Michael Palin enters a banal, bureaucratic looking office where sits John Cleese behind a desk.
Palin: Is this the right room for an argument?
Cleese: I’ve told you once.
Palin: No you haven’t.
Cleese: Yes I have.
Cleese: Just now.
Palin: No you didn’t.
Cleese: Yes I did
It goes on like this until Palin gets frustrated and begins to protest.
Palin: I came here for a good argument
Cleese: No you didn’t, you came here for an argument
Palin: Well an argument isn’t the same as contradiction
Cleese: Can be
Palin: No it can’t, An argument is a collective series of statements to establish a definite proposition
Cleese: no it isn’t
When Cleese utters this last line the audience realizes the depth of the absurdity. There is no way out of this cyclical, self-justifying rhetoric.
Aleksey Mikhailovich, the protagonist in the film Gorod Zero, finds himself in much the same position. He too is trapped by the same logic, but he is also physically trapped in a Brigadoon-like town that seems to exist in some alternate universe where nothing makes sense.
Director, Karen Georgievich Shakhnazarov, made Gorod Zero or Zerograd in 1989 just two years before the fall of the Soviet Union. The characters who reside in Zerograd would argue that the Soviet Union might have fallen but not the “great state!” As a police chief explains to a dumbfounded Aleksey,
“The powerful, great state is the ideal for witch Russians are ready to suffer. Ready to take any hardship, to give his own life for. This is an irrational idea. This is not pragmatic European desire to get the largest benefit for yourself, This is the idea of the Russian spirit, which dominates and dissolves your and mine personality but gives back 100 times more. This feeling of connection to a great organism gives the feeling of spirit, power, and immortality,”
The statement on its face does not seem overly absurd but all Aleksey wants is an answer to why he can’t leave the town. In light of the question the answer it’s confounding. Poor Aleksey is confounded at every turn. He tries to converse with several different people in this mysterious town but each of them delivers a nonsensical, non-sequitur, non-answer with a completely stone-faced, deadpan that leaves Aleksey even more confused.
Russians have never been known for smiling, in fact, there is a Russian proverb “laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity.” This phrase seems particularly ironic when a dead faced bureaucrat is in fact saying something stupid or ridiculous, as when Aleksey walks into an office to find the secretary completely naked behind her typewriter. She does not smile, she does not react to Aleksey’s presence in any way. She simply types away as if everything is normal. It feels as if John Cleese might walk in at any minute.
The idea behind making an absurd narrative is to first shock the audience with a completely bizarre world, and then slowly bridge the gap between the shockingly strange world and the normal life we recognize. If done well the absurd world and the normal world become enmeshed and can start being confused for each other.
On IMDB there were some reviews left by Russian viewers. There were two comments in particular that seemed revealing.
“oppression was not coming from KGB, it was in the hopeless idiotism, status quo, absolute stagnation. Sci-Fi experiment, the one word which describes the life in USSR is “boring”. We know that without sensory inputs, deprived of them our brain starts to generate illusions. This is what you see in this “movie”, I put it in commas because for me it is not a fiction movie, it is a documentary.” (author unknown)
“It’s a very absurd story, but if you understand the way the old USSR worked, it makes a strange sort of sense.” (author unknown)
The film has the unmistakable air of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or Roman Polanski’s The Tennant. There is no horrific climax but there is the same sense of tension. Not only does it feel as if the whole town is some depraved cabal, but that the protagonist is being forced into a role in its functioning.
Aleksey is told that despite his protesting otherwise, he is Makhhmud son of a man who just committed suicide. Later he is told to ignore the fact that he is not Makhmud and just pretend that he is, It all centers around a byzantine murder plot involving the introduction of rock ’n’ roll into the town.
The whole history of the Soviet Union and of the mysterious rock n’ roll related crime is laid out in an underground museum that Aleksey is pushed into touring. The museum is a series of vignettes celebrating all of Russian history as if it all was connected to the tiny town that Aleksey is trapped in. What is particularly interesting is that all of the mannequins in the museum are live actors doing their best to stand absolutely still. It’s a striking image. Russian history preserved by saying still. Fake people played by real people.
Near the end of the film, most of the cast is gathered around a big dead tree. The tour guide explains why the tree is so important. He tells the group that it is the tree of power and Ivan The Terrible himself came here to get a branch from it. One of the group asks if she can have a branch as a souvenir. The police chief explains that it is not allowed, but the woman manages to convince him to relent. One of the group tries to break off a twig for her but a huge branch breaks off instead and tumbles to the ground. One of the last lines in the film is spoken by the police chief who says “Well, since its broken everybody may take.”
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