“Terrorism is the triumph of the individual over the state.”
Russia in 1905 was a tumultuous place, and the film The Rider Named Death follows the actions of a determined group of revolutionaries whose aim is to assassinate Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (Vasiliy Zotov), the brother of Alexander III. The revolutionaries belong to the Social Revolutionary Party and they constitute the SR Combat Organization. While they take orders from the Central Committee, their group leader is Georges (Andrei Panin)–a character based on author and revolutionary Boris Savinko. Georges is a cold, unemotional individual whose lover is bombmaker Erna (Kseniya Rappoport). Other members of the group include the young idealistic poet Vanya (Artyom Semakin), Fyodor (R. Bershauer) and Heinrich (Aleksei Kazakov).
The film begins with a short introductory sequence that illustrates the many political assassinations that occurred in Russia during this period. The film moves from one particular assassination into a brief black and white mode while creating the impression of newsreel, and this effectively serves as the background to the activities of the group led by Georges.
Georges and his fellow revolutionaries plot their assassinations in the garish colourful atmosphere of the Tivoli, and there, surrounded by pleasure seekers, the assassins receive their orders from Azef (Dmitri Dyuzhev), a member of the Central Committee. The distant, bureaucratic Central Committee hands out orders, but it’s Georges and his band who must execute those directives–assassination orders that are–at times–difficult to accept. The film makes it clear that one of the fundamental problems inherent with this band of revolutionaries is the hierarchal structure that implies that some revolutionaries are more valuable than others. Georges is seen as more valuable than Vanya, Fyodor, and Heinrich, for example, so it’s his job to bid farewell to revolutionaries who are on their final missions armed with a bombs. But as far as the revolutionary food chain goes, Georges is considerably lower than his dashing Central Committee contact, Azef. In one glorious scene, Georges eats with Azef while he receives his latest orders from the higher echelons. Georges notes that Azef orders the best Vodka and the finest caviar. Although Georges offers no comment on this extravagance, his glance speaks volumes.
Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov, The Rider Named Death is an extremely colourful, visually stunning film, and as a film illustrating the volatile times, it’s riveting. The examination of the ethics behind revolutionary violence, the aftermath of the assassinations, and the death and mutilations of innocent bystanders are intentionally provocative. One of the ways both the Central Committee and Georges, as its revolutionary assassin, assess a revolutionary’s commitment to the cause is to question exactly why he/she has turned to violence. And the answers are sometimes very simple, and sometimes much more complicated. In Russian with English subtitles, the film ends with quotes that prophesy the apocalyptic destruction that will descend upon Russia in 1917.