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I tend to think of the War in Chechnya as Russia’s version of Vietnam, though I recognize the comparison lacks a certain amount of accuracy. The idea remains that Chechnya is a place where Russia does not belong.

Sergei Bodrov’s 1996 film “Prisoner of the Caucasus” – forgive me, but I refuse to call it “Prisoner of the Mountains” – certainly takes the perspective that the realms of Russia and Chechnya are incompatible and trapped in a cycle of conflict. Though the film was ostensibly based on a work by Tolstoy, I suspect the finished product has more to do with the film’s contemporary circumstances than with a work of literature written in the 1800s. The film’s source material does, however, serve as a stunning reminder that the conflict between the two people has lasted for generations.

The cinematography luxuriates in the landscape of Chechnya. This world of hills, herders, minarets, and towns nestled on rocky outcroppings is completely at odds with either the urban areas of Moscow and Petersburg or the lush fertile landscape that many Russian films seem determined to show. By reveling in the depiction of this dusty earth, the film implies that Russians do not belong in this space.

The idea that Russians should not interfere in Chechnya also arises in one of the songs repeated throughout the film. In the lyrics of what appears to be a Chechen folksong, the singer warns that strangers fear and have reason to fear this land. The Chechen people, however, belong to this place as surely as the Russians do not belong in it. The structures and even the gravestones appear as natural parts of the landscape, ancient and settled.

The film displays the Chechen people as individuals who live by rules that are very different than the rules by which Russians live. When the film shows the morning call to prayer, and the prayer rug, the images emphasize how foreign this culture is to Sasha and Zhilin. Though the clothing worn by the individuals does not have the flash and flair that earlier depictions of non-Russian cultures may have head, the vestments worn by Dina and the other women appear much different than the clothing worn by Russian women in the 1990s; Dina perpetually has a head covering, her long skirts often end in fringe and are richly colored.

The ending of the film implies potential for change does exist. Unlike Sasha, Zhilin attempts to understand the Chechen people on a human level. He had Dina have a good rapport, and he tells her a bit sadly, “I would marry you.” Their ability to interact alludes to the potential for mutual understanding between the groups. The bombing of the town precludes this potential happy ending.

This endless timeless cycle appears repeatedly through the film. The presence of broken clocks and Zhilin’s ability to fix those clocks implies that he may be able to jostle these two cultures out of their eternal cycle of violence. In the end though, Zhilin did not have time to fix the last clock, so the cycle of death remains in place.

The character of Sasha is brilliant in this film. In “Prisoner of the Caucasus”, Oleg Menshikov who also appears in “Burnt by the Sun” plays the role of Sasha Sly. Though it is easy to compare the character to Chapaev, I think Sasha is just as fascinating when not contrasted with his predecessors. Sasha is not the most brilliant man, and he knows it. When the audience first views Sasha, we are driven to hate him, this arrogant Rambo-like man who cannot even remember his fellow prisoner’s name. But as the film progresses, the viewer realizes that Sasha has a very particular sort of nobility about him; he will not ask to be saved; he should have been Hamlet; he would rather fight the nephew of his enemy than see Zhilin harmed; and in spite of his cruelties, he takes care of his son. The film attempts to prove that all people are multi-faceted. Sasha’s death is a tragedy, but so are the deaths of Abdul’s son and all of the Russians and Chechens on both sides of the conflict.

“Prisoner of the Caucasus” emphasizes the utter tragedy of a struggle that seems in danger of never ending.

*Edited to remove the assumption that everyone dies in the end.

Tags: Chapaev, Sergei Bodrov, Prisoner of the Caucasus

As sound developed to aid in the narrative form of movies, music grew to be increasingly more important.  Listening to movies has become almost as important as seeing movies.  Chapaev is interesting because it does not rely on a score to aid it through most of the film.

Music in Chapaev is used rather sparingly.  For example, one moment in the film depicts the two men singing together as they lay on the floor.  Most of the memorable examples of music in this film occur when characters burst into dreary melodies, rather than as background music.  The singing is slightly off-key and is certainly not perfect, but it aids in the telling of the film because it occurs naturally and is not forced.  A few moments later, a bugle horn is heard as a horse and small military troop are shown.  Since music is actually used in this scene, it draws the attention of the viewer to what is happening.  A similar song plays as the men separate and run in different directions.  The music used here is not overwhelming.  It is simple, brief and does not drown out the dialogue or background sounds.   As the army approaches, drums can be heard in the distance and gradually increase in volume as the soldiers move closer and closer.  It is a steady rhythm and is diagetic, as it is contained in the film, for the most part.  In addition to the drums beating, the viewer can hear the footsteps of the approaching men in time with the drum beat, making them even more threatening.  As a battle breaks out, the drums stop and the noise of the machine gun is one of the only things to be heard.

Background sounds are very prominent in this film.  Whenever action takes place outside, for example, the viewer is able to hear the birds chirping, horses galloping, guns firing or in some cases, even the wind blowing.  Going back to the scene with the machine gun during battle, when the gun stops working, the only thing that can be heard is the noise of gun and cannon fire in the background.

Music is most potently used as Chapaev and his men charge into battle on horseback near the end of the film.  On this rare occasion, music is used non-diagetically, to aid the dramatic action.  When Chapaev and his men meet, a hymnal-esque song is being hummed in the background to establish a sense of unity.  A similar song is used when Chapaev tells the men to put up more posts as the men wait together.  It seems as though music is often used as a way for characters to share special moments or for characters to pass their time.  Instead of waiting around, they sing songs.  Not only does this make the film for interesting for the viewer, but it allows a glimpse into the culture of the time.

Tags: Chapaev

As the titular character in the Vasiliev Brothers’ 1934 film Chapaev, it makes sense that throughout the film Chapaev would change and develop. Chapaev does change, but rather than show explicit growth, Chapaev’s shifts in character seem abrupt and disconnected to one another. Chapaev does not progress but instead encapsulates shifts in persona.

The viewer first sees Chapaev the Peasant. In this incarnation, Chapaev rides around on steppe horses, sings Russian folk songs, and throws chairs across the room in rage. This Chapaev may not spend a lot of time contemplating
philosophy or engaging in intellectual pursuits, but he know the land and his people. His followers, all of whom are also peasantry, would lay down their lives for him.

Chapaev also represents military prowess. Repeatedly throughout the film, Chapaev talks about Napoleon and makes implicit comparisons between himself and the other man. (He even resembles Napoleon ever so slightly when he is posed on his horse with his funny cap.) The film acknowledges Chapaev’s skill as a military; the commissar claims that whatever plan Chapaev has is the best plan of attack, and Chapaev’s orderly rather dreamily wonders whether Chapaev could run all of the armies of the world. Even Chapaev asserts his own skill by saying that Napoleon had it easy compared to him. Neither Chapaev nor the film ever  mention is that even Napoleon, who “had it easy”, was defeated by Russia. Napoleon’s failure does not bode well for Chapaev’s cause.

In addition to these characterizations, Chapaev acts as a disposable man. Though Chapaev represents both a folk and military hero, the success of the cause does not require his presence. After Chapaev and his hero-in-waiting Petka die, not only do the peasant forces carry on, but they win victories. For the red army and for the entire communist system, success does not depend on men like Chapaev; the system can always find or produce more just like him.

Chapaev’s understanding of the pointlessness of his own existence and his cause leads to his most poignant character as Chapaev the cynic. One night as the soldiers prepare for sleep, Chapaev tells Anka and Petka that they are both lucky because they will have a future together. He claims that “no one will want to die then” after the war. Chapaev’s entire speech implies several disturbing aspects of Chapaev’s character; Chapaev does not expect to survive the war; Chapaev wants to die; and Chapaev still has doubts about the socialist cause. The way in which he says the line is vaguely bitter. He does not have perfect faith that either his actions or the success of the red army will change the future for the better.

All of these versions of Chapaev lend the film ambiguity. Though Stalin may have adored the film for what he considered its staunchly Soviet message, the character of Chapaev presents other possibilities for interpretation. This ability for viewers to understand the film in drastically different ways presents what is perhaps the strongest aspect of the film. Chapaev says whatever the audience wants it to say.

Tags: Chapaev, Vasiliev Brothers

What interested me most about Chapaev was the use of sound. Sound wasn’t just an accompaniment to the film; it was used to highlight dramatic moments and significant actions. For instance, during one of the battle sequences there was no sound at all except for dramatic music. Then the sounds of fighting suddenly faded back in. And when people were galloping around on horseback, the horses’ hooves only made a sound when the rider was going somewhere important. Even in the very beginning, when Chapaev was driving up in his little sledge, the only sound was the bells on the sledge; no hoofbeats, no creaking wheels, no groaning wood.
I also found this a bit surprising, as this was an early sound film, but these are techniques commonly used today.

Tags: Chapaev, sound