Issue 32 (2011)

Aleksandr Zel’dovich: The Target (Mishen’, 2011)

reviewed by Barbara Wurm © 2011

mishenThere are those who produce at least one film a year, and there are others who take their time. Aleksandr Zel’dovich’s time is the decade. Sunset (Zakat)came out in 1991, Moscow (Moskva) in 2000, and The Target (Mishen’)in 2011, premiered at the Berlinale. He made a documentary in between—The Trial (Protsess, 2003)about the 1952 execution of the Jewish anti-fascist committee of the former USSR. He certainly has not chosen this certain ten year production rhythm deliberately, but somehow the size of his projects seems to ask for it.[1] One might thus call it a lucky coincidence that, just like Moscow—a kind of quintessential résumé of the generation of the 90s—Target is also an epochal and seminal work about its time (a time to be discussed in further detail). Within a decade Russia’s complex social structure has undergone yet another crucial change. A shift, however, that Zel’dovich oddly enough tries to demarcate by focusing on one layer only – the surface layer, the upper caste, part of a strict social hierarchy. He is interested in the wealthy, in those whose utmost apolitical mindset has not prevented but rather promoted them to become some of Russia’s most influential players (in Target the three main male characters dominate natural resources, customs, and TV). In the 90s and accordingly in Moscow they were bohemians, criminal and brutal night owls, with a disposition for easy money—“new Russians”. Their stylishness was then in constant (con)fusion with utter tastelessness, but in any case it needed to be shown. During the first decade of the new millennium, however, the notion of glamour has developed into one of the most distinguished concepts, being intensely theorized as well as aptly adapted (at least Moscow is ruled by it). The two-and-a-half-hour epic film novel Target is a thorough study of this transformation process on a socio-psychological level and at the same time an in-depth depiction of what seems to be at stake here: perfection. On all levels, from Leonid Desiatnikov’s sublime music score to Aleksandr Ilkhovskii’s cinematography and the overwhelming costume and set design, this film is an absolute high-scale event, a phenomenon quite rare these days, not only in Russian but – as Zel’dovich said in a short interview Olaf Möller and myself conducted with him during the Berlin festival – in European cinema in general.

mishenGiven the new parameters of “distinction”, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s term, it is thus not at all odd but rather consistent that in Target social awareness is reserved for the top level of society—and is not discussed in regard to the middle or lower classes. Thanks to the congenial flow between Zel’dovich and Vladimir Sorokin as script writers, this essential turn—call it post-communist, if you like—becomes explicit within the first minutes of the film, when Victor, Minister of Natural Resources, interviewed by his Chinese biographer Tsao is asked for a Russian quotation and comes forward with the quite funny Tolstoi-subversion: “All miserable people are miserable in the same way, but all happy people are happy in their own way.”

Also in several other scenes (last but not least, when the female protagonist Zoia jumps in front of a train) it becomes obvious that Anna Karenina serves as the basic take off point, and thus not only Moscow (which related to Chekhov’s Three Sisters) but also Target can be regarded as a subtle experiment in a genre chapter quite often treated the conventional way: literary adaptation. The film deals playfully with this majestic archetype by sticking to quite a large number of main protagonists and transferring their relation and some essential plot structure elements into Moscow city in 2020. Like Moscow, the script profits from the intensive co-authorship with Vladimir Sorokin, and since the writing process went on for several years and partly coincided with the appearance of his novel Day of the Oprichnik, the film script bears a lot of traces from this dystopian text, especially the near future politico-economical setting, in which Russia is a global player on the world map thanks to an excellent alliance with China and the tolls paid on the great Guangzhou-Paris highway it controls. But there is even more to the genre question than adaptation, sci-fi, and political satire. In the press kit Zel’dovich speaks of a “movie novel, an attempt to create something The Grand Style”, and names Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino as congeners, plus Ivan Pyr’ev, Sergei Bondarchuk, Andrei Tarkovskii, and Elem Klimov as his Russian ancestors (“I adore Bondarchuk and the late Pyr’ev”, Zel’dovich said in the above-mentioned interview, and who would doubt or, even more, criticize that). His other ideal is a cinema for a well educated, erudite, grown-up audience—something where the pleasure of inter-textual references from literature to philosophy and from Russian to Chinese culture (thus from Lermontov to Lao Tse) can merge with comprehensive scientific matters of energy generation, volcanology, rejuvenation or ecological democracy à la Vernadskii or Vavilov and coincide with a totally professional insight into the trends of everyday culture—the grand style, needless to say—, ranging from high-bet horse races and minimalist sushi meals to private plane and helicopter trips as well as huge flat screen and Bose living room ambiance cum marble-mirror-graphite surface constructions.

mishenNot to speak of the reality version of a computer game so popular in Russia these days, where one has to hunt and kill immigrant workers from Tajikistan, or the ultimate wellness experience that all upper class inhabitants of Moscow 2020 seem to be going through (“Moscow 2020”, by the way, recalls the exact time span of the annoying championship project contests we are permanently confronted with—just think of Sochi 2014—and the film reflects these strange strategy games on the international stage by Viktor’s evaluation of a PR spot that his ministry has to deliver for the advertisement of the Russian pavilion at the “World Expo Tirana 2020”: unsatisfied with the results, Viktor mumbles that it should actually say “Timbuktu 2020”). The main goal of life in Moscow 2020 is eternal youth. Viktor is so obsessed with the idea of rejuvenation that he is constantly surveying his employees and his wife Zoia with the latest technical equipment—measuring glasses indicating a person’s real age by quantifying the actual energy level (later on, we find out that Viktor links the good and the bad with the indexes he observes; blue is bad, whereas red is good, thus no elements, be it human or even natural resources are “ethically neutral”, as he says). When he offers his wife Zoia a trip to a special place, guaranteeing not only perfect youth but also the return of happiness in their conjugal life (plus: conception), she considers it just another average means of recreation, like contrast shower, ayurveda, yoga, spa or “shamany”, or the noble metal face mask she wears every morning (“anyone does”).

But she accepts and they take two others with them, verbally potent the first, physically strong the other—Mitia, Zoia’s brother, a successful TV-showman, and Nikolai, who is in charge of the Guangzhou-Paris highway as lt. colonel of mobile customs on the route “vostok-zapad” (east-west), rides high-breed horses, and will eventually destroy the couple’s marriage. The four had met during one of Mitia’s highly entertaining “tele-shows,” in which Viktor and Zoia won by betting on Nikolai’s horse, ripping off an honest wanna-be-social-climber couple to their bare bones (they lost all their money plus their mother’s sold apartment, nobody, of course, cares, and Viktor is even attacked by Mitia for donating half of his prize to them). The two opponents in the game represent two different industries, essential for the state’s prosperity, namely natural resources and nuclear energy. What is even more important, however, is their class (or rather caste) difference. Social hierarchy plays a crucial role in this society, and no one is really surprised that on their flight to “the target” the four beauty trippers turn out to be “slivki obshchestva,” the crème-de-la-crème, a club of “number ones” as which they have been classified during an official annual rating (obviously a standard procedure in this state).

mishenTheir “target” is a mysterious – once secret, but in the meantime run-down – place (which reminds Sorokin’s readers of the geophysical descriptions of the Tunguska event of 1908 producing a wide swath across Siberia – and apparently leading to the notorious ice in his “Ice Trilogy”), where some outstanding radiation data is said to have magical curing effects on the ageing process. In Target at least three conceptual plot elements are linked to the “target”: firstly, the confrontation between urban and rural social stratum. The supposedly backward local yokels soon reveal themselves as shabby yet cunning rip-off artists who know what their soil is worth. The Muscovites on their part take a shine to Taya, the country girl, a pure and simple Russian beauty, who—despite her actual age—has maintained a perfectly young and innocent appearance. The second aspect concerns the rapprochement of occident and orient on a spiritual level. Whereas Viktor and Nikolai are already proficient in the new lingua franca, Mitia is still learning via “Chinese for dummies,” and when they arrive in the Altai region, he immediately recognizes in the wonderfully gentle Anna (who is also there for rejuvenation) the audio language guide voice he had fallen in love with. Anna is thus a spiritual and emotional mediator between Western and Eastern culture. Finally, what is stunning about the “target” scene is the atmospherically sensational depiction of paradise. High scale shots of the natural splendor of the landscape converge with an amazingly intense light (an inner light, as if in reference to Levitan), where at the same time the positioning of the five slightly futuristic fortune seekers in the midst of a bright, blue sky and in fantastic space-travel-like outdoor suit costumes designed among others by Aleksandr Petliura recalls the neo-surrealist art by the AES group and their mastery to deliver highly techno-artificial and at the same time hyper-naturalist tableaux (AES, by the way, participated in the film by designing the 3D-model of the “Diana Black” sculpture).

mishenFrom a conceptual point of view the near future setting is evidently a masterstroke, allowing Zel’dovich on the one hand to display his visual and imaginative versatility, rooted deeply in film history and its codes (including Hollywood and European cinema at large), and on the other to focus on a vast number of meticulous, detailed observations regarding the psychology of Russia’s zero generation without limiting himself to current political matters. Everything is seen from a slightly shifted spatial and temporal perspective (including two actresses whose mother tongue is not Russian, Justine Waddell playing Zoia, and Daniela Stoyanovich playing Anna). His directing might seem pretentious to those who prefer pathos-drained urban landscapes and the realistic, documentary like depiction of average people on their search for things like emotions, feelings, thoughts, maybe even sense (some kind of mainstream European art-house cinema), but it is actually striking to realize that this kind of grand style, excessive and flamboyant cinema equals exactly the means this (hopelessly unhappy but at the same time financially and technically over-equipped) generation exploits. They are not covering their empty inner world; they are fully aware of it and actively try to live with it (to have style becomes a performative act in this life of glamour). They are neither self-ironic nor resigning but deliberately refer back to some utopian geo- and bio-political ideas that Russia’s cultural history—think of Fedorov or Bogdanov—is so rich of, in order to refresh their blood cells and boost their energy level (and eventually become immortal). Ironically enough, the social elite’s blood-sucking (a)political mentality that lies beneath their life extension experiments is disclosed in a hilarious scene. Hosting another TV-show, in which the opponents take part not only in a perverted cooking competition but also have to come forward with even more perverted political ideas (one of them demands fairness by inequality and a nation of new blood), Mitia sucks his own blood, spits it in a glass and raises his special Bloody Mary “to Russia” (only to be dismissed from his job, just like Vitia, the politician, and Nikolai, the toll hunter). The younger they get on the surface, it seems, the less successful they become in work and love matters. What remains is pure violence: Viktor loses his wife to Nikolay, whose horses are slaughtered out of revenge by Viktor, whereupon Nikolai beats Zoia who, half crippled, returns back to Viktor, who, out of despair, has invited a nationwide scumbag league to a party, at which Zoia’s secret dream (to be raped by a bunch of wild animals) is fulfilled and Viktor finally clubbed to death. This horrendous party scene is another fantastic visual orgy, something between the psychological violence of the 60s, like Jan Nemec’s The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, 1966)or Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962)and the raw brutality of Zel’dovich’s contemporaries Aleksei Balabanov (Cargo 200 /Gruz 200) or Sergei Loznitsa (My Joy/ Schast’e moe).
Despite these partial drifts into blood and dirt, all our “slivki” try to remain as sober and white as their neoclassical touch in style demands. Grace and purity is their message. One has to know a lot about the Russian 90s to fully grasp the deeper meaning and the enormousness of this decade’s shift: from excessive scuffing sessions (import food only) to scarce low-fat meals, preferably raw vegetables; not only ginseng instead of vodka and bear, but a glass of pure spring water and definitely steamed oats, Altai honey, and some ribwort seeds. Diet has become an essential word. Health awareness is the new key to happiness. On a more than artificial way through a global world, Russia has finally come home (and moved east). Natural goods, a bio-technical life in harmony with nature. Zel’dovich and Sorokin know all about “distinctions.” They definitely hit the target.

Barbara Wurm

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1] “You cannot always do what you want, it’s not easy to find partners and producers”, says Zel’dovich in an interview (Rossiiskaia gazeta).

Works Cited

Valerii Kichin, “Kovarnoe slovo ‘vechnost’”, Interview with A. Zel’dovich, Rossiiskaia gazeta 28 Jan. 2011


The Target, Russia, 2011
Color, 158 minutes.
Director: Aleksandr Zel’dovich
Script: Aleksandr Zel’dovich, Vladimir Sorokin
DoP: Aleksandr Ilkhovskii
Music: Leonid Desiatnikov
Cast: Vitalii Kishchenko, Danila Kozlovskii, Nina Loshchinina, Daniela Stoyanovich, Maksim Sukhanov, Justine Waddell
Production: Dmitrii Lesnevskii

Aleksandr Zel’dovich: The Target (Mishen’, 2011)

reviewed by Barbara Wurm © 2011

Updated: 11 Apr 11