from Jewishness: Expression, Identity, and Representation
Olga Gershenson

I will look at two representative films, Love (Lyubov) directed by Valery Todorovsky (1991), and Daddy (Papa), directed by Vladimir Mashkov (2004), to identify and discuss the ambivalent points of Jewish identification ... . Like any complex texts, these films are open to multiple interpretations, but my project here is to focus on the image of the Jew as these films create and circulate it. As Omer Bartov argues, if Jewish stereotypes were once produced and disseminated through other genres, today it is in film that "one encounters the formation of stereotype and the impregnation of viewers' minds by those stereotypes."

Both Love and Daddy emerged in the cinematic context of post-Soviet Russia. The new openness of perestroika brought both Jewish culture and popular antisemitism out into the public sphere. After decades during which Jewish topics in art had been silenced, bans were lifted, and films on Jewish issues started pouring onto the screens. This Jewish cinematic renaissance encompassed a wide range of subjects, genres, and authors, reflecting and shaping the ambivalent portrayal of Jews. Whatever the topic, Jewish characters are always portrayed at one polar extreme or the other, either as victims or heroes, as miserable, persecuted women and elderly folk or as noble warriors. These films combine a view of Jews as members of refined Russian intelligentsia with stereotypical ethnic schmaltz, evoking feelings ranging from philosemitism to antisemitism. ...

Love and Daddy are among the more significant of the post-perestroika Jewish films in terms of critical success, audience popularity, and the celebrity of the filmmakers and actors. Love was a winner of awards at the international festivals in Montpellier, Chicago, and Geneva, as well as at the national Russian festivals, Kinotavr and Sozvezdie. It also won the Russian film critics' annual award and was popular with audiences. ... Both films were clearly interpreted by critics and audiences as Jewish. Given their cultural significance, they provide excellent sites for studying the pervasive cultural ideas about Jewish identity that they both reflect and help shape. Valery Todorovsky (b. 1962) and Vladimir Mashkov (b. 1963) are among the most popular and critically acclaimed Russian filmmakers of the young generation. Todorovsky, who is ethnically Jewish, is the son of the famous filmmakers Petr and Mira Todorovsky. His films have all been major hits, including Katya Izmailova (1994), Land of the Deaf (1998), The Lover (2002), and My Stepbrother Frankenstein (2004). In many cases, he has also acted as screenwriter and producer (Love was both written and directed by him). The influential Russian daily Nezavisimaya gazeta called him "the most successful director of the young generation."

...Todorovsky's Love and Mashkov's Daddy have much in common: both focus on the Jewish theme, and both combine the genres of Bildungsroman, family drama, and romance. Both have Jewish and non-Jewish casting and crew, and thus combine Jewish and non-Jewish points of view. Both films highlight critical moments in Russian Jewish history – the Holocaust and emigration. Both present a generally sympathetic picture of Jews. But even this sympathetic representation is deeply ambivalent.

Love/Hate Relationship

Love, as its title promises, is a love story of two interethnic couples: one Russian and Tatar (Vadim and Marina), the other Russian and Jewish (Sasha and Masha). The courting of the first couple, although not ideal, ends with a wedding, and they are comfortably settled. The story of the second couple, which occupies most of the screen time, is more complex. Throughout the film, Sasha (Yevgeny Mironov) and Masha (Nataliya Petrova) grow, moving from an awkward start, through a violent row, to true intimacy and trust. Yet theirs is a story of disrupted love, of life together undone by antisemitism. Ultimately, it is a story about the impossibility of Russian-Jewish romance (in a sense, Vadim and Marina function as a "control group," demonstrating successful interethnic romance). At the end of the film, Masha and her family are pushed out of their Russian life by persistent and omnipresent antisemitism. They have no choice but to go to Israel.

Love is thus also a film about emigration. Naturally, this is a recurrent theme in Jewish films, which often deal with the issues of displacement and otherness. Yet the focus of Love is not so much the Jewish experience as the Russian-Jewish relationship.

Speaking more broadly, it is the story of both the potential for and the failure of love between different, or rather divided, people. This is why emigration is an end point in its plot, rather than a point of departure. Filmed in a discomfiting tone typical of the post-perestroika era, much of the mise en scène is set among cold, grey apartment blocks completely devoid of Moscow charm, or in cramped, dark interiors. The atmosphere of alienation and impending danger is emphasized by documentary footage of wars and catastrophes, introduced into the narrative through the depiction of Marina's grandmother watching the television news. These images of violence and destruction hover over the entire movie.

Masha's actions, including emigration, are merely a response to events that have been forced on her – literally. In one of the most visually haunting scenes, she recounts her experience of being victimized on two levels: as a woman and as a Jew. First she was gang-raped; then, when her mother tried to prosecute the offenders in a Soviet court, the antisemitic judge sneered: "Go to Israel, demand your rights there." Masha's story of rape and failed litigation is told through a montage of disjointed medium shots depicting her and Sasha doing chores around his house. The scene is shot without diegetic sound and is held together by Masha's whispered voiceover. As if to express their alienation and the incommensurability of their experiences, the camera pans at high and low angles, with Sasha and Masha in the same frame, but in different corners, or upside down in relation to each other. The characters finally make eye contact, but their mouths are conspicuously stuffed with food. Only at the end of the scene do they appear facing each other in close-up, filmed in grey, cold tones. The barrier is broken, and they both cry. Masha's voice trails off as she says: "They call you a kike once..." and, presumably, your life is changed. As Mikhail Krutikov has said, "Jewish identity is completely arbitrary, but once a person is marked as Jew it becomes his fate."

Symbolically, there are no men in the family, as her mother has thrown out Masha's father for his inability to stand up for them (signalling his emasculation). Masha's family's femininity stands for weakness, passivity, and an inability to defend oneself. The stereotype of a Jewish sissy here is taken to the extreme – when male Jews do appear on the screen, it is only as little boys or fragile old men. At the end, Jews are feminized to such a degree that they are not just "Jewish male femme[s]" (Boyarin's term), they are actual women. In Masha's female household, Sasha – the man, the proletarian, the Russian – comes to help the weak, feminine, and incompetent Jews. His masculinity is brought out cinematically, as in the shot/reverse shots of him facing Masha, her mother, and her grandmother, lined up and smoking in an identical fashion, as if reproducing different versions of the same image.

Sasha helps the family in minor practical ways, but cannot protect them from antisemitic harassment. Antisemitic slurs are scattered throughout the film (for example, a policeman near a synagogue asks Sasha, "Looking for a kike bride?"), yet the audience's most direct diegetic exposure to antisemitism is through the anonymous voice of a telephone harasser, who persistently rings Masha at home. Antisemitism does not have a face; it is everywhere, like the air. Sasha's attempts to confront this antisemite and meet him face to face fail: when he rushes to the deserted phone booth, he sees only his own reflection in the glass. Everybody is an antisemite. This antisemitism robs Masha of her sexuality, and she can have sexual relations only once she escapes it, on the brink of her departure. The silent scene of final intimacy between the lovers is the only poetic episode in the movie. Filmed in a series of beatific close-ups, awash in warm cream and yellow tones, it stands out from the gloomy colours of other scenes. The only sound is the noise of airplanes, emphasizing Masha's impending departure.

At the end of the film, Masha's family is gone. Sasha comes into their empty apartment. He brings a phone with him, and plugs it in, perhaps hoping to deal with the antisemitic caller, or, perhaps, symbolically taking the Jews' place. The Jews are gone, and only Russians are left. Sasha, the good Russian, comes to settle the score with the bad, antisemitic Russian. But Jewish absence is as conspicuous as Jewish presence. As Krutikov sadly comments, "Antisemitism is a core element of the Russian collective identity, but at the same time, life without Jews is unimaginable to the Russian mentality." Historically Jews have played a special role in the Russian national imagination, as paradigmatic internal others whose "otherness" served as a touchstone for Russian "sameness." Thus Russian national identity evolved in reflexive connection with perceptions of Jewishness: stereotypical Russian soulfulness, generosity, and rootedness in the Russian soil emerge in juxtaposition to stereotypical Jewish intellectualism, calculated pragmatism, and rootlessness or double loyalty.

In Love, Masha has to leave because she is Jewish. Yet "Jew" appears to be an empty signifier. Masha's Jewishness is residual at best. Her dark hair and slightly hooked nose mark her as non-Russian. Her mother is a dentist, perceived as a Jewish profession. Her grandmother's voice has shtetl-like intonations, and she has hopes for a Jewish match for Masha. The family's religious observance amounts to serving matzo with tea, instead of cookies (rather than as a part of Passover celebrations). But what really makes Masha Jewish is antisemitism. In fact, according to Todorovsky's film, Jews are not intrinsically different from Russians; they are othered through antisemitism and hatred. The key to understanding Jewishness as Love presents it is victimhood.

Here is the parting message of Love on the place of Jews in Russia. As to national loyalty, the Jews have left for Israel. As to Jewish-Russian romance, it is impossible. As to gender, the Jews are portrayed as feminized, confirming antisemitic stereotypes of them as weak, disempowered, and unmasculine. That is why the bad Russians can rape or torture them, and even the good, strong Russians like Sasha cannot save them. The Russian Jewish stereotypes are polar – they are either "kikes" or "the pride of the Russian people." In Love, Jewish representation is located at the pole of victimhood. Even though the sympathies of the film-makers are clearly with the Jews, they emerge as displaced, effeminate, and powerless. The film thus represents one extreme of the Jewish ambivalent position. ...

Ambivalence and Identity

Jews appear in Daddy and Love at opposite ends of the spectrum. If in Love they were portrayed as victims, in Daddy a different image emerges – a rooted, masculine, and powerful Jew, "the pride of the Russian people." Love and Daddy capture different moments in Russian Jewish history. Love is a film about emigration, yet it is an unusual film in this genre. Emigration films are often made from the vantage point of the émigrés themselves, reflecting their experiences of leaving the old home and coming to terms with a new one. Love is a story of emigration filmed from the vantage point of those who stayed. Therefore, the journey taken by Sasha from his own antisemitism to outright advocacy, and from indifference to deep sympathy, is more important than Masha's trip from Russia to Israel. This is indeed reflected in Todorovsky's autobiographical comment: "When I shot Love in 1990, the country was going through a very unpleasant moment: mass emigration, empty shelves in the stores, and an atmosphere of impending civil war in the air... And I remember how I argued, sitting in a kitchen with my friends, tried to convince them: wait, don't leave, it will get better..."

As a snapshot of the mass exodus of Russian Jews, Love presents a grim picture. The Jews are forced out of Russia. Their decision to go to Israel is influenced by the direct experience of antisemitism. Historically, these reasons are not typical. Persecution and antisemitism were not the main "push" factors of the Russian Jewish exodus of the 1990s. People left for a variety of reasons, mainly economic difficulties and political instability, but also the hope of improving their quality of life. Antisemitism contributed to the decision to emigrate mainly on the level of latent fear. Neo-fascist organizations such as Pamyat never implemented their threats, and the majority of Soviet Jews did not take them seriously. But this is the story that Todorovsky chose to present in 1991, when antisemitism was a newly permissible subject in cinema. Indeed, film critics in Russia hailed Love as an honest look at antisemitism. However, the portrayal of Russians as antisemites also entails the portrayal of Jews as victims. ...