During the later stages of the existence of tsarist Russia his – most probably revolutionary – politics have brought geographer Ilyin (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) into exile in a town near the polar circle. Ilyin dreams of being the first man to set foot onto Sannikov Land, an area north of the polar ice that is green and fecund instead of icy and barren. Some pretty talk about gold that might be found there with the local evil (as he does of course not actually intend to share the gold with the geographer) capitalist earns Ilyin, who is clearly much less interested in gold than exploration as a goal in itself, the funding for an expedition into the white north.
The expedition isn’t exactly large: Ilyin, the local manly man/drunk/singer of horrible pop songs and fan of the Tsar Evgeniy Krestovskiy (Oleg Dal), and the capitalist’s beleaguered right-hand man and odious comic relief Ignatiy (Georgi Vitsin) – who also seems to stand in for the oppressed working classes from time to time – make up the whole of the expedition, until revolutionary and doctor Gubin (Yuri Nazarov) sneaks on board the ship carrying the trio northwards. Gubin has escaped from prison, and is initially planning to hijack the ship to sail to America, but since he and Ilyin just happen to be old friends, and Ilyin really is quite convincing in his ardour to reach Sannikov Land, he becomes part of the expedition and the trio turns into a quartet.
Once they have set foot on icy land, the expedition doesn’t go too well at first. The corpses of an earlier expedition also looking for Sannikov Land are something of a bad omen, and the Inuit our expedition has hired as guides while the camera wasn’t looking turn back halfway, taking the dog sleds of the expedition with them (note to self: if you ever go on a polar expedition, bring your own dogs and sleds).
Just when all seems lost and our heroes start with the infighting and the dying, they reach Sannikov Land. It turns out the place is a valley kept warm by volcanic activity (uh oh), and really as green and pleasant as Ilyin had hoped. It’s also populated by a tribe of phenotypically very diverse natives (from Caucasians in slight brown-face to a lot of Asians with blond and red wigs) called the Onkilon. While the Onkilon aren’t as threatening as their demeanour initially suggests, their chief does not want anyone in the outside world to learn of the existence of their home. He’s not a bad guy, though, for he is perfectly willing to provide the strangers with places among his tribe and (how romantic!) women of their own – as long as they never leave again.
This could be the beginning of a somewhat wonderful friendship (if one doesn’t mind the imprisonment and shotgun wedding aspect), but alas, the tribe’s shaman (Makhmud Esambayev in a performance somewhere between Iggy Pop and the worst Hollywood Indian you can imagine) has a different opinion. He sees that the strangers are threatening his power over the tribe and decides that he needs to get rid of them; and while he’s at it, he might get rid of that darn liberal chief for good measure.
Zemlya Sannikova is based on a novel in the Lost World mold by early Russian SF writer and man with a highly interesting life (just look at his Wikipedia page!) Vladimir Obruchev, and – as far as I can tell – is still something of a classic in the former Soviet Union. This is another indication (as if we needed more) that people at their core really are the same all over the world, political and cultural differences notwithstanding, for Zemlya Sannikova is exactly the sometimes cheesy, sometimes silly, sometimes awe-inspiringly beautiful kind of adventure movie people all over the world would love, featuring manly, bearded and morally upright heroes (except for the Tsarist, who just happens to be a bit of a prick), an insane shaman, various daring deeds, beautiful women in horrible clothing, and a basic idea that should make everyone’s inner twelve year old gleefully happy. Naturally, there are a few differences in the movie’s stereotypes when compared to western movies – the capitalist is evil in a slightly different way than capitalists in western movies are, for example. The film’s ideology too – the film ends on the heroes planning a rescue expedition for the threatened tribe instead of killing them all and taking their stuff, for Marx’s sake! – is a bit different than one is used to from other adventure movies, though I think this internationalist streak is rather refreshing. Still, below these surface differences waits the archetype of the adventure story.
Often, the film is very good at what it does: Zemlya Sannikova‘s early stages not only convey the romance and pathos the kind of expedition our heroes go on has, but also a subtle sense of melancholia that will return in the film’s final scenes; there’s something desperate and beautiful in the history of human exploration of the world, and the early parts of Zemlya Sannikova really want to make that clear. Of course, that feeling of melancholia (already broken by two really quite horrible pop songs early on) soon enough makes room for one of slight insanity once the focus shifts from the exploration to the natives. For while the film tries its hardest to talk about some serious themes when it comes to the Onkilon, its treatment of everything surrounding the tribe is deeply cheesy and silly. It’s not just the fact that these “natives” are dressed up in ridiculous wigs and costumes no actual human being would ever have worn in any kind of wilderness, nor just that their culture – as far as we see it – does not make the slightest bit of sense (we’re in full grown “they are big children, Jean-Jacques” territory here), nor is it the combination of these factors alone. Rather it’s that their treatment as being the ultimate naïfs seems even more naive than they themselves are supposed to be, as if the film’s only idea of how hunter and collector societies work came from Rousseau and Marx.
The latter gentleman truly comes in once we take a look at the film’s main bad guy, the shaman, who is clearly supposed to be an example of the destructive power of religion (opium of the people, etc) – more evil than capitalism! – as a way to control the minds of a people. Of course, I can’t say I disagree all that much with the film’s views of organized religion, it’s just that Zemlya Sannikova is simplifying a complex web of human wishes and desires until it turns into a ridiculous farce. That matter sure isn’t helped by Esambayev’s – a professional dancer who shows his talent in here in adorably ridiculous ways – hilarious performance. Even if one ignores the ideological aspect, it’s pretty difficult to take a villain seriously who spends as much time shimmying, wobbling, shaking, hip-swinging and doing the funky chicken while chewing scenery as Esambayev does. On the other hand, while the man’s performance might destroy any semblance of seriousness the film had until he appeared, he sure as hell is perfectly entertaining to watch.
Add to that elements like a soundtrack by Aleksandr Zatsepin that reaches from the (still horrible) pop songs to weird, moody synth noodling to Peter Thomas like psychedelic lounge electronica, or ideas like the marriage rites of the Onkilon (basically, they’re playing catch), and you have a film as strange as one could hope for. All the silliness (and the sad, scientifically correct absence of dinosaurs and monstrous animals every lost world is supposed to contain) and the many scenes that are just as cheesy as those in a comparable Hollywood adventure movie would be come together into something highly diverting, if not exactly the film I had expected going in.
Directors Albert S. Mkrtchyan (last seen here directing the excellent Priskosnoveniye) and Leonid Popov manage this strange mixture of the earnest, the bizarre, the dogmatic and the plain fun with aplomb, using – often impressively beautiful – nature shots as the best special effect of them all, and treat every aspect of the film with dignity, never mind if the aspect at hand actually deserves any dignity. It might be a cliché, but there’s just never a dull moment on screen in Zemlya Sannikova.