Puppets and Angels in Aleksandr Zel'dovich's Moskva

Evgeny Pavlov, University of Canterbury

Aleksandr Zel'dovich's long-awaited film Moskva (2000) surprised many critics with its subtle yet crucial re-accentuation of Vladimir Sorokin's screenplay published five years prior to the film's release. While following the script almost to the letter, the film transformed what appeared to be Sorokin's trademark pastiche (M. Lipovetskij) into a visually stunning and theoretically intriguing allegorization of the post-Soviet subjectivity and indeed post-Soviet Moscow. The most essential aspect of the film is its reliance on ostentatious exteriority: as Sorokin himself explains in a post-production interview, "we wanted to look at Moscow with a non-human gaze. The gaze of angels, birds, or insects—don't know which... Our heroes are only ghosts to us. These six characters are some phantoms engendered by Moscow. And we don't know who they are in reality. On the outside they look like people, but nobody knows what's inside them." Phantoms, ghosts—and also puppets perhaps, if one recalls Rilke's Engel und Puppe, a fitting slogan for a certain mode of theatrical representation that decenters subjective interiority, splitting it into an ideality and a dead materiality.

Mark Lipovetskij persuasively suggests that Sorokin's screenplay views the political and cultural phantasmagoria of Moscow in the 90s in terms of yet another rebirth of the same old symbols of totalitarian language (Paperny's Kulture I/II binary the critic employs certainly proves a useful tool). However, the film resolutely shifts the focus from the signified and instead presents a melancholy display of signifiers that saves Moscow the multilayered and overdetermined text by declaring it a pure surface. In the final sequence of the film, the remarkably doll-like, autistic character Ol'ga contemplates the flame on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As the final credits roll over an angel's-eye view of strangely unfamiliar Moscow roofs to the sounds of angelic singing, one is left pondering the preceding exchange between Ol'ga and Lev (a remarkably golem-like character):

Ol'ga: And what is an Unknown Soldier?
Lev: It's a soldier who's never been. A memorial.
Ol'ga: And how can there be a memorial to someone who's never been?
Lev: Those who've never been also have the right to a memorial. Perhaps even more so than those who have.

This is allegory becoming literal, signifying, in the words of Walter Benjamin's Trauerspiel book, "the not-being of that which it presents." That the turn from the signified to the signifier accomplished here (and throughout) by primarily cinematic means opens up a whole array of issues—such as the film's visual poetics vis-à-vis the screenplay, and whether Zel'dovich finishes what Sorokin's texts always imply but never quite stage. My focus, however, will be on the tenuous relationship between Zel'dovich's theatrical allegories and traumatic memories with which the film is saturated. As the paper will argue, despite its coldness, this is a profoundly anesthetic film (and in Lyotard's terms, profoundly anaesthetic too).