Iurii Lebedev and Boris Frumin: Undercover (Nelegal, 2005)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland© 2007

Undercover is such a confusing film that it would not be an exaggeration to say that confusion is built into its very structure. Although the mood of a psychological espionage film dominates, its genre is neither stable nor easily nameable. Much of the film's plot is itself shrouded in mystery and the viewer is constantly subjected to small surprises until the very end. The film's very title in the original Russian seems strangely awkward. Just what are the filmmakers alluding to with the term nelegal? While the English release title Undercover seems quite simple and appropriate to the film's story, the term nelegal suggests an intention on the part of the filmmakers that remains murky and ambiguous. The marketing blurb for the film tells us that the protagonist must “go illegal in his own country.” While the meaning of the phrase is clear, the term seems just slightly off the mark. In this film, our undercover agent negotiates not questions of legality, but rather of identity.

Despite the confusing action of the film, the basic plot structure can be summarized coherently. The film begins with an illustration of the need for Soviet intelligence agents to travel through Leningrad's international airport without being searched by customs officials. In order to address this problem, the KGB decides to recall to the Soviet Union one of its agents (played by Aleksei Serebriakov) currently based in Helsinki, where he has been serving apparently for many years. In order to place him in the customs service without raising suspicions, he must be given a new identity. He is reintroduced to a “family” that he supposedly left at the age of six and spends time with them while his new official identity documents are prepared. From there he is given work in the prosecutor's office in the town of Volochansk, where within the span of one month he undertakes and successfully completes the investigation of a murder. He quickly manages to turn the head of a woman at each of these two way stations. Once his heroic job performance has been written up in the local press, his biography is sufficiently prepared so that he can take up his post at Leningrad's airport. He is instructed to get to know his new work colleagues, but their relations are complex and it takes some time for him to get his footing. He attempts to blackmail one of his coworkers in order to insure that an arriving agent is not searched. This attempt backfires disastrously and our protagonist's undercover work at the airport ends as abruptly as it began. From this point, the film moves quickly to its denouement and a final scene that leaves viewers wondering just how many elements of this confusing adventure have remained “undercover” to the very end.

This invention of a man's new biography is directed and stage managed by Major Adriianov (Anatolii Petrov), a vaguely Mephistophelian figure from the KGB's domestic intelligence service, who functions by turns as our agent's guardian and tormentor. Although the murder in Volochansk is genuine, the apprehension of the “murderer” is arranged by Adriianov. While investigating this murder, which apparently involved marital infidelity, our agent is allowed a brief reunion with his wife. The meeting is organized by Adriianov, who has apparently begun some kind of relationship with the woman himself. This treatment is certainly enough to motivate the sullen attitude with which our agent lives out his daily existence.

The viewer understands, however, that our agent's grim mien indicates something more than his irritation at Adriianov's manipulation. The protagonist endures a profound but unspoken suffering, which is communicated by the understated yet eloquent expressiveness of Serebriakov, mostly held at the level of vague discomfort, but occasionally reaching the intensity of utter despair or existential horror. This talented actor's first-rate performance makes the protagonist a tragic figure whose professionalism and devotion to duty requires the sacrifice of his own identity. We never learn the last name, authentic or fictitious, of our agent. Production notes identify his character simply as the Nelegal, and although he is addressed as Igor' Kirillovich by his superior in the customs service, the film's dialogue is written so as to minimize any direct address of our protagonist by name.

Thus, it is clear that the central question of identity is posed by the directors as well as by the lead actor. However, questions of national or collective identity, so central to much of Russian cinema, for once take a back seat to issues of personal identity and integrity. The film presents the content of a man's identity along two distinct tracks. On the one hand, identity is a fiction to be written—a text consisting of state documents, reports, letters of reference, denunciations, press accounts, and the like. On the other hand, identity rises out of the web of an individual's personal relationships. Our leading man's successes as a charismatic lady-killer may be a cinematic cliché, but he also kills a little bit of himself with each separation. His ruptured relationships both with his wife as well as with Svetlana, the Volochansk prosecutor, poignantly illustrate the way that a sense of self is nourished by relationship to others.

This interrogation of identity is also carried on in the aesthetic construction of the image, particularly in the proliferation of mirrors. We repeatedly see undercover agents, including our protagonist, studying their faces in mirrors. More interesting is the fondness of the filmmakers for crafting scenes of bribe-taking, smuggling, and blackmail within a sometimes quite complex frame of reflective mirrors. Is this perhaps a suggestion that our protagonist's predicament is merely a particularly vivid example of a problem endemic to this society and to this time? To what extent is an authentic identity possible for anyone in a society in which corruption is the norm?

Such questions lead us to remark on what is perhaps the most distinctive quality of this film. Anyone familiar with Boris Frumin's previous film, Viva Castro! (1993) , is aware of this director's intense interest in and careful attention to the visual representation of Soviet reality during the period of Stagnation. Nevertheless, Russian viewers have identified numerous anachronisms in Undercover at the level of concrete detail (see, for example, Volobuev). The film's appearance of authenticity depends much less on the discrete material objects than on the general atmosphere of the film. The visual design of the film seems to adhere to an aesthetics of sparseness. The aura of Brezhnev's Soviet Union is conjured up not by reproducing the concrete realia of the time, but rather by stripping the film of all unnecessary ornamentation. Frumin wishes to elicit memories of the recent past through the use of barren spaces and blank surfaces. This approach justifies, to take just one example, the depiction of a Soviet airport customs point with no queues, indeed without any kind of noise or commotion. The eerie silence and wide open spaces around the customs screeners, so unlikely in reality, create an aura of Brezhnevian stagnation that can dispense with the requirements of verisimilitude. This aesthetics of sparseness extends to the musical accompaniment as well. Except for occasional eruptions of diegetic music, the film's musical track is limited to a plaintive piano melody devoid of any ornamentation, which perfectly complements the gray and brown tones of the images on screen.

Frumin, who left the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, insists that he does not create his portrayals of the Brezhnev era as a way to settle scores with old enemies (see his interview). Certainly, Undercover is more than a cinematic pamphlet. Most characters are portrayed with depth and a certain degree of sympathy. The film is free of sententious morality and there is no simplistic resolution at the end. Nevertheless, Major Adriianov, the most obvious representative of the State, is slimy, devious, manipulative, predatory, and (should we be surprised?) not particularly competent in the performance of his assignments. Inasmuch as Adriianov steps into the protagonist's shoes as ersatz husband and father for the latter's family, the State continues to enact one of the most enduring tropes of Soviet culture dating back to Stalin. In sum, this investigation of personal identity and integrity ultimately remains bound to homo sovieticus. The aesthetic representation of the country and society under Brezhnev may be the most distinctive aspect of Frumin's film art. It may also, of necessity, be his most limiting.

Gerald McCausland
University of Pittsburgh

Works Cited

"Interv'iu rezhissèra fil'ma Nelegal Borisa Frumina”.

Volobuev, Roman. “Nelegal. Sovetskoe èkzistentsial'noe retro pro shpiona”; Afisha 1 Nov. 2006


Undercover , Russia, 2005
Color, 98 minutes
Directors: Iurii Lebedev and Boris Frumin
Screenplay: Iurii Nikolin with Boris Frumin
Cinematography: Nikolai Volkov
Design: Vladimir Svetozarov
Music: Viktor Lebedev
Cast: Aleksei Serebriakov, Anatolii Petrov, Ol'ga Al'banova, Ekaterina Reshetnikova, Sergei Kudriavtsev, Andrei Mokeev, Sergei Umanov
Production: The GP Group

Iurii Lebedev and Boris Frumin: Undercover (Nelegal, 2005)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland© 2007

Updated: 23 Mar 07