Stepping off the train in the dim light of dawn, Moscow engineer Alexei Varakin has little idea of the strange journey ahead of him. As far as he knows, he’s been sent to a small town to discuss alterations to small part in a line of air conditioners. The weirdness begins almost at once –- the secretary of the manager he’s scheduled to meet is completely naked, and moreover, this seems to be of little consequence to the man. Then Alexei sits down for lunch at an oddly empty restaurant, and despite his clear request to the contrary, the waiter wheels out dessert for him. It’s a cake sculpted to look exactly like Alexei’s head. And when Alexei refuses this gift, the chef shoots himself.
From that point on, Alexei finds himself dragged into a confounding mystery, a maze of inexplicable twists and ominous memories from the past –- with Alexei himself at the very centre, for reasons entirely beyond his grasp. The local prosecutor suspects foul play, and the townsfolk seem to have mistaken Alexei for someone else –- the son of the dead chef, who was a local legend for introducing rock ’n’ roll dancing to this curious corner of the Soviet Union.
The USSR wouldn’t give up its ghost until 1991, but by ’88, if this subtle and understated cinematic delight is any indication, the writing was clearly on the wall. In fact, at one point in Karen Shakhnazarov’s surrealist pre-millennial fairy tale Zero City, a central character subjects Alexei to a lecture that might be a perfect, concise requiem for the failed Russian Communist dream. The film peers back into the past through a fractured, fantastical lens (a late-night tour through a quirky wax museum of local and Russian history is the crowning set piece in this respect), while also gazing into the crystal ball, wondering what the future might hold once the Soviet machine has at last ground to a halt. With moments suggesting a vaguely depressive Fellini, and others carrying sudden notes of unspoken menace, never to mention a solidly Kafka-esque approach to the exasperations of a socialist bureaucratic culture (in the face of which Leonid Filatov, as Alexei, captures a perfect tone of bemused passivity), Shakhnazarov's patiently absurdist Zero City imagines not only a purgatorial period but place for a Russia in flux.
“A deliciously cheerful satire about the legacy of Stalin, personal identity and the political importance of rock-and-roll” - Caryn James, NEW YORK TIMES
Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Screenplay: Karen Shakhnazarov, Aleksandr Borodyansky
Cast: Leonid Filatov
Producers: Studio Mosfilm
Distributor: Seagull Films