Cargo 200 an Unflinching, Quasi-Comedic Portrait of 1984 Russia


Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 is an unflinching portrait of the grim vileness of Soviet Russia in 1984; from an American perspective, though, it looks awfully like The Leninsk Chainsaw Massacre. Balabanov—one of Russia’s most popular (and nationalistic) directors—insists his movie is in no way genre-oriented. So, when watching this cavalcade of atrocities, keep in mind that the opening title announcing “Based on true events” isn’t just the usual slasher trope, but a mission statement. When not supervising the beating of prisoners, sadistic police captain Zhurov (Aleksei Poluyan) hangs out at the rural shack of Aleksey (Aleksei Serebryakov), where illicit sales of hardcore grain vodka are supposed to finance the creation of a utopian “City of the Sun.” What happens instead is straight out of the Tobe Hooper playbook: girl gets brought out by a drunk guy to pick up more drink; girl gets kidnapped by Zhurov and repeatedly raped and brutalized. What Balabanov is getting at is the scandal of the U.S.S.R.’s war in Afghanistan: “Cargo 200” is code for the return shipment of dead soldiers. The film’s key shot is of a runway where bodies are unloaded from one side of a plane while soldiers run onto the plane simultaneously. It’s hard not to watch the whole thing as exceedingly black comedy: The outrages (many and constant) stop being appalling and become grimly amusing. By the time Zhurov dumps the corpse of his captive’s fiancé (straight back from Afghanistan) onto the bed where she’s chained and reads the soldier’s unsent love letters without any inflection, it feels as if you’re watching some kind of deranged performance-art piece. Regardless of intent, Cargo 200 is beautifully filmed and completely disturbing for its entire running time.