Credit: IFFR
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film

Steppenwolf — Adilkhan Yerzhanov [IFFR ’24 Review]

February 8, 2024

Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov has directed 15 films in the last 12 years, a breakneck pace to rival even Hong Sang-soo. Not many seem to have received any kind of US distribution; his most recent work to be properly released was 2020’s Yellow Cat, a charming if shallow bit of quirk-infused deadpan comedy that freely mixed Wes Anderson, the French New Wave, and Tati. His new film, Steppenwolf, is an altogether different animal. A bleak, dystopian parable of hope versus savagery, the film wallows in violence and depravity on its way toward a desperate grasping at hope for a better future. Indeed, Yerzhanov has fully discarded the borrowed twee aesthetic of Yellow Cat and replaced it with a pronounced dose of Béla Tarr. It’s a film composed almost entirely of slow, lateral pans, the camera gliding left or right as it observes torture, shootings, and stabbings — the second shot of the movie is long pan across a row of police riot shields being scrubbed clean of blood. We are in the middle of some sort of internecine conflict, as police officers round up and beat confessions out of local villagers. The villagers protest their innocence and accuse the officers of being corrupt; the police respond by hammering fingers and taking saw blades to hands. It’s unclear if Brayuk (Berik Aitzhanov) is an officer or a prisoner, but he nonchalantly assists in the beatings regardless, careful not to disturb the cigarette dangling from his mouth. A group of armed villagers suddenly lay siege to the police compound, and as a gun battle rages on, Tamara (Anna Starchenko) wanders into view. Seemingly oblivious to the combat around her, she begs for help to find her missing son, Timka. Sensing an opportunity, Brayuk talks his way out of detention and summary execution at the hands of insurgents by offering to help Tamara (her promise of a $5000 reward, to be split amongst the people, seals the deal). The unlikely duo take off to begin their search, wandering out into a vast wasteland of death and destruction.

As Tamara and Brayuk proceed along their path, each encounter with citizens or fellow travelers quickly erupts into bloodshed. There’s no real sense of place here; every building is dilapidated, every car is broken down, shot up, or engulfed in flames. There’s a droning, repetitive quality to the narrative, an oppressive sense of dread that’s levied only by the absurdity of it all. Early notices have compared Steppenwolf to Mad Max and the films of Nicolas Winding Refn; it seems likely that the American-educated Yerzhanov would be well aware of these pop culture touchstones, but the game of spot-the-reference only takes viewers so far (several visual nods towards Ford’s The Searchers don’t elucidate much, either). This is far angrier than anything produced in the American mainstream, too freeform and plotless. Little kernels of information propel Tamara and Brayuk forward, but only barely. They eventually learn that a local warlord has been kidnapping children to sell their organs on the black market; this leads to a narrative endpoint, a climax, but it’s neither more nor less exciting than anything that has come before it. The abrasive Brayuk, who verbally and physically abuses Tamara throughout their mission, never changes his ways or learns a lesson. Tamara, largely catatonic and barely verbal for large parts of the film, does not become a fierce warrior or suddenly begin to stand up for herself. There is no catharsis here, and one senses that even if Tamara is to be reunited with her child, there would be no substantial change to their material existence. Like Sergei Loznitsa’s 2010 film My Joy, Steppenwolf leaves realism behind as it becomes a parable for a particularly nasty State of the Union address. Yerzhanov doesn’t seem to like what he sees in his homeland, and can only laugh at man’s inhumanity toward one another. It’s all so absurd.

Published as part of IFFR 2024 — Dispatch 3.