The film The Tower: A Songspiel is an acutely topical sociopolitical musical satire. It was conceived in this way and produced accordingly. The film is chockablock with witty, biting lines and episodes, and a great deal of humor and fun (at the premiere screening the audience laughed heartily in all the right places), but it makes for oppressive viewing on the whole. This is mostly due, of course, to the finale: entangled and crushed by tentacle-like red phone lines, the “grassroots” are frozen in unambiguous poses of resignation, defeat, and impotence. This final scene is accompanied by a surprisingly classical-sounding, agonizingly interminable chamber music coda, which is appropriately designated in the screenplay: “string quartet of impotence.”
The political implications of this finale are seemingly obvious. (Especially considering the fact that the quartet is distantly reminiscent of the famous funeral dirge from the revolutionary movement of the 1880s, “You Fell Victim in the Fateful Struggle,” although without the latter’s powerful, mournful resonance.) Indeed, despite isolated local or temporary successes, as in the battle against the construction of Okhta Center depicted in the film, neither Petersburg nor the country as a whole has seen the emergence of a powerful, influential opposition, a powerful trade union movement or independent movements of any kind that would be able to speak on equal terms with the authorities (rather than moan like the chorus in the first song, “We are victims in our country”). The movements that do exist are small, scattered, incapable of articulating a broad, unifying political platform, and riven by internal contradictions. The idea of a Leninist-type party, with strictly hierarchical organization and discipline, has apparently had its day and attracts only those on the fringe. Even when public intellectuals and artists do express sympathy for the leftist or social-democratic tradition, the majority of this “critically minded vanguard class” is in one way or another integrated into the machine of the capitalist culture industry (or desires to be so incorporated), thus making its position extremely vulnerable.[i] Civic initiatives are instantly suppressed or intercepted and recoded by the authorities. There is an overall sense that the authorities are constantly one step ahead of anything squirming down below, thus relegating the grassroots to a profoundly reactive function and condemning them to interpassivity. In the context of Russia’s “sovereign democracy,” all these things, especially the persecution of activists and the repression of the slightest manifestation of civic resistance, turn the very notion of civil society (even in its liberal-bourgeois, pre-Marxian interpretation)[ii] into something verging on parody.It is not a comforting picture. In the film, this picture is even more exaggerated, amplified as it is by the flagrantly caricatured portraits of not only the powers that be and their footservants from the “creative class,” but also of the “dissenters,” including “members of the intelligentsia,” “civil rights activists,” and a “leftist radical.” The only thing that unites this ill-assorted “civil society” (which does not constitute a community) is resentment at the police’s outrageous rough justice. In every other way, they are either deaf or hostile to one another. Atomization, mutual deafness, and the antagonism of different class interests (an antagonism that is not clearly articulated – that is, is not comprehended as such) are the birthmarks of the post-Soviet condition, but in the controversy over plans to build Okhta Center they shine forth in a particularly grotesque way. All the characters speak in threadbare clichйs. They are cartoonish, absurd, and out of touch, with the exception of a fabulously idiotic trio of glam girls, eager to cast off “old junk,” and a giant with a wonderfully expressive face who remains silent throughout the proceedings. He is perhaps the most engaging figure, a kind of punctum to the entire film. (He is simultaneously reminiscent of writer, filmmaker and actor Vasily Shukshin’s rural eccentrics and the country bumpkin type in Russian literature, who might remain silent for a time and appear indifferent, but is capable of suddenly awakening, as does the hero Ilya Muromets in the bylina folk epics, or of speaking up at the top of his lungs, (un)like Pushkin’s “silent people,” in Boris Godunov.)In other words, none of the characters who open their mouths in the songspiel elicit sympathy, much less compassion. And there is something oppressive about this as well because the sculptural composition and music of the finale presume – nay, insist on – the transition to this affective register, the register of tragedy. I shudder as if I have been struck, but the transition does not take place; on the contrary, it is as if I have run into something hard inside me, some kind of reflexive obstacle or obstacle to reflection. And it is here, via this obstacle, that I encounter a problematic that is not reducible to the political in the narrow sense indicated above (the “power vertical” and the relationship between the “upper crust” and the “grassroots”). Let us attempt once more to go over the film’s nodal, structuring points.
As in previous recent films by Chto Delat – Perestroika Songspiel: Victory over the Coup (2008) and Partisan Songspiel: A Belgrade Story (2009) – The Tower: A Songspiel declaratively adheres to Brecht’s concept of epic theater. This theater is by definition political, independently of the topic of any specific production, in the sense that all its elements – from a play’s text to acting technique, from musical accompaniment to scenography, from the lighting scheme to the audience’s position vis-а-vis the stage (which we should note is always displaced, situated – if it is possible to put it this way – in the midst of a search for its own – critical – point of view, which at its limit is the point where a historical subject emerges) – confront the soporific bourgeois theater (theater as entertainment, theater as commodity), as well as the illusionistic, mimetic Aristotelian theater, with its “empathy,” “catharsis,” and stationary, perpetually frontal box-like stage, a form of theater that has degraded into psychological realism. Generally speaking, what is at stake in the epic or dialectical theater (as Brecht later preferred to call it) is the (aesthetic) status of (represented) reality. This, by the way, was the source of tension in all modernist and avant-garde revolutions in twentieth-century art: to capture, make palpable, and lay bare the new, more “real” reality hidden behind the “old” reality to which we are accustomed. For the materialist Brecht, this old reality was the theatrical apparatus as a copy of social relations, the very method of theatrical production itself as the production of aesthetic illusion (“reality”), which had to be subjected to the estrangement effect, exposed as false consciousness, and imploded. In terms of theatrical www, the dialectical method meant questioning absolutely all the artistic elements that make up a performance and exposing all the hidden contradictions that are the driving force of (theatrical) history – first and foremost, the contradiction between structure and material or, to put it the old-fashioned way, between form and content.
First of all, however, this songspiel film is not a theatrical performance. Second, The Tower is not so much an heir to the epic theater as such, as to one of its sidelines – Brecht’s so-called Lehrstьcke (“learning plays”) of the early thirties, which have their origins in the medieval genre of morality plays (for the simple folk) and simulate a specific sociopolitical situation so that the spectator learns how to ask wholly specific questions and reach wholly specific conclusions. In such plays, education is interwoven with visual propaganda, laughter at the characters with the choice of one’s own stance. This is also a kind of dialectics, but one that is, so to speak, forced, streamlined, and subordinated to a specific historical moment (the schism in the German workers movement, the threat of the Nazis coming to power).
The Tower lacks the dynamic tension between form and content that would make it genuinely dialectical. Their relationship is static. Form does not emerge over the course of the action: from the very outset the structure is strictly and immutably defined, remaining practically unchanged to the very end. (That is, if we leave aside the quasi-tragic coda, which is problematic because the purely farcical style of the preceding action, including the telephone call from on high, from the Big Boss Himself, has not prepared us for such an ending.) The actors function in a single – again, farcical – mode: they do not step out of their roles, baring the device as Brecht demanded, because here the device is total – there is nothing for them to step out of. What patterns their performance – a mercenary attitude and mercantile interests barely veiled by rhetoric – is all too easily readable, just as the geometric pattern of the camera’s movements is easily discerned. However, it is just this static quality and inertia that fully correspond to the real state of affairs, i.e., to social relations in contemporary Russia, whose model in the film is the controversy over plans to build Okhta Center. Just as civil society is incapable of offering a coherent alternative to the catastrophic policies of the powers that be and, at least in the present historical conjuncture, of becoming a subject (hence the sense of doom and impotence), so too does the structure of the film – to the degree that it adheres to the realist (critical) tendency – correspond to its mundanely catastrophic material.
We should say a few words about the realist tendency, which is present in the film as it were in spite or on top of the theatrical conventions and grotesquerie. Its current variety, which is employed in The Tower – political narrative – is clearly polemical insofar as it confounds the expectations of (contemporary) art connoisseurs, who demand complex, labored form and associate narrativity with the “low,” vulgar genres. It is, however, one of the most democratic forms of artistic communication, accessible to the greater public, and what is more it corresponds to the filmmakers’ ultimate task – to contemplate art’s social function here and now without succumbing to editorializing and civic posturing. Art’s social function does not exist abstractly, in and of itself, in isolation from the conditions of production and the distribution of cultural goods. Hence the film has been put online in the public domain and has become a bifurcation point: it is referenced in articles about new developments in the Gazprom skyscraper story, and urban planning and other problems in the city.
The politicization of the means of aesthetic production is, however, also present within the construction of the film itself. It is played out in the polemic with the trend toward “new abstractionism” or the “silent abstract art object” а la Adorno, which through its silence alone allegedly protests against the injustice that reigns in the world. This “silence” is repudiated not so much by showing how the artist in the film strives to carry out commissions for the powers that be by nimbly trimming his own discourse to every shift in the ideological winds, as much as by the very materiality of the object he has produced, which borders on kitsch: an enormous “cigar” fashioned from the wood of a 200-year-old cedar tree taken from Mount Athos and covered with gold leaf and Suprematist crosses. This neo-modernist ersatz art, meant to adorn the skyscraper (itself a symbol of a capitalist Russia “risen from its knees,” as the regime and its supporters put it) is opposed by the market-square, carnivalesque aesthetic of the film, which renders the social function of the “silent object” and the conditions of its production glaringly visible. Moreover, in the finale’s unexpectedly mournful, “funereal” sculptural composition we can likewise discern an allegorical representation of two historically overdetermined types of art: we see figurative elements (people’s bodies) “suffocated” by (revolutionary) red “abstract” phone lines, which are nothing other than power’s circulatory system, the lines of its internal plumbing, communications, and secretory systems, which the grassroots lay out over the course of the entire film. The circle has closed. In its contemporary phase, the meshing of biopolitics/biopower and capital is such that it leaves room only for Trauerspiel-like allegory brimming with ambiguity and melancholy, but not for classical tragedy. And since we have just recalled Benjamin and his work on German baroque drama, which itself emerged during a period of furious primitive accumulation (effected via the pillaging of colonies and the slave trade), then we should also end this essay by paraphrasing his words: the continuum of history must be exploded. Other actors must take the stage.
[i]Here we have in mind the rare intellectuals and artists who are either in demand by the mass media or are allowed to publish in the popular press or appear on air. At the same time, there exist a small number of individual figures and groupings, as well as the so-called non-systemic opposition. At present, it is simply impossible for them to express their views in the state-controlled media.
[ii]See Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (Penguin Classics, 1992), pp. 211–241. Especially telling is the passage where Marx describes the split between the political community (the state), in which the individual considers himself a communal being, and civil society, “where he is active as a private individual, regards other men as a means, debases himself to a means and becomes the plaything of alien powers” (p. 220).