Something awful is going to happen to the girl. This is the Soviet Union in 1984. This is not a nice time, and these are not nice people. The veneer of civilization, this professor of atheism, this friendly colonel, these dancing teens: they are all part of a paper-thin mask. Director Aleksey Balabanov will pull it off soon enough. This is Balabanov and he is dark.
The movie is beautiful. Everything is dilapidated and falling apart, but there’s still a deep palette and the geometry of the scenes is proportionate. There is a neo-classicism here, a desire to recreate aspects of the past without subverting them. Overlaying that is the horror, as though immaculate Greek sculptures were made to violate each other and commit heinous acts. Craft is being deployed orthogonally to content.
The horror is not happening yet, though. Things are calm. The movie goes on, and people are suspicious, and still the horror does not start.
This is an American story. Balabanov took the plot from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, though Balabanov claims it’s a true story. In that ugly novel the young girl fell in with motley bootleggers and was kidnapped and raped by a sociopath named Popeye. The plot is still here. But Cargo 200 is slower than Sanctuary. And everything feels different. It lacks the sordid atmosphere of Sanctuary. This is not the South. This is not anarchy and lawlessness. This is dread, absurdity, oppression, and war. This is not Mississippi in 1929, it is the Soviet Union in 1984.
The government is everywhere. But what is the government? Andropov is dead. The Soviet Union is at war in Afghanistan. Soldiers are coming back home in boxes. The code for these coffins is “Cargo 200.”
The world is changing. The characters are not in agreement about what is going on. They each have different lives, different worlds even.
ARTEM, THE PROFESSOR
Artem is the first character we meet, an overweight, bespectacled professor of “scientific atheism” at the University of Leningrad. He is eating dinner with a military friend in Leninsk, nearby. They seem well-off, each in the uniform of their profession, but the apartment is in disrepair. They do not appear empowered.
Artem says, “I feel like something’s gone forever, and what is coming I do not understand.”
He isn’t the only one. These are functionaries of the state, dressed in the accoutrements of power but holding no ambience of authority. Artem has brought the colonel some food, for which the colonel thanks him. “Thanks for the food. It is such a problem here.”
Outside children are playing. It is at least safe here.
Artem’s car breaks down early on the long drive back. He stops at a decrepit farmhouse to ask for help. He drinks with the farm’s owner, a sour and threatening man named Andrey, while Andrey’s Vietnamese servant Sunka fixes his car. Andrey and Artem argue over God. Andrey is a believer. Artem gives the standard Marxist materialist explanation of how religion has evolved just as humans. Andrey only laughs.
Artem drives back to the colonel’s house and sleeps over. The next day all is in chaos, as his niece’s boyfriend Valera and the daughter of a party official, Angelika, have gone missing.
While driving back on the same road, he passes by the farm and finds out that Sunka is dead, and in the ensuing events, he ultimately turns to religion. Benbow, his counterpart in Sanctuary, put up a noble fight against injustice. Artem made no effort and abandoned his ideology. When he asks for a christening, the old woman in the church points toward the altar and says, “Sit there, pray, and wait.”
ANDREY, THE FARMER
Andrey is a coarse man who sells grain alcohol out of a run-down farm in the Soviet countryside between Moscow and Leninsk. He is a country tough, and Artem is scared of him. He sits opposite Artem, implacably, as Artem pleads for help. His wife Tonya seems, if anything, even tougher and wearier.
Andrey is not, however, a nihilist. Anything but. “We read books too,” he tells Artem. He is a student of Italian philosopher/theologian/heretic Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639). He wishes to bring Campanella’s utopian City of the Sun into being. A theocratic dictatorship will rule a peaceful world, women will be shared, and sex and breeding will be restricted by eugenics and astrology.
Aside from being more repressive, Andrey’s utopia differs from Communism in only one significant regard: it is religious. For him, that is difference enough. He argues for God, morality, and virtue while Artem argues for dialectical materialism and Darwinism.
After Artem leaves, a teenage boy and girl arrive—Valera and Angelika. Valera drinks and passes out, while Angelika is terrified of Andrey. He wants to make her part of his utopia. But his wife is having none of it and hides her.
The next day, Andrey is framed for Sunka’s death. Before he is executed he makes a deal with the police so that his wife, at least, will be saved.
TONYA, THE WIFE
Tonya is Andrey’s wife. She is tough, cynical, seemingly wise. She hides herself, first from Andrey, who wants her for his City of the Sun, and then from Zhurov, who wants her for far worse. She is tough and protective, curt with Angelika but clearly the most reasonable and trustworthy person there.
Surely she will save Angelika. She is too capable to fail. No, she does not.
After Zhurov frames Andrey for Sunka’s death, she despairs. Artem finds her and promises to help. Tonya tells him how her husband owed some kind of favor to Zhurov. Artem says he can’t afford to risk his job by getting involved. Tonya barely acknowledges him, having never expected any more.
Tonya was meant to be the avenging angel. Her husband dead and her life ruined on account of two stupid, would-be utopias, she has nothing left. And she failed to protect Andrey or Angelika. She survives the film, as Zhurov had agreed.
The last time we see her, she walks right into Zhurov’s flat, past his senile mother, and blasts him with a shotgun. Angelika begs her for help once again, but this time there’s no help. Tonya throws the shotgun on the floor and slams the door, leaving her in the room with Zhurov’s body and two other corpses, crying. The shotgun is a reminder: if Angelika had killed Zhurov with it, Andrey would still be alive.
We don’t see anything more of Angelika. We only see Zhurov’s mother, still watching television.
ANGELIKA, THE GIRL
Angelika is the daughter of a high-ranking party official, a fact she shouts reflexively whenever she is scared of someone. Her boyfriend is a soldier in Afghanistan. She has little personality, and she claims to be a virgin, and may even be telling the truth. (She is nothing like the decadent Temple Drake in Sanctuary.) She meets up with her friend’s boyfriend Valera at a party in an abandoned building.
She goes with Valera to the farm, where he leaves her in the car while he buys some alcohol. She is terrified when a man looks in the window at her. This man has been lurking around the farmhouse. His name is Zhurov. He stares for a few seconds and walks away.
Once he’s gone, she runs inside the farmhouse, where Andrey scares her further. She begs Tonya for help. Tonya hides her, first behind the stove, then in a barn, leaving her with a shotgun and locking the door. Later Sunka finds her, as does Zhurov. Angelika points the rifle at them and mentions her father. Zhurov walks up and takes the rifle from her. Sunka tells Zhurov to leave Angelika alone. Zhurov shoots Sunka dead and rapes Angelika with a bottle. (Like Popeye in Sanctuary, Zhurov is impotent.) He kidnaps Angelika, taking her back to the flat he shares with his mother in Leninsk.
ZHUROV, THE POLICEMAN
Zhurov is out of focus. Or rather, when he is in focus, the world is out of focus. When he peeks into the car window and frightens Angelika, the shot is very shallow. When he walks away, the background comes into focus.
Balabanov repeats this maneuver a few other times. Toward the end, we see Zhurov in his bedroom, where the real horrors of the film have finally taken place. There is a dank gray industrial environment behind him, but it only snaps into focus after he leaves the frame. Then we jump back to Artem, the professor, staring at the same landscape, everything in focus.
He starts on the outside, a still presence on the outskirts of Andrey’s farmhouse. Utterly inexpressive, he peaks in through windows. He was there while Artem was arguing with Andrey about religion.
The other farm people do not even seem to be aware of him. He eats his dinner silently next to Sunka and Tonya. He acts only once he sees Angelika and falls in love with her.
Slowly he moves toward the center of the film, though not until the film is almost half over. Andrey seemed to be more threatening, Campanella or no, but he passes out drunk, leaving Tonya to try to protect Angelika from the real threat. It does no good, and the last half of the film is powered almost exclusively by Zhurov’s actions.
Zhurov calls in Sunka’s murder on the way back to his flat with Angelika. It becomes clearer that Zhurov is not a lone psycho like Popeye or Norman Bates. This is confirmed in his flat, where we see him in military uniform.
He is deep in the power structure, far deeper than Artem or the colonel or Angelika’s father, Naboev, who exhorts his underlings to find his daughter. The colonel calls Naboev an asshole, but he’s just as powerless as anyone else. When he sits at his desk, two dainty teacups in front of him, his assistant towers over him out of the frame, even as Naboev petulantly threatens to ruin his career if his daughter is not found.
Meanwhile, Zhurov, in his headquarters, is tapped in to every line of communication and power. He is the real power of Leninsk. Angelika’s father obsequiously asks him to help find his daughter.
What has Zhurov done before now? It is not clear, but for Angelika he does much more. He brings her back to the flat and introduces her to his mother. She is Tonya’s opposing number, a senile crone who acts as though nothing is wrong. She, along with the other nameless military and secret police in Zhurov’s organization, exist in the blurry world that invades ours at random and without comprehensible reason.
Zhurov says to his mother: “She doesn’t love me, Mother. And I love her.” It’s not clear if she understands.
Zhurov also finds out that Angelika’s boyfriend has died in Afghanistan. He obtains the body and has his underlings bring it to the flat, where they dump the corpse onto the bed to which he has handcuffed Angelika. (If they have a problem with Zhurov’s actions, there is no sign of their unease.)
The real horror of the movie is all in this room. Balabanov does not dwell on it. He cuts away from it frequently to scenes of the search for Angelika and the arrest and trial of Andrey. The whole cavalry has been called out, though it’s no good against Zhurov’s forces.
Zhurov arrests a man for beating his wife, jails and tortures him, then brings him back to the flat and has him rape Angelika. When she does not enjoy it, Zhurov kills him. From Angelika’s father he obtains her boyfriend’s love letters and reads them to her while she lies in bed next to the two corpses. Then Tonya arrives and kills him.
VALERA THE KID
Valera did not see any of this. He returns to Leninsk the next day and meets up with the professor’s son, and they talk about the money to be made now that things are falling apart in the Soviet Union. “This is just the time now to rake in good money.” That, and not Artem’s religious conversion, is the end of the film.
Aleksey Balabanov directed the immensely successful Brother films and War in the ’90s and early 2000s; they embody exploitation and propaganda as well as anything in recent years. Possessing undeniably amazing technical skill, Balabanov also has made a number of artier, creepier films, notably a stunning adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle (1994) and Of Freaks and Men (1998), which seem to question the very premises of those more popular films, without making it at all clear to what values he is committing.
Of Freaks and Men was a beautiful sepia-toned movie about turn-of-the-century pornographers who corrupted innocent women and pre-teen Siamese twins: an exploitation movie about exploitation movies. And the question of exploitation is one that encircles any movie like Cargo 200.
The term “exploitation” is a loose one, looser than “pornographic,” which we at least know when we see it. The criterion I use is that a film depicts suffering without taking responsibility for it. Instead of creating any sort of compelling empathy or alienation, it goes for banality, shock, or moralizing. The last is perhaps the most ubiquitous: this need to shame and to indict the patron for what is really the creator’s doing seems to have been a cultural constant from Aristophanes to the Bible to Last House on the Left.
Despite the horrors of its last twenty minutes, Cargo 200 is emphatically not an exploitation film. This is not because of any political content per se, though the film can easily be read politically and allegorically. But Balabanov has carefully denied any relevance of Cargo 200 to Russia today. These issues are ambiguous, especially for a foreign viewer. Balabanov’s politics are hard to discern and may well be suspect, but on the level of craft and creativity Balabanov is far more sophisticated than others who have worked in the arthouse exploitation racket. You know who I mean: Haneke, Noe, Von Trier, and their brethren. Scenes of degradation, torture, rape, violence, and immense cruelty (directed primarily, though not exclusively, at attractive female actors).
Their motives are different: Haneke is a banal moralist, Noe a histrionic misanthrope, Von Trier a naughty provocateur. But none of them can justify their methods when asked the most fundamental questions that art in any medium must answer: is it merely meeting our expectations? Is it jerking us around? Or is it at least opening up some space where things are not quite as definite and proscribed as they are in our daily lives? Cargo 200 creates such a space, and a singular one. What I offer is a defense of the literal contents of Cargo 200 at the aesthetic level.
Cargo 200 still horrifies, but it is not a masochistic exercise for the audience, nor does it linger on the most unpleasant moments. Up until the later scenes in Zhurov’s apartment, the violence is momentary, never lasting more than a few seconds. There is never time to look away. It’s not meant to make you flee the theater. The horror is parceled out sparingly, to unsettle with a lack of shock.
Balabanov does engage in some standard narrative tricks: supposed main characters who either disappear or become utterly ancillary, narrative trap doors that drop helpless characters into terrifying situations, postponement of horror up to a vague but ever-encroaching climax, and keeping the villain’s motivations concertedly opaque.
Yet the plotting is less significant than the pacing. Balabanov leaves little time for the audience to wallow in the grotesqueness of what is occurring. I think he was aware of this and was careful to prevent an overload of horror that would make the film impossible to take seriously.
In the scene in the barn when Zhurov rapes Angelika, Balabanov cuts, after only a second or two, to Tonya sitting at the dinner table in the farmhouse in despair, head in her hands. She knows she has failed to protect Angelika and we know just how much she has failed. By placing the subversion of expectations (Tonya was the tough-minded lady who was supposed to know the score and save the innocent young girl) back into the film and having Tonya herself recognize her failure to live up to her own supposed archetype, the film recognizes the viewer’s expected response and incorporates it into the character. And that interchange of viewer and character makes it much more difficult to view the preceding scene as merely a voyeur—to look down on it from above. The film declares itself to be as aware as the viewer.
Even in those horrifying last scenes in Zhurov’s bedroom, there are frequent cuts to the search for Angelika. Only in the last scene of Zhurov reading the letters to Angelika do we see her naked, and she is shot obliquely from afar, partly obscured by the two corpses on the bed with her. She seems far more a helpless child than a sexual object.
I don’t hold these facts up as some sort of moral exculpation for Balabanov, who has certainly dipped into the same trough of exploitation. I mention them to point out that if exploitation or sadism were Balabanov’s goal, the movie would fail utterly. I would like to ask what effect the movie then does have.
Exploitation requires that a traditional structure be used as a coat hanger for shocking and prurient content. What Balabanov has done, rather creatively, is take as his basis a work of exploitation—for Sanctuary is indeed high-grade exploitation, just as Faulkner intended it to be—and removes the exploitation, resisting pandering to the base enthusiasms of viewers.
Balabanov works at a more ironic level, refusing to commit to any direction fully, leaving space for multiple muddled interpretations to crawl in, for the viewer to get engaged at the level of thought (hazy and unformed on first viewing, for sure) rather than galvanic skin response. The result is frightening, yet not oppressive to the viewer.
Balabanov establishes a heavy sense of place that grounds the horror in a tangible reality, albeit a nightmarish one. The farce-like plot contrivances play out quietly against the settings of the dilapidated apartments, gray industrial landscapes, and the lone farm off the road. The constant trains groaning along out the windows suggest ongoing processes beyond any local control.
The action takes place entirely in the buildings of Leninsk and the farmhouse. The road along which many of the characters travel seems at first to divide civilization from barbarism, just as the bootlegger’s house in Sanctuary represented barbarity at a remove from civilization’s law and order. The farmhouse is far more menacing than Leninsk, at first.
But Cargo 200 does not have the barbarians of Sanctuary. The characters are amorphous, made less tangible by the presence of an incomprehensible authority. Zhurov’s first rape of Angelika takes place on the farm, but his home, and the site of his worst acts, is in Leninsk. The dilapidated but safe Leninsk that Artem visited, with little going on except kids playing (still one of the most critical scenes in the film, as Artem packs his trunk in the background while kids play unknowingly in the foreground), very much is the same Leninsk where Zhurov runs the police and tortures Angelika. It is a question of focus. When Zhurov walks away from the window of his bedroom and the industrial city comes into focus, the film immediately cuts to Artem looking out the window of the colonel’s apartment at the same city. They have the same view, but Artem cannot see Zhurov’s world: it is obscure and blurry.
Faulkner’s archetypes—the loose girl who pays the price, the twisted psycho, the world-weary, idealistic professional—could have been closely translated into Russian terms. Instead, Balabanov left his counterparts half-defined. He strips all of Faulkner’s context and dialogue and puts in their place something much more Soviet, but he also leaves a lot more holes. He resists establishing firm viewer identification with characters, provoking not repulsion but unease and tension.
All the characters, Zhurov especially, pass through the movie leaving significant questions about who they really are. What is Andrey’s fascination with Campanella? What is Sunka’s backstory? And most of all, who is Zhurov and who are the nameless league of people who obey him?
Zhurov is the cipher. He acts, but incomprehensibly, far from the blatant sociopath that Popeye was in Sanctuary. His love for Angelika is perverse but also nonsensical. Zhurov, as a villain, faces purely inward. He is allowed one smile in the whole movie, when he obtains Angelika’s love letters. He stands in a doorway in uniform, in a cap that seems too big for him, with his ears notably sticking out against the dark, blurry background. His sudden joy is sincere, almost ebullient, almost childish.
Otherwise, he is inexpressive, communicating neither to the other characters nor to the audience, neither physically charismatic nor repellant, just blank, incomprehensible evil. He permits neither identification nor loathing because he eludes our grasp.
But against Zhurov, Balabanov does not set simple victims with whom we empathize. Balabanov is expert with Brecht’s alienation tactics and he prevents us from getting too close to any of the characters. Many aren’t especially likable; all of them remain mysterious. Balabanov’s actors are understated in a way sometimes reminiscent of Bresson, though not at the robotic extremes that Bresson demanded. With the exception of Zhurov, who is a cipher, all give the impression of strong emotion, much of it benevolent, under their faces. Sunka, played by the late Yakutsk actor Mikhail Skryabin, only has a few minutes of screen time, but evokes a world of colonialism and war with just a few lines and his worn face.
All of these spaces are what make the movie more than the sum of its shocks. Balabanov’s insight was to show that aporia could be an antidote to exploitation. Because this is a movie, Balabanov knows he can leave out explanations—the presence of real people in the roles will make them more than mere names.
Sonically, Balabanov overlays ’80s pop music by the Soviet band Kino. He uses incessant pop music in several other films, but nowhere else does it sound as empty and numbing as it does here. It allows a frequent reprieve from the nervous silence while calling attention to its vacant artificiality. It’s another empty space.
There are no empty spaces in Haneke’s films. Michael Haneke, who coincidentally directed a capable but inferior version of Kafka’s The Castle, says of his hyper-violent self-reflexive exercise Funny Games:
Yes, of course, it is a violent film because it doesn’t allow you to consummate the violence. Usually, in an action film, violence is depicted in such a way that it doesn’t hurt the audience. As an audience, you feel good about it. It’s almost like you got on a rollercoaster — it’s a thrill. In my films what I’m trying to do is depict violence in such a way that it becomes reality again for the audience.
The great irony is that Haneke’s films let his audiences feel good about themselves. His following of arthouse patrons would never permit themselves to enjoy inane blockbuster violence in the first place. So Haneke creates a more vile sado-masochistic unreality for the would-be intellectuals that enjoy his films. He makes them squirm and then makes them feel good about it: they walk away feeling that their eyes have been Opened to the Truth.
Pandering is really all Haneke knows how to do. He satisfies viewers’ lust for violence, artiness, intellectualism, and self-recrimination without making good on any of it. He says he wants to “rape the viewer into autonomy,” a goal which he has yet to accomplish despite decades of trying. His lead fist, as brutally repressive as any of his characters, brings down moral absolutes in every film.
Cargo 200 leaves gaps. Rather than provoking sermons about violence or repulsion, it provokes this response:
Cargo 200 is a film, after which you want to call your closest friends, and just say that you love them. I found no other way to survive this movie’s emotional devastation. (Maria Kuvshinova)
This is the reaction to being frightened and destabilized while not understanding the cause. What is scaring you is out of focus. Any and all refuges (or sanctuaries, if you will) are called into question. When Artem goes for his christening and the woman in the church directs him to sit down, she points toward the camera, and her hand blurs as it goes out of focus.
Postscript: To close the circle, Roger Avary, co-writer of Pulp Fiction and writer/director of Killing Zoe and The Rules of Attraction, is planning to film Sanctuary. It is being produced by Cops and Jail creator John Langley. I expect it to be a mediocre exploitation flick.
David Auerbach writes about literature and philosophy at Waggish. His work has appeared in n + 1 and Triple Canopy, and he has been a graduate student in English and philosophy, a software engineer at Google, and a feuilletoniste. He continues to write fiction and criticism.
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