Ends of empires

Two compulsive, immersive and vivid end-of-empire series

On Television

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 1987 I flew to Moscow with a couple of colleagues to report on life for young people in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. Glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were roaring ahead. The Cold War was thawing and even Margaret Thatcher had declared that she liked the Soviet leader.

Moscow was a revelation: the imposing grandeur of Red Square, the pristine metro stations bedecked in marble and bas-reliefs, the confident Soviet iconography, all these gave the sense that this was the epicentre of a powerful, global empire.

Quiet flows the montage and there is no voiceover, no music unless in the original footage, just occasional subtitles for factual background

But there were other signs as well. The shoddy apartment blocks made from concrete slabs; dark, narrow roads pitted with potholes, empty shelves in the A gloomy shops, perhaps most of all, as Russians explained, an endemic, slothful corruption that had warped the Soviet psyche.

It is this world, of everyday citizens, that Adam Curtis explores so skilfully in Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone. This is the kind of public service television at which the BBC excels: seven one-hour films that tell the story of the last years of the Soviet Union and its chaotic aftermath, based on many thousands of hours of BBC footage that was never broadcast.

Curtis is perhaps best known for his 2004 series The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, which  compared the rise of the neoconservative movement in the United States with that of radical Islam. That series, still available on the BBC iPlayer, drew plaudits and criticism for its openly partisan approach.

TraumaZone, like The Power of Nightmares, is built around a flow of dazzling imagery. But quiet flows the montage and there is no voiceover, no music unless in the original footage, just occasional subtitles for factual background.

Instead Curtis wisely lets the voices, and the films, speak for themselves. And what stories they tell. Prostitutes in a Moscow hotel where the taps gush brown water negotiate the price for a night, a surreal parade of body-builders flex their overdeveloped muscles, Kim Philby’s Russian widow bends over his open coffin, old ladies in the countryside lament their lost beauty while dining on potatoes.

Meanwhile a jolly bureaucrat explains the glories of the state planning system and Gorbachev and Yeltsin stride purposefully in and out of meetings as their country collapses. The fate of the Tolyatti car plant is especially telling. Gorbachev’s reforms gave the workers a chance to have more control of the factory. So they plundered it and sold off the car parts.

It’s one of history’s darker ironies that Marxist-Leninism was supposed to solve the problem of workers’ alienation under capitalism. Instead it spawned a gangster state, far worse than anything the most rapacious western tycoon could dream up.

TraumaZone is compulsive, immersive viewing

Most haunting of all are the scenes from Chernobyl: soldiers ordered into the hot zone to remove radioactive waste while engineers make their own protective suits from rolls of sticky tape. TraumaZone is compulsive, immersive viewing.

The Empress, a Netflix series, is also set in the twilight years of an empire. Unlike TraumaZone, it fizzes with life, colours and luxury, albeit among a very privileged class.

The Empress is Elisabeth von Wittelsbach, Princess of Bavaria, soon to be the bride of Emperor Franz Joseph, overlord of the Habsburg lands in the second half of the nineteenth century until his death in 1916. Elisabeth, affectionately known as Sissi, was a complex, intelligent figure and a noted beauty.

Like Princess Diana, she guarded her looks and struggled mightily against the stultifying constraints of court life. And like Buckingham Palace now, the Hofburg palace in Vienna was a hothouse of intrigue and back-stabbing. But the stakes were much higher. Franz Joseph and his court had the power of life and death of their subjects, could decide the fate of nations, declare wars and end them.

Among a strong cast, Devrim Lingnau gives a stand-out performance as Elisabeth, as she steadily manoeuvres among the plotters. She is wilful, passionate, sensuous and ruthless when need be.

The cinematography is beautiful, the sets visual feasts with superb costumes and a precise eye for period detail. The balls, the parties, the elaborate royal dressing routines in all their lush glory are vividly brought to life. I especially liked Franz Joseph’s younger brother Maximilian, soon to be Emperor of Mexico, played by Johannes Nussbaum, bringing a manic edge to a doomed figure.

The cinematography is beautiful, the sets visual feasts with superb costumes and a precise eye for period detail

All of Europe’s empires had been shaken by the 1848 revolutions, the Habsburgs perhaps most of all. Yet the idea persisted in the chancelleries of Europe that a handful of men could decide other nations’ destinies. They could not.

Maximilian arrived in Mexico in 1864 — three years later he was captured by Republican forces and shot. Elisabeth’s life — indeed the whole Habsburg dynasty — was shaped by tragedy. Her sister Sophie died in a fire in Paris. Her only son Rudolf was found dead with his lover. Elisabeth was murdered by an Italian anarchist in 1898, while strolling by Lake Geneva.

Across the former empire she is still remembered with great affection, perhaps nowhere more than Hungary, her beloved refuge. The Empress is a rich, nuanced recreation of the life of a spirited, independent woman ahead of her time.

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