A new film, The Horseman Named Death, directed by Karen Shakhnazarov, general director of the Mosfilm concern, has been released in Russia. It is the story of Boris Savinkov, a prominent theoretician of terrorism, which he also perpetrated. In 1909 this "Russian bin Laden" published an autobiographical novel, The Pale Horse, which has now been adopted for the screen at Mosfilm.
"It is a serious attempt to analyse the emergence of terrorism," said Mikhail Shvydkoi, the head of the Federal Culture and Cinema Agency, at the recent Moscow premiere of the psychological drama with elements of action. "The message is that in the long run a terrorist comes to a complete moral collapse," Shakhnazarov says. "By taking the path of murder, a person degrades even if he is driven by a noble idea".
Savinkov's book is both a confession and a study of terrorism from the King of Terror. "He accurately describes the types and characters of people who become terrorists, and the causes of terrorism," the director says. "Terrorism does not appear out of nowhere, there are always reasons, first of all, social injustice. And there is always ground where people who do not see any other way than to resort to terror can appear. As a rule, they are young men, who see terrorism in a romantic light and as a way to fulfil their ideas".
According to Shakhnazarov, those people working to counteract terrorism should read Savinkov. "Of course, The Pale Horse is not devoid of showing-off, but, more importantly, it has an inner truth," he says. "Savinkov described what he knew. If we are to draw parallels, it would be like bin Laden writing a novel about terrorism today."
However, the intellectual level of Russian terrorists in the early 20th century was much higher, the director points out. Savinkov was one of the intellectual killers. A socialist revolutionary, the mastermind of notorious terrorist attacks, including the assassination of several governors and interior ministers, and later of anti-Soviet revolts and attempts on Lenin and Stalin, he was at the same time admirer of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. He had a certain writing talent himself. His prose was approved reading in the literary circles of that time. Although Savinkov was an irreconcilable enemy of the Soviet authorities, his works were published in the USSR until the mid-1920s. In 1924, he was arrested when crossing the Soviet border and apparently committed suicide in prison in 1925. The mystery of whether he threw himself out of the window or was pushed has still not been cleared up.
"Boris Savinkov was a suffering person, who lived during the turn of the 19th century, a humanitarian, cultural and harmonic epoch, into the 20th century, an era of mass culture, totalitarianism and destruction," Shakhnazarov says. "He was a complicated person who tried to answer some questions of his life, could not find the answer and so he died. And George, the main character of The Pale Horse and The Horseman Named Death is not a killing machine. He has overcome a great spiritual crisis, has driven himself to complete moral devastation and has come to think of suicide. If you want, The Pale Horse is an anti-terrorist book. Interestingly, its name comes from an image from the Apocalypse..."
The plot of the film evolves around preparations for the assassination of Moscow governor, Grand Prince Sergei Aleksandrovich. He was blown up by the young bomber Kalyayev, who in the film is named Vanya. Shakhnazarov managed to make the action dynamic, psychologically and historically accurate. "It was important to create the atmosphere of the early 20th-century Moscow streets, to fill the camera with life of that time," the director explains.
To do this, Mosfilm, Europe's largest film concern, built impressive scenery featuring old Moscow with life-size streets, squares and houses, even with pavements from real cobblestone. Last November, the general director showed the scenery to President Vladimir Putin who visited Mosfilm. Shooting took only 12 weeks, but Shakhnazarov used enormous crowd scenes, thinking over every costume. The movie was later supplemented with different special effects (the explosions alone were something!)
This scale of direction and immersion in the epoch was typical of Soviet cinema, when hundreds of feature films were released every year. It is unlikely that the Russian film industry will reach the same height in the next five years, yet in the technical respect, Mosfilm is up to the mark thanks to a recent modernisation, Shakhnazarov points out. "In a little more than five years we have created a film studio that is no inferior to any European one from the technological point of view," he concludes.