Issue 61 (2018)

Sergei Loznitsa: A Gentle Creature (Krotkaia, 2017)

reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2018

Squaring a Circle

“It's not a road. It’s a direction.”
My Joy (2010, dir. Sergei Loznitsa)

Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature begins with a scene at an overcrowded post office that will be painfully familiar to anyone who attempted to navigate the agency’s domain in Russia. The nameless heroine is handed a parcel. The package, intended for her incarcerated husband, has been returned to the sender with no comment and a 200 ruble fine. The woman asks for an explanation from the post-office worker behind a small window, who, her stiff peroxide coiffure undisturbed, turns the heroine away. Concerned with the fate of her husband, the heroine sets out to hand-deliver the package to the faraway prison, where he is serving an (unjust) murder conviction.

The film borrows its title from Fedor Dostoevsky’s short story, but tells a Kafkaesque tale of a woman’s descent into the grotesque innards of a prison town. Although the film shares little beyond the overall sense of suffocating inevitability of Dostoevsky’s account of a young woman’s suicide, Loznitsa also incorporates its subtitle—“a fantastic story.” According to its author, in Dostoevsky’s short story the assumed presence of a “transcriber” capturing the increasingly feverish monologue of the hero was the “fantastic” aspect. However, in Loznitsa’s film, it is the supporting cast and the extras that place the narrative into the territory of the surreal and phantasmagorical. By serving as a Greek chorus to the Gentle Creature’s journey, the crowd establishes the sacrificial role that the heroine is expected to play.

It’s been eight years since My Joy (Schast’e moe, 2010), the story of a trucker gone tragically off course, marked Loznitsa’s first departure from documentary filmmaking. Steadily working in both documentary and feature format, the director has not been able to escape the brutally grotesque, claustrophobic, war-obsessed rural space that engulfed the hero of his first feature film. As he continues to explore its public places full of hostility and division rather than communal exchange and connection, Loznitsa relies on a cast of carefully selected extras and semi-professional actors, along with a few professionals. In discussing his approach to selecting extras for the crowd in My Joy, Loznitsa noted that he was meticulous about finding faces that would tell a story. According to the director, out of 100 actors engaged in the production of A Gentle Creature, only 27 were professionals. The rest were the locals of Daugavpils, a Lithuanian town where the filming took place. There the formidable fortress of a prison, the impossibly named “White Swan,” built in the times of the Russian Empire, remains to this day the central locale of the town, while both the Tsarist and the Soviet empires are gone.

“I made an effort to select those who either served time in the prison or were guards there”— continues the director, beginning to sound like the cab driver in his film: “The prison is the epicenter of the town’s life. A town-forming enterprise, as I would describe it.” In a way Daugavpils is a “company town,” where the actors are company staff: “Those who spend time behind bars. [...] Turned out to be great actors, a pleasure to work with.” (Volchek 2017)

In A Gentle Creature, off-screen life stories of some of the actors color their performances. Vadim Dubovskii (The Singing Passenger) is a YouTube-famous Ukrainian expat trucker from Chicago with academic training in vocals. Marina Kleshcheva (Zinka), now actress and director in teatr.doc, began her acting biography in prison where her on-stage performance was recognized with “The Red Snow-Ball Tree” (a nod to the Vasilii Shukshin’s classic) award. She wrote some of the prison songs on A Gentle Creature soundtrack.

krotkayaThe choice of the lead actress was also influenced by the face that Loznitsa saw in the crowd while filming the chronicle of the civil uprising in Ukraine, Maidan (2014). Vasilina Makovtseva of Ekaterinburg’s off-beat Kolyada Theatre plays the main character with a severe economy of expression. From the very first scenes in the post office and on the bus, her heroine presents a stark contrast to the hodgepodge of faces and bodies that encircles her in a suffocating embrace. Its Boschian array of haggard visages artfully composed within the frame, the human mass speaks and acts as a dysfunctional organism comprised of, in the words of one character, “the kind of people one can meet anywhere in our great land.” To them, the quiet woman with her stoic expression is a cause of great discomfort. “You are a strange one,” they tell her.

By demanding answers about her husband’s fate, the heroine puts herself in opposition to the crowd; now she is a foreign object that needs to be expunged. The need to divest of her is evident early in the film when the heroine boards the bus with the returned parcel in tow. The bus is crowded, and the passengers are on edge. An older provincially well-dressed woman loudly complains about the plywood box damaging her stockings. Her tirade provokes responses from others that move the conversation from something as routine as a torn stocking to stories of dismemberment and war. Meanwhile one of the passengers, sitting safely out of the way, offers an anecdote about a coffin with a body being transported on this very bus once upon a time. Her story pushes the narrative to the border of grotesque, as the benign parcel already rejected by the prison system is likened to a coffin, thus confirming its connection to violence and death.

Yet the heroine refuses to let go of the package. She returns home and unpacks the box. The canned food, condensed milk, cigarettes and the striped sailor shirt: all the things meant for her husband’s personal use and comfort have been denied him. She decides to pack the contents back and deliver the plywood box to her husband. Her determination, perhaps, is not unlike that of the mourners in the bus story who had to go on with their funeral no matter what.

At the train station’s security check, the parcel becomes a pretense under which the heroine is subjected to a humiliating search in front of a foulmouthed amputee detained for panhandling (played by the founder of the Kolyada Theater, Nikolai Kolyada). From behind bars he loudly announces his lust for both the woman and the contents of her parcel, taunting both the police and their victim. The head officer, however, is eyeing the cigarette block and the heroine is released with most of her dignity and the entire parcel intact. She continues with it onto the train and all the way to the reception window of the prison where it is rejected. Ironically, the rejection leaves the contents unspoiled, because if the package were accepted, the prison personnel would’ve broken or destroyed what’s inside, as they methodically do with all other care packages. The camera pulls tightly on the hands of a CO (played by a real-life prison guard) as he searching for contraband, destroying one object after another, denying them their intended function. Cans are opened, and the food is poured out, cigarettes are broken in half, slippers shorn. Like so many other exchanges in A Gentle Creature, this is a pointless and humiliating ritual without conclusion. From behind another tiny window, another blonde gatekeeper turns the heroine away. Yet again she refuses to let go of the package and her quest—the heroine decides to stay in town in hopes of seeing her husband.

Enter Zinka (Marina Kleshcheva), the broad-chested hostess of a boarding house, who offers a place to stay and the assistance of a local pimp. The enterprising pimp, in turn, delivers an audience with the local crime boss. Meanwhile, the police pressure her to return home. The desperate heroine makes her way via Hegel, Marx and Lenin streets to the ransacked offices of a human rights advocate (Liia Akhedzhakova). All of her efforts are in vain: no one can help her. The heroine returns to the train station that appears to be under a spell of eternal slumber. A mysterious warning from a fellow traveler left unheeded, the exhausted heroine falls asleep.

krotkaya In the dream sequence that follows, Zinka appears and leads her to a horse-drawn carriage. Accompanied by one of the police officers, she is taken to a cabin quite like the one Pushkin’s Tatiana Larina sees in her dream. Inside a splendid dinner is being held in her honor, while she, dressed either in bridal or sacrificial white, can only peek from behind the closed doors. Behind a banquet table heavy with centerpieces of fruit, an array of characters has gathered: some she has met along her journey, some make their first appearance, like the head of the prison presiding over the proceedings. There’s also a Stalin look-alike. All are dressed in white with red accents and are called upon to deliver speeches. Their monologues, in turn, oscillate between the absurd pathos of dictator Varlam Aravidze’s speech from Repentance (Pokaianie/Monanieba, 1984, dir. Tengiz Abuladze), the poisoned honey of Iudushka Golovlev ’s exhortations (The Golovlev Family, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin), and the “Cockroach”poem from Dostoevsky’s Demons. As the dinner scene concludes, the heroine is told that her request has been granted. She then walks into a prison transport and, as flashes of light illuminate glimpses of her struggle, she is violently assaulted by inmates.

Back again on the train station’s bench, she is roused by the good old Zinka who is back as if to deliver the nightmarish scenario in real life. As the heroine meekly follows Zinka out of the train station into the darkness, the waiting hall remains fast asleep and undisturbed. The finale of the film rejects a possibility of resolution: the narrative not only circles back on itself, but references both the conclusion (if there’s such thing in a Loznitsa film) of My Joy (2010), where the main character disappears into the dark, snowy road, and one of Loznitsa’s early documentaries The Train Stop (2000), with its deep and undisturbed slumber of would-be rail patrons.

Indeed, A Gentle Creature’s director has consistently created cinematic spaces with no possibility of escape. My Joy begins with a dead body dumped into a mixer with gray concrete sludge pouring over, consuming it, and ends with winter road shrouded in darkness that consumes the film’s amnesiac hero. Between the beginning and the end lays the ambiguous time-space where the past and the present are so interconnected they may as well exist simultaneously. As a character of My Joy points out to the long haul trucker, this is not a road, but a direction, one that remains unchanged through all three of Loznitsa’s feature films, and, arguably, in his new offering Donbass as well.

“The space has expanded so much,” said the director in an interview with Mariia Kuvshinova, “that it has filled up practically everything. The same record is spinning round. The same texts are repeated. [...] There are motives that are repeated throughout the film. They are the cement that holds the construction together. It doesn’t matter where everyone is [on the social ladder; A.N.] everyone has the same way of thinking.” (Kuvshinova, 2017a)

The cyclical dreamlike logic is persistent throughout the film, evident in both the masterful camera work of Oleg Mutu and in the soundtrack that mixes prison songs, classical music and, most importantly, the choreographed cacophony of voices. In her review Mariia Kuvshinova (2017b) notes the backward (according to the screen logic, as she writes) movement of a local drunk, collecting bottles early in the film. It’s not only he who exits left past the bus station, the bus that the heroine takes also departs in the same (backward) direction. So does the cab as it takes her into the guts of the prison town. So does the pimp and his brightly painted older model BMW. And so, eventually, does the carriage in the dream. All are moving in the direction established by the drunk with a stroller early in the film. If we were to follow Loznitsa’s logic that the space he created in A Gentle Creature is cyclical and repetitious, are they moving backward, or are they standing in place? “Can one set direction and boundaries to the infinite?” poses the director who holds a degree in engineering and mathematics, rhetorically. “It’s an impossible task. Like squaring a circle.” As he offers to describe the structure of the film, Loznitsa references the coastline paradox: “The coastline of any country, let’s take Great Britain for example, infinite in and of itself, but it circumvents a finite area.” The events and the space of the film, “this division, depreciation, deterioration” will go on forever and are infinite. “The limit cannot be set, it’s outside of the European civilization, in the sense that it’s not rational, it lacks shape.”

However, seen through the lens of cinematographer Oleg Mutu, Loznitsa’s longtime collaborator, this shapeless mass is squared and even confined by frames within the frame of the screen: doors, gates, window panes, mirrors. The human mass that fills most of the scenes extending even to the top edges of the screen frames the outwardly fragile heroine, forcing her to brace against it.

In one of the very few scenes when the heroine is alone, she faces a mirror to try on dresses to wear while visiting her husband. The mirror now provides both the frame and the audience to her solitude. Even as she considers herself in the mirror, her face remains drawn against its surface.

krotkayaThere’s little privacy in the heroine’s world: the train car in which she travels is of the communal kind. The woman turns away from her fellow passengers in an effort to define some personal boundary, but her face remains in the shot, as a reflection framed by the train’s window. Reflections don’t offer an escape from the overcrowded oppressing space. To the contrary, they further limit it, pushing the heroine back inside. Later in the film, as she quietly refuses to leave the prison’s premises, she is picked up by two officers in their car. They drive out to the tracks and pull over to impress upon her the possible repercussions of the offending behavior. With their captive in the back seat, one of them turns to face her, looking directly into the camera, his face effectively in a close-up. As he threatens the heroine, her face is reflected in the rearview mirror, the reflection further confines her to the tight space of the police car. Not that things are much better beyond these confines: a street fight is taking place a few feet away. Once their business with the woman is over, the police walk over to the men in the dust not to break up the fight, but to observe and comment.

krotkayaThe dream banquet is shown through the point of view of the heroine, as she, dressed in sacrificial white, watches it through the cracked doors. As the flowery speeches are made and her fate is decided, the woman remains apart and beyond, yet somehow unable to leave. Just like during her interactions with the post office and the prison workers where the tiny window offers her a limited view of those who decide her fate, their world full of the possibility of a solution, yet frustratingly out of reach.

While the despair seems infinite and unrelenting, the notion of endless division of the units of coastline length itself hides within it infinite possibilities, just as a human face is always more complex than the story we may assign to it. The surplus of humanity lingers in those crevices. As Loznitsa is driving his film toward the surrealist satire of the dream banquet, the potential for further complexity that lingers in the life stories of his actors is left unexplored. Two scenes in the film stand out as perhaps unintentional suggestions of possibilities beyond the frame.

krotkayaIn one scene the unbridled emotion bubbles up to the top of the director’s careful construction. As Dubrovsky is singing a prison song, one of the other passengers (played by a noted character actor, Boris Kamorzin) begins to cry. Mutu’s camera tightly frames the round, well-lined face of the actor, allowing the rest of the train compartment to disappear, painting an intimate and poignant portrait of human vulnerability and emotion. Another scene taking place on the bus offers an unexpected connection with Larisa Shepit’ko’s Wings (Kryl’ia, 1966). In the center of the frame is the stoically detached face of the heroine, while around her the human mass is constructing a parallel narrative of secondary horror: death, dismemberment, coffin transported on a bus, and general passive-aggressiveness. Even when the camera turns its lens outward onto the village street and the voices are drowned out by a folksy song on the radio, the sensation of confinement remains. In Shepit’ko’s film, the heroine who feels out of place in the post-war society is packed into a bus along with dozens of other citizens. Shepit’ko staggers the faces as if the passengers are tightly pressed against the fourth wall of the screen. They ride in silence until a child’s voice from beyond the screen frame screams with excitement: “Mommy, look, a puppy!” The bus body turns as one and as they return to their positions their faces changed and a boy in the front smiles. Only the heroine remains still. Her tragic alienation has thus been underscored by the world beyond the frame. Loznitsa measures the coastline of A Gentle Creature’sworld in broad units. In his view, the limitless nature of this space does not harbor a possibility for a real departure from the train station.

krotkayaAccording to the cabby who picks up the heroine, the town exists to support the prison, the town is the prison. Yet we never see any of the prisoners who must be inhabiting the monumental building. The families keep pouring in through the gates, crowding inside the waiting area, the COs are hanging around the gates, dreaming about getting away, the local criminals are partying and fighting in a club. The only part of a functioning prison enterprise that is missing is its integral part—prisoners. The absence underscores the notion expressed by the multiple characters and the director himself: the prison (“zona” in Russian prison parlance) spans the entirety of the film’s space. There’s no real boundary of the prison. In this limitless zona, the physical boundaries (gates, reception windows, barriers) exist only as the expression of the constrictive nature of the space. Getting into this space is also, according to the heroine’s co-worker, getting out, seeing the world. “One should be so lucky as to go to prison! Get to see the world!”—she exclaims. Not just the town, the world is a prison.

Russia as prison is a concept not unique to Loznitsa; it finds its way even into the least likely narratives. In the comparatively lighthearted “people’s comedy” Kiss Them All (Gorko!, 2013, dir. Zhora Kryzhovnikov), the hilariously exuberant wedding culminates with the families of the bride and the groom loaded on a police bus. While on the bus, the characters finally find peace with each other and meaning within their family. However, once released from the bus, the guests don’t (or can’t?) really leave, they just jump into the sea.

In May 2018 Loznitsa’s new feature film Donbass has been awarded Best Director in Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes. As the scenes in the trailer suggest, even in the middle of the current civil war in Southeastern Ukraine, Loznitsa’s characters continue to fight the ghost of the Great Patriotic War, much like his characters in My Joy, and perhaps much like the characters of In the Fog (V tumane, 2012). In A Gentle Creature,which was presented at Cannes in the main competition in 2017, the ever-present war remains just outside the frame, only referenced in a background conversation and in the monologue of a mother on the train traveling to collect her son’s body. The bleak world of the film, just like its heroine, is firmly trapped within the same confines as My Joy and, to a somewhat lesser degree primarily due to the influence of the source material, Vasil Bykov’s novel In the Fog.

As the infinite darkness swallows the heroine at the end of A Gentle Creature, Plutarch’s writings on Anaxagoras, the first mathematician who attempted to square the circle, may offer some solace. In his work On Exile Plutarch says: “From a man no place can take away happiness, as none can take away virtue or wisdom.” Anaxagoras, indeed, documented his attempts at squaring of the circle while in prison.

Anna Nieman
Cheshire CT

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Works Cited

Kuvshinova, Maria. 2017a. “Sergei Loznitsa i ego ‘Krotkaia’: ‘My suschestvuem v iazykovom bredu’.” Afisha (27 November)

Kuvshinova, Maria. 2017b.“Krotkoe zamykanie”. Colta (19 October)

Plutarch. “On Exile” (as published in Vol. VII of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1959)

Volchek, Dmitrii. 2017. Interview with Sergei Loznitsa. “Edinenie tur’my s narodom”. Radio Svoboda (17 May)

A Gentle Creature, France, Germany, Russia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Ukraine, Latvia, 2017,
143 minutes, DCP, color, 2.35:1
Director Sergei Loznitsa
Scriptwriter Sergei Loznitsa
Director of Photography Oleg Mutu
Production Design Kirill Shuvalov
Costume Dorota Roqueplo
Sound Vladimir Golovnitskii
Editing Danielius Kokanauskis
Cast: Valeriu Andriutã, Liya Akhedzhakova, Vasilina Makovtseva, Boris Kamorzin, Sergei Kolesov, Roza Khairullina, Vadim Dubovskii, Alisa Kravtsova, Svetlana Kolesova, Marina Kleshcheva, Sergei Russkin, Nikolai Kolyada, Alexander Zamuraev, Anton Makushin, Sergei Fedorov, Konstantin Itunin
Producers: Maria Baker-Choustova, Gunnar Dedio, Lev Karakhan, Uljana Kim, Serge Lavrenyuk, Carine Leblanc, Sergei Loznitsa, Valentina Mikhaleva, Olivier Père. Galina Sementsova, Marianne Slot, Marc van Warmerdam, Peter Warnier
Production Slot Machine, ARTE France Cinéma, Graniet Film, Looks Filmproduktionen Gmbh, Studio Uljana Kim, Wild at Art

Sergei Loznitsa: A Gentle Creature (Krotkaia, 2017)

reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2018

Updated: 2018