Balabanov’s Law: Cargo 200 (Aleksei Balabanov, 2007)
Throughout his short but prolific career, Aleksei Balabanov (1959-2013) produced an oeuvre – most famously his low-budget cult hit Brat (Brother, 1997) – that has been noted for its blend of societal critique infused with genre inflections, biting humor and terrific soundtracks. These features should not overshadow the versatile director’s most important accomplishment, namely the elaboration of a philosophy and worldview that are entirely his own – from the absurd, Beckett-like characters of Schastlivye dni (Happy Days, 1991) to the wintry, terminal landscape of Ya tozhe khochu (Me Too, 2012).
As is most explicitly formulated in Me Too, Balabanov had long toyed with the concepts of election and destiny: while a prostitute and a half-wit are “admitted” to a purported heaven through the bell tower of a church in ruins, a bandit and the filmmaker himself remain stranded to die of cold in the snow, outside the church. The allegory was almost too obvious in a film in which the director staged his own death (he knew he was quite ill and aware that this would be his last effort). Balabanov’s philosophy acquired its most compelling expression when, to the notion of election and predestination, he added arbitrariness, chance encounters, and random occurrences. Already in Brother, the hero, Danila Bagrov, kills some people while sparing others, or, conversely, displays excessive generosity, without apparent reason or rhyme. Nowhere perhaps was this combination of predestination, arbitrariness, and Slavic prodigality better articulated or more evident, however, than in the Russian director’s most astonishing film, Gruz 200 (Cargo 200, 2007).
Despite finding its inspiration in American horror cinema and Faulkner’s Sanctuary alike, Cargo 200 opens with lines stating that the film is based on real events – a clever gesture considering the abject nature of said events, set in a decadent Soviet Union on the cusp of Perestroika, i.e. a time of socioeconomic decline when anything was possible.
Taking place over the course of a few days in the summer of 1984, the film features a number of characters whose lives and fates are about to tragically intersect. The first scene introduces us to two middle-aged brothers: Mikhail, a debonair colonel in the army, and Artem, a professor at the university in Leningrad (he teaches “Scientific Atheism”), on his way to see their mother in the nearby town of Leninsk. Both brothers are decent, conformist, law abiding Soviet citizens. Though not old yet, Artem feels like he has grown out of touch with the youth of the day – to the point where his own son shows him no respect. Mikhail’s daughter, Lisa, introduces the two brothers to her boyfriend, Valery, a cynical young hustler who boasts a CCCP red and white t-shirt – as though the Soviet Union was already an object of hipster nostalgia.
Lisa needs to get up early the next day, so Valery goes alone to a club and picks up Angelika, a friend of Lisa’s and the daughter of another local dignitary. Valery entreats her to come with him to a place out of town, where excellent homemade booze is being sold.
At the same time, Artem’s car breaks down in the middle of the countryside, next to a modest farmstead inhabited by a weird community: Captain Zhurov, a silent, sinister man who points him to the house where live a middle-aged, ravaged couple, Aleksei and Antonina, and their Vietnamese aide, Sun. While the meek Sun fixes the broken car, Aleksei and Artem engage in a drunken conversation, wherein the host presents his project of a utopian commune, while also denouncing the shortcomings of the official, materialist philosophy his guest professes. Going against his supine disposition, Artem stands his ground and affirms that there is no God. Aleksei contends that if there is no God, then killing a man is of no consequence. Before the dispute escalates, Sun returns, letting Artem know that his car is up and running again. Too drunk to drive all the way to Leninsk, Artem bids his hosts farewell and returns to spend the night at Mikhail’s.
After Artem has left, Valery arrives to the farm, hoping to buy booze from Aleksei. Left alone inside Valery’s car, Angelika is ogled by Zhurov. She runs to the house, only to find Valery too drunk to drive.
Tragedy ensues, with a strangely smitten Zhurov killing Sun and abducting Angelika. Valery flees the scene at dawn and Aleksei is arrested, sentenced to death and summarily executed for Sun’s murder. Artem, convinced that his atheist worldview shattered Aleksei’s mind, is gripped by remorse that will lead the professor of atheism to embrace religion and the Orthodox faith. All the while, Zhurov tortures Angelika, including by bringing her the body of her boyfriend (an Afghanistan veteran flown back home in a coffin aboard the infamous Cargo-200, hence the film’s title), or reading her letters he retrieved from her parents. Indeed, as a model police officer, Zhurov is in charge of the investigation to find the missing young woman he has himself abducted and sequestrated. All the while, Zhurov’s mother, a heavy alcoholic, unfazed by the events – indeed, not seeing anything abnormal to having corpses under roof – watches television mindlessly. 1
As appears clearly from the synopsis above, the whole plot of Cargo 200 moves forward through unlikely meetings that feel nonetheless somehow preordained. Balabanov refines this device further by a deliberate system of repetitions with slight variations, often following a kind of trial and error pattern (say, Artem’s attempts to reach Leninsk, or Zhurov’s attempts to “please” Angelika). He pushed the device to the extreme in one of his best films, Kochegar (The Stoker, 2010), wherein chance plays an equally important role, and the destiny of characters is equated with their repetitive motions and perambulations. This robust philosophical and narrative system – Balabanov’s law – gives depth to the complex morality tale of shattered lives and the collapse of a whole worldview. Absurd humour and crude materialist brutality commingle throughout. Yet they do nothing to conceal a set of sophisticated ideas and patterns, buried deep yet throbbing beneath the fabric of pulp fiction and nods to the horror genre.
Even though it features little representation of media (as opposed to Brother, which literally starts with the protagonist intruding upon a film set, or Pro urovod i lyudey [Of Freaks and Men, 1998] which depicts the early days of pornographic cinema production),2 Cargo 200 is intensely reflexive: it pushes this tight interplay of predestination, arbitrariness and repetitive patterns to its limits, translating the very productive tension that exists, in filmmaking, between a master plan and narrative (the script, the shooting schedule, etc.), random chance (the contingency and imponderable factors of any filmmaking process), and the principle of repetition with variation (multiple takes of a shot).
This reflexive quality of the film shines through, also, in the allegories it instantiates: while an obvious portrayal of the end of the Soviet era (and the collapse of the discourse and ideology which at once held it together and caused, through its sustained inauthenticity, its putrefaction), the film also allegorises Putin’s Russia – through Valery as an oligarch in the making and a cruel, deadpan authoritarian regime wherein everything changed so that essentially nothing would change. Cargo 200 is also, albeit more indirectly, like Aleksei German’s Khrustalyov, mashinu! (Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998), a masterful film about Stalinism, whose terror is revived here: arbitrary trials and summary executions, a dreaded police force able to freely abduct, silence, torture and murder without any crime having been perpetrated by those the violence befalls, and a general sense of unease or outright menace penetrating the fabric of society.3
As for the failed utopia of Stalinism (and communism at large), it is reflected in the drunken project of Aleksei. The laying out of his “commune” project constitutes the diegetic centrepiece of Cargo 200 as a film à thèse, wherein one worldview is confronted with another – both equally utopian.4
But this conversation is merely the tip of the iceberg, as each scene is heavily informed by Balabanov’s dialectics of predestination and arbitrariness. This is clear in Zhurov’s random presence at the farmstead that fateful night, and the way he silently, ominously directs Artem toward Aleksei. Although Zhurov might be a controlling, trickster spirit, he too eventually falls victim to a random act of violence triggered by the circuit his own murder of Sun initiated, but which finds its roots far earlier – as the alcoholic mother and derelict environment of Leninsk attest – in Stalin’s post-traumatic heritage (a legacy, it is not useless to point out, that could still not be fully evoked or addressed in the 1980s).5
Which leaves us with the oft-raised question of violence in Cargo 200, decried for its abject representation of murder, rape and necrophilia. Balabanov took part in the Afghanistan campaign, and witnessed the social decay in the last years of the Soviet Empire. This alone would account for a psyche rife with dark and violent imagery. Balabanov himself claimed that Cargo 200, if anything, offers a less bleak picture than what he himself witnessed at the time. All that can be said is that violence in Balabanov is neither gratuitous nor in bad taste – which is remarkable considering the nature of said acts of violence. Violence can stem from blind chance encounters, and develop through an entangled net of association, as in a catastrophic Rube Goldberg circuit (but one wherein the itinerary can be alternated or shuffled). It is present, as a seed, in some individuals, even as they themselves do not impart it directly, and need a proper environment for the consequence of their actions to develop and for them to thrive. Though openly mocking any form of steadfast belief, Balabanov seems, in this sense, to propose a picture of evil that has immanent implications but transcendental origins.
Bridging the materialist experience with the mystical intuition and hypothesis, Balabanov was the post-Soviet Russian filmmaker par excellence: at once as a cult filmmaker, embodying individualism for a deregulated market economy, and as a master auteur with a genuine understanding of the world. No one, perhaps, better expressed Russia’s destiny and its people’s mindset following the collapse of the Soviet system. This clear, if tortured, vision contributed to Cargo 200’s sobering outlook while explaining, beyond its dark humour, its appeal and riveting rush of vital energy.
- Lengthy though it is, this summary does not in the least do justice to the complexity and depth of each character, nor to the incursion by secondary but important female characters in the film, such as brief appearances by Mikhail’s and Artem’s mother, or their respective wives, particularly Lika Nevolina, who was unforgettable as the blind woman enamoured with one of her torturers in Of Freaks and Men. ↩
- In many ways, Cargo 200 is a remake of Of Freaks and Men, with its similar abduction, abuse and rape scenarios. But Of Freaks and Men was set in the early 20th century, merely announcing the Soviet project, rising on the grounds of a decadent Tsarist bourgeois system. Cargo 200 is its post-apocalyptic, post-Stalin version, even as the menace in both films is very similar. ↩
- The imagery of such films about Stalinism as Vitaly Kanevsky’s Zamri, Umri, Voskresni! (Freeze, Die, Come to Life, 1990) is also present through Sun’s garment and his status as a near slave on the farm. ↩
- Aleksei echoes at once the stalker in Tarkovsky’s film, just as the actor playing him, Viktor Serebryakov, would reprise a similarly hardboiled and doomed man in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviafan (Leviathan, 2014). ↩
- While clearly an ironic, sarcastic critic of communism, it is noteworthy that Balabanov, unlike the maudlin and overly intellectualised humanism of Zvyagintsev or religion of art in Sokurov, takes no particular side. He remains an outsider with a staunch, individualist vision. While indicting the absurd godlessness of the Soviet system, he does not seriously promote an idea of transcendence or God (or another absolute, i.e., again, humanism). All the while, it would not be right to characterise the Russian director as a nihilist, or even a cynic. In this, Balabanov stands truly alone amidst the major auteurs of the 21st century. ↩