Putin: the Kremlin-financed film that became a box office hit in Russia criticizing censorship

Putin: the Kremlin-financed film that became a box office hit in Russia criticizing censorship
Putin: the Kremlin-financed film that became a box office hit in Russia criticizing censorship

Image source, Mars Media

Caption, The film “The Master and Margarita” has become an uncomfortable success for Vladimir Putin’s government.
Article information
  • Author, Caryn James
  • Role, BBC Culture
  • 16 minutes

They loved him until they didn’t.

In 2020, Michael Lockshin, an American director who spent most of his childhood in Moscow, was so respected in Russia’s film industry that the state film fund contributed 40% of the production money for his film “The Master and Margarita”, based on the classic novel written by Mikhail Bulgakov during the time of Joseph Stalin.

If Lockshin set foot in Russia today, he could be arrested under the recently passed laws that make it a crime to criticize President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “I’ve been called a criminal, I’ve been called a terrorist on state television,” Lockshin tells the BBC of pro-Kremlin commentators who have attacked him and his film.

“We presented it as a film about a writer who is censored… but censorship then was nowhere near where it is today. It’s hard to imagine that just three years ago we were in a very different world.”

The director of “The Master and Margarita” tells the story of how a film financed by the Kremlin was attacked by government supporters and ended up becoming a box office hit in Russia.

Image source, Mars Media

Caption, The film is based on one of the most read Russian novels of the 20th century.

Russophobia

The problems began shortly after the invasion began in February 2022. Lockshin, who lived in Los Angeles and was editing the film, showed his support for Ukraine on social media.

When the film was finally released in Russia just a few months ago, after a two-year struggle to finish and promote it, attacks from influential Kremlin supporters began, even though its director’s name had been removed from all publicity material.

A major Telegram channel accused him of Russophobia, and the right-wing group Call of the People said he should be criminally charged for spreading falsehoods.

TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov asked on his show “how could this unpatriotic film be authorized?” Another television figure, Tigran Keosayan, who is married to the head of Russian state television, called for an investigation into how the film was produced.

As Russian producer Ivan Filippov told the BBC, “nNever in the history of Russian distribution has a film caused such a huge propaganda reaction“.

Bulgakov’s novel about a writer fighting state oppression in the 1930s seems from today’s perspective a prediction of Lockshin’s own struggle to bring his work to the world.

On screen and off, the film “The Master and Margarita” starkly reflects the tense situation that artists experienced in the Stalin era and that experienced in Russia today.

Image source, Mars Media

Caption, The film deals with censorship in Stalin’s Russia. Many believe that the practices from then are repeated in Putin’s time.

Lockshin was just five years old in 1986 when his family moved to what was then the Soviet Union.. His father said the FBI was harassing him because of his sympathies for communism, and the family’s arrival was experienced as a notable event in Moscow at the time.

After studying at university in Moscow, Lockshin began dividing his time between the United States and Russia until he moved to Los Angeles in 2021. His first film, “Silver Skates,” released in 2020, is based on the children’s story “Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates.” The film was successful in Russia and was the first original production in Russian for Netflix.

An unexpected political setback

Bulgakov’s epic novel is more admired than read outside of Russia, but its admirers include musicians Patti Smith and Mick Jagger, who used it as inspiration for the theme. Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones.

Like many educated Russians, Lockshin read the book as a young man and was fascinated by its whirlwind of romance, absurd comedy and social insight contained within its pages: a visit from the devil to Moscow, accompanied by a cat the size of a child; a romance between an unnamed writer called the Master and his muse, the beautiful but married Margaret, along with sections of a novel the Master is writing about Jesus and Pontius Pilate that implicitly criticizes the Soviet authorities.

When Russian producers asked Lockshin to come up with an idea for adapting the voluminous book, he and his co-writer, Roman Kantor, decided to merge Bulgakov’s problems with those of the Master to reorient the story.

Bulgakov’s plays were first praised and later banned by Stalin. Bulgakov began “The Master and Margarita” in 1928, and revised it until shortly before his death in 1940. As he knew that his novel would never pass the filter of Stalin’s censorship, he never attempted to publish it. A censored version first appeared in a Russian magazine in 1966..

Despite the film’s anti-authoritarian theme, Lockshin says he did not fear possible political retaliation when he started the project in 2020.

“We presented it as a film about a writer who is censored, even more than what is done in the book. The film focuses on the censorship, repression, purges and terror that characterized the Stalin years. “We were very aware that these issues were relevant to Putin’s Russia, but Censorship was nowhere near the level it is today.“.

The film is a captivating and ambitious mix of politics and fantasy, sometimes reminiscent of the totalitarian dystopia of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 “Brazil,” but still grounded in the realism of the Master’s struggle against the State. Here, the Master (Yevgeny Tsyganov) is a playwright whose work on Pontius Pilate is censored.

The film includes large-scale musical numbers and highlights the character of Margarita (Yulia Snigir), who presides as Queen of the Night at the Devil’s ghostly midnight party.

Image source, Mars Media

Caption, Filmed in 2021, the editing of “The Master and Margarita” was taking place just as Russia invaded Ukraine.

In limbo

Throughout the year 2022, the film was in what Lockshin describes as “limbo”, and the aftermath of the invasion They questioned its launch.

Universal International, which had planned to distribute the film in Russia, pulled out of the country, as did many other Western film companies.

And something more disturbing happened. Russia’s new law providing up to 15 years in prison for spreading what the government describes as “false information” has come into force.

Lockshin remembers what his Russian producers told him at the time: “Do you realize that now you’re going to be a criminal”? Simply because of his publications in favor of Ukraine on the networks.

The events triggered by the war in Ukraine in Russian and international politics made the film much more thorny than even its own creators had anticipated..

In a scene invented for the film version, the Master is called before a tribunal at the Writers Guild. His critics attack his anti-Stalinist work on Pilate in terms that could well apply to Lockshin’s film in modern-day Russia.

“He hides behind a period piece to undertake a harsh criticism of the Soviet Union,” accuse the Maestro’s opponents in the film.

According to Lockshin, the scene was based on historical transcripts of Stalin-era trials, but it didn’t take long for them to realize potential modern-day readings of its story. “As we edited the film, those scenes seemed more and more appropriate,” says the director.

Other moments, also some taken directly from the novel, seem to contain an uncomfortable reference to current Russian events. In both versions, Jesus (called Yeshua) says, “A new temple of truth will be built,” and Pilate responds, “What is truth?”

The exiled Russian film critic Anton Dolin told the New York Times that “the film surprisingly coincided with the historical moment that Russia is experiencing.”

Image source, Mars Media

Caption, A scene of the movie.

Why was it released?

Why the film was finally released if it contained so many uncomfortable references to current Russian power is something one can only speculate about.

Lockshin asks that “someday, hopefully someone will really tell us.” He has not received any official explanation, but cautiously ventures that it would have been an embarrassment for the authorities to censor a film that had received state funding and had been widely publicized before it even began filming.

The film attracted a large number of viewers upon its launch and received an enthusiastic reception from the public. A Russian producer said that when he saw the film, a large part of the audience burst into applause at the end. “People are happy to be able to experience and see a film that has this clear message against Tatalitarianism and the repressive state.”

Amid this positive reception, “withdrawing the film would have caused too much discomfort,” Alexander Rodnyansky told Vanity Fair. According to the available data, The film has so far grossed US$26 million in Russia, when the cost of producing it was US$17 million.

Its box office success has exceeded all expectations.

Distribution outside Russia is not yet assured. International release is a big challenge for any non-English-language film, but “The Master and Margarita” faces additional legal problems.

“We have been trying to get all the rights out of Russia, so that international sales can be done separately,” says Lockshin, who believes that the producers are close to solving everything so that they can start talking to distributors in Europe and the United States.

Lockshin says he doesn’t feel like an exile now that he lives year-round in Los Angeles because he’s always had a connection to both the United States and Russia. “I’m sad, of course, because I won’t be able to return (to Russia) in the near future,” he says.

He has been able to reflect on the way in which the established power in Russia suddenly turned against him. “It was very ironic and in some ways very funny, but also terrifying. It was a mixture of all these emotions. But, you know, I kept thinking about how Bulgakov would see all this, and he would just be laughing out loud.”

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