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The Berlinale Blog: Russia’s roulette

The Russian Bear might not bag a Berlin Bear this year but its growl is consistent. Eve Lucas considers how Boris Khlebnikov’s competition film A Long and Happy Life and Svetlana Baskova’s For Marx show individuals fighting the system.

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“A Long and Happy Life”

If hand-held digital camera-work makes you seasick, then make sure you procure a quick-getaway-seat for Boris Khlebnikov’s A Long and Happy Life. On the other hand, you could try hanging on to the armrest for the duration of this tale of Brechtian alienation in which flawed hero Sasha (Alexander Yatsenko) finds himself confronted with the materially dialectic choice: take compensation money from the local council and sign over his farm or heed his workers and fight the good fight for the right to earn an honest crust based on an honest day’s work.

Set in northern Russia on the banks of a river coursing insensibly past his shabby house, the first half of this film succeeds in presenting Sasha as a young man on a learning curve – with the hand-held camera as just one in a series of elements (including the exposition of his earlier, reprehensible political detachment) that create, and maintain distance. Yatsenko’s performance, as he comes to acknowledge his role as part of a collective, credibly merges the lure of newly discovered convictions with the growing awareness that to renege on these would leave him stripped of all dignity. Where the film falls short is in its change of pace in the second half, rushing towards a final countdown with a speed that all but undermines the processes shown in the first: a failing likely to cost it serious bear-points.

As Mother Courage found out to her cost, of course, virtue is denied its reward in a corrupt society. It’s a given, both in Khlebnikov’s film and in Svetlana Baskova’s For Marx, which opens with the masses from a smelting plant travelling to work on the bus at the start of a working day. The factory reprocesses radioactive metals procured from the Russian military – on a budget that sacrifices decent wages and safety measures to the boss’ wish to impress potential clients with Rodchenkos and Malevichs – to be purchased at an upcoming auction in London.

Meanwhile, in a room off the factory floor, a troika of men meets semi-covertly to constitute a new, independent trade union. Policy and plans for a rally are discussed. Enter the factory watchman with the news that he’s reading Gogol’s Dead Souls, inspiring one unionist to digress on Soviet historian Pokrovsky whilst another advocates the work of 19th century Russian critic Belinsky. The third, a factory foreman, anticipates a parcel containing raspberry jam and warm socks—from an aunt in the country. As Marx said: History repeats itself. The “first time as tragedy, the second as farce”.

Before the officially sanctioned rally can take place, orders from the boardroom ensure that the new trade union is ‘significantly weakened’. The fight is on: between the workers, the management – and the stalker in between, the new, well-groomed and educated middleman who exploits the trust of the innocent and the stupidity of the greedy: the only man standing.

If you’re interested in the new Russia, Baskova’s film on independent trade unions is a must. Not only because it shows a Russia situated between shame and gain, but also because it shows a Russia still, or newly, attached to overtly ideology-based aesthetics that cite sublimation, alienation, Godard’s Dziga Vertov phase and Askoldov’s Commissar. Baskova’s language is complex: the line she treads between tragedy and farce not always perfectly observed, the tone occasionally muddled. As in Khlebnikov’s film, however, one salient message is also left standing: Putin’s efforts at depoliticizing the new Russia are anything but uniformly successful.