13 February, 2007

The Rider Named Death

My wife and I recently watched the Russian film, The Rider Named Death, and all I can say is, WOW. Most American films don't start with such an exciting (and shocking) beginning. The film maintains a fair amount of suspense and tension all the way to its end. What impresses me most is that it's based on historical events of 100 years ago, as described by one of the participants in his own memoirs: a certain Boris Savinkov of the Social Revolutionary Party. Savinkov appears as "George" in the film, a code name.* The SRP was one of those groups that in Russia perverted notions like reform and revolution into the insane chaos that eventually gave birth to the Soviet Union.

One cannot trust any autobiographer to be entirely sincere as to his motives and activities, and this is probably all the more true as regards a man whose delight was violence (in Russian, Террор). I haven't read the original material, but however Savinkov may have fancied himself, George is no inspirational hero. Perhaps the filmmakers view George the same way Lermontov viewed his anti-hero from the novel A Hero of Our Time: a man who typically acts in extreme self-interest and with brutal indifference to human life, including the lives and feelings of his co-conspirators. As for the women whose beds he shares, he uses them towards his own ends.

It's not that George is physically brutal; throughout the film he acts educated, refined, and at times even gentle. Rather, he acts as if his life is all business, and his business is taking down the Tsarist regime via targeted assassinations.

The film does not appear to be entirely faithful to history. Two examples come to mind. At least one assassination is not true to events, and the film suggests that George eventually realizes and repents of the pointlessness of his murderous campaigns. This disillusion crystallizes after a spectacular success. Why continue murdering people? George asks Vladimir Kuzmich, directory of the Social Revolutionary Party's paramilitaries. Kuzmich explains,

Do you know why I turned to violence? For freedom, universal equality, social justice. But that's all nonsense. You don't believe in it, either. You don't believe in anything, George.

Terrorism is the triumph of the individual of the state. You killed [that official], and nothing could stop you, a single individual with a bomb or a gun. Not the police, not the army, not the courts. Isn't that marvelous? You and I have almost toppled an empire. Us. You and me.
It's not clear to me whether the character Kuzmich has a historical parallel. In a wry swipe at the leaders of a number of such parties and groups, the film's epilogue reveals that Kuzmich was a German agent who dies miserably in exile. (For the historicity of German involvement in such groups, consider that the Germans sheltered Lenin and sent him back secretly during World War I in the hope that he would help destabilize her and prompt Russia's withdrawal from the war. In fact...)

In the film, George abandons the Social Revolutionary Party, and appears to abandon terrorism for a time, until the Bolsheviks seize power in 1917. He seems to die after being capture in a campaign of terror that came across as nobly inspired. The real Savinkov was not so noble. According to Wikipedia, he did not quit the Social Revolutionary Party; it simply fell into disarry around 1910, around the same time that Savinkov assumed control of something called the Fighting Organization. (I'm not sure if that's an arm of the SRP or not.) Murdering Tsarists was just a start. He later joined the Kerensky government, and even though Kerensky was SRP, that did not stop him from participating in a confused uprising against the same Kerensky a few months later. Savinkov did fight the Bolsheviks once they were in power, but as far as I can tell he was simply busy murdering whomever held power, the same career he had pursued for decades. Keep in mind that I am no expert, so the reader shouldn't place too much faith in my understanding of the matter, but from what I can tell murder quenched a thirst provoked by a blinding hatred. In that regard he was not very unusual when compared to many Russian revolutionaries.

Returning to the film, all the characters come across as an interesting and compelling individuals, with distinct motivations. The choice of scenery contributes to the atmosphere of menace combined with absurdity. My favorite example of this is near the beginning of the film. We meet the conspirators in an open-air restaurant. The theme du jour appears to be a masquerade, so the conspirators, like most of the patrons, wear masks. The eager, exaggerated expressions of the masks' countenances, along with a bizarre can-can, makes clear from the beginning that we are dealing with people who are not well connected with reality. The same locale also conveys, then and later, the moneyed insanities of aristocratic, merchant, and industrial classes indifferent to the poverty and misery surrounding them.

Yet I never felt I was watching a parody or a poor caricature. The Tsarist officials targeted by the SRP are typically portrayed as decent, quiet, hard-working individuals. One almost has the impression that they are competent, not at all examples of the incompetence and corruption that so plagued the Russian civil service then (and has even since). The only obvious reason most of them are targeted is that they hold positions in the Tsarist regime.

Meanwhile, the character development of the conspirators reveals them to be depraved, emotionally confused, or deceived—not the sort of folk most of us would want to be friends with. The way George treats his woman Erna, who makes bombs for him, is beneath contempt. She could not even imagine herself as a "mistress"; he simply used her, both for bombs and for pleasure. The sincerity of the conspirators' motives is further questioned when Kuzmich orders fine vodka and caviar in a restaurant, dragging on a cigarette while a poor peasant girl stands a few feet away, smiling enigmatically.

The film concludes with the relevant passage from the Revelation of St. John about the fourth seal, the pale horse, which inspire the title of both the film and the book it follows. That is an apt quote for the nightmare that Russians endured in the wake of the successes of their self-appointed saviors such as Savinkov and his violent friends in the Social Revolutionary Party.

* Don't read that as "Djordj" (English pronunciation) or even as "Gheorg" (Russian equivalent). Pronounce it "Zhorzh", as though it were spoken in the French language that all educated Russians had been using in ordinary (!) conversation for some decades. Dostoevsky depicts it in his novels as if it were normal in his day.

1 comment:

Peter Chen said...

Hi Jack,

Just dropping by to thank you for leaving a comment in my post How to do expandable post summary for New Blogger (formerly Blogger Beta). Thanks for pointing out that I left out a step.