When Russian pilot Nikolai Gastello’s plane was hit and caught fire during the Second World War, it did not simply crash. Rather than trying to bail out, Gastello made a snap decision to use the burning bomber to inflict as much damage on his German enemies as possible, ramming it into a fuel storage facility and creating a powerful explosion that destroyed a column of tanks. He was named a Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously and is read about by Russian schoolchildren today. It’s a story that, in its emphasis on self-sacrifice for the nation, exemplifies the ethos trumpeted by the Soviet Union in its propaganda and militaristic bravado; a Russia that is still fixated on celebrating its triumphs of World War Two as a means to bolster patriotism. We hear this and other tales of deeds lauded by the state in director Ksenia Okhapkina’s documentary Immortal, which had its world premiere in the Documentary Competition at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, from the mouth of an educator explaining to a group of youngsters the attributes required for the profession of pilot. It shows that while the communist era may be over, the ideology of the individual subsumed by and serving the motherland is still very much alive in Russia as an ideal for indoctrination — at least in the small, industrial city above the Arctic Circle that is the focus of the film.
Of few words
Beyond this recounting of heroic feats, Immortal is a documentary of few words, with Okhapkina preferring atmosphere over exposition in conveying the extremity and isolation of the town. She doesn’t even linger over its name, implying it’s just one of many similar outposts in the region. Stunning cinematography captures a townscape deep in snow, in which the yellow sun painted on the wall is a poetic sign of just how lacking the real version is. On another wall is an iron relief of Lenin’s face, rusted but still persisting. Trains also feature prominently — a reminder not only of the coal mines and freight that are the region’s livelihood but also that the tracks once brought its population, gulag labour camps having been built there after the Russian Revolution to industrialise the Arctic, the proceeds of which were largely poured into the war effort. After Stalin died and the prison gates opened, the inhabitants stayed, partly because they’d been condemned as «enemies of the state», and because they had no financial means to leave, anyway. They may be nominally free to go where they please now, but old habits die hard where people have known no other life, and a mentality glorifying might and self-mastery under hardship prevails.
Optimism As A Lifestyle»
«Optimism As A Lifestyle» is written across the front of the T-shirt of a dance teacher in the town, a delightfully ironic touch given the extreme conditions of life in the Arctic. Its perky, consumerist branding is attuned to the capitalist west of today, but in its utopian pronouncement of a correct attitude for idealistic progress it is just a new spin on the Soviet state’s ideological insistence on a citizenry in shining health, primed for the heights of progress and ready to take all challenges in their stride. The young girls in the dance class move in synchronicity in a military-style march, dancing here seeming to be less a means for personal expression than a way to merge with the collective and adhere to choreographed discipline. Their individual thoughts and dreams for the future are unexplored here, giving the impression that internal life and self-actualisation is of little consequence to the running of this town, which puts a premium on external indicators of devotion and the commitment of labour power as productive minions of the state. The film’s title could almost be satire: is it the Russian people and their nation that are immortal, or the oppressive machinations, simply reinvented in new forms, of Soviet propaganda?
It’s become somewhat of a cliche by which Russia is fetishised as an overwhelming monolith that’s almost hypnotic in its magnetic power and irrationality
The film makes one think of the famous lines from nineteenth-century Russian poet and statesman Fyodor Tyutchev, who philosophised on the difference between Russia and the west, and was quoted by Vladimir Putin several years ago when he welcomed French president Nicolas Sarkozy in the Kremlin: «Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone, No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness: She stands alone, unique – In Russia, one can only believe». He is not directly quoted, but Immortal is the perfect illustration of this conception of the nation by its masses, and an ideology that so permeates the atmosphere and contours of the town the inhabitants need not verbalise it in order for us to grasp it. It’s become somewhat of a cliche by which Russia is fetishised as an overwhelming monolith that’s almost hypnotic in its magnetic power and irrationality, but watching this beautifully made film, it’s hard to deny there is truth to it.