Cinema as Spiritual Literature: Andrey Zvyagintsev Discusses Leviathan (Web Exclusive)
by Michael Guillén
A recent New York Times feature drove home the point that Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, recipient of the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes, winner of a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and an Oscar nominee in the same category, is considerably less beloved in Zvyagintsev’s Russia. Instead of basking in the glory of an internationally lauded filmmaker’s critical triumph, many Russians believe that that Leviathan merely affirms the West’s dim view of their homeland. This parable of an auto mechanic’s battle with corrupt local authorities—particularly a despotic mayor— determined to seize his property has been almost universally interpreted as an allegorical portrait of Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic regime. As Louis Menashe observed in our Winter 2014 issue, “[U]njust or even illegal property seizures backed by skewed court rulings are hardly unknown in all societies, but the goings-on here have a particularly Russian, post-Soviet flavor. Corruption is unmolested by an unholy alliance of church and state.”
Born in Siberia, Zvyagintsev was an obscure theater and television director until The Return (2003) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Hailed as an heir to Andrei Tarkovsky, Zvyagintsev followed up his acclaimed debut film with The Banishment (2007), a critically spurned melodrama based on a William Saroyan novel. Most critics regarded Elena (2011), a marital drama that highlighted class disparities in contemporary Russia, as at least a partial return to form.
Cineaste interviewed Zvyagintsev at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January. In our wide-ranging conversation, the director discussesLeviathan’s literary and theological underpinnings and his formative cinematic influences.
My thanks to Stacy Ivers of Ivers Communications, LLC for facilitating my conversation with Andrey Zvyagintsev at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and to Roman Skryabin for his expert translation. —Michael Guillén
Cineaste: I’m interested in connective tissue between different art mediums; how a book can read like a movie, or how some movies can screen like a book, even as literature and—in the case of Leviathan—as spiritual literature.
Andrey Zvyagintsev: I understand your question perfectly and I will try to expand. One of the bases for the script, one of the foundations if you will, was the story of Michael Kohlhaas by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, which we built upon. In von Kleist’s work, we see the fight between an individual, a solitary man, and the system. This is what we based our film upon and it provides the correlation between literature, as you’ve referenced, and our script.
Another literary reference would be the biblical story we read in the Book of Job. This is how we used works of fiction, or a historical work, to communicate the story of our film.
Leviathan is also based on the real-life story of Marvin Heemeyer in Granby, Colorado, who went on a bulldozer rampage. Those are the three references, among others, that we used to build our script: some fiction, some history, some contemporary events.
One of the experiences I had with regard to grasping the fabric, the very language, of cinema was watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) in my early twenties. Prior to L’avventura, all the films I’d seen seemed just like moving pictures, nothing more, but with Antonioni’s film I was able to grasp what I believed was the very essence of the cinema as a medium capable of telling a story on its own, as opposed to a work of literature.
For example, I agree with you that a certain literary work may be the greatest possible medium for communicating with a reader and there are certain works of fiction that cannot be told or otherwise expressed with the language of cinema, and vice versa. Certain cinematic areas, lacunae if you will, are unique. No matter how a writer may try, these cinematic lacunae cannot possibly be told in the form of literature and it was these I was finally able to grasp and convey in my films. Thereby, having achieved this amalgamation, both literature and cinema are able to work together and complement one another.
Cineaste: Recently, film scholar Adrian Martin has provided a useful term by which I can interpret what you’re calling “lacunae.” He employs the term “image-event,” where an image is able to contain a narrative idea or even a narrative momentum within the cinematic space of an image. Case in point inLeviathan, I think instantly of the poster image of the young boy on the beach alongside the skeletal remains of the whale.
But I want to be clear that when we’re talking about “Leviathan”, you’re referencing the overwhelming oppression of the system, and I’m interested in how you situate that against the image of Leviathan presented in the biblical Book of Job? At what point did you decide that the biblical creature Leviathan could stand in for your critique of the system? What are you actually critiquing about the system?
Zvyagintsev: You’re absolutely correct that mine is a critique against the system. It might help to look further into the development of the script, which I would have to approach by way of a historical timeline. It would begin when I first heard about the story of Marvin Heemeyer in Colorado, which for me was about an individual man against the system, and served as the point of departure for my film. That incident got the story of Leviathan going.
Later on, we thought it would be logical to incorporate the Book of Job into this story by broadening the main character by using the biblical motif and expanding the whole gamut of his character to include the psychological and social context in the narrative. We start with someone small, someone trivial, and—by incorporating the Book of Job—we see how his character arc develops. We see his tragedy on a grander level, which further on was expanded by Thomas Hobbes and his theory of the social contract. Hobbes lays out the connection between the Church, the power of the State, and the individual man. By incorporating all those factors into the narrative of Leviathan, we felt that we added a cosmic scale, if you will, to the tragedy that we were hoping to achieve.
At film’s end, we see the dialogue between the protagonist Nikolay (Aleksei Serebryako) and the priest who explains Job’s story of the Leviathan to him. This is where we thought it would be useful to bring in the mythological beast as a way to conceive the knowledge of the importance between the spiritual and the powers that be, i.e., the State. This is how all this literary work has brought the individual figure of Nikolay into the narrative.
It’s a wonderful question you have asked about the relationship between literature and cinema. I completely agree with you that, no matter how talented a writer, sometimes it’s impossible to put words into images. A cinematographer’s work can convey the inexplicable, which (obversely), no matter how hard you try, you cannot put into words, which allows a director to show rather than tell the story he wants to give an audience.
Cineaste: In your previous film, Elena, as well as in this film, there is obviously a sophisticated and involved analysis of the story. The people in both stories are common people and you have an intimate and nonjudgmental way of looking at them and examining their lives. Where does that come from?
Zvyagintsev: This comes from the actors’ talents. Two elements are involved: the very close examination of everyday life around us, whereas, on the other hand, it is the actors’ own work, their own examination of everyday life, and their own ideas that they bring to their characters. They play themselves, if you will, so that, again, this is an amalgamation of the two.
For example, if this film were a painting or an animated feature, I would have to draw a character in full, basically working from my own experience. In cinema, we have lots of tricks to achieve that.
Cineaste: Are you saying that on the set the actors are allowed to extemporize?
Zvyagintsev: I allow a certain leeway; however, it’s quite narrow. At this juncture, I would like to make an example of a disobedient actor, in terms of any leeway they might have in portraying their character. I have a friend who works in New York as a second-unit director on a movie I won’t name; however, it’s a major project. The story goes as follows: there’s a mother and her young daughter in the movie and the daughter is supposed to undergo transgender surgery and the mother is supposed to disapprove of this. The actress who plays the mother read the script and said, “I cannot play this because my character is supposed to be progressive and forward-thinking. I can’t do that.” This is a good example of a disobedient actor. If everyone wanted his or her own part to “look good,” we would have complete chaos on the set. As a director, this is something I cannot allow because it would mean I started with one movie and finished with a different one. That’s not allowed.
Cineaste: The sublimity of Leviathan lies in your nonjudgmental depiction of your characters.
Zvyagintsev: Thank you. This is exactly about trying to achieve not judgment, but maximum truth and integrity within every single frame. The close, intimate, honest examination of characters in their situations is how we achieve that.
Cineaste: If honesty, then, becomes a spiritual directive, I turn back to the Book of Job, specifically by way of C. G. Jung’s Answer to Job, wherein he infers that the Book of Job is one of the most honest books in the Bible for revealing God’s full nature. I loved the line from the Book of Job that you use in your film: “You cannot bait Leviathan with a fish hook.” Which is to say, you cannot control the will of God, nor His creation.
The mayor (Roman Madyanov) is—for all effects and purposes—the villain in Leviathan, but he’s actually vulnerable and impressionable, which you see in the scene where he is counseled by the priest. I took the critique within Leviathan to be more against the Russian Orthodox Church than the State (as represented by the mayor). I’ve long felt that people who are in public office are actually hostages to deeper forces working in the culture; in this case, I would say religion. This seemed especially pronounced in how the priest teaches the Old Testament to the mayor (“God is power; power is might”) and the New Testament to his fleeced flocks (“God is love; love is truth”). Is that, in actuality, your main critique?
Zvyagintsev: You’re correct about the film’s critique of the Orthodox Church, at least within a certain context. There’s a saying: “The more talented you are, the more will be asked of you.” The Church as an organ of power has much more might than the government because any kind of government, any kind of civil institutional power, is basically in effect to administrate the country, whereas the Orthodox Church is far more encompassing. They have the power to affect people’s lives and they are supposed to put people on the right track, if you will. They’re supposed to be able to tell people—who are not supposed to know in the first place—good from wrong. They, as the Church, are supposed to have more power over people’s minds. Coming into such closely bound communication with political power, the Church in a certain way degrades itself to a level that is so much less than what they are supposed to do. In this context, this is my critique of the Church and their connection to political power, which should not be happening.
Cineaste: You’ve used the Book of Job to inflect your theme of the individual against the State, but Leviathan departs from the Book of Job because in the biblical story Job comes to understand that he cannot question God, and he returns to his life. In Leviathan, however, Nikolay comes to the same juncture, understands that he cannot question theological and state power, but he doesn’t get to return to life; he is destroyed completely. My question, then, is does understanding of the corruption of power constitute remedy? And I ask that suspecting that understanding is not a remedy. How is someone supposed to walk away from Leviathan feeling any hope?
Zvyagintsev: That would be a strictly individual experience for each audience member. It would be a matter of individual stamina and courage with regard to what they would do in a situation like that. What I’m trying to achieve with this movie is to stay true to everyday life. I don’t want to operate within worn-out happy-ending models that anyone in the audience might subconsciously expect. If you examine life carefully and take a closer look, happy endings hardly ever happen in real life. Unlike the Book of Job, where the protagonist has been subjected to hardships and after having accepted God’s will, after having accepted the idea of never questioning God’s power and might, he is rewarded in a way that in real life—or in the life of our main character Nikolay—would not be a possible scenario. Not even God can bring back Job’s wife, his children, his house, everything that has been taken away from him. Not only would that be implausible, but, within my effort to stay as true to everyday life as I can, such a reward would never happen.
I am confident that at least some people in the audience will find hope in Nikolay’s boy being taken care of by the policeman and his wife, rather than their letting him go to the orphanage. Their compassion registers hope.
In this regard, I was once invited by a Christian radio station in Russia to be interviewed by a Russian Orthodox priest about the movie. At a certain point, I realized I had been invited in order to be reprimanded. It was a set-up. I suggested that we switch the microphones off and simply discuss the issues presented in the film. The host of the radio show asked both of us what we felt was going to happen to Nikolay’s boy? The priest said, “Nothing good. What else could happen to that boy?” I felt for a priest to say that was cynical and outrageous. He was supposed to be spiritual and convey God’s mercy, to be hopeful and positive. This is another critique I have of the Church, which I’ve tried to show in my movie.
Cineaste: I guess I would be remiss if I did not ask: do you believe in God?
Zvyagintsev: I do, but not in the context of how we are supposed to believe in God. I’m ready to think in that direction. I’m ready to have my natural doubts. But not by way of a confession as in the Russian Orthodox Church. I’m not ready to be a pagan who worships stones or buildings. I believe in the power behind all that. That’s what inspires me and the direction in which I’m willing to move.
Cineaste: This is, of course, what Leviathan stages: the distinction between the religious and the spiritual. In my own quest to understand this mystery, this is why the figure of Mary Magdalene became so important for me as the opponent of the Apostolic Succession. Mary Magdalene represents immanent divinity whereas the Church with its Apostolic Succession signifies relationship to divinity through a hierarchical priesthood.
Zvyagintsev: Another way to expand on this correlation between the inner/ spiritual and the outer/religious is my belief that any intellectual who is seriously considering the question of God and spirituality must come to the conclusion that there is one God, but a multitude of confessions waging war against each other, which shouldn’t happen. Nietzsche once said, “If you want to breathe clean, fresh air, never go to a church.” Another maxim of Nietzche’s was: ““In truth, there was only one Christian and he died on the cross.” We may argue all we want. With that being said, Nietzsche was, of course, a radical, but some of his sayings, his maxims, do resonate with me.
Michael Guillén is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay area who maintains a Website, The Evening Class, at http://theeveningclass.blogspot.com.
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