A Glasnost-borne satire: “Gorod Zero” [1989 USSR]

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Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka in Karen Shakhnazarov’s surreal dark comedy “Gorod Zero” [Eng. Title: City Zero] – a biting satire on a Soviet system resolutely chained to inertia and bureaucracy against the blowing winds of change.

The film begins with Aleksei (Leonid Filatov) – a Moscow factory representative, arriving at a station in a remote town for meeting the chief (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) of an air conditioner manufacturing unit. Right from the time he needed to re-apply for a visitor permit, things don’t go according to plan for Alexei. He enters the office to find the chief’s young and pretty secretary sitting behind a typewriter, stark naked, and going about her business in the most normal manner, whilst staff walking past her barely take notice. During the meeting with the chief, Aleksei states that he had already sent in relevant instructions for changes required to products that they’re buying. When the chief tries to summon the chief engineer to discuss the issue, he’s informed that the engineer had died eight months ago, and that they don’t have a replacement yet.

With the meeting rescheduled for two weeks later, Aleksei decides to stop at a restaurant for dinner before taking the train back to Moscow. But after the meal he’s offered a dessert that he hadn’t ordered, which upon inspection would reveal a cake made in the shape of his own head. When he refuses the offering, the waiter pleads him to accept lest he break the chef’s heart – he’d after all made it especially for him. As Aleksei turns to leave without partaking the dessert, he hears a gunshot and looks back, to see the chef collapsing to the floor holding a gun on one hand, and clutching his blood-stained chest on the other.

This is just the start of a very long day for Aleksei, who will henceforth find it impossible to leave or escape town, and will be called in for questioning by the police officer investigating the chef’s apparent suicide. The railway station won’t sell rail tickets, and roads from town will lead to dead-ends. Every character he meets from then on, will one way or the other thwart his attempts at escape. Before long, Aleksei will find himself lost and confused in a world gone crazy around him.

Shakhnazarov revels in critiquing opposing factions within the Soviet system – those wanting change and those that don’t – using Aleksei’s Kafkaesque nightmare and the absurd goings on. The film is as much a symbol of the new openness of the late eighties in erstwhile USSR as it is a sign of things to come, where regional nationalism sits uneasily alongside a collective identity, where bureaucracy bridled with inefficiency is the ignored elephant in the room, and where systematic propaganda makes it impossible to separate fact from fiction. Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [NTSC] | Amazon.de DVD Link [PAL] | English Subtitles


The Nudity: Yelena Arzhanik
Yelena Arzhanik plays the naked secretary with a perfectly straight face while ushering Aleksei to the chief’s office. The scene is hilarious, more so after we see the chief becoming aware of her nakedness only through Aleksei, but who regardless sets it aside and resumes talking business.

Yelena Arzhanik nude in Gorod Zero aka City Zero

Yelena Arzhanik plays the naked secretary in Karen Shakhnazarov’s surreal satire
“Gorod Zero” aka “City Zero”.



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