Theodor Adorno, Fairy Tales, and “Rusalka” (“Rusalka” Roundtable, #4)

In “Wolf as Grandmother,” one of his reflections in Minima Moralia (1951), Theodor W. Adorno once disputed the claims of those who defend film as a “popular art” (Volkskunst) against the standards of autonomous works of art. According to Adorno, these critics erred in comparing film, its stereotypical character and its schematic distinction of good and evil, to the workings of the fairy-tale. Adorno refutes this argument within his framework of a Marxist critique of culture industry (Kulturindustrie), which he had laid out in his best known work The Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung, 1944). The fairy-tale, as he argues in “Wolf as Grandmother,” belongs to a society of agrarian relationships or simple commodity-driven economies.

Though the relationships that are expressed are those of lords and serfs, the fairy-tale presents them in an “immediate, not entirely objectified form,”(Theodor Adorno: Minima Moralia. Trans. by Dennis Redmond.) while film – the paradigmatic medium of late industrial society – merely unites the “powerless and isolated” individuals produced by the “total structure” of this society. The participation of the masses is here reduced to a choice between yes or no at the ticket counter. Between the voice of the fairy-tale in which the lament about the old injustice is still audible and “the alienation which upholds itself as connectedness […] with loudspeakers and advertising psychology” looms the divide between a mother who uses fairy-tales to calm her child’s fears, on the one hand, and film, on the other. The latter teaches the audience the justice of each world order and reconciles it with fear. Thus, far from justifying cinema, the comparison between fairy tale and film, the latter would rather reveal retroactively the ever present horror.

Though Adorno’s outlook on the civilization may be a little gloomy, his discussion of the relationship of fairy-tale and film does provide a useful framework for a discussion of Rusalka. Not only does this 2007 Russian film borrow from several fairy-tales, most evidently from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” it also presents itself as a reflection of the relationship between the fairy-tale, film and the capitalist regime of production and consumption. This “metareflexive” character of the movie complicates the reflexive framework implied by our reading of Adorno.(See What happens when a film designed as a popular comedy not only uses fairy-tale motifs but also proceeds to analyze the close relationship between film and fairy-tale of which Adorno wrote?

Rusalka takes up several motifs from fairy-tales such as “Cinderella” and Pushkin’s “Golden Fish.” In doing so, it reflects a tendency of contemporary Russian art to draw on elements of folk myths and fairy-tales – sometimes in an affirmative, sometimes in a parodic fashion. Often this happens in such a way that it becomes difficult to determine where art ends and where folk myths begin. While Rusalka makes use of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” it is far from being a simple adaptation of this 19th-century literary masterpiece which is itself of course already a “metapoetological” treatment of a folk sujet.(Burkhart, Dagmar (2008): Märchen nach dem Märchen. Russische Volksmärchen und ihre Literarisierung. In: Fabula 49, Heft 1/2, S. 47-69, hier S. 48.)

There is no actual mermaid in the film. Alisa’s character is played for most of the film by Mariya Shalaeva – a peculiar-looking girl, small and skinny. Her face is somehow cute but she looks a bit like a fish. She is not as indisputably beautiful as Andersen’s Mermaid. Living by the sea with her corpulent mother (wonderfully played by Mariya Sokova) and her grandmother, Alisa misses her father, a seaman, whom her mother met only once while swimming in the sea. This is where Alisa’s conception accidentally took place. Her childhood was sad. Her dreams of becoming a ballerina are shattered when because of her mother she misses her opportunity for an audition to join a Moscow dance group. Instead Alisa is put in a choir where she performs so poorly that the only time she is praised by her teacher is when she decides to become as mute as the mermaid in Andersen’s tale. However, Alisa is endowed with a different gift. Similarly to the mermaids in Russian folklore, Alisa possesses a marvelously contagious laughter. In a peculiar way, she is a lucky devil. She seems to be able to influence her fortunes by making a wish and counting to ten.

When after turning seventeen she decides to get away from her hometown, a storm hits the ocean resort, effectively destroying it and rendering her family and everyone else homeless, an accident for which Alisa blames her wish-granting propensities. As a result, she and her family are forced to move to Moscow, the capitalist wonderland. And even though Alisa’s off-screen commentaries seem to deny this, her misfortunes and bad luck do not stop there. She goes on to find a humiliating advertisement job where she has to walk around dressed up as a beer mug or a mobile phone. Making matters worse, her costume is torn up during a street riot. Giving her employer her passport as security she has to pay for the outfit, and becomes a bit of a slave. Alisa’s only friend is presented as a beautiful girl with blond curls who is looking at herself in the mirror. The irony becomes apparent when we learn that the beautiful girl has no legs. Rolling around on a board with wheels, smoking, drinking and cursing at passers-by, she too is an unfinished fairy-tale princess, a mermaid without a tail.

Alisa’s luck only seems to change when she meets good-looking Sasha (Evgenij Tsyganov) as both want to end their lives by jumping off a bridge. However, Alisa’s prince is not only blessed with beauty and wealth – he sells lots on the moon to the Russian nouveau riches – but also, like Andersen’s prince, he is involved with another beautiful but mundane princess, Rita. Near the end of the film, after a fight over Alisa, Rita kills Sasha’s goldfish, the only creature he really loved. Alisa believes that like the golden fish in Pushkin’s fairy-tale of the same title she is capable of granting wishes. While in Andersen’s tale it is the mermaid’s muteness that prevents her from telling that she is not the prince’s actual bride, in Rusalka, a different kind of spell prevents Alisa and Sasha from coming together. Sasha’s unhealthy career-centered lifestyle, drug abuse and depression are briefly suspended by his “idiot,” as he calls Alisa when they meet in the morning after she saved his life. It is only after she prevents him from boarding a doomed flight that Sasha realizes that Alisa is his lucky charm. While Sasha wanders the streets looking for Alisa, she is almost run over by a red sports car driven by a couple of the Russian nouveau riches – a woman and her younger lover – master and serf – who are constantly fighting. After they missed her by a mere inch yet as she remains frozen in the middle of the pedestrian crossing when suddenly another sports car strikes her. Like Andersen’s mermaid who is turned into a ghost of the winds, Alisa’s voice, if not her body, lives on to tell the audience from behind the scene that in view of the accident rate in Moscow her death is nothing unusual.

Going back to our initial question about the relationship between film and the fairy-tale we can now evaluate the way with a view to Rusalka. There is clearly no victory of good over evil in the film. There is also no remedy for a deficient situation along the lines described by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folk Tale. The heroine is never rewarded for her efforts and the suffering she endures. In comparison with Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” the end of Rusalka is brutal and senseless, a mere statistical event. Unlike the little mermaid who is turned into a sylph who comforts people on earth, all that remains of Alisa is a picture on a giant advertising billboard, a strange girl with a big smile and green hair who points towards the moon where her love and employer sells real estate. Sasha may never even have learnt of her death. Wandering about the streets of Moscow in search of Alisa he runs into Rita and tells her that it was her he was looking for. Rusalka’s ending turns the film into a kind of anti-fairy-tale, a commentary on the hopelessness of Russia’s “barbarian capitalism,” a zero-sum game where one person’s profit is another person’s loss. For example, Alisa’s wish to be admitted to university comes at the cost of a more gifted student being killed in a road accident. Alisa’s benefitting from the student’s death foreshadows Rita’s subsequent profiting from Alisa’s own death. This is highlighted by the ubiquitous advertisement slogans: “Don’t be afraid of your desires” (Ne bojsya svoich zhelanij!) and “The Winner Takes It All” (Pobeditel poluchaet vsyo).

We may still not be completely satisfied with this interpretation. The fairy-tale happy ending seems almost within reach at the end of the film, shortly before Alisa’s deadly accident. Is this just a turning point before the tragedy? Might the advertising slogan “The Moon For Everyone!” (Luna dlya vsech!) not be read as trace of the otherworldly quality Alisa had presented? We leave Sasha in the street with Rita, with a peculiar look on his face, an expression resembling the game “Wake the Dead” that he and Alisa once played. In this game, the one player has to pretend to be dead while the other makes him laugh. Has Sasha been awakened?

“The truth is not to be separated from the delusion that one day, out of the figures of appearance [Schein], there would nonetheless be salvation,”(Adorno, Minima Moralia Adorno writes about a motif from “Snow White” in another reflection from Minima Moralia. May this not hold for Rusalka, too? And, in the light of Adorno’s statement, might the film be excused for its “collaboration” with the aesthetics of consumerism, its less than subtle use of symbolism, its tightly knit plot? Is there really any insurmountable ambiguity about Rusalka, or should we say that the film, while not entirely convincing, is in some shallow way quite sincere in the message it tries to convey? Or, perhaps we can just say that all this movie meant to say was that the Moscow police needs to do its job better and that the city needs to revitalize defunct pedestrian crossings? Admittedly, we’d be back in the realm of the fairy-tale…

Matthias Meindl is a Ph.D candidate at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

Svetlana Sirotinina is currently completing a Master’s Degree in East Studies at European Berlin’s Free University.

Roundtable participants:

Natascha Drubek-Meyer, A Little Mermaid in the World of Russian Advertising

Matthias Meindl and Svetlana Sirotinina, Theodor Adorno, Fairy Tales, and “Rusalka”

Christine Goelz, A Modern Fairy Tale

Henrike Schmidt, Happy End

Bettina Lange, Glamor Discourse