Estonian Filmmaker Lauri Randla’s short “Mausoleum” tells a story set in Moscow 1936, in a world of Stalinist terror where a human is less worthy than a fly. This fantastically dark satire received an incredible 7 nominations and a win for Best Art Direction, at the Lift-Off Season Awards 2017. The film will screen at Berlin Lift-Off Film Festival on Wednesday 7th February at 8:45pm at the Union Filmtheater as part of Shorts Programme 1. We interviewed director Lauri to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and his path as a filmmaker.
Interview by Sneh Rupra
First of all, how did it feel for Mausoleum to be honoured at the Lift-Off Season Awards?
This is my graduation movie, and when we were in pre-production, some people had concerns over who would watch such a short film with such a theme. I was asked the question many times: “for what audience was I making the movie?” as it was full of details that were thought to be understandable only to the people of the former Soviet bloc. So being honoured at the Lift-Off Season Awards feels very special.
How did you come up with such a unique concept for this film?
I read a biography about Stalin, that was written by a Russian writer called Edvard Radzhinski. He based his book on interviewing the people who were still alive from Stalin’s era. He also interviewed their descendants and went through KGB achieves that were opened after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In those achieves he found an interesting little fact that he mentioned in his book: someone had called in the middle of the night to a professor, who was tasked to take care of Lenin’s body. The caller was asking in panic for instructions to what to do with a fly that had got into Lenin’s sarcophagus during the maintenance.
This craziness and fear became my compass as I wrote the story. I have no idea of how the fly problem was actually solved, but I imagined an absurd problem in an absurd way. I decided that to increase the stress level for all the characters, so the event had to take place the night prior to May Day festivities. According to Radzhinski’s book, Stalin had a habit of always checking Lenin’s body before the big day. As Stalin was bound to come for a visit, I truly tried to push “The Soviet human” psychologically to its very limit. Also, I felt that Stalin should finally show his real emotions towards Lenin. After all, there was a small spot that needed to be cleaned.
Do you think short film is a useful medium for satire?
Yes I do. Short film can be kind of a short anecdote. A joke is more punctual when it’s not too long, same goes with the movie of this genre. Though, that being said, Mausoleum is not just an anecdote, but a view on the concept of absurd fear and how it can make a humans behave in an a very odd way. For the characters in that movie, everything is dead serious, literally.
How did you go about casting such unusual and charismatic roles?
I think the most important thing is that this was made with Russian actors. We discussed this on several occasions that the Russians haven’t made anything like this, and I wanted to do this in Russian, with Russians. All actors except for Matti Onnismaa, who played Stalin, everyone else came from Russian drama theatre in Tallinn. The casting part was the easiest part of the project. I had a very good casting director called Piret Toomvap. She presented Victor Lahnberg to me and It wasn’t a difficult choice, as Victor was made for the role.
Also Aleksandr Okunev, who played Silin, was an easy choice, as he has been playing “asshole roles” since Soviet times. I just asked him to be an asshole with emotions, not just power, because in real life he is very “Teddybear-ish”. For all the actors involved, this was a very intriguing theme, as we all came from generations who were prohibited since birth to disrespect Lenin. Victor Lahnberg even mentioned with sarcasm, that a few decades ago, we would all have be playing this in prison. And that was what made it fun for me and the cast, we were like kids doing something that was prohibited for us for so long.
The period styling and equipment used in the film create such a strong atmosphere – how did you go about getting that so perfect?
The set designer Juulia Jokinen did a fantastic job by creating the Mausoleum set. The budget was small, so she really had to push herself to accomplish this in a small studio. Also the editor and VFX supervisor Leo Liesvirta had a very important role in creating Mausoleum’s set, as I’m pretty sure about 70 percent of images include some type of VFX. Leo for example removed almost all eye blinking from Stalin, to make him more unhuman and even recreated entire shots with VFX. We knew from the start that this film would be a challenge in terms of these things, and especially recreating a fly in 3D was a big ask. Thankfully we had the help from people at Grimm VFX company to create the fly that we called “Vasya”, a diminutive from Vassili.
Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?
I love to shoot with master technique, I don’t shoot in short segments, so the amount of material was challenging. There was even too much to choose from, and going through all that took time. This made the editing process long. Also, some shoots really had to be recreated completely with VFX – something we didn’t expect to do.
Was Lenin’s body played by a real actor?
Lenin’s body was played by Valter Kikas in the movie’s opening scene. When Lenin is in the sarcophagus we used a doll body. The head was made by Gristina Krüger, and it really feels like it’s almost a real head, even the skin feels “real”. There are people in the world whose skin feels much more “unreal”.
How do you hope this film might impact the conversation surrounding Russian history?
I was born in Estonia, but during the Soviet era. I was taught that the Soviet Union had the only right to interpret its history. I feel that today’s Russia has taken the same attitude. Russia has the monopoly on the right to interpret Russian history. Everything else or what comes from outside Russia is just labelled as Western propaganda. As far as I know, this movie hasn’t been shown in Russia, with possibly one exception in a film festival in Yaroslavl. But, I’m not 100 percent sure it was shown there.
How has the experience of making this film changed your perception of Russian history?
When I first got the idea of making a short movie about this subject in 2011, the world was a different place. A new Cold War didn’t sound like a reality, even after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. I felt like I was just making a satire about the past, about a form of dictatorship that existed but wouldn’t exist again, except in North-Korea. Some financiers where even concerned about how Mausoleum would resonate in the modern world. Now we’re living in a much more unpredictable environment, where somehow “strong leaders” are valued once again, not just in Russia, but also in many other places. I think that if in the past the Soviet Union’s main export was communism and “failure of capitalism”, for modern Russia, the main export is “strong leadership”, “failure of capitalism” with added “failure of democracy”.
Are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?
I’m currently in pre-production phase with my first feature film, called “Good-Bye Soviet Union”, which is a coming of age story in a setting where the Soviet Union is taking its last breath.
Are you looking forward to screening Mausoleum in Berlin?
Yes. I’m eagerly waiting for “ze German” opinions on the movie and I’m excited that it will be shown there. If a film isn’t shown or if no one is watching it, then the movie doesn’t exist. To stay alive, it always needs an audience.
Tickets are now on sale for Berlin Lift-Off, where “Mausoleum” will be screening.