The Filmmaker Holding Putin’s Feet to the Fire

After helming the Ukrainian revolution doc ‘Maidan,’ Sergei Loznitsa is back at Cannes with ‘A Gentle Creature’—a disturbing portrait of contemporary Russia.

Matthias Nareyek/Getty

CANNES, France – It’s difficult to imagine a grimmer cinematic portrait of Vladimir Putin’s Russia than the one depicted in Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature, which premiered as a competition entry in Cannes on Thursday.

Loosely based on a Dostoyevsky short story, the film, which starts out naturalistically and gradually transmogrifies into a surrealistic political fable, recounts the horrific saga of an unnamed woman whose package to her imprisoned husband is returned to the local post office. When the distraught woman decides to set out on a journey to visit this man incarcerated in Siberia for a crime that is also unnamed, she finds herself caught up in a bureaucratic labyrinth. Abused by strangers and unable to elicit even a modicum of empathy for her plight from the authorities, she is the ultimate victim of an unfeeling society.

Born in Belarus, Loznitsa spent his formative years in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union and is usually referred to as a Ukrainian director. A Gentle Creature marks his fourth outing at Cannes. My Joy (2010) and In the Fog (2012) were also competition entries while Maidan, his critically acclaimed documentary on the Ukrainian Revolution, was unveiled as a “special screening” at the festival in 2014.

Loznitza is known for his political outspokenness, a trait that is on conspicuous display in the following interview. He needed little prompting to express his contempt for the Russian government, Donald Trump, and bureaucratic stupidity.

The review of A Gentle Creature in The Hollywood Reporter observed that many Americans will be surprised that the film, which depicts a cruel, even bestial country, is set in contemporary Russia, not the Soviet Union. Are you trying to say that not much has changed since the Soviet era?

Practically nothing has changed. If we’re talking about the system of governance, for example, there now exists a parliament that’s completely powerless and doesn’t make any decisions at all. We also have a president who is basically a placeholder—holding the place until the next presidential term while we await a real president. You’ll recall the previous period, in 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev and Putin swapped jobs; Medvedev wasn’t a real president. Everyone knew that Medvedev didn’t make any real decisions. You have a situation where there are fake institutions that imitate the function of genuine institutions. That’s exactly the situation you had in the Soviet Union.  There’s no respect for human rights.

Or the rights of journalists?

After laughing heartily, Loznitsa replies: A media exists that is allowed to print and broadcast—but only to the extent that they are controlled by a central authority.

And what did you think of the photographs captured by the Russian media of Sergey Kislyak cavorting with Trump in the Oval Office.

Any methods are allowed to create a scandal. In a way, this undermines trust in any political authority. It undermines trust in general. One has to be very clear about the ultimate purpose. If you haven’t read Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain, you should. She describes the process of the destruction of civil society by the Soviet Union in Poland, East Germany, and Hungary. And now the same sort of thing is going on in the United States. They want to destroy the electoral system and prove that anyone can be elected. It undermines the whole idea of democratic elections and proves that it basically doesn’t matter who’s elected. Evil has one basic characteristic. When it’s successful, any result works in its favor. You really can’t do anything about it, even though you should make an effort to resist it.

Do you the photos taken at the White House point to an attempt by Russia to destabilize the U.S. government?

You have to ask: Why was this photo taken? It was a breach of security. Who’s in charge of the White House and the government? It’s the president, who broke the code of conduct and did something that was forbidden. Every such action erodes respect for the president and the government. The president embodies the American system of government and this sort of mistake invites manipulation from the outside. What I want to know is: What did they buy Trump with? Of course, he doesn’t need money. But there must be something that they can offer him that he needs or doesn’t have. There’s something in his personality that allows him to be manipulated. If you recall, the secrets of nuclear warfare were revealed to the Soviet Union via the United States in the 1950s. If you read interviews with [the late American physicist] Richard Feynman, you realize that it wasn’t that difficult to do. He tells stories about opening his colleagues’ private safes and finding this information.

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You’ve remarked that you couldn’t have filmed A Gentle Creature in Russia. Does that refer to the film’s content or merely matters of financing?

I would have been able to shoot the film in Russia, but I wouldn’t have been able to finance it in Russia. This film is a co-production of five countries and two private investors. With each country that supported the film, there are spending obligations. We found a compromise and shot in Latvia. It’s eastern Latvia, which is populated mainly by ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. We shot in Daugavpils, a Latvian city with Russian architecture and all of the trademarks of a Russian city. But it’s part of the European Union and on European territory.

Although A Gentle Creature is based on a Dostoyevsky short story, the satirical jabs at Russian bureaucracy also recall Nikolai Gogol’s work.

Yes, absolutely. And not only Gogol—throughout the film, there are actually various references to many Russian writers from different eras. One example is the nineteenth –century Russian satirist, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. There are many manifestations of the same phenomenon from different eras. It’s a very rich mythological space. Russian filmmakers have a huge pool of references that they can use for inspiration. There are also musical inspirations—the work of Shostakovich, for example.

And cinematic references?

There are many references to Hitchcock. The opening doors can be considered a tribute to Vertigo. And the scene in the beginning where the heroine is dressing is reminiscent of the opening of Psycho. And the rape scene is a direct quotation from the great Russian director Aleksei German’s film, Khrushtalyov, My Car!

The female representative of an organization promoting human rights is depicted as farcically ineffectual. Is this your commentary on actual NGOs in Russia?

It definitely reflects what I think about the work done by such organizations. There are no independent social or civil organizations in Russia today. There was a law passed a few years ago that required any human rights organization or NGO operating in Russia to be registered as a foreign agent. You could say that the passage of this law castrated these organizations. Or perhaps they castrated themselves. There’s a code of conduct concerning what these groups can or cannot do; no one can overstep the boundaries established by the authorities. A couple of years ago, one of these organizations wanted to screen Maidan, my film on the Ukrainian uprising. Soon after, they came back to me and said there was a change of plan and they wouldn’t be able to screen the film. They told me that it wasn’t the right time to screen the film and Maidan was never screened. So it’s difficult for me to see these groups as real human rights organizations!

You were born in Belarus and we hear in the U.S. that the human rights situation in that country is even worse.

I only spent six months of my life in Belarus. I feel that Belarus these days is a kind of experimental laboratory for Russia. From an economic vantage point, they’re completely dependent on Russia. Politically, they’re also extremely dependent on Russia. This summer, when Russian troops might enter Belarus, this dependence could in fact be formalized.

Getting back to Maidan, do you feel completely pessimistic about the situation in Ukraine?

Unfortunately, the war is still going on. There haven’t been any breakthroughs. The power structure remains the same. But the people who made the revolution in Ukraine remain the same. Their passion remains—and this is the only factor that prevents the authorities from completely reverting to corruption. My only hope lies with the Ukrainian people. Once the process of change has started, it’s impossible to stop it.