The Ukranian diretcor’s new film A Gentle Creature may be based on a Dostoevsky short story – but it shows a struggle against impenetrable authority that is just as relevant today
16 April 2018 | Nick Hasted | Independent
As an impulsive US president and ruthless Russian one taunt each other while missiles fly, and sedate Salisbury resembles a John Le Carré book, the Cold War’s chill is back. For director Sergei Loznitsa, though, the roots of Russia’s actions go back further than that.
His new film, A Gentle Creature, is set in a Russian prison town where a nameless woman (played with grim fortitude by Vasilina Makovsteva) tries to locate her falsely imprisoned husband. Grotesque gangsters, guards, bureaucrats and pimps accost and abuse her, as a nightmare logic takes hold.
he director presents this struggle against impenetrable authority as eternally Russian.
Loznitsa, 53, was raised in the USSR and studied film in St Petersburg. The Soviet Union’s collapse, though, left him identifying as an independent Ukrainian – a freedom tested in the 2013 Kiev protests, which he filmed in his documentary Maidan(2014). Though he’s lived in Berlin since 2001, Loznitsa is, with Leviathan and Loveless director Andrey Zvyagintsev, at the forefront of filmmakers fighting Putin’s brutal, reductive idea of Russianness.
“Yes, I know Andrey very well,” Loznitsa tells me. “We grew up at the same time, in the same city, and saw films at the same cinema museum. And we work in parallel now, on more or less close topics. We’re in contact, and maybe for me it’s much easier than for him. Because he’s inside Russia, and I’m outside.”
Reached by Skype in Berlin, Loznitsa laughs with a readiness which suggests droll ironies are ever-present, and favours sentences with Mobius strip double meanings. A Gentle Creatureis similar.
There’s a rich fatalism to its humour, much like that of the Jews so often persecuted on Russian soil. A chainsaw victim’s bones are dug up on the corner of Marx and Engels streets, inmates burn down their asylum, the young shove past the old, and bus passengers trade dry barbs. “My man never went to prison,” a neighbour enviously sighs as the gentle woman begins her futile odyssey. “So I never got to see the world.”
“In our literature, we have a big tradition of humour as a reaction to the circumstances of our life,” Loznitsa explains. “And there are lots of connections between the sentences in the film and Gogol or Dostoevsky’s sense of humour. I didn’t do this deliberately. But it is inside the culture and language.
“Because more and more, you look at Russian reality and it seems like it was written for the stage. You can’t even imagine that it can happen in real life. But it does. It’s Russia.”
The Dostoevsky short story “A Gentle Creature” is about a symbiotic, abusive relationship, Loznitsa explains, one with strong parallels to Putin’s Russia. “It’s an allegory about a girl and a man who becomes her husband, and tortures her. She accepts this till the moment when she commits suicide by jumping through the window. But we never know who is the torturer and who the tortured.”
“This connects to the idea of my film: that people who live in a country and the people in power are one unit,” he adds. “Nations create the leader whose face they would like to see. It’s not like somebody took power, then oppressed and humiliated people. Stalin already did his bloody job – and now it’s enough just to hint that Stalin’s time can come back, and people are ready to follow orders. This fear is inside society, which has been destroyed. And you can do what you want with a people without rules.”
“Don’t fall asleep, or you’ll be carried off,” A Gentle Creature’s woman is warned in a railway waiting room, as she finally tries to leave town. She drifts off, of course, at which point an ogre-like woman creeps in and spirits her away, past a bust of Lenin into moonlit woods, where an ominous red house waits.
Just a nightmare, maybe. But in this last act of his film, Loznitsa dives into Russia’s subconscious. Again, it could be yesterday, or Dostoevsky’s day. Nothing, he suggests, has changed.
The woman’s nightmare resigns her to making the journey for real, especially after a patriotic ceremony in the dream ends with permission for her to finally see her jailed husband. In fact, something vicious awaits her behind the red house.
“It’s a Russian tradition,” Loznitsa says drily. “You receive something good – and after that, what happened in real life, nobody knows…”
These last scenes are even more ferociously direct in their satire than his friend Zvyagintsev’s internationally acclaimed masterpiece Leviathan (2014). That tale of a stubborn man’s downfall at the hands of a tinpot tyrant mayor, Russia’s corrupt law and church and his own human flaws was made with Ministry of Culture money. It still managed to suggest wider battles with glimpses of Pussy Riot on TV, and framed photos of former presidents being used for target practice. “Got anyone more current?” someone asks.
Zvyagintsev presents himself as apolitical, and innocently declared surprise at Russian audiences’ howls of laughter and “hearty” cheers at the scene. He doubtless got away with it because of his patriotic status as “the pride of Russian cinema”, as local trailers for his 2008 film The Return declared.
Based and financed abroad, Loznitsa can go for the throat of Putin’s system. Still, this hasn’t wholly exiled him. He filmed A Gentle Creature in Latvia because its EU status made life easier, he says. “Otherwise, I can shoot this film in Russia with no problem. Probably no problem – I didn’t try.”
Whether such a critical film is seen in Russia is also an ambiguous business. “A Gentle Creature was more or less in Russian distribution. They didn’t forbid it. But it was a very small distributor, and 30 cinemas, not 500 as Andrey’s Loveless was. It’s a kind of self-censorship. But those who wanted to see it, could. And maybe it’s not good enough for Russia,” he says ironically. “I don’t know.”
Speaking to Italian directors a decade ago, when Berlusconi controlled most film funding, they told me they felt stifled in the work they could make. That must be vastly more true under Putin.
“I know from those who watch hundreds of Russian films that distribution of money has changed,” Loznitsa says, “with more control and censorship. But the quality and level of radical films is the same. At least on an amateur level, lots of interesting documentaries exist, and pirate internet platforms mean it’s difficult to control who sees them.
“You know, censorship is one side. On the other exists your artistic idea, which always fights any moral or limitation society creates for you. The artists jump for this artistic idea, and they don’t even think about these other miserable things!”
Loznitsa’s reputation was made inside Russia, as a leading light of the St Petersburg Documentary Film Studio. Blockade (2006) uses Soviet footage of the city (then Leningrad) before and during its terrible siege by the Nazis to viscerally reconstruct those desperate years. The Event (2015) also uses immersive footage of 1991’s failed communist coup against Gorbachev, exactly as Maidan does for the protests which ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Yanukovych.
His Cannes prize-winning fiction film In the Fog opens with documentary immediacy in a Belorussian village where Nazis march partisans past snorting pigs to be hanged. What follows is, like A Gentle Creature, a morally complex parable of fated lives. Far from being Russia-bashing, this is cinema, like Zvyagintsev’s richly if bitterly humanist work, which brings us sympathetically closer to its people.
Still, filming in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) as civil protests turned into a revolution against pro-Russian rule seemed a turning point for Loznitsa. Though narrator-free, its footage is intensely patriotic. “Oh, in that moment, I was completely with that revolution,” he agrees. “But I can’t say that Ukraine is seriously different from Russia. Because many people still have a Soviet mentality. I don’t think 40 years is enough, according to the Bible, to clean people from those roots. The disease is deep inside.”
After making Maidan, Loznitsa talked about the importance of having something that you’re willing to die for. Did he find his cause then?
“Ah!” he laughs. “Cinema! Art! Without that, you can’t do anything. I trust, believe and want it. I’m ready to fight for what I want to show and say with cinema. It’s not my weapon – it’s my disease! Because I prefer to put the question in another way. For what are you willing to live? I’m ready to live for cinema.”