The banya is an integral part of Slavic culture so it’s no surprise that it features in a range of different films and has been portrayed in a variety of ways. In some it is an eternal symbol of all that is healthy and positive in Russian life, while in others it is a more threatening environment where danger and criminality thrives.
Perhaps the most famous banya in Russian cinema appears in “Ironya Sudby ili S Legkym Parom” (The Irony of Fate or With Light Steam), the classic satire of the uniformity and banality of Soviet life. A group of friends meet in the banya to celebrate New Year’s Eve and, when one of them gets drunk, his friends mistakenly put him on a plane from Moscow to St Petersburg.
There, believing he is still in Moscow, he takes a taxi to his address. Not only do all apartment blocks, streets and suburbs look the same, but it turns out that his key opens the lock to the Leningrad flat he believes is his Moscow apartment. When the real tenant returns home, she is outraged to find a strange man in her bed. Despite the inauspicious beginning to their relationship, they end up falling in love. The banya, where old friends can meet and talk freely, allows people to escape the drabness of daily life and is the catalyst for change.
The banya is often a symbol of the qualities of the character who is bathing. In Nikita Mikhaylov’s film “Utomlonny Solntsem” (Wearied by the Sun) about the Stalinist purges, the main character is a veteran of the Bolshevik revolution and civil war whose benign idealism no longer has a place in the era of suspicion and recrimination that prevail under Stalin. We first meet him relaxing in a countryside banya, a scene that establishes him as an authentic man of the people and patriot. The tranquillity exemplified by the banya is destroyed by the arrival of his wife’s former lover who is now employed by the Soviet secret police.
In the hit action films “Brat” (Brother) and “Brat 2” (Brother 2), Sergei Bodrov plays a former soldier administering justice in the chaos of Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the first film he deals violently with a number of gangsters in St Petersburg, while Brat 2 sees him take on foreign adversaries in the USA. His character is the embodiment of no nonsense Russian virtue for whom friendship and loyalty are paramount. Unlike the Americans who prize money and influence above all else, he values the truth. In an early scene in Brat 2, he meets up with a group of friend at the famous bath house Sanduny in Moscow, thereby underlining his credentials as a true Russian.
Foreign film makers have also used the banya as a symbol of Russia, although they sometimes portray the banya in a more sinister light and veer into caricature. In “Red Heat” Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Danko, a Soviet policeman who must work with a cocky Chicago cop to solve an international case. Danko is introduced to the audience in what the director clearly thinks of as a typical banya. Steam billows, coal is thrown onto a stove, muscled men pump iron and women cavort in a pool in the background. Arnie strides in, naked, accepts a red hot stone in his bare palm and then pulverises several villains. Their fight concludes in the snow, where the characters can at least cool off after the heat of the banya.
A famous and terrifying scene from “Eastern Promises”, directed by David Kronenberg and starring Viggo Mortensen, underlines how vulnerable you are when bathing. Mortensen plays an enforcer for the Russian mafia called Nikolai who visits a London bath house for a meeting with an associate. In the Russian criminal underworld a man’s tattoos tell the story of his life and crimes so the banya is a good place to meet because that story is on display. When Nikolai is attacked by two goons wielding linoleum cutters, he fights them off across tiles slick with water, sweat and blood wearing nothing at all.
North to Alaska
Another surprising portrayal of the banya comes in a long-forgotten film called “North to Alaska”. Notable mainly for its jaunty theme tune and a portly John Wayne, the film includes a scene in which the main characters visit a bath house. Wayne is seen throwing water onto the stove and beating himself with a bunch of leaves. Before Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million it was a Russian territory and the locals had clearly retained the old bathing traditions.
In Japan the onsen is the equivalent of the banya in Eastern Europe and “Spirited Away” by Studio Ghibli includes one of the most unusual and opulent bath houses in cinema. The film tells the story of a young girl called Chihiro who inadvertently wanders into a spirit world in an abandoned amusement park and finds work in a fantastical onsen. The bath house is run by a terrifying and wealthy flying witch with an equally terrifying coiffure and she turns Chihiro’s parents into pigs. An industrious four armed slave operates the boiler of the bath house while sprites carry coal into the boiler and the bath house is frequented by ducks, disembodied heads, strange creatures resembling radishes and ghosts. When a polluted river spirit arrives to cleanse itself Chihiro helps remove tonnes of rubbish and filth from inside of it and is given a magic dumpling for her trouble. Chihiro successfully navigates the complex social dynamics of the bath house, perhaps a metaphor for her personal growth throughout the film and she finally succeeds in crossing back into the real world and saving her parents.
These are just a few examples of how the banya and bath houses more broadly have appeared in the movies. Send us your clips of banya in cinema with a comment and we will enter you into a draw to win a Premium Package to The Bath House.