from Imaging Russia 2000: Film and Facts
Anna M. Lawton

... One hundred years from its St. Petersburg debut, The Inspector General (Sergei Gazarov, 1996) reappeared on the Russian screens. The comedy had been filmed only three times in Russia, once before the revolution (V. Sashin, 1916) and twice in the Soviet period (M. Frich, 1933; V. Petrov, 1952), although it had been regularly performed on stage. This was its first cinematic remake in post-Soviet Russia and was dedicated to Moscow's 850th birthday. In this version, the Mayor is brought back to life by the awesome talent of Nikita Mikhalkov. Opposite Mikhalkov is Yevgeny Mironov, very effective in the role of the swindler Khlestakov; he is the perfect incarnation of self-satisfied vulgarity and braggadocio. In the secondary roles is a pleiade of major and minor stars from the Russian screen and stage. The dialogue is Gogol's, word by word. The staging is faithful to the original text, preserving the realism of the period decor and costumes while applying the right degree of hyperbole to turn reality into caricature. The unities of space, time and action are maintained whenever possible to convey the impression of watching a stage performance, while cinematography and editing are used unobtrusively to liven up the narrative without disturbing the static atmosphere of the dormant provincial setting.

Gogol would have been pleased with this version of the play, because he had taken pains in providing precise instructions for the actors. He actually warned them: "From a disregard of these remarks may result a total loss of effect." He was referring to the frozen tableau at the end, when a messenger announces to the assembled guests that the real inspector general has arrived. "The words just pronounced," Gogol wrote, "strike all like a thunderbolt. ... The whole group, having suddenly changed its position, remains as if petrified." At the premiere and all subsequent performances, the audience as well remained petrified for the duration of the dumb scene, a long minute before the curtain falls. The effect was to turn the actors (and the public by extension) into puppets, which become inert the moment the hand of the puppeteer rests.

... But the Mayor is an exception. He is the only character in the whole Gogolian universe to acquire the embryo of a consciousness. Although his vision is a parody of moral awakening, it is nevertheless key to the "carnivalization" of the play, because he sees himself as a character in a comedy. In Mikhalkov's interpretation, the Mayor is at first astounded at having been duped – "I'm killed. I'm simply killed dead;" then he becomes self-deprecatory – "How could I, old blockhead that I am! Stupid old ram!" Then, he nostalgically recites his past glories – "Thirty years I've been in the service. ... I've fooled swindlers upon swindlers. ... I've bamboozled three governors!" Finally, he gives in to despair – "He'll spread the story all over the earth! And I'll not only be a laughingstock, but some quill-driver, some paper-spoiler will be found to put me in a comedy! That's what hurts! ... And they'll all show their teeth in a grin and clap their hands." Here, the Mayor sobs so loudly that the famous line which comes up precisely at this point is almost inaudible. But the guests hear it. The camera pans over their astonished faces; no one laughs anymore.

In the film, the Mayor is further singled out with the addition of an element that is not in the original text. In the frozen-frame scene, the guests who are standing still along the banquet table fade out like vanishing ghosts. The Mayor remains alone. Suddenly, the stillness of the set is broken by two black rats scurrying along the table in front of him. The viewer intuitively connects the rats with the very first scene, where the Mayor receives the letter announcing the inspector general and tells his associates of a bad omen he had the previous night: "I had a sort of presentiment. All last night I kept dreaming about two most extraordinary rats. Honest, I've never seen any like them: black, and awfully big. They came, sniffed about, and went away again." In the end, his subconscious vision becomes a realized metaphor.