process of murder. The dead body is given as a prioritized object of interest around which the film’s narrative is frequently constructed. Here first and foremost one should mention the body of the murdered neighbor in the first part of Three Stories (Tri istorii, 1997), “Kotel'naia No. 6” (“Boiler Room no. 6”)—the body that breaks through the obstacles created by gay surface plot and the poetic self-torture of the protagonist’s friend. But when the plastic-wrapped corpse emerges in front of the viewers, an annoying hand begins rhythmically uncovering and then covering again the dead woman’s body. To be more specific, it is two hands that do this. Film fans of course can try localizing these hands, linking them to the characters in the story, but it is a thankless task. The episode is constructed in such a way that the angle chosen by Muratova sutures together the camera vector and the gaze of the viewer, launching the mechanisms of identification. Thus one has to recognize that the body is being uncovered and then covered again by hands that are “yours and mine,” the hands of the involved viewer who balances between cultural norms and curiosity, between revulsion and fascination.

There are at least two other films by Muratova where corpses (rather than death) play a central narrative role, Minor People (Vtorostepennye liudi, 2001) and Two in One (Dva v odnom, 2007). In the first case we have a suggestive example of “body without death,” since the man whom Nataliia Buz'ko’s character carries with her throughout the film in the end turns out to be alive. However, his erroneous status as dead imparts a comedic horror flavor to the film that could not have been achieved by a hundred real cinematographic deaths.

dva v odnomThe body of a suicide becomes the core of the plot of the first part of Muratova’s Two in One. Although this time the character dies irrevocably, the details of his death (its motifs, to begin with) and any and all personal characteristics are bracketed out. In Two in One Muratova constructs a project that works as a conscious comparison with Minor People: the film lacks not only death but also a corpse, since the dead man resembles a dressed-up doll (the actor who had committed suicide did so in stage costume and full makeup which entirely masks his face and resembles the kind of makeup that is applied to corpses at funeral parlors to avoid shocking those attending the ceremony). In essence, the dead man himself took care of dematerializing his own body and transforming it into a symbolic object that plays a very specific role in the film—that of a dead person who remains unnoticed. People step over him, conversations go on around him on all sorts of topics—ruined costume, need for extra pay for working next to a corpse, criminal responsibility for marauding—but not about death itself. In a few instances cliché remarks about the terrifying nature of death are uttered, but DEATH as such to the end remains in the zone of silence. Long before the release of Two in One, Mikhail Iampolski wrote that Muratova treated the body in a radically anti-phenomenological fashion, that she fully eliminated the materiality of the dead body, that the bodies with which operate the characters of her films in no way are reflected in their actions and do not enter their horizons of behavior (Iampolski, 178). Perhaps, this is the essence of Muratova’s “anti-cinematic” activity, aimed at the cleansing and de-stereotyping of death in film. Depicting bodies that are not bodies, as well as people who “do not see” these bodies, Muratova speaks in her own unique manner about death, about the horror of death localized precisely in the dead body that is paradoxically absent in her films. Muratova’s characters do not notice the bodies, but thanks to this the bodies as vessels of death are noticed by the viewer. According to Muratova, the only way to talk about death without creating a deceptive illusion of reality, the only way to talk about death “anti-cinematically” is to talk about the impossibility of death, and to do so in two ways: either by referring the viewer to a void instead of the body in its materiality and tragedy that usually accompanies death or by directly verbalizing this impossibility, as in the following monologue of the female protagonist of Minor People:

It is terrible, terrible, terrible to be alive. It is even more terrible to be dead. The dead are impossible. You turn into a body. You can be moved around; undressed; examined. You turn into a body. You can be moved around; undressed; examined. You are absolutely helpless. It is worse to be dead than to be alive. The dead are impossible to be allowed. You needs to twist, pervert yourself. You need to die yourself, and not everyone is capable of it. The dead are intolerable. The dead are unbearable. It is impossible to console—that only irritates and infuriates. The dead are so dead that the living can’t bear it. You can’t embrace it, can’t comprehend it. You can only push them away from you. Curtain them off. And make noise with rattles. Distract. Aaaah! Police! Police! Police! . . .

Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky

Works Cited

Aronson, Oleg. Metakino. Moscow: Ad Marginem, 2003.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Clair, René. Kino vchera, kino segodnia. Moscow: Progress, 1981.

Groys, Boris. Kommentarii k iskusstvu. Moscow: Khudozhestvennyi zhurnal, 2003.

Iampolski, Mikhail. Iazyk—telo—sluchai: Kinematograf i poiski smysla. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2004.

Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Lotman, Iurii, and Tsivian, Iurii. Dialog s ekranom. Tallinn: Aleksandra, 1994.

Marquard, Odo. “Kunst als Antifiktion,” in Dieter Heinrich and Wolfgang Iser, eds., Funktionen des Fiktiven. Munich: W. Fink, 1983: 35-54.

Morin, Edgar. The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man, trans. Lorraine Mortimer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Vogel, Amos. Film as Subversive Art. New York: Random House, 1974.

Updated: 09 Jan 10