The Last Judgement: Film Materials (Final Verdict; The Highest Court)

English Title: The Last Judgement: Film Materials (Final Verdict; The Highest Court)

Original Title: Vysshii sud – kinomaterialy

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Riga Film Studios

Director: Herz Frank

Screenplay: Herz Frank

Cinematographer: Andris Seletskis

Runtime: 73 minutes

Genre: Documentary

Language: Russian

Year: 1987

Volume: Russian

The Last Judgement recounts the story of Valerii Dolgov, a man who has committed a murder of a black market trader, at the age of twenty-four. The first part of the film is a piece of investigative journalism, in which the director attempts to establish the facts of the case, the identities of both victim and perpetrator, and then, through interviews, to understand what led Dolgov to commit the murder. The court’s verdict of the death sentence changes the nature of the interviews profoundly, and a strong bond develops between Frank, who conducts the interviews himself, and Dolgov. From attempts to justify himself, and explain his actions in terms of his ambition and environment, the condemned man increasingly reflects in more philosophical terms about love, God, conscience, death and the moment of murder. The film seems to grant insight into the course of Dolgov’s thinking, the thought processes of someone facing death.

The Last Judgement is a powerful example of film as a process of analysis and of thought: the filmmaker could not have known when he began shooting, what kind of film he would end up with. Thus the first part of the film seems very much of its time, as the director attempts ever so tentatively to ask why there is crime in a socialist society, and to reveal the then startling insight that even the son of an engineer engaged in the heroic process of the construction of socialism can become involved with organized crime and commit murder. While this portrait is of its time, the time is a historic one, when a generation of Soviet youth rejected the normal steady job with a meagre salary, instead taking advantage of the possibilities for rapid enrichment offered by the expansion of the black market and collapse of the state control over the economy. Dolgov’s ‘moral collapse’ as he terms it, is part of a wider societal shift. The link with broader social themes is made in stylistic terms too by the insertion of footage relating not only to the investigation and legal process, but also to the kinds of honest labour, notably construction, that Dolgov turned his back on.

After the death sentence is passed, the film no longer traces Dolgov’s relations with society, but with his own impending death and his parents. He becomes transformed as his rational censor gives way to a free flow of association, and it seems as if Frank’s camera has crossed a line, over which, as he says ‘the living should perhaps not cross’. There is a eerie sense that this is no longer a normal interview, as the conversations take on a more ‘confessional’ tone, as Frank later said. The camera records a process whereby Dolgov is stripped down to his palpable fear of death and begins to talk about the importance of love, and of his conscience.

The power of Frank’s film lies in its psychological intensity. While the film can be compared to treatments of a similar theme in Richard Leacock’s 1965 The Chair, and Nick Broomfield’s 2003: Eileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Frank’s command of the documentary form is no less assured: the occasional voice-over is insightful as to his own feelings and the process of making the film; the music is dramatic at first, but later ceding place to diegetic sound and the subject; and the camera tellingly pinpoints Dolgov’s nervous mannerisms, such as his fidgeting with a box of matches. The use of still photographs, however, is particularly effective in the final images of Frank and Dolgov leaving the death row cell, and then of the empty cell. Thus Frank attempts to resist the temptation to show too much after the manner of 1980s and 1990s Soviet ‘dark naturalism’ or chernukha. Nevertheless, when Dolgov’s sentence was carried out in the week the film was released, its initial success owed something to its sensational topicality. The Last Judgement’s international acclaim, with prizes at Nyon (1987) and Amsterdam (1988) documentary film festivals, however, demonstrated its greater and lasting value. This achievement was subsequently reiterated by Moscow’s ‘Stalker’ Human Rights Film Festival in 1995, which recognized the film’s ‘artistic honesty.’

Author of this review: Jeremy Hicks