The Excesses of Power: Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)

Heralded as Russia’s greatest cinematic accomplishment in recent years, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviafan (Leviathan, 2014) attracted unprecedented – for recent Russian films – attention both nationally and internationally upon its release. Prior to Leviathan Zvyagintsev had made only three feature films, the first of which, The Return (2003), placed him among the most distinctive contemporary Russian and international directors. The Banishment followed in 2007 and Elena in 2011, further solidifying Zvyagintsev’s reputation as an auteur interested in issues of moral responsibility and ethical choice.

Leviathan was released in 2014 and became a sensation immediately upon its entry into competitions and the festival circuit, in Russia and abroad. Prior to its nomination for the Academy Award, it won Best Screenplay at 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Best Film at the London Film Festival, a Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film (the first Russian movie to win since 1969), and was expected to win Oscar Best Foreign Language award. However, as the release of the film coincided with the worst period in the relationship between Russia and the West since the end of cold war, the critical reception of the film has been heavily politicised.1 Zvyagintsev’s anti-corruption critique of Putin’s Russia was praised internationally but divided audiences and critics in his homeland, where Russian politicians and pundits lamented Leviathan’s dehumanising and demoralising depiction of the Russian people. Nancy Condee observes that the vicious circle of this politicised appraisal was broken with Leviathan’s Oscar loss: “After February 2015, as in an amicable divorce, international politics went its own way, while Leviathan was free to be judged on its own terms rather than as a widget in the Cold War Reloaded”.2

Leviathan’s action takes place in Russia’s desolate north, in a small town by the Barents Sea and focuses on Nikolai, a “little man” of post-Soviet Russia who lives and works in his ancestral home on the foreshore. His house’s prominent position attracts the attention of the local Mayor Vadim who decides to take over the property and build a church there. When Nikolai tries to oppose this illegal appropriation, the Mayor unleashes the full force of the corrupt local civil and judicial authorities against him, eventually destroying Nikolai morally, legally and financially. In the end, Nikolai not only loses his house, his land and his wife, who dies in mysterious circumstances, but he also ends up being accused of her murder and sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Zvyagintsev stated that he aimed to create a film that would provide a mirror for contemporary Russia, in which “its citizens could see their truthful reflections and which will, at the end, awake them from their sleep and shake them from their complacency”.3 The more active political agenda of Leviathan was paralleled by a stylistic shift. As Julian Graffy observes, while Zvyagintsev’s earlier films “were reticent, allusive, abstract, enigmatic, he now forsakes this approach for a new aesthetic of explicitness, social detail, and historical relevance”.4 With Leviathan Zvyagintsev moves away from his earlier aesthetic of high modernism towards an aesthetic of realism, based on observation and accurate representation.

While analyses on the film focused most immediately on its realistic portrayal of Russia’s traditional ills: political and bureaucratic corruption, alcoholism, and depression5 broader critique engaged with its philosophical, religious and literary allusions, which added weight and complexity to the film’s treatment of thematic issues.

Leviathan (2014)

Among such allusions the attention was directed in the first instance to the title, that Zvyagintsev derived from the Old Testament. Zvyagintsev stated that the Book of Job casts a deep shadow over the hero of the film.6 He further described the title as “a challenge” and stated that he felt that despite the everyday nature of the plot “the emotional intensity (pathos) and scale of this title would be justified”.7 The traditional iconography associated with the Christian image of Leviathan mobilized by Zviagintsev in the film –  as a sea monster or a giant whale – as well as direct quotations from the Old Testament have been interpreted as invoking the idea of God’s power that is greater than power of man and of nature.8

Graffy suggests that in Leviathan Zvyagintsev manages to achieve “the decoupling of faith and religious power” and that this represents the most innovative aspect of the film.9 However, the film also mounts the challenge to faith that is sustained through the repeated question, “Do you believe in God?”, asked by different characters – a question to which they never give or receive an answer. This seems to undermine the possibility of faith as well as organised religious practice in contemporary Russia, where the social malaise runs too deep. If the state robs ordinary citizens of their human rights, the Church is implicated in compromising their beliefs in God, robbing them of their faith.

Even more immediately Leviathan shares its title with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s influential treatise of 1651, on the relationship of state, government and society. Hobbes’s Leviathan or The Matter, Form and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civil argued for the necessity of a social contract that would ensure that power is given to the ruling entity to protect society against a return to the state of nature, typified by chaos and violence. Zviagintsev’s Leviathan is seen in this context as problematising Hobbes’s political vision and questioning the limits and excesses of power.10

Another important intertextual reference for the film is provided by one of the key works of the Romantic period, Heinrich von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas, written in 1810. Set in the 16th century, Kleist’s novella is concerned with issues of illegality, retribution, violence and power, depicting a desperate search for justice by its eponymous protagonist. Zvyagintsev appropriates many narrative collisions and moves from the novella as well as its vision of an inhuman legal system pitted against a single, powerless individual. However, whereas Kleist constructs his story as a tragedy in which the hero rebels against the system and dies but restores the law, Zvyagintsev resorts to a different and, in his words, “more terrifying” ending – a vision of the slow destruction of the protagonist and of everyone who was dear to him, by power.11

At the same time, many critics note that the film is filled with “stirring shots of the natural world”, which give emotional resonance to Zvyagintsev’s “cinematography of despair”. But it can be argued more radically that it is through the use of images of nature and references to the presence of non-human otherness that Zvyagintsev achieves a fine tuned reframing of the social and psychological drama at the centre of the film, changing its scale, moral and ethical implications and overall meaning.

Leviathan (2014)

Most prominently the role of scale is evident in the choice of a remote setting with monumental surroundings, where the sheer size of the ocean waves and rock formations dwarfs the human figures. However, the setting also calls into question the proximity and reach of power and its ability to put human subjects in place. Having chosen a place “at the end of the world”, where the land mass ends and the ocean stretches toward the horizon before turning into the icy desert of the Arctic – the roof of the world, a no-man’s land, the space where national states relinquish their authority – Zvyagintsev mobilises spatial distance to reframe the issue of power and social relationships. Both Arctic and Antarctic regions have been recently capturing the imagination of artists in precisely this sense12 – as regions capable of providing new political and aesthetic paradigms due to their unique geopolitical position and status beyond national divisions, which can be described in Rancière’s words as “topography that does not presuppose [a] position of mastery”.13

But the setting and its elements also gesture towards the infinity of time, which is indicated by the geological history of the land, evident in coastal degradation, in the presence of the rocks of variable colour and texture that have been denuded by the pressure of water and ice. Like fossils, the whale skeleton – one of the central images of the film – signifies the deep time of the past.

Leviathan (2014)

While the excess of power finds no boundaries and no resistance in the social universe of the film, this power is still not absolute – as it runs against temporal and spatial constraints beyond which it loses its significance. The critical potential of Leviathan is thus to be found in the dialectics connecting human subject, the cinematic body and the space that it inhabits. As Mary Anne Doane argues: “to the extent that the cinema is inevitably about scale in relation to a body […] that body is never lost, never truly eliminated. It is simply led to find another way of finding its way.”14 This is the challenge and the hope that Leviathan offers: to find a proper place for the human body. This, in turn, would require a rethinking of the possibility of power beyond the hierarchy of human relationships.

Endnotes:

  1. Neil MacFarquhar, “Russian Movie ‘Leviathan’ Gets Applause in Hollywood but Scorn at Home”, New York Times, January 27, 2015.
  2. Nancy Condee, “Cold Snap (Part I): Russian Film after Leviathan”, http://jordanrussiacenter.org/news/cold-snap-part-russian-film-leviathan/#.WH73FEeUdDA.
  3. Andrei Zviagintsev, “Sobchak zhiv”em: Andrei Zviagintsev”,  interview with Kseniia Sobchak, 14 January 2015, (Telekanal Dozhd”).
  4. Julian Graffy, “Andrei Zviagintsev: Leviathan (Leviafan, 2014)”, KinoKultura, Issue 48 (2015), http://www.kinokultura.com/2015/48r-leviafan.shtml.
  5. Greg  Dolgopolov, “Reeling in the beast: The anti-Russian, Russian ‘Leviathan’”, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine 185 (2015): 68-73.
  6. Zviagintsev, “Sobchak zhiv”em: Andrei Zviagintsev”, op. cit.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Anton Dolin, “The Three Whales”, Iskusstvo Kino (2014), p. N7.
  9. Julian Graffy, “Andrei Zviagintsev: Leviathan (2014)”, op. cit.
  10. Ian Christie, “Here Be Monstrers” Sight and Sound 24:12 (December 2014): 19-26.
  11. Graffy, “Andrei Zviagintsev: Leviathan (2014)”, op. cit.
  12. As evident, for example, from the organisation of the First Antarctic Biennale in 2017.
  13. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), p. 49.
  14. Mary Anne Doane, “Scale and the Negotiation of Real and Unreal Space in the Cinema”, in Lucia Nagib and Cecília Mello (eds.),  Realism and the Audiovisual Media (Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 80.

About The Author

Julia Vassilieva is Senior Research Fellow based in Film and Screen Studies, School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University. She is working on the project “Cinema and the brain: Eisenstein-Vygotsky-Luria’s collaboration” supported by an ARC DECRA. She is an author of two monographs and numerous publications that appeared in Camera Obscura, Film-Philosophy, Film Criticism, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Screening the Past, Critical Arts, Kinovedcheskie Zapiski, Rouge, Lola, Senses of Cinema, History of Psychology and a number of edited collections.