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Tales of grim: Seth Graham on the dark side of Russian cinema

Tales of grim: Seth Graham on the dark side of Russian cinema

Sombre depictions of the bitter realities of life came to prominence in late-Soviet cinema. And never went away. Seth Graham investigates the chernukha phenomenon

18 January 2013
Text Seth Graham

I first visited Russia in 1989, when it still went by its married name, the Soviet Union. Natasha, our guide, knew I studied the language, and she asked me if I watched Soviet movies. I was embarrassed to admit that I had seen a total of one: the classic 1975 Sovromcom The Irony of Fate. I vowed to remedy the gap in my cultural literacy. Not a huge fan of the American layman’s Russian cinema, with its cerebral Eisensteins and ponderous Tarkovskys, and just past my teens, I sought out new films with contemporary settings and young characters. Vasily Pichul’s Little Vera (1988) seemed like a good place to start. This glasnost blockbuster was touted as the first Soviet teen sex romp, but with a measure of the intellectual substance we had come to expect from eastern bloc cinema.

Sure enough, there was a 30-second sex scene. And some breasts. And sarcastic teenagers giving their parents grief. But mostly there was pervasive, abject despair, raw aggression, and physical degradation of both bodies and infrastructure. The plot begins and ends well for no one. An outdoor disco party is brutally broken up by police with truncheons. Vera’s truck-driver father drunkenly stabs her new husband, who nonetheless moves back in with his in-laws after agreeing not to press charges. At one point, Vera attempts to kill herself with sleeping pills and vodka. In the film’s final shot, her father quietly dies of a heart attack while drinking alone in the family’s tiny, grungy kitchen. He meekly cries out for his wife and daughter, but they do not hear him. Fade to black, roll credits.

Chernukha films draw from common features: dirty apartments, littered courtyards, urban streets at night, beer bars and off-licenses, police stations, prisons, and hospitals”

This was my first encounter with a type of filmmaking that has come to be called chernukha, a term derived from the word chernyi (black), plus the pejorative suffix –ukha. It is an etymological cousin of the older term ochernenie, “blackening”, as in “blackening of Soviet reality”, a charge levelled by the state against cultural producers whose representation of life in the USSR was insufficiently positive. And of course, that was largely the point of chernukha: to expose Soviet social reality as brutish and hopeless. Chernukha cinema was born of a particular cultural and historical moment, the late-1980s and early-1990s, when Soviet ideology — and Soviet censorship — was on its deathbed.

Films to which the label has been applied, however, continue to be released long after Mikhail Gorbachev became a pensioner. Chernukha films then and now draw from a common reservoir of visual and thematic features: dirty, crowded apartments, littered courtyards (populated by feral dogs or cats), urban streets at night, beer bars and off-licences, police stations, prisons, and hospitals. Characters live either in urban isolation or with other members of a truncated (motherless, fatherless, or childless) family. Alcoholism or drug addiction is de rigueur, as is a general atmosphere of cruelty: physical violence and frequent, unpredictable shouting and arguments. Bodies are commonly deformed by injury or illness, either before the narrative begins or during it. Sex is represented most often as rape, though never acknowledged as such in the narrative.

Of central importance to such filmmaking is an emphasis on “naturalism”. In a sense it is a counterpart to melodrama. If melodrama features an abundance of emotional expressionism, then chernukha can be seen as a sort of naturalistic inversion of melodrama, in which concentrated emotionality is replaced by concentrated physicality. Yet, unlike melodrama, chernukha is not a genre. Nor is it an aesthetic or ideological movement, like Italian Neo-realism or Dogme 95. There is no chernukha manifesto. Like “punk” and “queer”, the term chernukha was first used by its detractors, but its advocates — if there ever were any — have never tried to reappropriate the term. If anything chernukha started out as an anti-genre, its deliberate pessimism and shoddy production encapsulating the crumbling of the Soviet film industry, with its strict genre system and generous state subsidies. Chernukha was then, in form and content, the most concentrated visual incarnation of de-Sovietisation.

As such, it has been the centre of longstanding debates, as film critics, professionals, and viewers have argued for more than twenty years about chernukha’s causes, effects, and possible antidotes. The polemics have largely mirrored the major sociopolitical debates about the post/anti-Soviet project itself. Can you be too critical? Is anything sacred? Can the “diseased” parts of the social organism be identified and surgically removed without killing the whole organism? In 1997 a leading film journal editor opened a roundtable on chernukha by warning of its dangerous dominance: “In recent years, a singular tendency has held sway, a tendency towards catastrophe, rejection of the future, and negative interpretation of the present, a tendency that is essentially and functionally repressive in relation to all other value systems.”

This concentrated pessimism has been crowded out following the rise of Putinism, which was accompanied by more stable social institutions, a dependable market for genre-based popular Russian cinema, and fresh government funding for more optimistic portrayals of society. But, nonetheless, the chernukha impulse has not gone away.

Alexei Balabanov’s 2007 film Cargo 200 is probably the starkest latter-day example, although the film’s clear nods to genre cinema are also a sign of how Russian filmmaking has changed. Balabanov sets his movie in a bleak, industrial Soviet town circa 1984. What initially appears to be a story about a young rock fan and a girl he picks up at a club takes a sharp turn towards the thriller after she is kidnapped by a psychotic police officer when they stop to buy some homemade vodka. There are few of the expected horror film elements, however, and none of the mollifying safety and escapism of a kitschy genre picture. The theme of atheism versus faith runs through the plot, as does the on-going and bloody Soviet occupation of Afghanistan: the term “cargo 200” refers to the transportation of those who died in the war (the girl discovers, in the grisliest possible fashion, that her boyfriend has been killed in action). The matter-of-factly ghoulish third act of the film, the details of which I will spare you here, suggests that the “anti-aesthetic” DNA of chernukha has made a lasting contribution to Russian film art.

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