An Interview With Andrey Zvyagintsev: Leviathan and Loveless
Since 2003’s The Return, Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev has remained a prominent figure on the international circuit. His precise, long-take visual style and severe, quasi-noir portraits of contemporary domestic life (including 2007’s The Banishment and 2011’s Elena) have excited auteurists and American distributors alike. Despite the implicit cultural critiques of his last two films—Leviathan (2014) and Loveless (2017)—both were Russia’s official submissions to the Oscars, and resulted in Academy Award nominations. Part of Zvyagintsev’s international success may reside in his emphasis on the moral and spiritual compromises of his characters and his regular claims of political disinterest, but the personal dramas he relates are inevitably conveyed as part of a much wider social fabric that remains corrupt, unjust, and hauntingly inadequate.
Doug Cummings and Maria Trakovsky spoke to the director in the following interview, which took place in two parts in conjunction with the screenings of Leviathan and Loveless at AFI Fest in Los Angeles in 2014 and 2017. Zvyagintsev’s answers have been translated from Russian by Maria Trakovsky.
Part I: Leviathan
Doug Cummings: Have you seen the film with an American audience before?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: We came after the end titles, as they were running. If you watch with every audience, the movie will blind you.
DC: How so?
AZ: Well, since May, I can count about 300 showings of it… and obviously I’m not watching the picture every time.
DC: I ask because I think there is a lot of humor in the film, and there was a lot of laughter in the theatre, but I’ve also read some American reviewers who’ve said there is no humor in the film at all. So, I’m wondering if the humor translates well, and if everyone picks up on it.
AZ: In general, it’s strange for me to hear that some American journalists—film critics, I don’t know who—say that there is nothing funny in the movie. After all, you were in the theatre, and the audience laughed out loud. For me, it’s strange to dispute the obvious.
DC: Of course, there is a large Russian community here in Hollywood.
AZ: No, no, no. That’s not it, I’m sure. In Cannes, in May, there was a screening for a huge audience—2,200 seats in the theatre—and naturally, all of those people could not have been Russians. And I distinctly heard, I could identify where—in which regions of the theatre—the Russians were sitting, and where the non-Russian speaking audiences sat. Because, first of all, the non-Russians were a little late in their reactions due to the subtitles; and second, they may have been “following,” as it were, the Russian audience in those places where the humor was not obvious, where one needed to have some kind of a “cultural code” in order to recognize the Russian slang and so forth. But it’s impossible for me to imagine a situation where audiences from other countries support the Russians just out of a sense of solidarity, and therefore also laugh.
Maria Trakovsky: There is a moment in the beginning of the film, where one man tells another: “Couldn’t he have bought a normal car?” to which the other replies: “Maybe he is honest.” This results in laughter between the two.
If in today’s Russia any person’s fate (their personal trajectory, their life path) can be destroyed, disrupted by the “troika” [the three-judge panel used in Stalin’s time]… If it is a feudal cynical system with a vertical structure of power and a developing cult of personality, then how can a person, a citizen, an artist—or just simply a human being—live in such a world?
AZ: Well, this is not a simple question. I don’t even know how to answer it.
Each person decides on the answer to this question for himself. It is obvious that there is a restoration going on right now of the Soviet stroi—way to be, way of life—a restoration of the Soviet rhetoric. It cannot exist by itself without substance, so I think that there is a return of everything, all at once. And it is especially sad to see that this is happening to young people. The youth are joining this because they don’t have any experience, they do not know what the Soviet Union was. But they are somehow becoming Soviet citizens, Soviet people, with ease. How could they know it? From where? The Stalin times, the Soviet times, the Brezhnev times… How could they know about these, if they were born in 1985?
MT: Of course.
AZ: Or even in the years 1989, 1991. There have been times that were even harder. The times of Stalinism were simply monstrous times… when the very appearance of being human or what it means to be a person—personhood itself—changed at its base level. It had to do with the roots, the foundations of being human, almost on a physiological level. Fear would enter the flesh. And from there, it was removed with great difficulty. And this is why Stalinism was probably the most terrifying time.
MT: So, Stalinism was much more severe in nature. If I recall correctly, somebody once said that a human being could be turned into an animal by 10 days in Stalin’s prison, Lubyanka.
DC: Your critique of a post-Soviet system in Leviathan reminds me of an earlier film, a Soviet critique, called Repentance (1984).
DC: Repentance is a satire, a very extravagant, larger-than-life satire, whereas your critique is slice-of-life, down to earth and more subtle. I don’t know if you’ve thought about those two films in comparison, or might think about those two films in this way?
AZ: I watched the film Repentance a very long time ago, and only once, when it came out on the big screen. Because for quite a while that film was censored, so it was not released… and to be honest, I don’t remember, and that is why I can’t comment on any parallels.
AC: Sure, that’s fine.
AZ: Except for one parallel that I just remembered… it came to my memory just now. In the very end, there is an elderly lady who asks, “Where does this road lead to, does it lead to the church?” And someone answers her, “Why do you need the road, if it leads to the church?” This phrase is in the finale of the film Repentance. It resounded with me, I remember it. And partially (laughs)… maybe there is some kind of parallel.
MT: Could you elaborate on that?
AZ: Repentance was a film that—let’s put it this way—was shot “post-factum.” It invited one to reconsider the Soviet past. That is, to repent for what has been. It’s no coincidence that the title of the film is Repentance. It asks us to get rid of the Soviet past, and to come to a new understanding of the way forward.
Leviathan tells of the current day. It’s about today—the here and now. In addition, I would, of course, like to hope that the film is much wider, is significantly broader than merely a story about Russian realities. This is—more generally speaking—human fate, everywhere and anywhere.
MT: It’s universal.
AZ: Yes, and I think that’s why the film is understood in any corner of the world. Because it’s absolutely obvious that a human being always exists in opposition against the system of values that is imposed upon him or her by the State. And, depending upon whose hands this State machine falls into, that determines, to a large degree, how loyal this system of interrelationships is.
MT: In Leviathan, when the heroine is on her way to the fish processing factory, there is a scene where she is sitting in the bus with other women, and for a few seconds the lighting changes in such a way that these individual women that we are looking at suddenly become black silhouettes.
MT: What did you want to convey with this or was this simply a random moment?
AZ: (laughs) Like a misunderstanding of some kind, right?
MT: Well, I was wondering if the people are symbolic, or are they individuals?
AZ: Uh huh. I like your question much more than the answer that is going to follow.
MT: Thank you.
AZ: Honestly, it’s a very strong observation. For us, in a certain way, it was a matter of luck. We needed four takes. This was all we had time for given early morning conditions, so this was a very complicated shot. We had to turn the bus around again and go back to the starting point, and drive down the road again. It was complex to turn the camera around its axis. It was on a track, and of an extremely heavy construction. And here, we were lucky, because at that very spot where the camera is turning around, there stood a building about three to four stories high that blocked the source of light. By the way, all those women were the actual staff of the fish factory.
DC: I thought it was strange that an audience member asked if the “Leviathan” was a metaphor for alcoholism since there is so much drinking in the film.
AZ: (laughing) Uh-huh.
DC: For me, the images of a whale in the ocean and a carcass on the beach suggest there is something hidden but emerging that might resemble a “sleeping giant.”
DC: It seems to build, toward the end of the film, into a sense of outrage at injustice.
DC: I’m wondering if the Leviathan can be seen as a hidden power—maybe even the audience itself—that could awaken to oppose injustice?
AZ: It’s possible that the alcohol was a funny comment, but in my view, it is not sufficiently precise. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that alcohol acts as a kind of indicator. That is, depending on which sort of vessel the alcohol is being poured into, it is there that its own particular inner Leviathan awakens. Each person has their own.
For Hobbes, the Leviathan is the State. Hobbes proceeds from the notion that the Leviathan, in ancient mythology, is a terrifying, massive, enormous, horrific creature that lives in the depths of the ocean. And it threatens humankind as Chaos, as a horrifying force, often represented by Satan himself.
DC: Yes, it’s a monster.
AZ: Yes, “monster.” And to add to our discussion of visual representations, I’ve heard recently—or, I actually think I may have read it somewhere—a phrase, which I really liked. It’s an old tale, a symbolic saying. It tells us that the waves at the surface of the ocean form because underneath, below, at the bottom of the ocean—Leviathan is slowly stirring. What a powerful image!
MT: I’ve read that you consider yourself a fairly apolitical person; simply an artist. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see this film without thinking about contemporary Russia. For example, today is the 9th of November. Twenty-five years ago, the Berlin Wall came down, right? And Gorbachev is in Berlin this week speaking and drawing comparisons between then and now.
MT: I read in your biography that around that time, in the years 1986-‘87, you went to Moscow as a young man. You studied acting and you worked as a garbage collector (or janitor), so you had the chance to see the entire spectrum of Russian society. What would you tell us as your parting words?
AZ: Well… in essence, film is, in fact, observation. It seems to me. For me, there is nothing really to add. It is true that I am unmoved by politics, believe it or not. I am completely divorced from that context. And I mean that in a literal sense—I have no TV at home. It’s been more than a year now since I’ve watched the news. Thus, fortunately, I do not see, I am not observing this downfall of people right now playing a propaganda game. And anyway, I live by a different set of values and so forth. But still, it is impossible not to observe. It’s impossible not to get caught up in these perceptual spaces, these relational fields of thought, about this or that… Naturally, I cannot completely turn off the external.
MT: “We live, not sensing our own country beneath us.” [The opening line of Osip Mandelshtam’s famed 1933 poem, “The Stalin Epigram,” which lead to his arrest and death.]
AZ: “We live without feeling the country beneath us.” [Offering a more generally accepted version of this line.]
No, it doesn’t seem like that can be done. It’s just not possible; no, of course not.
This is not realistic. It is not realistic to do even if you wanted to.
I am very dismayed by the alliance between the Church (Russian Orthodox Church) and the State. Essentially, it robs the Church of the opportunity to bestow its own ethical evaluations, its own independent moral judgments on what is happening right now. In this way, the Church is forced into a kind of imprisonment, as it were.
It becomes a captive, a hostage who is obliged to, at a minimum, keep silent, and maybe even intercede on behalf of… well, no, scratch that—just be silent. That should be enough. At this point, there is a period. Just—“to be silent.” Period.
MT: To be silent.
AZ: Yes. Because this instrument of opposition, this system of back and forth feedback, with signals and responses—this has to function! It is imperative! It is imperative that it should work, that this instrument is fully operational, in order to provide a moral assessment. Because if not this, then what, who?
Who else can give an ethical assessment?
MT: Are you a person of faith?
AZ: Well, so… I consider myself a secular person, to the degree that I believe in God, but not in priests. Or hierarchies within religions. Or letters or rocks.
Part II: Loveless
MT: The last time we met, you said that you did not even own a TV and hardly watch it at all. Is that still the case? In the beginning of Loveless, the characters are isolated and disconnected, and by the end it is clear that modern technologies justify this new form of separation and exacerbate it. Could you please share a few thoughts about television and the “iPhone civilization” in this film, and in general in your art? Do you think that the “iPhone civilization” fosters a “loveless” state, or is it merely a symptom of this condition?
AZ: Right now, many people are talking about the intense focus of everybody on gadgets as a kind of illness, literally a virus, where instead of socializing and connecting while sitting at a communal table, for instance, people cling to their smartphones, and each person exists separately in their own virtual world. It is possible to say that in Loveless there is a simple statement of fact, an acknowledgment of this reality, but, of course, I have a critical attitude towards it. The saddest thing is that I catch myself at this as well. My young son tells me, “Look what I have!” I reply, “Hold on, son, I have to answer this text right now, sorry.” He sighs, leaves to the playroom and I suddenly realize: what am I doing? Having finished the picture, I try to be more attentive towards this issue.
Now, about television. Yes, there has not been any trace of television at my home for nine years. My son is eight years old right now. With my wife, we decided to get rid of the television before he was even born. And we feel great without it. Television is biased informing (I don’t think this is in any major way different in the United States) and endless entertainment, at times nauseatingly trite and tasteless. Believe me, one can manage without this junk food.
As far as your question about the “civilization of gadgets,” it seems to me that all these devices merely exposed—made visible—those qualities that have always characterized humanity. Human beings have always been for the most part self-centered and egotistical, placing their own interests above all else. People have always had trouble hiding their tiresome tendency to look at another as a means of achieving one’s own goals. Previously, a person simply masqueraded behind other attributes and all-familiar games. But now, when a person literally has in the palm of their hand an instant connection to the entire abyss of informational space—now it is difficult for them to hide their preoccupation with themselves.
What I mean is that I’m not sure that it’s due to the appearance of tablets and smartphones that something happened to human beings that would allow us to discuss this something as symptoms of lovelessness or a lack of empathy towards others. It has always been this way, but now it has become obvious. One thing can be said with certainty: before we looked into each other’s eyes more often.
DC: In some ways, Loveless echoes your first film, The Return (2003), with its focus on a neglected child. But the new film is more despairing, and might be compared to a film like Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1948) in its tragic force. What interests you in stories about children?
AZ: It is not easy for me to answer questions that may be tied to self-observation, to a comprehensive analysis of those themes that excite me most within the creative act. I do not do this, I do not “work out” (in the psychoanalytic sense of this term) some kinds of traumatic events or problems. It just so happens that in my films a lot of attention is devoted to children. That’s all. Perhaps it is simply because when you get into the most intimate sphere of human thought—the family—you involuntarily meet there with a child as a synthesis of this turbulent triad: mother, father, child.
DC: Today, there is a discussion within film circles of a kind of slow cinema (with historical antecedents such as Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Tarr, etc.) and I was impressed with how much of Loveless involves waiting and searching without finding. Do you see that as a method of suspense, or something else?
AZ: I find it difficult to think in terms of categories of “methods”, or to try to justify such an extensive part of the film with the fruitless search for the boy, in any kind of structurally speculative way. I make films as I see fit, and in doing so I rely only on my own feelings. That is, I obey instinct and the irrational, and thus the means of narrative are dictated to me not by the apparatus of genre clichés but rather by the inner workings of the concept itself.
But I would be interested in learning the result of these discussions. Here I am, living and not knowing that apparently cinema studies circles are inquiring into such, I would say, elusive things. Let me know later, please, what conclusion the film scholars arrive at.
But the most basic response that came to my mind as soon as I heard your question was this: it seems to me that “slow cinema” generates more trust, it is trustworthy. It does not try to appease or curry favor with the viewer, it has no need for gimmicks in front of the audience, and in general it does not require anyone’s approval.
A quick story, a digest, if you will, wants to tell you its tale as soon as possible. Slowness does not hurry like that. It is as though it knows that the whole point is not in the story itself, but in how it will be unveiled before the eyes of the viewer. Suggestion bewitches no less than attractions. I think that it’s precisely because of a greater trust in the viewer that such narrative fabric is born, just as it demands from the viewer an equally trustful investment of time, and inner, interior work.