By Victoria Henretty, Graduate Student, Russian & East European Institute
In one of the opening scenes of Garagenvolk, two men tow a dilapidated school bus, a hilarious feat as they navigate rows of metal garages. Backing up the truck again and again, while only narrowly avoiding the garages, the men yell profanities back and forth. The audience laughed with no apprehension as the two friends struggled to achieve an impossible task. Garagenvolk demonstrates the persistence of people living in the Kola Peninsula, a region completely within the Arctic Circle and one that presents challenges for survival. The film shows how life can be beautiful and funny, but simultaneously tragic and extremely painful. Within these garages, found everywhere in Russia, people are building relationships, pursuing their careers, and often searching for their life’s purpose.
We later learn that the towing duo are best friends, Ilya and Vitalik, who collect scrap together. Throughout the film we see Ilya get on Vitalik for drinking, messing up their work, not being smart enough, but their fights always end with laughs. At the end of the film, we see Ilya searching the town for Vitalik whom he has not seen for weeks. The end credits inform the audience that Vitalik passed away. The relationship between Vitalik and Ilya was deeply damaged by the toll alcoholism and salvaging scraps can have on the body. Many of the men in the film perform difficult manual labor. Roman, who breeds quails, tells the camera about the pain he has experienced in his life, including the death of multiple wives. And yet, he adds that life simply goes on. By the end of the film, we see that Roman is on a date with a woman and he is telling her how beautiful she is while they dance in pink lighting, and he is smiling. I was filled with a sense of melancholy when Roman spoke, because much like the other people featured in the film, he had experienced major trauma, and continued to find himself and love.
The film briefly introduces two “soldiers” in old military uniforms, sitting in their garage, getting ready for the day. Their first exchange is the only one we get to witness:
“Didn’t Hitler wear his gaiters up to his knees,” asks the first soldier.
“Yes he did.”
“Why can’t I?”
“Because you’re not a general,” finishes the second soldier.
The next shot frames the men on the outside of the garage, the second soldier standing with his gaiters up to his knees. It is evident the gaiters were meant to look like Hitler’s. My surprise by the image was confounded by the fact that I didn’t know if these men were actual soldiers, or were re-enacting historical military dress. As the film ended, I was left with many questions about those men. Evidently I was not the only one left wondering about these men, as the post-screening Q&A discussion with Dr. Marya Rozanova-Smith from George Washington University and Dr. Russell Valentino from IU shed some light on this scene. Dr. Marya Rozanova-Smith explained that these men were dressing as Nazi soldiers and their identity is likely hidden because of the illegality of Nazi symbols in Russia. Dr. Rozanova-Smith and an audience member both commented that it is likely these men are more interested in history than Nazi ideology. Dr. Russell Valentino, commented that he thought it was interesting that the film was released in Germany, but did not provide more context for these soldiers for the US screening. In Germany, this scene was completely removed. This became pointed to me after I saw that Berlinale, Germany’s international film festival, described these men as soldiers using the garages to store their supplies, and not as historical reenactments. An opportunity was lost to explain how remnants of Nazism remains in Russia, and the exclusion of this topic seems purposeful. At a time when Nazi ideology is flaring up across the globe once more, the exclusion of an explanation for these “soldiers” was a disappointing omission.
Garagenvolk illustrates the ways in which people facing polar nights, extreme cold, and the pain of being human contend with these problems and create meaning for themselves. The film shows this meaning may be derived from their hobbies and relationships, even when they are dark and complicated. Ilya may have unrelentingly scolded Vitalik when they worked, but he was also the one searching for him when Vitalik went missing. Roman continued to pursue love even after having it ripped away from him by fate. I walked away from the film with the feeling that life is hard and sad, but beauty and love persist.