Sunday, 3 August 2008

Honorary Russian: Viggo Mortensen

Okay, here comes a less serious post ...

I recently watched Eastern Promises (2007), a slightly orientalist drama movie directed by David Cronenberg, which is about a midwife in London who gets dangerously involved with the Russian old-school mafia when she tries to find out something about a patient of hers who died while giving birth.
The gangsters in this film are supposed to be trüe Воры в законе, a form of organisation that dates back to the late 20's to early 30's. While they still exist today, they should not be confused with a considerable part of the modern Russian mafia, who don't follow the same strict codes.

Almost none of the Russians in the film are real Russians, and most of them are not all that convincing, but Viggo Mortensen (half Danish, half US American) alone is a reason to watch this film over and over again. He plays the truly badass Nikolai, a coldblooded gangster, the hardest of the hard, who has a slight obsessive-compulsive disorder and a sick sense of humour. As well as an almost authentic Russian flavour.

Apparently Viggo prepared for his role by travelling by himself to Siberia (where Nikolai is from originally), hanging out with random Russians, some of them criminals, and watching them and copying their behaviour. The way he moves and the facial expressions he wears as Nikolai are really spot-on.
While his Russian could be even better (some of the "hard" consonants, not least ф, б and ш, as well as the vowel ы, can be very difficult), his accent holds a rarely high standard for any non-Russian actor pretending to be Russian.

Listen to Nikolai "the undertaker" explain what he is about to do. Guess what the sound at the end of the clip is.

Getting the pliers out and that silk tie out of the way.

Kirill and Nikolai dump a body. Listen to Nikolai explain the location ...

Anna the midwife has a nice Soviet motorbike inherited from her Russian father (she is half Russian, but doesn't speak any Russian and is totally assimilated into British society; one of the reasons why she can't keep her fingers from this case might actually be curiosity about her own Russian roots).
At one point, the bike's engine gets wet and it won't start. Nikolai sees her struggle with it, and his Russian Male Pride at first suggests that she can't start the bike because she as a woman is not strong enough to kick it properly.

But he, albeit being a strong and badass Russian Man, can't start the bike, either ...

- Have you ever met a girl called Tatyana?
- I met lot of girls called Tatyana.
- She was pregnant.
- Ah. In that case - no, I never heard of her. Heh.
- ...

Threatening Russian gesture.

(Click to enlarge.) The importance of tattoos is perhaps a little bit overdramatized in the film, but Viggo by himself conducted extensive research to ensure that the tattoos of his character were exactly like what he would have if he were a real, existing person.
The tattoos of Russian criminals often mark the tattooed person's criminal history and prison experiences, so Nikolai's tattoos should reflect his history - the crimes he had commited, his prison sentences and special punishments like solitary confinement.

In fact, in an interview in the DVD extras he tells about how he one day went to a pub straight from the set, without washing off his fake tattoos or changing his hairstyle. There was a Russian couple at the pub, and Viggo listened to them talking and tried to see if he could learn something or recognise some words. Then all of a sudden they fell quiet, and he looked over to them and saw that they were staring at the tattoos on his hands, looking quite horrified. Viggo felt bad about scaring them, but he was also happy that he was able to look so convincing.

(Click to enlarge.) The guy who plays the tattoo artist (one of the few native Russian-speakers in the film) is aware of the dangers in this movie popularizing Russian criminal tattoos. So, in an interview he explains that if a Вор would see a фраер (non-criminal, "normal citizen", a potential victim) with these stars tattooed on them, he would get someone - or do it himself - and cut the pieces of flesh with the tattoos off that person, because he has not earned them.

(Click to enlarge.)

The church with the three towers on Nikolai's back symbolizes the three prison sentences that he has served. (Click to enlarge.)

There is also an incredibly intense fight scene where Nikolai fights naked against two other gangsters, but though I made a lot of screencaps of it I don't think they are quite suitable for a family website like Chirayliq. Watch the movie. You won't regret it. (Indeed, Viggo had nothing really to be ashamed of.)


ainur said...

A family website! Well I never... Of course, I try to follow the golden rule: Never post anything that would hurt Mum's feelings. That should keep me safe... (though not from the government)

Viggo is so adorable when he is making "Russian faces". Eyebrows, lips, it's spot on. Your selection of images is like a little handbook, I have to use some of those expressions for my characters (Volkov!). Of course, it's best to go to the sources. Do you know any good Russian movies about gangsters in the 20's and 30's? That "Vory v zakone" stuff sounded intriguing. I also wonder about the etymology of the word "fraer". Does it come from German "Freier"? (And how come it's the German word for "prostitute's customer" now, although it looks like it means "free person" and earlier meant "suitor"? Is the evolution something like "free man" -> "free to court a lady"?)

It is striking how language extends to physical expressions, and sometimes it is possible to "blend in" a community by successfully learning the common body language, although your looks may be different or your speech might have an accent. (I might mention some Finns in Japan who have adapted well...)

It would be fun to see you in Russia, Tinet!

ainur said...

Another thing (I should sleep now but I don't have any sense): It would be fun to do something about these eternal Hollywood Scandinavians who get to play the "ethnic Other". You know, Peter Stormare as a crazy Russian cosmonaut or German punk, Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless, or if you go even further back, with Nils Asther as a Chinese warlord in "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" and Warner Oland (born Johan Verner Ölund in Västerbotten, any Finn or Saame in him by chance?) as Charlie Chan and Dr Fu Manchu.

My pet theory: Although Scandinavians were assumed to be the "purest of the pure" Germanics/Aryans/Caucasians, whatever the current trend might have been, they were exotic for those who identified as Anglo-Saxon. Thus, during the worst hysteria against "yellow peril" and racial mixing, a Scandinavian in yellowface was exotic *and* safe for the white audience and censors. They were believeable enough as villains or good guys, but after all, they where white actors from the whitest part of the world.

For some strange reason, the selected Scandinavian actors did not always need much makeup or enhancements to look "convincingly" Asian...

Would a post on this theme suit Chirayliq or is it way out of party line?

Tinet said...

Well, the fight scene is very realistic and ugly, and the nudity is more raw than pretty, so I don't know if mum should be exposed to it. :op

Hmm, I don't think there are any contemporary films made about Vory v zakone that early on.
From Soviet times I only know the comedy "Gentlemen of Fortune" and the miniseries The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed set in the postwar Soviet Union.

In the 1990's there was apparently an explosion in popular history and romantic depictions of the Russian mafia. Most of it is said to be crap. There was recently a New York Times article about Vory v zakone, where a Russian expert claimed that "Eastern Promises" was the best depiction of them that he had seen on film(!).
Still, there are the Brat (Brother) films, and also Antikiller, a great Russian bockbuster action movie ... Hmm.
One less glorifying depiction is the film "Vor" about a young mother and her son who shortly after the war get involved with a handsome professional thief who claims to be an army officer. But it's perhaps more of a parabel about Stalin.
"Brigada" is a very popular miniseries about a group of good friends who become gangsters, and their lives from 1989 to 2000. It looks like parts of it are on YouTube, and guess who is in it? - Farhad Mahmudov!
Most of these films aren't really much of ethnographical depictions of Vory v zakone, though.

Not only trüe Vory got/get tattoos in the prisons and camps, but the criminal tattoo culture is in any case very interesting, though it is said to be degrading these days. There is a very interesting documentary film about Russian criminal tattoos called "The Mark of Cain".
Here is a fun article about both Eastern Promises and The Mark of Cain.

An acquaintance of mine in Moscow, a funny Swedish girl, had a Russian ex-boyfriend who was a criminal (maybe, maybe not a trüe Vor). He had his whole body covered with tattoos, and according to eyewitnesses he was the most handsome man anyone had ever seen. :o)
Maybe I should try to look her up again and see if she has any photos of him still ...?

Hmm, the word "fraer" most likely comes from German, but I don't know how exactly. I do know that in Romanian it means a dupe, someone who can be easily fooled. I don't know if it came into Romanian from Russian, but in any case the meaning is similar, though more specific in Russian.
I think the German "Freier", and Swedish "Friare", are nouns formed from the verbs that are both from the old Germanic word vrîen, to suit, to marry, identical with the Icelandic frjá, to love. I suspect that it might be ralated to something about "setting free" a woman from her family so you can marry her, "vacating" her into the position where she can be married to you. The evolution of "Freier" to mean "john" is probably quite simply sarcasm.
I don't know how this word came into Russian and Romanian and came to have a slightly different meaning. Maybe German men came to Russian families to suit their daughters and the Russians thought they were pathetic and could fool them very easily? :o/

Awww, but I haven't been in Russia for a long time. Russians would probably also think it was fun to see me in Russia. The ones in Berlin already laugh at my accent and say it's cute. ;_; I need to practise more again.

Tinet said...

The theme of Scandinavian Asians sounds quite intriguing! Post, post!

Tinet said...

Ooops, sorry for linking to the Japanese trailer for "Vor", of all possible versions. I wasn't looking.

ainur said...

Etymology of the word "free" in English:

free (adj.)
Old English FREO "free, exempt from, not in bondage," also "noble, joyful," from early Germanic *frijaz (cf. Sanskrit priyah "own, dear, beloved," priyate "loves;" Old Church Slavonic prijati "to help," prijatelji "friend;" Welsh rhydd "free"). The adv. is from O.E. freon, freogan "to free, love." The primary sense seems to have been "beloved, friend, to love;" which in some languages (notably Gmc. and Celtic) developed also a sense of "free," perhaps from the terms "beloved" or "friend" being applied to the free members of one's clan (as opposed to slaves, cf. L. liberi, meaning both "free" and "children"). Cf. Goth. frijon "to love;" O.E. freod "affection, friendship," friga "love," friðu "peace;" Old Norse friðr, German Friede "peace;" O.E. freo "wife;" O.N. Frigg "wife of Odin," lit. "beloved" or "loving;" Middle Low German vrien "to take to wife, Dutch vrijen, German freien "to woo."

Modern use extends to economic sense in English, unlike in many other languages:

Sense of "given without cost" is 1585, from notion of "free of cost." Of nations, "not subject to foreign rule or to despotism," it is recorded from 1375. Freedman "manumitted slave" first recorded 1601. Colloquial freeloader first recorded 1930s; free fall is from 1919, originally of parachutists; free-hand is from 1862; free-thinker is from 1692. Freebie dates back to 1942 as freeby, perhaps as early as 1900. Free-for-all "mass brawl" (in which anyone may participate) first recorded 1881.