‘My Joy’: A journey into the the heart of Russia’s darkness

August 2, 2011

My Joy (Schastye moe) is a rare film with concentrated potency in story development as well as social commentary that does not succumb to cheap tricks. I might call this the darkest movie I have ever seen. Flashy shockmiesters like Takashi Miike and Gaspar Noé cannot hold a candle to it. The implications of hopelessness in My Joy go much deeper than the pushing of a moral envelope or raw brutal, horror. It crosses generations and implicates an entire society. No wonder the Russians are so pissed off about this movie.

The film opens with a shot of wet, churning concrete, which some gangsters will soon use to seal away a body. The lumpy gray mix swirls and folds over itself in a continuous cycle that leads only to a dark abyss. It’s a fitting image for the grim story of My Joy, which not only follows the doomed journey of Georgy (Viktor Nemets), a trucker on the back roads of post-communist Russia, but also encapsulates the cross-generational downward spiral of a corrupt nation.

If you are wondering if there is any hope in My Joy, well, despite the title, there is none. But it takes a man who loves his country to paint such a bleak portrait of it. As Fassbinder did with Berlin Alexanderplatz in the early eighties, director Sergei Loznitsa, who had only worked in documentaries up until this feature film, has angered his countrymen with this film, according to an article by Michael Koresky.

Loznitsa offers a story that unfolds in a non-linear narrative. It’s a brilliant creative move as scenes of Russia during World War II and the current time flow into each with associative dream logic. But My Joy is more nightmare than dream, as one scene after another offers a portal to even starker and grimmer situations, which all too often lead to murder.

The movie’s first pivotal scene happens as an elderly man (Vladimir Golovin) tells Georgy a story after the Russians had invaded Germany at the end of World War II (I know this bit of history very well, as my father was drafted into the German army and survived the brutal military campaign to take Moscow. It is also well known that the Russians raped and pillaged as they marched on Berlin). He was a Soviet Lieutenant back then (Aleksey Vertkov) and was heading back to his village with some modest war trophies: a red dress, a camera and a German soldier’s coat, waiting to catch a train. Another Soviet officer (Dmitriy Gotsdiner) is making the rounds asking travelers for their papers and invites the lieutenant to sit with him for a drink. This officer at one point drapes the coat over his shoulders to model it for the lieutenant. “It suits you,” says the Lieutenant. “You look like a real German.”

Of course, the comment stings the commander, and, just as the lieutenant is about to board the train, the commander demands the lieutenant turn over his bags. Soon after, as the train pulls away, the lieutenant shoots the commander. “I lost my name there,” the old man tells Georgy. And on the films goes, in a full throttle journey toward the darkness, a place where you give up a sense of humanity, of self, of morals, in order to survive one moment to the next in a world where no one can care less, not even you to your own person.

Though the film is quietly paced, a tense, ominous air hangs heavy over every scene, as if danger lurks everywhere, even when looking out in the distance across vast lands where nature tears through concrete to take back a land man no longer deserves, leaving dilapidated homes and villages that harbor only dilapidated souls. Even a young prostitute (Olga Shuvalova) wants to have nothing to do with turning her life around. When Georgy tries returning her home with money in her pocket without taking any sexual favors, she throws the money back at him and says, “You think you’re so noble? … Are you an idiot? I’ll earn my own money with this,” she says slapping her crotch.

Georgy then walks her village, as the camera turns to its denizens with their worn out, beat up, scraggly, ugly, sad faces, slowly panning from one person to the next before one brutal man pushes through the mass, and the camera follows him until he paces off into the primordial woods encroaching the village’s boundaries. We never glimpse his face.

Credit is due to cinematographer Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), who certainly brings an elegant production value to the lush imagery that brims with so much character. From the people who populate the film to vistas that only show tiny figures walking to who knows where from who knows what, a sense of dread and mystery surrounds every scene in My Joy.

Georgy moves on from the village, down a back road said to be cursed, but one that will take him around an accident that has choked the main road to a standstill. Day turns to twilight, which turns to night, and it seems he is the only living soul on the road, as he maneuvers his truck around potholes, through a village of derelict homes, with only his headlights to lead the way.

After an encounter with some men who he welcomes to a fire and roasted potatoes, Georgy ends up laid out from a blow to the head that seems to come out of nowhere. Then it’s on to another scene from World War II where two soldiers are given food and shelter by a man and his young son. One soldier asks the man, who says he is a teacher, if there are police in this seeming one-home village. “We thrive untended like the grass,” says the teacher who admits his hope for a school once the war has ended. “Germans are civilized. They’ll establish a school,” he tells these soldiers. Of course it will not end well for such an idealist.

One scene after another fascinates, and Loznitsa, who also wrote the screenplay based on stories he heard during his years as a documentary filmmaker, wastes no words of dialogue, as it all seems to reverberate with the ghosts of the past and the foreboding of the future. Do not misread this review. This is not about celebrating a film because of its doom and gloom. This is about celebrating a filmmaker who can explore the gloom to maximal effect. This movie has an almost literary sensibility, as the seeming anecdotal encounters entwine and illuminate one another. It’s as if Loznitsa is illustrating the collective unconscious of a country that has repercussions on future generations. This director shows immense promise as a feature filmmaker, and he could very well be another Krzysztof Kieślowski.

After he winds up with a concussion that seems to have robbed him of his ability to speak, Georgy ends up beaten and scavenged upon for the rest of the film, absorbed into the village by a woman who will use him in every way, shape and form. He winds up a human zombie, and when he finds himself in a lethal situation of villains, by-standers and victims, his reaction seems to encapsulate oblivion. Where is justice when one has become a zombie? Georgy shambles off into the night, as cars keep passing down that road that lead him on the path to nihilism. What is left when there is no conscience?

Indeed the only thing joyful is in the film’s title. However, there is clear affection driving this movie, as it takes a deep love of country to create such a  freakish nightmare journey into the madness of backwoods Russia. You thought Winter’s Bone was a bad place to find yourself? This is hell on earth. One shudders to think of the US arriving at such a state, as it falls behind in education, innovation and the gap widens between the poor and the rich. As the old man says when his life comes full circle toward the end of the film, “Anything is possible, lad. You know yourself these are troubled times.”

After screening at a few scattered festival dates, including making it into Palme d’ Or competition at Cannes in 2010, My Joy will make its US theatrical debut at the Miami Beach Cinematheque for one night only: Wednesday, Aug. 10 at 8 p.m. This special preview screening even beats its New York screening run.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

10 Responses to “‘My Joy’: A journey into the the heart of Russia’s darkness”


  1. Thanks for pointing out, Hans, that it is the masterful handling of the subject matter, rather than the subject matter itself, that makes this a great film. Kieślowski and Tarkovsky, two directors not known for their light take on life, started somewhere in feature filmmaking, supported or not. Losnitsa’s visionary feature debut is a discovery of a similar brand, and is the reason it needs to be seen and is programmed at MBC.

    • indieethos Says:

      Gloom for gloom’s sake is a cheap gimmick, but when you add such bold social commentary as the one that laces My joy, you take it to another level. So many easily fall under the spell of the former, it gets annoying, to say the least. My Joy is an extraordinary find, so thanks for sharing it!


  2. Meanwhile..update: Full house for the USA premiere!
    Thanks, Hans, for the support!

  3. Florentina Says:

    It is hard to watch this film for it somehow has the ability to expose the raw, unveiled obscenity of a social order. There are numerous other films trying to do just that but there are only a few that succeed in making such a blunt of an exposal of the way one’s humanity is swallowed up, devoured, enmeshed, killed and petrified by something invading the social space almost like a disease. Recent Ukrainian (I would extend the claim for the entire Eastern Europe) films have been lingering over this same topic. For example, writing about another Ukrainian film Krishtofovich’s Friend of the Deceased, Michael Shapiro observes that the cinematic story stresses the fact that genuine friendship has been displaced by predatory forms of exchange.

    This tendency of recent Eastern European film to focus on the obscenity, strictness and lack of morality of the big Other (term addressed from a Lacanian perspective) has been a key interest in my academic research. What I like to stress in my discussion of such films is not the corrupt social and political environment from which they emerge, but instead I find immensely interesting the interest of writers and film directors in such deeply political topics as well as the ability of film, as an art form, to expose the roughness of the social order and it law.

    My Joy (2010) joins other Eastern European films in being frustrating to watch for there is no specific way in which the cinematic stories are directing desire, there are no trusted solutions to the human misery exposed. Fantasy is constructed in such a way that it bluntly exposes the underside of authority. If an ideal or solution is presented within the film, that is done only to expose finally the emptiness of the ideal, the hidden part of it. These films are traumatic in their ability to closely approach the Real. The specifics of the recent Eastern European fantasy formations are a product of traumatic experiences. The traumatic experiences I refer to are the rigidity of the past communist social order, combined with the sudden and rapid change of the ideological discourse. These two processes were experienced as traumatic events, for they exposed society to the overbearing power of the Other, that held the ability to regulate all aspects of life, and to the Other’s lack and inconsistency, that with the 1989 revolutions lead to its demise in a matter of hours. The lack created by the dislocation of the social brings an encounter with the Real. What deserves attention in this case is that the lack created by the dislocation does not cause desire for a new discursive articulation, but instead of being covered with a new fantasy formation, the lack is encircled again and again within films and other art forms. The traces of the Real are preserved and exposed –which makes the film hard to bear watching.

    I am planning an article which makes My Joy (2010) a central point of focus … look forward to us discussing it, Hans!

    • indieethos Says:

      Great, as expected from you, Florentina! I look forward to looking at this film again closer, so do share further work. This is truly an amazing work that merits a close examination, as you note. But it also shows us a filmmaker who truly knows the power of cinema.


  4. Couldn’t agree more with this review, this is a stunning film, for its ability to look into the darkness of Russia’s heart as you say, as well as for its meandering narrative structure and formal prowess.

    Have you seen Loznitsa’s other feature, In the Fog? Another stunning film I thought, if less immediately striking in its unconventionality. After discovering his 2 features I explored some of his documentaries, and they form part of the key to understanding My Joy as well I think. For example, the market scene with the camera wandering through the crowd of people, not sure who to pin its attention on, has clear precedent in his earlier doc Landscape. A lot of his docs are preoccupied with the hinterlands of Russia and what they tell us about the state of Russian society, and as you said he gathered stories and anecdotes that fed into My Joy on those trips.

    • Hans Says:

      I did see In the Fog. I liked My Joy much more, though. He recently retuned to documentary filmmaking, and he got raves for his work. I forget the title but, of course, it deals with Russia. Did you see it?


      • I think you mean Maidan, filmed in the Kiev square during the protests. I haven’t seen that one yet but from what I read it seems formally rigorous again like My Joy and his early docs. I hope to watch it soon. I also look forward to his 3rd feature film, hopefully soon!

      • Hans Says:

        Yes! I’ve read tremendous things about it. I hope to seek it out. Maybe it’s on Netflix by now.


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