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1 June, 2016

The banality of evil: The case of Vladimir Bortko

That evil can be banal we learn from Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Report on the Banality of Evil published in 1963. As we all know, Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, caught the chief architect of the Holocaust in Argentina, and brought him to Israel where his trial took place

Arendt reminds the readership of the fact that everybody expected to see a monster, a beast of prey, a sinister psychopath, or else deranged and disturbed individual. Instead, as she writes, people saw a nobody – physically, Eichmann looked much like a petty bureaucrat of the Third Reich who then turned out a sinister bureaucrat of death.

More than that, a group of the most eminent psychiatrists was commissioned to determine as to whether Eichmann was a pathological person. What a disappointment it was when the experts unequivocally stated that Eichmann was perfectly sane. Moreover, he appeared as a frighteningly normal person who, according to the conclusions, could have made a loving husband, a caring father, and a sweet neighbor.  

That was how the banality of evil came about as a critically important concept. Zygmunt Bauman suggests that what happened to us in the twentieth century was democratization of evil. In other words, evil ceased to be exclusive and otherworldly; instead, it happens here as something quite this-worldly, ordinary, and even banal.

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Yes but evil can be profound and limitless as well – just like treachery, turpitude, malevolence, and other disturbing phenomena within our reach. It is critically important as a reminder of how unpredictable, destructive and dangerous some talented and creative people can be.

Vladimir Bortko, who will turn 70 in May 2016, developed a reputation through successful film versions of Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpieces. Born in Moscow, raised and brought up in the family of the Ukrainian playwright Aleksandr Korneychuk, Vladimir Bortko then lived and studied in Kyiv.

His infatuation with the genius of Mikhail Bulgakov is hardly accidental, as Bulgakov was inseparable from his hometown. No matter how important Moscow becomes in Bulgakov’s later works, such as The Heart of a Dog, and The Master and Margarita, his earlier masterpiece, The White Guard, would be unthinkable without Kyiv, the city that maps the world of that novel.

What can we say about Bortko’s version of The Heart of a Dog made in the late 1980s? It was a genuine film of the Perestroika era – people immediately felt its redeeming effect. The family name of Shvonder, masterfully played by the Ukrainian stand-up comedian Roman Kartsev, has swiftly become a general term to describe the type of a militant homo sovieticus.

In addition, the film proved a success story due the great work of actors – first and foremost, by Yevgeny Yevstigneyev’s unforgettable rendering of the role of Professor Preobrazhensky. All in all, Bortko won the reputation of a fan of Bulgakov capable of translating his masterpiece into the language of cinema and handling it in a decent manner.

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However, his film version of The Master and Margarita was far more risky an experiment. One way or another, Bortko did not fail. Even if there were some iniquities and shortcomings in some segments of the film (after all, the film must satisfy mass audience), the scenes with Woland and his accomplices were excellent. Yet little doubt was left that Bortko’s film was about Woland, rather than the Master.

How ironic, then, that Bortko should have betrayed every single trace of his infatuation with, and work on, Bulgakov by signing, in March 2014, the infamous letter of Russian masters of culture who welcomed the occupation and annexation of Crimea.

And how ironic that the letter signed by Vladimir Bortko was turned down with contempt by Oleg Basilashvili – the great Russian actor who played the role of the Devil Woland in the film. His role was about the monumental, Shakespearean depth of evil. Bortko did not live up to this dimension of evil, though.

Bortko’s latest statements about Stalin as the hero of Russia leave us wondering if we are dealing with that same person who made his films. Was it necessary to make a film on Sharikov to end up as a Sharikov? Was he enchanted by evil? Did he fall in love with Stalin before or after he made a film on evil?

It is with good reason that actors warn each other that not everybody can touch The Master and Margarita, as this masterpiece can ruin the life of a weak, cowardly and disturbed individual. Whatever the case, Bortko appears as a perfect example of the banality of evil. 

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