MOSCOW In the trailer of the movie Master i Margarita, the question is asked: “Who exactly did you mean… by the character of Woland?”
by Mikhail Lokshin the film directed by Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940) is the latest film adaptation of the classic novel Satan Comes to Moscow.
In that form, the line does not appear in the film itself, but in it the author-protagonist’s friend cautiously asks if the character appearing in the play refers to Pontius Pilate to a mustachioed figure. In the Soviet Union of the 1930s, this means Joseph Stalin.
But who is Woland and who does the character refer to?
In Bulgakov’s polyphonic novel that uses fantasy and satire, Stalinist Moscow is confused by a mysterious expert in black magic, Professor Woland, with his demonic entourage.
Russians wonder about the Finnish title of the novel, because it contains an evil plot revelation: Woland is, of course, Satan himself.
Bulgakov’s work enjoys an outright cult fame in Russia. Many of its quotes live on as catchphrases like “Manuscripts don’t burn.”
Lokšin’s big-budget film has been the most watched in Russia for two consecutive weekends. It is collected already more than a billion rubles, or about 10 million euros in box office revenue.
Director Lokšin and screenwriter Roman Kantor have made a very free adaptation of the novel. Many viewers have regretted that large parts of Bulgakov’s work have been left out.
However, the most affected are angry nationalist circles and the horns of state television. The reason is that Lokshin, who lives in the United States, has expressed anti-war opinions and expressed his support for Ukraine.
A desperate love story took center stage
Lokšin and Kantor have centered their interpretation on the love story of the main character Mestar and his muse Margarita.
A very Bulgakov-esque writer (Yevgeny Tsyganov) falls into the teeth of the Soviet rulers of the 1930s for his writing Pontius Pilate (Claes Bang) because of the narrative play.
The play is banned, and the main character is rejected by the fellow writers in the comrades’ court of the writer’s union Massolit.
In the midst of his difficulties, the writer falls in love with Margarita (Julia Snigir), who is in an unhappy marriage with an important official. Margarita calls the writer Master.
Inspired by Margarita, the writer begins to write a novel about Woland (August Diehl), who with his accomplices torments with his diabolical tricks precisely those comfort-seeking cultural bureaucrats and writers committed to the prevailing ideology, who have driven the writer to despair.
The master’s novel is a kind of high-flying revenge fantasy. Reality and imagination mix.
The Z-patriots were enraged
The film has received quite a favorable reception from Russian critics.
Today, a critic for the Meduza news site operating in Latvia Anton Dolin called it as the first successful film adaptation of the novel.
Also a critic of the government newspaper Rossiiskaja Gazeta Valery Kitshin experiencedthat for the first time the filmmakers had been able to tame the most enigmatic of Russian novels.
The strongly nationalist circles, the so-called Z-patriots, are enraged messaging service in Telegram. In particular, they have been angered by the fact that the film of a director who expressed anti-war opinions has been financed with public funds. They demand not only the director, but also the Russian Film Foundation, the Ministry of Culture and the film’s producers.
A presenter who became a leading war propagandist Vladimir Solovyov did not even agree to mention the name of the film or its director.
– Now everyone is talking about one director who filmed a great Russian classic – I don’t want to say which – partly with American, partly with government money, in a pamphlet-like anti-Soviet, anti-Russian style, Solovjov said in his evening program On the Rossija-1 channel.
He demanded that the authorities find out how this was possible. According to him, the men serving on the front line ask him what is really happening in the country. Solovjov demanded the cultural elite to act.
On the other hand, everyone Vladimir Putin opponents of the administration are not satisfied either.
Historian and writer Sergei Medvedev questioned the artistic values of the film: according to him, a light and witty polyphonic novel has been turned into a heavy-duty steam punk about the confrontation between love and totalitarianism.
Medvdev felt that the film functions as a therapeutic safety valve, the last permissible form of protest.
He compares movie theater queues to running for president Boris Nadezhdin for collecting campaign signatures.
But who is Woland?
Maybe it all comes back to who Woland really represents.
Bulgakov’s novel begins Goethe-quote: “Well, who are you? Part of the power is deep, it only wants evil and achieves only good.” The quote is also repeated in Lokšin’s film.
Bulgakov’s multi-level novel deals, among other things, with the relationship between power and the artist. The writer had a lot of material for it, because he suffered from Soviet censorship throughout his career.
Bulgakov wrote his great novel from the late 1920s until his death. It was published for the first time only in the 1960s, severely curtailed by censorship.
The writer’s relationship with Stalin was complicated. Bulgakov’s play The Days of the Turbins (Dni Turbinyh, 1926) was one of the Soviet dictator’s favorite plays, despite the fact that in the Russian Civil War Bulgakov’s sympathies were on the side of the losing whites.
Stalin is said to have watched the play fifteen times. When Bulgakov begged for permission to leave the country, Stalin called him personally and returned the Days of the Turbins to the theater repertoire.
Stalin’s name is not spoken aloud in Bulgakov’s novel. It has sometimes been considered whether Woland-Satan symbolizes Stalin himself. Did Bulgakov reflect on the character of Woland his hopes that the evil Stalin could, despite everything, have a good time?
Woland can change a person’s fate by clicking his fingers. The Soviet leader could do the same with one phone call.
It raises the question of who the all-powerful Woland symbolizes in the new film: is he perhaps the opposition leader exposing the corruption of those in power Alexei Navalny – or even the all-powerful President Vladimir Putin?
A carnival of rulers
The creepy tricks of Woland, or Satan, and his entourage are a kind of carnivalism: worldly power relations are momentarily turned upside down when members of the Soviet elite fall under the spell of satanic magic.
The flip side of carnivalism is that sometimes those in power can turn it into their own weapon. It is often said that the worst enemy of dictators is laughter, but authoritarian power can also harness laughter as a weapon.
A good example of the phenomenon are the statized prank callers who are influential in Putin’s Russia Vovan and Lexus. Last year, the foreign minister of Finland was also targeted by them Elina Valtonen (collect.).
Recently, popular writers who opposed the Russian war of aggression have been the target Dmitry Bykov, Boris Akunin and Lyudmila Ulitskaya.
Vovan and Lexus presented themselves to them as representatives of the Ukrainian leadership in order to extract incriminating statements from the writers about supporting Ukraine.
The weapon is mockery and carnivalization: intellectuals who took themselves seriously thought they had received a call from authoritative sources, but they were only talking to diabolical “pranksters”.
As a result of pilanteo, authors’ works are removed from the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Akuninia a criminal charge has been filed against.
Bulgakov’s novel depicted in a devilish tone the wide life enjoyed by the members of the writer’s union Massolit. Now the rulers of Russia have taken the boisterous parties of the capital’s “elite” into their teeth.
The Russian leadership paints a picture of an over-the-top liberal “elite” that has lost its morals, which does not really stand behind Russia and its “military special operation”. This elite must be punished so that Russia can wage its war in Ukraine effectively.
At the same time, nothing is said about the real rulers of Russia, whose holdings are hidden behind complicated boulevard arrangements.
Perhaps the Woland of the 2020s would reveal the Palaces and yachts of the ruling class to a people living under the pressure of housing shortages and inflation.
It may also be that the new Bulgakov film adaptation arouses uneasiness, because it comes across as saying that there is no point in even dreaming about any justice-distributing Woland.
In the film, Woland lives only in the imagination of the suffering writer and his muse. In reality, however, the grotesque carnival of those in power continues.