Considering Russia’s role in taking Hitler down during WW2 and that its soldiers liberated death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Monowitz-Buna, and Majdanek, it’s questionable how and why Hitler has risen again in that part of the world, where
neo-Nazism seems a viable alternative to many Russian young men.
Russia 88 (the number 88 being a code among neo-Nazis signifying the eighth letter, ‘H’, repeated twice for ‘Heil Hitler’) is a mockumentary film-within-a-film, shot on Super-16 stock, with a hand-held camera. The ‘story’ centres on a group of Russian skinheads making a movie about their organization for YouTube. At first glance, the film doesn’t appear to contain much of a plot, only lengthy intervals where masked militaristic youth shout expletives while they attack people in the streets of Moscow and as they travel on trains. When not beating up random train-riders, the delinquents aggressively approach specific riders and pedestrians, for the purposes of interviewing.
But unlike mainstream journalists, these interviewers use torture-tactics to exact desired responses. These include in-your-face demands that interviewees repeat slogans such as, ‘Russia for Russians’, ‘Down with Jews’, ‘Out with Migrants’ and agree that murder is the only solution for purifying Russia from the ‘parasites’ infesting its borders. Instead of dissipating, violence escalates, as in one scene where a skinhead dressed as an elderly woman, beats a citizen to death, while screaming, ‘That’s how Russians should fight for their rights… Let non-pure scum die’. Other scenes simulate tactical manoeuvers, always taking place against backdrop-portraits of Hitler, to which soldiers shout many an impassioned ‘Sieg Heil’ in homage to their hero.
Previously banned by the Russian government for its extremist portrayals of powerful, neo-Nazi movements in that country Russia 88 was restricted from screenings at Russian festivals and theatres. While the lawsuits against Russia 88 are now abandoned, director Pavel Bardin said that irreparable damage to his film has already been done. ‘People are afraid to do business with us. One citizen from the Ministry of Culture can make a call, and the film disappeared from Russian Film Week in New York’, Bardin said.
Bardin, a thirty-five year old Russian filmmaker from Moscow, is the son of famed animation director and filmmaker, Garri Bardin. Pavel began his career as a journalist and then went on to become a radio and television producer, hosting such political broadcasts as ‘Echo Moscow’ and the talk show ‘Freedom of Speech’. When asked if he was Jewish, Bardin answered, ‘I’m Jewish by blood but don’t practice [the] religion – so that wasn’t the reason [I] created the film’. While Bardin does not accept Nazism in any way, he said, ‘I understand some political and social reasons of neo-Nazi uprisings in Russia, but definitely don’t accept any Nazi ideas. Their theory of pure blood is fraud. Unfortunately, nobody has ever told them that the purer the blood, the more dramatic the degeneracy’. Though the motives for making Russia 88 are not particularly clear-cut, Bardin does believe positive change is possible, and that the truth should always be told.
And while there’s no denying its violence, there’s much to Russia 88 beside sheer brutality and the political ramifications of a possible, global neo-Nazi consolidation. These include the struggle between intellectualism and power, and the simple fact that many Russian youth have no feasible options open to them, such as education and employment. There is also a romantic element within the film, much like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, as the relationship between the neo-Nazi protagonist Blade and his sister Julia is muddied by his extremist reactions to her love for an Azerbaijani.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Russia 88 is what is implied about filmmaking itself, and the ethical responsibility of filmmakers. Blade and his half-Jewish cameraman Edward are filmmakers in Bardin’s film-within-a-film. Their collaboration is precarious in that Blade simultaneously abhors, respects and needs Edward – not only to make their film, but as someone to cling to in his attempt to salvage a humanity slipping from his grasp. In the end when Blade’s violence destroys everyone and everything, Edward continues to roll film, using his camera as both an artistic tool and a weapon of insidious destruction. Much like everything else in Russia 88, Bardin leaves it to his viewers to unravel what it all means, and who the true heroes are.
Amy R. Handler is a filmmaker, writer and critic.