Berlinale Special Review: Numbers
by Ola Salwa
When one thinks of Oleg Sentsov, what probably comes to mind first is his unjust incarceration, which lasted five years, or the film community’s annual appeals to the Russian government to free him. After he was released, he travelled a lot, meeting people and giving speeches, but also pitching his project, development of which had been interrupted by his arrest. Somehow, in Sentsov’s case, the artist has been eclipsed by his cause, and wrongly so, as proven by Numbers [+], presented in the Berlinale Special section of the 70th Berlin Film Festival.
The film is based on the eponymous play that Sentsov penned in 2011 (before his arrest) and was directed remotely from prison, with the help of Akhtem Seitablayev, a writer, actor and director. The plot of this dystopian tale revolves around a micro-community made up of ten people. Instead of names, they have numbers, and instead of jobs and hobbies, they have a list of actions they must perform: eat, drink, run, love a particular number and so on. An elderly man, who looks like a bored clerk and is called Zero (Viktor Andrienko), watches over them like a deity or a tyrant, and intervenes when his subjects stretch their leashes a little too far. The central character in this group is the rebellious Seven (Evhen Chernykov), who in the real world could be either a revolutionary or a dissident writer like Dovlatov (incidentally, a film about him, Dovlatov [+] by Aleksei German Jr, was part of the Berlinale competition two years ago).
Sentsov wrote Numbers as a stage play, so the entire film was shot on a stage in minimalistic, symbolic surroundings. The concept resembles what Lars von Trier did in Dogville [+], but here, the space, the action and the narrative are more constrained. Make no mistake, though: Numbers is not a mere recording of a work of theatre; it’s a film in its own right. The ensemble cast does some great work, giving the characters vitality and personality. Much credit must also be taken by Polish cinematographer-director Adam Sikora, who has worked on many artistically challenging projects (The Mill and the Cross [+] by Lech Majewski, Ederly [+] by Piotr Dumała and Essential Killing [+] by Jerzy Skolimowski, among others), and knows perfectly well how to tackle a challenging space so that it will look both appealing and appalling at the same time.
Numbers may be difficult to watch at first, since it’s set in only one, closed, modest space, but once you get past that, the movie efficiently conveys the feeling of incarceration and psychological claustrophobia. The mundane and repetitive daily routine is disturbing and daunting in itself, since we live in the era of freedom of choice, “celebrating the moment”, “being the best version of yourself” and other ego-orientated mantras. Yet the real gravity comes from a person who wasn’t even present on the set – at least not in person. The fact that Sentsov was living in similar conditions makes every symbol tangible and the horrific atmosphere palpable. The world has changed a lot since 2011, when the play was written, and yet its unsettling vision seems closer to reality than ever. Don’t try this at home.
Numbers is a Ukrainian-Polish-Czech-French co-production staged by Anna Palenchuk, through 435 Pictures, and by Violetta Kamińska, Izabela Wójcik and Dariusz Jabłoński, of Apple Film Production. Czech Television, Canal+ Polska and Halley Production served as co-producers, while Latido Films sells the film internationally.