Vol 1, No 8, 16 August 1999
K A R L O V Y V A R Y:|
Dictatorship of Love:
Viacheslav Sorokin's Totalitarnii roman
Andrew J Horton
The heroine of Viacheslav Sorokin's Totalitarnii roman (Totalitarian Romance, 1998) is a dreamy and idealistic young widow, Nadia. The action starts with Nadia's innocent trip to the cinema with her boyfriend, Sasha, to see the latest Soviet romance (actually Tatiana Lioznova's Tri topolia na Pliushchikhe). However, the event is sold out and they can only secure one ticket. The couple decide that Nadia should go on her own, except that the man who sold them the ticket insists on accompanying her. Nadia is at first sceptical of the ostentatious impostor and - good party activist that she is - she is disdainful of his admiration for such degenerate, bourgeois music as the Beatles. Slowly, the despondent and terminally soppy Sasha watches Andrei force himself into his girlfriend's life, pushing him out of the picture in the process. Andrei befriends Nadia's daughter and uses his tales ofcosmopolitan Moscow to woo her.
However, Nadia soon finds herself in danger. The KGB are after Andrei for his involvement in the Prague Spring earlier that year, and they try to use Nadia's need for proper housing to force her to spy on Andrei. At first, Nadia is distraught by the KGB's revelations and cuts herself off from Andrei, but he insists that his role was a minor one and that he is innocent of the charges. He manages to win her over but the couple agree to part before the KGB catch up with him. He leaves immediately - before Nadia has the chance to tell him that she is carrying his child.
The film's production notes claim that the film is a portrait of "someone who proves that one can remain a decent human being even in a country with an indecent regime." What the notes are less clear about is what that indecent regime is. Watching the film, it is exceedingly hard to sympathise with Andrei: he is a cheat,a liar and a coward and can't even claim he actually supported the liberal interlude in Czech politics to save his name. On a whim, he stands up another woman so that he can meet Nadia, cynically manipulates her daughter to get himself close to the object of his desire and stalks her until she yields to his affections.
If there is any totalitarian character in the film, it would appear to be Andrei himself. Curiously, the KGB officer who interviews Nadia is surprisingly friendly and paternal. Even if he does exert considerable pressure on her, it seems relatively mild compared to the full-blown psychological warfare that Andrei wages against her. Whilst her attraction for him might be understandable, his for her appears to be based on her naivety and the fact that she is vulnerable enough to be taken in by his tall tales of Moscow high-living.
This should not surprise sociologists. It has long been recognised the overall structure of society is mirrored in its smaller units. Over long periods of time, this results in the style of government and the individual relationships in society coming to resemble each other - although the question of which one influences the other is, in this case, a moot point. Thus, when a society is repressive, totalitarian and dominated by a predominantly male oligarchy - as Soviet Russia was - the majority of socially accepted relationships, be they in the context of families, schools, hospitals, factories or even love affairs, are likely to be conducted with strictness, an intrinsic respect for power and with males taking the lead over weaker females. Totalitarnii roman is startling, because it demonstrates how persistant this theory is.
Sorokin could have used his "totalitarian romance" to demonstrate some uncomfortable truths about relationships in Soviet times and pointed out how much male behaviour remains consistant with that of contemporary Russia. This would have made it the romantic analogue of Pavel Chukhrai's Vor (The Thief, 1998). With its sensitive portrayal of the dependence of a young vulnerable and widowed mother and her son for a tyrannical father figure, Chukhrai's film won critical acclaim . The film stops at nothing in its criticism of the father figure, Tolian, whilst it sensitively sketches both the mother and son's need for someone to look up to. As well as being a touching family portrait, the film acts as an allegory to the over arching power of Stalinism in the post-war years and demonstrates how the concept of tyranny came to be synonymous with fatherhood (Stalin himself encouraged films which showed him as a father-figure to the people of Russia - an image also reflected in his most common nick-name: Papa Stalin).
It might be that Sorokin was attempting to ride on the coat-tails of Vor, with its sociological subtext. This is certainly indicated in the two possible readings of the title: a romance in totalitarian times or a romance conducted in a totalitarian manner. However, given that Sorokin portrays the relationship warmly, he can be said to be advocating totalitarianism, a trap Chukhrai never falls into. Sorokin defends both the tyrannical lead character and gives implicit approval of Nadia's total obedience to his command. Moreover, while Chukhrai's film is a beautiful analytical essay on the mentality of the macho Russians who have images of Stalin tattooed on their chests (in fact, what the young son turns into), Sorokin explains less and merely describes. In Sorokin's film, we end up not really knowing why his weak and vulnerable characters existed in Soviet society. Even more annoying is the fact that Sorokin misses out on an opportunity to show how much or how little he feels totalitarian values are present in today's society. Once again, this is something which Chukhrai does not fail to do.
Although the film is weaker in almost every respect than Vor, it has met with at least some of Vor's success, sweeping up the Grand Prize at the Open Film Festival of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltic States in 1998, where Galina Bokashevska was also awarded for her role as Nadia. Such success might indicate that the mainstream of viewers in the former Soviet Union are not prepared to argue with Sorokin's premises. Perhaps, there are many people in Russia who will find it comforting to see a film whose hype defines a "decent" man as a tyrant and will feel reassured to know that it is the right thing to stand by such a man, no matter what. I doubt, however, that foreign audiences will be as interested in such statements, whatever they may reveal about the Russian mentality.
Andrew J Horton, 16 August 1999Click here for the second in this pair of articles: a look at how Croatian women are rebelling against macho nationalism in favour of cream cakes.
The following is a list of other films shown at Karlovy Vary which have been covered by Kinoeye.
Demony wojny wedlug Goi (Demons of War by Goya) by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, Poland
Blokpost (Checkpoint) by Alexandr Rogozhkin, Russia
Tockovi (Wheels) by Djordje Milosavljevic, Yugoslavia
Gengszterfim (Gangster Film) by Gyorgy Szomjas, Hungary
Nekem lampast adott kezembe as Ur Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest) by Miklos Jancso, Hungary
Krava (The Cow) by Karel Kachyna, Czech Republic
Okraina (Outskirts) by Peter Lutsik, Russia
Pasti, pasti, pasticky (Traps) by Vera Chytilova, Czech Republic
Kinai vedelem (Chinese Defence) by Gabor Tompa, Hungary
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