Gorod Zero, AKA Zero Town; City Zero
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DIRECTED BY: Karen Shakhnazarov
FEATURING: Leonid Filatov, Vladimir Menshov, Aleksey Zharkov
PLOT: An engineer travels from Moscow to a tiny industrial town where he finds all the residents utterly bizarre, but is ordered to remain when he witnesses a suicide.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: In this ambiguous satire from the final days of the Soviet Union, engineer Varakin finds himself trapped in the purgatorial Zerograd, a not-so-wonderful Wonderland of nude secretaries, suicidal chefs, and rock n’ roll dance enthusiasts. Zerograd can be enjoyed as a weird crawl through an enclave of eccentrics, but it’s also a major historical artifact documenting the dour mood as the Soviet system tottered on the brink of collapse. The Russian identity crisis explored here continues to trouble the world to this day.
COMMENTS: Varasky enters the nowheresville of Zerograd hoping to lodge a simple request to resize panels in air conditioners manufactured in this backwater town. This routine assignment turns out to be a never-ending low-key ordeal when he becomes witness to a suicide (or is it a murder?), which the officials view as a matter of great importance to the State. Varasky’s first hint that something’s not quite right in town comes when he finds the factory’s receptionist typing and watering plants in the nude, a fact her preoccupied boss doesn’t even notice. That’s odd, and having hopefully sorted out the air-conditioner issue in a day, Varasky’s eager to leave town. But, at dinner that night, the cook insists on serving him a desert that he has repeatedly refused to order. It’s a lovingly-crafted cake—perfectly made in the shape of Varasky’s own head. When Varasky refuses to try even a bite, the chef shoots himself. And then Varasky’s troubles begin…
Zerograd funnels Varasky through a series of absurd situations, all of which the engineer accepts with a formal protest followed by a deadpan look of resignation as he realizes it’s pointless to try to swim against the tide of the town’s insanity. Among the adventures the hapless visitor endures are a trip to the town’s subterranean history museum, where elaborate dioramas of uncannily lifelike wax figurines demonstrate moments from history that absolutely did not happen: artifacts from Trojans, Romans and Huns all improbably found in Zerograd. On the wall, a poster proclaims “The Source of Our Strength Lies in Historic Truths.” The malleability of truth to fit the State’s official position becomes one of Zerograd‘s big themes: Varasky’s personal history even seems to be rewritten to connect him to the town. He finds himself unable to leave: trains go into Zerograd, but they don’t go out. And besides, the town’s authorities have more questions for him to answer. He seems doomed to take up a permanent exile in Zerograd.
Zerograd emanates from the Soviet Union’s brief Glasnost period of 1986-1991, when filmmakers and other artists had an unprecedented (if not complete) freedom to follow their muses without fear of reprisal. That promise of freedom notwithstanding, Zerograd is still loathe to criticize the Soviet system directly: instead of savaging its conformity, bureaucracy and rewriting of history, it attacks its targets obliquely, cloaking criticisms in obscure, absurdist jokes. Simultaneously, Zerograd expresses anxiety about encroaching Westernization, symbolized by the ridiculous rock ‘n roll dancing fever sweeping the town’s citizenry, which may be as crazy as the enforced propriety of the old order. A crucial speech by a Communist official at the film’s midpoint describes the difference between the Russian spirit and Western capitalism: the “irrational” willingness of Soviet citizens to subsume their personal interests for something greater than themselves, versus what he views as Europe’s “pragmatic” every-man-for-himself ethos. Despite Varasky’s travails at the hands of the bureaucracy, the official’s plea has some appeal, and the analysis of the Soviet dilemma emerges as ambiguous. Zerograd is a portrait of a society at a crossroads: ready to abandon the past, but unsure of what the future might bring. The film ends with Varakin in an oarless rowboat, floating away in no particular direction; his chance of escaping this limbo and returning to the humble-but-familiar comforts of the Moscow he left behind are laughably remote.
Zerograd had not previously been available on home video in the U.S. Deaf Crocodile comes to the rescue with a Blu-ray release from a restored print from Mosfilm, containing a new interview with director/co-writer Karen Shakhnazarov and a commentary track from film historian Samm Deighan. The disc is available directly from partner Vinegar Syndrome starting today (October 25); it lands with other retailers on November 29.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Nothing makes sense for Varakin here — or, unfortunately, for us. We’re baffled but not interested. Possibly, this is because the director’s sense of the surreal is so obvious and commonplace.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Saule.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)