Issue 40 (2013)

Vladimir Motyl’:  Crimson Color of the Snowfall (Bagrovyi tsvet snegopada, 2012) 

reviewed by Christine Engel © 2013

crimson clor of snowVladimir Motyl’s Crimson Color of the Snowfall addresses a historical subject and casts a light on the decade from 1916 to 1926. Motyl’ is not the only Russian director with an interest in the history of the early 20th century: one need only think of Admiral (2008, directed by Andrei Kravchuk), which uses the figure of Aleksandr Kolchak to re-evaluate the relationship between Reds and Whites, or Burnt by the Sun 2 (Utomlennye solntsem 2, 2010, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov), which looks back at the Red-White conflict and the Stalin era. Like these films, Motyl’ seeks to dismantle Soviet interpretative models that persist in the collective memory—not only of the older generation—and to redistribute “good” and “evil.” Motyl’, who also wrote the screenplay, plots the fortunes of a woman whose pursuit of personal happiness is thwarted again and again by the historical events. The impossibility of giving a meaningful structure to one’s life in times of upheaval has parallels, readily identifiable in the film, to Boris Pasternak’s revolutionary epic Doktor Zhivago. The film’s title, too, refers to the notion that there is no escape for anyone in times of upheaval. It does not—as usually—focus on the blood-stained snow on the ground, but describes the falling snow that drifts down on everyone, without discrimination.

crimson clor of snowAs far as its composition is concerned, Crimson Color of the Snowfall is a traditional narrative film that makes ample use of melodramatic effects. The action begins in 1916 and follows in stages the fate of the young Kseniia Gerstel’, an orphan from an affluent industrialist family of German origin, now living in Kiev. She had already lost her father in the turmoil of the 1905 revolution and now, during the First World War, she believes that her fiancé and her brother have also been killed. Desperate, she volunteers for the Red Cross at the front, where she narrowly escapes death thanks only to the intervention, at the very last moment, of Colonel Rostislav Batorskii. Despite having been seriously wounded in the process, Batorskii is fond of the young woman and gives her shelter in his home in troubled Petrograd after the demobilisation. Out of gratitude, and in spite of the considerable age difference, she eventually agrees to marry him; her respectful reserve towards him develops into a happy relationship. However, this happiness comes to an abrupt end when Batorskii, now a general in the Provisional Government, goes on a tour of inspection in the company of his pregnant wife. The couple are travelling through Ukraine by train when Batorskii is brutally battered to death in front of her by Red revolutionaries at one of the stations. The following year, having recovered to some extent from the shock, her own injuries, and the loss of her unborn child, the young woman emigrates to Europe. She leaves behind her a Ukraine riven by crises and turmoil in the wake of revolutionary upheavals and the invasion of German and Austrian troops.

crimson clor of snowThe next stage is 1926. As an émigré in Prague, Kseniia unexpectedly meets Trofim Kriazhnykh, one of her husband’s murderers and now a Party official. Bent on revenge, she accepts Trofim’s invitation to Moscow, planning to shoot him and the two other murderers there. A kind of divine intervention ultimately relieves her of exacting her revenge: the two murderers die before her eyes when their house burns down. And Trofim, who falls in love with Kseniia and makes sexual advances towards her, has matured over the years. He is by no means a political zealot and even admits to being a crypto-Christian. In the end, he sacrifices his life for her to save her from Stalin’s henchmen.

The epilogue takes place in Canada in 1939 and shows not only Kseniia but also her brother, who had survived the war after all, and a twelve-year old boy who turns out to be Kseniia’s son. The boy demands to know who his father is and learns that it is Trofim, a man—she explained—who had belonged to a group with a completely different world view to that of his mother and uncle, but who had nevertheless commanded respect.

crimson clor of snowThe film touches on a number of controversial discourses surrounding grave historical fault lines. This begins with the German families who moved to Russia under Peter I, many of whom prospered economically in the following generations. It also concerns all of the various groups at the time of the revolutions and the Civil War—Bolsheviks, Social Revolutionaries, monarchists, supporters of the Provisional Government, emigrants and so-called ‘class enemies’. In addition to this, however, the film addresses a number of hitherto little-discussed historical events, such as the eight-month occupation of Ukraine by Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1918. All of these processes and the associated discourses form the backdrop for the main plot and the basis for the film’s subversions: the Red revolutionaries are uncouth and brutish, the political elite coarse and loud; the German officers, on the other hand, are well-behaved and reserved, as are the members of the old Russian nobility and the so-called “bourgeoisie,” who demonstrate a well-meaning concern for society as a whole.

crimson clor of snowThese revaluations, however, are not so much a reflection of a political perspective, as of the Christian imperative of forgiveness, which is known to include one’s enemies. It is an attitude that is clearly not limited to the protagonist; rather, it suggests a general way in which the film may be interpreted. The choice of the name Kseniia—a martyr who is highly revered in Russian Orthodoxy—is another indication of this. With his repeated allusions to the Orthodox Church, Motyl’ takes up a theme that features frequently in the current spate of historical films.

Motyl’ has made a film with mass appeal that is capable of showing a broad audience that the first decades of the 20th century were much more complicated, both at home and abroad, than the usual portrayals would lead one to believe. As to the exact nature of these complications, however, viewers will not be much the wiser even after the screening. The film offers only snippets of information, which it presents in a relatively eclectic manner. The interspersed parallel plot about Kseniia‘s brother is particularly confusing; its function is presumably to give a sense of relations with Germany during and after the First World War. Sometimes the film also lays it on too thick, as for example when the portrait of Stalin hanging in the living room is illuminated by lightning during a storm as a portent of things to come. Another such premonition is Batorskii’s telephone number, which refers to the year of Stalin’s death with the digits 19-53. Amidst all the melodrama, one almost loses count of the seemingly never-ending blows that fate deals Kseniia. On top of it all, she espies the fiancé who was presumed dead in the arms of another woman. She also has to endure Trofim’s sexual advances—a scene that lacks psychological motivation at the level of the character and would seem instead to serve to heighten the potential for forgiveness. And is it not, then, somewhat of an overkill when Kseniia receives direct advice on what to do concerning her marriage at a performance of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters?

crimson clor of snowAs we have seen, the film concentrates very much on the personal fortunes of its protagonist. Nevertheless, there are a number of particularly successful scenes depicting those affected by the historical events. They capture the atmosphere of revolt, the hunger and the desperation of the population at large. All of these street scenes were filmed in the respective cities—Lviv, Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg. A suitable train carriage for Batorskii and Kseniia’s travels through Russia and Ukraine was tracked down in Moscow’s railway museum. The director also takes great care to faithfully reproduce the atmosphere of everyday life of the time, as evinced by the meticulously re-created apartment interiors and the cut and fabric of the women’s garments.

For Motyl’, who achieved wide acclaim with White Sun of the Desert (Beloe solntse pustyni, 1969), Crimson Color of the Snowfall was the tenth and final film of his oeuvre. It was completed shortly before his sudden death on 21 February 2010. He did not live to see the premiere, which was repeatedly postponed until the film was finally aired on First Channel television (Pervyi kanal) on 16 June 2012. The film had an unusually long incubation period: Motyl’ spent three years fine-tuning the script, and the shooting and editing took five years. Financial difficulties were among the causes for this, as the funding from the Russian Cultural Fund was not enough to cover the elaborate location shots. It was only with additional funding by the oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska that the film could be realized. The total budget amounted to USD 5.5 million. Audiences, however, failed to reward the film at the box office to anything like this degree—it made only USD 20,000.

Translated from the German by Joy Titheridge

Christine Engel
University of Innsbruck

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Works Cited

Talaver, Aleksandra, “Bagrovyi tsvet snegopada Vladimira Motylia,”, 27 June 2012.

Vechernii kinozal: Poslednii fil’m Vladimira Motylia ‘Bagrovyi tsvet snegopada’,” 2 July 2012.

Tsymbal, Galina, “’Ofitsery sdaite usy!’ Rossiiskii rezhisser Vladimir Motyl’ snimaet fil’m ‘Bagrovyi tsvet snegopada’,” Kievskie vedomosti, 17 Dec. 2005.

Crimson Color of the Snowfall, Russia, 2012 (2009)
119 minutes, color, Dolby Stereo
Director  Vladimir Motyl’
Scriptwriter Vladimir Motyl’
Director of Photography Maksim Shinkorenko
Production Design A. Danilenko, Valerii Nazarov
Costume Design Vladimir Motyl’
Music  Viktor Semenov, Vladimir Motyl’
Cast: Daniėla Stoianovich (Kseniia Gerstel’), Mikhail Filippov (Rostislav Batorskii), Aleksandr Tsurkan (Trofim Kriazhnykh), Anatolii Belyi (Konstantin Gerstel’), Inga Manevich, Sergei Stepin, Aleksandr Vasilevskii et al.
Producers Vladimir Motyl’, Aleksei Okunev, Ruslan Terekbaev
Production Studio Vladimir Motyl’, “Zhanr 04”, Fond for the Realisation of National Film Projects SENS

Vladimir Motyl’:  Crimson Color of the Snowfall (Bagrovyi tsvet snegopada, 2012) 

reviewed by Christine Engel © 2013

Updated: 12 Apr 13