Soviet Twilight

Soviet Twilight

Who Watches the Night Watch?

by Jeremy Russell
illustration by One Neck

A COUPLE years back there was a corny video game ad campaign in which buttoned-down young professionals burst into hideous subhuman gladiators in moments of frustration. At the end of the ad, a voiceover reminded us that “civilization is only skin deep.” It sounds cheesy, but sometimes profundity arrives wrapped in Velveeta.

About 10 years prior to that ad, I was living in the former Soviet Union, watching as civil society in the region crumbled into chaos replete with mutilated war refugees, flashy night clubs, starving pensioners and mafiosos in Mercedes. It might never have reached the depravity of a war zone, but you could see the skin of socialization stripped from the bones of man’s baser nature.

A few movies, most notably Good Bye, Lenin! (2003), have tried to capture the dislocation that people all over Eastern Europe and Central Asia felt at that time, but none as successfully as a pair of new films from Russia called Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006). These are fantasy films about witches, vampires, shape shifters and magical chalk, but these flights of fancy capture far more accurately the feeling of cosmological terror that one experiences when the rational world undergoes such a radical degeneration.

It’s a testament to how powerfully evocative these movies are that they’ve become the highest-grossing films ever in Russia. In the United States, where only Night Watch has had a theatrical release, the reception has been muddled. Reviewers have called the movie everything from “a cinematic concoction that almost defies description or genre classification” (Deseret News) to “one of those chaotic cartoon movies that refuse to completely add up” (L.A. Times). The only thing people seem able to agree on is that the visuals, produced for a mere $5 million, are fantastic and match anything put out by a major Hollywood studio.

I think what has people so confused is how these incredible visuals are used to unexpected and often subtle effect. When director Timur Bekmambetov shows a man rip open his own arm with a hunting knife, for example, what we’re supposed to notice is not the explosion of blood, but its effect on a passing insect. Even more dramatic, in one memorable scene we see an airliner damaged as it flies through a whirlwind of crows, and as the jet veers off screen, perhaps to crash, the camera follows instead the descent of a single loosed bolt. The bolt tumbles to the roof of an apartment complex, flies into a rusty air vent, clatters down several floors past swarms of cockroaches and then leaps out from a shaft in a young woman’s apartment to land with a plop into her coffee mug. Why the elaborate setup for the seemingly minute payoff? The woman has been cursed, and this is just another indignity that she must suffer because of her curse.

World Inside the World

The story, curses and all, works on two levels (at least). First, it’s an allegory for the transformation of the communist Soviet Union into its chaotic first years as a Coalition of Independent States. Second, and somewhat more profoundly, it exposes the soul of a man caught between the temptations of the new order and the restrictions of the old.

Anton Gorodetsky is our protagonist. Like Harry Potter, he has discovered that there exists within the world that we know a world of magic which is invisible to us because the magicians make it so. Also like young Mister Potter, he discovers that he is a warlock, an “other,” with special powers and abilities beyond the ordinary. No sooner is he introduced to the world of the others than he must make a choice, to serve the light or to serve the dark.

Gorodetsky discovers he is an other in 1992, the same year Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union finally settle into their new independence. The film thereby links the protagonist’s descent from a normal life with the beginning of a new political stage for his country. The moment is too well known to its audience for the connection to be anything but intentional.

“The story takes place in the real world, in real Russian life, but it’s also fantastical,” director Bekmambetov says in an interview at EmanuelLevy.com. “So my idea was to make it feel as real as possible on the screen, while also finding a context for the mystical and the fantastical in contemporary Moscow life.”

The opening scene in 1992 serves only to introduce the plot. Most of the narrative takes place 10 years later, after which Gorodetsky has gone from a mild mannered, if lovelorn, young man to a bleary, dissipated agent of a magical police force called the Night Watch, in the service of the light. Meanwhile, Gorodetsky’s son Egor is now 10 years old and about to be forced to make the same choice between dark and light that Gorodetsky made 10 years before. The first film deals with the time leading up to the boy’s choice, and the second film reveals the consequences of his choice.

You see, long ago the dark and light others were at war, but a truce has been drawn, with certain binding agreements for both sides. Because of this magical cold war, the first thing a person must do when he discovers he is an other is choose sides. For Bekmambetov, this dichotomy is not simply good versus evil or order versus chaos, but competing lifestyles: “They represent two different ways to live—total freedom versus responsibility.”

Gray Area

But this is not Lord of the Rings, with the bad guys in Mordor and the good guys in short pants. The movie isn’t really about the two sides at all. Gorodetsky may be a light other, but his neighbors are dark and still his friends. That is, until Gorodetsky kills a vampire pal of theirs while on assignment. He’s trying to save a child, but now he has violated the truce. This puts him under the investigation of the Day Watch, which acts as a kind of internal affairs force watching the Night Watch. He himself becomes muddled as to where to draw lines between the sides. If the Night Watch issues a vampire a license to drain a victim, isn’t the Night Watch complicit? Doubts like these launch Gorodetsky, and the audience, on an exploration not of freedom versus responsibility, but rather of the vast gray area in between.

This gray area even has an objective correlative, called the Gloom. The Gloom is an alternate dimension where others disappear to when they want to vanish from the sight of humans, and anyone not also in the Gloom. It’s not a safe place—only bloodsuckers, mosquitoes and vampires, can stay there long without being consumed by it—but it provides a quick escape route. Not coincidentally, the Gloom also provides the films with their most vitally original concept and visually arresting imagery. In the scene where the man cuts open his own arm, we learn that the Gloom demands blood from its visitors. In a literal sense, the Gloom is a magical plane of existence contingent to our own, but symbolically, it seems to represents an all-encompassing moral ambiguity. Not only is it all around us, but inside it our will is drained and evil exists undisturbed. I believe it also represents that confusion that descended over the former Soviet states like a fog in the ’90s, destroying the clarity the Soviet system, however harsh, had bestowed.

Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, people’s lives were determined by the state, and the economy was tightly controlled. Liberty was in short supply, but people had their roles in society very clearly defined. Immediately following the dissolution of the Union, startling new freedoms became available. Some people were very good at adapting, others were not. The choices people made in those early days determined to a great extent the course of their lives for years to come. Some grew very rich, but the great majority fell further into poverty than ever before. It would be a decade before a rebound would begin.

In the films, the unstable truce between the dark and light is depicted as having come when two magical armies dressed in medieval armor and wielding swords fought to a standstill on a bridge. At key moments the bridge and the battle reappear in Moscow’s skyline, reminding us that a mighty society of skyscrapers and power generators is but a façade. Despite computers and modern medicine, the horrors of the Dark Age lurk, waiting for us to slip. Scratch the surface of our so-called civilization and you’ll find old grievances; bloodlust and the primal struggle are always there. The citizens of Russia have learned this again. But only 15 years later, they have repaired society to such an extent that it can produce groundbreaking films examining what has now become their past.

Civilization may only be skin deep, but its wounds heal fast. It gives you hope.

Jeremy Russell is a staff writer for Kitchen Sink.

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