Monday, November 17, 2008

Terrorism 100-years-ago: The Rider Named Death (2004) review


Indeed, the Russian film industry is not dead! Karen Shakhnazarov's take on the novel by Boris Savinkov, who could be equated with the main-character "Georges", is nearly flawless! Evoking Moscow during the 1905 Revolution, we are given access to the very secret world of a terrorist cell. It is unlikely--and Shakhnazarov's film illustrates this--that terrorism hasn't changed much at all, just some of the technologies.

From the lushness of Tsarist-circles, to the beggars in the alleys of Moscow, it's a vivid recreation of a time that is gone--and yet still alive with Chechen bombings in the heart of European Russia. The director notes astutely how minor acts of violence accumulate into a senseless bloodbath for its own sake.

The Revolution of 1917 (February by the Social Democrats, then October by the Bolsheviks) began what would be a civil war that didn't really end until Stalin's consolidation of power in the late-1930s. Tens-of-millions were murdered or died of starvation, and it all began with the Socialist Revolutionary Party--a party whose members included Lenin, Stalin, and "Georges."

Shakhnazarov's eye for composition is wonderful, and there are sweeping crane-shots, dollies, and static ones that would make Ozu proud. Most importantly, however, are the close-shots that capture the intimacy of the cell and its inhabitants. Georges dominance (and distance) over his cadre is made clear in every scene the character inhabits. Much of the history of Russian film is on-display here and it is breathtaking.

As part of the Socialist Revolutionary Party's underground, Georges and his cell anticipate Bolshevik terror and a complete surrender to nihilism and a worship of power that was common to that period. This nihilistic philosophy is most evident in cell leader Georges, with gradations in the members of the cell--yet they all yearn for some transcendence in revolutionary suicide. They all share an obsession with Georges and with death itself. Ultimately, Georges represents the human personification of death.

While his compatriots have their own very personal reasons for joining the cause of terrorizing the aristocracy, Georges appears to have no other reason for directing his terror attacks than a desire to kill and to stir Russian society towards...what? Even Georges seems to be unsure why he does what he does, and he doesn't care upon reflection of this fact. That is not an uncommon feeling for terrorists and insurgents, as the Weather Underground sometimes displayed during the late-1960s and early-1970s at times (it should be noted that the Weathermen were just one-of-many groups during the Vietnam war who bombed government buildings, there were thousands of incidents).

But unlike Savinkov and his co-conspirators, the Weathermen never targeted people for death, only property was to be destroyed to weaken an illegal and genocidal war in Southeast Asia. International examples are almost endless.


In-short, a cell leader is responsible for harnessing all these different reasons for why these individuals have "come to the cause." He channels these various agendas towards a few fundamental goals: the destruction of other human beings for some abstract ideology, some abstract end, and the instilling of terror and fear in a population for political ends. There are so many powerful moments in this film which convey these aspects of terrorism that you really must watch it carefully to appreciate the scope of what it's saying, making it an allegory, and one based-on Savinkov's real life experiences. Very few thrillers are this tense, this precise and studied.

There is a very sad poetry here that speaks-directly to the issues facing our own tortured era.

From the rapid-editing in the assassination attempt scenes, to the incredible atmosphere in the making of the bombs, we're treated to the best of Russian cinema. It appears that no-expense was spared in the recreation of early-1900s Tsarist Russia, down to the beggars and the filthy-streets, the uniforms of the Russian Gendarmes ("Отдельный корпус жандармов"). The acting is also of the highest order here, and the sumptuousness of Tsarist physical culture is breathtaking.

It's criminal that this film was not nominated for an MPAA award for Best Foreign Film, it's completely absurd. Without the DVD release by Kino in North America, would we even know it exists? Likely, this was the best-film of all of 2004!

Very few outside of the Slavic-speaking world know about Boris Savinkov and his exploits. There were once some English-language editions of the novel he wrote that was the basis of this great film. It's time to understand the phenomena of terrorism more fully: its genesis, its cultural contexts, and the individual agendas and motivations that spur those peopling its ranks into action. Usually, it's to right a perceived wrong.

The roots, then, of most terrorism, come from injustices committed by the powerful. Savinkov and his cohorts in the SR were hardly the only guilty parties, and they exist in a netherworld where switching sides is a formality. The motivations have a rational-basis, yet murder and death become the final goal and the end-result.


Savinkov was thrown from a window (defenstration) by his Bolshevik interrogators in 1925, crashing onto the cobblestone pavement below. His goal was accomplished: he was dead, and Russia was in ruins, to his eternal shame.


Three centuries of Tsarist oppression, indifference to the plight of the average person, and the devastation of WWI (Russia lost to Germany), gave would-be revolutionaries all the tinder they needed to create a new conflagration. Savinkov and the Bolsheviks were the spark. Russia burned throughout the entire 20th century. Shakhnazarov gives us the weight of Russian and human history in one film. The ultimate source of terrorism--then--is the State and the power backing it. For power, nothing succeeds like failure.

Revised 11.17.2008