Thoughts about Zviagintsev’s “Leviathan”

The last film that we watched in my Russian film class was Andrey Zviagintsev’s Leviathan. In the introductory presentation to the film, I talked about the Biblical stories that are heavily referenced in the film: the story of the primordial evil sea monster Leviathan; the story of Job, whose faith is tested through a series of misfortunes; and the story of Naboth, whose vineyard was wanted, and ultimately expropriated, by the king. We also talked about Thomas Hobbes’ book of the same title. Since we didn’t have enough time after the film to discuss it, as we did with other films, I was asked by my students to write up some thoughts on visual elements and questions I wanted them to think about. So here it is.

As with two other films we’ve seen, Cranes Are Flying and Autumn Marathon, Leviathan starts and ends with the same visual imagery: the view of the location of Kolya’s house, with the Barents Sea and the mountains at the background. The broad vistas and the accompanying music by the American composer Philip Glass help elevate the story of one “little man”, Kolya, to the level of an epic saga about individuals and the state, akin to Thomas Hobbes book. In this, the film follows in the footsteps of such greats of the Russian literature as Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev.

Kolya’s house (photo: Wikipedia)

In the opening scene we see Kolya’s house and the associated outbuildings taking a proud spot in the visual center of the film’s frames, just as it was the emotional focal point of Kolya’s life, his anchor in the rough seas of life. In the closing scene we see the same location, framed by the sea and the mountains, but now a newly built church takes up the exact spot where Kolya’s house used to be. No longer a man’s home, it is now a house of God. Or is it?

It is perhaps no surprise that the Russian Orthodox Church officials came out with a sharp critique of the film: the Church establishment is depicted in a very negative light. At the end of the priest, we the viewers become spectators of a church service where the bishop talks at length about “truth” and “faith”, but a viewer is left with an impression that there is little truth or faith involved in the operations of the Church. To be fair, Zviagintsev also shows a different type of Orthodox priest: instead of preaching, he acts to help the poor, delivering bread to them. To me, this juxtaposition of Kolya’s house and the church built where the house used to be begs the question of whether the Church now fulfills its original mission of spiritual guidance and support for its parishioners—or is it simply an arm of the State, like another tentacle of Hobbesian Leviathan. (Although Leviathan is often imagined as a huge whale, some accounts present it as a giant octopus, which to me is scarier than a fairly benign whale.)

The departure of the Church from its mission is further alluded to in a parallel between the plot and dialogue of the film and the Biblical story of Naboth. In the Bible, the king is so overtaken by his desire to have Naboth’s vineyard that he is unable to eat, sleep or enjoy life. His wife, Queen Jezebel urges him: “Are you king or aren’t you? Go and take it!” (In this, she reminds me of Lady Macbeth.) In the film, the role of “Queen Jezebel” is played by the bishop: he urges the corrupt mayor to wield power (and violence, if necessary) to enforce his desires by all means necessary. Worldly affairs, he says, are the domain of secular authorities, and it is up to the mayor to hold the reigns of power “on the territory entrusted to him”. Thus, the bishop gives the mayor the ultimate justification for his corrupt ways (“All power is from God”) and an absolution for all sins (perhaps even murder!). The earthly rulers and establishment of the Church are thus shown to have divided up the world but ruling their respective domains with equal cruelty and disregard for the bodies and souls of those ruled. (As I watched this film, I was struck by the cognate titles for the earthly and divine rulers: the mayor refers to himself as vlast’ “authority” and addresses the bishop as vladyka “your holiness”—in Russian, the two words share the same root. I’d never thought of that before.) The marriage of the earthly and divine rulers, their merger into a single terrifying whole, is further underscored by such minute details as the portrait of Putin in the mayor’s office and the bust of Jesus in the bishop’s office (which the camera focuses on): has Putin been deified through a “cult of personality”, not unlike that of Stalin? or has Jesus been reduced to an administrator deciding property disputes, punishing and promoting people in accordance to principles that are far removed from Biblical morality of “Thou shalt not…”?

Putin’s portrait on the wall of the mayor’s office caught my attention for yet another reason as well: it is shown to hang directly above the mayor’s head, where it is not likely to be seen often by the mayor himself. It is placed there for the benefit of those who enter the office to plead their case with the mayor (like Kolya’s lawyer friend does) or to take orders (as the prosecutor and the mayor’s two underlings do). The vertical line formed by the portrait and the mayor’s own head underneath it is a great visual representation of the “power vertical”, a concept that is crucial to understanding the Russian “Leviathan” (in Thomas Hobbes’ sense, that is the state). The entire state apparatus is aligned vertically, with Putin as the culminating point on top (and before that, Soviet and post-Soviet rulers, and even earlier, the Tsars). There is no horizontal organization of “checks and balances”, alternative sources of power, a real separation of powers, a civil society, or (as we see in the film) the separation of church and state. This vertical structure prevents the Russian state from being, as Thomas Hobbes envisaged it, a necessary evil required to protect individuals from arbitrary cruelty of other individuals and to arbitrate conflicting interests of different individuals. Instead, the state itself is the evil that individuals need to be protected from, if only there was any entity, besides blind fate, that could protect them.

Another episode with portraits, those of past rulers, emphasizes another characteristic feature of the Russian state throughout its history: every “change of the guard” is a mini-revolution. There is no clear set of rules on how one ruler, be it president, General Secretary, or Tsar, is to be replaced by the next one. Whatever rules are written down in the law can be set aside or manipulated by the rulers as they see fit. The same was true during the Soviet period, as can be seen by the changing titles of those who were the recognized rulers. (For example, Stalin was the formal head of state only from May 1941 to his death in March 1953; before that, he was “merely” the head of the Communist Party.) Even under the Tsars, the rules changed several times, nor did they lay out what is supposed to happen in all possible situations. (The uncertainty about the succession after Nicholas II’s eventual death is said to have contributed to the revolutionary events of 1917.) After a ruler is dead or replaced (with more or less violence), they are not seen as respected leaders who have done their best for the country, but as either a weak jester or an cruel strongman. In either case, it does not seem ridiculous to use a former ruler’s portrait as a target for shooting practice.

One final note concerns the visual imagery that caught my eye in the context of another film we watched in this class. Towards the end of the film, when Kolya’s house is being destroyed by backhoes and excavators, it is cleverly shown from within the house, which makes it look to the viewer as if one’s own house is being destroyed. The image of a former home, part of whose external structure has been broken down, reminded me of the scene from Cranes Are Flying, where Veronica runs up the steps of their building to find their apartment (and her parents in it!) gone forever. In both films, the partial destruction powerfully underscores that what used to be “home and hearth” is no more. But in Cranes Are Flying, it is an external entity, an enemy state (Nazi Germany) that causes the destruction with such impersonal means as bombs and artillery shells shot from afar. In Leviathan, it is not some foreign enemy but the Russian state itself that destroys all that was near and dear to Kolya and his family, by using far more personal and close-up machinery for the destruction. (The family too is ultimately destroyed, through the betrayal of Kolya’s wife and the adoption of his son, once Kolya himself is sent to prison.) I don’t know whether this allusion to a scene in an earlier film was Zviagintsev’s intention, a subconscious reference to a film that he doubtlessly had seen, or a pure accident—but in either case, to me this parallel poses a question of whether today’s Putin-ruled “Leviathan” of a country is what “our grandfathers have fought for”.