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All about my motherland: war, time travel and the rise of patriotic cinema

All about my motherland: war, time travel and the rise of patriotic cinema

No fewer than four recent films have depicted contemporary Russians travelling back in time to the Forties to fight in the Great Patriotic War. Ilya Kalinin dissects the trend for vintage patriotism in cinema and the political motivations behind it

28 August 2013
Text Ilya Kalinin

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So begins LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, a novel which suggests that even your own childhood, recovered by a feat of concentrated memory, doesn’t belong to you. Memory, rather than reanimating the continuty of all it has preserved, actually demonstrates the chasm between the person doing the remembering and the thing being remembered. Striving to restore the broken link between different eras in fact makes us realise how fragile that link really is.

But still. The more intensively the world around you changes, the more you want to confirm your own identity, to moor it in the past. Eras of change are much more obsessed with the past than eras of stability. While periods of stagnation reproduce the present again and again, the historical grammar of periods of change is energised by the opposing poles of past and future. Social, political and cultural transformation is reliant on a redescription of the past that might allow us to throw the hated present overboard from the steamship of modernity. But that ship soon has to bear the bulk of the need for a new cultural canon that articulates a cogent national narrative. As the ship starts to go down under the weight of these demands, the cries to “stop rocking the boat” start getting louder. And at the moment the captain and crew finally realise that the only thing dictating the ship’s course is their own desire to stay at the wheel, their chief task becomes to convince people that the ship is at least moving. The passengers need to be entertained, and in the absence of the horizon of the future, they put up a screen broadcasting a multi-part historical drama (with appropriate political content).

The time-travelling soldiers who find themselves back in WW2 in The Fog (2010)

Thus the past becomes the main project of the future. And if the writers of the Soviet era, who Stalin called the engineers of human souls, forged the consciousness of a Soviet people whose task was to build a radiant future, Putin’s managers and marketing men work with the unconscious desires of a population who are buying that same radiant future (which never was built) packaged as the glorious past. There’s no such thing as gone-off goods if you know how to sell them. The trick is to invest in a trademark that guarantees demand and gives a return on investment. And that trademark is Patriotism, the label for a limited but instantly recognisable range of ideological products (“the core of Russian civilisation”, “our spiritual underpinnings”, “national unity” etc).

The place where this trademark is being most vigorously marketed right now is the cinema, which has become the chief venue for positioning the past front and centre in the public consciousness.

“The Motherland is one and the same, one and the same for all time”

If some teenagers decided to bunk off school and swap history lessons for a trip to the cinema, they would end up spending their money on the same thing they could get for free at school: didactic messages about World War Two, known in Russian as the Great Patriotic War — a war that today’s political elite, and the culture industry that serves it, has had some success in privatising to their own ends.

What our skiving cinephiles would hear over the crunch of their popcorn is this: “When I was a kid I used to fall asleep in lessons. It was boring. When he told us about the Great Patriotic War, the teacher kept referring to dates and charts and showing us maps with arrows on them. And only now do I realise that these were real people, guys and girls who were younger than me, who fought for the Motherland, who died for it, who died for us … Now I understand everything. The Motherland is one and the same, one and the same for all time.” Thus begins The Fog (2010), directed by Ivan Shurkhovetsky and Artyom Aksenenko, one of four films in the past five years to depict present-day Russians thrown back in time into the heat of (patriotic) battle.

The Fog

Was it worth skipping school for the sake of this revelation? In order to watch a squadron of post-Soviet homunculi in uniform pitching up in the past, in the first few months of the war, where they learn at first hand that it was “real people” who were fighting in the Great Patriotic War, and then, after this great existential revelation, to start speaking in this same official language of ritual emotion that the school teacher also used?

But still, what’s done is done, the schoolboys have ducked out of school, ignored some good advice to go and see Fast & Furious 6, and bought tickets for something Russian — something like The Fog, or The Fog 2 (2012), or We Are From The Future (2008) or We Are From The Future 2 (2010). There’s no difference really. In all of them some guys from the present day end up in the war, thanks to some mysterious portal (water in one case, fog in another). The Russians always think that the lads are deserters, the Germans think they’re ordinary Russian soldiers, and the partisans think they’re German spies. But they do have some advantages: the lads know the war ended on 9 May 1945 and that it was our side that won. Plus, there are plenty of pretty nurses and female partisans about. War is war, but lunch is still served on time, and so is the romance that the genre demands. And the most important thing is: none of this is in vain. After dodging bullets from both sides and fooling the SS and the NKVD, the guys head back to the future with a clear understanding that the Motherland is eternal and that she must be loved and protected from her enemies.

But these are schoolkids; adults have questions. We can leave to one side the usual rhetorical question about how taxpayers’ money is being spent. Especially as these films all have a financing structure that’s typical of contemporary “patriotic” cinema, with sponsorship from the state, from state-owned corporations and from private finance. The official sponsors of We Are From The Future included Aeroflot and Russian Post, who are gratefully and unobtrusively advertised in the first two minutes of the film. (The involvement of Russian Post is especially touching. Why invest in a sci-fi fantasy film about a journey into the past when any post office in the country functions as a real-life time machine, transporting you into the melancholic but calming atmosphere of a 1970s Soviet post office?)

Ekaterina Klimova as Nina in We Are From The Future

Nor would any of this be possible without the state TV channels and commercial channel STS, which together have shaped the format of this now dominant genre. Patriotic cinema has a simple formula: characters express their love for the Motherland by defending it from its enemies; the struggle against these enemies sets the scene for a romance; the heroes’ romantic attraction symbolises the positive values of unity; the unity of the national tradition triumphs over political feuds and social stratification. As the tagline for The Fog says, “The Motherland is one and the same for all time”. And the history of this Motherland is reduced to a continual reiteration of this mantra, filling our minds with a fog in which the present, past and future merge into one another, constantly producing a surrogate love for the Motherland that masks the real aim of this ritual — to instill a sense of loyalty to state power.

There is another important element to this patriotic format: the heroes of the reconstructed past must not be too different from the viewer. Many critics see the lack of differentiation between past and present as evidence of bad acting and sloppy directing. This is indeed true, but more influential is the way the past is reproduced by contemporary commercial culture for instrumental and political ends. This culture seems deliberately to say, “The past is the same as the present, just with old-fashioned gadgets.” Producers and directors who are towing the party line might add, “And even though they didn’t have fancy gadgets in the past, there’s still something we can learn from them: love for the Motherland and willingness to sacrifice yourself for it.” On-screen heroes and contemporary politicians both strive to create a sort of stylised vintage patriotism.

“The past is the same as the present, just with old-fashioned gadgets”

Continuity is stressed at the highest level. As President Vladimir Putin said to the Federal Assembly last December, “In order to resurrect our national consciousness we need to link together different historical eras and return to an understanding of this simple truth: that Russia did not begin in 1917 nor even in 1991; that we have a single, unbroken 1,000-year history, which we rely on for inner strength and a sense of national development.”

And who can do this better than filmmakers, who can embellish the sought-after strength and meaning with special effects? Some, like Alexander Sokurov in Russian Ark, might do it by shooting in one long take. Directors of the genre films under examination here, however, take a simpler, more effective approach: they exaggerate external, material differences in order to emphasise the inner unity of Russian history. Our ancestors toiled for the good of their Motherland; when possible they increased her borders; when necessary they defended those borders; they defeated her external enemies and protected her unity from internal enemies. And since they were just the same as us (except for their old-fashioned clothes) there is a hope, bordering on certainty, that this devotion is part of our genetic code.

We Are From The Future 2 (2010)

The director of We Are From The Future, Andrei Malyukov, who has been specialising in military action with a patriotic bent since the Eighties, said, “I try to show in my film that there is a link between eras … This film shows the interconnectedness of different eras so that the viewer realises for themselves what is precious in the present and that we have lost something precious from the past.”

And what, in the opinion of these filmmakers, are these precious things from past and our present? Our era offers the sleek sexiness of modern people and modern gadgets; the Soviet era has it’s patriotism and sense of sacrifice. Time-travelling into the past unites these values, making patriotism sexy and self-sacrifice technologically advanced and visually impressive.

We Are From The Future and The Fog and their sequels are essentially one and the same film, with the exception that, as often is the case with sequels, the continuation of the story pushes the premise of the original to the level of a grotesque. Not satisfied with solving the problems between different eras and different generations, We Are From The Future 2 and Fog 2 also seek to relieve most of the international tension that is so typical of the post-Soviet world. In both, Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians are once again brothers in arms, resurrecting the lost experience of unity. As has already been said, “The Motherland is one and the same forever!”

A longer version of this article was originally published in Russian in Séance.

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