A bracing Russian brace from “Let’s CEE,” Vienna 2018

Vienna: east of Prague, east of Ljubljana, east of Zagreb. While politically it may be unambiguously part of the West, in terms of European Union geography the Austrian capital is actually east-of-centrethe geographical centre of the transnational agglomeration being located somewhere near the obscure border village of Golzow (pop. 831) in rural Germany. Long a strategic crossroads between the halves of the continent, whether those moieties be Habsburg/Ottoman or NATO/Warsaw Pact, the city, has since 2012 played host to the Let’s CEE film festival, a punningly-named celebration of cinema from Central and Eastern Europe.

The seventh edition, which ran from 13-22 April this year, offered an eclectic overview of production from this vast area that stretches from Cheb in the Czech Republic (a short hop from Germany) all the way to Anadyr, near the Bering Sea in Russia. Most of that region is Russia⸻actually Asian Russia, to be precise⸻and the federation also dwarfs its CEE fellows in terms of population: just under 150 million, nearly double that of Turkey (which the festival’s programming encompasses, in addition to the ex-USSR countries of the Caucasus region.)

And despite Russia’s well-chronicled economic and social problems, the country has managed to maintain its position on the critically-esteemed higher rungs of global cinema. In terms of internationally-feted auteurs, Andrei Zvyagintsev (Leviathan, Elena, The Return) and Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark, Faust, Francofonia) are the most visible successors of the Soviet-era giant Andrei Tarkovsky. But there is no shortage of younger talent emerging from the conveyor-belt of directorial talent that is the Moscow film-school VGIK (Viktor Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography.)

In a land where crusading investigative journalists⸻especially those who concern themselves with the dodgy doings of local and national politicians⸻seem so often to be tragically “accident-prone,” it’s perhaps surprising, but also encouraging, that many filmmakers unflinchingly detail the grim dysfunctions that have come to define their post-communist, gangster-capitalist world. They often elect to do so in ways that are direct, brusque and darkly comic, following in the tradition of the outstanding Russian writer-director Alexei Balabanov (Cargo 200, A Stoker, Brother), whose sudden death in 2013 at the age of just 54 robbed cinema of one of its most distinctive and savagely brilliant voices.

His caustic spirit lives on in Suslin (b.1985) and Khant (b.1984), however, the pair providing the quirkily-titled twin highlights of Let’s CEE 2018. Suslin directed and produced Head. Two Ears, and shares the screenplay credit with his non-pro leading man Ivan Lashin. Suslin stumbled across Lashin in 2012 when he came to the village of Storozhevoye in the Voronezh area to film his graduation short Swindler. He cast Lashin, then working as a shepherd, as a lightly ficionalised version of himself. The collaboration continued with another short, Vanka Teplyashin, the following year, and then with Suslin’s feature debut Head. Two Ears.

Here Lashinonce again playing “Ivan Lashin”is abruptly (but happily) spirited away from his remote farm by a crook from the nearest city, who ropes him into a payday-loan scam. Based on actual events from Lashin’s life, the picture is built foursquare around his performance as the naive, almost supernaturally happy-go-lucky protagonist. It’s a brief affair, running just 78 minutes, with a slender, simple storyline: after the loan shenanigans come to a sudden halt, the clueless Lashin tries to eke out a meagre living in the unforgiving metropolis rather than head back to his stuck-in-a-timewarp village and the bosom of his ageing mother.

With the aid of cinematographer Aleksey Malinkovich and editor Olga Kolesnikova, Suslin builds and sustains a just-so mood of slightly off-kilter deadpan comedy with an inescapably melancholic undercurrent. It’s a idiosyncratic miniature which, having been selected at several international festivals over the past few months, should pave the way for Suslin to obtain even wider exposure next time out. It seems likely that he will maintain his collaboration with his unlikely star and muse Lashin⸻who enjoyed the limelight at Black Sea film festival Sochi last year when the film premiered. “I will not perform with another director on no account,” said the newly unemployed ex-shepherd: “I’m an actor of one director.” With a fair wind, this could yet turn out to be the most fruitful union of a skilled filmmaker and an untrained non-professional “actor” since Werner Herzog teamed up with Bruno S for The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek more than 40 years ago…

Khant, by contrast, managed to nab one of the biggest thespian names of the Russian film scene for his cumbersomely-monikered feature debut, How Viktor “the Garlic” Took Alexey “the Stud” to the Nursing Home. Stern-faced Alexey Serebryakov is best known to global audiences for his anguished lead performance in Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, the Oscar-nominated indictment of contemporary Russia in which he plays an ordinary bloke at violent loggerheads with the local powers-that-be. Serebryakov emigrated with his family to Canada in 2012, citing his wish to bring up his children far from the sphere of Putin’s influence. But returned home⸻reportedly waiving his usual fee⸻for Khant’s low-budget but strikingly accomplished road-movie.

The plot is summed up in the mouthful of a title: hothead, cash-strapped twentysomething Viktor discovers that his ne’er-do-well, long-estranged dad Alexey is still alive but paralysed and mute. Scheming to get his hands on his father’s apartment, he arranges to dump the inconvenient parent in a far-away institution. But at a certain point in the journey a series of mishaps results in Alexey miraculously regaining his facultiesmuch to Viktor’s desperate dismay.

A bracingly fast, violent film executed with frenetic brio in all departments⸻the soundtrack of swaggering, foul-mouthed Russian rap proves especially ideal counterpoint to the unpopulated landscapes which our mismatched duo haphazardly navigate⸻How Viktor… uses the techniques of mainstream, genre-oriented cinema to inject cliche situations with fresh and alarming life.

Impressively sustaining a truly berserk and unpredictable mood for the full 90 minutes, Khant and his scriptwriter Alexey Borodachev take aim at some pretty large and juicy targets as they lustily depict a dystopia of dog-eat-dog brutality. Crucial to the film’s success, and more than holding his own opposite the much more experienced Serebryakov, Evgeny Tkachuk scarily incarnates a dangerous thicko who’s taught a series of painful and belated lessons that take him to the jagged brink of adult responsibility. It’s a coruscating example of intense, movie-star charisma that stands comparison with the early efforts of Sean Penn and even the hyper-energetic heydays of James Cagney.

Neil Young
30th May 2018