Posts Tagged ‘Russian film’

Witnesses (2017) Svideteli **** Russian Film Week 2018

Dir.: Konstantin Fam; Cast: Oksana Fandera, Filipp Yankousky, Mariya King, Lenn Kudrjawski, Uliana Elina, Vyacheslav Chepurchenko; Russia/Belarus/Czech Republic/France/Poland/Israel 2017, 100 min.

Konstantin Fam’s drama debut is a trilogy of short films, shot between 2012 and 2017, its intertwined structure featuring human protagonists and mute witnesses of the Holocaust. This is probably the first major Russian feature concerning itself with Russian Jewish victims of the Shoah, since the topic was one of the taboos during Stalinism. Impassioned and powerful, it manages to avoid dramatics, concentrating on the details of the tragic events. 

Shoes (Tufelki) is set in a small Russian town, featuring its characters from the knees downwards. The titular female shoes, optimistically coloured red, belong to a woman who will end up in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Her shoes are now in the Museum of the former Camp, picked from a mountain of abandoned footwear. The camera traces her life through the other shoes she encounters: the happy shop owner who gives her the shoes for free; the little shoes of her daughter; and then the military boots of the German invaders, forcing her into an overloaded cattle truck. And then the military shoes of the German guard, who, we are left to surmise, closes the gas chamber hermetically. Devoid of dialogue, just background noise, and symphonic music, creating an eerie ballet. 

Brut (Brutus) features the young shop owner of the first episode, Rozanna (Fandera), who is given a German Shepherd dog by her husband. The cute puppy develops into a loveable pet, but after the German army arrives, Jews are not allowed to have pets any more. Horst (Yankousky) an outwardly harmless looking SS man, with a model family, takes Brutus away, and Rozanna is forced to surrender “her only friend”. Horst trains the friendly Brutus to be a ‘killer dog’, but when the soldier is transferred to a Concentration Camp, he meets Rozanna, again but strangely fails to recognise her. In a bid to escape, Rozanna is then shot by Horst, but Brutus recognises Rozanna. This is in many ways the most cruel of the episodes, because Horst tries to transfer his murderous instincts to a defenceless animal, whose true nature survives, in spite of everything.  

Violin (Skrypka) chronicles the instrument’s history. First given to a Jewish boy by his father in early 1930s Nuremberg, the violin ends up in contemporary New York. We discover why a Swastika is stamped inside the instrument, in a concentration camp where an officer is asked by his superior “to gather the best musicians for the Camp Orchestra”. Finally through a bizarre series of events, the violin is played at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, perhaps a rather conciliatory ending, but an inventive Holocaust story that plays a thoughtful and plangent tune.

Kam’s (unplanned) structure works very well throughout, showing the various ways in which silent witnesses can bring a message from the past for all of us. Fam avoids any didactic lectures, and concentrates on the small details, which can make such a difference. The DoPs (too many to name), create a convincing  atmosphere; Shoes in particular is highly innovative and hauntingly captures our imagination. Witnesses never tries to be sentimental – but makes an extraordinary emotional impact: demonstrating the wilful distraction of the world of ordinary people.


Putin’s Witnesses (2018) *** Karlovy Vary 2018 | Best Documentary Winner

Dir: Vitaly Mansky | Doc | Latvia/Switz/Czechia | 102’

On New Year’s Eve 1999 the former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, became president of Russia. In his latest offering the exiled documentarian Vitaly Mansky (Truba) threatens to blow the lid on his own entente cordiale in a film that gives intimate and unprecedented acces to Putin himself and other protagonists on the Russian Political scene including Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin, who chose the ambitious 47-year-old politician as his successor.

Ukrainian-born Vitaly Mansky bases his film on witness accounts of the events that happened in the years following that fateful day in December, perhaps the most important moment in 21st century Russian history. Making his presence known both behind and infront of the camera as he relaxes with his wife (who openly admits her hatred of Putin) and kids durimg the New Year holidays, the filmmaker offers his own telling perspective on the current man behind the iron mask who is seen delivering red roses and a hug to his former teacher and giving his own personal take on the responsibilities of being a president, while being driven to his private gym: “you have to create a world which you are happy to live in..and not hang you head in shame..when your term of office is over”. Throughout  all this bonhomie and bumfluffery, Putin smiles but remains cold-eyed.

During their voluble encounters, Mansky probes the president on his decision to restore the Soviet anthem and his reasoning behind doing appears candid and unguarded in a film that allows this entertaining expose to speak for itself. This is not about the here and now but how it all came about and throughout a sinister soundtrack signals doom and bleak resignation. At one point a sick and bloated Yeltsin puts a call through to Putin to congratulate him on his victory only to be told that Putin will ring him back. He never does. Although Mansky seems keen to humanise the whole affair, Putin’s glare never really melts, although he cracks the odd fake smile. He is man who plays his cards close to his chest, and we can see all see through the charm offensive. Mansky’s final words offer a chilly takeaway:  “Tacit consent turns witnesses into accomplices” MT








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