(Warning: plot spoilers throughout this essay)
In the Bathhouse: Collective Violence and Eastern Promises
by Jessica Hughes
In Eastern Promises, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is similarly caught between the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ in his relationship with both Scotland Yard and the Russian mafia. Both groups offer a sense of belonging that is Nikolai’s reality, making him unable to exist as an individual without also being part of the group. But, the maintenance of the ‘I’ within the inseparable ‘we’ calls attention to Badiou’s representation of the collective as a contradictory relationship between the group and the individual: “The demand of the ‘we’ [...] appears as a demand for inseparateness.” Rather than insisting on a complete transformation of the ‘I’ into the ‘we’, Badiou suggests it is more important for “the ‘I’ to abide within the ‘we’ in an inseparate form” so as to highlight the individual’s existence within the group (122). In accordance with this, rather than wholly submitting himself to either group, Nikolai maintains his sense of ‘I’ as a part of the ‘we’ in order to reinforce his role as a supporter of the greater Idea. Just as the relationship between the young Comrade and the Communist Party suggests in The Decision, the obligation for a permanent bond between members of the vory v zakone in Eastern Promises is so strong that if one were to expose himself as an outsider, it would be necessary to eliminate that person altogether. With this in mind, Nikolai takes advantage of the conformity expected from members of the mob and works his way to the top by means of forged loyalty.
The film opens with a murder arranged by Kirill (Vincent Cassel), the son of a Russian mafia leader in London, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). To dispose of the bloody corpse, Kirill calls in Nikolai, whom we learn is both Kirill’s driver and ‘undertaker’. Later in the film, however, when Nikolai is shown relaying his life story to the senior members of the vory v zakone (literally, “thieves by the code”), it becomes clear that he is a greater asset to Semyon’s family. His interview with the head members of the gang is followed by the tattooing of three stars on his body: two on either side of his heart and one on his knee. These stars signify his acceptance into the family, a decision based on his perceived devotion to the group as well as his criminal past-as illustrated by the array of Siberian prison tattoos already adorning his body. After he passes this physical examination, Nikolai is elevated to the same status as Kirill within the hierarchy of the mob family. However, this promotion turns out to be a ploy arranged by Semyon to save his son’s reputation. Two scenes later, Nikolai meets Azim (Mina E. Mina), a member from a rival faction, at the local bathhouse, for a meeting arranged by both the family that has taken him in and the rival Chechen family, who believe he is Kirill. Leaving Nikolai in the bathhouse, Azim tells two other men that ‘Kirill’ is waiting for them and they will recognize him by his vory v zakone tattoos. The two men enter the steam room and brutally attack Nikolai, who, naked and unarmed, appears completely vulnerable, though his self-defense skills quickly counter this impression.
The details of this scene draw attention to the way Eastern Promises portrays the relationship between appearance, truth, and the figure of the Real. The preceding scenes suggest Nikolai is accepted into the family because they value his dedication, but the bathhouse scene proves otherwise. The reliance on group membership is emphasized here by the fact that, in a group with distinctive traits, such as the tattoos of the Russian mafia, members are distinguishable by their ranking, rather than as individuals. Thus, Nikolai can easily be mistaken for Kirill because they have the same markings on their bodies, which declare not only their membership and position in the group but also their absolute loyalty. Semyon exploits this loyalty to the collective in order to maintain control-without the cooperation of the members, he would be unable to uphold his rule.
Although having the appropriate tattoos confirms Nikolai’s acceptance within the vory v zakone, it is also what betrays him to the attackers. The Real is presented here as the result of preconceived expectations of defining characteristics associated with groups rather than individuals. Nikolai’s connection to Kirill as a friend, brother, and guardian is enough to make him pass as the real Kirill, regardless of any other facts that might suggest otherwise. The film offers very little confirmed background information about Nikolai prior to the knife fight, so having the tattoos, and the consequential cuts on his body, confirm his association with Kirill and Semyon. Paradoxically, the ensuing gashes and bruises inflicted on Nikolai’s body satisfy a Badiouian passion for the Real, which convinces all parties, and the audience as well, of a loyalty paid for in blood. It is significant that the revelation that Nikolai is working for Scotland Yard succeeds the bathhouse scene, emphasizing how he has consciously risked his safety as an individual for the benefit of the group. In this sense, the damage done to the body is ultimately the cost of belonging to a collective and Nikolai is presented as the heroic figure. The passion for the Real is here expressed by the graphic violence of the bathhouse scene. Simultaneously, the scene forces the viewers to consider the implications of Nikolai’s naked and tattooed body-which at once marks him as part of a group, while, at the same time, renders him vulnerable and exposed, an individual struggling for his own survival.
While the power of the collective is emphasized here, on a deeper level it also reveals how being a member of a group can be used to advance one’s position as an individual. Rather than devoting himself entirely to one group, Nikolai pledges his allegiance to both the vory v zakone and Scotland Yard by offering portions of his individuality to each. In the process, however, he is forced to come to terms with the cruelty he has become tied to by association. In his study of how violent acts are influenced by other people and events, historian and philosopher Rene Girard observes: “[m]en cannot confront the naked truth of their own violence without the risk of abandoning themselves to it entirely” (87). Rather than openly accepting our roles as individuals, Girard suggests that it is easier to attribute our violent tendencies to some kind of collective bond by joining forces with other individuals who are likely to issue the same kind of reactions. This allows us to incorporate cruelty into our lives without accepting personal responsibility for it. The violence Nikolai partakes in is similarly justified by his ties to a greater cause-Scotland Yard’s effort to reduce crime by bringing down the Russian mob.
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