Life Imitates Art as a ‘Master and Margarita’ Movie Stirs Russia

By all appearances, the movie adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s cult favorite novel “The Master and Margarita,” in Russian theaters this winter, shouldn’t be thriving in President Vladimir Putin’s wartime Russia.

The director is American. One of the stars is German. The celebrated Stalin-era satire, unpublished in its time, is partly a subversive sendup of state tyranny and censorship — forces bedeviling Russia once again today.

But the film was on its way to the box office long before Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine and imposed a level of repression on Russia unseen since Soviet times. The state had invested millions in the movie, which had already been shot. Banning a production of Russia’s most famous literary paean to artistic freedom was perhaps too big an irony for even the Kremlin to bear.

Its release — after many months of delay — has been one of the most dramatic and charged Russian film debuts in recent memory. The movie refashions the novel as a revenge tragedy about a writer’s struggle under censorship, borrowing from the story of Bulgakov’s own life. The emphasis, for many Russians, has hit close to home. And, for some defenders of Putin, too close.

“I had an internal belief that the movie would have to come out somehow,” the director, Michael Lockshin, said in a video interview from his home in California. “I still thought it was a miracle when it did come out. As for the response, it’s hard to expect a response like this.”

More than 3.7 million people have flocked to see the film in Russian theaters since its Jan. 25 premiere, according to Russia’s national film fund.

Some moviegoing audiences in Moscow have erupted in applause at the end of screenings, recognizing echoes of Russia’s wartime reality and marveling that the adaptation made it to theaters at all. Other, less politically minded viewers have praised the adaptation for its special effects and audacity in departing from the book’s plot.

Putin’s most bellicose defenders have been less than thrilled.

Pro-war propagandists mounted a broadside against Lockshin, who has publicly opposed Russia’s invasion and supported Ukraine, calling for a criminal case against Putin and for his designation as a terrorist.

Fulminating on state television, one of Russia’s most prominent propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov, demanded to know how Lockshin had been allowed to make the movie. He asked whether the release was a “special operation,” or if somebody had been “duped.”

State networks didn’t promote the movie the way they normally would for a government-funded picture. And the state film fund, under pressure after the release, removed the movie’s production company from its list of preferred vendors.

The antics spurred a new wave of moviegoers, who rushed to theaters fearing the film was about to be banned.

“The film amazingly coincided with the historical moment that Russia is experiencing, with the restoration of Stalinism, with the persecution of the intelligentsia,” said the Russian film critic Anton Dolin, who has been branded a “foreign agent” and fled the country. “And when the author of the film began to be subjected to this persecution, a completely magical rhyme arose.”

Bulgakov’s novel, written in the 1930s, is a phantasmagorical story exploring the capacity for good and evil in every individual. In it, the devil arrives with his retinue in Joseph Stalin’s Moscow, where he meets an afflicted author, known as the Master, and his lover, Margarita. The novel also retells the story of Pontius Pilate ordering Jesus’s crucifixion, which the reader finds out is the subject of a forbidden text the Master has written.

Bulgakov’s own travails were reflected in the Master’s torment.

Stalin didn’t order the novelist’s execution or imprisonment, in contrast to the treatment of other Soviet writers of the time, but severely restricted Bulgakov’s work and suffocated his artistic ambitions. Bulgakov poured much of that pain into “The Master and Margarita,” which wasn’t published until the late 1960s, more than a quarter century after his death.

“The movie is about the freedom of an artist in an unfree world,” Lockshin said, “and what that freedom entails — about not losing your belief in the power of art, even when everything around you is punishing you for making it.”

“Of course,” he added, “there is a love story in it as well.”

Lockshin, who grew up both in the United States and Russia but is an American citizen, signed on to the project in 2019, choosing a Quentin Tarantino-style revenge plot as a frame for the adaptation before the war revived severe censorship in Russia.

When Putin launched his invasion two years ago, Lockshin opposed the war on social media from the United States and called on his friends to support Ukraine. Back in Russia, that put the movie’s release at risk.

“My position was that I wouldn’t censor myself in any way for the movie,” he said. “The movie itself is about censorship.”

Universal Pictures, which had signed on to distribute the film, pulled out of Russia after the war began and exited the project. (The movie currently has no distributor in the United States.)

And as repression in Russia expanded, life began to imitate art. “All of these things that were in the movie were kind of playing out,” Lockshin said.

Russia charged a theater director and a playwright with allegations of justifying terrorism, echoing a show trial for the Master that the film’s creators added to the script. An “almost naked” theme party in Moscow led to a crackdown on its celebrity attendees, conjuring images of the novel’s famous satanic ball. And Russians began denouncing one another for harboring antiwar sympathies, much like when the Master’s friend snitches on him.

“Not everyone can afford to be so uncompromising,” the friend tells the Master in the movie, before ratting him out. “Some people have alimony to pay.”

The film’s verisimilitude was unmistakable for many moviegoers.

Yevgeny Gindilis, a Russian film producer, said that he had crowded into a Moscow theater near the Kremlin to watch it, and sensed some discomfort in the hall. At the end, he said, about a third of the audience erupted in applause.

“I think the clapping,” Gindilis said, “is about the fact that people are happy they are able to experience and watch this film that has this clear, anti-totalitarian and anti-repressive state message, in a situation when the state is really trying to oppress everything that has an independent voice.”

Gindilis recounted how one of the most uncomfortable scenes for people to watch in Moscow was the final revenge sequence, when the devil’s mischievous talking cat repels a secret police squad that has come to apprehend the Master, leading to a fire that ultimately engulfs all of Moscow.

The Master and Margarita, alongside the devil, played by the German actor August Diehl, gaze out over the burning city, watching a system that ruined their lives go up in flames.

“Today the whole country is unable to take revenge or even respond to the persecution, restrictions and censorship,” Dolin, the film critic, said. But the protagonists of the film, having made a deal with the devil, manage to get even.

The film flashes to the Master and Margarita in the afterlife, reunited and free. “Listen,” she says to him. “Listen and enjoy that which they never gave you in life — peace.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.