This is the second in a series of blogposts on the film 2014 Russian film, Leviathan, written by students in the Politics module, Individuals and the State, who were asked to reflect on the connections between the film and the ideas of Hobbes or other social contract theories.
Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a beautifully shot film, which seems to combine both visual and narrative elements to create a running commentary on the faith that men place in the social contract they hold with a ruler, a vertical contract, and the consequent ease in which they fall back into the natural state of war, when the security they were assured of when they allowed themselves to be subject to a government’s rule falls apart. The film shows us that it is not just the everyday man, but also those who hold the power who will fall back on the use of violence to protect what is theirs when the system fails to work in their favour.
The opening shots of the film convey the beauty and freedom found in the natural state of the world while also giving us a sense of it being unwelcoming and an uncomfortable place to be in – much like how Hobbes describes the natural state in which one would be free to have all rights, yet be in a constant state of stress caused by the threat of conflict. We are introduced to Kolya who lives in this wild part of North-Western Russia and is fighting a compulsory purchase order from the town council on behalf of the town’s corrupt mayor. He places his faith in the established legal system and reaches out to his friend Dmitri, an old friend and lawyer from Moscow for help to get back what is rightfully his. Dmitri comes prepared for both, using the system in place and using some not so legal tactics to help Kolya. Their faith in the system, albeit wavering at this stage, is seen again after the mayor’s drunken visit to Kolya and his family. Dmitri tries to issue a complaint and bring criminal charges on the mayor over misconduct and abuse of his powers at the police station but is met with frustrating bureaucratic walls being thrown up in front of him. The mayor Vadim then decides to use the system to punish Kolya for attempting to use it to fight him and to keep the land from him by having him arrested and held in custody.
As their faith in the social contract between them and the Russian legal system begins to dissolve we see the men turning to the state of nature as Hobbes predicted. Throughout the film there are many references to the characters as animals. Lilya calls Roma an “ape”, Vadim calls the Sergeyevs “annoying insects” for trying to stall his acquisition of the land and Lilya and Angela call the men “animals” when they are out shooting. In fact the happiest we see the men in the film is when they are out in the wilderness shooting and drinking, far from the laws of any sovereign which would restrict their freedom. Even Dmitri, one of the characters who subjects himself to the authority of the state the most, delights in the violent shooting. It is not only quite striking that the men happily allow themselves fall back into this brutish manner which Hobbes wrote about but also that they seek out ways to relinquish themselves from the confines of the social contract.
When the peace and protection which Hobbes said the sovereign would give in return for being subject and having rights restricted by its laws stop existing the men return to a state of war. When the thought of not winning the case crosses Kolya’s mind he mentions using violence against Vadim. He threatens use of violence again later when he mentions ‘lynching’ the mayor and we see that when the mayor comes to his house and abuses Kolya by telling him he “has none and never had any rights” he is inside with his rifle on his lap. When the security afforded to us by official channels fail, we seem to fall back into a state of war like a threatened animal does when backed into a corner. But it is not just the subjects of the sovereign who revert to this state of war. When Dmitri blackmails Vadim with damning evidence of crimes he committed in return for the release of Kolya from custody and the 3.5 million roubles the property is worth, it threatens Vadim enough that he feels he has no official, legal way to fight Dmitri and relies on violence instead to assert his power and security. He has Dmitri taken away from civilisation and out into the wilderness, another nod from the director to the Hobbesian state of nature where just like in the shooting scene violence is normal, and has him beaten. He threatens death to Dmitri and harm to his daughter and only then gets him to back off and let Vadim feel safe. Hobbes predicted that fear of death was one of the only things that would ‘encline men to Peace’ (Hobbes, T. 1651 Ch13: para7), and it was the only thing that got Dmitri to flee back to Moscow. In fact Vadim’s priest seems to encourage him to use all of the powers afforded to him to protect his territory and overwhelm his enemies just as Hobbes said men would in a state of war.
This loss of faith in the power of the state to protect your rights, arguably the most important part of the social contract is what leads to Kolya’s devastating end. He sees traffic cop Pascha drink drive, is victim to police corruption, the state fails in protecting his property rights and all this makes him lose his faith in the system so much that he barely fights the charge of murdering Lilya. Instead of helping and protecting Kolya, as the social contract is meant to do, it is used against him so that he would ‘know his place’, as Vadim said. This film was a fantastic commentary on Hobbes’ Leviathan, even if I did get cirrhosis of the eyes from the sheer amount of drinking in it!
Hobbes, T. (1651) Leviathan.
Matthew Doncel is a 2nd year Law with Politics student. He is interested in international relations and environmental law. After his degree he would like to pursue further studies in these areas.