Issue 24 (2009)

Arkadii Iakhnis: Horror Which is Always with You (Uzhas, kotoryi vsegda s toboi 2007)

reviewed by Lars Kristensen © 2009

The transition from script to film is often the most treacherous in filmmaking, because, in the process of handing over ideas from writer to filmmaker, anything can fall flat on its face. On the other hand, a small adjustment to plot, character or mise-en-scène also has the potential of lifting a script out of the ordinary. In other words, the transformation of written text into screen image is one of the most magical in filmmaking, holding the key to a film’s success or failure.

horrorHowever, Arkadii Iakhnis’s script adaptation avoids this easy make-or-break dichotomy of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it is, rather, a film that, having its share of strong moments together with a core set of thematic concerns, reflects self-consciously on the long-standing genre of satire in Russian cinema. As satire, the story of Horror Which is Always with You works within a “double awareness of the need to suggest a ‘but,’ an alternative vision/perspective/reality.” (Horton 4). The absurd, or surreal, is working by reflecting back on a given reality. In satire, however, there is always the risk of falling into pathos, self-pity or farce.

Iakhnis’s first feature, Shoes from America (Botinki iz Ameriki 2001), about an old Jew and lone survivor of the Nazi occupation from a small village in western Belorussia, did well in gaining recognition for its director via the festival circuit. The same is true for Horror Which is Always with You, which was shown at Karlovy Vary and was selected for the “Perspective” section of the Moscow International Film Festival (where Russian critics gave it a lukewarm reception; see Maliukova).

horrorAlthough it won no prizes, two factors make the film merit a second glance. Firstly, it was scripted by Iurii Arabov, whose script was nominated for a Nika in 2008. Arabov is one of Russia’s leading scriptwriters and the long time collaborator of Aleksandr Sokurov. Arabov wrote the script for Horror… in the late 1990s.[1] Secondly, the film’s cast is largely made up of performers from Moscow’s Satire Theatre. Two of the leading and several of the supporting roles are performed by the theatre’s actors, signaling that the film promises much in the way of staging the difficult comedy. However, the question remains: can a solid-but-slightly-surreal script and a distinguished cast make a strong satirical film? The cards are shuffled.

The Varzumovs, Marxen (Iurii Nifontov) and Lera (Marina Il’ina), are two middle-aged intellectuals, who respectively teach psychology and philology to disinterested students at the local university of a provincial town. They belong to a class that has lost its position in society, and Lera happily cites Lenin as a great writer as part of a newspaper survey, arguing that “Kurt Vonnegut [by contrast] is a bit long and dull (zanudno).” However, both Lera and Marxen have problems remembering what Lenin actually wrote; only “bourgeois marriage is legalized prostitution” comes to mind, and that only after considerable hesitation. The allusion to their own marriage is clear; they have become prostitutes for an everyday existence that seemingly promises no escape from the daily grind. However, an escape route does appear—but with fatal consequences for the couple.

horrorAfter a day’s toil at the university, Marxen comes home to find his flat occupied by armed men in camouflage. Marxen promises Lera, who is sick in bed, that he will take care of the situation by getting the men to leave. He goes to get the police, but as soon as they arrive back at the flat, the policeman recognizes the paramilitaries as the local special forces (spetsnaz) unit: Colonel Nikolai Sharov (Oleg Fomin), the chubby cook Onoprienko (Dmitrii Prokof’ev), the young Misha (Semen Shteinberg), and the heavily armed Caucasian Raduev (Arslan Myrzabekov), who fortunately is our Raduev, as Nikolai points out. Although never explicitly stated, the officers are on a mission to eliminate a saboteur in the neighboring flat, and their prolonged presence impacts on the couple: Marxen is taken under the wing of the macho colonel, who, preferring Marx to “that milksop Engels”, wants to straighten up the sloppy Marxen, who has never done military service (“I was at university,” he pleads), while Lera seeks solace not in her husband but in Father Mikhail (Sergei Makarov), the local priest, who Lera hopes will exorcise the spetsnaz from the flat, and whose congregation has relocated to a small plastic greenhouse within an old factory pending the church’s reconstruction.

horrorIn fact, everything is under (re)construction (the infamous term “remont”), with the soundtrack constantly featuring drilling, hammering and the like. The “remont” aesthetic is also reinforced by the cinematography: there is a distinctive focus on scaffolding, derelict factory buildings, and construction workers who constantly carry, roll or throw materials around. But not everything is under construction: Marxen and Lera’s downward spiral resembles rather a deconstruction that reveals an innerness that is as empty as the bird cage that hangs in their one-bedroom flat. There is, the film suggests, no golden canary singing within these intellectuals. Instead what is revealed, in particular in Marxen, is Frankenstein’s monster: after a Kalashnikov training session with Nikolai, who teaches him the importance of civilian self-defense, Marxen “sees” the power of the gun in boosting his confidence and manliness. Marxen’s identity change is complete when he dons a camouflage jacket, shaves his head, and gets battered in a bar fight. When he gets home, though, Marxen discovers that Lera, convinced that God will save them, has allowed the daily church service to be conducted in their flat. To Marxen’s increasing frustration, the flat is again occupied, therefore, but this time by churchmen, who insist on calling Marxen Saint Mark. When Nikolai and the spetsnaz unit return to the flat once again, Marxen hopes to use them to get rid of the clerics, but instead Father Mikhail and Nikolai turn out to be old friends. The church and the military are now together in the occupation of Lera, Marxen, and their common little flat.

horror“Who are you?! Father Mikhail, I know,” says Nikolai to Marxen. “He is one of us. But what is inside you? Friendship comes through serving together.” This is, of course, a test that Marxen cannot pass because he has not eaten ‘pood of salt’ (pud soli) with anyone to gain their trust and comradeship. It is at this point that Marxen clicks; he goes to the kitchen, gets out the salt and pours some of it on the table. Marxen starts to eat it by the spoonful, and when Nikolai refuses to eat the salt, Marxen drops a measure in the colonel’s teacup. Father Mikhail enters the kitchen and gets a spoonful thrown in his face, and Marxen also force-feeds Lera some salt. Nobody is exempt from Marxen’s final outburst, as he ends up smashing the empty birdcage into his own reflection in the mirror.

Marxen hits bottom when he walks around the courtyard and passes the billboard poster for an exhibition for Jean-François Millet, whose most famous picture is Des glaneuses (The Gleaners). Just like the subjects of Millet’s painting, Marxen is on his knees picking up the leftovers from where the post-communist harvest machine has passed. However, there is still work left for Marxen to do. He gets the keys to the target neighbor’s flat. It turns out to be empty, and the spetsnaz enter and shoot him. However, it is suggested that Marxen redeems his mortal soul when Lera sees a dark coated figure leave the hallway—perhaps a new Marxen has risen out of his martyrdom.

horrorThe ending has led critics to call the film an absurd Kafkaesque parable, but it seems that the film is not aiming for absurdity so much as satire—although whether it is successful in this aim is open to debate. On the one hand, the strong performances from Oleg Fomin, Marina Il’ina and Iurii Nifontov make the film attractive and worthwhile to watch, but on the other hand, the film fails as a critical satire on the failing of the intelligentsia. This is where the question of script adaptation comes to haunt the film. In his published version, Arabov gives Marxen considerable room to narrate the absurdities of Russian provincial life, but Iakhnis chooses not to use this in his film version. Whether or not Iakhnis is ‘right’ to forego Marxen’s voiceover from Arabov’s script, this decision changes the film from being the personalized story of a human being in an inhumane world to being a detached investigation into man under extreme stress. This corresponds to Iakhnis’s own stated intentions, in that the director wanted to explore the Varzumovs’ marriage when it comes under pressure.

Be this as it may, however, one might argue that the film in fact loses some of Arabov’s biting satire of post-communist Russian society. Although the film has been termed “anti-power” and anticlerical—i.e. has a satirical and ‘political’ set of concerns—one wonders whether Iakhnis has downplayed the ‘horror’ elements of the script in order to foreground broad comedy in his film, something suggested by the decision to re-brand the film for the DVD release, titled In Bed with Spetsnaz (V posteli s spetsnazom) instead of Horror Which is Always With You.

horrorThis ‘descent’ into broad comedy is regrettable, because the film’s themes of terrorists and saboteurs could be used more pointedly to reflect national anxiety in contemporary Russia, as well as horror as a state of mind. As Arabov noted in Iskusstvo Kino, he saw that “the material used for Horror… had not completely aged—the last five years have obviously proved the relevance of the plot used for the script” (Arabov). In the five years between writing the script (1998) and publishing it (2003), we saw the bombing of apartment blocs in Moscow, the war in Chechnya, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, and the War on Terror (or what Arabov’s fellow satirist Borat would term the ‘War of Terror’). These events should make Horror... a relevant film, and yet Iakhnis seems to lose some of the potential meaning one might derive from a film about the threat from the saboteur neighbor just next door. Horror Which is Always With You has something important to tell and Iakhnis should be lauded for trying to take on the mantle of subversive satire at a time when strong satirical cinema should be ripe in Russia. It is just a pity that he is sometimes slightly off-target.

Lars Kristensen
University of St Andrews

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1]A reworked version was published in Iskusstvo Kino (issues 2-3, 2003) as well as in Arabov’s own Big Beat (Big-Bit, St. Petersburg: Andreevskii flag, 2003)

Works Cited

Arabov, Iurii, “Uzhas…..”, Iskusstvo Kino 2-3 (2003).

Horton Andrew (ed). Inside Soviet Film Satire: Laughter with a Lash. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993

Maliukova, Larisa, “Voda, voda. Krugom voda,” Novaia gazeta 2 July 2007

Horror Wich is Always with You, Russia 2007
Color, 85 min.
Director: Arkadii Iakhnis
Scriptwriter: Iurii Arabov
Cinematography: Grigorii Iablochnikov
Production Design: Valerii Arkhipov
Cast: Iurii Nifontov, Marina Il’ina, Oleg Fomin
Producers: Fedor Popov, Liudmila Kukoba, Svetlana Bezgan
Production: Stella

Arkadii Iakhnis: Horror Which is Always with You (Uzhas, kotoryi vsegda s toboi 2007)

reviewed by Lars Kristensen © 2009

Updated: 27 Mar 09