Issue 55 (2017)

Kirill Serebrennikov: The Student (Uchenik, 2016)

reviewed by Otto Boele© 2017

uchenik posterKirill Serebrennikov’s The Student opens with a dialogue that will probably have most viewers wrong-footed. Fifteen-year-old Veniamin (Venia) is taken to task by his mother for playing truant in school. With typical adolescent petulance, Venia first tries to ignore his mother, then admits he skips physical education, particularly swimming, because it “hurts his religious feelings.” Coming from a fifteen-year-old, these words sound so preposterous that we suspect Venia simply wants to avoid the subject, but it soon transpires that he is not suffering from “uncontrollable erections” (which his mother believes to be the true reason behind his absenteeism); he feels genuinely offended on religious grounds when being forced to participate in mixed swimming, especially with girls wearing bikinis. Armed with a well-thumbed Bible wherever he goes, this seemingly wayward adolescent turns out to be a religious fanatic who constantly harasses his mother, classmates, and particularly his teachers for not living in accordance with the Scripture. Although we never learn how Venia became so infatuated with Christian fundamentalism, it is clear that he grows increasingly belligerent and ends up considering himself nothing less than the Messiah.

How does one deal with this sort of religious militancy at home and in school? Is there a way to connect with the young radical and bring him to his senses? These are the questions that the older generation in The Student is struggling with, and their answers are as ineffective as they are amusing. Venia’s mother is quick to conclude that, as a “single mum with three jobs,” she cannot possibly help her son, so she demands that the “professionals” in school do their job. Yet the school principal, a woman of the Soviet stamp, is reluctant to take any action until she learns whether the enforcement of existing regulations is enough to solve the problem. In her interpretation of the ambiguously formulated school statutes, “appropriate swimwear” can only mean a “closed swimsuit,” and consequently, a ban on bikinis. Venia is visibly pleased with this little victory, even if he still refuses to take part in the PE lessons.

Scattering doom-saying quotes from the Bible (which are playfully referenced throughout the film by projecting chapter and verse on screen), Venia attracts a disciple, the cripple Grisha, the laughing stock of his class. Routinely bullied by his classmates, Grisha cannot believe his luck when Venia takes an interest in him and invites him to his house. What follows is a series of hilarious scenes in which we see Grisha fumbling for words as he tries to say grace before dinner and Venia desperately trying to “heal” his disciple by making his shorter leg grow. On both occasions, Grisha fails to meet the expectations of his teacher who, predictably, attributes this to his disciple’s appalling lack of faith.

uchenik Criticizing the school’s entire staff and the “godless” curriculum they teach, Venia is particularly hostile toward Elena Krasnova, a liberal biology teacher who rejects creationism in favor of modern science and the theory of evolution. Venia disrupts her classes by appearing in a monkey suit and stripping himself naked during sex education lessons. A reasonable, devoted, and eloquent young woman at the beginning of the film, Krasnova gradually transforms into a zealot of modern science obsessed with the idea of proving Venia wrong. Her plan to beat him at his own game, by meticulously studying the Bible and pointing out its many inconsistencies, does not succeed, however. Not only does Venia manage to persuade the principal that he has been sexually harassed by his biology teacher; a hint at her alleged Jewish roots triggers the latent anti-Semitism of the entire teaching staff, including Father Vsevolod, the school priest, who happily begins quoting John of Kronstadt (1829–1908) in support of Venia’s anti-Jewish insinuations. By accusing Krasnova of sexual harassment, Venia contrives to destroy her career, a non-violent alternative to her physical elimination, which Grisha was supposed to engineer by disabling the brakes of her scooter. When Venia finds out that his disciple never intended to carry out the murder, he flies into a rage and beats him to death with a stone.

The Student is not based on an original screenplay, but on Serebrennikov’s own theater production Martyr/Student ([M[Uchenik, 2014), an adaptation of Marius von Mayenburg’s play Martyr (Märtyrer), which first premiered in Berlin in 2012. To make this teenage drama work for a Russian audience, translator Alexander Filippov-Chekhov replaced most German realia of the original with their Russian approximations. The school principal is not a man, but a middle-aged woman, whereas the religion teacher of the original has morphed into Father Vsevolod, a well-fed, gold-clad priest teaching the “foundations of orthodox culture.” A female teacher of history, one of the most hideous characters in the whole film, asks her pupils to prepare an assignment called “Stalin as an effective manager.” The Russification of von Mayenburg’s play is not entirely convincing, though. One wonders, for example, if a Russian biology teacher would openly defend homosexuality in the classroom as a “natural phenomenon,” or instruct students on safe-sex practices by having them put condoms on carrots. Krasnova seems implausibly liberal for a Russian school, even if she happens to be teaching in Kaliningrad, the most western part of the Russian Federation.

uchenikDespite these minor glitches, The Student has a felicitous urgency to it that stems from the political situation in Russia, rather than from any overt Russification of the original setting. The opening scene, in which Venia’s mother confronts him with his truancy, is entirely faithful to von Mayenburg’s play: the main character’s seemingly absurd claim that his religious feelings are offended elicits exactly the same reaction of disbelief and bewilderment from his mother. Yet in the context of Russia’s current political climate, demands that one’s religious feelings be respected sound considerably more ominous, especially after Pussy Riot, and more recently, the Tannhäuser opera scandal in Novosibirsk (AFP 2015). While the theme of religious fanaticism and adolescent rebelliousness certainly has a more universal appeal, it is hard to overlook the topicality of von Mayenburg’s play with regard to Russia. Considering the visible presence of the Orthodox Church in public life and its ever-growing influence on school curricula, one is inclined to see Father Vsevolod as being more than simply the Russian counterpart of von Mayenburg’s religion teacher. In his attempt to marginalize the scientific point of view as represented by Krasnova, he comes to embody the obscurantism that at least certain members of the Russian Orthodox Church have recently demonstrated. Note that it is Venia’s individualism and independence that bothers the priest more than the radicalism of his ideas. Some critics have found fault with the makers, however, for turning the priest into a caricature of clerical hypocrisy (Gladil’shchikov 2016).

Serebrennikov realized that, by adapting his own theater production for the screen, the chances of receiving any funding from the Ministry of Culture would be zero. Homosexuality is frequently discussed and even practiced in The Student, for example, when Krasnova compares Jesus’ following to a gay community and when Grisha, who is openly in love with his master, kisses him on the mouth. Disgusted and shocked, Venia reacts by quoting Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a man as one does with a woman”), but it is doubtful whether this would be considered sufficient to offset the “gay propaganda” elsewhere in the film and secure state funding. As a result, Serebrennikov had to make do with a budget of just over one million Euros, which allowed him to produce a “truly independent film,” as the director put it in an interview with Forbes Life (Proskurina 2016). At the Cannes Film Festival 2016, The Student won the Prix François Chalais <<>>, an award for topical films that “best reflect the realities of our world” (Proskurina 2016).

Whether the international recognition for The Student will pay off in Russia remains to be seen. So far, distribution is limited and unlikely to increase, given its 18+ rating (just like the theater production). This leaves us with the irony that, if von Mayenburg’s play was intended to stimulate further discussion in the classroom (as testified, among others, by the abundance of additional readings and related material available on the internet), then Serebrennikov’s film will officially remain a no-go for Russian adolescents until they graduate from high school.

Otto Boele
University of Leiden

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Works Cited

Gladil’shchikov, Iurii. 2016. “Rozhdenie chernorubashechnika: fil’m nedeli — ‘Uchenik’.” Forbes 17 Oct.

Proskurina, Ol’ga. 2016. “Kirill Serebrennikov: ‘Uchenik’ – eto deistvitel’no nezavisimoe kino.” Forbes Life 3 June.

AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2015. “Opera director charged by Russian authorities with offending Christians.” The Guardian 25 February.

The Student, Russia, 2016
Color, 145 min.
Director Kirill Serebrennikov
Screenplay: Kirill Serebrennikov
DoP: Vladislav Opel’iants
Music: Il’ia Demutskii, Laibach  
Production Design: Ekaterina Shcheglova
Editor: Iurii Karikh
Cast: Viktoriia Isakova, Petr Skvortsov, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Iuliia Aug, Aleksandr Revenko, Anton Vasil’ev, Nikolai Roshchin, Svetlana Bragarnik, Irina Rudnitskaia.
Producers: Il’ia Stiuart, Diana Safarova, Iurii Kozyrev, Murad Osmann, Svetlana Ustinova, Katerina Komolova, Il’ia Dzhincharadze
Production: Hype Film

Kirill Serebrennikov: The Student (Uchenik, 2016)

reviewed by Otto Boele© 2017

Updated: 08 Jan 17