On the bank of Volkhov River, only a mile away from the walls of the ancient Novgorod Kremlin stands the modernist building of Dostoevsky’s Drama Theatre. This architectural mutant produced in the last decades of Soviet Era is the main hero of the film.
The setting is Veliky Novgorod or Novgorod the Great, a small Russian provincial city with its river beaches, disco-boat rides, ancient history and the dilapidated Khrushchev tenements. For the non-Russian audience the shorthand, “Lonely Planet“ guide into Novgorod Life becomes the context in which the spaceship-like building and its persistent problems will be seen and measured.
Punks, skateboarders, glue-sniffing junkies and hot rod enthusiasts congregate on its grounds. The theater is plagued by horrendous leaks, crumbling walls and graffiti. No one in the city knows the person responsible for this utopian architectural vision. People of Novgorod are convinced that Andrei Makarevich, the famous rock star is the architect. Makarevich explains the filmmakers that an obscure artist Vladimir Somov was the mastermind behind the theater.
Today, Somov lives in poverty in a distant Moscow suburb. Sharp minded and eccentric, the 86 year-old Somov sleeps on the floor next to his paintings. Becoming the architect for the project was Somov’s greatest luck. Despite the draconian censorship of the Soviet Era, Somov had the audacity to design a building that was the embodiment of his wild artistic vision. Somov accomplished the impossible, a theater built in his own taste but with government funds. Many Novgorodians were involved in mandatory construction brigades who despite the lack of experience were summoned to work on the site. The result was a monolith erected with disregard of basic building laws. It started falling apart as soon as it was opened in 1987.
Walking into the theater is like walking into a German expressionist set in a midst Russia’s Orthodox Disneyland. The crumbling complex appears to be an embodiment of various architectural forms that invite the visitor into an extraordinary world, where the rules for balance and functionality seem to come from a radically alternative vision of space.
The documentary’s conflict is built on the strained relationship between the City of Novgorod and the anomaly in its midst, the Dostoevsky Theater. The sheer audacity of the theater’s unsettling presence in this provincial status quo becomes evident and striking. Interviews with the city dwellers and later with the local government authorities reinforce this dichotomy and weave a narrative in which the theater becomes a metaphor for the complacency responsible for the building’s devastating condition. The remarkable and uneasy history of the theater creation is revealed by the use of archival footage and photographs.
Novgorodians openly dislike the building. While looking at the theater through a blurry prism of Soviet existence, they perceive it not as unique architectural creation, but a remnant of a long gone Socialist Era. On the other hand, while playing the devil’s advocate, the documentary exposes the elitism inherit in Somov’s architectural design as a major contributing factor to the theatre’s inability to integrate into the social fabric of Novgorod. The film analyzes Somov's creative motivations while trying to pinpoint that a truly civilized society does not necessarily destroy what it doesn't understand.
The dichotomy between the Somov the artist and the people of Novgorod sets the dynamic of the story. The narrative arc of The Novgorod Spaceship is a dialogue of numerous conflicting issues surrounding the building’s existence and survival. There is the dark void of Soviet past, deep provinciality, ignorance, greed, corruption, building’s endless technical problems, and then there is the elitism of the theater’s architect, who with all of his brilliance and great intentions seemed to have created a “soul-liberating” structure for some more evolved nation, perhaps living on another planet. Thus the film makes an attempt to portray the chaos surrounding the slowly dying architectural masterpiece while presenting the viewer with all of its complexity, rather then making a clear-cut central point.
Supported by the filmmaker’s sparse and ironic personal commentaries the film inadvertently becomes a magnified analysis of the society in which the building tries to survive. Ultimately the Novgorod Spaceship is about modern Russia, where the building of the theater, the main hero of the film helps to open the door into the less visible but fundamental and poignant aspects of the country’s social problems.
"Men fear time, but time fears the pyramids" is Somov's favorite proverb. The old architect stoically continues to believe that his theater is destined to survive both the ignorance of the masses and the corruption of bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the theater's rapidly diminishing condition is already proving the Egyptians wrong.
In the end of the film, perhaps only in filmmaker’s imagination and his most sacred hopes, the building of Novgorod Drama Theater takes of into the sky like the spaceship it resembles so much. No longer able to cope, or wait for some miraculous help, it leaves the ungrateful place and the people who are causing its demise. It flies away from the provincial city of Novgorod and modern Russia all together, which despite all the progress of recent 30 years, again seem to be moving backwards in time and humanistic standards.