Issue 69 (2020)

Valeriia Gai Germanika: The Imagined Wolf (Myslennyi volk, 2019)

reviewed by Zhanna Budenkova © 2020

myslenny volkIn an interview conducted  by journalist and former presidential candidate Kseniia Sobchak, Valeriia Gai Germanika explained that her film The Imagined Wolf (sometimes translated as Mental Wolf) is essentially a metaphor for human life: “life is one long leap, out of the pussy and into the grave” (in the interview, the believer Germanika refused to cite the vulgar term in this expression, but Sobchak pronounced it for her). According to the filmmaker, the wandering of two female protagonists in a forest by night, who have lost their way  and fear an “imagined wolf” that may be following them, is very similar to the human condition, that is  wandering in the dark trying to find meaning in the apparent chaos of existence: “I have always imagined myself as a blind kitten in a dark room—I don’t see or understand anything, just poke around in different directions […]. So this is what the film is about, about human life” (Sobchak 2019). Indeed, from the very first sequence, before the film’s title and credits start to roll, the theme of human existence and its meaning is pronounced very clearly. The film starts by showing the post-mortem rebirth of an anonymous man to life eternal. This scene, that does not directly relate to the main action of the film, shows the man (referred to in the credits as, simply, “the resurrected”) being undug from his grave and brought to a church. Here a service is held for him, after which he wakes up in a sunlit room and proceeds to have a peaceful meal of Borshtch and pancakes in the company of the protagonists wearing pious, almost monastic clothes—long robes and shawls covering their hair. The scene concludes with the camera plunging into a magnificent landscape behind the room’s large windows—an endless field of flowers stretching beyond the horizon. Accompanied by the soundtrack of Strauss’s The Blue Danube, this moment creates a powerful sublime impression. The introductory sequence of The Imagined Wolf looks very much out of character for Germanika whose earlier oeuvre was heavily indebted to documentary aesthetics, and also, the Russian tradition of “chernukha” cinema with its focus on dark and cluttered mise-en-scene inhabited by troubled characters. In this sequence of the film, Germanika moves away from these aesthetical principles presenting instead a vision of a fantastical paradise of spatial expanse and religious salvation.

myslenny volkThe evolution that Germanika’s work has undergone since her previous feature Yes and Yes (Da i Da, 2014) presents itself a conscious effort to produce more auteur-focused spiritual art cinema. A recent proselyte of Orthodox Christianity, the filmmaker is known for her controversial statement that “all power is from God” and her decisive refusal to support a liberal Russian agenda in any form. In an interview to the online portal BURO, she announced her refusal to discuss politics in her films, adding that the social agenda she is known for is also a thing of the past. The ultimate goal now, says Germanika, is to “make highly artistic cinema” (Amato 2017). To the Ministry of Culture, the filmmaker presented Imagined Wolf as a “spiritual” and “near-Orthodox” [okolopravoslavnyi] project. Although she later explained that this was done to persuade the jury to fund the production, the religious subtext of the film is hard to ignore. Apart from the telling prologue to the film focusing on the resurrection, the very concept of “imagined wolf” is directly taken from Orthodox thought. The idea of a mental, imagined or spiritual, wolf, is attributed to early Orthodox church leader John Chrysostom who juxtaposed the influence of the imagined wolf to the influence of God. Contemporary Orthodox thought interprets Chrysostom’s idea of a imagined wolf as the influence of Satan, who either directly affects human beings or amplifies sinful tendencies inherent in human nature (Stupnikov 2016, 62). The notion of a wild beast—the wolf—as opposed to a spiritual being—God, comes as an expression of the religious binary of the sinful flesh and the holy spirit that is actively explored in the film.

myslenny volkAfter the beautiful prologue of the sunny resurrection, the film plunges us into the dark and gloomy world of the two protagonists, a mother (Iuliia Vysotskaia) and her daughter Alevtina (Liza Klimova). In the first scene that occurs at a village disco, the daughter confronts the mother flirting with a younger man, insisting that it is already late and they need to go home as the daughter’s son, Vasen’ka, is falling asleep. As the action unfolds, we understand that Alevtina has just arrived in the village from Saint Petersburg in order to persuade her reluctant mother to sell her village house and help her raise Vasen’ka. Both the mother and the daughter (and Vasen’ka, whose seat is attached to his mother’s backpack) set off on a long journey through the forest to the mother’s house which they reach only in the morning. The exhausting journey is aggravated by bitter arguments between the two women and also fear; early on the journey, the mother tells the daughter that the village has recently suffered from wolf attacks and after first killing cattle, the animal has recently turned on humans, particularly favoring children. At this point, it is unclear whether the wolf is real or the mother merely intends to scare Alevtina, but the story has an effect. The daughter starts to fear the animal and is now less inclined to argue with her e mother who can easily abandon her alone in the dark. The group finally manages to reach the house safely, only to continue their arguments again in the light of the day. The notion the sinful flesh as embodied by the wolf is especially accentuated through the figure of the mother. A When the young man from the disco reemerges at the doorstep of the house, she continues to flirt with him after which they have sex in a barn. The scene is witnessed by Alevtina, who decides that she has already had enough of her mother, packs her belongings and heads back into the forest with Vasen’ka. However, the escape is interrupted by the powerful sighting of the wolf towering over the forest trees which makes Alevtina and Vasen’ka run back to her mother.

myslenny volkThe appearance of the wolf in the film poses a moment of cinematic attraction; the sudden emergence of the computer-generated image of a beast gnawing on human flesh (in the scene, the wolf is holding a severed head of a human in his paws) aims to stun and shock the viewer. The scene with the wolf stands in stark contrast to the scene of resurrection at the very start of the film; the opposition between the wolf’s brutality and darkness and the loving divine light of the patriarchal God is too obvious to ignore. Yet contrasted with the characters of flesh and blood, the wolf also poses as a vision of cartoonish immateriality, a special effect that helps accentuate its “mental” character, its residing in the human psyche, dreams and desires. Despite the didactic impulse of the film—the result of the collaboration with scriptwriter Iurii Arabov known for his work with Aleksandr Sokurov—Germanika’s own notion of mental wolf is much more layered and mischievous, possessing its own connotative history stemming from the filmmaker’s earlier works. The motif of the mental wolf first emerged in a song by the Yekaterinburg rock band Smyslovye galliutsinatsii for which Germanika wrote the lyrics. She also shot the accompanying music video and plays the female protagonist who is chased by a wolf. The video shows Germanika holding a camcorder positing a strong association between the wolf and Germanika’s own creative vocation. The association of a mental wolf and female strength and creativity continues in Germanika’s film Yes and Yes, in which the female protagonist, elementary school teacher Sasha, discovers the world of artistic creation by painting a wolf-like creature running in the forest. Later in the film, wolves appear as totem-like animals helping Sasha to abandon her alcoholic boyfriend who is also an artist. In a fantastical sequence preceding the split, Sasha is shown as a vampire-like, albeit sublimely beautiful, creature, accompanied by a pack of wolves. No doubt, the rendition of the theme of imagined wolf in Germanika’s films is accompanied by a considerable degree of ambiguity, and often of suppressed guilt and a sense of wrong. This side of her work reveals the complexity of the filmmaker’s thinking and deserves unpacking and interpretation.

Zhanna Budenkova,
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Amato, Sasha. 2017. “Valeriia Germanika: ‘Liubaia vlast'—ot Boga.’ O novom proekte, religii i kino.” BURO 20 March.  

Sobchak, Kseniia. 2019. “Gai Germanika: o boge, muzhe, abortakh i kino. Ostorozhno Sobchak!” YouTube, 19 November.

Stupnikov, Denis. 2016. “Obraz myslennogo volka u peterburgskikh, moskovskikh i ekaterinburgskikh rok-avtorov.” In Russkii rok: vremia nazad. Sbornik materialov seminara, edited by Iurii Domanskii. Moskva: Gosudarstvennyi muzei sovremennoi istorii Rossii.  

The Imagined Wolf, Russia, 2019
Color, 68 minutes
Director: Valeriia Gai Germanika
Scriptwriter: Iurii Arabov
DoP: Oleg Lukichev, Morad Abdel' Fattakh
Production Design: Asia Davydova, David Dadunashvili, Ol'ga Maksakova
Music: Igor' Vdovin
Editing: Ivan Lebedev
Cast: Iuliia Vysotskaia, Liza Klimova, Fedor Lavrov, Iurii Trubin, Asia Ozturk
Production: Leos Film, with support of the Ministry of Culture of the RF

Valeriia Gai Germanika: The Imagined Wolf (Myslennyi volk, 2019)

reviewed by Zhanna Budenkova © 2020

Updated: 2020