For Marx... (Za Marksa...): Berlin Review

The Neo-Marxist political drama ends up more Groucho than Karl.

Svetlana Baskova’s Neo-Marxist political drama ends up more Groucho than Karl.

BERLIN -- Karl Marx would probably start revolving in his grave if he could see all the dreadful art, literature and pop-culture effluvia that his works have inspired over the last 100 years. But at least this contemporary experiment in “Neo-Soviet cinema”, showing this week at the Berlinale, is founded on an intriguing premise. A self-conscious throwback to the heavy-handed socialist realism of the USSR, visual artist turned writer-director Svetlana Baskova’s manifesto-like thriller explores the struggles of former communist-era factory workers in the current harsh climate of credit-crunch capitalism. Although it misses its target, the film should find a readymade audience at further festivals, with potential niche appeal to overseas distributors.

Shot in the crumbling depths of a real metal foundry, For Marx opens with a splinter group of workers setting up an independent labor union to counteract the corrupt, toothless union in bed with the factory bosses. Between political meetings and protest rallies, these weather-beaten proletarian heroes share lengthy discussions on Gogol, Godard, Brecht, Stanislavski and other great revolutionary artists.

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Meanwhile, their philistine playboy employers sip champagne in their penthouse offices, ruthlessly forcing down wages and ignoring safety rules while lavishing millions on fancy artworks to decorate their plush boardrooms. Class war becomes inevitable, with the mafia-like factory bosses soon resorting to blackmail, bribery, intimidation and even murder.

Sadly, Baskova and her team talk a better film than they can deliver. The crudely delineated contrast between brave, noble, cultured workers and ruthless capitalists may be a piece of knowingly nostalgic caricature, but it still feels jarringly clunky. And while the dialogue pays tribute to Brechtian alienation technique, which was designed to jolt audiences into political action with its pointed artificiality, the film-makers prove remarkably timid in deconstructing their own dramatic conventions. Beyond a few playful continuity glitches, notably a heavy snowfall that miraculously disappears in the next shot, drab realism permeates every scene.

The icing on this half-baked cake is the rooftop shoot-out between the factory foreman (Sergey Pakhomov) and his gangster-ish boss (Vladimir Epifantsev), an amateurish climax lacking any tension or conviction. A pity, because Baskova’s skewed tribute to the classic tropes of Soviet propaganda cinema is a commendably ambitious work with serious points to make about union rights and working conditions in post-communist Russia. But to paraphrase Marx himself, this is not history repeating itself as tragedy, more like clumsy farce.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum), February 7

Production company: Cine Fantom, AD Studio

Producers: Anatoly Osmolovsky, Andrey Silvestrov, Glev Alienikov

Director: Svetlana Baskova

Cast: Sergey Pakhomov, Aleksandr Kovalev, Lavrenty Svetlichny, Vladimir Epifantsev, Denis Yakovlev

Screenwriter: Svetlana Baskova

Cinematographer: Maksin Mosin, Egor Antonov

Editor: Veronika Pavlovskaya

Sales company: Cine Fantom

Rating TBC, 100 minutes