“War Is a Source of Human Nature”: Kantemir Balagov on His Women-Centered Period Two-Hander, Beanpole
Exquisitely grueling yet fiercely humane, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, an astounding Russian period drama, cements the artistically mature director as a prodigy of international cinema moving towards an auspicious career. At age 28, Balagov has had his first two features premiered at Cannes with both earning prizes in the Un Certain Regard section.
Situated in 1945 Leningrad among the ashes of World War II, Beanpole, which was also shortlisted for the Best International Film Academy Award, explores the harsh aftermath of the conflict through the tortured friendship between Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), two women who served in the military and now work as nurses at a hospital for wounded soldiers. Balagov derives unorthodox tenderness from their inseparable bond based on emotional necessity and practical cooperation to survive.
As intellectual references, Balagov has cited Svetlana Alexievich’s nonfiction novel The Unwomanly Face of War, which captured the experiences and sentiments of women at the time in their own words, and Harrison Salisbury’s The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad, a work that contextualized the place and period where he was setting his story. Attention to replicate the physical details of the rundown locations where it all unfolded further rendered Beanpole a masterwork
In California during the film’s Oscar campaign, the precocious auteur told Filmmaker about his early YouTube-friendly forays into filmmaking, his mentor-protégé relationship with Russian Ark director and revered master Alexander Sokurov, and why the characters in Beanpole are not inventions but recreations of reality.
Filmmaker: What elements did you borrow from Alexievich’s nonfiction novel? Where there any specific characters or anecdotes that made it directly from the page into Beanpole?
Balagov: The essence. Some characters and some scenes, for example, the scene with the dress was inspired by many of the stories in which women talk about how they were trying to feel feminine again and how when they put a dress on they felt disconnected from who they were because they had gotten used to wearing military man’s trousers and boots. This really affected their bodies and their mindset. That was interesting to me. The plot is original. My co-writer Aleksandr Terekhov and I created the characters and then the characters lead us to through the story because we didn’t want to be dictators. We were trying to recreate the characters. I truly believe that Iya and Masha really lived in that time period. For me it’s like they are real people. We didn’t create them. We just recreated them. We just took them from the past and put them in our film.
Filmmaker: Was part of your attraction to this subject tied to the specific time period and place: post-World War II Leningrad?
Balagov: It’s not about a particular moment. It’s about the aftermath of war because war is a source of human nature, where you cannot be a hero or a coward. War carries so many layers of human nature. In my first film, Closeness, there was a scene with Chechen soldiers in 1998, and in it you can feel the presence of war and how it affected people. War’s really interesting to me, especially what happens after it’s over.
Filmmaker: Motherhood features prominently as part of the relationship between Iya and Masha, one of them is a mother and other might become one. Why did this theme interest you in the context of war?
Balagov: That was some of what I took from the book. A woman can give birth in a biological way, and I was curious about how someone who can give birth also experienced the horror of war. Masha went to war and was surrounded by death for four or five years, and now it’s like the death is inside of her. She returns to peaceful life and tries to get rid of the kid that was born out of the war to get this death out of her. It’s about whether she succeeds or not. Motherhood is important in the story. It’s like now she believes that if she can give birth to a new person who didn’t see and didn’t feel the war, she can cure herself. In a way the child is sort of like a second chance.
Filmmaker: In other interviews you’ve said that it’s more important to you to show what the characters feel than what they think. Could you expand on that notion?
Balagov: Feelings for me take the first place in importance because words come from our minds and feelings come from our heart. I really want the audience to feel my films, more than to understand them. You might not understand certain things, and that’s normal because we understand films through our experience and through our knowledge. Sometimes you don’t have enough knowledge to understand everything, but if you feel it, that’s more important for me as a director. Silence can be more meaningful than words.
Filmmaker: When you were writing or directing the film, was there a specific approach to ensure that emotions resonated stronger than abstract ideas?
Balagov: I’m never sure of anything [Laughs]. I’m full of doubts when I’ve written the script, and then when we are shooting the pre-shoot, and when we are on the set. But of course you need to hide these doubts, because you need to be confident, but you can’t be sure of anything. It’s like a miracle. The film is like a self-sufficient person. He started to live his own life and you’ll never be prepared for what expects you. It’s like a child, you know? You never know how he or she will act.
Filmmaker: What was the first scene or image that you thought of for Beanpole and why was it significant?
Balagov: That’s really interesting, because the first scene I thought of is not in the film [Laughs]. From the beginning there was a story about a woman who was an anti-gunner, and when you sit in on this anti-gunner there’s a kickback when you shoot it. She experience trauma from that. Because of the kickback she couldn’t give birth to a child. There was a negative physical shift in her body. I didn’t want to show the battlefield or a flashback, what was really important to me was the aftermath. So at the beginning there was a scene—now that I think about it was a stupid scene—of a dance for which she wears high heels to feel like a woman again, and because she has this problem with her back and with her spine, the heels put strain on her back. And through dancing she brings physical suffering to herself. But then I found that this scene felt a little bit artificial. That’s why there’s no such scene in the film.
Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned that Dutch paintings were a great sort of visual inspiration for you in this project. What was it about these works that connected to your narrative?
Balagov: The locations, the backgrounds, and especially the colors, there are a lot of greens and reds in Dutch paintings. This mix of colors looks beautiful, and I just thought that it would be right to use these colors in our film, because of the theme and because of the characters. We wanted our characters to look decent because we know how much suffering will be in the film. We didn’t want to enjoy the suffering and we didn’t the film to look miserable. That’s why it looks is a little bit more beautiful than it should be to counteract the sadness.
Filmmaker: Were there any films or other works of art made about war that were in the back of your mind or did you avoid them?
Balagov: I was inspired by films like Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, which might be the number one film about war from the female perspective. There was also Larisa Shepitko’s film Wings or Aleksei German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin, which doesn’t take place after or during the war but a little bit before the war, but still the body language of people at the time and the intonation of their voices is there. There’s also another film of his, Twenty Days Without War that was also inspiriting and an amazing film. And also, Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves.
Filmmaker: What exactly was it about Breaking the Waves that spoke to you in relation to Beanpole?
Balagov: It’s one of those films that changed me in regards to the perspectives of female characters. Films like Rosetta or Wanda directed by Barbara Loden, which I recently watched because Criterion released it. This was her first feature film and this film is so amazing, I was just astonished by it. But Breaking the Waves was one of the first films that I saw and felt that women were portrayed in a more interesting way than in most movies.
Filmmaker: Working with a story centered on women’s experiences, were you concerned about ensuring that the film didn’t come across as exploitative or that it carried the negative aspects of the male gaze when portraying women?
Balagov: Alexander Sokurov, who was my teacher, told us when we were studying that every person has two sides, a female side and male side. We should be gender neutral when we work on films, on the characters in the script. I truly believe that everyone has a female and male side. With my first film and second film, I just tried to understand, find, and describe to myself my female side. I feel comfortable with that.
Filmmaker: Now you mentioned Sokurov, do you feel having studied under such a big name in Russian cinema has defined you, at least in how people perceive you and your work?
Balagov: For me it’s an honor to be a student of Sokurov, so when they talk about me as a Sokurov student I don’t mind because I really admire him. He changed me as a human being. I did my first feature film Closeness with him. He produced it. For my second film I worked with Alexander Rodnyansky. I’m not sure if Sokurov saw Beanpole and I’m not sure that he will like it, but we text each other, we have a relationship.
Filmmaker: Why do you think he won’t like Beanpole?
Balagov: It’s not his style, his cinematic intonation. It’s like he’s younger than me. I’ve always felt that this man is much younger than me. I think he will find Beanpole too slow, because when we were working together, he was like, “Cut, cut, c’mon we already understood everything. Why are you keeping that?” I’m really interested in what he thinks about the film.
Filmmaker: The locations in Beanpole come across as lived-in and as if they are bearing their own scars. Were most of them constructed sets or where these real spaces?
Balagov: The hospital and the apartments are all real spaces. In St. Petersburg is not hard to find these locations. I didn’t want to shoot on sets because when you’re in the real location you can feel the air, you can feel that the walls have a history. When we cut some the walls off with found there were layers of wallpapers from the time we were depicting and we left it because it carries that history. It was really important to be authentic. The only space that was constructed as a set was the banya, the sauna, because there’s no banya like that in St. Petersburg. We just went to the museum and asked them to show us photos. He recreated it using those photos.
Filmmaker: Both Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina were first-time actresses with no set experience. How did you introduce them to the process of filmmaking, while at the same time to the on-screen relationship they had to build?
Balagov: We moved them to St. Petersburg from Moscow because I wanted them to feel the city. When you are in St. Petersburg you can feel that the city has a face and it has a history. So they lived together in one apartment because I really want them to be close. And even if they got annoyed with each other, it would be useful too for the film because they have different relationships. I also asked them to read the books and to watch the movies that I mentioned. We did a pre-shoot on the set and we took them. It was useful to them to learn how they should understand the frame, the movement of camera, not to be afraid of the camera, and that way be more relaxed and organic in front of it.
Filmmaker: How meaningful was the physical distinction between Iya and Masha? One of them is rather tall but meek, and the other is shorter but more outspoken.
Balagov: It was important because the model for their relationship was like the yin and yang. We wanted to create contrast between the physical and the inner, emotional space. Iya is so tall and at first it seems like she’s a strong person, but she’s not. And that’s why we wanted that contrast. Masha is the opposite. She’s smaller, but she stronger and more aggressive. They are just like the yin and yang.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the relationship you wrote for Masha and Iya. It’s a profound friendship that’s also toxic at times, and functions with a power struggle between them.
Balagov: They are the loneliest people in this film. They only have each other. Iya has Masha, and Masha has Iya, and they are both really afraid of losing each other. There was a Robert Capa photo, which he took when he was in Moscow after the war, of two women who were dancing with each other. And I think they are like Masha and Iya. That was an inspiration to me. You can see in the background there were a lot of women around, because a lot of men would die at the world. That’s why Masha wants a boy, to fill that void too. Some people think it’s about a gay relationship between them, but when we justify actions solely by the gender, it simplifies them. For me the film was about one human being with another human being regardless of the gender. Love has no gender.
Filmmaker: With that in mind, what does the dance sequence in film, which is truly a beautifully achieved moment, represent for you, and for the characters taking part in it?
Balagov: As a young person, I believe that enjoying your youth is a really important thing in life and the people in the film they have a void of youth. They have an emptiness where that period of their lives should have been because they went to war at the age of 17 or 18, and returned at the age of 24 or 25, but mentally they were much older already. And that scene, it’s about the loss of youth because with each spin on the dance floor she’s trying to catch that youth, to catch that feeling of youth. But in each spin she understands that you can’t so that, you’ve lost it.
Filmmaker: I understand your path into filmmaking wasn’t straightforward. When did you realize you wanted to make the transition from your previous career into directing and what was the catalyst for that?
Balagov: It’s strange because I think I realized that I wanted to be a director around the age of 20. I was trying to find myself. I want to be an interpreter because I really love languages. But my parents didn’t like that because they thought that I wouldn’t be able to make money in that profession. They wanted me to be an economist, but I didn’t like that. And after a few years, my father bought me a DSLR camera and I started to shoot a YouTube web series with friends, which was like an homage to Tarantino, but it was awful. There was a lot of blood, useless dialogue, and it was really bad in the terms of everything [Laughs]. But I spent one year of my life and made like ten web series. After that I realized that I wanted something more and I that really loved to create these films because I was the DP, I was directing, I was editing, and I even tried to make some effects. Then a friend of mine advised me to reach out to Sokurov and see what he answered because at the time he had opened his studio. I texted him and we had a meeting. He accepted me to study at his studio, but there was one rule because he saw my YouTube series. He said, “If you want to be in my student, you shouldn’t shoot violence in your films. It’s not about violence, but about the aestheticization of violence. You shouldn’t feel joy about violence and you shouldn’t use swear words.” Those were his main rules. I accepted that. The funny thing is that, back then, I didn’t know who Sokurov was. I Googled him because I knew nothing about him before the meeting, and after meeting him I realized he’s huge as a person, and as a teacher. I’m really thankful to him.
Filmmaker: What types of films were you watching when you were a teenager aside from Tarantino?
Balagov: We had a video rental store that was called Hollywood [Laughs]. There were VHS and DVDs, and I was watching mostly scary movies, and others like Naked Gun, and Iñarritu’s Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros, and Nolan’s Memento.
Filmmaker: Do you feel watching works by those directors informed the types of films you are making today?
Balagov: My films are the way they are because of Sokurov’s studio. They were showing us classic films, the French New Wave, and Bergman. Maybe that’s why someone told me my film is “old school” [Laughs]. It may be because of that, I don’t know.