Director is anti-war: film causes great outrage in Russia

Director is anti-war
Film causes great outrage in Russia

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A remake of the classic “The Master and Margarita” – which was made by a war opponent – is showing in Russian cinemas. Kremlin loyalists are horrified. They see the film as a “knife in the back of propaganda”. But that doesn’t bother the Russians: the performances are sold out.

Actually, from the perspective of conservative Russian patriots, it all started quite harmlessly: Mikhail Bulgakov’s literary classic “The Master and Margarita” was to be made into a film, once again. It was 2021 when filming started: Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine had not yet begun, but relations with the West were already extremely tense. Even back then, proudly presenting one’s own culture was very popular. The Russian state cinema fund had long ago promised to support the filming with 800 million rubles (8 million euros). Months before the premiere, the project was widely advertised in Moscow cinemas. But then the film was released at the end of January this year – and some people were shocked.

In the meantime, the war had broken out and the director Mikhail Lokshin, who lives in the USA, found words of support for Ukraine, which was attacked by Russia. In propagandistic Russian Telegram channels, Lokshin was now insulted as an “ardent Russophobe” and a “pro-Ukrainian.” The author Zakhar Prilepin, who is close to the Kremlin, complained that he felt “sick” about the state co-financing of the film. The chief propagandists on Russian state television were also outraged. Calls quickly grew to ban the film so as not to provide a stage for Lokschin, who celebrated his debut in 2020 with the Netflix production “Silver Skates”. But it was already too late for that: Russians have literally been streaming into the cinemas since the day of the premiere.

Moscow film theaters sometimes show “The Master and Margarita” ten times a day, and the performances are always sold out. The film has long since recouped its enormous production costs of 1.2 billion rubles (12 million euros). One reason for the enthusiasm may be that after almost two years of film lull due to sanctions, a lavishly produced blockbuster is finally flickering across the screens again – and it is also the film adaptation of many Russians’ absolute favorite book. But there is probably something else behind the success of Lokshin’s work: namely, that the director filmed Bulgakov’s masterpiece in a way that can certainly be understood as critical of Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s power apparatus.

Satire on Stalin’s censorship system

The original novel “The Master and Margarita”, which Bulgakov completed shortly before his death in 1940, is a biting and at times extremely entertaining satire on the censorship system under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The book is about a nameless “master” who wants to write a story about the biblical figure Pontius Pilate, but is not allowed to do so because of state-imposed atheism. The master and his lover Margarita then make a pact with the devil, who is wreaking havoc in Moscow in the form of the mysterious magician Voland and harassing representatives of the state apparatus. “The Master and Margarita” is not only a book about Stalin’s censorship, but was also a victim of it itself: the work could only be published years after Bulgakov’s death, gradually starting in 1966 – and only in an extremely abbreviated form Shape. It was released in its entirety in the Soviet Union in 1973.

Film director Lokschin has now woven both strands – the novel’s plot and the writer’s biography – together. The main protagonist, played by Yevgeny Zyganov, is a fictional master and historical Bulgakov in one. The result is a doubly dark work about state repression, denunciation and the resulting despair. The hunt against the master by his fellow writers at the beginning of the film is so clearly depicted that it is depressing to watch. In the more than two and a half hours that the film lasts and in which the master gradually loses his mind, the feeling of oppression is at some point literally palpable. Above all, many viewers see in Lokshin’s work not only the horrors of the Soviet past – but also parallels to today’s Russia. “The new ‘Master and Margarita’ is literally packed with up-to-date images and information,” says the well-known Russian film critic Anton Dolin.

German actor plays devil character

The devil figure – embodied by German actor August Diehl – reminds him of a “foreign agent,” he writes, noting that Russia’s power apparatus is currently branding more and more critics and opposition figures under this name. “The hunt for the master is a frightening replica of the mechanisms that have recently become normal in Russian culture,” Dolin writes in his guest article for the Kremlin-critical portal “Meduza”. He is probably alluding to the many repressive laws that have been passed since the beginning of the war. The supposed discrediting of the Russian army is now just as punishable as the depiction of homosexual love and other queer content. Many critical artists fled abroad. The fact that “The Master and Margarita” continues to run undisturbed in Russian cinemas despite all this is sometimes noted with astonishment.

The Kremlin-critical newspaper Novaya Gazeta believes the film is a “sudden knife in the back of Russian propaganda.” And director Lokschin himself, according to US media, described it as a “miracle” that his work came out at all during these times. Some observers explain this with the immense production costs that had to be recouped. Others point out that banning such a cult classic from cinemas would be an even bigger scandal that the Kremlin could do with anything but use shortly before the presidential election on March 17th. Either way: the Russians’ enthusiasm for the film has not waned even after weeks. And again and again there is even clapping in the cinema halls at the end of the screening.

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