Issue 65 (2019)

Iurii Bykov: The Factory (Zavod, 2018)

reviewed by Daria Ezerova © 2019

zavodHaving emerged in the late 19th century, cinema became a hallmark of modern life, “the fullest expression and combination of modernity’s attributes,” to quote Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (1995: 1). Cinema shares that distinction with industrial capitalism. It is hardly surprising, then, that representations of factory labor and landscape have been a continued preoccupation of cinema, perhaps starting as early as in Louis Lumière’s Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon, 1895). Industrial imagery offered a versatile mechanism to comment on labor relations, class struggle, and capitalism in general—and also on the emotional state of the protagonist. In 1936, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times addressed working conditions during the Great Depression, depicting Fordism and the exploitation of workers, and creating the most recognizable assembly line scene in world cinema. The aestheticized pipelines and smokestacks of Northern Italy in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (Il deserto rosso, 1964) offered a fitting backdrop not only for the workers’ strike, but also for the “alienation and spatial disorientation” of Monica Vitti’s Giuliana (Gandy 2003: 219). More recently, the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit, 2014)employed the theme of industrial labor to indict late capitalism by focusing on the disenfranchisement of the workers and the mental health issues they experience as a result. In Russia, the reemergence of factories in the cinema of 2000s-2010s had further significance.

zavodThe Russian tradition of cinematic depiction of factories in many ways starts in the 1930s, when it was predicated on the significance of industrial power for the Soviet economy and ideology. While the tropes for representing industry were developed in Soviet literature—namely in the production novel of the 1920s-1930s—it was Socialist Realist cinema that endowed it with spectacular visuals and added to its symbolic meanings. The factory became a privileged space, a locus for the transformation of the hero (the progress towards a Communist consciousness through the experience of industrial labor) that endowed the factory with practically sublime qualities: beautiful, awe-inspiring, transformative. The evolution of the labor hero in works like Grigorii Aleksandrov’s The Radiant Path (Svetlyi put’, 1940) or Mikheil Chiaureli’s The Fall of Berlin (Padenie Berlina, 1949) can illustrate this pattern. During the Thaw and the Stagnation period, as new cultural sensibilities began to challenge the dominance of Socialist Realism, the factory nonetheless remained a central locus, albeit often used for a different purpose. Suffice it to remember such films as Feliks Mironer and Marlen Khutsiev’s Spring on Zarechnaia Street (Vesna na Zarechnoi ulitse, 1956) or Vladimir Menshov’s Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1979). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, as heavy industry declined and Soviet ideology was debunked, industrial imagery offered filmmakers a perfect instrument for social criticism. As early as in 1993, Children of Iron Gods (Deti chugunnykh bogov, directed by Tamás Tóth, screenplay by Petr Lutsik and Aleksei Samoriadov) offered a grotesque and terrifying portrayal of industrial workers. In the 2000s, factory images reemerged with renewed force in works like Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007), where the spectacular panorama of the Cherepovets Steel Factory accentuated the film’s violent content; in Svetlana Baskova’s For Marx (Za Marksa, 2012), where it framed a bloody conflict between the workers and the owners of the factory; and in Natal’ia Meshchaninova’s Hope Factory (Kombinat “Nadezhda”,2014) that employed the industrial landscape of Norilsk to amplify a feeling of hopelessness experienced by the film’s young protagonists. Considering such sustained significance of industrial space in Russian and Soviet cinema, Iurii Bykov’s film The Factory (Zavod, 2018) was expected offer trenchant social critique. However, there were more reasons behind this expectation.

Known for his uncompromising social dramas, such as The Major (Maior, 2013) and The Fool (Durak, 2014), Bykov took on a different project in 2017—a spy miniseries The Dormants (Spiaschie). The series was met with a powerful backlash, accused of being blatant propaganda and “revolting agitprop for the FSB” (“toshnotvornaia agitka FSB”; Ponomareva 2017). Neither the series’ producer Fedor Bondarchuk, nor the screenwriter Sergei Minaev commented on the accusation, but Bykov spoke out on his VK page:

[I] betrayed an entire generation of progressive people who were trying to change something […] I cannot say I did not know what I was doing, but I didn’t quite understand how unforgivable it was to be insufficiently precise, honest, and careful with the subject of The Dormants […] I’ll have to leave the spotlight, not only so that my crimes can be forgotten, but in order to not disturb those around me or steer off the course the people who genuinely want to believe that something can be changed. (Bykov 2017)

After such a resonant public apology, Bykov’s The Factory was to mark not only the director’s return to cinema, but also his attempt to atone for The Dormants and rectify his representation of the powers that be.

zavodThe Factory follows the story of a workers’ rebellion—or, to quote the director, “not a mutiny, but banditry”—at a factory in Russia (Surganova 2019). One regular workday, the factory’s owner, an oligarch named Kalugin (Andrei Smoliakov), announces to the workers that the plant has gone bankrupt and will be shut down. One of the workers, a disfigured war veteran nicknamed “The Gray”, or Sedoi (Denis Shvedov), proposes to a group of workers that they kidnap the oligarch and demand a ransom. The kidnapping goes smoothly—until special forces arrive to the factory where the oligarch is held. Sedoi and his men demand the presence of the state prosecutor and journalists from a local news channel in order to publicize what happened and make Kalugin confess his crimes which include, among other things, corruption and murder. One of the oligarch’s security guards, Tuman (“Fog,” Vladislav Abashin) agrees to bring in the prosecutor and deliver the ransom. However, an attempt to make Kalugin speak has little effect on justice, as he is revealed to be in cahoots with the local authorities and the press. When the ransom is finally delivered, it is discovered that it was Sedoi who called the special forces: he confesses that he is not interested in the money as long as Kalugin is duly punished. This, of course, does not happen. Kalugin is safely delivered to his security guards, and the special forces storm the factory, most likely killing Sedoi.

Among the film’s weaker points noted by critics is the film’s ill-defined timeframe: The Factory appears to take place in present-day Russia, yet shows elements of 1990’s aesthetics. Bykov himself confirmed this ambiguity but made it clear that the film is not set in the first post-Soviet decade: “Such situations [as the one shown in The Factory] are possible, but we’ve got to understand that now we’re far away from the nineties, the uncontrollable, frightening nineties” (Surganova 2019). Kalugin’s criminal past as a “violent entrepreneur,” to borrow Vadim Volkov’s term, is not concealed, and yet, as Andrei Arkhangelskii remarked, “the story is late by fifteen or twenty years: it was then that the oligarchs had such power” (Arkhangel’skii 2019). However, it can be argued that anachronistic elements in a film in and of themselves do not preclude well-articulated social commentary, suffice it to remember, for instance, Lutsik and Samoriadov’s The Outskirts (Okraina, 1998) that delivered scathing criticism of Russian capitalism in the 1990s precisely through sustained anachronism. More likely, it is the problems in writing and cinematography, perhaps caused by Bykov’s anxiety of providing a remedy for The Dormants, that make representation of social injustice in The Factory somewhat unconvincing and, at times, heavy-handed.

zavodA rundown factory could have provided a perfect location for Bykov’s endeavor—indeed, what better space to comment on Russia’s ruling class than the one that produced its fortunes? Setting up his film in a former Soviet industrial complex—“the factory was built under the Soviets”, as one character remarks—should have offered fertile ground for a strong political message. As is common for representations of industrial complexes, Bykov uses low-angle shots, long takes, and great depth of field as he films the factory’s imposing smokestacks and sprawling interiors. However, the overall representation of the plant is conflicted and lacks consistency. In the opening scene, we see the factory rising from the barren, misty landscape. It is hard to determine whether the plant is functioning or fully rundown, even after the camera moves to the interiors. The shot of Sedoi walking across the empty hall and pigeons flying around him creates an impression of abandonment, a standstill. Yet, within minutes the factory is shown to function at full capacity, with scores of workers briskly entering its halls. The machines and people move in choreographed synchronicity, to a rather uplifting tune—perhaps, an unwitting homage to Soviet factory films. The conflicting cues are not resolved.
zavodIf Bykov’s representation of the factory is somewhat ambiguous, his take on the workers falls into the opposite extreme. The director closely guides his viewers’ vision of the workers, leaving no room for interpretation or guesswork and thus problematizes the depth of characters in the film. For instance, it appears vital for Bykov to convey the idea that Sedoi is a war veteran—in addition to his facial injury, a close shot of Sedoi’s mangled back, specked with bullet scars, is shown early in the film. As if this were not enough, the reticent Sedoi breaks into a dramatic soliloquy in the second half of the film, explicitly bringing up his combat experience. This obsessive control over the character backfires, making him less believable and overly dramatic. Suffice it to compare Sedoi to, for example, Danila Bagrov in Brother (Brat, 1997): the latter is also a veteran, his reticence also suggesting PTSD. Yet, in Balabanov’s film Danila’s war experience is not explicitly brought up, leaving viewers space to contemplate the character and speculate about his story on their own.

The portrayal of the rest of the workers suffers from Bykov’s approach even more: the lack of character depth here often trivializes his representation of the working class in general. The workers’ rugged looks and emphasized physical strength reinforce the theme of hard industrial labor. But yet again, Bykov does not stop there and amplifies their aggressive masculinity with all available means, starting with the near-total absence of women in the film. Other than the scared correspondent, Tuman’s sick wife (whose face we never see), and a few other brief appearances, women are not shown on screen. The first time women are brought up in conversation is in Riaboi’s (Dmitrii Kulichkov) lewd comments about another worker’s unfaithful wife. In this demonstration of violent masculinity, the standoff between Sedoi and Riaboi comes across as nothing short of two alpha males fighting for territory.

zavodThe excesses in the portrayal of workers further detract from the characters’ complexity and, paired with the portrayal of the oligarch, weaken the intended message of The Factory. The poster for the film shows the worker Sedoi and the exploiting oligarch Kalugin facing each other. Sedoi clutches Kalugin by the lapels, his hulking body dwarfing that of the oligarch. The symmetry of figures facing each other anticipates the figurative face-off—a class struggle, no less—and is recapitulated later in the film: the only extended dialogue between the oligarch and the workers’ leader occurs during the intentionally symmetrical shot of the background of the factory interior. However, the cinematography and the poster design emphasizing the film’s main conflict cannot compensate for the otherwise naïve and unconvincing representation of this struggle in the film. Sedoi’s grand pronouncements (“We are the wretched workers, and he is a thief and а murderer […] I’d smother you with my bare hands”) come across as stylized and histrionic. His comment that he does not need the money, only justice, is equally melodramatic and perhaps too straightforwardly intended to create identification between Sedoi and Bykov. By contrast, the emphatic reticence of the oligarch Kalugin—portrayed by the charismatic Andrei Smoliakov—creates a considerably more believable character than the rest of Bykov’s protagonists. Consequently—and possibly unintentionally—this imbalance disrupts the portrayal of the class struggle intended by Bykov: while the make-up and casting choice of Smoliakov help to create an unpleasant image of “vampiric” capitalism, “sucking living labor,” the criticism that emerges is neither consistent, nor convincing (Marx, “Economic Manuscripts”).

The Factory does, however, have a character that can rectify a somewhat facile representation of class and social injustice in the film. In his interview to KinoPoisk, Bykov insisted that his worldview has changed drastically in the past few years as evidenced by the appearance of a new kind of character in The Factory—Tuman. The director highlighted that this character brings some positive notes in his film because of Tuman’s “non-participation in the system—a system that is stagnant, conformist” (Surganova 2019). It is possible to disagree with this assessment: after all, while Tuman does not wholeheartedly embrace the views of either Kalugin or Sedoi, he is still part of the system that Bykov is referring to. Yet it is precisely Vladislav Abashin’s remarkable performance that creates a genuinely complex character and prevents the film into slipping into a somewhat naïve image of the rich and the poor, as melodramatic as it is dated.

Daria Ezerova
Davidson College

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Works Cited

Arkhangel’skii, Andrei. 2019. “Zheleznaia nekhvatka,” Ogonek 5 (11 Feb.).

Bykov, Iurii. 2017. “Rezhisser Iurii Bykov: ‘Ia predal vse progressivnoe pokolenie’.” BBCNewsRussian Service. 13 October.

Charney, Leo, and Vanessa R. Schwartz. 1995. Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. California: University of California Press.

Gandy, Matthew. 2003. “Landscapes of Deliquescence in Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28.2: 218–37.

Marx, Karl. [1867]. Capital. A Critique of Political Economy.  Vol. I, Chapter 10 (“The Working Day”). The Marxist Internet Archive.

Ponomareva, Alia. 2017. “‘Toshnotvornaia agitka FSB.’” Radio Svoboda 13 October.

Surganova, Liza. 2019. “Iurii Bykov o ‘Zavode’, Neliubvi k nagradam I otnosheniiakh k industriei.” KinoPoisk/YouTube, 8 February.

The Factory, Russia, 2018
Color, 109 minutes
Director: Iurii Bykov
Script: Iurii Bykov
Cinematography: Vladimir Ushakov
Production Design: Sergei Rakutov, Uliana Polianskaia
Music: Iurii Bykov, Ivan Is’ianov, Anna Drubich
Cast: Denis Shvedov, Andrei Smoliakov, Vladislav Abashin, Ivan Iankovskii, Dmitrii Kulichkov
Producer: Iurii Bykov, Sharl-Evrar Chekhov, Eduard Eloian, Ruslan Tatarintsev, Aleksandr Kushaev
Production Company: START, Invada Film, KinoVista, KODA, Sharm Holding, Wild Bunch, Forever Films Media

Iurii Bykov: The Factory (Zavod, 2018)

reviewed by Daria Ezerova © 2019

Updated: 2019