Aleksei Balabanov; director focused on fraying seams of society

Aleksei Balabanov directed 16 films known for their brashness and  brutality.
Aleksei Balabanov directed 16 films known for their brashness and brutality.

NEW YORK — Aleksei Balabanov, a Russian director whose films fused grisly violence, sardonic humor, and rock music to convey a darkly compelling vision of his chaotic society after Communism’s collapse, died Saturday near St. Petersburg. He was 54.

Lenfilm Studios said the cause was a heart attack, the Interfax news agency reported.

In 16 films, Mr. Balabanov offered a world of hit men, shamelessly corrupt officials, and corpses upon corpses in a cinematic pastiche reminiscent of the work of Quentin Tarantino in artistic achievement and exuberantly brash taste.


In his 2005 film, ‘‘Blind Man’s Bluff,’’ a pair of hit men steal 5 kilos of heroin from their boss during Russia’s ‘‘Wild West’’ 1990s, when anything-goes-capitalism was sweeping away Communism. They then exchange their leather jackets for dark suits and jobs in the Kremlin bureaucracy.

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In ‘‘Brother’’ (1997), a man hires his brother as a contract killer whose only loyalty is to his favorite rock group. ‘‘Stoker’’ (2010) tells of a brain-damaged war veteran who takes care of a factory’s furnace. Mobsters keep showing up to use it to dispose of bodies.

“The films of Aleksei Balabanov are a collective portrait of our country at its most dramatic time in history,’’ Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev wrote on Facebook after the director’s death.

Mr. Balabanov’s movies developed a robust cult following in Russia and won prizes there.

In 1999, the New Directors/New Films series sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York presented Mr. Balabanov’s ‘‘Of Freaks and Men’’ (1998), in which the director put aside present-day Russia to tell a tale of naughty eroticism at the turn of the century. Filmed in orange sepia, the film uses intertitles between scenes and a physically exaggerated acting style to evoke the silent-film era.


Mikhail Trofimenkov, a film critic for the Russian newspaper Kommersant, called Mr. Balabanov ‘‘the best Russian film director of the past two decades.’’

Aleksei Oktyabrinovich Balabanov was born in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), in the Ural Mountains. He graduated from Gorky Teachers’ Training University with a degree in foreign languages in 1981, then served in the Soviet Army as a translator. After his discharge, he was an assistant director at the Sverdlovsk film studio. In 1990, he completed a course of advanced study in film.

An early film was ‘‘Arrival of a Train,’’ of which a segment called ‘‘Trofim’’ was shown at the New York Film Festival in 1996. ‘‘Trofim’’ begins in 1904 in the days of the Russian-Japanese war. On an isolated Russian farm, a shaggy-haired, wild-eyed peasant is committing an ax murder before the eyes of a screaming woman and her two children. After a failed suicide attempt, the peasant boards a train for St. Petersburg and matter-of-factly confesses to the conductor that he had murdered his brother.

“I caught him with my wife,’’ he says.

The conductor replies, ‘‘It happens.’’


Wars were a major theme for Mr. Balabanov. His 2002 film ‘‘War’’ is set in Chechnya, the scene of two Russian conflicts since 1994.

The title of his 2007 film, ‘‘Cargo 200,’’ was taken from the Soviet Army code for bodies of slain Soviet soldiers. It unfolds in late 1984, during Russia’s war in Afghanistan, and conjures up a political and moral landscape drowning in corruption and black-market vodka. A final scene shows the heroine naked and cuffed to a bed, surrounded by three fly-gathering corpses, one of them her fiance.

‘‘Cargo 200’’ is a comment on the social decay that would lead to the Soviet Union’s fall.