Barber of Siberia

Russia/France/Italy/Czech Republic 1999

Film still for Barber of Siberia

Reviewed by Julian Graffy


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Springfield, Massachusetts, 1905. Writing a letter to her son Andrew, a recruit at a US military camp, Jane Callahan reminisces about the events of 20 years ago.

Russia, 1885. Travelling across Russia, Jane meets Andrei Tolstoy, an officer cadet who falls in love with her. Jane is in Russia to help the inventor McCracken secure a contract for his 'barber', a machine for cutting down the Siberian forests. For this purpose, she attempts to seduce General Radlov, the head of the Military Academy. Radlov falls in love with her and asks Tolstoy, who speaks English, to translate his proposal to Jane. The cadet, however, uses this as an opportunity to declare his own love for Jane. Radlov is humiliated but cannot punish Tolstoy who is to take the lead the next day in a production of The Marriage of Figaro before Grand Duke Aleksei. Later Jane spends the night with Tolstoy.

During the opera, Tolstoy overhears Jane continuing her advances on Radlov; in his jealous rage he assaults the general. He is arrested and accused of an attack on the Grand Duke, to which he pleads guilty to protect Jane's reputation. He is sentenced to hard labour in Siberia.

Ten years later, Jane visits Siberia with McCracken, to whom she is now married, for the inauguration of his 'barber'. She fails to see the exiled Tolstoy. Having related all of this in her letter to Andrew, she visits the boy with a photograph of his father, Andrei Tolstoy.


For two decades Nikita Mikhalkov, born into a family of the Soviet cultural elite, has been the most famous of Russian film directors both in his own country and abroad. Mikhalkov's celebrity status - consolidated in December 1997 when he became chairman of the Russian Union of Film-makers - has turned the release of his recent films into major media events in Russia, none more so than The Barber of Siberia. By the time of its premiere in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses in February 1999 the film had already generated acres of newsprint, as much because of its enormous budget (reported as $45 million) and its link to Mikhalkov's alleged desire to be president of Russia as for its epic proportions and ambitions. Here was a film that would restore national self-esteem and re-invigorate cinemagoing in Mikhalkov's native land, as well as explain the enigmas of Russian identity to expectant western audiences, perhaps even picking up the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film on the way.

In Russia the film did attract huge and satisfied audiences, though the critical reception was mixed, if not cool. But its Cannes showing last year was a fiasco, and it subsequently failed to impress the Oscar voters. With this damaged reputation The Barber of Siberia limps belatedly into the UK.

It would be wrong to look to The Barber of Siberia for historical authenticity or cultural specificity - the film, in Mikhalkov's own words, is "not about how things were but about how things should be." So we are served a mythological stew, a souvenir Russia made up of vast birch forests and famous Moscow landmarks, epic drinking, fatal passion and doomed love leading to duel, scandal and exile in the Siberian snow. In what seems like a concession to ignorant western audiences, the hero is given a famous Russian name, Tolstoy, but to make them feel at ease this Tolstoy admits he couldn't make it to the end of Anna Karenina. Perhaps some western viewers will be satisfied with this reading of Russia, but its greatest appeal is surely to Russian audiences so exhausted by their recent tribulations that they will embrace any lazy reiteration of warmed-over cliché without pausing to wonder why the young officers to whom the film is dedicated are so childish and their mentor is a drunk. Western audiences may balk, however, at being represented only by rogues, or by Sergeant 'Mad Dog' O'Leary, who thinks Mozart is a girl, and a Russian one at that.

The film's aspirations to represent the relationship between Russia and the US in symbolic form are not supported by any psychological acuity in the characterisation. The bigger the role, the more the actor flounders. Julia Ormond is too bland to convey either the scheming or the bitter regrets of Jane Callahan. Oleg Menshikov, meanwhile, an actor of great range and emotional subtlety, has been badly cast in the role of Tolstoy; pushing 40 when he made the film, he is reduced to rehearsing the pert mannerisms of an ingénu. After his embarrassing declaration to Jane in the presence of Radlov, he asks "May I be excused?", which is likely only to provoke inappropriate memories of the classroom among British audiences. The best acting comes in the cameo roles, from Marina Neelova as Tolstoy's actress mother and Elizabeth Spriggs as the countess Perepyolkina.

The exiguous and predictable plot is fleshed out by a number of grandly staged set pieces, including a ball, Russian Shrovetide celebrations, a parade before Tzsar Alexander III (played by the director himself), the production of the opera, the depredations of McCracken's monstrous machine. You can, at least, see where the money has gone. The film concludes with a sly double ending, happy for western audiences - young Andrew wins his battle over Mozart, whom he refuses to defame at his military camp - and tragic for Russians, just the way they like it: his parents are not reunited. On the way it tries first to make us laugh, then, less successfully, to make us cry through a slew of novelistic clichés. Occasionally, the film comes alive - Menshikov playing Figaro in a production of The Marriage of Figaro finally casts off the strait-jacket of having to play a much younger character; his assault on Radlov is also one of the film's most powerful scenes.

Mikhalkov's finest films Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, Five Evenings and Urga demonstrate that he is best at the small scale, at the delicate rendering of intense human emotion. His old-fashioned and seemingly interminable Barber discards these qualities as insouciantly as McCracken despoils the Siberian forest. What remains seems ill suited as a model, either for Russian society or for Russian cinema.


Nikita Mikhalkov
Michel Seydoux
Rustam Ibragimbekov
Nikita Mikhalkov
in co-operation with
Rospo Pallenberg
Nikita Mikhalkov
Director of Photography
Pavel Lebeshev
Enzo Meniconi
Production Designer
Vladimir Aronin
Edward Nicolay Artemyev
©Studio Three T, Caméra One
Production Companies
Michel Seydoux presents in association with Intermedia Films
a production of Three T Productions (Russia)/ Caméra One (France)/ France 2 Cinéma (France)/Medusa (Italy)/ Barrandov Biografia (Czech Republic)
Executive Producers
Leonid Vereschagin
Prague Shoot:
Oldrich Mach
Portuguese Shoot:
António da Cunha Telles
Nikita Mikhalkov
In Charge of Production
Armand Barbault
Production Supervisor
Marc Jenny
Nicole Cann
Production Co-ordinators
Lubov Bodunova
Ekaterina Prosvirkina
Elena Ficenko
Production Services
Prague International Films
Portuguese Shoot:
Animátografo-Producão de Filmes
Production Managers
Alexey Balashov
Jacques Vidal
Sergei Gurevich
Prague Shoot:
Michal Prikryl
Portuguese Shoot:
Renato Santos
Location Managers
Alexei Karpushin
Alexander Utkin
Alexander Yakovlev
Prague Shoot:
Zdenek Fiala
Ivan Stefka
Portuguese Shoot:
José Borges
Assistant Directors
Vladimir Krassinski
Victor Trakhtenberg
Evgeny Tsimbal
Artyom Mikhalkov
Mikhail Kvirikadze
Kirill Shanshiev
Alexander Zelenkov
Anastasia Tsvetnova
Vladimir Ferkelman
Olga Sizova
Svetlana Motro
Bilge Ebiri
Portuguese Shoot:
Sergio Carlos
Jacqueline Gamard
Casting Directors
Kate Dowd
Tamara Odintsova
Prague Shoot:
Sona Tich?ckov?
Ivan Vorlicek
Dana Vankova
Script Editor
Anatoly Ermilov
Siberian Shoot Director of Photography
Franco Di Giacomo
Camera Operators
Roman Sushinski
Elisbar Karavaev
Stephano Coletta
Sergey Naugolnikh
Martin Grossup
Steadicam Operator
Jaromir Sedina
Special Effects
Gilbert Pieri
Frederic Rouquette
Gilles Pieri
Michel Vialla
Thierry Alloy
Vaclay Kuba
Irzi Vojtech
Roman Tudjarov
Sergei Zakharov
Vyacheslav Stepanov
Pavel Terekhov
Andrey Trifonov
Jury Udaltsov
Sergey Chertovskikh
Jury Shagov
Special Effects/Armourer
Prague Shoot:
David Krejcík
Prague Shoot Designer
Martin Martinec
Art Director
Vladimir Murzin
Boris Baklanov
Alla Tabakova
Portuguese Shoot Set
José Matos
Set Decorators
Ilya Amursky
Marina Ertanova
Danila Koltsov
Alexander Kochubey
Igor Morozov
Costume Designers
Natacha Ivanova
Sergei Struchev
Alla Oleneva
Make-up Designers
Galina Korolyova
Jean-Pierre Eychenne
Nina Zakirova
Natalia Chaika
Make-up Artists
Raisa Zhdanova
Ludmila Makashova
Tamara Panteleeva
Valentina Pimankina
Maria Ruslanova
Olga Sergeeva
Svetlana Fedina-Kruglyakova
Galina Sidneva
Prague Shoot:
Ivana Chlostova
Alena Sedova
Hair Stylists
Jean-Max Guerin
Jeanette Freeman
Svetlana Lobanova
Suzanne Stokes-Munton
Titles/Special Effects
BS Graphics
Music Performed by
Russian State Cinema Symphony Orchestra
Sergey Skripka
Alexey Kostenko
Music Recording Engineer
Vladimir Vinogradov
Minna Blank
Music Mixer
Matt Howe
Mozart's "Piano Concerto n. 23" from "Marriage of Figaro"; Strauss' "The Legends of Vienna Forest"; Verdi's "Jilda's Aria" from "Rigoletto"; "Lvov's "God,Save the King"; "March of Preobrazhensky Regiment"; "Egers March"; "March of Saratovasky Regiment"; "Cadet's Cap"
Sound Recording
Jean Umansky
Sound Mixers
Vincent Arnardi
Jean Umansky
André Rigaut
Re-recording Mixers
Vincent Arnardi
Thierry Lebon
Sound Editors
Vincent Guillon
Laurent Kossayan
Dialogue Editors
Jean Umansky
André Rigaut
ADR Recordists
Marina Nigmatulina
Julien Cloquet
Jacques Thomas-Gérard
Irina Kislova
Alla Meichik
Nina Trofimchuk
Natalia Chashina
Faina Yanpolskaya
Jean-Pierre Lelong
Marina Nigmatulina
Julien Cloquet
Jacques Thomas-Gérard
Folklore Ensembles Researcher
Elena Shimanko
Military History:
Igor Dmitriev
Vasily Sazhin
George Pappas
Bryan Pines
Military Uniforms:
Pavel Kornakov
Rank Practice:
Anatoly Saprikin
Property/Costume History:
Ludmila Pyatnitsa
Vyacheslav Shurov
Stunt Co-ordinator
Valery Derkach
Fencing Coach
Mikhail Shevchuk
Director of 'Maelennitas' scene
Mikhail Mizukov
Circus Performer Co-ordinator
Sergey Maksimov
Victor Zuikov
Andrey Komissarov
Ludila Komissarova
Siberian Shoot Helicopter
Bernard Seguy
Julia Ormond
Jane Callahan
Richard Harris
Douglas McCracken
Oleg Menshikov
Andrei Tolstoy
Alexey Petrenko
General Radlov
Marina Neelova
Tolstoy's mother
Vladimir Ilyin
Captain Mokin
Daniel Olbrychski
Anna Mikhalkova
Marat Basharov
Cadet Count Polievsky
Nikita Tatarenkov
Cadet Prince Alibekov
Artyom Mikhalkov
Cadet Buturlin
Georgy Dronov
Cadet Nazarov
Avangard Leontiev
Uncle Nickolya
Robert Hardy
Forsten, military instructor
Elizabeth Spriggs
Nikita Mikhalkov
Tzar Alexander III
Isabelle Renauld
Tzarina Marie Fiodorovna
Evgeny Steblov
Grand Duke Aleksei Aleksandrovich
Inna Nabatova
his wife
Philipp Diachkov
Grand Duke Mikhall, Tzar's son
Vladimir Zaitsev
Radlov's aide
Victor Verzhbitsky
Grand Duke's aide
Leonid Kuravlev
Sergeant Bukin
Alexander Lenkov
the scientist
Alexander Ilyin
the merchant
Evgeny Dvorzhetsky
the terrorist
Hanna Stredova
the servant at McCracken's
Vladimir Tushko
the steward
Alexander Mokhov
officer at prison
Pierre Aussedat
Geller, dance teacher
Vladimir Gorushin
Kouzma, carriage driver
Saïd Nouroux
Abyssinian prince
Evgeny Buslayev
the governor of Irkutsk
Olga Anokhina
the governor's wife
Alexander Yakovlev
Captain Maximich
Tatiana Kuznetsova
girls' tutor
Maria Maksakova
girl student
Polushke Zdunek
the typesetter
Anatoly Documentov
the conductor
Joseph Nedorost
the violinist
Vatslav Legner
the inspector
Egor Blokhin
Andrey Nikitin
Andrey Savostyanov
Baron Von Bakmen
Mambo Syril
Mudio Nartsiss
servant of Abyssinian princes
Andrey Baroli
Kirill Grebenshikov
Vladimir Zurabian
Alexey Kabeshev
Alexander Karpenko
Alexey Kurutov
Ivan Lakshin
Dimitry Makarov
Sergey Pinchuk
Sergey Steblov
Sergey Fedotov
Philipp Feoktistov
Dimitry Chuprakov
Kirill Shanshiev
Mikhail Shevchuk
Alexey Shutov
Mac MacDonald
Sgt 'Mad Dog' O'Leary
Andrew O'Donnels
the West Point colonel
Daniel Evans
Andrew McCracken, in mask
John Higgins
Jeason Don
cadets at West point
Richard Dompsy
the stutterer
Sergey Lozovoy
the bell-house monk
Alexander Sannikov
Lilliputian 'Napoleon'
Anataly Zhukov
the fakir
Alexander Dubina
the engineer
Natella Abuladze
wife of Abyssinian prince
Elena Tvelevna
tightrope walker with sword
Valéry Chitavin
tightrope walker
Alexander Muzikantsky
Evgeny Tsimbal
Vasily Sazhin
Anatoly Saprykin
Evgeny Kholodnikov
Zinaida Sidorkova
Oleg Klimov
Victor Satonin
Alexander Dedushko
Roman Radov
Vyacheslav Maksakov
Elena Obolenskaya
Vladimir Abanshin
L. Dzhalakayev's Gypsy Ensemble
Moscow theatre "Chudaki"
Theatre "Fest"
Moscow State Theatre of History and Ethnography
Theatre House "Old Arbat"
Home Orchestra from Nerekhta town, near Kostroma city
Home Orchestra "Rusichi"
Children's folklore Ensemble "Mladshenka"
Actors of theatre "Circus on Stage"
Students of Moscow State School of Circus an Performance Arts
Actors of Moscow Circus on Prospect Vernadskogo
Pathé Distribution
15,935 feet
177 minutes 4 seconds
Dolby Digital
In Colour
Anamorphic [Panavision]
Russian theatrical title
Sibirskii tsiriulnik
French theatrical title
Le Barbier de Sibérie
Italian theatrical title
Il barbiere di Siberia
Czech theatrical title
Lazebník Sibirsky
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011