The Rise of Wagner
(France, 104 min.)
Dir: Benoît Bringer
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
The Wagner Group is an elusive enigma formed through a collection of horror stories and unattributed videos. This lore ascribes startling actions to a nefarious bunch of mercenaries, criminals, and other sociopathic characters on a global scope. It’s as chilling and seemingly improbable an idea for such an organization as to be fictional. It’s like stuff drawn from a spy novel or comic book film, hydra-like in its reach and spectre-like (or S.P.E.C.T.R.E.-like) in its effectiveness.
Benoît Bringer’s film The Rise of Wagner shines a light on this shadowy organization. It ties together the tendrils that go back to the collapse of the Soviet Union and a man who was once “Putin’s chef,” but now, allegedly, leads one of the most powerful private militaries on the planet.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is a fascinating, formidable character. He was an athlete in his late teens, then was arrested for robbery. He spent the late-Soviet period as a hot dog seller in a flea market, an entrepreneurial spirit that would serve him well after the Russian economic system shifted to a brutal, Darwinian fight for survival. His economic ties to the Kremlin brought him close to Vladimir Putin, where he became a trusted member of his inner circle.
When Putin made his foray into Crimea in 2014, a number of highly armed and trained individuals arrived without overt designation or insignia. This paramilitary group provided two benefits for the Russian government. First, it provided a level of deniability, even if such claims seemed disingenuous at best and criminally false at worst. The second factor was that these forces operated outside accepted conventions of war, utilizing brutal, dehumanizing tactics that were as shocking as they were brutally effective.
Following the kind of stale-mate that resulted post-2014, these now battle-hardened forces were recruited to operate in hotspots around the world, serving as paid militias throughout Africa, and, in particular, a kind of auxiliary guard for the Assad regime in Syria. It was here that the true levels of Wagnerian brutality were exposed, and while the battlefields were far from Russia, the mark they left continues to resonate in the region.
Last year’s escalation of the conflict with Ukraine brought even more attention to this group with much of the barbarism that’s been documented in that conflict tied to members of Wagner. While conventional soldiers have certainly engaged in actions that are resulting in war crimes investigations, the slippery actions of Wagner continue to shock observers.
Bringer brings these various facets of Wagner’s rise to the fore, using certain key events such as the beheading of a Syrian solider, Mohammed Taha-al Ismail, to show both the scope and the sheer brutality of this group. As a general introduction, it does a decent job, but the film itself feels somewhat scattershot and uncertain, a disjointed telling of a group that is purposely difficult to pin down.
Through a series of news clippings and talking head interviews, The Rise of Wagner affords some access to how this group operates. Yet it all unfortunately feels a bit less than a true journalistic dive, lacking a precision of focus, as if the events in the last year in Europe unsettled the narrative drive, one that easily could have pinpointed to the war in Syria, or those former French colonies in Africa that have employed the services of this group, but instead it spread itself too thin while trying to tell such a massive story.
While viewers who are completely unaware of such an organization are going to find plenty to be shocked by, those who are well aware the last decade of paramilitary machinations may find things a bit reductive. The use of mercenaries for warfare is a fascinating, deep subject in itself, one that France’s own history speaks to as a larger context of moral and military ambiguity. The film barely touches on that factor, if at all, and may have been another line taken to make sense of such a macabre subject.
The result is a deep subject let down by a film not quite up to the task of telling such a broad and complex tale. There’s still plenty to engage with, particularly the unique story of the execution and those that sought justice. Some of the voices they get are remarkable, including a former member of Wagner who quickly left his native country last year after the latest invasion, yet as a whole it never coalesces into a truly impactful tale.
The ingredients are here for a remarkable film, but The Rise of Wagner doesn’t quite gel enough as a documentary to sustain its quite significant scope of a story. It feels chilling at times, emotionally revealing at others, but in a way that bounces from one point to the other. The story of Wagner is one of international importance, and while this film doesn’t quite do the complexity of the situation justice, for those uninitiated in these harrowing events of near-history, there’s still something to recommend in this telling.