The Mark of Cain is a Russian documentary based on the secret language of the criminal underworld Russian mafia’s tattoo “The Code of Thieves”. Alix Lamber focuses on the fading art form and language which has always been a forbidden topic of Russia. The documentary is set in a Stalinist Gulag a prison with the entire documentary shot in different Former Soviet Prisons interviewing prisoners, prison guards and criminologists. Alix films in various locations in the prison including the infamous and most feared prison ward “The White Swan”. To help understand the meaning of the tattoos and their symbols, the documentary examines both the actual expects of the tattoo and determining who a person is right away with their tattoos. As the documentary reveals the meaning of all the symbols of hundreds of tattoos, Alix takes the documentary to a skin deep emotional level when interviewing the prisoners. We are shown the harsh and brutal life of the Russian Penitentiary System with prison cells that can only hold 16 inmates but hold 40 to 45 inmates and so cramped that inmates take turns to sleep and stand.
|"You get your first impression of the Zone while in the first holding cell. Its a terrifying|
room with people just staring at you and sizing you up" - Alexander Slavin, former inmate
The prisoners explain that as soon as they walk into a cell their shirt must come off so everyone can know what crime the prisoners committed, how long he/she has been in prison and everything you need to know about the inmate. Alix interviews each prisoner with their shirt off so we the audience can have the feeling of knowing what this prisoner has done before he/she say anything. I love how Alix makes us the viewer’s somewhat part of the documentary so we become more connected with the prisoners and the documentary. The inmates tell the story of why they are in prison; murder and armed robbery are among the most common. As the Inmates explain their tattoos and their meanings it somewhat feels that the tattoos are not just symbols of identifying what he/she has been convicted of. Amongst the criminal underworld these tattoos are an emblem of a rank. Just like the military and their ranks these criminals have their superiors to look up to. There are many symbols and each of them have their meanings; stars on the shoulders declare the rank as a Thief and on the kneecaps mean “I won’t stand on my knees before the authorities”, dagger is a calling card of the killer for hire, military style epaulette on the shoulder represents individuals high ranking profile in the crime world and outside, cupolas on churches shows the number years the convicts has served in prison.
|Yuri Mashkin serving eight years for Grave Bodily Injury.|
Notice the military epaulette on his shoulder
This documentary is a thrilling insight of the life in Russian prison but what I admire most of this documentary is how Alix first starts the documentary explaining the secret language of “The Code of Thieves” but then takes the documentary to a whole new level. We first see these inmates as ruthless killers and thieves who live by an unholy code who pledged their lives for a life of crime. The documentary slowly turns to an emotional human level of sadness; tuberculosis runs wild through the cells, prison cells are way overfilled, prison guard brutality is day to day norm and the meals are a watery sloppy soup and stale bread. Inmates write and sing songs about their mothers and how life in the Gulag has changed them forever. We are never shown “The White Swan” but you can see in the convict’s eyes its place of pain. In the interviews you can see that the prison has well and truly broken them and a life of pestilence, violence and inhumane living conditions have destroyed their spirits. This documentary is beautifully constructed, heartbreakingly and yet thrilling insight of the Russian criminal underworld and their tattoos. This is why this documentary is one of my top favourites and I only found out about it when David Cronenberg made “Eastern Promises” and said he used “The Mark Of Cain” as a source material to grasp the life of Russian Mafia and their tattoos.