Tuesday, 12:00am
5 February 2008

Dyed in the flesh (Web only)

Cuppa Coffee’s end title sequence of Russian prison tattoos adds a masterly coda to Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises

By Rick Poynor

Written exclusively for eyemagazine.com

It’s always a risky move placing a film’s main titles at the end. Only in art houses and film theatres do audiences often remain reverentially planted in their seats as the credits roll. In ordinary cinemas the crowd tends to just get up and leave. When end titles are done well, though, they can offer a recapitulation of principal themes, a few moments to savour the film’s final images and gather your thoughts, every bit as satisfying as the feelings of anticipation that good opening titles deliver before the feature gets under way. End titles are probably most likely to be watched on DVD.

So it is with the deceptively simple end titles by Cuppa Coffee Studios in Toronto that conclude David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, due out on DVD in the UK in February. The titles show a sequence of six tattoos photographed in black and white so that the flesh they mark appears a deathly grey. As the production credits fade in, the images well up from the darkness like pools of liquid that could be blood and flow across the otherwise empty screen, leaving the same black nothingness behind them. It’s possible to tell which body part we are looking at – fingers, neck, stomach – but we cannot see the person or people these tattoos adorn. The plaintive violin melody accompanying these vignettes, by the soundtrack composer Howard Shore, establishes a mood of deep mourning.

As film-makers have long known, the tattoo is an innately cinematic intensifer. Robert Mitchum’s psychotic preacher in The Night of the Hunter, Robert de Niro’s deranged jailbird in Cape Fear and Guy Pearce’s memory-damaged avenger in Memento are all given mythic presence and semiotic power by their tattoos. Whole films have hinged on a lust for tattooed flesh. In the 1981 Tattoo Bruce Dern abducts and tattoos a beautiful model and in the 2002 Tattoo, a grisly German horror film, detectives investigate the secret trade in ornately tattooed human skin treated as highly prized works of art.

Sensational as they are, none of these films takes a sociological view of the practice. In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg – an auteur with a forensic focus on the body since his earliest films – makes the subculture of tattooing central to the viewer’s understanding of the Russian criminal community based in London. The original script referred to the phenomenon only in passing and it was Viggo Mortensen, cast as the driver Nikolai, who drew Cronenberg’s attention to the possibilities, showing him the two volumes of Russian Criminal Tattoo published by Fuel (see Critique, Eye no. 53 vol. 14) and Alix Lambert’s documentary about Russian prisoners, The Mark of Cain – also due out soon on DVD.

This kind of tattoo, which originated in Soviet prisons at the time of Stalin, indicates a man’s status as a vory v zakone or ‘thief in law’. The graphic inscriptions function as a form of passport, detailing a prisoner’s journey through the penal system, his crimes and place in the criminal hierarchy. In the film, a detective examines the body of a dead Russian washed up near the Thames Barrier. ‘Stars on his knees means he’d never kneel before anyone,’ he explains. When Nikolai is made a full member of the criminal brotherhood he shows the 43 tattoos that define him as a man. He has no shaming ‘forced tattoos’ inflicted by others and after declaring ‘I am dead already . . . I live in the zone [prison] all the time’ his chest and knees are decorated with stars. In the most extraordinary scene, Nikolai fights for his life against two knife-wielding assassins in the hard, tiled interior of the Finsbury Borough Council Public Baths. By the end of this sickeningly violent struggle, the tattoos on his naked flesh are awash with blood, the onion-shaped domes of the building covering his back almost unrecognisable.

Many of the tattoos in the film are based on photographs and drawings in Fuel’s books. The pipe-smoking cat, sign of a successful thief, which is used on the cover of volume II and re-created in the end titles, dates from the 1960s. Like many of the symbols emerging into view after decades in the darkness, it represents a political era that has gone. As Cronenberg himself notes, the new capitalist criminals of post-Communist Russia have no idea what the old tattoos stand for and no loyalty to the thieves’ brotherhood and its fierce but now outdated codes of conduct. The prison tattoos expressed a determination to remain human in the most bestial conditions. In a few quickly fading images, the end titles convey the feeling that even in the underworld, where you might least expect to find honour, something of value has been lost.