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Russia's unthinkable holiday comedy A risky new film takes aim at the Siege of Leningrad

Source: Meduza
Alexey Krasovsky

Earlier this month, Russian filmmaker Alexey Krasovsky’s new movie, “Holiday,” premiered exclusively on YouTube. Paying for the experience is completely voluntary — willing audience members can make charitable donations. This is the first time a well-known Russian director (Krasovsky made the 2016 thrill “Collector” starring Konstantin Khabensky) has released his work like this. Several other accomplished professionals are responsible for “Holiday,” including cinematographer Sergey Astakhov (who worked on “Brother” and most of Alexey Balabanov’s other films) and actors like Yan Tsapnik (“Kiss Them All!”), Alyona Babenko (“A Driver for Vera”), Timofey Tribuntsev (“The Monk and the Demon”), Pavel Tabakov (“The Duelist”), and Anfisa Chernykh (“The Geographer Drank His Globe Away”). There are only six characters in “Holiday,” and five of them are played by Russian movie stars. The only actor not already widely known is Anastasia Chistyakova, who’s just 24 years old.

Krasovsky decided on a YouTube premiere when “Holiday” was still in post-production, following early backlash from federal lawmakers so fierce that it killed any hopes of a theatrical release. What prompted this reaction? Krasovsky’s movie is a black comedy about the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War.

When talking about “Holiday,” a few preliminary distinctions are necessary, right off the bat.

First, any form of censorship is evil. Censorship is prohibited by Russia’s Constitution, it’s unacceptable, and it’s unforgivable. It is as natural to discuss censorship in the context of “Holiday” as it was to raise the issue with “The Death of Stalin,” which the Russian authorities banned from theaters. Facing a wave of public outrage (including direct threats from state officials), filmmakers took the next logical step: they decided it was best not to seek a distribution license from the government and then try to convince cinemas to carry a “problematic” (albeit still unseen) motion picture. So they uploaded it to the Web, instead.

From a distance, it’s curious to note that these overreactions in Russia all revolve around the same historical era. Somehow, incredibly, society still hasn’t managed to turn the corner here. Among all the hurt feelings and various categories of offendedness, comedy has proved to be the most dangerous genre. It is a sin, it turns out, to laugh about certain things. Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be,” and Gérard Oury’s “La Grande Vadrouille” were all available in the USSR, but they’d never make it to theaters in modern-day Russia. “Laughter” and “war” are now considered two mutually exclusive concepts. This phenomenon deserves its own attention, not directly related to “Holiday,” which the film’s detractors haven’t seen anyway.

Second, Krasovsky demonstrates his enviable independence from everything that might be called “the system” in contemporary Russia. He completed a motion picture on a shoestring budget, serving as his own screenplay writer and producer, without resorting to asking the state or major investors (who are nowhere to be found, anyway) for funding. In less than a week, “Holiday” generated impressive YouTube traffic, attracting more than 620,000 views. It will be interesting to see if the movie is able to recoup its production costs through voluntary donations. This question, though, has more to do with the very idea of independent film production and distribution in Russia than the movie’s artistic merits. After everything that’s happened in the industry, it’s only become harder to assess something like “Holiday” for what it is: a film.

But let’s try to put aside all these political and societal hangups and talk about “Holiday” as a movie.

It’s December 31 in Leningrad. The USSR’s Great Patriotic War rages. The city is besieged. One surprisingly well-to-do family prepares for the New Year’s holiday, preoccupied by thoughts and concerns unlike those shared by most others in the besieged city. The absent-minded, kind-hearted Professor Georgy Alexandrovich Voskresensky (played by an unrecognizable Yan Tsapnik in a beard and glasses, like a parody of Professor Preobrazensky from “Heart of a Dog”) can’t remember where he put the keys to his laboratory. His restless wife, Margarita (Alyona Babenko in curls), weathers being abandoned by the family’s kitchen maid — this year, for the first time, she will have to pluck the holiday chicken herself.

Trailer for “Holiday” (2019)
Alexey Krasovsky

The real problems start when the Voskresenskys’ adult children show up. Denis (played by Pavel Tabakov) is a bright-eyed university student. He brings home Masha (Anastasia Chistyakova), a young woman he met at a bomb shelter who dreams only of bathing, drying out her socks, and getting so much as an hour’s sleep. His irritable sister, Liza (Anfisa Chernykh), announces that she’s called off her engagement to Assistant Professor Maximov and invited a new suitor to dinner: a one-legged front-line veteran named Vitaly (Timofey Tribuntsev).

This privileged family has resources, and it’s cause for alarm. The Voskresenskys suddenly have to explain to these uninvited guests how they obtained the food, fuel, and clothing on hand in their outrageously comfortable home. And this is only the beginning. From the attic, like an angry deity, the family’s grandmother keeps pounding her cane, banging out room service requests.

“Holiday,” of course, isn’t really a comedy at all. In terms of genre, the film is closest to a sitcom, but the laughs are few and far between. In fact, the viewer’s discomfort grows, as the film progresses. It’s not that Krasovsky is supposedly mocking something that isn’t funny (the siege). What’s funny are the characters oblivious to the siege itself, pretending to each other that they don’t notice what’s happening around them. The spectacle is more chilling than comical. “Holiday” makes no effort to address the siege or its survivors historically, and it must be said that the only real victim depicted in the film — Masha — is its most one-dimensional character. The movie is about what it’s like to live without noticing that people around you are dying, and how your life (and especially affluent lives) are linked to the deaths of others, one way or another.

The whole movie was made on a minimum budget, and the action is confined to three rooms and a kitchen in an apartment located not far from the center of the city. Despite an exquisite color palette — a slightly tinted sepia that at times seems black and white — “Holiday” looks mostly like a stage performance. It resembles a polished Soviet teledrama that isn’t quite a Soviet comedy, like something from Nikolai Erdman or Vladimir Mayakovsky (late in his career).

While Krasovsky might impress with his thoughtful, comfortingly old-fashioned playwriting, the performances from the talented cast are artificial, bordering on campy. So it seems “Holiday” isn’t a film or a play, but a table read. It’s as if the actors are adjusting to the script on the fly, without time to feel or internalize it easily. It’s entirely possible that this is a flaw in “Holiday,” but the movie’s situation actually makes it an advantage.

The Voskresenskys pretend that their life is perfectly ordinary. They have lied, deceived, and dissembled for so long that they’ve started believing themselves. This applies not just to the parents, but also their cynical daughter and romantic son, and even their unfortunate guests, it turns out. Duplicity is a virus that is not easily cured.

Krasovsky and his actors keep up a facade in more than one sense: the story they tell is actually contemporary, aligning with Russia’s most recent New Year’s holiday. And this — not some imaginary desecration of the past — is why lawmakers really object to the film.

Alexey Krasovsky

Conservatives, statists, and so-called patriots are incapable of reconciling themselves to the straightforward idea at the center of “Holiday”: in even the worst imaginable hell (if it turned out to be in Russia), there would be special classes of people with rations and heated homes, living cozily and comfortably. Inequality and injustice, happiness at others’ expense, the fat elites, and the starving masses are Russians' modus vivendi, whatever the year on the calendar.

Most liberals and oppositionists, meanwhile, are unlikely to celebrate Krasovsky’s decision to present Russia’s parasitic elite as the intelligentsia — a microbiologist and his family — instead of casting a state official or KGB general in the role. The issue here isn’t historical plausibility (the story is perfectly believable); it’s that blaming bureaucrats would have been too obvious and simple. “Holiday” is a film about people conditioned to act out the part of the nation’s collective conscience — it’s about a group of feeble-minded, scatterbrained bunglers (like something out of Chekhov) who accidentally live to see the harsh realities of war. The characters’ cowardice, selfishness, and greed are understandable (and maybe even forgivable), and putting yourself in their shoes is a little too easy.

Sure, Russia isn’t at war today. Or maybe it is, and Russians are just too busy with their own chicken dinners and holiday parties to notice?

Filmed very traditionally, “Holiday” takes shape around just a few vivid images. First, there’s the absurdly gigantic New Year’s tree, stretching completely out of frame and gradually reducing the characters to ornaments, not unlike in “The Nutcracker.” And then there’s the gun, which has to fire before the story ends, if Chekhov has anything to say about it. (It’s war, after all.)

The film makes one radical turn: a sudden air raid and power outage transform the rectangular screen into a black hole. For several seconds, the audience waits for divine retribution to rain down on our wretched heroes. But the lights come back, and the holiday continues. “We, Uncle Vanya, are going to live,” one of them says. In this story of apocalypse, a sheltered life is the only punishment for pettiness and cowardice — for fried chicken and Soviet champagne.

Review by Anton Dolin

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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