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.)