A prime example of the complications faced by Russian films attempting to find UK support, Aleksei Balabanov’s The Stoker (Kochegar, 2010) is released after three years in distribution limbo. Best known domestically for Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000), Balabanov is an eccentric and unpredictable director whose work, up until now, has seldom managed to escape the festival circuit. Set in 1995 in post-Soviet Saint Petersburg, The Stoker’s eponymous, elderly boiler worker (the late Mikhail Skryabin) spends his days locked away in a cramped recess of an apartment block shovelling coal to keep its three furnaces burning.
In his spare time he tells stories to local children about the war, continues writing his manuscript about Russian persecution of the Yakuts and engages in small talk with his former army comrades (now local gangsters) who use his furnace as an opportune way to discard inconvenient corpses. However, just like in the story he’s composing about oppression and enforced ‘Russiafication’, a time must come when The Stoker must take a stand and rise up out of his meagre stature.
If you were to examine Russian cinema purely through the output of UK distributors it would be fair to assume it was an industry built around the pensive and austere framework of Tarkovsky’s prestigious oeuvre. Directors such as Alexander Sokurov, Andrei Zyaginstev and Aleksei Popogrebskiy are prime examples of fantastic directors moulding this meditative methodology in a fresh and exciting manner whilst still venerating their stern and contemplative peers. However, those lucky enough to attend specialist film festivals will have already experienced the new golden age of Russian cinema. Far more experimental, comical and yet just as dark, contemporary Russian cinema tackles national identity with remarkable vision.
Balabanov, with his eccentric style would have to be one of the most pioneering of Russian directors and The Stoker is a prime example of this new burgeoning direction in Russian Cinema that tackles all strata of Russian society with a savagely sardonic wit and cynicism. Ostensibly a Eastern European Stig of the Dump, The Stoker combines the stilted jet black comedy of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki with a decisively Russian sensibility, to create a fascinating deconstruction of post-Soviet society that entices the viewer into its morbidly violent world through a divisive soundtrack that needs to be heard to be believed.
Much like in Balabanov’s Me Too (Ya tozhe khochu, 2012), the use of non-diegetic sound here to accompany stark poverty and degradation creates a paradoxical ambiance of despair and delight. It would be fair to question such a contrasting feel to an otherwise gritty piece of social commentary yet ultimately this cynically upbeat energy only amplifies the futility of the actions which unravel. Enhances further by some delightful performances meticulously choreographed against an exquisitely framed snow capped location, The Stoker is a disturbing and hard-hitting comedy that’s far more fun than it really should be.