"I had no talent...so everything pushed me towards political activity"
Paweł Pawlikowski and Zhirinovsky
When Yasha sent out the show notes for our last episode, listing a few of the best Russian films about Russia in the 1990s, I forgot to have him include two films by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski that are among my favorite from that period.
Paweł Pawlikowski is mostly known for two films: Cold War, which is from 2018 and got him a best director award in Cannes and multiple Oscar nominations; and Ida, which is from 2013 and is the first Polish movie to win an Oscar for best foreign language film.
What’s not very well known is that Pawlikowski’s filmmaking career began in Russia, where he made a number of independent documentaries throughout the 1990s. His best doc from that time is Tripping with Zhirinovksy, a funny and tragic film about Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia — a nationalist, anti-western conservative party.
For the last thirty years, LDPR has presented itself as a party that defends the interests of the common Russian people. In reality, the party’s been nothing more than a political distraction — part of the Kremlin’s “controlled opposition.” Zhirinovsky has charisma and comedic genius, and his role has been to whip up scandals in order to siphon away nationalist political energy and direct into into a harmless space that never challenges power.
Growing up in Moscow, I always saw Zhirinovsky as a grotesque character — a classic politician. He says what impoverished and disenfranchised Russian people want to hear, without believing in anything himself.
Everything about him is an act. Despite his hard nationalist “Russia for Russians” xenophobic politics and his constant anti-Semitic outbursts, Zhirinovsky is half-Jewish — his last name is actually Eidelshtein. And while he constantly talks up conservative and traditional family values, it’s an open secret in Moscow that Zhirinovsky is most likely gay. He’s constantly turning up on camera half-naked with young men and has been accused of sexually accosting men, including journalists. Strangely enough, when I was 14 I went with my high school class to visit the State Duma and to specifically to meet with Zhirinovsky. I remember being surprised that his office seemed to be staffed exclusively with attractive boys who were barely older than I was.
Tripping with Zhirinovksy follows Zhirinovsky on the campaign trail, showing the politician’s uncensored private moments and his interactions with his party officials and his provincial voters. Most of it happens aboard a cruise boat that he takes to visit towns along the Volga River. The whole thing comes off as a Wes Anderson scripted film. This guy can’t be a real politician. But he is. And a few presidential elections back, he got almost 10 percent of the Russian vote.
Documentary filmmakers would kill for access like this. And Pawlikowski got lucky. He got to Zhirinovsky before Zhirinovsky became big — both nationally and internationally.
Pawlikowsky was so impressed by Zhirinovsky that he co-wrote and directed his first narrative feature based on his own experience with him. It’s called The Stringer.
The film is about a young guy — Pawlikowski’s alter ego, played by Sergey Bodrov Jr. — who is a bohemian layabout in Moscow hanging around with a camera shooting videos of his friends and family. He starts pursuing a job of a news stringer — partially for money, but mostly because of his love interest, a young English journalist. In his hunt for titillating and violent news footage that he can sell to western news agencies, he befriends the leader of a nationalist opposition party — a character who is based very closely on Zhirinovsky.
I first saw The Stringer on TV in Moscow about 20 years ago. Rewatching it now, I was surprised how well it holds up. It captures the dark, surreal spirit of 1990s Moscow better than anything I’ve seen made by Russians.