Issue 57 (2017)

Nikolai Khomeriki: The Icebreaker (Ledokol, 2016)

reviewed by Chip Crane © 2017

ledokolThe Icebreaker, released as a part of the “Year of Russian Cinema” is a disaster film loosely based on historical events. As a commercial venture, it also marks a radical departure for director Nikolai Khomeriki, until know known for art-house fare like Heart’s Boomerang (Serdtsa-bumerang, 2011) and A Tale in the Darkness (Skazka pro temnotu, 2009). Elena Stishova (2016) has called him “the quietest of the new quiet” (novye tikhie) filmmakers.

Set in 1985, the sailors aboard the icebreaker Mikhail Gromov are sailing back from an Antarctic research station when they encounter a giant iceberg. When the attempt to navigate around the obstruction results in a sailor falling overboard and drowning, the ship’s ambitious senior officer files a report with the Party alleging that their young, friendly Captain Petrov (Petr Fedorov), who he thinks is far too familiar with the crew, allowed the accident to occur through negligence. As a result, Petrov is relieved of the ship’s command and the older Captain Sevchenko (Sergei Puskepalis) is sent by helicopter to replace him. As the helicopter lands, however, a malfunction occurs and Petrov cannot be removed from the ship as intended.

ledokolIn an authoritarian manner, Sevchenko quickly sets about restoring the crew’s discipline, but within his first day of command the vessel is trapped in the ice and unable to move. In order to prevent the world from learning of this situation that could cause embarrassment for the Soviet Union, Sevchenko is forced to observe radio silence. Rationing is introduced and severe restrictions are placed on the ship’s use of power as the vessel drift in the ice, waiting for rescue.

As the waiting goes on, the atmosphere on board becomes increasingly claustrophobic. The sailors have to make sacrifices, and Sevchenko’s leadership style are provocative for the men, the officers and the previous captain—with whom tensions are particularly high. The scenes aboard ship are interspersed with scenes depicting the wives of the two captains back in Russia. Petrov’s wife is a journalist, whose plans to divorce her husband have been put on hold; Sevchenko’s wife is dealing with a difficult pregnancy. Eventually, a rescue ship is dispatched, but shortly before it arrives the sailors aboard the Mikhail Gromov free themselves thanks to cracks in the ice and Petrov and Sevchenko learning to cooperate. Petrov is reunited with his wife, who had been covering the rescue mission, and Sevchenko’s wife gives birth. The film ends with the sailors approaching the equator on their way home: everyone gets along, and the men celebrate their escape from the iceberg.

ledokolElements of the film’s plot suggest an allegorical reading. In his review of the film, Maksim Sukhaguzov (2016) suggests that the struggle between the “democratic” captain Petrov and the “despotic” Sevchenko can be seen as a reflection of the conflict within the Communist Party at the end of the Soviet epoch. Similarly, a scene where the sailors get together to play Kino’s popular song “Vremia est’, a deneg net” (There’s time, but no money) draws a parallel between the ration-based hunger that the stranded men face and the economic deprivation suffered by their compatriots on the mainland. These readings are fleeting, however, and such allegories have been discarded by the filmmaker as quickly as they appeared. I would suggest that, rather than providing a deeper meaning to the film, they serve—much like Rubik’s cube—as signposts intended to generate nostalgia for a time that most of the film’s viewers know only second-hand. Khomeriki, who was ten in 1985, acknowledges the sentimental nature of the film’s nostalgia: “For us, the USSR is childhood; that time from which you always remember good moments—objects, clothes, music” (Zabaluev 2016).

ledokolThis rosy picture of the 1980s permeates the film’s narrative as well. For a film made in the disaster genre, it is worth noting the relatively low body count in The Icebreaker. One sailor drowns early on in the film, knocked overboard during the initial encounter with the iceberg. Another, the ship’s doctor, is accidentally killed in an explosion when the rebellious sailors stage a mutiny to free the ship by igniting fuel on the ice—a sacrifice that restores the command of Captain Sevchenko and, with it, order. Beyond that, however, there is a vast amount of space in the restored community that we see at the end of the film: the young commander and the old, the Ukrainian First Mate, the hip young helicopter pilot, the estranged wife, and the new mother who didn’t listen to her obstetrician. Even the twice treacherous Senior Officer who snitches on Petrov and leads the rebellion against Sevchenko is forgiven. Sidestepping the moral sorting of characters that the disaster genre offers, Khomeriki offers us a society where everybody likes Leonid Gaidai’s Diamond Arm (Brilliantovaia ruka, 1969) and Viktor Tsoi’s Kino band, but nobody likes the KGB officer accompanying the rescue mission.

ledokolIt is through the relatively bland invocation and acceptance of the past that the film’s ideological work is done. The film’s nostalgic markers are the kind of everyday identifiers that Michael Billig (1995) suggests lie at the heart of what he calls banal nationalism. Kino and Alla Pugacheva, the KGB and polar explorers all subtly “flag” the nation for the film’s spectators, helping them to imagine themselves as a community. According to Billig, these habitual reminders of the nation, forgettable as they are, are at least as important as more overt calls to national identity, providing the formation with a “reassuring normality” (Billig 1995, 7). While these nostalgic markers make up much of the semantic content of the film, they form its structure as well, returning us “to Socialist Realism with excellent positive heroes, the battle of the good with the better, the ‘lacquering’ of reality” (Stishova 2016).

As Laura Todd has argued in her review of Nikolai Lebedev’s Flight Crew (Ekipazh, 2016), blockbuster cinema plays a special role in incorporating the Soviet past into the contemporary Russian national imagination, with the Year of Russian Film marking “a determined attempt to not only bolster the role of Russian cinema, but to remind Russian citizens of just how great Russian cinema was and is.” (Todd 2016). The Icebreaker has claimed a visible, if temporary place in this greatness by garnering headlines for leading the box office on its opening weekend. That it was on its way to a net loss, or that the American film it beat that weekend was Jack Reacher 2 (a modest rival) was irrelevant: “Nikolai Khomeriki’s drama surpassed the Hollywood hits” (Rogova 2016).

Chip Crane
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. Los Angeles: Sage.

Rogova, Anastasiia. 2016. “‘Ledokol’ doshel do liderskii pozitsii.” Izvestiia 26 October.

Stishova, Elena. 2016.“Box office kak ideologiia. ‘Ledokol’, rezhisser Nikolai Khomeriki.” Iskusstvo kino 9.

Sukhaguzov, Maksim. 2016. “Ledokol: Shepoty i kriki Nikolaia Khomeriki.” Afisha 21 October.

Todd, Laura. 2016. “Nikolai Lebedev: Flight Crew.” KinoKultura 54.

Zabaluev, Iaroslav. 2016. “Khotelos’ sdelat’ ‘Ledokol’ sovetskim fil'mom.” Interview with Nikolai Khomeriki. 21 October. 

The Icebreaker, Russia, 2016
119 minutes, color
Director: Nikolai Khomeriki
Script: Aleksei Onishchenko, Andrei Zolotarev
Producer: Igor' Tolstunov
Cinematography: Fedor Liass
Production Design: Denis Bauer, Tat'iana Dolmatovskaia
Music: Tuomas Kantelinen
Cast: Petr Fedorov, Sergei Puskepalis, Anna Mikhalkova, Ol'ga Filimonova, Aleksandr Iatsenko

Nikolai Khomeriki: The Icebreaker (Ledokol, 2016)

reviewed by Chip Crane © 2017

Updated: 09 Jul 17