Adam Curtis’ astonishing autopsy of the fall of Russia will leave you wide-eyed
Jasper Rees – October 13, 2022
- Adam CurtisBritish documentary filmmaker (born 1955)
A long dark road ploughs through a wasteland of snow towards an icy horizon. Welcome, this opening image unequivocally says, to post-Soviet hell, where women wait in line for meat and abortions, men brawl in banks and parliaments, where everyone sells anything to survive – shoes, bodies, blood.
In Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone (BBC iPlayer), documentary essayist Adam Curtis has filleted thousands of hours of unused footage from the BBC’s archive to craft a phantasmagoric autopsy of the USSR as it breaks apart in a thousand brutal ways, making way for capitalism. The result is a garish multi-part disaster epic.
Onto a boundless compendium of chaos Curtis has contrived to impose structure via canny juxtapositions and ironic echoes. Thus in the first film the corpse of Kim Philby seems to symbolize the death of communism. In the last film, it’s the turn of democracy to lie in an open casket at the funeral of politician Galina Starovoitova, murdered a month after speaking to the BBC. In between, the leitmotif of death is everywhere from Chernobyl to Chechnya, from the reassembled bones of the last tsar to the looted graves of German soldiers.
No film by Curtis comes without a portion of irate mansplaining, crammed here into captions which tell of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and a harmless-looking pipsqueak called Putin the oligarchs finally install as their puppet. Mainly, though, he lets astonishing pictures do the talking.
“May the Russians and all generations of Russians be damned to hell!” screams a woman fleeing the bombing of Grozny. Elsewhere, expectant Russian mothers are coached to sing to their unborn children who’ll now be old enough to bomb Zaporizhzhia.
Alongside such dolorous portents, surreal metaphors for delusion and dysfunction sprout like irradiated knotweed. Grotesque bodybuilders flex pecs under giant images of Marx and Lenin. A bear wanders the forest by night, infra-red eyes glaring as if in psychic shock. A cosmonaut is marooned in the Mir station because there’s no money to fly him home.
From America, among many chancers, comes a motivational speaker teaching Russia’s women to smile. The most captivating smile of all belongs to wily street beggar Natasha. Imagine Shirley Temple in a novel by Dostoevsky. Filmed across several years by a BBC crew, like a good capitalist she eventually requests remuneration. “You’ll get paid,” she argues, “and it’s costing me my time.” This staggering masterpiece is worth yours.