“The bulk of the population dreams of a return to imperial glory”: the German premiere of Marianna Kaat’s “The Last Relic” at DOK Leipzig4 min read
A generalised look at Russia’s political landscape before 2022, The Last Relic was enthusiastically received at its German premiere screening last Thursday and won a special award “for an outstanding Eastern European documentary film.” The exceptional cinematography, including expansive camerawork and a crisp sound design, is striking and a testament to the filmmakers’ skills. But despite its justified acclaim, the film’s promise of showing “the roots of the invasion of Ukraine” cannot be fully realised.
The Last Relic documents activists’ everyday life in Yekaterinburg, a large Russian city known for its opposition and liberal movements. Over four years of filming, director Marianna Kaat examines the city’s public life, and documents a group of middle-aged activists and a group of left-radical youth centred around their leader, twenty-year-old Igor Frolov.
The film is advertised as a dive into the origins of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and there are a few motifs that may indeed equip the viewer with an understanding of the political life of Russian society before February 2022. But the focus of the The Last Relic is largely on the state-staged events, such as a costumed historical reenactment in the form of the annual Cadet Ball for students of the local military schools and rehearsals for the traditionally pompous Victory Day parades each year. The activists and their work seem to act only as a background to these scenes which open and close the documentary. The four years spent filming the city provide for an honest and fresh look at regional specificities (the film, for example, highlights the story of activists advocating against the demolition of the city’s TV tower, an unofficial symbol of Yekaterinburg), but can it be fully representative of the rest of the country’s political life?
The documentary includes scenes from commemorations of the Romanov’s family murder in Yekaterinburg, which became a local landmark and part of the city’s history. Ever since the Romanovs were enlisted as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, there regularly have been sacred processions in their honour. The film seems to imply that this mystification of the past is one of the reasons for the population’s dream to return to imperial glory. Although plausible at first glance, it is hardly an insight that the Orthodox Church plays a huge role in domestic politics and the life of contemporary Russian society. The documentary does present other reasons, yet it disappointingly does not delve into them and instead appears to overlook them.
It is today’s false, distorted, and already debunked historical narratives that serve as justification for the invasion of Ukraine. And the film perfectly shows how not only the politicians, who use these narratives, but also the people themselves are ignorant of their country’s history and agree with the top-down narratives. Through dialogues in the streets between the movie’s protagonists and locals, the documentary shows how the latter holds on to false – and simple – propaganda stories. Kaat’s movie does much to show these contradictions in people’s perception of history and reality and how most of them are tired, numb, and defensive when listening to alternative views. This aspect, rather than the picturesque images of historical dances and parade rehearsals, could have been emphasised more in the movie to drive its point home. If there is an empire that modern Russia is trying to emulate, it should be sought not before but after 1917, and simplistic comparisons like this should be abandoned altogether.
The film tries to pinpoint the national idea that fuels support for the war, but overlooks what is already evident within its own narrative: the fragmentation of a society where consensus is elusive. But in an authoritarian society that has existed for decades, this is hardly surprising. The group of older activists mainly instrumentalise people’s poverty, persuading cashiers and policemen to google the salaries of their professions in Europe. Igor, a young activist aiming to unite protesters of the left-wing spectrum, sees a larger goal for the country: mobilising people under communist slogans and marching under the banners of Lenin and Stalin. The two groups, the old and the young, cannot agree with each other, and this, as well as the apathy of most people in the movie besides the activists, serves as a bigger window into what would happen soon after.
While it is refreshing to watch a documentary that does not focus solely on Russia’s central cities or its prominent political figures, the film unfortunately reproduces mainstream narratives and sticks to an outsider’s perspective. The final scene has a strong effect on the viewer: crowds of youths are shown on the street with Khachaturian’s orchestral waltz shouting in the background. For the viewer, it is not clear if they are still marching in parade rehearsals or already on their way to war. This ending provides an impressive scenery, but the audience is left with the following to question: Does the The Last Relic truly help us understand the current Putin regime and the devastating war it is waging? And, does it have an impact beyond mere aestheticization?