Issue 66 (2019)

Aleksei Krasovskii: Holiday (Prazdnik, 2019)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2019

prazdnikAleksei Krasovskii’s feature Holiday became a source of controversy in Russia long before the film was even completed. The polemics surrounding Holiday arose after the director launched an online crowd-funding campaign for his new project that he described on his crowd-funding site as a “comedy, dark in parts, but mainly light and New Year-spirited” set on 31 December 1941, during the Nazi siege of Leningrad). The director’s choice of this traumatic and wrenching backdrop for his darkly comedic interpretation of the Soviet Union’s World War II experience came under immediate attack from Russian officials, State Duma deputies, television commentators, media outlets, as well as Russia’s Military-Historical Society. Reminiscent of the debates that surrounded Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1999), Holiday’s critics saw a comedy about the Leningrad blockade (an event that claimed over one million lives) as “a blasphemous mockery of the people who perished during the siege” (Fedotkina 2018). In little or no time, Krasovskii’s film-in-progress joined the ranks of other recent “heretical” films, such as Aleksei Uchitel’s costume drama Matilda (2017) and Armando Iannucci’s slapstick comedy The Death of Stalin (2018), which was banned in Russia. In the wake of the ongoing controversy, Krasovskii chose not to apply to the Russian Ministry of Culture for a distribution license, but instead opted to post his finished film on a YouTube video hosting site. (It is worth mentioning that, even though Holiday never made it to the big screen in Russia, the film has now garnered over 1.8 million views on YouTube and is still available, as of this writing, in a range of subtitled versions).

While Holiday came under attack for supposedly attempting a black comedic take on the Leningrad Siege, the film is not exactly ripe with humor. Neither does the film fully focus on the suffering that Leningraders endured for over 900 days—unlike, for example, another recent cinematic work about the Siege, Aleksandr Sokurov’s We Read the Book of the Blockade (My chitaem blokadnuiu knigu, 2009). Instead of a comedy, Holiday is more of a slice-of-life mélange of domestic drama and social satire, or perhaps a tableau of human nature expressing itself under extreme circumstances.

prazdnikThe film tells the story of a family living in privileged and relatively “luxurious” circumstances thanks to the position that Professor Georgii Voskresenskii has landed at a top-secret biology lab. The professor, played by Ian Tsapnik, bears a certain resemblance to Professor Preobrazhenskii from Vladimir Bortko’s Heart of the Dog (Sobach’e serdtse, 1988). Voskresenskii and his family have been allotted abundant food rations and a spacious house on the edge of the city (a detail that historians would no doubt question, since in December 1941 Leningrad’s outskirts were occupied by the Nazi invaders). The family consists of the aforementioned professor, his wife, a college-aged son, a 20-something daughter, and a paralyzed grandmother. The bedridden grandmother is perhaps one of the more peculiar characters in the film, since she is spatially separated from both her children and grandchildren and never appears on screen. However, reminiscent of the grandmother in Viacheslav Krishtofovich’s Adam’s Rib (Rebro Adama, 1990), this “off stage” character communicates with, manipulates, and controls the family solely by banging on the upstairs floor, and implies the presence of some malevolent force (perhaps as a broader metaphor for the war or Soviet gerontocracy). In addition to these immediate family members, the household also includes a state-provided chauffeur and maid (who, like the grandmother, are never seen on camera). In fact, the film begins with the professor’s wife, Margarita (played by Alena Babenko), expressing her frustration with the year’s bleak conclusion—not because Leningrad is under siege, but because she has lost the services of the maid and now has to pluck and cook a chicken with her own hands. While the irony of this situation may be lost on the character (but perhaps not on the audience), the “troublesome” chicken represents a gastronomical luxury that, at the time, most citizens of the city could only experience in their dreams.

prazdnikThe divide between haves and have-nots is the central focus of the film’s narrative, with the conspicuous consumption of the former taking on a rather paradoxical spin: living in the Soviet Union during war time, the Voskresenskii family can only fully indulge in their lavish lifestyle when they are alone; whenever outsiders are present, the professor’s family feels obliged to downplay their “affluence.” The characters’ playacting as “average” Soviet citizens informs Holiday’s mise-en-scene and stylistics. Perhaps emblematic of the exaggerated theatricality of this family’s existence (or possibly simply due to Holiday’s limited budget), the film has the look and feel of a stage production, shot entirely indoors within the confines of just a few rooms. The camerawork of the celebrated cinematographer, Sergei Astakhov, best known for his work with Aleksei Balabanov on films such as Brother (Brat, 1997) and Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1998), remains static and limited to the set, only periodically straying to offer a shot of an entry door, the one portal through which new characters enter the “action.”

One such “newcomer” to the holiday celebration is Denis (played by Pavel Tabakov), Voskresenskii’s student son. Denis brings with him a starving young woman, Masha (Asya Chistiakova), whom he has met at a bomb shelter. As a reminder of the true horrors of the Nazi blockade of the city, we learn that Masha has lost both of her parents and, after her father’s demise, the young woman and her sisters kept his corpse on the balcony so that they could continue to receive his daily food ration. As further evidence of the abyss between a relatively lavish existence and the unbearable suffering of the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens, Masha periodically faints at the sight of an abundant array of food on the Voskresenskiis’ table.

prazdnikWhile Masha’s entry into the Voskresenskii household disrupts the family’s festivities (and forces them to downplay their privileged status), the arrival of the family’s daughter, Liza (Anfisa Chernykh), along with her new boyfriend, Vitalii (Timofei Tribuntsev), further complicates matters. Vitalii is a draft dodger who has unheroically chosen to shoot himself in the foot to avoid serving at the front. It turns out that Vitalii has replaced Liza’s former boyfriend, Maksim, the professor’s incompetent lab assistant. (As we will later discover, Maksim, whom we never see, is in fact a spy for an unspecified foreign power). Initially, Vitalii appears to be a pawn in various games played by the members of the Voskresenskii family: Liza uses him to annoy her parents (who did not approve of her previous boyfriend) and Margarita enlists him in the charade of attempting to conceal her family’s cozy situation from Masha. But we later discover that Vitalii is something of a trickster himself as he tries to turn tables on the Voskresenskiis by blackmailing the professor.

prazdnikAs one may surmise from the above examples, displays of guile and opportunism are Holiday’s mainstay. Indeed, the film assumes a misanthropic view of human nature: each character is overtly cynical and ever-ready to deceive in order to obtain the slightest advantage. Even the seemingly innocent victim, Masha, does not think twice about stealing a bagful of goods from the professor’s family, while the professor scoffs at his dedication to his own “important” work, which he admits merely allows him to have a chance to “eat someone else’s daily ration.” On the same note, the film ends with the professor’s wife looking straight into the camera and winking at the viewer. Does this finale suggest that the audience is, if not complicit, at least sympathetic to the characters’ 70 minutes of self-serving scheming?

While the director Krasovskii has stated that his film portrays people who “enrich themselves at the misfortune of others”—a trend that he sees surviving the Soviet past and thriving in today’s Russia (Volchek 2019), the film seems to present the “underdogs” (Masha and Vitalii) as being just as, if not more, opportunistic than the “top dogs.” Ultimately, Krasovskii’s promised “comedy” is a mildly depressing parable where Leningrad’s colossal wartime tragedy becomes a mere pretext to illustrate some of humanity’s pettiest traits.

Olga Mesropova
Iowa State University

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Works Cited

Fedotkina, Tat’iana. 2018. “Zachem rezhisser Krasovskii reshil sniat’ chernuiu komediiu o blokade Leningada.” Moskovskii Komsomolets 14 October.

Volchek, Dmitrii. 2019. “Zastol’e v blokadnom Leningrade. Aleksei Krasovskii o fil’me ‘Prazdnik.’” Radio Svoboda, 4 January.

Holiday, Russia, 2019
Color, 73 minutes
Director: Aleksei Krasovskii
Screenplay: Aleksei Krasovskii
Cinematography: Sergei Astakhov
Production Design: Evdokiia Zamkhina
Editor: Vladimir Zimin, Aleksei Krasovskii
Music: Ruslan Lepatov
Producer: Aleksei Krasovskii
Cast: Alena Babenko, Anfisa Chernykh, Asya Chistiakova, Pavel Tabakov, Timofei Tribuntsev, Ian Tsapnik

Aleksei Krasovskii: Holiday (Prazdnik, 2019)

reviewed by Olga Mesropova © 2019

Updated: 2019