Issue 25 (2009)

Aleksei Balabanov: Morphia (Morfii, 2008)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2009

morfiiViewers who were disgusted by Aleksei Balabanov’s previous film will be pleasantly surprised by his latest. Unlike Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007), which was expressly anti-nostalgic in its ambition to expose social squalor and moral corruption during the declining years of the Soviet Union, Morphia (2008) takes a more sympathetic, if wistful look at Russian history, specifically at Russia’s idyllic qualities on the eve of October 1917. The word “idyllic” is chosen on purpose not only because Morphia is set in the winter and echoes the genre of the wintry idyll (with its beautiful shots sometimes even evoking associations with Pushkin’s famous winter descriptions), but also because the village in which the action takes place is a relatively happy and isolated community that is blissfully unaware of the impending changes. Cynicism, violence and corruption, all those things that made Cargo 200 such an unsettling film, are absent in this snow-clad Arcadia until, towards the end of the story, Bolshevism arrives and the idyll is destroyed.

This is not to say that thrill-seeking viewers will be disappointed. On the contrary, Morphia is deemed not suitable for viewers under 21 (the official rating), nor for the “mentally weak” in general, if we are to believe the extra warning on the DVD cover. In this film we see a young woman having her leg amputated, needles being stuck into arms and legs with increasing vehemence, and there is no shortage of sex either. All in all, this is vintage Balabanov, even if some people interpret such a label as a red flag rather than a recommendation.

morfiiLoosely based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s autobiographical stories Notes of a Young Doctor (Zapiski iunogo vracha, published 1925-6), Morphia tells the story of a young physician named Mikhail Poliakov (played by Leonid Bichevin) who arrives in a provincial backwater in the fall of 1917 to assume his first post as a district doctor. Talented, but still inexperienced and even lacking some elementary knowledge, he gets by on his poker face, diligence, and ultra-brief cigarette breaks which he furtively uses to sneak into his predecessor’s well-assorted library and look up the details of operations he is about to attempt for the first time. Soon he earns the respect of his good-natured paramedic Demian Lukich (Andrei Panin) and nurse Anna Nikolaevna (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) with whom he will eventually start an affair. By that time Poliakov has already developed an addiction to morphine, which increasingly impedes his functioning as a doctor and incites him to abuse his position.

Poliakov’s pernicious habit is shown in graphic detail (inflamed forearms, vomiting, etc.), but the addiction itself remains somewhat of a mystery. In Bulgakov’s story, the hero’s self-destructive behavior is motivated by a tragic love affair he had back in Petrograd. Although the film seems to uphold the possibility of a broken heart by having Poliakov gaze at a photograph of a young woman, a “friend” and a “singer,” as he explains to Anna Nikolaevna, there is hardly any indication that he is truly tormented by memories of the past. If this were the case, he might have arrived from the capital already addicted, but this scenario was explicitly denied by Balabanov himself in an interview in Empire.[1] Hypothetically, a lack of self-confidence and the stress of the operating room may also be considered as potential causes, yet this is not really born out by anything we see in the film. On the contrary, Poliakov’s decision to have his very first shot of morphine (administered by Anna) is motivated in purely medical terms as an attempt to suppress his allergy to the anti-diphtheria serum. What brings him to have his second dose, when he shows no particular signs of physical or mental distress, remains unclear.

Balabanov himself has not been very helpful in providing an explanation for Poliakov’s addiction. In the interview with Empire mentioned above, he stated rather cryptically that his hero has a strong personality, but was weak under the given circumstances. Unsatisfactory as this explanation may sound, the notion of some “circumstantial” weakness turns out to be more significant than it appears at first sight. Poliakov is not only powerless when it comes to morphine; he easily submits to the cheap charms of Ekaterina Karlovna (Katarina Radivoevich), a dark-haired nymphomaniac widow and his patient, with whom he has sex on several occasions. Yet perhaps the most telling sign of Poliakov’s weakness or equanimity is his completely laconic reaction to the news of the October Revolution, a historic event whose devastating implications he apparently fails to appreciate. Soon this careless attitude will turn against him.

During an emergency visit in the middle of the night, Poliakov runs into a paramedic of the neighboring district, a certain Lev Gorenburg (Iurii Gertsman), the only truly repugnant character in the whole film. At their first encounter, the traditional hierarchy between the doctor and the paramedic is affirmed by the latter’s submissiveness and his polite request to lend him a small quantity of morphine, but towards the end of the film the hierarchy is clearly subverted. While Poliakov turns into a zombie and has himself admitted to the hospital for treatment, Gorenburg behaves in an increasingly defiant manner, as he is well aware of Poliakov’s condition. Sporting the quintessentially Bolshevik leather jacket, Gorenburg quickly assumes the leadership of the local Revolutionary Committee, a move that enables him to control the local drug market.

morfiiThe most graphic illustration of this redistribution of power is Anna’s disloyalty to Poliakov. She persuades him to go to rehab (which he quits after only a few days), but because she herself has become addicted, she is at the mercy of Gorenburg who is more than happy to supply her with morphine in exchange for her body. The revolutionary leader gets what he deserves, though, when in one of the film’s last scenes Anna and Poliakov run into each other on the streets of Uglich (a town chosen, no doubt, to suggest a parallel between the Russian Revolution and the Time of Troubles). This brief encounter is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Gorenburg who triumphantly holds up two phials of morphine which he has just confiscated in the local drug store. Poliakov instinctively runs off, but then turns around to Gorenburg, who has immediately set off in pursuit, and shoots him. As Poliakov manages to escape, Anna unscrupulously removes the phials of morphine from Gorenburg’s dead body. The final scene features Poliakov entering a movie theatre and shooting himself while watching the 1911 screen version of Chekhov’s story “Romance with a Double Bass.”

morfiiPredictably, the fact that Morphia is a very liberal reworking of Notes of a Young Doctor has led Bulgakov aficionados on the internet to reject the film arguing that Balabanov and the late Sergei Bodrov Jr. (the author of the script) have betrayed the spirit of the original. This has elicited an equally familiar reaction from more benign viewers saying that, since the fidelity argument is untenable, one should refrain from comparing the film to the book. In this particular case, however, Bulgakov fans seem to have a point, not because Balabanov and Bodrov have diverged from the original by combining individual stories into a single plot, but because they have done so in order to tell a completely different story: the hackneyed tale of the Russian Revolution as a Jewish plot against the Russian people.

morfiiCrucial in this respect is the role of Poliakov’s adversary, Gorenburg, a character who is absent in the original. As his name already suggests, Gorenburg is not a Russian, but a Jew who, in “typically” Jewish fashion, tries to hide his identity. Having converted to Christianity in pre-Revolutionary Russia, he now has joined the Bolsheviks, yet even his being a member of the RSDLP smacks of deceit and imposture. Upon learning that LP stands for “Labor Party,” one character aptly notes that Gorenburg “does not really look like a worker”. An almost Weiningerian caricature of Jewish “adaptability” (“Veränderungsfähigkeit,” as Otto Weininger called it), this Christianized Jew-turned-revolutionary reveals himself as an inveterate manipulator of anything Russian, including a small battalion of illiterate Russian soldiers that he deploys to secure stocks of morphine.

The addition of Gorenburg to the list of dramatis personae becomes even more unnerving when viewed against the linearity of the film plot as opposed to the more or less cyclical structure of Bulgakov’s Notes. These consist of a number of autotelic and partly overlapping stories in which the good-tempered narrator, a certain doctor Bomgard, recounts his most noteworthy feats and failures as a young physician. The story “Morphine” stands somewhat apart from the Notes because it was published later and is written as a diary of Bomgard’s friend, the morphine-addicted doctor Poliakov (yet since the diary is framed by Bomgart’s preliminary and concluding remarks, the link with the other stories is obvious.)[2]The embeddedness of the addiction plot and the ensuing presence of two narrators in the original constituted a problem for the screen version that the makers sought to overcome by turning Poliakov into the main hero. A junky in the original, in the film he also takes on the “Bomgardian” role of rookie doctor and miracle worker. While this is a perfectly legitimate adjustment in itself, the conflation of Poliakov’s personal tragedy with the social turmoil of the Revolution lends the film something conspicuously ominous, if not apocalyptic, particularly if one considers that this conflation is achieved by introducing the character of a Jewish Bolshevik. Balabanov’s attempt to invest the story with a sense of poetic justice by having the Jew shot, shows that, while having been criticized for anti-Semitism before, this time he really has outdone himself.

Balabanov does not deny that his film is critical of the Jewish contribution to October 1917. In the aforementioned interview in Empire, he argued that even if the Revolution was not a completely Jewish affair, the very idea of “revolution” was entirely Jewish. This leaves us with the question whether Morphia should be interpreted simply as an anti-Semitic pamphlet, or whether its accusatory overtones are not simultaneously directed at the “weak” Russians who have let it all happen.

morfiiIndeed, Poliakov is not the only Russian character who refuses to face the reality of the Bolshevik take-over. In the hospital where he vainly tries to overcome his addiction, a malingering army officer (Aleksei Poluian) hides fearfully under his blankets when revolutionaries prepare to storm the building. One of the most gruesome scenes of the film shows the severely wounded members of a well-to-do family being brought in at Poliakov’s clinic following the looting and burning of their estate. Vasilii Osipovich (Sergei Garmash), the liberal, well-meaning head of the family and one of the victims, is deeply shocked not so much by the violence itself, as by the fact that the people whose interests he always claimed to serve, has now turned itself against its benefactor. Earlier in the film we saw Vasilii Osipovich sitting comfortably in front of the fire place expounding his views on Russia to a group of guests and relatives including Poliakov, Gorenburg, and his own dim-witted son Osip Vasil’evich (Aleksei Istomin). Lending father and son something slightly caricatural, the reverse order of first name and patronymic symbolizes, above all, the intelligentsia’s self-obsessiveness, its isolation from society. Like Poliakov, these characters prefer to deny or remain oblivious of the historic disaster which is unfolding before their eyes until it is too late. In the final analysis, Morphia is less about the Jews and their sins of commission than about the sins of omission committed by the Russians.

Given the historical period in which the action is set, it seems reasonable to suspect some genealogical link between Morphia and Balabanov’s 1998 film Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1998). Yet Balabanov has emphatically denied that these two films share a common denominator of any significance. While he also has not pointed to a specific link between Morphia and Cargo 200, it seems that these two films are not entirely “different,” as we might be tempted to conclude after only a superficial comparison, but rather that they complement one another. Watched in tandem they make a captivating, albeit highly tendentious diptych on the establishment of communism and its last convulsions in the 1980s. Together they tell the story of  “the Russia that we lost” and “the Russia that we got rid of.”

Otto Boele
University of Leiden

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1] Blog “Balabanov pro Morfii” on Empire

2] B.V. Sokolov, Bulgakov. Entsiklopediia (Moscow: Algoritm, 2003), pp. 223-226.

Morphia, Russia, 2008
Color, 112 minutes
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Scriptwriter: Sergei Bodrov jr.
Cinematography: Aleksandr Simonov
Art Director: Pavel Parkhomenko, Anastasiia Karimulina
Sound: Mikhail Nikolaev
Editing: Tat'iana Kuzmicheva
Cast: Leonid Bichevin, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Andrei Panin, Svetlana Pis’michenko, Katarina Radivoevich, Iurii Gertsman, Aleksandr Mosin, Irina Rakshina, Sergei Garmash, Iulia Dainegta, Aleksei Poluian
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: CTB Film Company

Aleksei Balabanov: Morphia (Morfii, 2008)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2009

Updated: 11 Jul 09