“Who am I?” asks one character in the film “Under Electric Clouds,” premiered Tuesday at Berlin’s annual film festival. “How far can what I learned in the past help me now?”
The film, by Alexey German, opens with questions that are woven throughout the film and are echoed in many other Russian films shown at this year’s Berlinale.
This year, some Russian movies show characters in dystopic urban settings; others bring stories from the minorities at the country’s periphery to the fore.
“Under Electric Clouds” is a bleak yet poetic film set in 2017 that shows Russians in their search to reconcile the past and present, and may be a strong contender for the festival’s prize.
“I want to be a titan,” one character said. Soon afterwards, he is crushed by an excavator in a frozen wasteland.
The dystopian film shows characters that are lonely, lost and haunted. The landscape is a work in progress, strewn with half-finished buildings “broken and not broken,” said one character. Another sits on a huge broken statue of Lenin in the falling snow. The people struggle to find their way in a new time; modern technology only emphasizes their sense of disharmony in the material world.
Despite the chill, the film ends with a faint glimmer of hope in the younger generation.
“I wanted to show the atmosphere in Russia and how the situation is because sometimes our country doesn’t know itself,” said director Alexey German.
Video: Under Electric Clouds clip.
The disconnection between past and present is a theme that also runs through “Pioneer Heroes.” Starting with the story of a standoff between a teacher and student in 1987, the film contrasts the idealism of a group of friends with their discomfort with present day Russia. The director, Natalia Kudryashova, likewise uses atmospheric images of imposing buildings and urban dereliction as a backdrop for her characters’ alienation.
Beyond the urban tales, two other Russian films at the festival look at life on the edges of the country.
“Gulls” tells the story of families, freedom and love in a traditional Kalmyk fishing village on the Caspian Sea, in the north Caucasus. The film is told in two languages, the older generation speaking Kalmyk and the younger speaking Russian. “This combination creates a very special atmosphere and music,” said director Ella Manzheeva. The story reflects her life, telling of a young woman facing choices and seeking independent in a remote setting. “Films in our language are very rare – the last one was twenty or twenty five years ago,” Ms. Manzheeva said. “Our language is in danger – old people speak Kalmyk but young people tend to answer in Russian. So it’s very important for us to show our life and talk about our concerns in our language.”
The Russian – Mongolian film “Celestial Camel,” shows viewers life in the steppe through the eyes of a 12-year old that has to find a camel to secure his family’s welfare. Bayir, the son of a poor family of herders, sets out on a motorcycle that is way too big and fights his way through a hostile desert, fighting sandstorms but also encountering magic, shamans and dancers.
The film festival includes another strong movie for young adults from Russia. “14+” is a story of first love set among towering suburban blocks. The young people overcome the neighborhood tensions and territorial hostilities and are united.
The festival is also showing several short films from Russia and Ukraine. “These are just a small selection from a higher number of submissions than usual,” Maike Hoehne, who curates the short film section, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. She expects to see even more Ukrainian films next year.
“At this year’s Berlinale we have a lot of Russian films – we’ve always had one or two in the past but there were lots of strong candidates,” said Dagmar Kleber who coordinates the Generation section at the Berlinale which shows films for young adults.
“People are more interested in films from Russia these days because of the crisis,” said Anna Leonyenko who coordinates another film festival devoted to Russian movies held in Berlin each fall.
“It means there’s a dialogue between the cultures.”
The films she showed at her festival were also preoccupied with urban alienation, growing inequality and danger.
She had originally wanted to show “Leviathan,” a Russian film made in 2014 that has been nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film. The award-winning film tells of a property dispute the filmmaker said was inspired by the tale of Marvin Heemeyer in the United States who went on a rampage when faced with dispossession.
Looking at all the films she had seen that year, Ms. Leonyenko said that of the younger filmmakers, many approach their subjects with irony.
But at the Berlinale, amid the confusion and disconnection, some filmmakers were optimistic.
Speaking of “Under Electric Clouds,” director Mr. German underlined that his was a co-production between Russia, Ukraine and Poland.
“We find ourselves in a war-like situation, but I want to emphasize that we are all here together,” he said. “That gives us hope that the future won’t be so dark.”
Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]