The Most Beautiful Fraud: The Rider Named Death
The use of violence is not only one of the most powerful conundrums not only in fiction, but in life. In art, the most problematic aspect of violence is that it is often used as a framework for threat and action, designed to bring viewers into a story who might not otherwise have the patience for an ordinary story of struggle and pain; the risk is that the lurid quality of the violence will overwhelm the intention. In life, the principled behavior of pacifists in struggles for civil rights and liberation movements frequently conflicts with the more violent urges towards revolutionary action; without Martin Luther Kings, activism has no acceptable public face, but without Watts Riots, oppressors have little impetus to change. Those who value life and seeing its potential fulfilled are forever tempted to exterminate it in order to achieve their goals, both in fiction and in reality.
Boris Savinkov straddled both sides of the divide between art and life. A gifted satirical storyteller who specialized in sketching the characters of political terrorists and oblivious aristocrats in his native Russia, he was also a spy and a killer who began his violent career on the side of the Socialist Revolutionaries, worked with British intelligence during the revolutionary period, and finally met his end (by suicide or state murder, depending on who you ask) under the rule of the Soviets who he felt had betrayed the cause of socialism. He was a fascinating figure and he knew it; his most famous works were about himself — a straight-up autobiography called Memoirs of a Terrorist and a barely disguised roman à clef called The Pale Horse, detailing the bloody doings of a small and often frustrated revolutionary cell in 1905 Moscow.
It is the latter book that Karen Shakhnazarov, the Armenian filmmaker and current head of Mosfilm, chose to film as The Rider Named Death. Originally made in 2004, it enjoyed a short festival run a year later, but didn’t see a home video release until late in 2009, when it was distributed by Kino Video. Shakhanazarov went straight to the source (the novel enjoyed some vogue even during the Communist years thanks to Savinkov’s biting satires of the Whites) and brought in Aleksandr Borodyanskiy, an old Mosfilm studio hand, to adapt it for the screen. Though set a century before, in a Moscow where the only living residents appear to be wanton aristocrats and downtrodden peasants with mongrel temperaments, the film is meant to be timely: economic inequity, widespread nationalism, and the return of government with an iron hand all over the world should tell us that the movement of society isn’t always forward.
Another thing that never changes is the risk that, when you cross the line from non-violent protest into violent resistance, you run the risk of recruiting fellow travelers whose motives are entirely different from your own. That’s certainly the case with Georges, the film’s stand-in for Savinkov, essayed by dead-eyed Siberian actor Andrey Panin. His revolutionary cell consists of a weedy bumpkin named Vanya (Artyom Semkin), whose religious faith and despair at humanity’s loss of the capacity for selfless love belies his claims that he is dedicated to revolutionary violence; the rough-hewn ex-factory worker Fyodor (Rotislav Bershauer), whose crass manners — he drinks out of a finger bowl and looks out of place with his ragged hair and shabby clothes — match his class-based hatred of the aristos; and Erna (Ksenia Rappoport), who is driven by her cocaine habit and her equally addictive love of Georges. She assembles bombs in her tiny flat with an unsettling combination of eerie calm and near-ecstasy as the men meet in fancy cafés to plot their next moves. They are later joined by Heinrich (Alexiy Kazakov), a university intellectual and dilettante whose commitment to the cause Georges deeply distrusts. He manipulates them all in ways tailored to their personalities, prodding them about their motivations but never letting his own even peek out. While their eyes betray panic, nervousness, fear and uncertainty, his remain fixed, revealing nothing.
It is only with Elena (Anastasiya Makeyeva), a woman married to a soldier, that Georges gives away any emotion. She serves much the same function for him that he does to Erna, but while she shares some of his bleak outlook, she loves to be alive and human, while he seems to shrink from it. Like his leaders on the Revolutionary Socialist Central committee, she suspects that he is obsessed with the death of his targets — with death in general — for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. It’s a suspicion later confirmed for both of them; it costs her her husband, and, after a chilly encounter where Georges’ commander speaks boastfully of bringing down an empire while munching on fresh caviar and sipping premium vodka, it costs the Central Committee a deadly killer.
The Rider Named Death opens like a British period drama, all greenery, gowns and marble stairs, as we see a beautiful young woman enter a government minister’s office under false pretenses and then fill him full of lead with a tiny handgun concealed in her purse. The film then unexpectedly shifts to silent-era comedy mode as a beggar — the very cartoon of a wild-eyed anarchist — blows up a church official with a homemade dynamite bomb; it all plays out on black & white speeded-up film, with the Keystone Kops element of soldiers gurning for the camera and the victim’s head displayed in a jar for the locals to pay tribute. It’s our only real hint at the absurd tenor of the times; the script assumes we know that the pre-Soviet revolutionary period was sheer madness, with hundreds of aristocrats and officials murdered every year and brutal reprisals directed against the citizenry.
We first encounter Georges and his men at a wild party, discussing real violence while wearing grotesque masks as if the whole thing were a cocktail-party game. Georges himself is a louche aristocrat, queerly handsome with a stylish mustache; his plan to kill the Grand Duke (himself a noble-looking enigma barely seen in the film until the moment of his death) consumes all of his time, and the feeling that he is the royal’s opposite number is inescapable. He forever worries that his gang will not be able to carry out their orders at the moment of truth (a suspicion confirmed on more than one occasion), but he is also a bad planner, and his desire to know why all of them turned to violence is mirrored in his own unwillingness to explain its appeal to him. When Georges complains that one of his men is a poet, his boss on the Central Committee asks if that will interfere with his willingness to kill; he responds blankly: “Everything does.”
In the film’s key sequence, Georges arranges for multiple layers of redundancy during an assassination attempt on the Grand Duke. Vanya holds back on throwing his bomb at the last second when he sees the man’s wife and young children are in the carriage with him; Heinrich does the same out of a failure of nerve; and Fyodor succeeds in tossing his through the window, only to have it not go off. This leads to an exciting foot-chase and gun battle through the back yards and empty lots of central Moscow, with priests desperately crossing themselves and mothers screaming for the disorganized police not to shoot their children — who are back to running and playing only minutes after Fyodor commits suicide to avoid capture. It’s a critical moment for Georges, as well, who must come to terms with his own seeming inability to carry off the violence with which he’s so enraptured; but once he makes his first kill, he finds it both alarmingly simple and deeply unsatisfying, a combination that can only lead to disaster.
The Rider Named Death has many awkward spots. A series of voice-overs isn’t too distracting (except at the end, when it wraps up the narrative in a deeply perfunctory way), but the dialogue can be; it’s frequently a little bit too expository, and Borodyanskiy waits until far too long after he’s established his characters to trust the audience to understand their reactions. The frequent scenes of musical cabaret decadence make for good spectacle, but they go on long enough to start to seem like padding, especially in the film’s weak middle passage. The sets sometimes are a bit stagey, but other times are quite elegant and sumptuous; Shakhnazarov just seems to have a hard time deciding which to go with at any given moment. And his direction is skillful; each scene leading up to moments of violence is full of dread and tension, even when we’re braced to have the rug pulled out from under us. But there’s nothing that stands out enough to distinguish it from the work of an equally competent Hollywood director other than his gift for facial close-ups with a short angle of view. It’s a touch familiar to anyone who’s seen the work of Mosfilm directors from the ’70s, but it’s effective here, as the sweat-streaked faces of guilty men and women laboring in the summer heat helps preserve the mood of paranoia and danger.
That mood reveals itself in other ways. Some tend towards the black humor hinted at in the film’s opening; in one scene, Fyodor, disguised as a soldier, complains that “I should have been a colonel, so I don’t have to keep saluting the captain who follows me around all day”. Another involves an enigmatic conversation with a stranger, Gashkes (Dmitriy Gusev), who comes to visit Georges, who can’t tell if he is a member of the secret police, the Central Commitee, or just a well-meaning but overenthusiastic businessman. The scene projects the powerful sense of paranoia that must be universal to those who plot murder. The acting is generally excellent, with Panin, who must anchor the whole story, particularly impressive. It would have been easy enough to cast any stone-faced cypher in the role, but he manages to always draw you in completely with his bullet eyes, while his face and body language betray the nerves to which he gives no other expression.
Ultimately, The Rider Named Death‘s treatment of violence is frustrating in ways both deliberate and unintentional, which renders its message a bit of a mess despite the film’s other virtues. It’s difficult to know if Georges’ constant inquiries about why his comrades have arrived at the decision to engage in revolutionary violence make him a stand-in for the director, posing an ever-unanswerable question within the boundaries he’s set out, or if they simply make him out to be an affectless sociopath, completely unconcerned with the bloodshed he initiates, but chasing after it like a junkie’s high in whatever acceptable form is allowed to him. It’s a movie that asks one of the big questions, but in the end, it’s too loose in arriving at an answer.