Kin-dza-dza! is one of the strangest artefacts in all of Soviet cinema. It’s a science fiction satire in which Vladmir and Gedevan, a gruff Russian construction worker and a Georgian student, find themselves accidentally transported to Pluke, a barren desert-world with a barbaric, bureaucratic society. Gradually realising that they are not in a ‘capitalist country’, the two men begin a long and farcical voyage home that more closely resembles the theatre of the absurd than it does any preconceived notion of cinematic science fiction. The men befriend two locals, Bi and Wef, and are soon busking their way across Pluke and becoming ensnared in various misadventures that stem from the planet’s bizarre and unbendable social rules, and its two-tier social structure of ruling Chatlanians and subservient Patsaks.
There are many things to note about Kin-dza-dza!: the satire that struck a chord with a Soviet audience experiencing the first flourishes of glasnost but that can seem impenetrable to a contemporary audience; the ‘used future’ mise-en-scene that anticipates the subversive combinations of salvagepunk, with items that look like ships and ferris wheels half-submerged in the arid desert; the buried Christian themes; the melancholy-comic dirge that constitutes the film’s score.
But one of the most noteworthy things is the film’s creative use of language: the bizarre Plukanian tongue, which rivals A Clockwork Orange’s ‘nadsat’ as a futuristic dialect, despite mostly consisting of the word ‘koo’. The near identical ‘kyoo’ is a swear word, and there are a few other specific terms, such as ‘pepelats’ for spaceship, ‘etsilop’ for police, ‘etsikh’ for prison, and ‘Gravitsapa’, which they spend much of the film trying to obtain so that they can get back home.
Soviet science fiction had always been an arena for voicing social critique and ridicule, and could be cloaked in futuristic and fantastical trappings. Danelia and his co-writer Revaz Gabriadze (the founder of Tbilisi’s puppet theatre) took advantage of the far-fetched scenario by foregrounding Georgian-ness against the wider expanse of Russia proper. Georgian, which shares neither an alphabet nor a common root with the Russian language, is the first language of both writers, and some of the language used in the film comes from their native tongue. ‘Etsikh’ is from the Georgian word ‘tsikhe’ for fortress, while the film’s title, named for the galaxy that Pluke is found in, comes from ‘kindza’, the Georgian word for coriander. Most humorously, they capitalised on the non-Russian word ‘katsap’, used to describe Russians in other Soviet republics. The scriptwriters reversed the word, and also reversed the social order so that the Russians find themselves on the lower social strata.
The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari used ‘minor literature’ to describe work done from the point of view of a minority in the ‘major’ language of the coloniser. Kin-dza-dza! transposes elements of minor literature to cinema. The script reflects the frustrations of having a language imposed from above, most of it sounding like an unfamiliar, monotonous noise, but it also demonstrates the strangeness, potential and richness of language; French, Georgian (ideal for creative obscenities), German and English are all heard in the film along with Russian.
The puppet-like gestures that the lowly patsaks have to perform when confronted with their superiors back up this linguistic satire, where gesture becomes a grotesque parody in which power relations are laid bare. This is also true for the busking, done from inside cages, with Vladimir sawing the violin back and forth in a threadbare parody of musicianship.
Near the film’s conclusion, the desert is exchanged for a verdant paradise as Vladimir and Gedevan touch down on the planet Alpha, where they meet patrician overlords in white robes. Perhaps intended to represent the Soviet elite, the Alpha race don’t prove to be the key to redemption or restoration for Vladimir and Gedevan, despite their advanced society and utopian veneer. The film constantly raises questions, but answers few of them. The rules on these other planets simply ‘are’, and if they are not followed, then one risks ending up trapped in a box or transformed into a cactus.
Kin-dza-dza! is still adored in Russia and former Soviet republics, but is little known in the Anglophone world. Some of its humour and reference points may appear to be Soviet specific. But as we move towards an increasingly confusing and complex society, Danelia’s film is likely to become increasingly relevant, and perhaps the glossy new animated version (which was released in Russia in April 2013) will bring this salvagepunk prototype to wider acclaim.
John A. Riley