“It seems to me that water and war are the only loves in your life.”
If you don’t have an issue with subordinating the Russian revolution to a love story, then the epic film Admiral is a feast for the eyes. But if you expect Admiral to be heavy on politics or historic events, then you may be disappointed in this visually stunning film from Andrei Kravchuk. If you simply want to enjoy the film, it’s best to approach Admiral for what it is–rather than what it isn’t, and basically Admiral is an epic love story of two people whose lives are defined by the backdrop of the Russian Revolution.
The Admiral of the title is Admiral Kolchak played with icy toughness by Konstantin Khabenskiy, and the film begins wisely by establishing the sort of man Kolchak is. It’s 1916, WWI and a Russian battleship is setting mines when a German ship appears on the horizon. A battle commences and severely outgunned, the Russian ship takes a beating. It’s the cool head and strategic military thinking of Kolchak that saves the day, designates him a Naval hero, and brings him honour from the Tsar.
The film follows Kolchak, as he becomes Commander-in-Chief of the Black Sea Fleet and at pivotal points in his life while the story focuses on the tentative love affair the married Kolchak has with equally married Anna (Elizaveta Boyarskaya). It doesn’t take a great deal of observational powers for Kolchak’s wife, Sofia (Anna Kovalchuk) to deduce that her husband is in love with Anna (and indications are that love affairs for Kolchak are a regular event), but Kolchak takes the ‘noble’ road and tells Anna that their love affair cannot be. This begins a relationship that’s maintained for some time just by letters. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution is shaking the country to its foundations, and we have glimpses of Kronstadt, scenes of the Petrograd Soviet, the massacres in Sebastopol, Kolchak’s relationship with the Provisional Government, and Kolchak’s role as Supreme Ruler of Russia. Simultaneously, the film follows the love affair between its protagonists while the revolution wears on, so we have one scene for example, when Anna won’t leave Sebastopol (in spite of the slaughter of officers by Bolsheviks) simply because she is expecting a letter from Kolchak. Eventually, however, with Sofia living in exile in Paris, Anna and Kolchak, throw caution to the winds and begin a brief life, such as it is, together.
The film avoids political statements while touching on the sweeping brutality of the times, and the brutality focuses on the violence of the Bolsheviks. Some of the best scenes depict the wholesale class slaughter taking place, and the film’s cinematography excels at the underwater scenes. Particularly poignant (and accurate) are the scenes of the bodies of officers under the water at Sebastopol. An 1918 account from a diver who was sent to retrieve the body of a murdered officer recounts seeing the bodies of hundreds of freshly dead, weighted by stones, swaying in the sea. This unnerving sight was powerfully recreated for the film, and the imagery of the secrets held by water is a recurrent theme throughout the film, culminating in Kolchak’s eerie watery grave.
Kolchak, as a leader of the White Russian forces intent on property protection and class privilege, was a ‘baddie’ as far as 20th Century Soviet history was concerned, and now the film seems to be an attempt at an image makeover as part of a celebration of Russian history. It’s ironic that Kolchak went from being a villain to being a saint or at least a flawless hero. Glaringly absent is any reference to Kolchak’s brutal methods of suppression, particularly in Siberia. There are no scenes of villages being burned while peasants are tortured and slaughtered. Personally I had issue with this almost complete lack of detail especially since the film shows scenes of the Bolshi mayhem and mass slaughter.
Since this film will be the introduction to Kolchak and in many cases the only knowledge a great number of people will have of the White Russian commander, one must ask whether or not it’s ethical to portray Kolchak in such a bleached out manner. There’s a lingering romanticism that attaches itself–at least in the West–to White Russians, and while I am certain most Westerners could sniff out a Red Bolshi propaganda film, I’m not convinced that the Whites are subject to an equal evaluation.
I think Russian cinema is making some very exciting films these days, and it’s sobering to think that just a few decades ago those associated with the film could have been dragged off to the gulag. So with the Cold War gone, and the Iron Curtain ripped asunder, Kolchak is no longer vilified but glorified. Note here that I am not trying to place the sins of the Whites or the Reds on to some sort of sliding scale of evaluation; I am noting the swinging doors of political ‘progress,’ the shift in acceptable attitudes and a sad lack of historical accuracy.
If you watch Admiral, do yourself a favor and check out the Hungarian film The Red and The White–a film that does a marvelous job of showing the interchangeability between both sides when it comes to senseless violence.