Surzhekei – Angel of Death

[Суржекей – Ангел Смерти]

film still

Kazakhstan/USSR, 1991, 35mm, 137 min. Color and B/W
In Kazakh, with Russian voice-over and English subtitles
Production: Katarsis (Kazakhstan)
Director: Damir Manabaev
Script: Smagul Elubaev, Damir Manabaev
Camera: Bolat Suleev
Composer: Adil' Bestybaev
With Meirman Nurekeev (Surzhekei), Zhanas Iskakov (Zhorga), Nurmukhan Zhanturin (Pakhraddin), Zhumakhan Abdykadyrov (Azbergen), Bakhytzhan Al'peisov (Shege), Shamzhagul' Mendiarova, Bibigul' Zhardemalieva

Kazakhstan, early 1930s. Having fled from the authorities, Azbergen returns to his village settlement to warn his community of the dangers of Stalin's forced collectivization, but a sage predicts his future as luckless and filled with strife. In the village, both his older brother Pakhraddin and the village bai and master Mazhan resist Azbergen's urgent demands to leave and take up resistance against the Soviets, while Pakhraddin's slightly dimwitted Komsomol son-in-law Shege insists that "Soviet power is a just power." Zhorga, Azbergen's rival in the village, threatens to expose Azbergen's plans. Frustrated by his brother's and the villagers' indifference, Azbergen takes to the mountains. He kidnaps Shege's wife Hansulu to convince his brother to join him, but when the brother insists on remaining in the village, Azbergen takes Hansulu back.

Meanwhile, Surzhekei, also known as Zhake, has returned home a bumbling drunk but ruthless representative of Soviet might. Zhake issues orders to confiscate the cattle as Zhorga and Shege compete for his attention by ingratiating themselves to the new ruler of the village. Taking the confiscation decree as a signal to settle old scores, the villagers begin to loot master Mazhan's property. Mazhan and his wife are deported and shot by Zhake's henchman. With most of their cattle confiscated and Zhake's increasingly erratic and irrational distribution of food, some villagers attempt to flee under cover of the night. Their plan is foiled by Zhake, who forces them back at gunpoint.

Over time the village turns desolate as its inhabitants suffer from debilitating starvation. Shege, conflicted as he tries to reconcile his loyalty to his family and Soviet ideology, becomes morose and drunk. Only Zhorga benefits from Zhake's violent and arbitrary rule. One night, with Zhake and Shege in a drunken stupor and Zhorga overpowered, Azbergen helps the villagers gather their belongings and their last cattle so that they can flee with him. Awakening to an abandoned village, Shege rides away to find his community, while Zhorga, enraged, kills his wife, Zhake, and the few villagers who have remained behind, and then burns the village. He tells the authorities that it was Azbergen and his "bandits" who destroyed the village. In a final show-down, Zhorga manages to round up the cattle and rides off with the authorities. The villagers, in despair and now no longer a community, wander off into the desert as each one of them prepares to die in agony.

Divided into two parts, Surzhekei balances a straightforward, albeit convoluted narrative of the devastating effects of forced collectivization with hints at a larger philosophical reflection on the question of historical inevitability in relation to what might be termed "epic truth." In the first half, the film outlines the intricate structures of power within the village and conveys the manifold disorienting relationships between its inhabitants by occasionally crowding the screen with up to two dozen figures. In doing so, the film manages to map out village life as a complicated communal arrangement at the expense of individual characterization. At the same time the film's first part sets in motion the fundamental narrative conflict between Azbergen's noble attempts to save his people and Zhake's imposition of cruel and arbitrary Soviet law. It is to the film's credit that this rather crude polarity is redeemed by a more ambiguous and ambitious conclusion.

From the outset, the village is beset by internal discontent and communal life is far from idyllic. In this sense Zhake's arrival becomes instrumental in unleashing the catastrophe of the village's disintegration, but his (self-)destructive power is abetted by the villagers in a number of ways. To make such claims, the film resorts to portentous visual symbolism and narrative codes – The village master Mazhan cannot leave his land literally because he is crippled, horses' blood streams into the soil to allegorize the slaughter of the people, women are type-coded by how readily they make themselves available to the drunk Zhake, conflicted Shege is literally caught in the sights of both Azbergen's and the authorities' guns, and so on. But these exhausted and exhausting filmic devices are offset by remarkable visual compositions of the land and its elements. Punctuated throughout the film are scenes of a stunning and significant simplicity: daylight turning to sunset, the vast sun-scorched earth domed by distant clouds, the winds blowing relentlessly during cold moonlit nights. Equally emphasized are images of the yurt as a place of temporary shelter as the camera records a searching gaze from inside up towards the sky outside the yurt on several occasions. With this gesture the film replicates Azbergen's cry to the heavens: "Creator! If you exist, spare my people!" But, as the sage has predicted and observes hopelessly throughout the film, this fate of suffering cannot be avoided or alleviated.

It is this emphasis on such visual gestures towards the inevitable catastrophe that indicate the film's overall dedication to the portrayal of suffering as a fundamental condition rather than determining its causal historical origins. This is also the reason why the second half of the film is structured in terms of the duration of the suffering that the sage has predicted. The catastrophe that befalls the villagers must be seen in its epic temporal dimension and the film's elaborate and powerful conclusion, therefore, needs very little dialogue. Instead, meaning conveys itself in images. When the villagers disperse into the desert dunes towards their diaspora or death, the wind carries with it the ghost voices of their vanquished community and a female voice singing the film's only song: "I thought eternity was a sister, life a rose dream, death the truth, birth a chance, and man but a visitor in this world." As the villagers resign to prepare their own graves, the camera lingers on a few relics, mere traces of their community – a teapot and a children's cradle, gradually being covered by sand. This lingering but desperate gaze implores us with the appeal to affirm or at least validate the song's implicit question in order to acknowledge the truth in the suffering of the Kazakh people.


Damir Manabaev was born in Alma-Ata in 1946. He graduated from the directing program of VGIK, the State Institute of Filmmaking in Moscow, in 1978.


1979 Raushan (short)
1981 Steppe Stories
1986 The Shout
1991 Surzhekei – Angel of Death

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