Sunday, August 14, 2011

Russia Will Be Russia

Losing twenty million citizens in the course of a single war makes an impression on a country. It's not therefore surprising that Russia continues to come up with so many war films. The 1997, The Thief, isn't set during the war but nevertheless takes place in the context of the war. In one telling scene, the hero of Pavel Chukhraj's award-winning film, a boy name Sanya, asks his family's communal apartment roommates whether they had children who had been killed in the war. The father shrugs, as if to say that there's nothing about his personal tragedy worth commenting on: everybody in Russia lost their children in the war. Additionally, the film's plot makes sense only in the wake of the war. Sanya's mother Katya is a war widow; Tolyan, a war veteran, exploits his status, and the confusion of the immediate postwar years, to ply his trade as a thief and conman.

If the aftermath of the war provides the context for this twisted love story, Stalin's reign is never irrelevant to it. Stalin appears in communal apartment posters, statues, treasured souvenir portraits, tattoos, and drunken toasts. He is also indirectly influential insofar as his police state requires citizens, and even (or even especially) veterans, to constantly produce their papers in order to justify their movements.

More ominously, Stalin's presence can be felt when the Thief is caught for a small transgression and yet receives seven years in a Siberian presence. In one scene, mother and son await Tolyan in a crowd of women who hope to catch even a fleeting glimpse of their loved ones as they pass between a holding prison and a transport truck. As Tolyan emerges, he is forced to keep his eyes to the ground while moving quickly through what can only be described as a gauntlet of vicious dogs.

In the end, this is a film which, like Tarkovsky's much earlier film, that details the psychic pain Russian citizens have been forced to endure as a result of World War II. Katya eventually succumbs to her psychological wounds, and dies as a result of what may have been a "botched abortion." Her young son, in a scene of overwrought pathos, desperately tries to build a fence around her grave. Later, as if demonstrating that Russia's war wounds will never heal, Sanja emerges from his orphanage to enter a military career. In that capacity, the film shows Sanja facilitating the evacuation of Russian citizens (including wounded children) from some unspecified, war-torn, former Soviet Republic. Leaving this area, Sanja witnesses the summary execution of three men. Whether or not the Soviet Union exists, this film seems to suggest that Russia remains Russia.

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