Kirill Serebrennikov

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-Portrait, 1986
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By JOÃO LANARI BO*

An artist with an incredible capacity for production, for enlisting actors and actresses, for staging works of recognized talent, for working on top of the stars of the Russian artistic firmament.

One of the enigmas of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is exactly the decision to invade – what motivations led Vladimir Putin and his close circle to face such a risk? After eight years of the annexation of Crimea and the self-declared separation of Donetsk and Lugansk, the situation for Russia in 2022, despite the turmoil and costs, especially the external one, seemed manageable.

The reasons given in the heat of the invasion – ridding Ukraine of the Nazis, protecting Russian men and women in those territories – and the supposed perceptions of insecurity – NATO expansionist ghost, Western plot against Russia – seem rarefied, despite being reiterated by official channels . It was Vladimir Putin's military operation that led to the accession of two traditionally neutral countries, Finland and Sweden, to NATO, invalidating once and for all any remaining rationality in the conspiratorial arguments.

The fact is, the invasion happened, and the drama continues. Scrutinizing the justifications, speculating theories of strategic thinking that would support the decision, are nothing more than – that's right, speculation. The Kremlin's decision-making system defies scholars and Insider, not today. Running outside, a useful way to ascertain sensitivities and bumps can be, with due precautions, the observation of the comings and goings of what happens in the field of culture – more specifically, in cinema and in the relationship with power on the spot. O soft power culture is known to be an important item in the public relations battle underlying the war – one of the controversial facets that prevailed from February 2022 was precisely the automatic cancellation of everything, or almost everything, that referred to Russian artistic production.

For one filmmaker, or rather a multicultural producer, somehow got around these obstacles – Kirill Serebrennikov. Films, theater, opera, director of an avant-garde center in Moscow, LGBT activist and critic of the occupation of Crimea, Kirill Serebrennikov is one of those artists with an incredible capacity for production, for recruiting actors and actresses, for putting on stage works of recognized talent, to work with the stars of the Russian artistic firmament – ​​Gogol, Tchaikovsky, Chekhov, Nijinsky – and, above all, to remain alive and talkative.

He went through some good times: dismissal from the cultural center he ran, accusations of embezzlement, house arrest and a ban on attending the Cannes Film Festival twice – but at no point did his production slow down, to the point of raising suspicions of “protection”. of someone connected with the highest places in Moscow.

In March 2022, he obtained permission to leave the country – the first stop was Cannes, to present Tchaikovsky's wife, and vented: “"How can you not be furious about what happens when Ukrainians are dying from Russian bombs? When were cities erased from the map? When civilians are killed? How the hell can someone not talk like? How can I call this assassination a special military operation?”

 

Betrayal

The red-haired German actress, Franziska Petri, is the star who organizes (and disorganizes) the narrative of the thought-provoking thriller by Kirill Serebrennikov, Betrayal, 2012. Sometimes we are caught by surprise with the excessive theatricality of gestures and expressions, which can suggest an absurd tone to the eyes of the unsuspecting spectator. She, betrayed, ends up suffering with the death of her husband, and shaves her body with a subtle but sharp razor: at the funeral, she appears in a black, transparent and sensual blouse, and kisses her ex on the mouth, sensually. But she is cold: she is a cardiologist, she treats men, listens to their hearts. Suddenly, she runs through the snowy forest, finds a black bag with some rags, without hesitation changes into the clothes she found and leaves for a new life. Years go by: she sutured a passage of time, five years.

The plot is a sophisticated mix between the coldness of insensitivity and the sterility of emptiness. In an unknown, modern and impersonal city, it is not clear when, by chance, in the cardiologist's doctor's office, they meet. The meeting is accompanied by a short, cutting, direct dialogue: The doctor says: “my husband is cheating on me”; “I sympathize,” he replies, lying down and ready for an EKG. She concludes, without changing her voice: “he is cheating on me with his wife”. Those murderous words, right at the beginning of the film, set off a deadly vertigo, a veritable pantomime of death, whose references are, as usual, jealousy, passion, the thirst for love, the fear of loneliness. Betrayal, says the director, is inspired by real events. "We don't show murders in the film: sometimes a thought can be murder, and what's in the head can be worse - it can turn into reality."

Men, infantilized, are like slaves, submitted to the dictates of becoming. He, the patient who is confronted with the cardiologist's truth, is indecisive, doubtful, incapable of recognizing the obvious and containing the fleeting. In a country marked, as is known, by an exalted vision of the exercise of masculinity, a plot like Betrayal it's not trivial: the film, well received at the Venice Film Festival, aroused mixed reactions from the audience at home.

And it is no wonder: the description of the environment that generates this type of reception can be seen in the statements made by President Vladimir Putin, in 2019, to the Financial Times: “Liberals can't just dictate anything to anyone just like they've been trying to do for the last few decades... the liberal idea has become obsolete. It came into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” For him, gender diversity and multiculturalism cause the alienation of traditional values ​​– “more stable and more important for millions of people than this liberal idea, which, in my opinion, is really ceasing to exist”.

 

Vladislav Surkov

Enter one of the most refined and complex characters of the Putin era – Vladislav Surkov. Among other feats, he is credited as the architect of the “sovereign democracy” put into practice from the 2000s onwards – for the most loquacious, he would be nothing less and nothing more than the architect of “postmodern politics”. Democracy cannot overcome sovereignty, even at the cost of discarding certain freedoms. Elections are called, candidates campaign, votes are cast, ballot boxes are opened, and the same man wins, time after time.

To set up this, shall we say, democratic system, Vladislav Surkov took care to create political parties, some loyal and unconditional supporters, others false and true opponents. Add control of the media, the judiciary, recruitment of youth organizations… and the model of “administered democracy” took hold. More sophisticated analyzes saw in this strategy a cultivation of appearances to the detriment of reality, an emptying of contents to the point of social atomization, confirming society's inability to act politically, even more so in a scenario of traditional repression of social mobilizations.

In his deputy chief of staff room in the Kremlin, Vladislav Surkov hung, alongside photographs of Putin and Medvedev, images of Che Guevara, Obama and Bismarck, as well as John Lennon, Jorge Luis Borges and Joseph Brodsky. In these directions, his personality was projected: in 2009 he published, under the pseudonym “Nathan Dubovitsky”, the postmodern novel Okolonolia (gangsta fiction), something like “Next to Zero” (gangsta fiction appears written in the western alphabet). Nobody doubted that he was the ghost writer: his wife is called Natalia Dubovitskaja).

A text, for scathing critics, that oscillates between cynicism and pretense, fraud and murder, where the money always wins. Russian elites are corrupt, but even worse are the liberals who insist on freedoms and rights. In 2011, none other than Kirill Serebrennikov directs the stage adaptation.

 

Thermodynamics and geopolitics

It's no secret in Moscow that Vladislav Surkov, who always valued discretion, also appreciated friendship with artists, especially theater – which he studied in his youth. The demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is his favorite book (it is said that Vladimir Putin, as a teenager, elected dead souls). Kirill Serebrennikov, one of the leading creators in contemporary Russia, was one of the friends – a photo of the two at the premiere of dead souls, the Gogol classic edited by Kirill, reveals this convergence, so to speak. It was 2016: at that time Vladislav Surkov was Vladimir Putin's advisor for separate territories of Georgia and, hey, Ukraine.

In order to explain the Russian anxieties in relation to the neighbor, he elaborated a curious interpretation, inspired by the Second Law of Thermodynamics – if the law is correct, the “social entropy” must increase continuously in a given circumstance, because: “Social entropy is very toxic . It is not advisable to work with her in our home conditions. It needs to be taken somewhere far away, exported for disposal in foreign territory. All empires do this. Over the centuries, the Russian state with its hard and sedentary political interior was maintained only thanks to its incessant aspirations beyond its own borders. It has long been forgotten and probably never knew how to survive any other way. For Russia, constant expansion is not just one of the ideas, but the reality of our historical existence.”

 

Petrov's Fever

Petrov's Fever, the feature that Kirill Serebrennikov completed in 2021, is a dive into the Russian soul. “We all come from the overcoat” – the phrase is from Dostoyevsky, “the overcoat” is the famous text of Nikolai Gogol (who, by the way, was born in Ukraine). Modern Russian literature emerged there, between the tragic and the comic, the fantastic and the real, where everyone loses everything – especially their wits – and wavers between God and the devil. For is Gogol the literary matrix of Petrov's Fever: the title character is a comic book writer and eventual mechanic, who suffers from chronic flu – the narrative is constructed with all possible details of this flu-like condition, which seems to contaminate the atmosphere.

In the hallucinatory journey that we travel with Petrov, the causality we are used to in order to establish links to understand the plot dissipates: or rather, it is transmuted, like a genetic mutation that affects everyone. Petrov's wife, for example, acquires superpowers; the writer friend asks for his assistance in committing suicide; the son somatizes the parents' divorce with… more fever; and the dead man gets up from the coffin and walks down the street, which is always cold and damp.

The story leaks on all sides as it progresses, cracks that spill out fun moments and harrowing moments – with or without a cause and effect relationship. Lots of camera in hand traveling shots which represent accidental immersions of the extras in this microscopic odyssey in Petrov's feverish mind: traveling shots that can start on a given day and end a week later, with no apparent cut. “You look cancerous,” says a female passenger on the crowded bus Petrov boards on New Year's Eve. “It's just the flu,” counters our hero.

Soon after, the bus stops abruptly, Petrov is removed from the vehicle, given a rifle and forced to participate in a firing squad. Well-dressed men and women, in suits and fur coats, get out of a van, line up against a wall and are quickly shot dead. On the bus, passengers follow the scene behind the foggy and dirty glass. All of this takes place in less than five minutes: Petrov's Fever it stimulates an urgency of time, an immediacy that is never complete.

 

Tchaikovsky's wife

In February 2020, a presidential order determined the removal of Vladislav Surkov from his political functions. The theory of thermodynamics in international relations was exposed in an article published in November 2021. He insists that his departure from the government is irreversible, and that a year away from Vladimir Putin taught him “the true meaning of serenity”. In addition to political speculation, he writes poetry: he was seen at events organized by the magazine Pioneer. It was there that he published, in chapters, his novel close to zero.

In a recent interview, he said that Vladimir Putin, a modern Octavian, created with his help “a new type of state”: “Octavian came to power when the nation, the people, were afraid to fight. He created a different kind of state. It was no longer a republic. . . he preserved the formal institutions of the republic – there was a senate, there was a tribune. But they all reported to one person and obeyed him. Thus he married the desires of the republicans who killed Caesar, and those of the people who wanted a direct dictatorship”.

Kirill Serebrennikov, in turn, entered into a collision course with the authorities for programming a documentary about the anarcho-musical group Pussy Riot, in 2013, shortly after taking office as director of the Gogol Cultural Center. In February 2021, he received notice of dismissal from the Center by the Moscow Department of Culture. He spent years confined under house arrest, but managed to leave the country and now resides in Berlin. The son of a Russian Jewish father and a Ukrainian mother, for him Russia is destroying itself with its war in Ukraine: and domestic support for the invasion was the result of many years of terrible propaganda.

In 2022, he directed his most ambitious film work, Tchaikovsky's wife. Starting from a scenario out of social salons where characters speak French – Tsarist Russia – the film evolves into a dark and ghostly psychological thriller, full of shadows and curtains, suggesting that Antonina's passion for Pyotr could only succeed as a form of suffering, in the limit of perversion. The project had been turned down in 2014 by the Ministry of Culture: for the Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, there was no evidence to suggest that the XNUMXth century composer was anything other than a lonely man who could not find a suitable woman to marry. Tchaikovsky's homosexuality was a matter of state. Vladimir Putin, at the time, declared: “Tchaikovsky is said to be homosexual… truth be told, we don't love him for that, but he was a great musician and we all love his music. And?".

One of the film's financiers was Roman Abramovich, through Kinoprime Foundation. In Cannes, there was no lack of questions: Serebrennikov repeated the words of Zelensky, who asked Biden to postpone sanctions on the oligarch because “he could be useful in negotiations with the Russians”. And he added: “Abramovich literally helped Russian artists survive by paying for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s medical treatment in Germany.” Culture and democracy.

*João Lanari Bo Professor of Cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasilia (UnB).

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