Petersburg in the Films of Alexej Balabanov

Jennifer J. Day, Bard College

“The city is a terrible force (strašnaja sila) […] an evil force (zlaja sila).” So says one of the main characters in Alexej Balabanov’s 1997 film Brother (Brat) in speaking of St. Petersburg, the city in which it is set. Indeed, Petersburg is more than a setting, it is a force informing the action and characters in Brother as well as in two more of Balabanov’s films, Happy Days (Sčastlivye dni, 1992) and Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i ljudej, 1998). Shot in color, black-and-white, and sepia tones, respectively, Balabanov’s Petersburg films rely most often on images of unaccountably deserted streets, empty streetcars that appear from nowhere and have no clear destination, long shots of the city’s waterways, cemeteries, and suspect side alleys or courtyards. Along with interior settings that in various ways tend to call into question the very nature of “home” and habitable living space, such representations of the city resonate with the darker moments of the Petersburg text (myth) in Russian literature and culture, in which the viability of human existence in the eerie and horizon-dominated expanses of the constructed city is by no means assured. In keeping with this myth, place and inner spiritual/psychological space in these films are inextricably intertwined (as Annenskij put it, “krepko slity”).

In this paper I examine repeating motifs in Balabanov’s Petersburg as represented in the three films mentioned above. My aims are to identify and comment upon the most important allusions to the Petersburg myth to be found in the films and to provide an interpretation of Balabanov’s development of the myth in the context of 1990s Russia (although two of the films are set in the early twentieth century). Of special interest is the city’s role in the possibility (or impossibility) of an aesthetic and ethical approach to an existence that threatens to overwhelm the individual by its apparent meaninglessness. In this connection, Balabanov engages the classic Petersburg writers, including the arch-Petersburgian moral philosopher Dostoevskij, as well as Western existentialists such as Beckett. Of the numerous aspects of the Petersburg myth to be discussed in the context of these films, I will focus in most detail on the following: the city’s defining element of theatricality or spectacle (as formulated with regard to Petersburg by Lotman, and drawing upon Benjamin’s notion of city as schauplatz); the notion of the city as a “void” or a “point” (following Andrej Belyj); and the city as a great empyting force. I will use these bases to frame several questions that are of direct relevance for an assessment of Petersburg as a cultural and psychological power in the twentieth century, and particularly in the last decade: Does the individual have a moral responsibility to struggle against the city’s “terrible force”? Can he/she be held accountable for the ways in which he/she chooses to do so? To what extent can Petersburg’s traditionally ultra-productive reserves of creative inspiration provide an alternative to meaninglessness and inhabitability? Finally, how can Petersburg in this context be situated vis-à-vis equally enduring “myths” of Moscow and the West?