Balabanov’s Moral Universe
Filmmaker Alexei Balabanov leaves behind a legacy of some of Russia’s most morally ambivalent films.
Published: May 29, 2013 (Issue # 1761)
Oleg Belyaev / Wikicommons
Alexei Balabanov on the set of his 2008 film ‘Morphia,’ which was based on the writings of Mikhail Bulgakov.
On May 18, Alexei Balabanov, undoubtedly one of the most intriguing directors to have come into prominence in post-Soviet Russia, died at age 54. Most famous for his cult gangster films, particularly the Brother series, Balabanov’s other films often dealt with complex subject material though the director once claimed “ideas make for bad cinema.”
“Rarely have the art house and the genre film merged so successfully as in Balabanov’s work,” said Andrei Rogatchevski, Senior Lecturer in Russian Cinema at the University of Glasgow, in an interview with The St. Petersburg Times.
Balabanov is best known for two films: “Brother” (Brat, 1997) and “Brother 2” (Brat 2, 2000). Both were very much movies of their time as they were released at the end of the turbulent 1990s. The films featured Sergei Bodrov Junior as Danila Bagrov, a veteran of the Chechen War who moves to St. Petersburg and later to Moscow, rapidly becoming involved in power struggles within the mafia.
The films are unflinching in their portrayal of the criminality that was rife in 1990s Russia, as well as in their warnings against succumbing to outside influence. In “Brother 2,” Sergei Bodrov Junior’s character travels to the United States, where he discovers that things are as bad, if not worse, than in Russia. The theme that Western culture has little to teach Russia recurs in “War” (Voina, 2002), a film in which the naivety of a British actor caught up in the Chechen conflict makes the lives of those around him significantly worse.
Although the Brother series are Balabonov’s most famous films, they cannot be considered typical of his style. In fact, defining a “typical” Balabanov movie would be a difficult task,considering the diverse material the director drew from in the course of his career.
His first two films, “Happy Days” (Schastlivye Dni, 1991) and “The Castle” (Zamok, 1994), were inspired by the works of Samuel Beckett, while later films were strongly influenced by Mikhail Bulgakov. “Of Freaks and Men” (Pro Urodov I Lyudey, 1998) has strong parallels with “The Master and Margarita,” as both deal with the arrival of a German stranger to the Russian capital who turns the lives of everyone around him upside down. “Morphia” (Morfiy, 2008) has an even more direct link to Bulgakov’s work as it is based on “Notes of a Young Doctor” — memoirs of the author’s time as a doctor in rural Russia.
Balabanov’s final film, “Me Too” (Ya Tozhe Khochu, 2012), drew on the work of past auteurs, and can be seen as a sardonic homage to Andrei Tarkovsky’s renowned science-fiction film “Stalker” (1979). More than this, it represents a rare example of moralizing in Balabanov’s filmography. According to Rogatchevski, this shows that the director was aware that his career was approaching its end. “It reveals the director’s fear that his art might not survive the test of time,” he said.
Balabanov was born in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), but moved to St. Petersburg in the mid-1990s. His films were often set in the city, which he tended to portray as a place of corruption and fear beneath its beautiful exterior. In “Brother,” Danila arrives in the city and admires the sights, visiting Palace Square and the Bronze Horseman and walking along the Griboyedev Canal, before entering the nightmarish criminal underworld.
The disparity between the superficial beauty of St. Petersburg and its darker underbelly is emphasized even more in “Of Freaks and Men.” Gorgeous sepia-tinted shots of the mansions owned by the city’s elite and boat rides along the canals provide a stark contrast to the sordid lives of the film’s protagonists. Balabanov always considered himself to be outside the mainstream of Russian cinema, highlighted in the way his films treat St. Petersburg and, to a lesser extent, Moscow.
Balabanov was a unique figure in Russian cinema, and certainly one of the most interesting directors in the post-Soviet film industry. His films spanned a wide variety of different genres, each of which he dealt with in his own way. Although his films were often bleak, viewing tsarist, communist and post-Soviet society in an unrelentingly negative light, they never lacked ideas.