It was one of the strongest films at Cannes 2017: Sergei Loznitsa’s “A Gentle Creature”, about a humble woman who tries to deliver a care package to her husband incarcerated for some unknown reason in some unknown area of Russia and can’t find anyone to help her. The post office woman grumpily shrugs in response to her question about why her initial care package returned to her recipient unknown. A “kind” bully of a woman offers her lodging in the desolate prison town when she arrives, to lure her into a brothel. The prison administrator shuts the grate in her face. We are thrown into a dog-eat-dog world where humans have rough malevolent faces, with even worse characters, and each guards his or her own territory—whether post-office, prison or brothel--like a beast hoarding a bone. Along the “gentle creature”’s valiant journey to deliver her package, people abuse, scorn and ignore her with the greatest indifference. This is society reduced to its meanest integer of egotism.
What makes this grim Kafkaesque journey a thrill to watch, for the entirety of the nearly 3 hours, is the masterful orchestrated effect of each scene, as engineered by sound designer Vladimir Golovnitski, cinematographer Oleg Mutu, and of course, the highly accomplished director. The characters and sets are composed like a choreographed dance, the voices chiming together as if in chorus. In one memorable scene on a bus, the unhappy passengers push and jostle each other, each giving a hardened opinion about a recent accident in an ensemble chorus of cynicism. Upping the staged choral effect, the final act of the film is a nightmarish dream sequence which basically repeats the entire movie, like Wizard of Oz in reverse, with all the characters at a banquet, each “singing” some double-speak patriotic propaganda in favor of mother country Russia. The only person who remains silent in this corrupt universe—with barely a sound—is the nameless woman. Bravo to Sergei for his bold creative intelligence and his powerful denunciation of evil in the making.
I met with the director (and his interpreter) at Cannes to discuss. As I remembered, from our last interview seven years ago re his equally dark “My Joy”, the director had the most honest serious eyes, staring into mine with intensity as he spoke.
I noticed a choral quality in each of your scenes. Was this intentional?
Absolutely. These choral structures are very important for me. We are talking about the relationship between the individual and the state. My opinion is that authority and government does not just appear. It is created by the people and the citizens. It may sound as a paradox, but even in the most totalitarian regimes the structure of the power is democratic, because the power in charge is supported and elected by the people. In order to achieve anything and to convince millions of people to follow certain rules, it is essential that the people must be doing so willingly. As soon as people stop supporting a regime, the regime falls. It’s not the elite’s fault that things are bad. You can plug any single person from the underclass and put him at the top and he becomes as bad as the one in power. They repeat the same pattern. We see that in politics. In a totalitiarian regime, the regime rests on the chorus that creates it.
This is not your first film showing how horrible it is in Russia. Why is Russia, in particular, so bad?
I ask myself the same question. Why are people so passive? One really has to know the history and tradition of the Russian state. One very famous British writer came to the Soviet Union in the early nineties. He came to the Red Square looked around, and asked his friend a Russian writer, who brought him there: “What happened here? What happened to these people?”
The Russian writer responded: “Well imagine that in the UK at a certain moment in time, they kill the royal Family and the whole of the aristocracy. They kill the whole of the military elite. They kill, exterminate and send into exile all of the intellectual class, writers, teachers, philosophers. They exterminate the entire clergy. They exterminate the white collar left.”
The British writer said: “I get it.”
After the Revolution, in the years post 1917, there was such bloodshed in social engineering. We still feel the effects today.
What can bring any change?
Culture. Today, on a metaphorical level, the problem is very bad in Russia.
The worst is that I am afraid that culture can die. Culture can become extinguished. For any strategy to work it needs time. We do not have time, because of the speed of disintegration, which is getting faster. How can my own statement [my film] possibly be understood in that space? And this is the main problem. I have the impression that those who have the mental capacity to think are no longer there. The audience of the 1980s used to be critical. Nowadays it is not possible. The mentality has been transformed. Top level professionals are brainwashed. They are asleep and do not see things as they are.
Your film ends pessimistically: even the only good human—the “gentle creature” is now passive.
Yes. And in Dostoyevsky’s original story, which inspired my film, it ends with the protagonist committing suicide.
Yet your film is beautiful to watch.
(smiles). It makes me very happy to hear that. You are the first. No matter how dark and terrible, a film has to be aesthetically perfect.