Issue 34 (2011)

Iurii Kara: Master and Margarita (Master i Margarita, 1994, released 2011)

reviewed by Lena Doubivko © 2011

Good Wine Gets Better With Age

“Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received
ideas into the language of beauty and feeling.”
(Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel)

masterWhen Iurii Kara adapted The Master and Margarita to screen in 1994, he not only fulfilled his life-long dream, but was also the first Russian film director to bring to a close what seemed to many an “impossible” undertaking for ideological, financial, artistic or even mysterious reasons. Yet Kara’s much awaited first Russian film adaptation of the Soviet underground classic seemed to have contracted an air of mysticism endemic to Mikhail Bulgakov’s haunted novel, and was released only 17 years after filming was finished, becoming a subject of various speculations and legends. Arguably, Kara’s The Master and Margarita has benefitted from the long delay. In the 1990s Kara’s adaptation would likely have been perceived as gaudy and disrespectful to Bulgakov’s novel – for its deviances from the text, slapdash editing, naïve special effects, and the filmmaker’s signature kitschy quirks. Now that the all-favorite cult-text has lost its immediacy and Kara is no longer deemed the “king of kitsch” (Porokh 2011), the film looks more like a postmodern parody and innocent art-house, appreciated for its brilliant cast, eclecticism, sense of irony and nostalgic references to past eras.

masterIn 1987, freshly baked from Sergei Gerasimov’s workshop at VGIK, Iurii Kara successfully entered the stormy perestroika period with his timely melodrama Tomorrow was War (Zavtra byla voina), which denounced Stalin. The film won numerous international awards and was shown in 48 countries. His second, widely popular mass-culture film Thieves in Law (Vory v zakone, 1988), loosely based on the stories of Fazil Iskander, not only secured him the label of “The Godfather, Nizhnii Novgorod style” (Krestnyi otets po-nizhegorodski), but also won its director the most embarrassing “Three K” anti-prize of the 1980s: Kon’iunktura. Kommertsiia. Kitsch (State of the Market. Commerce. Kitsch). An original parody of the crime thriller genre, Kara’s Thieves in Law laid no claim to realistically denouncing the Soviet criminal world. Yet the film’s playful and ironic intonations were almost entirely missed by the critics. Kara’s repeated tackling of a “socially important” theme in his next adaptation of Iskander’s Feasts of Belshazzar, or Night with Stalin (Piry Val’tazara, ili noch’ so Stalinym, 1989) did not rid him of the stigma. The film’s political grotesque rather than a “serious” denouncing of Stalin’s crimes was perceived as inferior to other exposés of tyranny, such as Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (Pokaianie, 1986). Kara’s love of exaggeration was seen as pandering to popular demand alone rather than an artistic self-expression. Since then, kitsch has become an integral part of the filmmaker’s reputation.

Hence, from the very start, Kara’s undertaking of the screen adaptation of The Master and Margarita was treated with prejudice and irony from the aesthetes in the cinematic community, who did not believe in the artistic merit of this venture (Plakhov 2011). All the more so since, before the newcomer Kara, a host of experienced and talented filmmakers deemed this project ‘cursed’ and impossible to complete for a variety of reasons.

In the West, cultural icons such as Federico Fellini, Ray Manzarek and Roman Polanski were captivated by the prospect of a screen adaptation of the underground Soviet classic, but certain circumstances prevented them from realizing it (only Polanski came tantalizingly close to bringing the novel to the screen; see Mia Taylor). In Eastern Europe, the efforts of Andrzej Wajda and Aleksandr Petrovich reached fruition in the 1970s, but resulted in derivative productions rather than definitive films: the Polish one focusing on the story of Pilate, and the Yugoslavian on the Moscow chapters. In Soviet Russia, where a film adaptation of The Master and Margarita could never have been made for ideological and financial reasons, numerous distinguished artists, such as Andrei Tarkovskii, Rolan Bykov, Leonid Gaidai, El’dar Riazanov, Vladimir Naumov, Gennadii Poloka, and Elem Klimov dreamt about putting the all-favorite cult novel onto the screen. After begging the authorities for 15 long years, only Klimov came closest to the actual filming of the novel in 1986. Based at Mosfilm, his was to be a lavish ($80 million) international production that would catch the interest of Hollywood, but eventually had to close due to financial constraints (Kharitonskii 1992).

Indignation was in the air: how could Kara—“the king of kitsch”—be entrusted with the first adaptation of Bulgakov’s sacred text, the bible of the Soviet intelligentsia, if most previous attempts were either inevitably ill-fated or not satisfactory enough?

masterKara, who had dreamt about a screen adaptation of The Master and Margarita ever since reading the samizdat novel as a teenager, was eager to seize the project, even if it competed with Klimov’s production.[1] In all likelihood, in the twilight of the Soviet era, the first film adaptation of Bulgakov’s novel would cause a collective catharsis, assuring the birth of a new mass cult.[2] Kara fully understood the responsibility of filming the first adaptation of The Master and Margarita at the height of a veritable ‘Bulgakov fad’ in the 1990s, with many faithful admirers of the writer knowing his “sunset novel” by heart. In interviews, he frequently emphasized his reverent treatment of Bulgakov’s text and spirit. Yet what appears to be a “realistic” rendering of the novel in fact has enough adaptational differences to please both: purists desiring fidelity to the beloved text and Bulgakov’s spirit, and aesthetes looking for an independent authorial idiom.

It is important to mention that, counter to Kara’s intention, the released film was brutally chopped.[3] The filmmaker’s clash with the producers over the length led to prolonged legal proceedings, resulting in Kara’s The Master and Margarita becoming the “last shelved film of the twentieth century”.[4] Hence, most adaptational differences (not authorial but rather producer-initiated) come from the film’s compelled truncation, which is its main shortcoming. Had Kara known about his project’s abridgement from the very beginning, he would have probably made very different stylistic choices vis-à-vis the plotline. In this cut version, the novel’s three interlinked narrative strands are present (the Moscow episodes clearly dominate),[5] but numerous scenes and characters are missing or have been altered. Gone are such key scenes as Margarita’s destruction of Latunskii’s apartment, the singing at the Commission for Performances and Entertainment, the fire at the Griboedov House, and the final, moonlit ride. Gone are Viazemskii, Poplavskii, Prokhor Petrovich, Natasha and many others. Sadly, gone are some of Bulgakov’s celebrated aphorisms, such as “Poison, bring me poison”, “Yes, he's dead ... but we are still alive!”, or “If there are no papers, there’s no person”.

masterKara’s abridged adaptation, as critic Andrei Plakhov (2011) notes, marked the emergence of non-state censorship in the Russian cinema. This echoes a heavily censored form of the first publication of its literary original in the journal Moskva in 1966 and 1967, “with many cuts, which rendered the text puzzling in places” (Lesley Milne). In this light and in line with Bulgakov’s love for the supra-rational, one wonders if Kara’s sloppy editing could be a subversive gesture, as some of the narrative lapses are just too obvious. For example, when Ivan Bezdomny (Sergei Garmash) comes to the Griboedov House in his underpants, while he was fully dressed in the preceding frame; or when Margarita (Anastasiia Vertinskaia) arrives directly at the enormous space of Satan’s Rout, without going through apartment #50 and says to Korov’ev (Alexander Filippenko): “Most of all I'm struck that there's room for all this.” It seems as though, similar to Fellini’s imaginative symbolization, Kara makes cuts that are logically impossible and totally unexpected, which is precisely the power he holds over his film.

Arguing for the necessity of adaptations, Christian Metz writes that cinema “‘says’ things that could be conveyed also in the language of words; yet it says them differently”. As if to make up for the lost “language of words”, Kara’s exceptional sensitivity to Bulgakov’s text is manifest, among other things, in authentic locations (Moscow, Israel, the Crimea), accurate period costumes (originally designed for Klimov’s failed adaptation) and décor, all organically conveying the mood and aesthetics of 1930’s Moscow and historic Jerusalem. Some impressive examples of Kara’s creative concern for authenticity are that Margarita’s mansion was filmed in a real mansion on Ostozhenka Street; and Master’s ascetic apartment was shot in the basement of a historic building on Mansurovskii Lane, the very place that Bulgakov visited and chose for his hero’s dwelling.

masterKara’s choice of conventional Soviet-style special effects over computer generated imagery may look funny and outdated to contemporary young audiences, but it also helped preserve Bulgakov’s spirit. Understanding that CGI was in an embryonic stage in Russia in the early 1990s, and might look rather amusing with time, Kara wanted his special effects to be akin to Bulgakov’s miracles in the novel that are naïve but long-lived (Official Website).

What really brings out the qualities of Bulgakov’s crowning work is the film’s first-rate cast. Kara’s The Master and Margarita is probably the last film of the twentieth century to deliver such a superb constellation of famous Soviet actors: Valentin Gaft (Woland), Mikhail Ul’ianov (Pilate), Anastasiia Vertinskaia (Margarita), Viktor Rakov (Master), Aleksandr Filippenko (Korov’ev), Sergei Garmash (Ivan Bezdomny), Lev Durov (Mathew Levi), Nikolai Burliaev (Yeshua), Leonid Kuravlev (Nikanor Bosoi) and many others. Kara favors medium shots and lengthy takes, using his static camera as a recording device to allow the seasoned actors to show off their talent and training. Most of the roles are performed with distinction. For example, Ul’ianov, who is famous for multiple cinematic renderings of Marshall Zhukov (15 times!), was perfectly suited for Pontius Pilate, which is now considered the actor’s best role. Garmash, who debuted here on the big screen, is flawless as Bezdomny, just as awkward and honest, although much older than his literary 23 year-old equivalent. Filippenko is outstanding as Korov’ev: he overtakes the camera with his comical excesses of highly stylized, farcical and overall grotesque performance. But how else does one convey the mysterious and ineffable?

masterSomething is a little “off” in the world shown. The tone set by Kara’s film seems lighter and more comical, differing from Bulgakov’s balanced worldview, in which good and evil coexist. In the film, the Moscow episodes are just a farce, undermining Stalin’s terror. The contradictions inherent in Woland’s character—both demonic and divine—are not conveyed in Gaft’s charismatic and slightly eccentric performance. Yes, his Woland is both majestic and charming, but rather too kind-hearted. Burliaev delivers a very surprising performance as Yeshua, rendering him as Messiah, counter to Bulgakov who undermines divinity of this character. Burliaev says that he asked Kara not to include in the film Bulgakov’s idea that Mathew Levi’s parchments are unreliable because he wanted his performance to gravitate towards the traditional Christian worldview (Official Website). Yet his Yeshua is almost a parody of Jesus. His divinity is exaggerated and stylized by the actor’s detached performance, low angles highlighting his power over Pilate, and soft-focus photography that makes him appear drifting and etherealized. Another surprising twist is Margarita: twenty years older than Bulgakov’s Margarita is supposed to be (but beautiful nevertheless), Vertinskaia does not play a fearless and courageous heroine, who is much stronger than the man she loves. She is rather goggle-eyed for the entire film and even vulgar (as in the scene when she expects a call from Azazello), playing femininity in the extreme, even as a witch. Her appearance at Satan’s Rout in a sado-masochist costume speaks of Kara’s ironic view of Margarita who came to embody the redemptive power of love for Bulgakov’s fans.

masterEvidently, in The Master and Margarita, Kara’s independent authorial voice is intact. His style of excess is charged with intense color, exaggeration, surprising digressions, and tons of irony. Accompanied by a poly-stylistic soundtrack by avant-garde composer Alfred Schnittke, Kara’s film looks like an eclectic and carnivalesque pastiche, akin to Menippean satire – an exotic mixture of seemingly contradictory elements – in the light of which Bulgakov’s novel was interpreted by Ellendea Proffer and Vladimir Lakshin.

How does “Kara’s signature kitsch” fit into this film? For most critics, it was the post-perestroika spirit in Kara’s The Master and Margarita that reminded them of the “golden cooperative film” (Chuviliaev 2011). In his attempt to bridge the chaotic, post-glasnost’ period and the cultural past, Kara apparently outdid himself. One of his most audacious ad-libs that outraged many critics was to “invite” Vladimir Lenin, and two of Bulgakov’s contemporaries—Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler—to the Satan’s Rout, all accompanied by nude women (faithful to Bulgakov), which looks terribly funny. Another was the excessive use of female nudity (significantly more than Bulgakov intended) and the idea of a sexual orgy at Satan’s Rout, and the already mentioned sado-masochist attire of Queen Margarita (whom one cannot look at without a smile). It brings to mind the countless post-perestroika films that relied on sex and female nudity, what Igor’ Kon calls “group fantasy in the post-Soviet society”, but it feels like a parody.

masterTwo other famous digressions from the original stem from the earlier versions of Bulgakov’s novel that Kara had meticulously studied in preparation for the film.[6] In one that critics disliked, Woland provokes Bezdomnyi to trample on the face of Christ he had just drawn on the ground, which he does. In the other, which critics loved, Bezdomnyi screams running after the devilish triad: “Unclean forces take cover in the Kremlin!” (“Zdes’ v Kremle ukrylas’ nechistaia sila!”)—another Bulgakovian aphorism that quickly spread across Russia.

Because of its association with bad taste, kitsch, as Greenberg writes in his famous essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch”, is linked to the aesthetically undesirable, not suitable for cultivated people and identified as low culture. With the rise of post-modernism in the last two decades, attitudes towards kitsch in Russia have clearly changed. Today, Kara’s kitschy whims look playful, ironic, theatrical, and aesthetically sound. It is reminiscent of “camp sensibility” in the West, which Susan Sontag described as deliberate bad taste—an acquired appreciation for things commonly recognized as kitsch or bad art, a “love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not” (quoted in Sabonis-Chafee 1999). Without disrespect, Kara’s signature style at times bursts the familiar fabric of Bulgakov’s text, defamiliarizes it, and makes it mysterious again after the cult novel has lost its status as a sacred text, the underground text, the forbidden text, after it has become a mass culture, and was included in school programs. In other words, whether you like it or not, the film seems to renew the novel’s popularity among a new generation of readers. As one comment from an internet forum has it: “The film was so bad, it makes me want to reread Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita”.

masterSadly, for the last five years, anyone interested in Kara’s mysteriously “vanished” film has seen only a very low quality copy on the internet. The responses it generated were heterogeneous and somewhat contradictory. A quite appreciative reception came before the film’s official release from what Hutcheon terms the “knowing audience”, whose spectatorial curiosity about the picture was finally satisfied at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2006. There, at the packed “by invitation only” night session (which had gathered, as Plakhov writes, “the whole of Moscow”), the “working material” of The Master and Margarita was first publically (albeit semi-legally) shown to the excited crowd of film enthusiasts. Film critics were mostly kind to Kara, despite the low quality of the material shown. Most mentioned that a long delay had only benefitted the film, with shortcomings seeming less conspicuous than they would in the early 1990s. As one of the critics noted, “after having already seen Bortko’s The Master and Margarita TV series (2005), the audience was aware of the clash between its expectations and the real possibilities of a director, hence no one was anticipating a miracle or a masterpiece” (Solntseva 2011).

masterPredictably, because many had seen Kara’s The Master and Margarita by April 2011, when it was widely released on screens across the country, it did not make the splash it intended. The film’s large-scale PR campaign that started already in 2010 (Moskvina 2011), its starry cast, digital restoration, and sound recorded in Dolby surround failed to enchant young movie-goers. Many of them have not read Bulgakov’s novel and did not understand why they should see a film from the early 1990s with golden foil decorations and papier-mâché cut-off heads. Thus, the most expensive ($15 million) post-Soviet production for 1994 modestly earned just over $2 million in box offices across the country.

Bulgakov fans, on the other hand, should find Kara’s The Master and Margarita entirely enjoyable, especially after Bortko’s television series, which faithfully reproduced Bulgakov’s text but, I think, did not preserve the spirit. If you are a “perestroika child” like myself, the film will also make you nostalgic and sentimental. But is that  not what kitsch is: a manufactured sentimentality? As Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme. The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share.”

Lena Doubivko
University of Washington

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1] Predictably, by crossing Klimov’s boundary, Kara upset many in the artistic community who thought it was a highly seditious and unethical twist. Thus, Kara’s conduct complicated the casting for the leading roles. For example, Oleg Iankovskii, who was offered the role of Master, and Aleksandr Abdullov, who was supposed to play Korov’ev, refused immediately. See Kharitonskii 1992.

2] To everyone’s surprise Kara, who would certainly be rejected by Goskino because of Klimov’s controversy, found a sponsor, TAMP (Tvorcheskaia assotsiatsiia mezhdunarodnykh programm) that agreed to finance this “most extravagant, sensational and insane idea” at the time of an almost total collapse of the Russian film industry. The ensuing rampant inflation blew the original estimated budget of 4 million to 15 million dollars, making Kara’s film the most expensive post-Soviet production for that time (see Entsiklopediia otechestvennogo kino).

3] Initially, Kara aimed at a six-hour television series (which later became the director’s full three-hour version). However, the latter clashed with the producers’ wish for a two-hour abridged film to be shown on the big screen.

4] Another unexpected circumstance also hindered the release: Sergei Shilovskii, the grandson of Elena Bulgakova, claimed his rights to Bulgakov’s artistic legacy, putting stringent financial requirements on TAMP. Eventually, all disputes were settled in 2010 when the companies “Luxor” and “Master Distribution” bought the rights to the film. They will release the full three-hour director’s cut on DVD.

5] The official trailer to the film only shows the Moscow episodes.

6] Official Website, Kara in an interview with Vzgliad.

Works Cited

Chuviliaev, Ivan (2001), “’Master i Margarita’ Iuriia Kary”, 5 April.

Greenberg, Clement (1939), “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,”Partisan Review 6.5, pp. 34-49.

Hutcheon, Linda (2006), A Theory of Adaptation,New York: Routledge.

Kharitonskii, Evgenii (1992), “Mastera i Margarity delaiut mastera”, Kommersant 28 November.

Kon, Igor’ (1995), The sexual revolution in Russia: from the age of the czars to today, New York: The Free Press.

Metz, Christian (1974), Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, New York: Oxford University Press.

Moskvina, Ol’ga (2011), “My sovershenno ne bespokoimsia za prokatnuiu sud’bu fil’ma ‘Master i Margarita’,” Biulleten’ kinoprokatchika 28 March.

Plakhov, Andrei (2011), “Filmy ne goriat”, Novoe Vremia 4 April.

Porokh, Nadezhda (2011), “Trogatel’nyi fars,” 12 April.

Sabonis-Chafee, Theresa (1999), “Communism as Kitsch: Soviet Symbols in Post-Soviet Society” in Barker, Adele (ed.), Consuming Russia, Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 362-382.

Solntseva, Alena (2011), “Kino dvadtsatiletnei vyderzhki”, Moskovskie novosti, 5 April

Taylor, Mia, “Sympathy For The Devil”, Master & Margarita website

Master and Margarita, Russia, 1994, released 2011
Color, 118 minutes.
Director: Iurii Kara
Screenplay: Iurii Kara
Cinematography: Evgenii Grebniov
Composer: Alfred Schnittke
Cast: Mikhail Ul’ianov, Valentin Gaft, Anastasiia Vertinskaia, Viktor Rakov, Aleksandr Filippenko, Sergei Garmash, Lev Durov, Sergei Nikonenko, Nikolai Burliaev, Leonid Kuravlev
Producers: Vladimir Skoryi,iIrina Mineeva, Aleksandr Pashkevich
Production: TAMP
Official Website

Iurii Kara: Master and Margarita (Master i Margarita, 1994, released 2011)

reviewed by Lena Doubivko © 2011

Updated: 05 Oct 11