Upstream Colour: Cronenbergian scenes which try to break loose from conventional storytelling

Ryan Gilbey tries to puzzle out an ice cool drama from Shane Carruth - a circle-of-life story with psychedelic maggots.

Upstream Colour (12A)
dir: Shane Carruth
 
It’s a story as old as time. Boy meets girl, boy forces girl to ingest psychedelic maggot, plunging her into extreme hypnotic state during which he divests her of all her worldly belongings, girl recovers and meets second boy who seems to have suffered the same fate. Small world!
 
So begins Upstream Colour, a film in which fathoming what is going on is like trying to build a calculator out of blancmange: there’s a big mess at the end and you’re still no closer to working out the answer.
 
Kris (Amy Seimetz) is the unlucky lass whose night out ends with her being held captive by a softly spoken crook (Thiago Martins) who convinces her to fashion endless paper chains and not to look directly at him because his head is made of the same substance as the sun. On the page, it all sounds a bit Derren Brown, although the film-maker Shane Carruth’s tight grasp of mood keeps any levity at bay. (The oppressive, disorientating tone makes it feel as though Kris’s tormentor has drugged both us and her.) While we may not know what’s happening, the look and sound of the movie ensure we won’t mistake it for a laugh riot.
 
Carruth has cast his net wide to create this effect. For the clean, frosted images – each frame looks as if it has just been removed from the icebox – he has turned to the cinematographer Shane Carruth. For that sadsinister score, full of strangled yearning, there must have been only one name on his wishlist: Shane Carruth. And when it comes to editing, who else could he have hoped for to splice together this narrative jigsaw puzzle but Shane Carruth? Thank goodness he was available, is all I can say.
 
One person’s control freak is another person’s perfectionist and even those who don’t enjoy Upstream Colour cannot deny that Carruth’s vision is original and singleminded. Or that he is a fine and guarded actor. Yes, he’s in the film as well as all over it. Still, it’s reassuring to see he’s taking things easy this time. On his 2004 debut, Primer, he wrote, acted, directed, produced, scored, edited, took on sound and production design and – rumour has it – baked the most darling little cupcakes for his colleagues with their names piped on the top.
 
Playing Jeff, who becomes involved with Kris after her release from captivity, Carruth exudes that charismatic shiftiness usually seen only in handsome, amoral ad execs in metropolitan singles bars. As Jeff and Kris become closer, an intriguing synthesis occurs between them: they start parroting one another’s anecdotes and disputing which of them had first dibs on their memories. This is symptomatic of the way the script is structured. It proceeds not so much by cause and effect as by intimation.
 
It isn’t giving too much away to say that the movie is a circle-of-life story that begins and ends in the soil. There are Cronenbergian scenes that touch on biological horror but the resounding impression is that Carruth is trying to break loose from conventional storytelling templates and convey information instead in some amorphous, intuitive fashion. Where the maggots and the orchids come into this, not to mention the pigs (lots of pigs), I wouldn’t want to say, partly because I’m still unclear.
 
No one who saw Primer, a low-key but highly cerebral time-travel thriller that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, will be surprised that Upstream Colour provides an intellectual workout.
 
Primer was one of those debuts, like David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Darren Aronofsky’s π, that felt thrillingly unprecedented; its tangled science-fiction plot was played out against a creepily bland canvas of storage facilities, crummy offices and suburban kitchens. Keeping track of it was no cakewalk. But it had wit. There was a major and memorable release of pressure for the puzzled viewer when one of the time-travelling protagonists turned to the other and said, “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.”
 
And it was fun. Upstream Colour scorns such fripperies and is slightly the poorer for it. Its enigmas will not harm any chances of longevity. (One can imagine college clubs being established solely to debate its meanings.) But the danger with a style that is this closed-off is that it can repel our pleasure as well as our understanding.
Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz in Upstream Colour.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge