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Berlinale Bloggers 2019
The eternal Russian theme of fathers and sons

"Kislota" by Alexander Gorchilin 2018
Film scene from "Kislota" by Alexander Gorchilin. | Photo (Detail): © Studio SLON / Kislota​

The two Russian films "Malchik Russkiy" and "Kislota" deal with Russia's future and past – both have more in common than it initially seems.

By Egor Moskvitin

The two Russian films presented at the Berlinale have nothing to do with each other at first sight. Kislota (i.e. Acid) is a film about a clique of partyers in contemporary Moscow. It treats, for example, sexual liberation, which comes dressed up not only as a privilege of the times but also as a manifesto. The debut director is the actor Aleksandr Gortschilin from the Gogol Centre theatre; in the media, he is described as a protégé of Kirill Serebrennikov, whose Leto was successfully presented last year at the Berlin film market. The cast includes the best young actors in the country: Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Arina Shevtsova and Filipp Avdeyev.

In contrast to it is the gloomy film Malchik russkiy (i. e. A Russian Youth). Its director, Aleksandr Solotuchin, is a graduate of Alexander Sokurov's masterclass in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, one of the North Caucasian republics of Russia. Western viewers need no introduction to Sokurov: he is the author of Faust and Francofonia, and the director of films about Lenin and Hitler. And now a film by Sokurov's student Solotuchin about the First World War has been shown in Berlin. It is about a young man who goes blind in the war and then, in a metaphorical sense, sees more than anyone else.

Future and past Russia

Both films deal with the question of masculinity and the eternal Russian theme of fathers and sons. The main figures of Kislota are boys raised by single mothers. Attractive and hungry for life, they are nevertheless unprepared for either of the two common male roles: that of the patriarch and that of the heroic lover. Sex for them is a kind of cure for frustration, but even in high dosages it fails to bring relief.

One of the main characters circumcises himself so as to feel unbearable pain the next time. Another burns his throat by drinking acid, possibly to avoid hearing his own voice. In the film, acid is also the material with which an artist transforms Soviet subcultures into contemporary objects of art: the new generation must obliterate the old in order to find itself – an effort which, in the film, falls short of achievement. The future finds no way out of the past.

Kislota | Acid von Alexander Gorchilin 2018 Foto (Ausschnitt): © Studio SLON / Kislota​

Unlived dreams

Although Solotuchin has stressed in an interview that he has never seen a film by his master, Malchik russkiy nevertheless adheres to Sokurov’s methodology. Solotuchin approaches the soul through corporeality, and music also plays a significant role in his film. Current recordings of an orchestra from Saint Petersburg accompany it.

The boy named in the film’s title is awkward, haggard; a decidedly "unmanly" boy from the country. He goes to war as a volunteer and loses his eyesight during a gas attack in the first battle. But even as an invalid, the child continues to serve his country and becomes an early-warning system against approaching German aircraft thanks to his hearing. In the end, he becomes a cog in a huge war machine, in a war for which he is not made.

The protagonist of Malchik russkiy has a great goal, but not the slightest chance of realizing it. All doors stand open for the protagonists of Kislota, but they don’t know which one to go through. And that's probably all that has changed in the last hundred years.