The New Positive Hero: Masculinity and Genre in Recent Russian Cinema
Symposium 2009
The Vanished Empire
[Исчезнувшая империя]

Russia, 2008
Color, 105 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Screenplay: Evgenii Nikishov, Sergei Rokotov
Cinematography: Shandor Berkeshi
Art Direction: Liudmila Kusakova
Sound: Gul'sara Mukataeva
Cast: Aleksandr Liapin, Lidiia Miliuzina, Egor Baranovskii, Ivan Kupreenko, Armen Dzhigarkhanian
Producer: Karen Shakhnazarov
Production: Mosfil'm, Kur'er Film Studio

Appropriately, Karen Shakhnazarov’s The Vanished Empire was released in Russia on Valentine’s Day. The film’s plot centers on a teenage romance between Sergei (Aleksandr Liapin) and Liuda (Lidiia Miliuzina) that has all the trappings of young love: awkward attempts to impress, thrilling kisses, and heartbreak. Despite this narrative focus, Shakhnazarov isn’t sending his valentine message to young couples. Rather, his cinematic love letter is addressed not to a home or a street—to invoke the Samotsvetoy song referred to twice in the film—but to the Soviet Union.


Set in Moscow in 1973-74, the film’s primary characters are college kids in their late teens, who lead absolutely typical lives: they live at home with their parents, attend classes, date, listen to rock and roll—albeit bought on the black market for exorbitant prices—and experiment with drugs and alcohol. Were it not for the film’s dense mise-en-scène filled with objects meant constantly to remind the viewer of Stagnation era sights and sounds, the film’s story could easily be transposed to any other teen flick produced in Hollywood, Europe, or elsewhere. However, precisely because the bulk of the film’s meaning is embedded in the objects that fill the screen and in the accompanying soundtrack, rather than in the plot, Shakhnazarov succeeds in conjuring up for his viewer a nostalgic visual and aural rendering of Stagnation-era youth culture.


Although public spaces and state-controlled media outlets continue to transmit official Soviet rhetoric, the intense focus on the personal, in effect, mutes these messages. For example, propaganda posters heralding the unity of the people and the party decorate city streets, but are passed by unnoticed by the young couple. Newsreels about the Chilean coup d’état of 1973 play to a packed audience assembled to see Leonid Gaidai’s classic comedy Ivan Vasilievich Changes Professions. While it would seem that the news agency has secured itself a captive audience, Sergei and Liuda are preoccupied. He thinks about how to make an advance; she, about how to resist it. In a third example, Sergei’s despondent grandfather watches Brezhnev deliver a televised report on the strengthening of Soviet foreign policy against imperialist nations. This short episode is flanked by a previous scene of students dancing to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and a subsequent scene of Sergei and Liuda kissing while Shocking Blue’s “Venus” spins on the record player. The foreign rock music—both the sound of it and its physical existence in the form of black market records—serves to undermine Brezhnev’s political speech: the so-called imperialist nations’ culture has already irrevocably infiltrated into the USSR. Moreover, the grandfather’s forlorn, almost comatose stare at the television, may be read as suggesting either depressive longing for the days of stronger leaders or, more probably, absolute indifference.


The film’s director, who has been at the helm of Mosfil'm Studios since 1998, wants to suggest that the Soviet Union crumbled not because of political policies, but because of the monumental influence of Western popular culture. In an interview published in Russia’s Izvestiia newspaper, Shakhnazarov said, “I am convinced the empire perished at the level of people’s personal lives, and not at all in the congresses and meetings.” He goes on to clarify that “it wasn’t the entry of soldiers into Afghanistan in December 1979 that played a key role in the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, but the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.”


In other words, values changed.


In The Vanished Empire objects symbolic of Soviet ideology lose their politicized status and acquire market value. Sergei and his friends steal Soviet history books and socialist realist novels from their families’ libraries in order to sell them and accrue enough money to buy a pair of Wranglers or a British rock album. These are the status symbols of these new times.


Shakhnazarov does not create the juxtaposition between official rhetoric and the growing materialism of everyday life in order to criticize, per se. The film’s tone is more of a lament than a condemnation. Like the film’s young hero, who learns to regret his immature behavior, and transforms from unreflective consumer into intellectual, Shakhnazarov’s imagined viewer similarly is asked to grow up.


Karen Shakhnazarov

Karen Georgievich Shakhnazarov was born 8 July 1952 in Krasnodar, Russia. He graduated with a degree in directing from the State Institute of Filmmaking (VGIK) in 1975. He has worked at Mosfil'm since 1973: initially an assistant director (1973-4), Shakhnazarov rose to director status in 1976. In 1987 he became the art director of the Start Studio (renamed Kur'er in 1990)—a subset of Mosfil'm—and by 1991 was also its Chair of the Administrative Board. Since 1998, he has served as the General Director and Chairman of the Board of Mosfil'm studios. Shakhnazarov has directed twelve feature films and produced eleven, many of which have received significant prizes at both domestic and international film festivals.

Filmography:

1975 Step Wide, Maestro! (short)
1979 The Good Souls
1981 Aromatic Tyres (short)
1983 Jazzmen
1984 Without Witnesses (short)
1985 A Winter Night in Gagra
1986 The Messenger
1989 City Zero
1990 For the Sake of a Few Lines (short)
1991 Assassin of the Tsar
1993 Dreams
1995 American Daughter
1998 Day of the Full Moon
2001 Poisons, or a World History of Poisoning
2004 A Rider Named Death
2008 The Vanished Empire

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