Nikolai Khomeriki: 977 (2006)

reviewed by Anindita Banerjee© 2007

The number 977, glowing in bright red digits in the title shot, sets the viewer up for what promises to be an old-fashioned ghost-in-the-machine science fiction drama. Indeed, this intensely lyrical film operates not on any pretense at futurism, but rather a deeply unsettling nostalgia for an earlier age of bio-social engineering.

What does “977” signify? The answer is provided in a series of fairly quick sequences at the beginning of the film. A young scientist, Ivan Dmitrievich, arrives at a deceptively idyllic country estate, which turns out to be a research facility. He is put in charge of “the seventh department” (sed'moi otdel), whose objective is to arrive at a measurement of the most intense human emotion. Ivan, who gained a modicum of fame for positing in a theoretical paper that this optimal number is 977, is given the opportunity to prove his hypothesis experimentally at the institute. A select coterie of subjects, both male and female, is ready and waiting for the scientist. All the protagonist has to do is put them in a “box,” a hermetic room with a revolving camera and a speaking tube that transmits “currents” of the mind into a smaller box with a digital display. The numbers are measured from an adjoining room, in which researchers observe and manipulate the so-called “volunteers.”

If all this sounds terrifically retro, it is meant to be. The narrative unfolds in an emphatically underscored time warp. Even Ivan’s arrival is portrayed as a temporal leap: from looking at his own reflection in a train window with blank darkness outside, he seamlessly transitions into a distinctly imperial-style yellow stucco building bathed in sunlight. His first encounter with the director, Sergei Sergeevich, takes place against the backdrop of a miniature indoor garden as Bach plays on a massive 1950s-era reel-to-reel recorder. Even though plants are treated as sentient beings needing musical stimulation―a scientific view that hearkens back to the early twentieth century―a chance remark from the same director reveals the diametrically opposite attitude towards the small community of humans housed on camp cots in the great hall. The director, who almost exaggeratedly enacts the stereotypical figure of an absent-minded professor, names “biophysics” as the discipline to which the seventh department is dedicated. This term is inextricably linked with early Soviet experiments in the creation of the New Man. Biophysics was a common label for a plethora of attempts to quantify, optimize, and transform the physical and psychological profile of the populace in the 1920s and 1930s. Bolstered by the fad for Taylorism and Fordism among the revolutionary elite, such projects were institutionalized through Aleksei Gastev’s Central Labor Institute, Ivan Pavlov’s psychoneural laboratories, and Nikolai Bernstein’s school of biomechanics; they also enjoyed a brief if problematic revival in the cybernetic era of the 1950s and 1960s. Apart from the one reference to biophysics, however, the murky legacies of 977 are invoked only indirectly through highly nuanced details. Props relating to both the sciences and the arts―representing the rational and ephemeral finer side of the human machine―play an unobtrusive but key role in constructing allusions to past visions of engineering body and soul. The laboratories, skillfully hidden behind stucco moldings, wrought-iron stairwells, and crystal chandeliers, are equipped not with computers but with distinctly early- or mid-twentieth-century retorts, dials, levers, and winking electric lights; giant hand-wound clock faces adorn the echoing mosaic halls; and the library is a distinctly non-post-modern one, with solid wood furniture and leather-bound tomes. Cultural life for the inmates and scientists, correspondingly, revolves around a large grand piano resting in majestic isolation in the center of the building. Most telling of all is the series of gallery portraits that are washed with a soaped rag each morning by the assistant Tamara, who represents an equally atavistic gendered view of the scientific world: feminine homebody for the all-powerful male mind, she also tries unsuccessfully to seduce Ivan Dmitrievich.

The temporal conundrum of this parallel universe is brilliantly augmented by an intricate treatment of spatiality. The film is set entirely in a distinctly prelapsarian hermetic landscape. Surrounded by quivering aspens and trilling streams, the institute seems eerily depopulated in spite of the frenetic activity taking place in the numerous sub-basements and skillfully camouflaged graveyards of scientific “waste.” The protagonist arrives in this space, reminiscent of Slavophile dreams of the country estate, as an inverted Adam who is immediately granted the fruit of the director’s indoor garden (ironically, the symbol of bounty is the ogurets or gherkin—the quintessential product of the Soviet market-garden).

As Ivan begins to explore, however, the institute reveals itself as a maze of scaled spaces. The compound, building, living quarters, offices, laboratory, and the “box” are nestled inside each other, but their boundaries are extremely porous with everyone wandering in and out. Yet there seems to be an overarching restraint to this seeming anarchy. A closer look reveals that, in effect, the architectonics of the institute works as a gigantic panopticon with a peculiar twist. Even though the human guinea-pigs are the ones kept in view in the central atrium, the ostensibly “free” movement of both observer and observed ensures that they keep constant watch on each other. The trope of surveillance is exploited to perfection in the numerous frames of peepholes, windows, cameras, and reflecting surfaces that are always two-way. Ivan the scientist becomes as much a “subject” as any of the abject creatures huddled on the camp cots visible from the galleries above. The symbolic power of this inversion is most clearly manifest in three sequences. In the first, an inmate called Gosha refuses to leave the institute in spite of his wife enticing him to return to his “real life” and family. In an uncanny reinforcement of the implication that to leave the garden means death, Tamara disappears by ascending upwards through a skylight. The protagonist, meanwhile, is unable to depart even after he sees his subjects shipped off―concentration-camp-style in open ramshackle trucks―in the wake of the director’s unexpected termination of the project.

As both characters and the viewer wander through this Chinese box of space-time, the only hope for salvation is embodied in yet another stock element. This element will be familiar to readers of Evgenii Zamiatin’s We (1921) and viewers of Andrei Tarkovskii’s Solaris (1972). In 977, the disruption of illusory order occurs through an unlikely relationship that develops between Ivan and a female subject, Rita. Silent and ephemeral, she is the only one not subjected to the box until the end of the film; she is also the only participant who stays after all others have departed.

Is she real or an illusion? The question remains unanswered as everyone strenuously informs the young scientist that there never was such a person. Ivan, meanwhile, leads her to the box and, predictably, the number 977 triumphantly comes alive on the monitor. As the film closes with a shot identical to the opening one―Ivan hurtling through a faceless nighttime landscape―Rita’s figure looms ghostlike in the window frame. Like the enigmatic Rita, 977 is alluring because of the multiple openings it offers the viewer. Straddling the interstice between straightforward narrative and experimental non-representationality, the film resists interpretation as both historical science fiction and contemporary allegory.

Anindita Banerjee, Cornell University

977, Russia, 2006
Color, 87 minutes
Director: Nikolai Khomeriki
Scriptwriter: Iunii Davydov, Nikolai Khomeriki
Cinematography: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Art Direction: Denis Shibanov
Cast: Fedor Lavrov, Klavdiia Korshunova, Alisa Khazanova, Katerina Golubeva, Leo Karaks, Pavel Liubimov, Andrei Kazakov
Producer: Arsen Gotlib
Production: Telekino, Metronome Films, with the participation of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema of the Russian Federation

Nikolai Khomeriki: 977 (2006)

reviewed by Anindita Banerjee© 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07