|“12”, “Burnt by the Sun” and Russian compromise with morality|
|Friday, 05 February 2010|
Lasha Khetsuriani, M.D.*
Nikita Mikhalkov’s 2007 movie “12” has an epigraph (“seek the truth not in mundane details of daily life but in the essence of life itself”) and epilogue (“what’s to be done when compassion is above the law”). Both are presented as quotations from what seems to be a fictitious person, B. Tosia, obviously the inventor of the film creator himself.
To Western public the name – B. Tosia- might sound Japanese indicating some medieval Zen master. But to Russian speaking public Tosia (a diminutive of female name Antonina) in the context it is presented not only sounds funny but also has its significance – deriding Western fascination with oriental “wisdom” leaving insights coming from Russia, even from an ordinary Russian, unnoticed.
B. Tosia’s “deep thoughts” which basically define the film’s coordinates present something characteristically very Russian: looking for the truth in a hidden, profound meaning, “Essence”, undisclosed to all. Such “truth” also gives an excuse to ignore the ordinary, routine related to a common person and justify squalor and unjustness of “mundane daily life” this common man has lived in since the beginning of the Russian history.
The arrogance how this mundane is ignored for the sake of greater good is brilliantly depicted in this film. The one of the main protagonists played by Mikhalkov himself, picked as a jury foreman (the film is a remake of American “Twelve Angry Men”) deliberating in murder trial knows from the beginning that the accused young man from Chechnya in not guilty. He is a retired Russian officer (KGB?) and able to notice the facts indicating innocence of the defendant. Instead of presenting his arguments ex officer, now amateur painter rushes the jurors into taking an initial vote he himself voting “guilty”. Again, knowing that the accused is innocent.
Unless a single unpredictable “not guilty” vote, the innocent man would have been sent to jail. However, as it turned out by the end of the film, that was the intention of the Mikhalkov’s character. Why? Because by releasing “the Chechen boy” from prison, leaving the relative security of jail, he would have been subjected to a lethal danger-killed by real killers.
Here comes handy the mysterious B. Tosia quote from the epilog -“what’s to be done when compassion is above the law”. What seems to be a brutal manipulation with a man’s life hides the greater good for the sake of the same man, not for the universals like “freedom” or “country” (that goes without saying), but for the sake of the victim him/herself.
“Mundane details of daily life” might seem outrageously unjust but they conceal highest compassion in their “essence”. Is not this a description of the Russian narrative - ideological story line this nation defines itself and identifies with? The narrative indicating that despite the utmost contempt and disregard to a human being, disregard to an ordinary, (“mundane”) person with his rights and way of living, manifested in throughout the Russian history 50 million victims of Stalinism not being the only determinant, despite the harshness and brutality of everyday life in contemporary Russia, she (the country) can offer something more “essential”, hidden, some “spiritual wealth and wisdom” to lead the humanity to the true path of salvation, away from “the corrupt western way”.
“One can not understand Russia by mind, one should feel her by heart” – goes famous Russian saying, so much often quoted by Mr. Mikhalkov himself.
The Russian narrative as unceremonious disregard and manipulation with a human being’s life for the sake of the greater good permeates the film in spite of “the happy ending” of acquittal of the innocent.
It seems jury foreman’s agenda is to settle on “the greater good” storyline, compassion given and unbeknown to the receiver, rather then to help single blood and flash person. Otherwise it is hard to understand complicated plans he comes up with to “help”.
First it was the speeding up the initial vote to convict “the Chechen”, then, when the first plan failed, still to have the jurors to convict him after proving the boy’s innocence (?) and get the same jurors organized to release the imprisoned “in due time” (the offer rejected by the others). Why he had not done the latter from the beginning? Why sending the innocent man to prison with much fewer possibilities to free him afterwards when the jurors themselves would have believed in guilty verdict? There would have been no chance to have oblivious jurors organized to free the innocent “in due time”.
Or why not acquitting the boy from the start and taking him under his protection as he does eventually? Was this the last resort after plan A and B failed? Was ex-officer afraid of getting involved too much in the innocent man’s life and he would rather send him to a less dangerous place - prison? But if this is so where comes this “Dirty Harry-like bravado he shows by promising “the boy” to” get them” (real killers) from?
The whole motivation and reasoning of the main character, so shamelessly portrayed by Mikhalkov as an all-good guy, must be questioned for ulterior, mostly unconscious, motives. These motives get clearer in context of the actual facts this movie is based on, when remembered that not long ago Putin’s Russia brutally eliminated 30,000 citizens of Chechnya, most of them children and women. Mikhalkov’s all good-guy character, ex-officer (pardon me, there is no ex- Russian KGB officer as Mr. Putin stated and jury foreman repeats in the film), Russian intelligent from Chekov’s play look-alike, who speaks in Chechnyan (unheard of in Russian standards), represent the same state committed such an atrocity. Whitewashing the main character, portraying him as “thoughtful, sensitive guy” who breaks down in tears when he reveals to others his past occupation (the tears he shows have nothing to do with pain and guilt of traumatized ex-combat veteran, they are related to a nostalgic remembrance of the past life of a KGB officer and overwhelming pride of being one) is a lame attempt to justify the atrocities. “The compassion which supersedes the law, actions which might seem brutal and need to be looked in the essence”, apply to the state’s murdering of innocents as well.
The movie shows Russian fascination with Caucasian dance, the dignity Chechen fighters carry themselves, their warrior image. At the same time the film well illustrates all pervasive sentiment of disgust the contemporary Russians have towards Caucasians in general - “savages who do not even talk correct Russian”. The accused protagonist is being constantly called ‘a little savage”, he needs to be rescued, by uncle Kolia first then by other uncle, taught “correct”, “civilized” Russian.
A nightmare of the accused is watching his murdered mother talking in Chechnyan. The boy is screaming to her in his dream – “mother, speak Russian!”. He knows that unless he is “civilized “ by becoming completely Russian (speaking in Russian all the time signifies this) he will be killed for his greater good. “The compassion” which is above the law suffocates you to death.
Sigmund Freud in his assay on Dostoevsky says, “compromise with morality is a characteristic Russian trait”. According to Freud this is a compromise of a man “who alternatively sins and then in his remorse erects high “moral standards” as an excuse for disgraceful behavior. “ He (such a man) reminds one of the barbarians of the great migrations who MURDERED AND DID PENANCE FOR IT, TILL PENANCE BECAME AN ACTUAL TECHNIQE FOR ENABLING MURDER TO BE DONE”. (See Dostoevsky and Parricide, SE, Vol. 21)
In this movie very little, if any, penance is shown about the murder of hundreds of thousand Caucasians since Russia conquered the region in 19th century. Not to say of ten thousand of Chechens the movie is based on. However there is plenty of moralizing and rationalizing to erect “high moral standards” like hidden compassion unbeknownst to the object of this compassion.
This movie resonates with previous brilliant film by Mikhalkov – “Burnt by the Sun”. The mantra film’s protagonist, KGB colonel (once more) Sergei Krotov, repeats over and over again - “One should only love his motherland fervently”- is another “moral standard” justifying and enabling immoral behavior.
Krotov played by Mikhalkov, “compassionate” patriarchal figure admired by all who surround him, is about to be arrested for false charges of espionage. He is confronted by his wife’s former love interest, a man he (Krotov) had arrested first and forcibly recruited into the KGB afterward.
Just like jury foreman from “12” this KGB officer, decorated Civil War Hero and old Bolshevik, is unable to feel remorse. Sentiments of biblical David repenting after having his mistress‘s (Bathsheba) husband (Uriah) killed are odd to him. He knows he took away his wife from “ a scumbag” who betrayed 5 of his own comrades, he knows he recruited him “ for the sake of the motherland “.
These Mikhalkov’s characters can’t see immoral acts; they can’t act immorally because they are Russian Officers. As far as the service to “Otechestvo” involved any act by definition is moral, even if it is hard to discern in “the mundane details of daily life”
“The essence of morality is renunciation” writes Freud, not compromise. One can only hope that Russia will renounce terrible acts she has caused to her own citizens and other nations beside Caucasus and start to erect true moral standards, not a trampoline “enabling more murder to be done”, the standards like compassion, compassion openly displayed and seen by all, not to be sought in the hidden “essence of life itself”.
Lasha Khetsuriani is a psychiatrist in New York, NY and a frequent contributor to Georgian Daily analytical articles.