By all appearances, the film adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s cult-favorite novel “The Master and Margarita,” opening in Russian theaters this winter, should not 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 The celebrated Stalin-era satire, unpublished at the time, is in part a subversive parody of state tyranny and censorship, forces that torment Russia once again today.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 not seen since Soviet times. The State had invested millions in the film, which had already been shot. Banning a production of Russia’s most famous literary paean to artistic freedom was perhaps too great an irony for even the Kremlin to bear.

Its premiere, after many months of delay, has been one of the most dramatic and tension-filled Russian film debuts in recent times. The film recasts the novel as a revenge tragedy about a writer’s struggle under censorship, borrowing from Bulgakov’s own life story. For many Russians, the emphasis has hit close to home. And, for some Putin defenders, too close.

“I had this internal belief that the movie would have to be released somehow,” the director, Michael Lockshin, said in a video interview from his home in California. “I still thought it was a miracle when it came out. As for the response, it is difficult to expect a response like this.”

More than 3.7 million people have flocked to see the film in Russian cinemas since its release on January 25, according to Russia’s national film fund.

Some Moscow viewers have burst into applause at the end of the screenings, recognizing the echoes of Russian wartime reality and marveling that the adaptation has reached theaters. Other, less politically minded viewers have praised the adaptation for its special effects and its bold departure from the book’s plot.

Putin’s most bellicose defenders have not been very excited.

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

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

State networks did not promote the film as they normally would for a government-funded film. And the state film fund, under pressure after the release, removed the film’s production company from its list of preferred suppliers.

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

“The film surprisingly coincided with the historical moment that Russia is experiencing, with the restoration of Stalinism, with the persecution of the intelligentsia,” said 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 emerged.”

Bulgakov’s novel, written in the 1930s, is a ghostly story that explores the capacity for good and evil in each individual. In it, the devil arrives with his entourage in Joseph Stalin’s Moscow, where he meets a grieving author, known as the Master, and his lover, Margarita. The novel also retells the story of Pontius Pilate ordering the crucifixion of Jesus, which the reader discovers is the subject of a forbidden text the Master has written.

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

Stalin did not order the novelist’s execution or imprisonment, unlike the treatment of other Soviet writers of the time, but he severely restricted Bulgakov’s work and stifled his artistic ambitions. Bulgakov poured much of that pain into “The Master and Margarita,” which was not published until the late 1960s, more than a quarter-century after his death.

“The film is about the freedom of an artist in an unfree world,” Lockshin said, “and what that freedom entails: not losing faith in the power of art, even when everything around you punishes you for doing so.” .

“Of course,” he added, “there’s also a love story.”

Lockshin, who grew up in both the United States and Russia but is an American citizen, joined the project in 2019 and chose a Quentin Tarantino-style revenge plot as the framework for the adaptation before the war revived harsh censorship in Russia.

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

“My position was that I would not be censored in any way for the film,” he said. “The film itself is about censorship.”

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

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

Russia has accused a theater director and a playwright of justifying terrorism, echoing a show trial for the Master that the film’s creators added to the script. An “almost naked” themed party in Moscow sparked a crackdown on celebrity attendees, evoking images of the novel’s famous satanic ball. And the Russians began to denounce each other for harboring anti-war sympathies, like when the Master’s friend betrays him.

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

The film’s verisimilitude was unmistakable to many moviegoers.

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

“I think the applause,” Gindilis said, “is due to the fact that people are happy to be able to experience and see this film that has this clear, anti-totalitarian, anti-repressive state message, in a situation where the state is really trying to oppress everything that has an independent voice.”

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

The Master and Margarita, together with the devil, played by the German actor August Diehl, watch the city in flames and see a system that ruined their lives burn.

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

The film shows the Master and Margarita in the afterlife, reunited and free. “Listen,” she tells him. “Listen and enjoy what they never gave you in life: peace.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.

By Sam