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‘Beanpole’ Director Kantemir Balagov on Female Loss, Russian History, and the Title’s Deeper Meaning

Written by Demi Kampakis on October 17, 2019 

Photo by Richard Jopson

Having hailed from Alexander Sokurov’s directing school, Russian auteur Kantemir Balagov made a name for himself on the international film stage with his 2017 debut feature Closeness, which screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, and took home the FIPRESCI prize. Beanpole, his second feature film and one that also premiered at this year’s Un Certain Regard, is set in 1945 Leningrad in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The film tells the story of Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), two former combat pilots who attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives amidst the devastating wreckage of war. As Iya and Masha grapple with the personal and national trauma left in its wake, Beanpole examines the ebb and flow of their knotty and at times toxic friendship—testing the strength of their bond, the weight of loneliness, and their resilience of spirit in a world of grief and ruin.  

At just 28 years old, Balagov is a wunderkind whose talent and accomplishments dwarf his humble age. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Balagov during Beanpole’s run at the 57th New York Film Festival—where I picked his brain on his collaborative process and cinematic influences, the legacy of war, and what it was like to work with such a poised toddler.

According to Beanpole’s production notes, the film was inspired by a book you read called “The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in WWII,” by Svetlana Alexievich. What was it about the book that made you want to adapt it for the screen, and why tell this story now?

There’s so much material about the war in Russian movies—nowadays in the Russian film industry there’s a pseudo-patriotic movement that seems to imply that as a country, we can replicate and repeat everything we did during WWII, which completely forgets its toll on the country. I was so moved and blown away by Svetlana’s book because it showed me that I knew nothing about the war’s history, and I was really curious about the idea of a human being who’s biologically able to give birth—the organic creator of life—going to war and being surrounded by death. How do these women go about trying to be normal people once the war is over? That was a very meaningful concept for me to explore.  

Is that why you chose to specifically focus on female trauma, as a way of exploring this idea of fertility in a unique post-war context?  

I don’t think so, because the idea of fertility came when we already started to work on this film. Originally, the main focus was female loss—personal loss, but also feeling complete psychological loss once the war is over. The most important thing I wanted to highlight for my generational peers was the undervalued role that females played during the war, which has never really been highlighted or talked about in Russia. 

Can you elaborate on the female dynamic at the heart of this story? There’s a kind of power play going on between Iya and Masha, this desire for control—being the other’s “master,” as one of them puts it—coupled with a mixture of envy, co-dependence, betrayal, genuine love and resentment.  You don’t often see this kind of uniquely dysfunctional and complicated female friendship in cinema. What was it about their relationship you wanted to emphasize?

I wanted to emphasize the wild co-dependency between these women, who are two very lonely human beings. At the same time they’re internally eating each other, they’re externally feeding off of each other.

The film’s vivid use of color is so conspicuously rich. The prevalence of different shades of green particularly stands out—from the interior décor, to the wardrobe, to the cinematographic color palette. Why did you decide to focus on green? Were you trying to invoke fecundity?

Yes. Green represents the possibility of birth, the ability to bring life into the world, and the hope for a new life.  Whereas the ochre color scheme, also prevalent in the film, represents loss and trauma. I wanted to juxtapose the two.  

What are the challenges in shooting a period piece?

The main challenge for me was the level of research involved. It was very tiring, and I was afraid that being so exhausted, I would miss a crucial detail. For example, you think “is this chair supposed to be here? Was this particular textile pattern even introduced yet?” I wanted to pay respect to the reality of those times, but on the other hand I wanted my use of color to transcend this reality.

Both Beanpole and Closeness tell specific stories about Russia. The sense of place is always felt, and Russia’s history, politics, and culture become fundamental parts of these films’ DNA. Is it important for you to honor your homeland in this way, to show the rest of the world the resilience of the Russian people? 

Of course, of course. For me it’s really important to reflect my homeland. I was struck with this realization while on the set of someone else’s film, which was shot in the Russian countryside. When I saw the faces of the locals, I knew I had to make films about my homeland.     

Why is social realism the best genre for you to tell these stories?

To be frank, I’m trying not to divide the films I make by genre because the genre ends up dictating the content. Rather, I want my heroes [my characters] to be in charge of the content.

In what ways is the collective national trauma of WWII still felt in Russian society today? It’s hard to conceptualize the scope of Russia’s sacrifices; the loss of 25 million lives. Surely the lingering effects of such wide-scale devastation are still felt today?  

Ooh, that’s a hard question to answer.

I ask because it seems as though in the context of WWII history, the breadth of Russia’s contributions to the Allied cause are very underappreciated. 

Yes, I think that’s true. To answer your question, I think this trauma is mainly felt in the culture of aggression that people exhibit in today’s Russia. It’s hard to find the right word, but I guess you could say there’s a level of dissatisfaction felt among the people. [Long pause] It’s a very difficult question to answer…

…And also one that’s very open-ended. 

Yes, exactly. In Closeness, there’s footage of Chechens being executed by Russian soldiers. One of these Chechens asks a Russian soldier why Russia is always fighting in wars. This war mood—or war mode, I should say—I think it came from the second World War. It’s like we’re always trying to fight someone, or something—but that something is actually inside of us. It’s a very complicated question.

It’s quite remarkable that your two lead actresses are newcomers, considering the stellar and assured performances they turn in. How did you find them?

We had a great casting director, who also worked with us on Closeness. It was actually very easy, because they both came on the first day of auditions, so I knew from the first day that I had my main actors.

What was their chemistry like on set? Can you talk about your collaborative process with them?

To be honest, I was playing around with different methods. I had considered other actresses for the role of Masha, but Vasilisa was the only one who had a strong chemistry with Viktoria, the actress playing Iya. We did lots of rehearsals and pre-shoots, and I had everyone move into the same apartment building during the film’s production, so for several months Vasilisa and Viktoria lived together. We were trying to tap into the language, and the voice of that time period. To do that, I had them read relevant historical and dialectical literature, as well as watch films like Aleksei German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. It was a typical method approach to finding these characters, because the goal was to erase the identity of Viktoria and Vasilisa, and slip into the headspace of Iya and Masha.

In the Russian language, the word “beanpole” refers to clumsiness. I’m interested in the film’s application of this word—the physical clumsiness of Iya’s stature, but also these characters’ clumsiness.

That’s exactly right. This is why the film is called Beanpole—because everyone in the film is a beanpole.  They feel clumsy, they speak clumsily, they’re kind of just lost in the space of their lives following the war.

As a director who studied under Alexander Sokurov, what were some of the most valuable lessons you took from his workshops? You said in a previous interview that Mr. Sokurov helped you achieve “self-consciousness,” and that self-consciousness is intimately linked to literature. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Well, I didn’t have the opportunity to analyze my actions or myself when I was his student, because I was just going with the flow. So literature helped me understand the importance of self-reflection in one’s life. It’s really emotional—have you met Sokurov?

I haven’t, but I imagine being under his tutelage was a very personal and perhaps even spiritual experience.

Yes. Anyone who’s been around him understands that this is such a big person, a big figure. His huge voice, his presence, it’s very commanding. He’s an extremely decent human being, and you want to be like him. I think that’s why he has such an influence on me.

Speaking of influences, you’ve also credited Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket and the Dardennes brothers’ Rosetta as being some of the films that had the greatest impact on you as a filmmaker.  

Fists in the Pocket is my favorite film!

How does it feel, then, to have Beanpole play at the same festival, in the same year no less, as Bellocchio and the Dardennes brothers’ latest films? Talk about auspicious timing!

That was so surreal! It was really inspiring for me, because dreams do come true [chuckles]. When Beanpole was showing in the Un Certain Regard selection at Cannes, there was another film about Elton John that played at the Lumiere theater. I grew up loving Elton John’s The Lion King soundtrack, so it was just an emotional mess [chuckles].  

What was your working relationship like with the film’s producer, Alexander Rodnyansky? Beanpole shares much of the raw humanity and character-driven sensibilities as Leviathan and Loveless. What did he bring to this film?

That was a great experience, getting to work with him. I felt very protected under his guidance, and he gave me everything I asked for. There was no pressure at all, because Alexander trusted me. My first cut was about three hours long, and we were trying to make it shorter. He would say, “If you feel that something doesn’t work—it’s okay, at the end of the day, it’s your decision what to leave in the film and what to take out—but just try removing it and see what happens.” I really appreciated that he didn’t push me, and in many ways that was a new experience for me. Okay, maybe new isn’t the right word, but it was wonderful getting to work with the strongest producer in Russia. I have nothing to complain about.

How has the film been received by Russian and international audiences?

As usual, some like it, some don’t. I don’t keep track. [Chuckles]

Having come from documentary filmmaking, do you prefer one genre over the other? What are the strengths and weaknesses of non-fiction vs. conventional narrative films, like historical fiction?

I like both formats, because it’s all about the message that’s being conveyed. 

Speaking of message—although art is open to interpretation, are there any particular thoughts or feelings you want audiences to come away with?

That’s a tricky question because freedom from meaning allows you to create your own meaning. I don’t want to be a dictator and tell people what they should get out of the film. Understanding Beanpole through the lens of your own experiences is much more meaningful for me. 

What are the challenges in working with toddlers, and how did you find the young actor who played Pashka? He’s incredibly adorable and has such a strong and infectious screen presence in the film. There’s a kind of closeness, an emotional intimacy, between him and the camera, and he hold his own.

I think it was such a miracle getting to work with this actor, Timofey Glazkov. He’s completely comfortable and poised on set—he doesn’t act like a child—so all I had to do was just stand behind the camera and give him little notes now and then.

It’s hard to take your eyes off him.

A lot of it is because of his age. Unfortunately, I think the situation will be different in two years’ time.  

One of the most striking, and heartbreaking, moments in the film comes when Pashka is playing a game with recovering soldiers that involves mimicking the various sounds animals make, and when it’s his turn he doesn’t have a point of reference for what a dog’s bark sounds like, because they had all died during the war’s famine. It seems like this game was a way to drive home not just the physical death of war, but also the death of imagination felt by children of war?

Of course, that’s a great point. The death of imagination. I like that.

Beanpole screened at the 57th New York Film Festival and opens on January 29, 2020.

Follow Demitra Kampakis on Twitter at @DemionFilm.


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