Editor’s note: In memoriam of Aleksei Balabanov, a filmmaker known for his dark take on post-Soviet Russia, BAM presents ‘Of Freaks and Men: The Films of Aleksei Balabanov’ Dec 3 – Dec 10, 2013. The series are a part of TransCultural Express: American and Russian Arts Today, a partnership with the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund to promote cultural exchange between American and Russian artists and audiences.
Arguably the most radical, defiantly uncompromising Russian director to emerge since the collapse of communism in that region, Aleksei Balabanov, who died suddenly this year at age 54, captured the Wild West atmosphere of the post-Soviet era in movies that oozed with caustic irony, macabre humor, and outré violence. Moving between offbeat experimental works and more mainstream, but equally personal, genre films, Balabanov—already a cult sensation in Russia—is ripe for (re)discovery.
DEPESHA presents a few of the select works from ‘Of Freaks and Men: The Films of Aleksei Balabanov’ program that have helped Balabanov gain international acclaim:
Shot in grainy, expressive black and white, Balabanov’s striking narrative debut is a freewheeling, disorienting head-trip adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist stage work. Just released from the hospital where he received a mysterious brain operation, an unidentified man (Sukhorukov) roams the streets of St. Petersburg in search of a place to stay, encountering a panoply of hostile weirdos and bizarre situations along the way.
Balabanov offers this characteristically eccentric take on Kafka’s unfinished novel, which tells the absurdist allegory of a land surveyor (Stotskiy) who attempts to infiltrate the seemingly impregnable, highly bureaucratic castle that exerts a palpable influence on his everyday existence. The director’s second feature is a swirl of surrealistic imagery with a distinctly Bruegel-influenced aesthetic, featuring a score by the pioneering experimental cult musician Sergey Kuryokhin.
In this perverse and fascinating black comedy set in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg, a pair of ruthless, sinister pornographers overturn the lives of two families, exploiting them sexually and emotionally. Beautifully shot in aged-looking sepia tones, this unsettling, eccentric fable uses alcoholic Siamese twins, kinky housemaids, and Victorian-era S&M to chronicle the invasion of modernity on Russian life. “A sustained off-color joke directed with high visual style.” – The New York Times
In 1917, young medic Mikhail (Bichevin) arrives at a remote rural village to begin his practice—but quickly succumbs to a crippling morphine addiction, as the Bolshevik Revolution rages on in the background. Based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s short story collection A Country Doctor’s Notebook, Morphia is Balabanov’s hellish, savagely funny vision of societal and personal breakdown rendered in remarkable period detail.
Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre transposed to 1980s USSR, Balabanov’s Rotterdam Film Festival prize-winning ultra-nightmare Cargo 200—based, chillingly, on a real incident—is a grim, sickly funny horror-show commentary on the Soviet era. In the gloomy industrial wasteland of Leninsk, a motley group of strangers stumble upon a remote bootlegger’s cabin. What ensues is an utterly horrifying display of depravity perpetrated by a sadistic police captain (Poluyan). Strong, and completely riveting stuff.
After being released from the army, music-obsessed Danila (Bodrov Jr.) heads to St. Petersburg in search of his older brother, who swiftly inducts him into a violent criminal underworld. Taking to his new job as a hit man like a duck to water, Danila is part thug, part avenging angel—a criminal with a half-formed conscience who lives by his own primitive code of ethics. Balabanov’s “terrifically stylish” (The New York Times) breakout commercial hit was an enormous success in Russia, capturing the sick soul of post-Soviet youth in grimy detail.
Tarkovsky meets Kaurismäki in this dark, deadpan riff on the revered filmmaker’s 1979 sci-fi film Stalker. A ragtag gaggle of thugs, punk rockers, and societal outcasts embark on a pilgrimage to a mystical “Bell Tower of Happiness” in search of enlightenment. “As intoxicatingly uncompromised and bracingly direct as a treble of straight Stolichnaya…” (The Hollywood Reporter).
Images courtesy of Intermedia Agency. Film trailers courtesy of CTBFilm.