Viewed Tyneside Cinema 28 Feb 22; ticket: £10.75
the country’s at war
Kiril Serebrennikov’s ‘Petrov’s Flu’ is a graphic depiction of the collective state of mind that fuelled the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February ‘22.
With colourisation that soaks the film in a sick liverish yellow hue, life in Russia is depicted through the filter of an alcohol induced jaundiced haze. Kiril Serebrennikov’s scenario (based on a novel by Alexey Salnikov, which I haven’t read) is a dispatch from the front line of the Russian psyche: all is derangement. Reality is an hallucinogenic spectre, experienced as a constant state of fear characterised by paranoiac acts of violence. Everything is as it seems: a collective death trip.
Serebrennikov’s movie is divided into two parts: the first part shot in colour; the second section in black and white. My opening paragraphs describe the first part of ‘Petrov’s Flu’ which calls up the subconscious forces abroad in Russia evoking visceral brutal fantasies projected onto life. The second section, as befits its black and white patina more or less indulges the flip side of Russian violence: sentimentality – with the action centring on and around a ‘Snow Queen’ New Year children’s party from long ago.
It’s the first 90 bilious minutes of ‘Petrov’s Flu’ that enthralled me as Serebrennikov reveals his Russia, the Russia that had finally taken action against the propagation of Serebrennikov’s terrifying vision and sentenced him to 18 months of house arrest. It was immediately after this sentence was served that Serebrennikov made this film: a response.
‘Petrov’s Flu’ – the first section – links together albeit ambiguously a series of violence splattered sequences – opening the film with the local bus service, set on a bus from hell. The bus is crowded, sulpherously lit, and dominated by a monstrous woman conductor presiding over a set of passengers whose unprovoked utterances in foul language comprise streams of pure malice. As Petrov stands coughing his guts up on one side of the vehicle we hear the intermittent warped banter, expressing hatred of foreigners, cursing liberalism and the state of Russia, which echo across in perfect resonance with Putin’s resentments and obsessions. Then the cut: the bus stops, the doors open, Petrov gets off at a small square where suspects – Jews Uzbeks foreigners etc have been rounded up. Handed a submachine gun, Petrov fires at the group killing them all. Coughing hacking he climbs back into the bus which lurches forward into the night.
Central to Serebrennikov’s concept is life in Russia as delirium: all is hallucination all is real. This delirium has a literary precursor: it is certainly Dostoevsky. With strong pointers in particular to: Raskolnikov (coughing sickness permeates ‘Crime and Punishment’), the atmosphere that suffuses ‘The Demons’ (both ‘Petrov’s Flu’ and ‘The Demons’ take on suicide: Kirillov in ‘The Demons’ to prove man is God’s equal, the seer in ‘Petrov’s Flu’ sees suicide as proving there is no God) as well as his blistering assault on rationality, ‘Notes from the Underground’. Dostoevsky of course was a vehement opponent of nihilism and the metaphysical cynicism which he saw as destructive forces, dangerous and destroying the Russia he loved. In his works the strength of Dostoevsky’s writing was that he was able to draw empathic psychologically accurate pictures of the states of mind and purposes of his desperately motivated characters, giving credibility to their actions.
Serebrennikov (and presumably Salnikov) draws on precisely that same Russian propensity towards nihilistic delirium as Dostoevsky. But whereas Dostoevsky placed his faith in the mystical salvational essence of the Slav people, and under the terror of Stalin, the Russian soul was nurtured and protected by the teleological ideals of egalitarian communism. Post 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the idealistic belief system that sustained it, the people have been caste into a psychic pit of self destruction bringing perdition both to themselves and to their world. In this abject state of delirious nihilism, Putin rises up as the anti-Christ, the Lord of Misrule and harbinger of Death without hope. Through ‘Petrov’s Flu’ Russia’s fall from grace her descent into a world without meaning rings like a prophecy come true, the final living out of a nightmare future long foreseen.
Petrov’s visions during his visit to the drunker ‘seer’, the ride with the corpse in the back of the station wagon, the violent episode kicked off by his librarian ex-wife in the library itself, the sci –fi out of body experiences of Petrov and his son all meld into one delusional experiental reality. A reality to which the Russian psyche no longer has the resources with which to cope; only response left is either cynicism and violence or complete passivity.
Serebrennikov points us to Russia as it is in this time of Putin, with the implicit warning that this Russian sickness, like all psycho-social sickness, is a virus that has riddled through the body social. In many respects this Russian virus is the mirror image of the American virus. With its output of Hollywood ‘Superhero’ movies many of which end in cataclysmic violence signifying the apocalyptic end of the world, American is also a society unhinged, detached from any sustaining belief system. Buoyed by technological arrogance, deluded America too is only capable of unleashing the forces of destructive nihilistic omnipotence, in order to sustain itself.
As these twin viruses spread unchecked throughout the world, we move inexorably towards some sort of final reckoning, either as war or as destruction of the planet’s environment.