06/09/2010 01:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Russia Is a Cruel Place: A Conversation with Directors Nikita Mikhalkov and Sergei Loznitsa

"We all look for signs of hope and good in life, and the tragic story of my character is perhaps he misread these signs, and he ended up in these quite tragic circumstances."

This is the comment of the intently serious Ukrainian director, Sergei Loznitsa, (see photo) about his most bleak depiction of a truck driver lost on a road trip across a hostile Russia, who encounters one brutal individual after another as he attempts to make a delivery.

Each stranger is a potential murderer or crook, and all are motivated by a ruthless egotism.

In a way, this film -- My Joy, recently premiered at Cannes -- is a Russian version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. An apocalyptic landscape and shut down faces at every turn.

I very much appreciated the film, as a global wake-up call -- or at least as one's man's urgent truth. Sergei, erstwhile documentarian, had used the same cameraman (Oleg Mutu) from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a prize-winning film that had a similar cruel realism to it.


Both films underscored the dark side of human nature in oppressive circumstances.

"This is not just about Russia?" I asked Sergei.

"I can't really say it is universal. I know both Russia and Germany, where I live, and there is a huge gap between these two realities. I see a big difference between West and East. The relationship between a citizen and the representatives of the state is different. Everything starts with human dignity and self-respect. And in Russia I see a huge problem. People try to either escape or disappear, or they try to acquire some way to survive, to escape the pressure, as they don't want to be squashed completely."

"You are not from Russia. So why are you so personally interested in this topic?"

"This subject attracted me because I want to know what humanity really is and what are the circumstances in which we are asked to be human: what we have to do to behave human, and what we can do in a situation which does not have hope."

Sergei continued by saying that yes, the situations in the film--which include police corruption--have a basis in reality. "The last scene of the film when the traffic policeman talks to the driver, and the driver is really scared of the policeman is very normal and common relation between the trucker and the policeman today. For example, in Russia , if a driver is stopped by a policeman, he will jump out of the car and start showing the papers he has, and this shows fear. Can you call yourself a dignified human being if you are in fear before a traffic cop?"

The film makes this point subtly--and strongly. And elicited one journalist to comment:
"It reminds me of my trip in the Ukraine, where I was thrown off the train with my girlfriend--500 miles from the nearest town--when I didn't have the fifty bucks to bribe a policeman."

Yet the film had many dissenters at Cannes: critics who found its ugly view of humanity unbearable.

Then again, any critic would agree that this film is far superior--in ethical intent--to the new film by Nikita Mikhalkov, The Exodus: Burnt by the Sun 2 which---in deploring the violence in Russia during the war period--glorifies images of brutality with sumptuous delight, quite the opposite of Sergei Loznitsa's bleak cinematography. I walked out after a splendid scene in which a tank crushes a human head, in delicious gory detail, shortly after a crowd of people blows up into torsos on a bridge---all magnificently shot, to soaring music, with funding--in part--by the Russian state.

A fellow journalist who walked out explained she would have stayed --however she had an appointment--as she found the violence "quite engaging".

I met Nikita--elegantly posed in a white brimmed hat (reminiscent of that of Aschenbach in Death in Venice, as in a century gone by)---as he pontificated before a group of journalists at poolside. A self-proclaimed Tsarist (with perhaps himself envisioned as the Tsar), Nikita was scoffing at what some journalists accused of as his collusion with Putin and the powers that be:


"Do I express this closeness to the power elite in my films? Name me a picture where you suspect this link. Tell me that one of my pictures is made for the party. If I am friends with someone and he becomes president, do I just stop being friends with him because he is president and I am intellectual? I don't choose my friends because of their political views. Things should go in a natural way."

As for his film--this extravaganza reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster--Nikita explained:

"The inspiration was Saving Private Ryan by Spielberg, With due respect to the allies, I wanted to show another war. We have a different approach to the war in Russia, than do Americans such as Tarrantino in his Inglorious Basterds. One thing is participating in a war far away, it's another thing when the war is going on in your country. All these things are participating in you, even today when the war is over. We are the generation who knew what it was like. Maybe this is why the country has been static, because the people who have power and those in the public have the same genetic memory of the war. Of course, people started forgetting about it with time. Back then, little problems were insignificant in comparison with war. But today, every problem becomes a big one. One of the messages of my movie is the girl who sees my film complaining about a red or blue Bentley realizes how lucky she is to get an ice cream."

He continued: "Russians have objected to my film, because they use it as an excuse to object to me, my family, my father. They accuse me of being authoritarian. Why? Because I manage to find funding for my films. The state can only give one million per film, and I have to find the rest of the money on my own. Never in my life have I asked Putin, our family friend, for money for myself. No prophet is loved in his own land. "

I asked Nikita if he saw a danger in glorifying violence on a big screen, even for such a noble cause as putting war in evidence.

Nikita was quick to deflect the question. "There is a much bigger danger, the glamour on Russian television that one sees 24 hours a day. The only desire for spectators is to be rich, famous and in show-biz. The only thing anyone is thinking about is pleasure. The mostly used word today is comfort and that becomes the main word in human life. People who are used to values like comfort. They don't feel very well when seeing my movies."

I had asked Sergei the inverse of the same question: whether he was upset that his unattractive view of violence--which spurred some of his audience to be repulsed by his film---was (unlike Nikita's film) too uncomfortable for people to watch."

Sergei's response: "Picasso said that art does not exist for decorating your house: art exists to attack. If my film provokes you, this means there is something in yourself that responds to this attack."