Issue 38 (2012)

Aleksei Andrianov: The Spy (Shpion, 2012)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2012

Why did the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 initially prove so successful? Why was it, in other words, that the event seemingly took Stalin by surprise, even though his generals and spy networks all knew of the impending attack? And what if the best way to answer these questions is by making a fantasy socialist realist film adaptation of a Boris Akunin novel? Andrei Andrianov’s The Spy does just that. It explains what happened in June 1941 by reimagining Stalinist Moscow and through a series of spy games.

spionBased on Akunin’s 2006 Spy Novel and featuring a script co-authored by Akunin himself, Aleksei Andrianov’s entertaining film aims to bedazzle the viewer. While the movie version contains all the twists and turns one would expect from a classic spy novel and an Akunin adaptation of one at that, it also introduces a bit of magic socialist realism to the mix. In the opening scene, Hitler speaks to a Nazi general about his plans via a television set, a technological innovation the Soviet system also employs (more than one Russian reviewer dubbed it an early form of Skype). Not long after, when the film shifts to Moscow, the viewer soon realizes this is a capital city where Stalin’s reconstruction plans came to fruition: the skyline is dominated by the newly-completed Palace of Soviets, complete with a massive statue of Lenin at its top. Stalin has moved the government’s operations to the new skyscraper and we are treated to several scenes where he stands on his balcony overlooking the new Moscow he has created.

spionThe basic plot concerns the attempts by a Senior Major named Oktiabr’skii (Fedor Bondarchuk) and his young protégé, Egor Dorin (Danila Kozlovskii), to identify a German spy named Wasser and stop his plans of subterfuge that will allow the Nazis to invade unnoticed (several critics, taking their cue from Akunin’s press conference at the premiere, noted that all the characters have connections to Erast Fandorin, the hero of Akunin’s popular mystery series). When he is not boxing for Dynamo sports club or working with Oktiabr’skii, Dorin also woos Nadia, a young woman he saves from an attack. Not all is as it seems, as the viewer discovers, but the viewer learns who Wasser is and how he manages to convince Stalin that the invasion is not imminent. The real stars of the film, as some Russian critics suggested, were the director and his special effects, which turned 1941 Moscow into a socialist realist and Sots-Art painting all at once: memorable scenes at the Palace of Soviets and at the VDNKh seem like live-action versions of Aleksandr Gerasimov canvases.  

In his review of The Spy, Iurii Gladil’shchikov noted that the film was “not realism, but partly comics [komiks].” Andrianov’s movie might therefore best be understood by employing what José Alaniz has called the “comics sensibility” (7). The Spy is able to present a parallel Soviet universe, one that resembles the actual Soviet Union of 1941, but also contains crucial differences. In making a film with this sensibility, the creators also are able to use this medium to make (or remake) “history with a difference” (Witek 1989: 4). The parallel Soviet world allows the filmmakers to comment on the actual Soviet world, just as it allows the viewer to grasp the way that chance and contingency can shape history.

spionThe genre-bending led to a host of critical discussions about the film and its merits. Larisa Iusipova from Izvestiia compared the reimagining to Quentin Tarantino’s remake of World War II tropes in Inglorious Basterds (2009), even suggesting at the end of her review that given all the specious work trying to decode the Nazi-Soviet relationship that this version might be just as “true” as any. Gladil’shchikov went further in his praise, declaring that the uninhibited fanaticizing of Soviet history is “thrilling and absorbing”. He too finds the reason for Stalin’s disbelief at the coming war to be believable, historically minded, and compares The Spy to a host of other historical reimaginations and alternative histories, ranging from Kerry Conran’s 2004 Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to Yoshiharu Ashino’s 2009 First Squad to Thomas Harris’s inventive 1992 novel Fatherland. The Spy, as he perceptively notes, makes viewers rethink what they think is real and what one perceives as fiction.

Novaya Gazeta’s Larisa Maliukova praised Andrianov’s take on Akunin’s novel and the way the director updated it in his own way, concluding that he “turned the film into a comic book where historical accuracy is turned into spectacular scenery and all events occur in jest, divorced from reality.” This adaptation works because Andrianov transformed the computer-generated Moscow into the main character and heart of the film, forcing the viewer to think about alternate trajectories the country might have taken. Even critical reviews—including Seans’s Denis Gorelov—still attempted to conceptualize the film’s novel take on history in innovative ways. Gorelov declared that Andrianov had created “the contrasting aesthetics of Gotham City” while also creating a Palace of Soviets that came straight from Sots-Artists Komar and Melamid.

spionSeveral of these reviewers, including Nina Tsyrkun from Iskusstvo kino noted that the exhibition entitled “The Age of the Radiant Tomorrow” opened in Moscow in the renovated hotel Moscow, was deliberately timed to coincide with The Spy’s premiere. The exhibit featured real Soviet spy gear and imagined technologies employed in the film. Collectively, the exhibit and the film, according to Tsyrkun, present a “comic” of sorts, not one like Spielberg’s TinTin, but one she compares to Grigorii Bruskin’s Sots-Art: “Just as Bruskin […] freed Soviet history from its ideology, building (or retrieving) its mythology, so too does Andrianov, following from Boris Akunin, the author of Spy Novel, mimic the past, building it on new patterns, such as in the costumes.” Doing so allows the director to defamiliarize the viewer with what he or she thought was positive and negative, good or bad, and to reissue the past through fantasmagorical action.

This reissuing extends to the onscreen Stalin, played by Mikhail Filippov. In the end, we do get an answer to the puzzle of June 22, 1941. Akunin’s and Andrianov’s Stalin may frustrate, anger, or please viewers: without ruining things, he is not the leader many imagine him to be. Then again, is Filippov’s Vozhd’ a representation of Stalin the actual Leader, the Stalin of socialist realist paintings, or a parallel universe Stalin living in this alternate 1941 Moscow?

In a sense, these questions should get anyone interested in The Spy. An Akunin adaptation starring a fantasy-realistic Moscow that can be compared to Sots-Art, comic books, and Inglorious Basterds: surely these critiques help explain why The Spy is one of the most imaginative, absurd, frustrating, fantastic, and fun Russian films in recent memory.


Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)

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Works Cited

Alaniz, José, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia, Oxford, MS: The University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

Gladil’shchikov, Iurii, “Moskva shpionskaia,” Moskovskie novosti, 4 April 2012.

Gorelov, Denis, “Okhota na inkuba,” Seans, 5 April 2012.

Iusipova, Larisa, “Shpion, voidi v dom,” Izvestiia, 3 April 2012.

Maliukova, Larisa, “Gliadi v oba!”, Novaia gazeta, 4 April 2012.

Tsyrkun, Nina, “Tango smertii,” Iskusstvo kino.

Witek, Joseph, Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of John Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar, Oxford, MS: The University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

The Spy, Russia, 2012
104 minutes, color, 1:2.35, Dolby Digital 5.1
Director Aleksei Andrianov
Scriptwriter Vladimir Valutskii
Director of Photography Dennis Alarcon Ramirez
Production Design Viktor Petrov
Costume Design Sergei Struchev, Maria Iuresko
Music Iurii Poteenko
Cast: Fedor Bondarchuk, Danila Kozlovskii, Viktoriia Tolstoganova, Anna Chipovskaia, Sergei Gazarov, Vladimir Epifantsev, Viktor Verzhbitskii, Aleksei Gorbunov, Dmitrii Nazarov
Producers Sergei Shumakov, Leonid Vereshchagin
Production Studio TriTe, channel Rossiia, with financial support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and the Cinema Fund
Distribution Central Partnership

Aleksei Andrianov: The Spy (Shpion, 2012)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2012

Updated: 14 Oct 12