While some reviews of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s award-winning film have invoked Hobbes’s Leviathan to suggest that Zvyagintsev’s work criticizes the all-powerful authoritarian state, the reality depicted in the film has precious little to do with Hobbes’s ‘common power to keep them all in awe’.
There is an old Soviet-era joke about a painting called ‘Lenin in Paris’ which depicts Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya in bed with another man. To the surprised questions from the audience ‘where is Lenin?’, the museum guide somberly responds ‘Lenin is in Paris.’
Andrei Zvyagintsev’s award-winning film Leviathan is bound to raise similar questions, since it is named after something that is most certainly missing from it. While some reviews of the film invoked Hobbes’s Leviathan to suggest that Zvyagintsev’s work criticizes the all-powerful authoritarian state, the reality depicted in the film has precious little to do with Hobbes’s ‘common power to keep them all in awe’.
Where is Leviathan? In fact, the biblical sea monster whose name Hobbes used for his figure of the sovereign, only appears in the film as dead, in the form of the skeleton of the whale. The state, for which the image of Leviathan was a metaphor, is in equally poor health: the law is reduced to meaningless phonemes mumbled by local judges and the posh Moscow lawyer, the police exercise arbitrary violence for their own gain or in the service of powerful crooks, who in turn appropriate the institutions of government to pursue personal enrichment and vanity.
Leviathan the mortal god is dead. So is the immortal one, for that matter. Perhaps the most despicable, almost Satanic character in the film that boasts quite a plethora of villains is the local bishop who endorses and sustains the rule of the corrupt small town mayor as ‘God’s work’ and incites his recourse to violence with the claim that all power derives ‘from God’.
The decision to demolish the main protagonist Nikolai’s house that starts his series of trials is not due to the mayor’s desire to build himself a new palace, as the viewers are led to believe for most of the film, but to the bishop’s whim to build a new church on the same spot. Given that the construction of this church comes at the cost of every possible injustice done to Nikolai and his family, this nice and sturdy building is less appropriate for the worship of God than for hiding from his wrath, if he ever showed up.
The State of Nature
What remains after the death of God and the death of the state? Evidently it is the state of nature, which is represented at the beginning and the end of the film by austere Arctic landscapes utterly indifferent to the mishaps and the very existence of the characters.
The social contract that formerly gave rise to Leviathan is void and the society is in a state of the predisposition towards war of all against all, in which apparent rulers are no less afraid or likely to fall than the ruled – witness the mayor’s paranoia about the revelation of his past crimes or his beating up of the Moscow lawyer despite the latter’s proximity to the feared head of the Federal Investigative Committee.
This is the world where history has ended and merged with nature in a state of advanced decomposition. Along with the skeleton of the sea monster and rotting sunken boats we observe the general corruption of the society, whereby even the best of characters are marred by lies, promiscuity, envy, greed or cowardice. In place of the proverbial vertical of power we end up with a horizontal, where everyone is equal to everyone else because none of them is worth much.
The main theme of the film is therefore the failure of every claim for or quest for transcendence, be it the transcendence of God (who truly abandoned this land), the sovereign (reduced to a thug-turn-mayor who in a drunken fit of sincerity tells Nikolai that he never had any rights around here and never will), the sea monster (who is only momentarily glimpsed alive by Nikolai’s wife Lilya before her apparent suicide). There is nothing but this world in all its despicable immanence.
Instead of the image of the innocent society kept in awe by a monstrous power we observe the plenitude of petty monsters doing their dirty little deeds amidst the carcasses of the gods. Indeed, the deeds in question are so dirty and the characters so unappealing that throughout the film one secretly wishes for some sort of Leviathan to appear and put things right or at least put this town out of its misery.
Yet, the true lesson of Zvyagintsev’s film is that it is never going to take place, that there is no place whence the new Leviathan can appear. The world is all here: God is dead, Lenin is in Paris and the Biblical ‘creature without fear’ is a harmless skeleton.
Having started a feud with the mayor to save his house from demolition, Nikolai suffers ordeals that go from bad to worse. Betrayed by Lilya and all his friends, he ends up convicted for the murder of his wife, sentenced to fifteen years in prison. What began as a vain attempt to challenge the local authorities ends up a catastrophic defeat, all the more horrifying because there is no monster, warm or cold, that is to blame for it.
This is where the film radically departs from two of the sources of inspirations for its script, Von Kleist’s 1808 novella Michael Kohlhaas, whose protagonist famously goes on a violent quest for justice after failing to be compensated for the mistreatment of his horses, and the story of Marvin John Heemeyer, whose 2004 feud with the officials in Granby, Colorado over a zoning dispute ended in his rampage in an armoured bulldozer to demolish the town hall and other public buildings.
In contrast, the best Nikolai can do in his struggle against the local authorities is invite his army friend, now a Moscow lawyer with apparent connections in the security service, to dig up the dirt on the town mayor and threaten him with exposure. This decision misfires in many ways, the lawyer starting a fateful affair with Nikolai’s wife, while being far less of a danger for the mayor than he boasted to be. The subsequent turn of events finally crushes Nikolai into utter passivity, as he confesses to understand nothing of what goes on around him.
What he does not understand is that there is nothing to be understood. Similarly to many other characters in the film, Nikolai appears oblivious to the death of Leviathan. Like Kafka’s man from the country that spends his entire lifetime at the door of the law waiting to be let in, Nikolai waits for something to happen, at least show and explain itself if not redeem those suffering from injustice.
Yet, the reason why there is no redemption is precisely because there is nothing to be redeemed from: there is no Leviathan to blame for any of this but only the complicity of everyone in living as if it was there. With the death of mortal and immortal gods all that remains is dwelling in the space of history-become-nature along with other natural beings whose claims to higher power have no ground whatsoever. There are only small-time crooks and their pharisaic priests all the way up.
Lilya comes to understand this, having first sought protection and security with the lawyer, and cannot live with this. Neither can Nikolai, utterly broken after being convicted for his wife’s murder. The ones who can go on comfortably living are the mayor and the bishop, confidently inaugurating the new church in the final scene, content in their certitude that there is no God to ever punish them. Those who plunder in the name of Leviathan end up further empowered by its death, which their victims do their best not to notice or pretend to disbelieve.
Reclaiming the Ruins
Many have interpreted the film in religious terms as demonstrating a life abandoned by God that can only be mended by the return to the true Christianity, rather than the uncanny cult that passes for state religion in today’s Russia. While such readings are of course possible, the film itself hardly provides any basis for such an interpretation, ending, as it began, in a bleak depiction of nature devoid of all transcendence.
The religious interpretation of Nikolai’s ordeal, offered in the film by a local priest in terms of the Book of Job, clearly falls flat, only provoking Nikolai’s resentment. Since the skeleton of Leviathan is there on the shore for all to see, what exactly is the point of asking whether Nikolai can ‘pull in Leviathan with a fishhook’ (Job 41: 1)? Of course, he can. This ‘creature without fear’, of whom ‘nothing on earth is equal’ (Job 41: 33), is now equal to everyone and everything on earth, abandoned along with them under the empty sky.
Yet, how is deliverance even conceivable in this space of abandoned immanence? Evidently, it can only come from the realizationthat if power is no longer concentrated in one monstrous transcendent figure, but is wholly disseminated into the social realm, this also means that there is nothing to prevent one from the reappropriation of one’s natural right that one previously surrendered to Leviathan.
There is no sense whatsoever in continuing to dwell in the ruinous realm, whose self-appointed rulers are hardly the best guarantors of security. It is only the failure to come to terms with the death of Leviathan that resigns everyone to a life that is truly ‘nasty, brutish and short’. If the closure of all transcendence can bring any consolation, it is that all the resources for reclaiming one’s life are already there in this dreary world, which is the only possible site of salvation.
In the tradition of rabbinic Judaism, at the messianic banquet on the last day the righteous will feast on the meat of Leviathan. The gigantic monster that used to instill fear in all will thus be desacralized and returned to free and common use, for the nourishment for all that remain.
In Zvyagintsev’s world, things are admittedly less promising. The meat has rotten and come off Leviathan’s bones and all that remains is the bare skeleton. How can these bones be brought to free use to reclaim one’s natural right in the world without mortal and immortal gods?
In a scene close to the end of the film we observe Nikolai’s son Roma silently contemplate the whale skeleton on the seashore. Like some of the film’s characters and some of its reviewers, he might be longing for the new Leviathan. Or he might be thinking of all the useful things that can be made of its bones.