cinema - Intellect Books
Volume 4
Edited by Birgit Beumers
Directory of World Cinema
First Published in the UK in 2011 by Intellect, The Mill, Parnall Road, Fishponds,
Bristol, BS16 3JG, UK
First published in the USA in 2011 by Intellect, The University of Chicago Press,
1427 E. 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Publisher: May Yao
Publishing Assistant: Melanie Marshall
Cover photo: Vasilii Sigarev, Wolfy (2009). Still from the film.
Courtesy Koktebel Studio and Kinotavr.
Cover Design: Holly Rose
Copy Editor: Heather Owen
Typesetting: Mac Style, Beverley, E. Yorkshire
Directory of World Cinema ISSN 2040-7971
Directory of World Cinema eISSN 2040-798X
Directory of World Cinema: Russia ISBN 978-1-84150-372-1
Directory of World Cinema: Russia eISBN 978-1-84150-343-1
Printed and bound by Gutenberg Press, Malta.
Film of the Year
Vasilii Sigarev’s Wolfy (2009)
Vasilii Sigarev and
Iana Troianova
Literary Adaptation
Film Production in Russia
An Industry?
Action/Red Western
Festival Focus
Children’s Films
Recommended Reading
Russian Cinema Online
Test Your Knowledge
Notes on Contributors
What Does zhanr Mean in
Evgenii Bauer
Sergei Eisenstein
Dziga Vertov
Andrei Tarkovskii
Nikita Mikhalkov
Aleksandr Sokurov
Historical Film
War Film
Comedy and Musical Comedy 114
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This first edition of the Directory of World Cinema: Russia is the result of the commitment
of a wide range of contributors and an immensely knowledgeable, helpful and patient
advisory board, consisting of Nancy Condee, Seth Graham, David Gillespie, David
MacFadyen, Stephen Norris, Elena Prokhorova, Aleksandr Prokhorov, Rimgaila Salys and
Denise Youngblood. I would like to thank them all for their co-operation.
I am also very grateful to the team at Intellect, particularly Masoud Yazdani and May
Yao for launching this series, and to Melanie Marshall for supporting this volume through
its production stages, making it a truly collaborative process. Intellect’s contribution to
publications in the field of film studies is outstanding, and this Directory is further evidence of the investment they make into the future of the field.
The Directory of World Cinema: Russia could not have been illustrated without the
assistance of the photo department of Iskusstvo kino, where my thanks go to Liudmila
Mishunina, now working from the journal’s new premises – with her usual efficiency. As
an extremely fussy editor when it comes to cover designs, I owe special thanks to the
talented Holly Rose for her work, and to Roman Borisevich of Koktebel Studio, Moscow,
for granting permission to use a still of Wolfy/Volchok for the cover design.
Transliteration is a perennial problem with Russian: This volume follows Library of
Congress transliteration throughout, with the soft sign marked by an apostrophe. The sole
exception are the names of the studios Mosfilm and Lenfilm, which have been adapted
to common usage in English instead of adhering to the transliteration Mosfil’m, Lenfil’m
(and the same goes for Soiuzmultfilm and Soiuzdetfilm; and for the Gorky – rather than
Gor’kii – Studio). For names with an accepted English spelling, such as Yeltsin, Eisenstein,
Meyerhold, Schnittke), the latter has been used.
Birgit Beumers
Acknowledgements 5
Directory of World Cinema
Cinema has always played a crucial role in Russia, be it before the Revolution, when it
was closely connected with European traditions; or during the Soviet era, when it was
used both to voice socialist ideology or dissent with the system; or after the renaissance
of the film industry in the post-Soviet era, when Russia joined the league of the major
players in terms of world film distribution.
This volume attempts to look at the diverse manifestations of Russian cinema over the
hundred-something years in the context of political and cultural developments through a
new lens, and one that was rather alien to the high-brow Soviet film culture: genre. Most
of the Soviet films known and distributed in the west were auteur films, defying a clear
genre definition, which is partly a reflection of their dissent with the commercialization of
cinema – be that during the 1920s, when Eisenstein’s and Vertov’s experiments yielded
no significant box office at home, or the dissident filmmakers of the post-war Soviet era,
Tarkovskii, German and Muratova. As Dawn Seckler shows in her introductory essay on
the meaning of zhanr in Soviet and Russian cinema, it is only very recently that genre has
acquired a more neutral meaning in critical discourse.
The choice of genres represented in this volume has been determined by specificities
and characteristics of Soviet and Russian film history: while genres such as the historical film, the biopic or the war films are as prominent as in other film cultures, the genre
of action, for example, has a specifically Soviet variety as the Red Western, combining
ideological message with the location in the Central Asian steppe and mountain regions.
Or the melodrama, frowned upon as bourgeois during the Stalin era, did not yield much
of a film harvest in the middle of the twentieth century. As far as possible (given historical
constraints) each genre is represented in chronological order by a range of films from different historical periods: pre-Revolutionary (where applicable), Soviet and Russian. It may
be surprising to discover a relative shortage of films by the filmmakers best known in the
West: they do not fit easily into these genre classifications. As Seckler lucidly argues in
her essay, it is precisely in their resistance to genre that their auteurism manifests itself
most clearly. The output of the Soviet satellite republics has been somewhat neglected
in this volume: it is hoped that this balance can be re-dressed in future volumes. Similarly, the genres of adventure, science fiction and fantasy thrived only at certain moments
in Soviet culture, and their phenomena deserve particular attention; they have also been
set aside for the future.
The volume opens with several essays that are intended to provide a geographical,
historical and cultural framework for the collection. The Film of the Year, Vasilii Sigarev’s
Wolfy (2009), is maybe a daring choice – a debut not by a professional filmmaker but
a playwright – but it was the most outstanding discovery of the year 2009, which also
marks the second century of Russian filmmaking (if we take its birthday to be the 15
October 1908). The review of the film is followed by an interview with the filmmaker and
scriptwriter. An essay on the development of the Russian-Soviet-Russian film industry is
followed by a portrayal of the Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, which has showcased
Russian cinema since the collapse of the USSR and thus made an enormous contribution
to the revival if not of the industry, but of cinema art. An essay on genre concludes the
Directory of World Cinema
introductory section. The choice of the six directors for the biography has been determined by the names most familiar to western audiences. In the choice of films, we have
been guided by an effort to include some films that are easily accessible and others that
are limited to Russian-language editions (or archives). While some filmmakers, films and
periods have been more exposed to scholarly writing, other areas – for example, documentaries of the post-Soviet era; animation; or the cinema of the stagnation era – have
so far been denied in-depth scholarship. And if this volume can help in drawing attention
to some forgotten, less-known and maybe deserving films, it has over-fulfilled its plan!
Birgit Beumers
Introduction 7
Directory of World Cinema
Vasilii Sigarev’s Wolfy (2009). Photo courtesy of Koktebel Studio, Roman Borisevich.
Directory of World Cinema
Country of Origin:
Koktebel, Central Partnership
Vasilii Sigarev
Roman Borisevich, Ruben
Vasilii Sigarev
Aleksei Arsent’ev
Art Director:
Liudmila Diupina
88 minutes
Polina Pluchek, Iana Troianova,
Marina Gapchenko, Galina
Wolfy is a debut film and such an unusual choice for the ‘film of the
year’. Yet it has impressed critics in Russia, where it won major national
film awards (Kinotavr, White Elephant) in the categories of direction,
scriptwriting and acting, and also made an impact abroad (competition
in Karlovy Vary, Zurich). It is a film with striking originality, which lies in its
cold and detached attitude to the main characters – a little girl and her
mother – but also in the theme – violence. The film is a shocking manifestation of the lack of emotions – in character portrayal and action – in
the modern world, and makes no pleasant viewing for the audience.
The Ekaterinburg playwright Vasilii Sigarev (b. 1977) became famous
when his play Plasticine (2000) received the Russian Anti-Booker prize
and was almost immediately afterwards staged in Moscow by Kirill
Serebrennikov at a small and experimental theatre; the production
became the sensation of the theatrical season. In 2002 the play was
staged by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs for the
festival of young authors and Sigarev went on to win the London Evening Standard award as Most Promising Playwright. Handing the award
to Sigarev, Tom Stoppard excitedly compared the young playwright to
Dostoevsky: ‘If Dostoyevsky were writing in the twenty-first century, no
doubt he would have written Plasticine’. During the following season
the Royal Court staged two further plays by Sigarev, Black Milk (1999,
published 2001) and Ladybird (2002, published 2003).1
The screenplay Wolfy was written in 2006; Sigarev intended to make
a film based on his screenplay, which he had refused to sell to the
established film production company CTB. Sigarev’s screenplay presents
a hard task for Sigarev as director, since it contains more narrative than
dramatic action. The screenplay is written in the form of monologue by
a teenage girl about her unrequited love for her mother – a dazzling,
beautiful, sharp-tongued, decisive, merry, irresponsible, cruel whore and
a thief with sadistic tendencies. According to the screenplay the mother
is locked up for five years for beating up a hospital nurse immediately
after her daughter’s birth. The film opens with a chase of two cops
after a blood-covered woman across the showy field; when they finally
catch her she says that she is about to give a birth. After release from
the prison she sees her daughter from time to time, mostly teasing
and humiliating the child. With her bright make-up the mother stands
out amidst the poor and dilapidated world of a workers’ settlement
somewhere in the Urals. A line of drunken lovers, open sexual scenes
with men and women – all this happens in the presence of the small
child. The mother is an extremely corporeal figure, almost impregnable
in her vitality and at the same time extremely harsh. Iana Troianova has
won the Best Actress award at Kinotavr for a very good reason: her
performance is nothing short of sensational. The image that she creates
manages to bring together glaring contradictions in an organic way: she
is attractive and repulsive, charming and monstrous at the same time.
The mother entirely abandons her daughter after the death of the
grandmother, who had looked after the child: she literally leaves the
seven year old at a railway station. At first the girl is sent to an orphanage, then she is taken in by her crippled aunt where she stays for the
next seven years, without hearing a word from the mother (presumed
dead). However, the mother returns again – not as beautiful as she used
to be, but battered and humiliated; yet, as if nothing had happened,
she continues to offend her daughter, now a fourteen-year-old
Film of the Year 9
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teenager. Ultimately, the girl is stripped of any illusions about her
mother. But when the mother leaves again, the girl runs after her. In this
chase she is knocked down by a car and dies on the spot.
This is a psychological drama shaped by (post)-Soviet communality;
it is a drama within the communal body shaped by a claustrophobic,
everyday existence, the lack of perspective, the despair and atmosphere
of violence that serves as the only language for communication. Curiously, except for the cops, there are almost no men around the central
female characters. Only once in the film do we see a lover whom the
mother picked up on the train returning from prison. At first treated as a
potential partner, he is literally pulled away by mother and grandmother
after a most impressive scene in the film when, defending the mother
from being beaten, the girl – propped up on the wardrobe – knocks
the man out with a milk jug. Later she sits on the floor and draws patterns with the droplets of blood in the puddle of milk. Tellingly, Sigarev
removes from the film the most brutal scenes (present in the screenplay);
if they remain (as, for instance, the scene when the drunken mother
mockingly urinates on the floor in front of the child and the girl obediently wipes the floor before being forced to wash the mother’s genitals)
are shot from a distance so they do not shock the viewer. On the whole,
the camera position is quite paradoxical: a few scenes are shot from
floor level, rendering the child’s point of view as she hides under the
table. But at the same time, the camera often adopts a position at ‘ceiling level’, above the characters’ heads. The explanation for this may be
found in the film’s narrative structure. The finale implies that the daughter’s voice tells the story of her life and love, but then it comes from the
space of death. Sigarev enhances this paradox by the fact that the voiceover (belonging to the daughter) is spoken by Troianova (who plays the
mother). Yet this voice carries no markers of the vulgarity that is intrinsic
in the mother’s speech: in fact, it hardly reminds us of the mother. This
device – when the same actress plays the mother and voices the daughter’s narrative – suggests that the two protagonists actually represent
two facets of the same character: two sides of Russian femininity – meek
and tender vs cynical and destructive vitality; life vs death; body vs
soul; carnival vs tragedy; violence vs love; freedom vs dependence. All
these binaries are applicable to the film, yet they all remain unresolved.
This duality is also emphasized by the film’s colour palette: frequently
white contrasts with red, or blue is juxtaposed to its contrary colour,
orange. The daughter’s devout love for her unworthy mother, which is
the focus of the plot, emphasizes the connection between these binaries
rather than their incompatibility. The mother does not seem to notice
this devotion; if she does, she coarsely ignores the piercing love of her
daughter. Moreover, she sadistically makes fun of the child, telling her
that she found her on a cemetery as a wolf cub; or she tells the girl that
the grandmother died because of her visits to the cemetery.
The girl is not presented as a sweet and tearful melodramatic victim.
She smiles just once in the film, when mother sells their place and
takes her to the South (only to abandon her later). On the whole, she
is grim and serious. Her love is demanding and fanatical. Furthermore,
the daughter does not know how to express her feelings other than
through aggression in relation to others, who in her view take the
mother’s love away from her. Having grown up in the mother’s orbit,
she does not know another language of self-expression except the lan10
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guage of violence. Very telling in this respect is the episode when the
girl suffocates the little hedgehog the mother gives her before leaving
with yet another lover. Having forced a cushion over the hedgehog, the
girl throws the corpse under a train, as if to allege that not she killed the
hedgehog but the train. Subsequently she throws stones at the passing
train, the substitute culprit for her own actions. She methodically fights
with her mother’s lovers – her rivals for attention – and she desecrates
the tomb of a boy upon whom she transferred her love for her mother.
Indeed, at the cemetery she finds her only friend: a dead boy, at whose
monument she articulates her love for her mother: she shares her
dreams, gives him gifts (stolen from neighbouring graves) and sings
songs. But when the mother tells the girl that the boy ‘took away her
grandmother’, she soils his tomb, in a similar transferral of guilt as in
the episode with the hedgehog. This episode is indicative of the film’s
general logic by which love (Eros) is not only inseparable from death
(Thanatos), but inevitably turns into violence, aggression and death.
Wolfy at first invokes and then subverts the melodramatic expectations according to which ‘a bad mother’ should return to her daughter,
seeking forgiveness from the abused and abandoned child. Nothing
of the sort happens in the film. On the contrary, when the daughter
is hit by a car, the drunken mother laughs happily: she has stolen her
sister’s money and clothes, and she escaped from her ‘boring’ daughter – she is free at last.
Sigarev methodically compromises freedom. Freedom as represented by the mother and acquires the characteristics of the uncanny,
enhanced by motifs of the cemetery, the girl’s communication with the
dead, and especially by the horror sequence illustrating the story about
the transformation of an abandoned wolf cub (volchok) into a child. The
mother fits Freud’s concept of the uncanny – something very close and
familiar that keeps returning as unfamiliar and monstrous, each time
more horrifying and destructive, and eventually bringing death. It is
indeed a scary image, but Sigarev’s attitude to a newly obtained freedom is indicative of his generation with a bitter taste of freedom, vague
recollections of the Soviet era and a painful and traumatic experience of
coming-of-age during Russia’s stormy 1990s.
Russian cultural tradition strongly emphasizes the identification of
the mother with the native land, and this allows a reading of the film
as an allegory of the relations between the new, post-Soviet generation and a country which has abandoned its children, having wasted
their love and eventually killed them, in spite of their continued love
for a repulsive ‘mother Russia’. In this context, the semi-animalistic
existence of the ‘body of the Native land’ as manifested by the
mother with her initially charming energy, gradually kills the soul of
her child, the daughter of destructive freedom.
Adapted from a review published in KinoKultura 26 (2009) and
Chapter 4 of Performing Violence (2009)
Mark Lipovetsky and Birgit Beumers
1. All three plays have been translated into English by Sasha Dugdale
and published by Nick Hern Books.
Film of the Year 11
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Vasilii Sigarev with his Kinotavr award
in June 2009. Photo by Birgit Beumers
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‘We are malicious children and egoists,
and do not want any responsibility’
– What reaction do you expect to your film?
Vasilii Sigarev: I don’t expect anything: I do everything just for myself. Knock me over the
head if you like: that’s the way I am. I’ve written this script because I was so impressed
with the stories told by Iana Troianova, the actress who plays the mother. These are
her associations and impressions of childhood. Writing this text, I have not invented
anything, but at some point I just faced with the fact that these are my characters and
this is how they speak. My characters are born from language. The girl is solely a product
of language: human language is my basic tool. We did a reading of this script at the
Theatre of the Young Spectator in Ekaterinburg, when Iana played a role of the girl.
When I saw that, I thought that I would never find a performer for the role of the child.
Iana played the girl in a way that made the audience cry. During the casting, we looked
at over 5,000 girls. It was a year of continuous search. […] We found the girl by sheer
coincidence, two weeks before the shooting started. We were in utter despair, when suddenly Polina Pluchek from Moscow appeared. Only later did we discovered that she is
the great-granddaughter of the theatre director and head of the Satire Theatre, Valentin
Pluchek, and thus the grand niece of Peter Brook. There was no need to work with her in
any special way, and in any case I would not have been able to do that: I’m no pedagogical genius, even if I studied at the Pedagogical Institute. I can’t work with children. Polina
worked independently, by herself. I worked on the film and would devise things so she
could act only in one way, but not another.
– A huge emotional weight rests on the girl. On screen she suffers, her mother leaves
her, she loses her grandmother, and there is even a scene at the cemetery. How did you
protect Polina?
Sigarev: I’ll give you one example of her work. We shot the grandmother’s death: the
actress is lying in the coffin and probably struggled to stay calm and sane. And Polina
went over to rock her and sing her a lullaby. That says everything. Now Polina wants to
become an actress.
– The reading of the text took place at the theatre, so this was after all not a film script,
but a play?
Sigarev: It’s strange, but whatever text I write – everybody starts screaming that I wrote a
play. I had to see and hear this text on stage, although it was written precisely as a script.
Wolfy, as well as Plasticine at its time, were scripts. Wolfy happened to be presented
during a theatre seminar in Ekaterinburg.
– In the theatre you are well known, but in cinema you start from scratch. What were
the difficulties you encountered?
Sigarev: There was a script, and there were many people who were grateful to be able
to work on it. I had uploaded the script on my website, where the producer Roman
Borisevich read it; he called me and asked to buy the rights.
Troianova: But Vasia insisted that he wanted to shoot himself. Roman Borisevich thought
that the script had been written by some nobody, and he was happy to have made a
Interview 13
Directory of World Cinema
discovery. But then Boris Khlebnikov told him who this Vasilii Sigarev is, and a second life
Sigarev: With Plasticine there’s also an interesting story. The text was in an open-access
domain, and one day the French producer Jean-Louis Piel got in touch; he had produced
Urga for Nikita Mikhalkov, he had worked with Wong Kar Wai and Peter Greenaway, and
had produced Ken Park (dir. Edward Lachman, Larry Clark, 2002). He suggested I should
make a film. We had already started to work on Plasticine, found a location, drew up the
budget, but then the story with My Blueberry Nights (2007) happened, which Kar Wai
filmed for a long time, so they even ran out of the money which they had set aside for us,
and the project was closed. And right there, a week later, Roman Borisevich called. […]
– There are a lot of debuts in your film. Did you deliberately go down that route?
Sigarev: Iana appears on film for the first time; the cameraman Aleksei Arsent’ev is also
a debutant, as practically all the people in the crew. We opted for a small-scale production without attracting skilled cinematographers, because it seemed that we needed the
purity of the primeval, so we would not have a narrow view in our heads and hearts. We
did not want well-known actors. […] We did not want the viewer to recognize anyone in
our story.
– Iana, how come you have such profound knowledge of humankind? It seems strange
that you never appeared in cinema before.
Troianova: I didn’t have a chance, but then I trust in fate: I know that I have made my
debut at the right time. […] I didn’t play me, but scooped from my inner self, from my
dark sides, and uncovered what we normally hide from others. We all carry masks, but
here we tried to lift them. It was frightening, because it’s like a confession: you bare
yourself in front of the camera. But I’m courageous, though I’m also a coward. I’ve seen
lots of women like my heroine. I’m not ashamed to pronounce a phrase like: ‘I want to
live, I’m young’. I’m a stage actress and if I come to the theatre or the cinema, I have to
be prepared to bare myself. That’s the only way to exist in this profession. I nurtured this
role for two years. I have a direct connection to this script, albeit not as powerful and
active as the playwright. This role was my birthday present from Vasilii. This woman crept
inside me: everything was new. There were no rehearsals: right away, the camera was
running! And amazing things began to happen: I surprised myself, got carried away. I’d
never speak like my heroine. But it was really interesting to do something so completely
out of sync with my self. […]
– Is the ending of Wolfy not a little too pessimistic? Why did you decide that the girl
should die rather than her mother, who has no love for the child?
Sigarev: It took me a long time to write the ending: I struggled for over a year. And then
came the breakthrough and I decided that the girl, rather than her mother, should die. It
is better to die pure than to lose that purity. I did not want to give the mother a second
chance. If she had stayed alive, the girl would have turned out just like her mum. In fact,
the mother is not capable of loving her own mother (the grandmother) either. If the girl is
a wolf cub (volchok), then the mother is the wolf (volchitsa).
– So nobody can break out of this vicious circle?
Sigarev: Yes, they can. We are not categorical here.
Directory of World Cinema
Troianova: I think that the girl leaves of her own will. She is tired of life and understands
that her mother’s life is senseless. But she is capable of love. In the first version of the
ending, the girl perished and thus gave a chance for improvement to her mother, but
during the editing Sigarev said: ‘No, I won’t give her a chance. The girl leaves and the
mother stays the way she is’. The spectator must decide for himself what follows from
– There appears to be something missing in the film: some shock, some surge of reality
that would support the spectator and offer a release after the pain experienced during
the film.
Sigarev: This is a very Russian aspiration. We always want to have a light at the end of
the tunnel. But I deliberately avoided that.
– Iana, can you find a justification for your heroine?
Troianova: This woman just wants love and her search is egoistic. We talked a lot about
this: we are by nature malicious children, egoists who often do not want to take responsibility. The girl clings to her mother, and the mother just says: ‘Get off! What do you
want from me?’ The girl prevents the mother from living her life the way she wants. That
is the only justification for my heroine. I cannot call her a monster. […] our mother is
honest, whatever else she may be. I’m all for open attitudes. I found a justification for my
heroine: I love her.
Sigarev: First of all, we are all people. Showing ideal heroes in the theatre or the cinema
would be false. Wolfy is an act of repentance for me, because I’m not an ideal father,
and Iana is no ideal mother. We cannot give absolute love. We are all egoists, and love
ourselves above all. If we were to love someone else and make a film about that, out
comes a lie. […]
Interview conducted by Svetlana Khokhriakova and Birgit Beumers, Sochi 12 June 2009
Published in full, in Russian, in Kul’tura 23 (18–24 June 2009)
Translated by Birgit Beumers
Interview 15
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The statue of the Worker and the
Peasant by Vera Mukhina, made
for the Soviet Pavilion at the World
Exhibition in Paris in 1937, which
serves as the logo for Mosfilm
Studio. Photo by Birgit Beumers
Directory of World Cinema
On 4 May 1896 the cinematograph was first presented in Russia at a fairground in the
Aquarium Park in St Petersburg. The first Russian shows featured short films made by
Auguste and Louis Lumière, while the French companies Gaumont and Pathé soon
gained a monopoly on the Russian film market. By spring 1897 the cinematograph was
touring Russian towns, acquainting the people with the new attraction and providing
cheap entertainment for the masses. Films were mostly shown in booths on fairs and
exhibitions rather than in stationary venues. In 1903 two ‘electric theatres’ opened in
Moscow, and when stationary cinemas became more widespread, the cinema drew a different audience: the urban middle class and bourgeoisie.
The attraction of the cinematograph grew rapidly: cinemas increased in number and
size. By 1910 there were 84 cinemas in the capital St Petersburg; at the beginning of the
Great War in 1914 there were 1,400 cinemas in Russia, with seating capacities of 300–800
each. In contrast to the exhibition sector, which was concentrated in St Petersburg, the
production of films was centred in Moscow, with 15 studios operating in 1913. New, purpose-built or specially fitted cinemas opened: the ‘Arts’ (Khudozhestvennyi) on Moscow’s
Arbat opened in 1909 and still functions today; it had been designed by the leading
architect of the period, Fedor Shekhtel, whose art-nouveau architecture has left numerous
traces on the Moscow cityscape.
The breakthrough for Russia’s own film production came in 1907, when the photographer Aleksandr Drankov announced that he would make films showing views
of Russia. Pathé and Gaumont immediately opened their own production studios in
Russia. Drankov possessed great skills as a businessman and had a fine understanding
of the entertainment business. He produced some seventeen films in a series entitled
‘Picturesque Russia’, responding to calls for local images (rather than French scenes) on
the silver screen. In 1908 Drankov produced the first Russia feature film: Stenka Razin,
directed by Vladimir Romashkov, was released on 15 October 1908 – the official birthday
of Russian cinema. The film told of the popular folk hero and rebel Stenka Razin, focusing
on his infatuation with a Persian princess, who detracts his attention from the struggle
against oppression.
In the early 1910s Russian film production soared and new companies emerged.
Paul Thiemann set up a studio with the tobacco merchant Friedrich Reinhardt; they first
distributed foreign films and produced their own. Grigorii Libken from Yaroslavl began to
buy, collect and rent films, setting up one of the first Russian ‘film exchanges’ where films
could be leased for theatrical display by cinemas. Aleksandr Khanzhonkov opened his
company in 1908, skilfully recruiting young talents – directors, designers, animators and
actors, who contributed hugely to the aesthetic development of cinema. In 1914 Iosif
Ermol’ev produced his first film, gathering gradually under his elephant logo the leading
directors and actors of the time, including the star actor Ivan Mozzhukhin. But Khanzhonkov also developed his studio into one of the leading ventures in pre-Revolutionary
Russia: he hired the directors Petr Chardynin and Evgenii Bauer, and counted some 50
actors and five cameramen on the payroll. His greatest coups were the recruitment of the
ballerina Vera Karalli, who came to the cinema after a stage injury; and the silent film star
Vera Kholodnaia. Russian cinema was growing both as an art and an industry when the
Great War struck.
In July 1914 Austria-Hungary and Germany declared war on Russia and soon thereafter the frontiers were closed for trade. Foreign film distribution offices in Russia closed,
and film stock – a German import – was in short supply. The rare foreign film imports
were the preferred viewing of the upper classes: almost 80 per cent of films shown prior
to 1914 had been foreign. During the war Russian film production increased, as did the
proportion of Russian films shown in cinemas.
After the February Revolution of 1917 most film
film studios were still operating; however, the nationalization of the industry was on the cards as the staff of studios and film
Film Production in Russia 17
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exchanges refused to work for private proprietors; those packed up their equipment and
moved south: Khanzhonkov and Ermol’ev filmed in Yalta. By 1918 most cinemas had
been closed and equipment removed, while film stock had become rare, since trade
relations had been interrupted; the shortages would continue until the Treaty of Rapallo
was signed in 1922, allowing trade with Germany to resume. As the Bolsheviks took
hold of the country and resistance was failing, many producers and filmmakers fled via
Constantinople to Paris to set up business there (e.g. Ermolieff, whose studio was later
taken over by Albatros). Many artists had remained in Moscow, declared capital in 1918,
and expressed their loyalty to the new regime. Agit-trains were dispatched across the
country to show newsreels to the (largely illiterate) peasant population and the young
Denis Kaufman (later known as Dziga Vertov) was in charge of the developing process
in a laboratory in Moscow. On 27 August 1919 the film industry was nationalized. Few
foreign films found their way to Moscow during the Civil War (1918–1921) and few new
films were made.
The following years were marked by the building of a multi-national state: the Union
of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) was formed in 1922. Yet Soviet Russia found itself in
international isolation, because the new regime had not yet been recognized by western
nations. Moreover, famines made practical action necessary: the New Economic Policy
(NEP 1921–1928) was introduced to alleviate the dismal economic situation by allowing
private trade, and with it foreign trade, on the Soviet market. NEP made it possible for
film exchanges to open, for commercial concessions to be granted to foreigners so that
the ruined infrastructure could be revived through foreign investment. In this climate, the
nationalization of the industry took shape. In 1919 the film school was founded as State
Film Technikum. Goskino was established in December 1922 with the remit to distribute
films, and replaced in 1924 by Sovkino. The production company Mezhrabpom merged
with the Rus Studio in 1923, continuing to receive support from International Workers’
Relief. However, the development of film art was hampered by the absence of film stock:
Lev Kuleshov rehearsed with an empty camera. Only in the mid-1920s did film stock
become available again and the number of Soviet films began to rise.
Sovkino reviewed the profitability of studios, leading to numerous closures by 1926.
Only Mezhrabpom-Rus continued to work alongside the national studios, the Moscow
and Leningrad branches of Sovkino. Sovkino was guided by Lenin’s missive for the
‘cinefication’ of the countryside so the medium could reach the largely illiterate masses.
Given the need for cinema to be self-financing, films had to generate income; Sovkino
achieved this through the purchase and distribution of popular foreign films that catered
for audience taste and financed Soviet film production through their box-office revenue
(foreign films brought in 85 per cent of Sovkino’s revenue on only 33 per cent of released
titles). Sovkino assumed that gradually new Soviet films would be successful enough to
sustain the industry. By 1927 the box-office receipts of Soviet films were almost on a par
with foreign films.
By 1928 the box-office receipts for Soviet films had overtaken those of foreign films
in distribution. At the All-Union Party Conference on Cinema Affairs in March 1928 Party
officials demanded that films should be intelligible to the millions. Since cinema was,
according to speeches at the Conference, not fulfilling its role of catering for the masses,
but spending instead huge sums of money on production, the industry was exposed to
vitriolic attacks. The Party officials ignored that the lack of equipment, the ramshackle
cinemas and defective projectors, the cameras that were brought back by cameramen
from trips abroad and the reliance on imported film stock betrayed the industry’s lack of
a reliable infrastructure. However, the blame for the huge budget required for Sovkino
was placed at the filmmakers’ feet. In January 1929 a decree followed, film studios and
cinema associations of those who did not make ‘films for the millions’ and the formalists, targeted for its rejection of linear narratives. Filmmakers and industry staff were
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accused of economic crimes and put on trial. Sovkino itself was purged in May 1930 and
abolished, to be replaced by Soiuzkino on 13 February 1930. Boris Shumiatskii became
chairman of Soiuzkino in October 1930. Gradually, foreign films were removed from
circulation, while domestic film production dropped to 35 films per year (compared with
an average of 120 in the last half of the 1920s). During the so-called Cultural Revolution
of 1928, the film industry – only just rebuilt through foreign imports – was almost entirely
destroyed. Soiuzkino took over film production under Shumiatskii, who would coin the
‘cinema for the millions’ in Stalin’s Russia, epitomized in the cult film Chapaev (1934) and
the musical Circus (1934). Another effect of the xenophobia of the 1930s was the liquidation in 1936 of the German-funded Mezhrabpom. The children’s film studio Soiuzdetfilm
(renamed Gorky Film Studio in 1948) was organized on its base and the cartoon industry
was established with the formation of Soiuzmultfilm in the same year.
In 1931 the Moscow film studio, Mosfilm, was founded on the base of the former
Ermoliev and Khanzhonkov studios. In September 1932 the Film Institute established
directors’ courses, which were run by Sergei Eisenstein who had returned from Hollywood; in 1934 the State Film Technikum became the Film Institute (VGIK). In 1934 the
USSR participated in the Venice Film Festival and Moscow hosted its first international
film festival in spring 1935: Soviet films were validated on the national and international
stage. In August 1934 the first Congress of the Writers’ Union, founded in 1932, resolved
that socialist realism was the only acceptable method for artistic work. The All-Union
Creative Conference on Cinema Affairs in 1935 adopted the same principles of socialist
realism: in order to show the development of history, art would present the (bright) future
as present, creating essentially utopian narratives, or ‘fairy tales’. The positive hero had
to reveal his growing consciousness of the socialist cause that led him to identify with
the collective and thus achieve great feats in the name of socialism. Revolutionary leaders, Party officials and historical figures thus lent themselves to reinterpretation, while
contemporary man could prove his commitment to socialism through super-human acts
in the name of the Party.
The 1930s were also marked by the arrival of sound. In Moscow Pavel Tager was working on sound systems, while Aleksandr Shorin equipped Leningrad’s Sovkino with sound.
However, sound was slow to be adopted both by filmmakers and the industry, and additional problems were encountered at the level of distribution. In 1932 there were plans
for 85 silent and 40 sound films, but the Soviet Union had only 200 sound projectors
(compared to 32,000 silent ones); by 1936 the production of sound films had risen to
100 per cent, although not all the cinemas were equipped.
Shumiatskii had grand plans for a Soviet Hollywood on the Black Sea, which were,
however, hampered: in 1935 he had delivered merely 43 of the 120 films planned, followed by a further drop in production, which led Pravda to accuse him of squandering
money (9 January 1938). In the same year the Committee of Cinema Affairs was split
from the Committee for Arts and received ministerial status, signalling the importance of
the industry as a separate branch. Its new head, Semen Dukelskii, remained in that post
until June 1939, when Ivan Bol’shakov took over.
In the autumn of 1941 Lenfilm and Mosfilm were hurriedly evacuated to Alma-Ata, to
form the Central United Film Studios (TsOKS). During 1941–1945 the directors and staff
of TsOKS made war-chronicles and worked on feature films. The Ukrainian studio was
evacuated to Tashkent, Soiuzdetfilm to Stalinabad (now Dushanbe), and Soiuzmultfilm
to Samarkand. Immediately after the war, in March 1946, the Directorate of Cinema
acquired ministerial status (Ministry of Cinema), with Bol’shakov at its head. A second
important cinematic event was the establishment in 1948 of the State Film Archive
Gosfilmofond in Belye Stolby, near Moscow. The immediate post-war years saw a sharp
drop in production, which led to a film-famine (malokartin’e). If in the 1930s production
had been around 50 feature films per year, then after the war production dropped to an
Film Production in Russia 19
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all time low of under ten. It was not until after Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 that these
figures recovered.
The Khrushchev Thaw (1953–1964) saw a boost in film production. The sixth Five-YearPlan (1956–1960) foresaw investment in cinema infrastructure studios and cinemas in the
context of Khrushchev’s emphasis on improving leisure facilities. Above all, the cinema
network expanded with new cinemas and improved studio facilities; consequently, ticket
sales rose. Ivan Pyr’ev became head of Mosfilm Studio in 1954, using his influence to
support young film graduates. Mosfilm, as well as other studios, had an artistic council
that vetted all scripts and films, and ‘creative units’ to decentralise control of and responsibility for production. In 1957 Pyr’ev resigned as head of Mosfilm to devote himself to
the establishment of a Union of Filmmakers (FU), which held its constituent congress not
until in November 1965 when Lev Kulidzhanov was elected chairman. The Union drew its
subsidies partly from membership fees, partly from the glossy bi-monthly Sovetskii ekran.
Its members received medical and social care, and had access to a veteran’s residence,
sanatoria, and other recreational and leisure services. In 1959 the Moscow International
Film Festival was revived: it would take place bi-annually, alternating with Karlovy Vary as
A-class festival.
In 1953 the Main Directorate for Cinema (GUK) became part of the newly established
Ministry of Culture, but by 1963 its independent ministerial status was restored as Goskino, presided over by Aleksei Romanov from 1963–1972.1 In 1972 Filipp Ermash was
appointed head of Goskino, a position he held until 1986. Goskino supervised export
(Sovexport), co-production (Sovinfilm) and festival organization (Sovinterfest), as well as
the analytical journals Iskusstvo kino (print run: 50,000) and the bi-monthly glossy magazine Sovetskii ekran (print run: 2 million). The Film Institute (VGIK), the technical institute
(NIKFI), and the research institute NIIK (founded in 1973), as well as Gosfilmofond, an
orchestra, the Theatre of the Film Actor, and the Higher Courses for Scriptwriters and
Directors were all overseen by Goskino also. Thus the film industry was a fully fledged
branch of the Soviet economic and administrative system.
With Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika the time had come for change: Aleksandr
Kamshalov replaced Ermash at Goskino in 1986, while the V Congress of the FU, held
from 13–15 May 1986 in the Kremlin, elected as secretary the filmmaker Elem Klimov,
who was nominated by Aleksandr Iakovlev from the Central Committee. Moreover, the
entire FU secretariat was replaced and substantially enlarged, following Gorbachev’s
democratic principles for a larger base. The Congress pushed for decentralization and
less bureaucracy in film production. Moreover, a Conflict Commission was established
under the critic Andrei Plakhov that was put in charge of reviewing banned, shelved and
blocked films. Within a year the commission had ‘unshelved’ some 100 films and found
at Gosfilmofond another 250 films that had never been released. Structural changes
at Goskino followed: Sovinfilm was relinquished in 1989 and co-production allowed at
studio level. Studios were given the right to take control of film production without Goskino’s interference. In 1988 the new Cinema Centre (Kinotsentr) opened, accommodating
two screens and the Museum of Cinema.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, the new Russia’s film industry experienced major
problems. Production units were set up on the basis of the national studios; the statemanaged distribution system collapsed entirely before private investors could refurbish
cinemas; and the role of the producer had to be redefined after 70 years of a state-controlled demand and supply system. In the early 1990s the number of new films doubled
because money was laundered through the short-lived production studios. When these
sources dried up in the mid-1990s, film production dropped sharply to an all-time low
of 28 films in 1996. It was in this climate that the Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr,
founded by Mark Rudinshtein, gained huge importance. In the bleak 1996, the first refurbished cinema fitted with Dolby-Stereo System opened in Moscow: the Kodak Kinomir
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(Kodak Cinema World). However, it would take several more years – and into the Putin
era – for the infrastructure to recover and for Russia to become a proper film market.
Toward the late 1990s the situation for film production began to stabilize as new laws
on cinema and against video piracy (which had even led to a boycott of the MPAA on
American imports) began to grip. The three largest film studios were headed by filmmakers: Mosfilm’s director Vladimir Dostal’ was succeeded in 1998 by filmmaker Karen
Shakhnazarov; Aleksandr Golutva left Lenfilm in 1997 for the post of deputy minister
at Goskino,2 and was succeeded by filmmaker Viktor Sergeev, while the Gorky Studio
was headed in 1995 by Sergei Livnev, and succeeded by Vladimir Grammatikov. At the
Filmmakers’ Union Sergei Solov’ev was elected chairman in 1994; he was succeeded by
Nikita Mikhalkov in 1997.
Cinema gradually emerged from the shadows: initially into a twilight, but then into
the limelight of international attention. As the Russian economy stabilized under Putin,
the cinema sector began to grow and soon advanced to become the fifth largest film
market in the world. The distribution of domestic films picked up as well: a breakthrough
for Russian cinema came internationally when Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return won the
Venice Golden Lion in 2003, while nationally and commercially the watershed was crossed
with the success of Night Watch (released 11 July 2004), which had a production cost of
$3.5 million and was the first film to gross in excess of $10 million at the box office. The
exhibition sector has expanded since 2002, when the first multiplex (nine screens, owned
by Formula Kino) opened in central Moscow in the new shopping mall Atrium. Other
multiplexes followed suit, and already by 2005 Moscow counted 216 screens, followed
by St Petersburg with 59 screens and Ekaterinburg with 21 screens. These developments
make the Russian film market a considerable player in world cinema distribution and the
national distribution networks expanded to cater for a growing number of exhibitors.
Production rose, and with it the share of Russian films at the box office: for 20 per cent
of titles released, Russian films grossed approximately 30 per cent at the box office in
2006. Russian film production can now build on a developed and sophisticated infrastructure. Films are produced by independent companies, often with backing from television,
although many continue to receive subsidies from Goskino or its successor, the Federal
Agency for Culture and Cinematography. The major television channels have developed
powerful film production arms. Independent studios, in particular Sergei Sel’ianov’s CTB
in St Petersburg, Armen and Ruben Dishdishian’s Central Partnership and Roman Borisevich’s Koktebel in Moscow, have found a sound balance between mainstream cinema
and auteur films.
Birgit Beumers
1. During the 1960s and 1970s its status and affiliation changed several times: from
1963–1965 and 1972–1978 it was the State Committee of the Council of Ministers,
from 1965–1972 it was subordinated to the Council. In 1978 it became the State
Committee for Cinematography until its liquidation in November 1991.
2. Goskino was called Roskomkino until 1996, when it became a state committee,
Goskino; in 2000 it was merged with the Ministry of Culture, as the department
for Cinematography. It was re-organized into the Federal Agency for Culture and
Cinematography in 2004. I use the name Goskino throughout this chapter to avoid
Film Production in Russia 21
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The poster of Kinotavr Open Russian
Film Festival 2010. Courtesy of Sitora
Alieva, Kinotavr
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‘Kinotavr’: no one can give a reliable account of the name’s origins. Some amateur historians say the word was thought up in endless kitchen conversations where entrepreneur
Mark Rudinshtein and writer Mikhail Mishin appear among the explanation’s recurring
figures; other amateur historians insist that the word’s origins are simply unknown. While
the festival’s etymology is lost, its provenance is not. About 40 kilometres south of
Moscow, down the Warsaw Highway, is the industrial town of Podol’sk with a population
in the late 1980s of just over 200,000. Podol’sk was the centre of Rudinshtein’s family life,
a daughter from his first marriage, and of ‘Moscow Outskirts’, his base of operations.
Moscow Outskirts was a showbusiness company that soon branched out into concert
production, rock-festival organization, film distribution and video rental. Among the
groups and artists whom the fledgling company handled were the rock group Mashina
Vremeni, satirist Mikhail Zhvanetskii and actor Gennadii Khazanov. In September 1987
Rudinshtein co-organized the rock festival Podol’sk-87 (sometimes referred to as the
Soviet Woodstock), a time and place when rock concerts were still rare; among the performers were DDT (Leningrad), Nautilus Pompilius (Sverdlovsk) and the local group 42.
By 1988, Rudinshtein’s Moscow Outskirts had acquired an early copy of Petr Todorovskii’s
smash drama Intergirl (1989), the tale of a hospital nurse who becomes a hard-currency
prostitute. Although Rudinstein’s distribution venture was limited largely to the circulation of the film for two months in Russia’s Novosibirsk region, he was able to make a
profit of 36 million roubles, a considerable sum at a time, just as late-Soviet cinema was
entering a period of increasing instability.
In the two years that followed (1989 and 1990), Moscow Outskirts organized the
‘Festival of Unbought Cinema’. By the second year, the festival was already referred to
by its alternate name, Kinotavr, and the 1990 event came to be counted retrospectively
as the First Open Russian Film Festival, a title that signalled its acceptance of new films
from the Newly Independent States (NIS). This First Open Festival managed to attract
some twenty ‘unbought’ films, including such notable entries as Vitalii Kanevskii’s drama
Freeze, Die, Come to Life (1989), but it was Ermek Shinarbaev’s drama Revenge (1989)
which won the festival’s Main Prize. It is now inconceivable that a major film such as
Freeze, Die, Come to Life could have been ‘unbought’, all the more so in a business
environment that allegedly sustained more than 150 private distribution firms, however
unreliable many of them proved to be. But Rudinshtein was able to turn this unreliable
state of distribution to his advantage. His effort at collecting together and screening
‘unbought’ cinema was an inspired project, but at the same time it was not unique:
another, slightly later effort to revive interest in the domestic industry was Second
Premiere, organized by Leonid Mursa, director of the Film Centre (Kinotsentr). What
Rudinshtein had to offer, however, was a much larger dream, which concerned the ways
in which the entire cinema economy, step by step, could be brought back to health.
Kinotavr moves to the Russian Riviera
By 1991, Moscow Outskirts had moved its fledgling Kinotavr from Podol’sk to Sochi; its
activities had shifted from showbusiness to cinema and film-festival organization, and
its company emphasis had shifted from ‘Unbought’ to ‘Kinotavr’, with Rudinshtein as
general director. The move to Sochi was a shrewd effort to capture some of the resonances associated with the Cannes International Film Festival: the sun, the beach, the
red carpet, the celebrity status. Rudinshtein correctly calculated that – at a historical
moment when the films themselves were not yet in circulation – the national televisual
reportage on the Russian cinema industry could gradually rekindle the ceremony, pomp
and ambition of the silver screen, drawing the spectator back to the theatre. Relocated
to Sochi, Rudinshtein’s Kinotavr promised a great many other potential ventures beyond
the festival itself. Unlike the older, northern studios – Mosfilm, Lenfilm, Gorky Studio –
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where short daylight hours, unfavourable weather and poor climate reduced the number
of profitable shooting days, Sochi’s subtropics boasted 200 sunny days a year and a wide
range of exotic locations. It potentially provided an ideal site for a full range of future
plans: a technologically advanced studio, a sophisticated distribution network, a ‘Cannes
on the Russian Riviera’. As an annual festival, Kinotavr would provide a more flexible,
responsive event than the older, biannual Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF),
which itself would eventually move to an annual schedule. Moreover, Kinotavr could
occupy a different niche than MIFF and Sochi’s location promised enormous room for
industry growth and diversification.
In broader terms, Kinotavr could also be seen as one of many entrepreneurial
responses to the 1988 Law on Cooperatives. During the three-year period from 1988 to
1991, numerous cooperative studios and independent production companies were registered. At the same time, the legitimacy of these operations varied in the extreme; in this
atmosphere of new freedom, cinema was among the industries most vulnerable illegal
currency practices. It was therefore no surprise that the normally steady annual production rate of roughly 150 films suddenly spiked – a sign not of health, but of the industry’s
imminent collapse. If in 1991, the country produced 213 full-length feature films, by 1992
this figure had dropped to 172 films, then 152 (1993), and down to 68 (1994). The downward spiral continued to 46 films (1995) and 28 (1996), placing the country in the second
tier of European film production, behind Sweden and Poland.
In the face of these daunting circumstances, the opening day of Kinotavr’s Second
Open Russian Film Festival at Sochi’s Winter Theatre in 1991 bravely unveiled the
festival’s chief programmes, which were to become the hallmark of the early years. The
main competition, ‘Cinema for Everyone’, judged potential box-office entries, with input
from the spectators and a jury. A smaller competition, ‘Cinema for the Select?’ (note the
cautionary question mark), screened art house cinema. The Grand Prix in the main competition was awarded to Leonid Filatov’s comedy Sons of Bitches while the Main Prize for
the ‘Cinema of the Select?’ Competition was shared between Karen Gevorkian’s Spotted
Dog Running at the Edge of the Sea and Dmitrii Astrakhan’s comedy Get Thee Hence!
The same parallel structure was maintained for the Third Open Russian Festival in
1992, which saw 28 entries, with juries chaired by Vladimir Men’shov (Cinema for Everyone) and Vadim Abdrashitov (Cinema for the Select?). The Grand Prix for box-office
cinema went to Georgian director Teimuraz Babluani’s crime drama Sun of the Sleepless.
Sergei Popov won the auteur competition for his drama The Smile. While the festival
organization and competition apparatus was by now incontestably in good hands, the
larger commercial prospects for domestic cinema remained as bleak as ever. Expecting
the arrival of nearly 400 potential distributors, Kinotavr had organized a week-long filmmarket during the festival, billed as international. Surveying the low turnout, Rudinshtein
remarked with characteristic good humour that Kinotavr’s market initiative should really
be described as the festival’s comedy number.
By 1993, Kinotavr had formally registered as the Open Russian Film Festival and was
actively soliciting entries from the former Soviet republics. The festival had become a
fixed feature in the federal media landscape, with news coverage by eight television
companies and 130 journalists intermixed with its 1,185 participants, a programme
selected by Irina Rubanova. The prize structure consisted of what was now called the
Grand Competition, with twenty entries and a Grand Prix of $10,000; and an Auteur
Competition, with ten entries and a Grand Prix of $10,000. The actor Oleg Iankovskii
joined forces with Rudinshtein and became the festival’s president. Petr Todorovskii won
the Grand Competition for his comedy Encore, Another Encore!, while Oleg Kovalov
won the Auteur Competition’s for his art house film Island of the Dead.
In the following year Kinotavr registered with FIAPF as an international festival concentrating on debut cinema (first, second and third films), with parallel programmes of
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international and domestic competitions. Preserving the division between box-office and
art house cinema, the festival nevertheless inclined toward recognition of quality rather
than a strict adherence to its own competition categories. In awarding its main prize in
the main competition, for example, to Turkmen director Usman Saparov for his drama
Little Angel, Make Me Happy, it was investing in a film that would see very little of the
box office, but was nevertheless an outstanding work, filmed under the most difficult
By the Sixth Open Russian Film Festival (1995), Russia had produced a mere 46 films,
Kinotavr nevertheless staunchly forged ahead as if the cinema industry were sustaining itself to a much greater degree than was indeed the case. Nearly 80 per cent of the
films produced that year were screened at the festival. Fifteen films by younger directors
formed the main competition programme, with the Grand Prix awarded to Aleksandr
Rogozhkin’s comedy Peculiarities of the National Hunt, a decision of a jury chaired by
writer Vladimir Voinovich. Eighteen entries were comprised in the parallel competition
of more experienced directors, and here Vadim Abdrashitov received an award for his
drama Play for a Passenger. In an (as-yet) unrecognized, but encouraging sign of things
to come, producer Igor’ Tolstunov joined the Presidential Council; a few brave producers and directors such as Sergei Solov’ev spoke openly of the end of cinema’s crisis, and
urged the cinema industry to move forward more aggressively with theatre renovation
and distribution networking. In many respects, these audacious souls were whistling
past the graveyard: in the mid-1990s, the number of annual cinema visits per capita had
fallen below one per year, but this concerned not only Russian films. The greatest irony
was this: in the absence of an audience, Kinotavr and other rapidly proliferating festivals
had de facto become a substitute for cinema attendance. The task of the festival was,
in a sense, to overcome itself: to generate enough interest in the fact of cinema that
those who followed the celebrity news on television would be drawn back into the movie
The year 1996, the nadir of Russian cinema, marked the most intense moment of
the industry’s internal contradictions. The Law on Cinema, first initiated in 1991, was
signed by Boris Yeltsin on 22 August 1996. At a time when cinema had virtually ceased
to exist, the law finally addressed a range of critical tasks, including tax incentives and
a wildly optimistic set of tasks and responsibilities for Goskino. The cinema offerings
were marked by a high number of adaptations from nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury Russian literature. This trend reflected neither laziness nor lack of imagination.
It was a calculated risk that, in the popular imagination, the pre-Revolutionary past was
indeed that coveted alloy, both worldly glamour and nostalgic provincialism, that could
draw the spectator back to the ticket booth. The grand style that dominated many of
these productions promised to confer on the newly wealthy the mantle of legitimacy
it keenly sought. Yet the convoluted plots and lagging pace were often incompatible
with the world of cellular telephones; these adaptations failed in all but one spectacular
instance: Lev Tolstoy’s ‘Prisoner of the Caucasus’ (through the mediation of the writer
Vladimir Makanin) in Sergei Bodrov’s drama Prisoner of the Mountains. The competition
jury, chaired by Karen Shakhnazarov, chose Bodrov’s drama for the Grand Prix of 1996.
Another adaptation, Sergei Ursuliak’s Summer People, won the panorama competition of
work by established directors.
In 1997 Kinotavr presented only one competition including twenty films (most of the
year’s output) for the judgment of the jury chaired by Vladimir Khotinenko. The festival
shifted a lot of attention to the international competition (still for first, second and third
films), while other slots were taken by a retrospective of Aleksandr Sokurov and screenings of archival discoveries or Soviet films that never enjoyed a full cinema run at the
time of release (or even failed to get one). The competition included films from Ukraine,
Georgia and Turkmenistan: Murad Aliev’s Night of the Yellow Bull had been banned in
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his native country, while Georgi Khaindrava’s Cemetery of Reveries – about the conflict
over Abkhazia – drew crowds to the streets (rather than the cinema) in protest against
the film – after all, Sochi was too close for people not to be affected. Sokurov’s Mother
and Son competed alongside Kira Muratova’s Three Stories, but it was Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother that won the Grand Prix: it was truly recognized as marker of a new kind of
cinema with a new kind of hero (and the Best Actor award went to Sergei Bodrov Jr).
For the 1998 edition Rudinshtein teamed up with Sergei Lisovskii, head of the advertising agency Premier SV. The festival returned to two competition programmes: a main
competition and a debut competition, sending out a strong sign of rebirth and rejuvenation to an industry that the festival desperately wanted to see on the road to recovery.
The jury, chaired by Rustam Ibragimbekov, judged nineteen films of established filmmakers, all produced or co-produced in Russia, and awarded Abdrashitov’s Time of the
Dancer. The debut competition showed great promise with eight titles, but it was Larisa
Sadilova’s docu-style drama about a maternity clinic that took away the main award.
An information programme screened more Russian films, signalling a steady rise in film
For the tenth edition in 1999 Kinotavr showed fifteen films in the main competition,
while the debut competition included seven titles, promising a fresh breath in Russian
cinema, even if the debuts were significantly weaker than in the previous year. Sokurov’s
Moloch could not fail to impress, having garnered a screenplay award for Iurii Arabov in
Cannes, but it was Rogozhkin’s Checkpoint, addressing the Chechen war and offering
a new turn in the oeuvre of a filmmaker best known for comedies, which took the main
prize from a jury headed by Armen Medvedev.
By 2000 the festival programme had become very ambitious and included a competition, special screenings, information screenings, a documentary section and a forum for
debuts (shorts and animation), presenting the winners of a Debut-Kinotavr competition
held in Moscow in the previous spring. The jury had to judge nineteen films of a variety
of genres. Lungin’s Wedding came directly from its screening in Cannes, equipped
with a special mention for the acting ensemble, but it was Aleksei Uchitel’’s His Wife’s
Diary, about Ivan Bunin, and Luna Papa by Tajik-born director Bakhtior Khudoinazarov
which took the main awards (which the festival titled Grand Prix and Main Prize from
The twelfth edition in 2001 presented once again a main and a debut competition,
with additional sections for documentaries and for the winners of Debut-Kinotavr. The
jury, chaired by theatre director Mark Zakharov, assessed 22 films and awarded Sergei
Solov’ev’s Tender Age, about effect of war on a young man and made in Solov’ev’s characteristic fragmentary narrative style. Eleven debuts were screened, all rather unimpressive – except for the winner, Sergei S. Bodrov’s Sisters, which led to the discovery of the
young actress Oksana Akin’shina.
Kinotavr 2002 saw another war film win in a competition of thirteen films: Balabanov’s
War made controversial viewing, because it undermined the perception of enemy as evil
and the Russian soldier as essentially good. Valerii Todorovskii’s emotional drama The
Lover also took an award, but it was the debut competition that brought forth the names
of Andrei Proshkin and Aleksei Muradov; the latter’s film The Kite won the competition and established the Ekaterinburg-based filmmaker in cinema. The 2003 edition
included eighteen films in the main competition; there was no debut section. Tellingly a
turn to folk themes dominated the year’s output in films, reflected in the debut award to
Gennadii Sidorov’s Old Grannies. The jury, chaired by Valerii Todorovskii, awarded the
main prize to Khudoinazarov’s Chic.
The fifteenth edition in 2004 included a competition of features and one of shorts, as
well as a section of Films on the Square, screening the latest Russian films for the citizens
of Sochi free of charge. Of the seventeen films in competition, Pavel Chukhrai’s Driver
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for Vera and Valerii Todorovskii’s My Stepbrother Frankenstein clearly stood out. During
the festival Rudinshtein negotiated the sale of the brand Kinotavr to Aleksendr Rodnianskii, then CEO of CTC-Media, and the producer Igor’ Tolstunov. The 2005 festival saw
a change in programme directors, a department now headed by Sitora Alieva. It also
established a newly professionalized format, with a more streamlined programme and
the firm establishment of a feature and a shorts competition, complemented by a programme of Cinema on the Square. The competition included both mainstream and art
house films, ranging from the blockbuster Shadowboxing to the experimental 4 by Il’ia
Khrzhanovskii and awarding Lungin’s Roots with the main prize.
The 2006 edition preserved the format of feature and shorts competition, and Cinema
on the Square. The fifteen films in competition were the result of strategic selection,
since it was possible once again to focus on art house cinema: the infrastructure had
recovered sufficiently – especially after the success of Night Watch, the first film to break
the $10 million barrier at the box office – for mainstream cinema to find its way to the
screens through a solid distribution network, while festival could focus on their real role
as eye-openers, places for discovery and for the pitching of new projects – and all these
areas would be developed to the full in the coming years by the festival management,
which also scheduled screenings of sub-titled copies of the films for foreign guests and
festival selectors. The discoveries of the debut competition showed immediate results:
Valeria Gai-Germaika, whose film Girls won the shorts competition, soon embarked on
her first feature film Everybody Dies but Me which went on to be presented – and win
an award – at Cannes. Similarly, in the 2007 edition of the festival the award for the best
short went to Dmitrii Mamuliia and Bakur Bakuradze’s Moscow; a year later Bakuradze
won the main award for his feature Shultes; or Igor’ Voloshin’s short Goat won an award
in 2007, and a year later he received the mention of ‘Best Debut’ in the main competition for Nirvana. The competition programme consisted more and more of films by
young filmmakers, reflecting not only a new aesthetic richness of Russian cinema, but
also its rejuvenation as a new generation of filmmakers conquered the stage of the (in
the meantime also refurbished) Winter Theatre in Sochi. In 2006 the main awards of the
festival had gone to Kirill Serebrennikov for his film Playing the Victim, based on a play
by the Presnyakov Brothers that he had previously staged at the Moscow Art Theatre.
Further prizes for Boris Khlebnikov, Aleksei Popogrebskii and Ivan Vyrypaev in the 2007
and 2008 editions signalled the strong foothold that playwrights and people associated with New Drama were gaining in cinema, a tendency that would culminate with the
award in 2009 to the playwrights Vasilii Sigarev for Wolfy and Ivan Vyrypaev for Oxygen.
If Mark Rudinshtein managed to see Russian cinema through its bleakest years, and
the rebuilt infrastructure facilitated a rebirth of commercial cinema, it is Kinotavr that is
clearly preparing the ground for a new generation of art house filmmakers to emerge
from Russia.
Nancy Condee and Birgit Beumers
Festival Focus 27
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Genre cinema traditionally has a bad reputation among Russo-Soviet filmmakers. It is
perceived to be a low-culture, capitalist mass product generated by a film industry. It is
not simply distinct from auteur cinema (avtorskoe kino) but antithetical to it. Explanations
for the condemnation of genre cinema align it with the bourgeois West, specifically
Hollywood. Denise Youngblood cites the distrust of genre cinema as a dominant factor
for the disproportionately few comedies in early Soviet cinema of the 1920s:
Young directors […] tended to oppose entertainment films as ‘bourgeois,’ promoting their own work by way of contrast as somehow truly ‘revolutionary.’ The press was
controlled by critics who likewise believed that Soviet cinema had to distinguish itself
from its commercial counterparts in the West. […] [M]ost established cinematic genres
presented daunting challenges to Soviet filmmakers throughout the first decade of
Soviet movie production. Genre films were, after all, profoundly ‘bourgeois’ products
of commercial filmmaking – that is, there was nothing intrinsically Marxist or Soviet
about them.1
Clearly, the judgement of genre cinema as something quintessentially bourgeois stems
directly from ideological Soviet rhetoric. However, this way of thinking is not a historically localized phenomenon; it persists into the post-Soviet period. A similar logic
can be sensed in comments made by the contemporary directors Aleksei Balabanov,
Sergei Solov’ev and Andrei Zviagintsev. When, following the release of Brother 2
(2000), Balabanov was congratulated for having made the first gangster film in Russian
cinema, the praise did not fall on deaf ears, but on insulted ones. In his typical acerbic
tone Balabanov retaliated: ‘If I had wanted to make a genre film, I would have shot it in
English!’2 This incriminating use of ‘in English’ signals Balabanov’s negative perception of
genre as a Hollywood-specific product. Solov’ev and Zviagintsev articulate similar sentiments. Responding to a question regarding the likelihood of American genres taking
root in Russia, Solov’ev rejects genre as mercenary and antithetical to good cinema,
while art house director Zviagintsev explains: ‘Hollywood is a kind of factory and with
regard to Hollywood it is possible to speak about genre. But we do not have a factory,
we do not have an industry; so what kind of genres can be spoken of?’3
For several reasons it is incomplete to interpret this as a battle between east and west,
socialist and capitalist, art and commercial product, Russia and America. First, early
Soviet attacks on bourgeois filmmaking were aimed just as much at pre-Revolutionary
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and NEP-era4 Russian studios as they were at films imported from the West. As entrepreneurs latched onto the cinema’s mass appeal, they developed a lucrative industry,
complete with a star system playing in ‘a rich array of genres’ including costume dramas,
literary adaptations, comedies, adventure films and, most popular of all, melodramas.5
Second, despite the on-going tendency to incriminate genre cinema, it has periodically
dominated Soviet screens; paradoxically, it is during moments of severe cultural repression that Soviet genre cinema boomed. And, third, following the auteur-dominant years
of the late 1980s and 1990s, genre cinema is currently enjoying a resurgence. To more
fully understand the negative connotation of Russian genre cinema it is imperative to
consider the internal politics of the Soviet film industry. This introduction contends that
the hostility of Russian directors and film critics toward genre cinema is as much, if not
more, a reaction against the repressive cultural environment of Soviet filmmaking that, in
fact, demanded genre films, and thereby effectively silenced the auteurs, than it is a way
to differentiate Russo-Soviet filmmaking from bourgeois Hollywood.
It would be erroneous to separate Soviet cinema from a developed system of genre
filmmaking because the centralized state-controlled film industry operated according to a
genre-determined production plan. The distinguished Russian film scholar Maya Turovskaya has argued that a heterogeneous cultural landscape existed up until approximately
1930, at which point there was a ‘change in paradigm’.6 The new paradigm of socialist realism shifted cultural production away from plurality and diversity toward ‘a universal character’ that was ‘accompanied by a shift towards totalitarian structures’7 used to construct
a ‘stabilised type of consciousness’.8 These conditions set the stage for a film industry
dominated by programmatic narratives – the basis for socialist realist genre cinema.
Turovskaya located an anonymous report from 1927 in the uncatalogued Sovkino files
held at the Central State Archive of the October Revolution that asserts:
The slogan of Soviet cinema enterprises is: ‘Our films must be 100 per cent ideologically correct and 100 per cent commercially viable.’ Soviet film must be highly
profitable. It can only be an instrument of Communist enlightenment if it is accepted
by the audience with pleasure. We therefore declare that the ‘commercially profitable
film’ and the ‘ideologically correct film’ are not mutually exclusive categories but rather
complementary to one another. The principle place in the repertoire must be occupied
by heroic pictures. The aim of these films is to mobilize the masses. The second place
must go to pictures on the problems of everyday life in the transitional epoch. In third
place – less significant but more numerous – should be entertainment pictures, the aim
of which should be to attract the masses to cinema to fight against the more harmful
leisure activities of the population such as drunkenness, hooliganism and so on.9
Not only do ideological and educative goals crossover with clearly stated economic (i.e.,
profitable, mercenary and commercial) goals, but the three thematic categories – heroic
pictures, pictures of everyday life and entertainment films – can be read as a framework
of particular genres. Turovskaya links heroic pictures to the historical-Revolutionary film
and it does not take much effort to draw a connection between entertainment pictures
and the Stalinist musical.
If in 1927 an industry based on genre cinema was suggested, but lacked a formal
spokesman, then by 1934 Boris Shumiatskii, who from 1930–1937 headed Soiuzkino
(formerly Sovkino), the centralized Soviet film organization, was poised to articulate such
a plan clearly. Shumiatskii called for ‘genres that are infused with optimism, mobilizing
emotions, cheerfulness, joie-de-vivre, and laughter’ and stressed the need for drama,
comedy and fairy tales.10
It might seem that the flourishing of genre cinema under Stalin contradicts the initial
premise of this argument – namely, that genre cinema has since the 1920s been rejected
What Does zhanr Mean in Russian? 29
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as bourgeois. It is this paradox that complicates attempts to sum up the connotative
meaning of genre cinema in the Russian context. The official rhetoric of Stalinism highlights this inconsistency: even as the production of genre cinema was officially advocated
in the thematic plans of the 1930s, specific genres labels were villainized as antithetical
to Soviet ideological goals. Richard Taylor grants that ‘[a]lthough the term musical was
not used at the time, because it was deemed to be redolent of “bourgeois” Hollywood,
[…] the terms comedy or musical comedy prevailed’.11 Nina Dymshits similarly references
genre renaming; she notes that in the 1930s the word ‘melodrama’ does not appear on
posters or in the titles of films. Furthermore, she explains that the category of melodrama ‘gradually disappears from film reference books even in reference to those films
of the 1920s, which were consciously constructed in this genre and were openly called
melodramas by their authors’.12 As with street, city and even peoples’ names at this time,
the melodrama was masked with a more Soviet, or, at least, a less obviously bourgeois
designation: ‘[b]eginning in the 1930s through the mid-1970s melodrama lives under
other names: the musical comedy, the film story, the film drama, and sometimes even
This paradox – the rise of genre under Stalinism and the persistent negative connotation of genre cinema – is, perhaps, not a paradox at all. The politicized use and rejection
of genre categories underscores film genre theorist Rick Altman’s assertion that genres
‘are not inert categories shared by all […], but discursive claims made by real speakers
for particular purposes in specific situations’.14 With only brief mention of two discrete
genres from the Stalinist period (i.e., the historical-Revolutionary film and the musical
comedy), this remains a partial picture of genre cinema of the time. The goal here is not
to characterize Stalinist genre cinema fully, but to underscore the conscious development
of genres within a highly politicized cultural landscape.
That Stalinist culture limited artistic expression is no surprise. The conventional narratives articulated via a socialist realist framework functioned as a type of censorship: tell
the story one way or don’t tell it at all. The difficulty of making films that conformed to
the goals laid out in the thematic plans curtailed artistic freedom and is one factor that
resulted in fledging film output through the mid-1930s. While the thematic plans of 1935
dictated that 130 films be made and the 1936 plan aimed for 165 films, those years saw
only 45 and 46 films, respectively.15 Thinking about genre cinema within this historical
context helps to understand that the narrative limitations intrinsic to Soviet genre cinema
during the 1930s and 1940s functioned as a mechanism of political suppression.
Genre cinema did not disappear under Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, nor did
thematic and production plans, which were used to revitalize the industry after hitting its
nadir following World War II.16 However, the Thaw era did provide, if only temporarily,
relative artistic freedoms. Josephine Woll, in her characterization of post-Stalinist cinema,
asserts that
[a]fter years of imposed aesthetic homogeneity, film-makers were able to explore a
spectrum of artistic approaches. Instead of one way to depict objects and individuals
on screen, they could choose a variety of ways; instead of a single, predictable and
judgmental authorial stance, they could offer multiple perspectives.17
The new creative space occupied by this ‘creative intelligentsia’ propelled auteur-driven
Soviet cinema onto the international scene in 1958, when Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes
are Flying (1957) captivated audiences and critics from the Soviet Union to Cannes,
where it won the Golden Palm. Also during this period, from the late 1950s through the
mid-1960s, Soviet auteurs debuted (including Kira Muratova and Aleksandr Askol’dov),
as well as the auteur extraordinaire, Andrei Tarkovskii. However, the rise of the ‘creative intelligentsia’ was far from permanent. The pendulum quickly swung in the other
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direction and the production of auteur cinema was curtailed as certain of these directors’ films were put ‘on the shelf’ – the euphemism for censoring a film by taking it out
of circulation. As Soviet culture entered into Brezhnev’s Stagnation era, the increasingly
repressive atmosphere forced auteurs back into relative silence. Again filmmakers were
forced to privilege the state’s political goals over their individual artistic or aesthetic aspirations; again directors returned to cinematic conventions associated with genre-driven
cinema. Thus, another peak in the active production of genre cinema occurs during the
repressive cultural freeze that takes place during Stagnation (1964–1985). The cinema
industry under Brezhnev reinstated rigorous, authoritarian policies while simultaneously
encouraging commercially successful popular culture.
In October 1976 a group of film scholars gathered at the conference ‘The Problems of
Genres at the Contemporary Moment of Soviet Cinema Development’ organized by the
Research Institute of Cinema Studies and History (NIIK) and the Screenwriting Editorial Board of Goskino. The papers presented at this conference were published in 1979
under the title Genres of Cinema (Zhanry kino), the only Soviet books dedicated entirely
to film genre. In his introduction to the collection, Boris Pavlenok, the deputy director at
Goskino, writes: ‘Of course, it is simple to label any popular film with the almost abusive
epithet “commercial” film’.18 He goes on, though, to suggest that success must be measured not by box-office figures, but by the ability of films to teach audiences. Thus genre
cinema is characterized as politically correct because it is not economics that matter, but
the teachings of Marxist-Leninism.
The challenge of this ideological imperative comes through in Valentin Chernykh’s
contribution to the conference’s papers. Chernykh, a screenplay writer, wrote about the
‘production film’ as a new genre of the era. In the middle of his contribution, buried quietly
among expected political catch-phrases of the day, is a comment that hints at the danger
associated with producing for the state. Chernykh defines Soviet cinema as auteur even
within his article on the production film genre. He writes: ‘[…] our cinema is, on the whole,
a directorial cinema [… a] director makes one film in three years in the best of situations.
Our directors are therefore very afraid of making mistakes. To make a mistake is certainly
for them really terrible: every failure is a trauma that lasts for several years’.19
Although couched in the language of the artist’s responsibility to his own craft, this
admission of fear hints at the repressive nature of filmmaking under Brezhnev. To understand that Soviet cinema is directorial is to understand that the blame for ideological
impurity is targeted at the director; deviation from acceptable narratives (wittingly or
not) can be a politically dangerous act. The resulting fear, we might conjecture, results in
directors rushing back to genre filmmaking: ‘Genres became, one might say, a no man’s
land, towards which cinematographers willingly rushed and where they found great
creative freedom’.20 Genre filmmaking offered safe, predictable territory, where directors
were required to guess less and risk less.
Prominent Soviet film scholar Neya Zorkaya describes the division among Stagnationera directors: ‘The cinema became a particular social environment thanks to its dual
nature: there was the sphere of government planning, on the one hand, and individual
creative work, on the other’.21 To the intelligentsia, among whom Zorkaya ranked highly,
directors who succumbed to state pressure and made the genre films required of them
relinquished their status as artists. Describing the three directors she values most highly
in this period – Vasilii Shukshin, Andrei Tarkovskii and Otar Ioseliani – Zorkaya commends
them for having ‘spiritually departed from Soviet ideological service’ and creating cinema
based on ‘dictates of the heart, and not social order’.22 Whereas Chernykh admits fear,
Zorkaya admires the fearless.
Although tempting to read Zorkaya’s division between government hacks and true artists
as parallel to genre and auteur cinema, it would be incorrect. Cinema with mass appeal
flourished during Stagnation. While the number of films made annually (approximately
What Does zhanr Mean in Russian? 31
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150 per year from 1965–1985) assured a sufficient supply of average-at-best films, there
were also an incredible number of popular blockbusters. Certain of the most popular,
genre-driven blockbusters bore a distinct authorial stamp. The comedies of Leonid Gaidai
and El’dar Riazanov, the master of the sad comedy, regularly broke box-office highs. The
prominent and immensely popular Stagnation author and director Shukshin further complicates attempts to divide popular, genre-driven cinema from auteur cinema.
At the cusp of the Stagnation and Glasnost eras in the mid-1980s, film directors – like
much of the rest of Soviet society – sought to break free from the ideological freeze and
cultural strictures that characterized Leonid Brezhnev’s rule in late Soviet history. The frustration with a repressive, fear-inducing cinema industry that forced directors to adhere
to genre conventions – even if some of these genres films were made by auteurs – came
to a head at the Fifth Congress of the Russian Filmmakers’ Union (May 1986), held three
months after Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed glasnost and perestroika at the 27th Party
Congress in February 1986. This Congress of the Filmmakers’ Union turned the tables
on state control. Among the first orders of business was the establishment of a Conflict
Commission, which went on to release hundreds of films that had been censored – or
put on the shelf – and curbed the censorship that had prohibited artistically experimental
or critical films during Stagnation. This delayed release of confiscated films helped to
resurrect auteur directors whose careers were initiated, but cut short, during the mid1960s. For approximately a decade following this 1985 revolt, auteur cinema flourished
and slowly overtook genre film. As in the Thaw, the cultural liberation experienced
during Glasnost prompted the movement away from genre and back to auteur. This late
Soviet cultural thaw renewed Russian cinema’s presence on the foreign festival circuit.
Since 2004, there has been an upsurge in film production. In an effort to revitalize, the
post-Soviet Russian cinema industry – which includes the new profession of film producers alongside directors, actors, screenwriters and critics – has begun to think about
genre again. The revitalization of the post-Soviet film industry depends on genre cinema.
Domestic production of genre cinema not only helps Russian cinema compete against
the flood of American movies into its theatres but, moreover, it has catalyzed annual film
production. However, despite these benefits, genre cinema continues to be ignored by
the vanguard of the intelligentsia within the industry: that is to say, film critics continue to
scorn genre cinema as insignificant and undeserving of their attention.
At the 2001 roundtable, ‘Director versus Producer’, dedicated to an investigation of
this relatively new industry relationship, film scholar Elena Stishova made the following
scathing remarks of her colleagues:
The critics endlessly moan about how we need genre cinema capable of competing
with and battling against the dominance of American cinema on our screens, etc.
Voila! Finally, genre cinema, about which we’ve dreamt for so long, has appeared. […]
However, last summer at the Open Russian Festival in Sochi, the studio NTV-Profit
showed seven new films. For the first time in the last decade it became clear: in our
native land they have come up with, devised, made, and offered the audience good or
bad, but a totally professional genre cinema. And what kind of the reaction came from
the critics? By and large a negative one!23
This attitude held by Russian film scholars has kept serious study of genre cinema to a
minimum. Although the pages of scholarly journals dedicated to cinema are punctuated
with genre labels – thus acknowledging that films conform to certain genre conventions
– there are virtually no sustained studies of individual genres written by Russian scholars
of post-Soviet cinema.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle blocking the Russian intelligentsia’s path to genre
scholarship is their insistence on separating genre from auteur. The Russian university
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textbook on the history of Russian cinema wisely states on its final pages that ‘it has
become clear that no uncrossable divide exists between auteur and entertainment projects; to the contrary, their interaction often leads to the appearance of great cinema, in
which every viewer can find his interest’.24
Dawn Seckler
1. Denise Youngblood, ‘“We don’t know what to laugh at”: Comedy and satire in
Soviet cinema’, in Andrew Horton (ed.), Inside Soviet Film Satire, Cambridge:
Cambridge UP (1993), pp. 36–47 (37).
2. In Dmitrii Komm, ‘Dolzhniki i kreditory’, Iskusstvo kino 2 (2002), pp. 93–103 (95).
3. Various Contributors, ‘Siuzhety i geroi: zapadnye zhanry v rossiiskom kino’, Seans
19–20 (2004).
heroes-ganry/. Accessed 27 February 2010.
4. NEP, the New Economic Policy (1921–1928), was a period of compromise during
which private enterprise was allowed in small industry with the goal to jump-start the
economy following the Civil War.
5. Richard Stites, Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900,
Cambridge: Cambridge UP (1992), pp. 30–32.
6. Maya Turovskaya, ‘The 1930s and 1940s: Cinema in context’, in Richard Taylor and
Derek Spring (eds), Stalinism and Soviet Cinema, London: Routledge (1993),
pp. 34–53 (37).
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., p. 42.
9. Ibid., p, 43.
10. Boris Shumiatskii, ‘Zadachi templana 1934 goda’, Sovetskoe kino 11 (1933), pp. 1–4.
11. Richard Taylor, ‘Singing on the Steppes for Stalin: Ivan Pyr’ev and the Kolkhoz
Musical in Soviet Cinema’, Slavic Review 58.1 (1999), pp. 143–159 (146).
12. Nina Dymshits, Sovetskaia kinomelodrama vchera i segodnia, Moscow: Znanie
(1987), p. 21.
13. Ibid.
14. Rick Altman, Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute (1999), p. 101.
15. Richard Taylor, ‘Ideology as mass entertainment: Boris Shumyatsky and Soviet
cinema in the 1930s’, in Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (eds), Inside the Film Factory,
London: Routledge (1991), pp. 193–216 (215).
16. From 1945–1950 approximately nineteen films were made annually. In 1951 production hit an all time low; only nine films were completed.
17. Josephine Woll, Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw, London: I.B. Tauris
(2000), p. 12.
18. In Valerii Fomin (ed.), Zhanry kino, Moscow: Iskusstvo (1979), p. 9.
19. Ibid., p. 271.
20. L. Budiak (ed.), Istoriia otechestvennogo kino, Moscow: Progress-Traditsiia (2005),
p. 447.
21. Neya Zorkaya, The Illustrated History of Soviet Cinema, New York: Hippocrene
Books (1989), p. 396.
22. Ibid., p. 395.
23. ‘Direktor protiv prodiusera’, Iskusstvo kino 4 (2001), pp. 166–174 (174).
24. Budiak, p. 510.
What Does zhanr Mean in Russian? 33
Directory of World Cinema
Evgenii Bauer
Evgenii Bauer
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Moscow, Russia
Place of Residence:
Moscow, Russia
Evgenii Bauer was born to an artistic family: his father was a Russified
Czech, Franz Bauer, and a famous zither player; his mother was an
opera singer. In 1887 Evgenii Bauer graduated from the Moscow
School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and started his career
in the arts. Before turning to cinematography, Bauer worked as a
caricaturist, photographer, theatre producer, impresario and set
designer. He joined the film industry at the age of forty-seven. He
started at the Drankov studio, where he designed the set for the costume drama Tercentenary of the Rule of the Romanov Dynasty (1913).
Bauer also shortly worked for Pathé as set designer and later director.
However, it was after joining the most powerful studio at the time,
the Khanzhonkov studio, in late 1913 that he became one of the most
popular and highest paid directors in pre-Revolutionary Russia.
In the 1890s Bauer had married the dancer and actress Lina
Ancharova, who proved to be a genuine and talented comedienne
and starred in such comedies as Cold Showers (1914) and The 1002nd
Ruse (1915). Generally speaking, Bauer’s work can be divided into
two parts: theatrical comedies and farces, and psychological dramas.
Bauer started with the latter, also known as ‘drawing room dramas’;
his first film Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913) belongs to this genre.
The film tells about a young aristocratic woman who is raped by a
commoner and then rejected by her husband after admitting the
truth. In typical melodramatic fashion, she rejects her husband when
he returns to her years later, and he kills himself. Significantly, Bauer’s
films were known not only for their dramatic plots but also for experimentation in filmmaking. Already in 1913, in Twilight of a Woman’s
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Soul, he employed close-up photography and experimented with
light and shadow to create psychological effects. In addition, the film
included a dream sequence shot through a veil, which was a quite
innovative for the time.
Another popular film was Child of the Big City (1914), a story about
a young girl who falls victim to the glamorous life in the city. Among
other things, the film was noted for its beautiful decorations used to
emphasize the temptations for the young heroine. In the same year
Bauer made Silent Witnesses, which depicted a tragic love affair
between a servant and her master. The film has a minimum of intertitles, and the storyline builds on concise editing. Silent Witnesses is
also famous as a new ‘encyclopedia’ of Russian life, especially fashion
and style. With Bauer’s experience as stage director and designer, his
films were often criticized for being too stylized, too concerned with
the set rather than the acting.
Despite his attention to detailed décor and mise-en-scène, Bauer
had a profound interest in actors and acting. Actor and director Ivan
Perestiani made his debut in Bauer’s Driver, Don’t Flog the Horses
(1916) and performed in many other films. Bauer also opened the
path for such stars of silent cinema as Vera Kholodnaia, Ivan Mozzhukhin, Vitol’d Polonskii and the ballerina Vera Karalli. Lev Kuleshov,
a prominent Soviet film theorist and director, started working in
the film industry as designer for Bauer’s films. In 1915 Bauer made
Children of the Age starring Vera Kholodnaia, a film famous for its
décor. In the same year he made two films on the topic of death and
love, or life after death: the provocative Daydreams and After Death
(starring Vera Karalli), based on Ivan Turgenev’s story ‘Klara Milich’.
In After Death Bauer used one of his favourite techniques: a threeminute ‘track out’ to emphasize the main character’s uneasiness while
meeting the guests. In general, Bauer liked to utilize tracking shots for
a dramatic effect, as in The Dying Swan (1916, with Polonskii and Karalli), based on the famous novella by Zoia Barantsevich. In 1916 Bauer
made another expensive and fashionable production, A Life for a Life,
based on the French novel by Georges Ohnet, starring Kholodnaia,
Polonskii and Perestiani.
In addition to melodramas and comedies, Bauer created several
historical films, making a total of over 80 films between 1913 and
1917. In 1914 Bauer makes a series of patriotic war pictures, including Glory to Us and Death to the Enemy with actor Ivan Mozzhukhin.
The film is remarkable for an episode of an air-battle in which Bauer
fuses documentary footage with acting. During the Great War, when
anti-German sentiments were strong, Bauer worked under his wife’s
maiden name, Ancharov. In 1917 Bauer filmed a historical-Revolutionary picture, The Revolutionary, which Ivan Perestiani co-wrote and
starred in. After the Revolution Bauer and the Khanzhonkov company
moved to Yalta. During the making of For Happiness Bauer broke his
leg but continued to work on his next film, The King of Paris. However, the injury was affected by complications and Bauer died in Yalta
on 22 June 1917; the actress Olga Rakhmanova completed the film
after his death.
Mariya Boston
Directors 35
Directory of World Cinema
Sergei Eisenstein, 1931, Kobal
Directory of World Cinema
Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein
Date of Birth:
22 January 1898
Place of Birth:
Riga, Russian Empire
Place of Residence:
Golden Medal at the
International Exhibition for
Decorative Art, Paris (1925,
1926), Best Film, American Film
Academy (Battleship Potemkin,
1926), Stalin Prize (1941, 1946)
Sergei Eisenstein is one of the great pioneers of cinema, both as filmmaker and film theorist. He had a roller-coaster career in the Soviet
Union, alternately benefitting from state commissions and suffering
from official rebuke. All of his films use unlikely combinations of formal
and narrative elements to challenge viewers into engaging actively in
the process of making meaning from visual experience.
Eisenstein was born in Riga, the son of a well-known architect;
his parents divorced when he was eleven and he remained with his
domineering father, while his mother moved to St Petersburg. Eisenstein was headed for a career in engineering when the Revolution
intervened. In the Civil War he fought on the Bolshevik side (though
he would never join the Communist Party) and afterwards worked for
the revolutionary theatre troupe, Proletkult, but soon left the theatre
for film. Between 1924 and 1929 he made four feature films, all on
themes of revolution and building socialism: Strike (1924), Battleship
‘Potemkin’ (1925), October (1928) and The General Line (renamed
The Old and the New, 1929). Potemkin made Eisenstein famous
around the world for its extensive use of radical montage, or juxtaposition of shots for dramatic and political effect.
In 1929 Eisenstein travelled to Europe and the United States, ostensibly to study new sound technology, but also to explore the possibilities
of making films in the West and raising money for the strapped Soviet
film industry. Eisenstein’s stay in Hollywood produced three treatments
and zero films. He was about to return home when the socialist writer
Upton Sinclair offered to fund a film about Mexico. Eisenstein spent
more than a year shooting Que Viva Mexico!, a film about the presence of traditional and indigenous cultures in modern, urban Mexico.
Eisenstein loved Mexico; he made many friends there, had his first
sexual relationships with men and with women; and reignited his love of
drawing, but wild cost-overruns and the discovery of a cache of ‘pornographic’ drawings led Sinclair to halt the project. At the same time Stalin
wanted Eisenstein back in Russia. Sinclair promised to send the footage
on to Moscow, but kept it and allowed other filmmakers to edit parts of
it, which Eisenstein experienced as a traumatic betrayal.
Directors 37
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In his absence, the Soviet Union had gone through a major
upheaval with the consolidation of Stalin’s power. Exhilarating ideas
of the 1920s about art serving society had become rigid guidelines of
artistic institutions controlled by the Communist Party. Movies were
to be made ‘for the masses’ and they had to be strictly conventional
in terms of narrative and style. Eisenstein struggled to conform to
these new requirements, unable to shed his rebellious imagination.
Each of his proposals for new projects was denied. In the meantime,
he became a popular teacher at the All-Union State Film Institute,
he embarked on serious film theory, and he made drawings. He was
subject to harsh criticism during this period for the ‘formalism’ of his
theory and his lack of productivity.
Political attacks culminated in 1937, when Eisenstein was nearing completion of a film based on a story by Ivan Turgenev, Bezhin
Meadow, but organized around a sensationalized incident in which a
young boy, Pavlik Morozov, was murdered after denouncing his father
as a counter-Revolutionary. Eisenstein turned the film into an Abraham
and Isaac parable. The head of the film industry, Boris Shumiatskii,
stopped production and denounced Eisenstein to the Central Committee, which decided to allow Eisenstein to continue working as a
director and, in a horrifying turn of events, had Shumiatskii arrested
and subsequently shot.
In 1938 Eisenstein produced his most conventional film, a hagiographical depiction of medieval ruler Alexander Nevsky. It became
his most popular film, though he considered it an embarrassment. If
Bezhin Meadow threatened his life, Alexander Nevsky saved it and
then brought him to the heights of fame and success: in 1939 he won
the Order of Lenin; in 1941 Nevsky won the Stalin Prize. He was given
cash, a new apartment and a car. He was made artistic director of
In January 1941, Eisenstein was commissioned to make a film about
Ivan the Terrible as part of a campaign to recruit tsarist rulers as historical precedents for Russian state nationalism and authoritarian rule.
Eisenstein wrote a screenplay that emphasized two achievements: the
establishment of a centralized state against the will of the aristocratic
elite, the boyars; and the successful defeat of non-Russian neighbours
in the east and in the west. A draft of the screenplay was finished in
spring 1941, but shortly after that Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
In October, the film studios were evacuated to Alma-Ata, where Eisenstein would develop ideas for a complex psychological treatment
of Ivan’s evolution from visionary revolutionary to murderous tyrant.
Filming took place between 1943 and 1945. Part I was approved
in late 1944, released in early 1945 and received the Stalin Prize in
late 1945. Part II was finished in early 1946, but was banned by the
Central Committee in March. Eisenstein was in hospital when the film
was screened for Stalin, having suffered a heart attack the night he
finished Part II. Part II would only be released in 1958 and Part III was
never finished. A life of intense work in difficult circumstances took its
toll on Eisenstein. He died of a second heart attack in 1948, at age
fifty, hard at work at his desk.
From the very beginning of his career, Eisenstein was as interested
in thinking about the way we perceive films as in making them: theory
Directory of World Cinema
and practice were always intertwined. Eisenstein believed that cinema
was the highest of the arts, because it was capable of incorporating the history of all the arts into a new form that utilized movement, making its images correspond more closely to the cognitive
and emotional responses of our brains. His work in the 1920s was
focused on the cognitive and emotional effects of images following
one another in cinematic time. ‘Montage’ or editing, compelled the
viewer to supply significance to streams of incongruous images. His
work in Mexico brought him in contact with ethnography and cultural
evolution, enriching ideas about montage. He came to believe that
an art work achieved greatness when it was constructed in ways that
corresponded to universal structures of human cognitive perception.
Unlike earlier montage, which focused narrowly on visual constructions, his concept in the 1930s and 1940s incorporated sound, colour,
movement and complex dialectical structures. The viewer was still to
be provoked but now the challenges were organized around multiple
layers of dialectical visual cues, including everything from set details,
to patterns of actors’ movements, to synchronization of musical score
with visual images, to rhythms of continuity and disruption, to narrative flow and misdirection and so on.
Joan Neuberger
Directors 39
Directory of World Cinema
Dziga Vertov, 1920, Kobal.
Dziga Vertov
Date of Birth:
2 January 1896
Place of Birth:
Białystok, Poland
Place of Residence:
Silver Medal at the International
Exhibition for Decorative Art,
Paris (1925),Special Jury Prize at
the Venice Film Festival (1934)
Dziga Vertov was born David Abelevich (later changed to Denis
Arkad’evich) Kaufman on 2 January 1896 in Białystok, Poland (then
part of the Russian Empire). After taking on this dynamic, Futurist
pseudonym, joining the Moscow Cinema Committee in Spring 1918,
Vertov made his reputation with the Kino-Pravda Soviet newsreel
series, so-called by analogy with the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda.
This series revolutionized the power of the newsreel form to persuade
and analyse, rather than simply inform or describe. While these are all
short films, his History of the Civil War (1921) and Kino-Eye (1924) are
among the first attempts at a feature-length documentary, and mark
him as a pioneer of the form which was taking shape internationally in
this decade. Crucially, this period saw Vertov team up with his brother,
Mikhail Kaufman, who was the cameraman for all of his silent films,
and his wife, Elizaveta Svilova, who edited all the films, and played an
increasingly important role as assistant and co-director after the split
with Kaufman in 1929.
In the years 1921–1926, Vertov was the major figure in Soviet newsreel and documentary, and a seminal influence on the montage film
style made famous by Sergei Eisenstein, despite the fierce polemics
between the two. His theoretical writings in this period range from the
Directory of World Cinema
early poetic manifesto ‘We’ to increasingly pragmatic attempts to define
documentary according to a minimally staged ‘Kino-Eye’ method of filming, intended to serve as a template for emulation. In 1926, Vertov was
able to make two further technically groundbreaking films in Moscow:
Foward Soviet!, a celebration of Moscow’s progress since the end of the
Russian Civil War in 1921, and A Sixth Part of the Earth, an apology for
the emergent ‘Socialism in One Country’ policy in fact commissioned
to promote Soviet exports. However, Vertov’s radical conception of
documentary, ambitions for a grassroots movement of film journalists
and aspiration that documentary dominate repertoires combined to
marginalize him, and he was forced to leave Moscow and to join the
semi-autonomous Ukrainian film organization VUFKU in 1926. Here he
made three of his most enduring works: Eleventh Year (1928), Man with
a Movie Camera (1929) and one of the first Soviet sound films: Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931). While Man with a Movie Camera
is rightly considered his masterpiece, each of these films was formally
innovative, although they did not enjoy critical or commercial success.
After Enthusiasm’s hostile domestic reception, especially because of
its innovative approach to sound, Vertov left Ukraine and, overcoming
numerous administrative and technical obstacles, made his next film,
Three Songs of Lenin (1934), on location in the Far East for Moscow’s
Mezhrabpomfilm. This marked a new stage in his evolution, as he
adapted to the more rigid political climate, and narrower limitations on
the use of sound. Central to this new approach was the emphasis upon
the recording of folk music performances as a way of retaining sound
with an aura of authenticity and avoiding the stultifying effects of the
voice-over. Three Songs of Lenin was officially praised, but with noticeable reluctance, due to the marginal role Stalin and Russia (rather than
the Far East) occupy in it, and so as not to encourage Vertov unduly.
Similarly, when Vertov completed Lullaby in 1938, which resembles
Three Songs of Lenin, but emphasizes Stalin more, it was barely mentioned in part because Vertov’s potential influence on documentary
filmmakers was still feared, and he had to be tightly controlled. In the
last pre-war years, most of Vertov’s projects were rejected, and those
that were accepted and completed were undistinguished.
During the war (1941) Vertov was evacuated to Kazakhstan, where
he was able to make several more films, the most significant of which
by far was For You at the Front (1942). This continued the folkloric
approach of Three Songs of Lenin and Lullaby, and is effectively the
last work in which one can discern Vertov’s distinct artistic sensibility.
Once again the film was effectively suppressed, and in the antiSemitic climate that began to intensify in the USSR from 1943 until
Stalin’s death in 1953, Vertov, ethnically Jewish, was further marginalized, denounced and relegated to editing standardized newsreels.
Since his death, in 1958, Vertov’s influence has grown steadily after
republication of his writings in the 1960s enabled first the Soviet and
then an international public to acquaint themselves first with his rich
theoretical legacy, and subsequently with his films. The last decade
has seen more works published about Vertov than any other, as his
appeal and influence grow on the twenty-first century.
Jeremy Hicks
Directors 41
Directory of World Cinema
Andrei Tarkovsky, Kobal.
Directory of World Cinema
Andrei Tarkovskii
Date of Birth:
4 April 1932
Place of Birth:
Places of Residence:
Moscow and Paris
Golden Lion, Venice Film
Festival (1962); FIPRESCI at
Cannes Film Festival (1969,
1972, 1986); Grand Jury Prize
at Cannes Film Festival (1972,
1986); Ecumenical Jury Prize
at Cannes Film Festival (1979,
1983, 1986); Director Prize at
Cannes Film Festival (1983);
People’s Artist of the RSFSR
Andrei Tarkovskii was born into a prominent family of intellectuals. His father, Arsenii Tarkovskii, was a respected but somewhat
marginal poet who left his family soon after Andrei’s birth, and the
director grew up in a household consisting of his mother Mariia
Vishniakova and sister Marina. He began his university studies at an
institute for oriental languages, but soon left and, after a term spent
on a geological expedition, enrolled in 1955 at the All-Union State
Institute for Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow, with the intention
of becoming a director. Tarkovskii’s education at VGIK formed him
as a distinctly Soviet filmmaker in the academic tradition established by Sergei Eisenstein. After assisting Marlen Khutsiev on the
film The Two Fedors in 1956, which starred Tarkovskii’s classmate
Vasilii Shukshin, Tarkovskii and his future brother-in-law Aleksandr
Gordon co-directed the short film The Killers in 1956, based on
Ernest Hemingway’s short story and also featuring Shukshin. More
accomplished is Tarkovskii’s made-for-television movie There Will Be
No Leave Today (1958), which became a staple of TV celebrations of
World War II.
By contrast with his early noir, Tarkovskii’s first feature film Steamroller and Violin (1960) appears a quaint and harmless cinematic
poem, provocative only in its unabashed innocence. It tells of the
friendship between the young musician Sasha and a steamroller driver
Sergei, who saves the little boy and his fragile violin from the bullies
who hang around Sasha’s building in post-war Moscow. A revelry of
friendship is curtailed by the intervention of Sasha’s mother, and Sasha
is left to dream of a symphonic harmony between brightly coloured
steamrollers and people in the pristine city-scape. Following Steamroller and Violin, Tarkovskii was offered a full position as a director in
Mosfilm’s First Creative Unit. His first assignment was Ivan’s Childhood
(1962), based on a story by Vladimir Bogomolov about a young child
scout during World War II. Ivan’s Childhood attracted broad praise
and instigated extensive comment.
Tarkovskii ran into trouble with Andrei Rublev (1966), a historical
biopic of medieval Russia’s most famous icon-painter. Already during
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the shoot there emerged reports of Tarkovskii’s mistreatment of
animals and of historical landmarks. Tarkovskii’s first two cuts (the first
entitled The Passion according to Andrei) were rejected by Goskino.
The stalemate persisted until 1969, when the new version of the film
was approved under the title Andrei Rublev with a duration of 187
minutes. It was sold to a European distributor and was entered at the
Cannes Film Festival, out of official competition but to great acclaim.
The Soviet authorities allowed its domestic release only in 1971, after
Tarkovskii faced down calls for further cuts. Thereafter Tarkovskii and
the Goskino resigned themselves to an uneasy accommodation which
persisted right up to 1982.
Once the controversies over Andrei Rublev died down, Tarkovskii
began work in earnest on Solaris (1973), based on the sci-fi novel
by Stanislaw Lem concerning a team of scientists studying a distant
planet which is able to project their thoughts as material forms.
Though he toned down the scientific language and underscored the
ethical dilemmas of the situation, Tarkovskii basically hewed close
to the novel. The main exception is a long prologue on earth that
riled with Lem and almost threatened to scuttle the project. His first
feature film in colour, Solaris showed Tarkovskii eager to develop his
aesthetic in new directions. The success of Solaris at Cannes and at
the box office confirmed Tarkovskii as a major Soviet director and as
a thorn in the side of the authorities. The Mirror (1975), an autobiographical film originally entitled Confession, was tolerated by the
authorities more or less as a vanity project. Despite some friction
over its complex narrative structure Mirror was approved, its harmfulness having been curtailed by limited distribution, despite the
studio’s often voiced concern to maximize box-office receipts from
the film. Stalker (1979), based on a screenplay by Arkadii and Boris
Strugatskii, showed Tarkovskii continuing to re-think the sci-fi genre
as the basis for serious inquiry. The title character leads two others
(‘writer’ and ‘professor’) through an area contaminated by aliens
towards a room where desires are fulfilled. The quest turns out to be
a test of their desires, with the result that, upon reaching the room,
they hesitate before entering. Tarkovskii’s main interest is studying
the visual and aural conditions of desire and knowledge; Stalker is
his most aesthetically rich film.
With a commission from the Italian TV network RAI, Tarkovskii travelled to Italy in 1980 and 1982 to shoot Tempo di Viaggio and Nostalghia as joint Italian-Soviet productions. Tempo di Viaggio documents
the search for locations in Italy by Tarkovskii and his co-screenwriter
Tonino Guerra. The film itself presents Andrei Gorchakov, a Russian
poet in Italy, who is subject to the various stresses of dislocation. He
finds resolution in the ideas of a madman Domenico, with whom he
seems to merge. Unhappy with the attitude of the Soviet film authorities, in part over Nostalghia, in July 1984 Tarkovskii announced he
would never return to the USSR.
In the fallow periods between films, Tarkovskii contributed to
numerous film projects by other directors and pursued projects
outside of film. In 1965, Tarkovskii produced William Faulkner’s
‘Turnabout’ for Soviet radio, and in 1974–1975 he staged Hamlet in
Moscow. Tarkovskii staged Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at Covent
Directory of World Cinema
Garden in 1984, before shooting The Sacrifice in Sweden. A Bergmanesque film, which Tarkovskii described as his most dramatic
effort, Sacrifice presents the crisis of Aleksandr, an aging professor
of aesthetics, who makes a series of wagers with God in order to
avert nuclear war. The film ends with him burning down his cherished
house, in a famous long-take, one of Tarkovskii’s longest and most
By the time Tarkovskii completed the shoot of Sacrifice he had been
diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in a Paris clinic on 29 December
Robert Bird
Directors 45
Directory of World Cinema
Nikita Mikhalkov.
Nikita Sergeevich Mikhalkov
Date of Birth:
21 October 1945
Place of Birth:
Place of Residence:
Golden Lion at the Venice Film
Festival (1991); Grand Prix
at the Cannes Film Festival
(1994); Oscar for Best Foreign
Language Film (1995); Special
Prize at the Venice International
Film Festival (2007).
Nikita Mikhalkov was born in Moscow into a family belonging to the
Soviet intelligentsia. His father Sergei was a poet and playwright;
he wrote (with Garold El-Registan) the text of the Soviet national
anthem (1943, second version 1977), which he revised when the tune
was brought back as the national anthem of the Russian Federation
in 2000. Sergei Mikhalkov was one of the most popular authors of
children’s literature. Mikhalkov’s mother, the writer and poet Natalia
Konchalovskaia, was the daughter of the painter Petr Konchalovskii.
Under the Soviet system, the family changed the stress on the name
from Mikhálkov to Mikhalkóv to hide their aristocratic background.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Mikhalkov has shown excessive pride in the genealogy of his family, altering the stress back to
Mikhálkov and producing a family tree that goes back over 200 years
and connects the family to the painter Surikov, to the writers Pushkin,
Tolstoy, Odoevsky and Gogol, and to Catherine the Great.
Mikhalkov’s elder brother, Andrei (family pet-name Andron)
(Mikhalkov)-Konchalovskii (b. 1937), is also a filmmaker who made
many successful literary adaptations before his emigration in 1980. In
some of these early films Nikita appears as an actor (Nest of Gentlefolk, 1969 and Siberiade, 1978). Andrei Konchalovskii left the Soviet
Union to work in Hollywood, where he successfully continued filmmaking. In the early 1990s he returned to Russia where he has made
several films and also worked in the theatre.
Mikhalkov is a child of the Victory Year 1945: born in the immediate aftermath of World War II, he grew up during the last decade
of Stalin’s rule and spent his adolescence in a cultural climate that
reflected relaxation after Stalin’s purges and the hardship of the war.
Mikhalkov went to the school of the Moscow Conservatory, specializing in the piano, until he transferred to an ordinary school for the
last three years, during which he took part in an acting group in the
Directory of World Cinema
studio of the Stanislavsky Theatre. By this time the Khrushchev Thaw
(1956–1964) was well underway: Khrushchev had delivered his Secret
Speech, denouncing Stalin’s crimes, and a period of liberalization had
begun in the arts, and in theatre in particular. From 1963 onwards
Nikita Mikhalkov trained as an actor at the Shchukin School, a theatre
school attached to the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow. Having been
expelled in 1967 from the Shchukin School for absenting himself from
classes in order to film, and, armed with a recommendation from the
filmmaker Georgii Daneliia, who had directed young Nikita in I Walk
around Moscow (1963), Mikhalkov transferred to the All-Union State
Institute for Cinematography (VGIK) to study directing under Mikhail
Romm. He graduated from the Film Institute in 1971 with his diploma
film A Quiet Day at the End of the War (1970). Mikhalkov had begun
his career as an actor in the 1960s and continued to appear in films
after graduating as a film director. During the late 1960s and early
1970s he made a number of short films for the Fitil’ (‘Fuse’) series,
short satirical clips used as trailers in cinemas. He also began scriptwriting, and after completing the script for At Home among Strangers,
he was drafted into the army and served in the Pacific fleet and on the
Kamchatka peninsula.
After his army service he made his first feature, At Home among
Strangers, a Stranger at Home (1974), followed by A Slave of Love
(1975), both set in the years immediately following the Revolution.
Unfinished Piece for a Mechanical Piano (1977) bore testimony to
Mikhalkov’s talent for literary adaptation by presenting a version of
an early Anton Chekhov play, frequently referred to under the title
Fatherlessness (ca. 1878). Adaptations of Aleksandr Volodin’s Five
Evenings (1978) and Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (1979) followed.
Kinfolk (1981) and A Private Conversation (1983) dealt with life in
contemporary Russia. Mikhalkov thus moved in his films from the
Revolution through the classical heritage and the post-war period
towards the portrayal of the present. His growing reputation, nationally and internationally, led to the Italian production of Dark Eyes
(1987), another adaptation of Chekhov, followed by Hitchhike (1990).
At a time when Tarkovskii chose to remain in Italy, Mikhalkov was
representing Soviet cinema in an international project.
In 1991 he directed the French-Soviet co-production Urga, which
won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in the same year and
was nominated for the Academy Award in 1993. Burnt by the Sun
(1994), a melodrama set in 1936 that unfolds against the backdrop of
the Purges, won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994
and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1995. Finally, The
Barber of Siberia (1999), the most expensive Russian film with a $45
million budget, opened the Cannes Film Festival in 1999, an honour
rarely accorded to a Russian director. Although the film was not
entered in competition in any major festival, it was popular with Russian audiences, but it did not fare well commercially in international
distribution. After an almost ten-year gap, Mikhalkov released Twelve
(2007), a remake of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, for the Venice
International Film Festival, where it was awarded a special prize.
Birgit Beumers
Directors 47
Directory of World Cinema
Aleksandr Sokurov.
Directory of World Cinema
Aleksandr Sokurov
Date of Birth:
14 June 1951
Place of Birth:
Podorvikha, Irkutsk Region
Place of Residence:
Leningrad/St Petersburg
Merited Artist of the Russian
Federation (1997); State Prize
of Russia (1997, 2001); Best
Screenplay at Cannes IFF for
Moloch (1999); FIPRESCI Award
at Cannes IFF for Father and
Son (2003); People’s Artist of the
Russian Federation (2004)
Sokurov worked at the television studios in Gorky (now Nizhnii
Novgorod) while studying history at Gorky University from 1968 to
1974. In 1975 Sokurov enrolled at the All-Union State Institute for
Cinematography (VGIK), where he studied in the popular-scientific
section of the Department of Film Direction under the direction
of filmmaker Aleksandr Zguridi. Originally entitled ‘The Return of
Platonov’, Sokurov’s diploma project was supposed to weave scenes
from Andrei Platonov’s story ‘The River Potudan’ into the Soviet
writer’s biography. When the completed film Solitary Voice of a Man
turned out to be an experimental adaptation of the story, it was
rejected by VGIK and the administration ordered the destruction of
all copies. Sokurov was able to receive his degree for a documentary
he had made for television in Gorky, entitled The Summer of Mariia
Voinova (1978, later folded into Mariia, 1988). Sokurov also preserved
Solitary Voice of a Man, showed it at Lenfilm, where he was hired as a
director, and eventually released a re-edited version of it in 1987 (with
a dedication to Andrei Tarkovskii, who had supported Sokurov in his
Over the next ten years Sokurov made numerous films for Lenfilm
and for the Leningrad Studio of Documentary Film (LSDF) without any
of them reaching the screen. By the time perestroika began Sokurov
started to show his sizeable back-catalogue and, together with new
films made in the spirit of the time, quickly established himself as one of
the leading directors in alternative Soviet cinema (alongside fellow Leningrader Aleksei German). The feature films Days of Eclipse (1988) and
Second Circle (1990) brought him to the attention of the international
festival audience. His international status was reinforced by Mother and
Son (1996) and Moloch (1999), and he reached unprecedentedly large
audiences with Russian Ark (2002). In recent years Sokurov has also
worked in the theatre, staging Aleksandr Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri
and Modest Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov in 2007.
Though his films often defy neat classification as fiction or documentary, Sokurov’s uncanny productivity (at the time of writing his
filmography numbers 46 items, including 29 documentaries) and his
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fondness for compiling cycles of films (sometimes where a single
effort would suffice) makes it useful to divide his oeuvre into three
major groupings: feature films, documentaries and homages (which
he calls ‘elegies’). Most of Sokurov’s elegies commemorate individuals who figure broader histories, from Chaliapin to Yeltsin; here
Sokurov seems intent on capturing and preserving (or prolonging)
their physical presence in the world. Like his documentaries, these
elegies frequently feature voice-overs by the director and utilize video
technologies in original ways.
Many of his documentaries chronicle marginal modes of attending
to the world, such as farm work (Mariia), naval service (Confession,
1998), or the labour of an aging writer (Conversations with Solzhenitsyn, 1998); long in duration and low on story, they are almost
utopian in their melancholy absorption. They frequently build complex
landscapes that seem inspired by painterly models. Sokurov has also
made several quite stunning documentaries on current events, most
notably Evening Sacrifice (1987), which shows the firing of a holiday
salute over the Neva river and then documents the dispersal of the
holiday crowd down Nevsky Prospect; it is an eloquent testimony to
the death of Soviet rituals and the birth of new forms of community in
the late Soviet Union. His latest documentary is We Read the Book of
the Blockade (2009), in which residents of Petersburg read fragments
from Ales’ Adamovich and Daniil Granin’s book of testimonies about
the siege of Leningrad in 1942–1944.
Sokurov’s feature films fall into three sub-categories: literary adaptations, intimate dramas and historical dramas. By contrast with the
elegies and the documentaries, which have often been shot on video,
Sokurov’s feature films often seem designed specifically to pose and
test purely formal problems of optics and narrative, some of which
Sokurov traces to the Orthodox icon and modernist painting. Solitary
Voice of a Man extended the experimentation of Tarkovskii’s Mirror
into a study of visual textures. Days of Eclipse (1988, based on a
science-fiction tale by Arkadii and Boris Strugatskii) and Second Circle
(1990) are studies in optical alienation, as the camera views the action
as if from under a piece of furniture or from the next room, while the
focus is unsteady and the colour is washed out. The most conspicuous
element of Mother and Son is the use of anamorphic lenses, which
distort the lines of a vividly coloured garden of wonder. The principles
Sokurov established in Mother and Son for exploring intimate spaces
through various strategies of visual displacement and distortion have
been explored further in Father and Son (2005) and Alexandra (2007),
the dreamscapes of which share many features with those of his
With Moloch Sokurov struck out on a new path by using fictional
forms to explore a controversial political subject, namely the home
life of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. Here Sokurov historicizes the visual
strategies of his intimate dramas, exploring the psychological effects
of such visual media as the newsreel and technologies of surveillance. The principles Sokurov established here have been extended
in Taurus (2000, on Lenin) and Sun (2004, on Emperor Hirohito). The
concluding film in Sokurov’s planned tetralogy about power will be
devoted to Faust.
Directory of World Cinema
Sokurov’s numerous literary adaptations mostly combine the formal
experimentation of his feature films with elements of the homage
(with the exception of Days of Eclipse, he has only adapted classical texts). Sokurov is equally interested in the specific atmosphere
of the narrative for the reader and its roots in the specific milieu and
experience of the author. His adaptations of George Bernard Shaw’s
Heartbreak Hotel (Mournful Indifference, 1987) and Gustave Flaubert’s
Madame Bovary (Save and Preserve, 1989) are oblique glimpses of
motifs derived from the sources with little attempt to reproduce the
narratives. Whispering Pages (1993) combines an elegiac homage to
Dostoevsky with a rigorously experimental study of visual distortion
to create a hallucinatory improvisation on ‘the motifs of nineteenthcentury Russian literature’ (primarily Crime and Punishment). In accordance with its title, Whispering Pages thematizes the mood of the
literary medium itself as a material interface of experience, i.e., as a
medium. These films confirm Sokurov’s reputation as an unrivalled creator of visual textures, though the lack of narrative coherence severely
limits their accessibility.
Sokurov has developed a distinctive aesthetic and a dedicated
group of collaborators, including screenwriter Iurii Arabov, editor Leda
Semenova and actor Leonid Mozgovoi. Though Sokurov’s seeming ubiquity on Russian television and art-cinema screens somewhat
dilutes his effect, the director’s distinctive combination of traditionalist sentiment and optical experiment makes him a leading figure in
contemporary Russian culture.
Robert Bird
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Russia cinematic history began with a historical film. Vladimir
Romashkov’s Stenka Razin, which premiered on 15 October 1908, is
about the legendary Cossack rebel and his followers. The ten-minute
film features Razin and his men revelling, capturing a Persian Princess
and eventually throwing her into the Volga River. Romashkov’s turn
to this subject fits the time: songs singing the praises of Razin’s
seventeenth-century rebellion circulated throughout the empire,
and just two years before the film, the painter Vasilii Surikov finished
his monumental canvas, Stenka Razin Sailing in the Caspian Sea.
Romashkov’s film tapped both into this popularity for the tsarist-era
rebel and into the late tsarist interest in the past. At the time of the
film’s appearance, the tsarist state had established the first History
Museum, Vasilii Kliuchevskii dominated the academic study of history
and artists of all kinds explored the terrain of Russia’s pasts. Four years
after Stenka Razin, Vasilii Goncharov directed the first Russian feature,
The Defence of Sevastopol. This ‘hit’ recreated the heroic defence
of the Russian fortress during the Crimean War. From the beginning,
therefore, Russian filmmaking saw the re-creation of the past as a vital
part of Russian cinema.
After 1917, the relationship between history and cinema acquired a
political component. Vladimir Lenin’s famous declaration that ‘cinema
is the most important of the arts’ speaks to the significance cinema
had for the socialist state. It also captures the way that Bolshevik
ideology influenced film in general and the historical film in particular.
Sergei Eisenstein’s films from the 1920s best express the marriage of
the past to contemporary ideology that was at the heart of the initial
Bolshevik cultural project. This conflation of past and present for
political purposes can best be seen in the films made for the tenth
anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Eisenstein’s October (1927)
dramatized the seizure of the Winter Palace and helped to turn that
chaotic event into the defining moment of 1917. Vsevolod Pudovkin’s
The End of St Petersburg (1927) recast the Great War as the impetus
for Bolshevism, while Esfir’ Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty
(1927) used documentary footage to create a dynamic history of
Nikita Mikhalkov, Barber of Siberia (1999).
Historical Film 53
Directory of World Cinema
1917. All three recreate the past as Marxist-Leninist parables where the evil bourgeoisie
exploits the heroic masses. In all three, the chaos, violence and confusion of the actual
past did not matter. In 1927, the Revolution film did not recreate 1917; it created a dominant narrative of 1917.
Joseph Stalin’s consolidation of power brought with it a new cultural revolution and a
new form for the historical film. Stalinist cinematic uses of the past focused on the individual over the collective, turning Great Men of the past into models for the present. The
Vasil’ev brothers provided the script for this new cinematic history in their 1934 blockbuster Chapaev, Stalin’s favourite film. Based on the Dmitrii Furmanov novel, Chapaev
paints the Civil War as a patriotic defence of the Russo-Soviet motherland. The titular
character’s rough and gruff style, combined with his natural support for the Bolshevik
cause, provided audiences with an ideal screen hero from the past.
Peter the Great, Alexander Nevsky and even Ivan the Terrible also became Soviet
patriots in films from the 1930s and 1940s. Soviet films remade Lenin into a Stalinist
hero in offerings such as Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin (1934) and Mikhail
Romm’s Lenin in October (1937). When the Nazi armies invaded the USSR in 1941, a host
of historical biopics followed that reminded Soviet audiences of the patriotic heroism
displayed by their forefathers. Biographies became Stalinist history lessons that stressed
how Russians have always defended their motherland and that Russians made the most
significant contributions to world culture. Perhaps the greatest example of the biography-as-history in Stalinist cinema was Mikhail Chiaureli’s The Fall of Berlin, a seventieth
birthday present for the Soviet dictator that turned the Victory over the Nazis into Stalin’s
personal triumph.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, filmmakers began to focus on ‘unvarnished realism’ and
‘authenticity’ in their films. The heroic history and patriotic biography that had dominated the Stalinist historical film gave way to films that mostly focused on the present.
Still, Thaw-era filmmakers did not abandon the past, particularly the recent past. A host
of films re-examined the Great Patriotic War and challenged the narrative that Stalin had
alone orchestrated the Victory. Pudovkin’s 1953 The Return of Vasilii Bortnikov began this
process. His film explores the difficulties one veteran encounters when he tries to reintegrate into Soviet society after the war, a theme that Sergei Bondarchuk later tackled in
his 1959 film Fate of a Man and that Grigorii Chukhrai explored in his 1961 Clear Skies.
Most Thaw-era history films were made by a younger generation of directors, many of
whom fought in the war and began their careers after Stalin’s death. Mikhail Kalatozov’s
1957 The Cranes are Flying, Chukhrai’s 1959 Ballad of a Soldier and Andrei Tarkovskii’s
1962 Ivan’s Childhood all fit onto this generational category. All explored the individual
costs of war and overturned the Stalinist historical narrative of the war.
Nikita Khrushchev’s call to return to Leninist norms and his denunciation of Stalin’s cult
of personality helped to reinvigorate the Civil War film. Alov and Naumov’s Pavel Korchagin (1956) and Chukhrai’s The Forty-First (1956) both presented an updated, usable
Civil War for Soviet viewers. Korchagin was not a Chapaev-like hero while The Forty-First
had Reds and Whites fall in love. Aleksandr Askol’dov’s The Commissar (1967) broke
more taboos by challenging the myths of the Revolution itself. It was banned, along
with a series of other films from the 1960s and 1970s that explored problematic pasts.
Andrei Tarkovskii’s use of an historical icon-painter in Andrei Rublev (1965) also had to go
through several revisions before it could be screened because it made too many parallels
between the fate of artists in medieval Russia and the fate of artists in Soviet Russia.
Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (1965–1967) in many ways signalled a change
in the Soviet historical film to fit Brezhnev-era monumentalism. Begun in 1961, the film
debuted after films such as Andrei Rublev had run into trouble. Bondarchuk’s use of Leo
Tolstoy’s 1812 became a revision of the past that focused more on staggering battle
sequences and literary costume drama as history than on unvarnished realism. Iurii
Directory of World Cinema
Ozerov’s 500-minute Liberation (1969–1972) contained staggering battle scenes and
returned the narrative of the Great Patriotic War to a neo-Stalinist plotline. Bondarchuk’s
1975 They Fought for Their Motherland presented the war as a collection of patriotic
efforts by Soviet soldiers. Other epics, such as Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii’s Siberiade (1979–1980) revisited the myth of Siberia and its role in Russian history over the
course of generations while historical melodramas such as Nikita Mikhalkov’s Slave of
Love (1975) romanticized the old Russia that died during the Civil War.
Brezhnev-era films that challenged historical taboos were doomed to censorship:
Elem Klimov’s Rasputin (1974, rel. 1981), which depicted Nicholas II sympathetically and
blamed Rasputin for his downfall, sat on the shelf for seven years. Aleksei Iu. German’s
Trial on the Road (1971) spent sixteen years on the shelf because it explored the issues
of collaboration and occupation in World War II. By the time it appeared, the landscape
for historical films had changed dramatically.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to allow openness in Soviet culture created new possibilities for filmmakers to travel back to the past. Filmmakers took part in the efforts to fill in
the blank spots of history that Gorbachev called for: Instead of presenting a Thaw-like
picture of Leninist norms, they made films that questioned the very foundations of the
Soviet experiment. Banned films by Aleksei Iu. German and others became sensations,
revealing uncomfortable truths about the Soviet past. Aleksandr Proshkin’s The Cold
Summer of 53 (1987), to take one example, became a box-office sensation because
it explored the Gulag and the effects of imprisonment among a generation of Soviet
citizens. This return of history on the big screen had the effect of presenting the entire
Soviet experience as one unending catalogue of horrors. Historical films played their part
in the erosion of belief in Soviet socialism.
After 1991, Russian filmmakers continued to mine the past as a means of commenting
on the state of the present. Stanislav Govorukhin’s documentary The Russia We Have
Lost (1992) lent its name to cinematic and other artistic recreations of a romantic, preRevolutionary past. Other directors continued the Gorbachev-era explorations of history,
particularly the Stalin period. Mikhalkov’s Oscar-winning film Burnt by the Sun (1994)
absolves citizens of responsibility for Soviet violence by placing blame on Stalin. Aleksei
Iu. German’s Khrustalev, My Car! (1998), by contrast, depicts a nightmarish society that
envelopes and involves everyone.
By the end of the 1990s, with the Russian economy in shambles, many Russian filmmakers wanted cinema to become the source of patriotic pride. They found the past to
be ideal territory for revamping contemporary patriotism. Mikhalkov led the way with
his epic The Barber of Siberia (1999). Set in the 1880s, The Barber looks nostalgically at
the tsarist-era officer corps while also presenting a Chapaev-like hero for the post-Soviet
public. His Burnt by the Sun 2, released in 2010, resurrects his heroes from the first film
and has them defend their Russo-Soviet motherland during World War II. While Mikhalkov’s style of patriotic blockbuster history has done well at the Russian box office, other
directors have confronted his brand of nostalgic pasts. Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200
depicted 1984 as brutally as Aleksei German had depicted 1953 in Khrustalev, My Car!
Art house directors such as Pavel Grigor’evich Chukhrai and Aleksei Alekseevich German
filmed historical narratives that reframed the pre-Revolutionary, wartime and Brezhnevera pasts in nuanced ways. Russian filmmakers, it is evident, have not grown tired of
using the past to reinvent history for the present. The historical film remains one of the
most significant genres in Russian cinema.
Stephen M. Norris
Historical Film 55
Directory of World Cinema
Stenka Razin
Sten’ka Razin
Country of Origin:
Russian (intertitles)
Aleksandr Drankov
Stenka Razin and his gang engage in ‘wild revels’ on the Volga River.
Their boats mill about as the brigands wave their swords and hoist
their tankards. Eventually, all the men crowd onto a single ship. They
move to a forest clearing, where their revels are wilder yet. They drink
and carouse. A ‘Muslim princess’, Razin’s captive, dances at his command. The men fight. They are jealous that Razin’s attention has been
drawn away from the brotherhood and plot to destroy the princess.
They scheme to get Razin drunk and show him forged letters allegedly between the princess and ‘Prince Hassan’. Duped, the jealous
Razin drags the princess onto his ship. Although she begs for her life,
he lifts her up and throws her into the Volga.
Vladimir Romashkov
Vasilii Goncharov
Aleksandr Drankov, Nikolai
6 minutes
Historical Melodrama
Evgenii Petrov-Kraevskii
Poster for Stenka Razin (1908).
Directory of World Cinema
The story of a seventeenth-century Cossack rebel, Stenka Razin
has the honour of being the first fiction film produced by a Russian
studio, that of Aleksandr Drankov, a former court photographer in
St Petersburg. The film reveals some of the defining characteristics
of Russian cinema at its very beginnings: emphasis on a historical
figure (or literary text), a penchant for shooting on location, static
camera, liberal use of the extreme long shot, and long-takes. In the
opening scene, the boats bob aimlessly; one can almost hear the
director shouting at them to get closer to the mother ship. The forest
revels are shot at such a distance that the viewer can hardly tell what
is going on; one cannot distinguish faces, not even Stenka Razin’s.
Indeed, Razin himself is scarcely distinguishable from his men unless
he is embracing or dragging the princess. The intertitles are long and
literary, especially the two letters.
The choice of Razin as the ‘hero’ of Russia’s first native production is
an interesting one. A Don Cossack, Razin had achieved folkloric status
among peasants for his thieving escapades in the Caspian region
and quickly attracted a large peasant following when his aims turned
political. After Razin’s forces had succeeded in ‘liberating’ the lands
around the Volga from the nobility, the rebels decided to head for
Moscow in 1670. He was stopped by the Russian army near Simbirsk
and was eventually betrayed by his own Don Cossacks and executed
in 1671. Given that the film was made shortly after the Revolution of
1905–1907, the Razin story obviously had some topical resonance.
Razin’s adventures lived on in story and song. Indeed, the film’s
script was based on one of these songs, ‘From the Island to the Deep
Stream’, which proclaims: ‘So that there will be no dissension or discord between the free people, Volga, Volga, my native mother, here
accept this beauty! With a mighty swing, he picks her up, the beautiful
princess, and overboard he throws her into an approaching wave.’
Denise J. Youngblood
Bronenosets Potemkin
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
In 1906, the tsarist battleship Potemkin lies off the port city of
Odessa in the Black Sea after its return from Russia’s disastrous
defeat at the hands of Japan. The sailors, inflamed by intolerable and
squalid conditions on board and led by the sailors Vakulinchuk and
Matiushenko, rise up in mutiny against their callous officers. Once
they dock to bury the murdered Vakulinchuk, the sailors’ outrage
spreads to Odessa’s citizens, who, themselves chafing under tsarist oppression and moved by the self-sacrifice of this sailor, join the
mutineers in protest against their oppressors. The enraged citizens
march through Odessa, and await the call to arms from the mutineers
aboard the battleship. Odessa becomes a Revolutionary commune,
citizens and sailors standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Without warning,
tsarist troops attack the citizens on the steps of Odessa harbour,
Historical Film 57
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Sergei Eisenstein
Nina Agadzhanova-Shutko
Nikolai Aseev
Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Tretiakov
Eduard Tissé
Art Director:
Vasilii Rakhal’s
Edmund Meisel
Dmitrii Shostakovich
Eduard Tissé
Vladimir Popov
69 minutes
Historical Drama
Grigorii Aleksandrov
Aleksandr Antonov
Vladimir Barskii
Ivan Bobrov
Mikhail Gomorov
bloodily massacring men, women and children. The sailors briefly
shell the city, but they decide to return to sea on the Potemkin to
face the squadron of ships sent to suppress their mutiny. On receiving signals from the sailors aboard the Potemkin, however, the crews
of these ships show their solidarity by allowing the battleship to pass
through the squadron unimpeded.
This film was an integral part of a broad process of Revolutionary
mythologization underway in Soviet Russia during the 1920s, having
been commissioned for the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 revolution. Unlike Eisenstein’s later October, which portrayed the successful dénouement of Russia’s revolutions in 1917, Battleship Potemkin
was a paean to revolution defeated in 1905. Significantly, though,
the film ends with the promise of revolution fulfilled, the sailors
escaping a blockade of tsarist ships, thanks to the ‘revolutionary’
acquiescence of their fellow sailors. The narrative is not driven by
the ‘impersonal forces’ of history, but rather by identifiable characters, each clearly responsible and conscious of their own actions
(some identified by name by intertitles): the sailor Vakulinchuk, who
stirs up the men’s anger over the maggot-infested meat; the ship’s
doctor, Smirnov, who examines it and declares it fit for consumption;
Giliarovskii, the officer, who enforces the declaration, eventually by
the threat of a firing squad; the Orthodox priest, who calls on the
condemned men to see reason, all the while brandishing his crucifix
like a weapon.
Eisenstein’s story is about the inevitability of revolution by increments. The ship is a microcosm of the world order, its hierarchies
mirrored. Sailors are engaged in the petty and meaningless indignities of life: cleaning the guns, polishing the ship’s fittings, washing
the dishes. Officers seek merely to reinforce those indignities. Power
begets violence: an officer’s rough awakening of a sleeping sailor
becomes a senior officer’s physical manhandling of recalcitrant sailors
and the captain’s threat of lethal violence before a firing squad.
Violence begets resistance: Vakulinchuk and Matiushenko voice the
sailors’ outrage; sailors refuse to eat the borscht; the members of the
firing squad refuse to shoot on their comrades. Resistance begets yet
more violence, best exemplified in the film’s two climactic scenes. The
mutineers’ righteous vengeance visited upon the officers on board the
Potemkin and the tsarist soldiers’ perfunctory – and far more bloody –
slaughter of the citizens on the Odessa steps foreshadow the violence
to come in the inevitable Revolution. The victory of the sailors over
their masters and the defeat of the citizens by the soldiers are temporary respites in history’s grand narrative. Revolution, Eisenstein says in
this film, is immanent if not yet imminent.
Like many of Eisenstein’s films, key images linger, at least in the
modern viewer’s memory: the tarpaulin covering the sailors who await
execution by firing squad; the wide-eyed, wild-haired priest; phantom
bodies hanging from the yardarms; and on the Odessa steps, the
anguished mother bearing her dying child towards the advancing
soldiers; a child’s wrist under a soldier’s boot; the bloodied eye of a
Directory of World Cinema
Sergei Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin (1925).
screaming woman; the drawn-out descent of the baby-carriage and its
baby. Whether these images struck the contemporary viewer in Russia
at the time in a similar manner is debatable. Still, the film’s narrative
is well paced and self-evident, it does not contain the ubiquitous and
heavily aestheticized symbolism of Eisenstein’s later October, and it
surely contains some of the most graphic violence ever exhibited on
screen at that time.
Frederick C. Corney
Historical Film 59
Directory of World Cinema
New Babylon
Novyi Vavilon
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Sovkino Leningrad
Grigorii Kozintsev
Leonid Trauberg
Grigorii Kozintsev
Leonid Trauberg
Andrei Moskvin
Art Director:
Evgenii Enei
Dmitrii Shostakovich
100 minutes
Elena Kuz’mina
Petr Sobolevskii
Sergei Gerasimov
As troops are dispatched to fight in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871),
the Parisian bourgeoisie celebrates the opening of a new department
store. The emporium’s boss invites Louise, a shop-girl, to join him at
the party. The French army is crushed, but the workers decide to form
a National Guard to defend the city and elect a committee to lead
them in a Commune. The Communards attempt to enlist the support
of the returning soldiers – among them, the peasant Jean (exhausted,
shell-shocked, poorly shod and starving). The Provisional Government,
having surrendered to Prussia to protect its own interests, flees to
Versailles. The troops side with the Provisional Government. For a
short while, the Commune withstands the siege, sustained by idealism
and enthusiasm. Then the barricades are breached. The bourgeoisie returns to its frenzied partying in a cabaret called ‘Empire’ while,
outside, the Communards are herded together, summarily courtmartialled and shot. Louise refuses an opportunity to save her life,
choosing instead to die for the Commune. Jean is thrown a spade
and ordered to dig her grave. A wooden Madonna mutely observes
proceedings. ‘We shall meet again’, Louise tells Jean, at the end. ‘We
shall be back’, says another Communard; ‘Long live the Commune!’
SVD (Kozintsev and Trauberg, 1927), also starring Petr Sobolevskii,
depicted the 1825 Decembrist Revolt as an historic precedent in
Russia’s tsarist past for the October Revolution. Likewise, The New
Babylon turned to the 1871 Paris Commune to legitimize the Soviet
Regime: even in failure, Marx foresaw the eventual triumph of the
More specifically, Kozintsev and Trauberg drew inspiration from
Emile Zola’s 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames, in which a small
family business is bankrupted by the Babylon (a surrogate for the Paris
store, Bon Marché) and the daughter of the family takes a job in the
store. Whereas Zola’s heroine marries into wealth, Louise (Kuz’mina)
remains loyal to her class. Jean (Sobolevskii), turning like a cur as he
storms the barricade, is applauded by the bourgeoisie for his betrayal.
There are other literary references: the gargoyles featured as guardians of the city seem to be drawn from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de
Stylized settings are used to locate the story: wet cobbled streets
at night; swirling lace parasols, fans and can-can dancers. The gaudy
store mannequin, which Louise burns on a pyre at the barricade, is an
effigy of the old France, which the Communards seek to destroy. A
rapidly tilted shot of Napoleon I, atop Gondoin’s Vendôme Column,
marks the temporary fall of Paris to the Commune. Sequences are
repeated to present the Communards’ dedication to the new order:
seamstresses, old cobblers and laundresses collapse with fatigue
over their labour for the bosses; for themselves they work joyously,
happy in their freedom, ‘We shall work no more at night’ and ‘They
shan’t evict us.’ ‘We have all eternity before us’, says the journalist
Directory of World Cinema
Kozintsev and Trauberg, New Babylon (1929).
Historical Film 61
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(Gerasimov) heading the elected committee, swearing allegiance with
the workers. Many titles are used ironically: ‘Going Cheap’ announces
not only the bargains offered by the store, but also the low esteem
in which the soldiers’ lives are held. Jean is obviously not ‘the mighty
and brave soldier of France’ proclaimed by the government minister:
he simply wants to return to his village.
Similarly, Kozintsev and Trauberg pursue a style of caricature in
costume and gesture previously developed as ‘eccentrism’. Through
satire they explicitly condemn characters here intended for audience
disapproval. Some devices employed are familiar throughout contemporary Soviet propaganda: the bourgeois woman’s lorgnette or opera
glass; the pompous, inflated capitalist in shiny top hat and stiff collar.
Additionally, Kozintsev and Trauberg looked to the drawings of Honoré
Daumier for period details. In a notable series of vignettes of illmatched couples wining and dining, Kozintsev and Trauberg efficiently
convey the desperate decadence of France under Napoleon III: a lone
dancer capers tipsily across the floor into the morning. The tragic history of the French Revolution and its aftermath is repeated and enacted
as farce.
New Babylon now commands attention as much for its orchestral accompaniment as for its direction and fine performances. The
former cinema pianist, Dmitrii Shostakovich, worked simultaneously
on the score, taking the general theme of an episode rather than
slavishly illustrating particular motifs and completed scenes. Strains
from Offenbach and a mockingly distorted version of the Marseillaise
match the tone. ‘We had the same idea’, commented Kozintsev, ‘not
to illustrate shots but to give them new quality and scope; the music
had to be composed against external events so as to show the inner
sense of the action’.
Amy Sargeant
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
VUFKU (All-Union Agency for
Photography and Cinema)
Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Dovzhenko’s first full-length feature is set in the timeless landscape
of Ukrainian legend. It conceals, we are told, a treasure, symbolized
by the beauty Oksana. A Ukrainian elder, ‘overgrown with moss’, is
enlisted by the Polish overlords to find the treasure, but at the last
moment it disappears into smoke. Centuries pass, and the same old
man is now the grandfather of Pavlo and Tymish. The eternal rhythms
of agricultural life are disrupted by the horrors of World War I and the
ensuing Civil War. The idle and cowardly Pavlo sides with the oppressors, both home-grown and foreign, while Tymish joins the Revolution
and begins studying assiduously. Pavlo ends up in Prague where he
falls in with bourgeois counter-revolutionaries and kills his beloved
Roksana, before returning to Soviet Ukraine to wreak havoc. The film
ends with the grandfather disrupting Pavlo’s sabotage of a train driven
by Tymish.
Directory of World Cinema
Mikhail Iogansen
Iurko Iurtyk
Boris Zavel’ev
Art Director:
Vasilii Krichevskii
66 minutes
Historical Drama
Fairy tale
Mykola Nademsky
Semyon Savashenko
Les’ Podorozhny
Polina Skliar-Otava
Zvenigora was Dovzhenko’s breakthrough work, in which he first
manifested the unique synthesis of aesthetic traditions that characterized all of his subsequent films. Politically the film makes a
clear linkage between Ukrainian tradition and the claims of the new
Soviet culture; just as Tymish is the true son of Ukraine, so also the
grandfather eventually recognizes Soviet construction as an extension of ancient Ukrainian dreams of independence. The ideological point is often obscured by Dovzhenko’s exuberant celebration
of folk tradition, expressionist gesture and cinematic trickery. Like
most of Dovzhenko’s subsequent efforts, the film commanded
widespread admiration for its aesthetics and deep suspicion for its
Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora was one of the first exemplars of what
one might call magical realism in cinema. A major influence on
Dovzhenko was the prose of Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852), especially
his early experiments in adapting Ukrainian folklore to the new Russian literary tradition. Many of the characters, especially that of the
beautiful temptress Oksana/Roksana, can be traced to Gogol’s precedent, as can the elements of the supernatural and Dovzhenko’s
fascination with the slow rhythms of the Ukrainian countryside. This
mythic quality is particularly evident when, following a clash with a
foreign invader, a dissolve-shot suggests that Roksana’s body literally becomes the ravine that holds the treasure. No less important
than these archaic features, however, was the influence of the films
of the German expressionists and of such Russian ‘eccentrics’ as
Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. Dovzhenko adapted their
exaggerated gestures, stylized poses and dramatic framings. Dovzhenko’s distinctive contribution was to bring all of these aesthetic
strategies to bear on a recovery of the eternally fragile beauty of
In these ways Dovzhenko revealed a potential for intimacy both
within the new structures of Soviet life and within the technological medium of the cinema. Dovzhenko continued this effort in his
following films, especially Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930). The latter
featured some of the same characters (most notably, Tymish) and
received similarly mixed reviews in the Soviet press. Dovzhenko’s
mythic landscapes and narratives proved a major influence on later
experiments in so-called poetic cinema, both in the Soviet Union and
Robert Bird
Historical Film 63
Directory of World Cinema
Aleksandr Nevskii
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein
Petr Pavlenko
Eduard Tissé
In 1242, the Teutonic knights attack the Russian city of Pskov and
commit horrific atrocities. Over the objections of merchants and
officials, the ordinary citizens of Novgorod call on Prince Alexander
Nevsky, victor against the Swedes, to lead them into battle against
the Teutons. Two brave Novgorodian men, Vasilii Buslai and Gavrilo
Oleksich, vie for the hand of the beautiful maiden, Ol’ga Danilovna,
who declares that the bravest in battle shall be her husband. Also
among the Russian warriors is Vasilisa, a maiden of Pskov avenging
the death of her father. Inspired by folk wisdom, Nevsky concocts a
plan to trap and defeat the Teutonic knights. An epic battle ensues
on the frozen Lake Chud. After a hard-fought battle, Nevsky’s strategy
succeeds. As the Teutons flee across the frozen lake, the ice cracks
and many drown. The Russians return home solemnly to mourn their
dead. The crowd enacts popular justice by killing Russian traitors, but
Nevsky ransoms the Teutonic knights and allows the ordinary soldiers to return home. Since both Vasilii and Gavrilo have performed
bravely, Ol’ga cannot decide whom to marry. Vasilii declares that the
maiden Vasilisa was the bravest of all, and Gavrilo second best. Ol’ga
becomes betrothed to Gavrilo and Vasilii to Vasilisa. The population
celebrates the great victory.
Art Directors:
Isaak Shpinel
Nikolai Solov’ev
Sergei Prokof’ev
Sergei Eisenstein
Esfir’ Tobak
108 minutes
Nikolai Cherkasov
Nikolai Okhlopov
Aleksandr Abrikosov
Dmitrii Orlov
Vasilii Novikov
Nikolai Arskii
Varvara Massalitinova
Vera Ivasheva
Anna Danilova
Vladimir Ershov
Sergei Blinnikov
Ivan Lagutin
Lev Fenin
Naum Rogozhin
Released in November 1938 shortly after the Munich agreement, Sergei
Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky exemplifies the Soviet turn to Russian
patriotism as the Nazi military threat intensified. Soviet artists and writers were encouraged to invoke earlier historical examples of defeating
‘German invaders’ to reassure audiences that the contemporary army
had precedents for vanquishing the Germans in spite of the failures of
the Russian army in World War I. Lest anyone miss the contemporary
implications of the film, various Teutonic symbols in the film looked
quite a bit like swastikas. Nevsky’s final pronouncement in the film that
‘whosoever comes to us with the sword shall perish by the sword’ was
equally unambiguous. While this patriotic theme struck a new chord in
Soviet culture, the film contained many familiar Soviet plot elements,
including vilifying the Teutonic knights as a religious order, emphasizing
the class differences between those who heroically wanted to fight and
those who sought to capitulate to the Germans, and highlighting the
actions of Russian traitors in causing misfortune for the Russians. The
film underscored the common people’s love of their native land, and
one of the heroic characters – Ignat the armourer – prefigured industrialization. Likewise, the shining heroic figure of Prince Alexander Nevsky
corresponded to the Soviet leader cult’s representation of the leader as
simultaneously wise and pure, modest and commanding.
The film remains a classic because of its formal composition: the
striking visual images of the enemy Teutons, ‘mongrel knights’ dehumanized by headgear that allowed only tiny cross-shaped slits for the
eyes; the mechanical repetition of Teutonic knights throwing Russian
male children into the fire; the remarkably intricate and choreo-
Directory of World Cinema
graphed battle on the ice; and the powerful score and choral music
by Sergei Prokof’ev with lyrics by Vladimir Lugovskoi that sculpted
the emotional appeal of the film. The iconic two-dimensional and
epic nature of good and evil characters who battle to the death gives
the film a stylized and exaggerated ‘over the top’ feeling that is well
suited to the film’s mobilizing message.
Like many war and adventure films, Alexander Nevsky also has a
romantic sub-plot signalling women’s symbolic inclusion in the Russian
citizenry as wives and mothers, but strikingly also as soldiers. The
maiden Vasilisa of Pskov fights and kills alongside the Novgorodian
men in order to avenge her father. Because of her bravery, she wins
the affection of the male warrior-hero Vasilii. The film thus suggests
that both fighting and nurturing women will be the mothers of the
future Russian nation.
Alexander Nevsky received popular and critical acclaim in the first
ten months after it was released, and its popularity resumed when it
returned to movie screens after the German invasion in the summer
of 1941, after having being banned during the Soviet-German nonaggression pact.
Karen Petrone
Andrei Rublev
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Andrei Tarkovskii
Tamara Ogorodnikova
Andrei Konchalovskii
Andrei Tarkovskii
Vadim Iusov
Art Directors:
Evgenii Cherniaev
The prologue sets the film in medieval Russia, where a bold individual
escapes a pursuing crowd to mount a rough balloon and launch into
flight across the waterlogged landscape. There follow seven episodes
from the (largely imagined) life of Andrei Rublev (ca. 1370–ca. 1420),
medieval Russia’s best-known icon-painter. First we see him alongside
his colleagues Kirill and Daniil as they witness the cruel repression of
a folk performer. We then see Andrei’s departure from the monastery
(causing a rift between him and both of his colleagues), his apprenticeship with Theophanes the Greek, his sexual awakening during a
pagan celebration, his frustrated attempts to create a fresco of the
Last Judgment in Vladimir, his saving of a retarded woman during a
Mongol attack and his life with her at the monastery during a vow
of silence. The narrative culminates in Rublev witnessing the young
boy Boriska founding a bell, which redeems Rublev’s faith in artistic
creation. The film closes with a display in colour of Rublev’s icons and
a shot of three horses grazing on a spit of land in a body of water.
Tarkovskii’s sparse landscapes, silent protagonists and discontinuous
narrative, punctuated by mysterious vignettes and transformations,
make for an uncompromisingly difficult film which seems at first to
repel any attempt at viewer ‘identification’. In this multi-dimensional
world each life has its own truth. The characters in Andrei Rublev
represent various types of spirituality, from the stern but spineless
intellectualism of Kirill (brilliantly played by Ivan Lapikov) to the pagan
Historical Film 65
Directory of World Cinema
Ippolit Novoderzhkin
Viacheslav Ovchinnikov
Liudmila Feiginova
Ol’ga Shevkunenko
Tat’iana Egorycheva
185 minutes
Anatolii Solonitsyn
Ivan Lapikov
Nikolai Grin’ko
Nikolai Sergeev
Irma Rausch (Raush)
Nikolai Burliaev
Iurii Nazarov
Rolan Bykov
Nikolai Grabbe
Mikhail Kononov
Stepan Krylov
Bolot Beishenaliev
Iurii Nikulin
revellers’ exuberant carnality, to Rublev’s humanist questioning.
Andrei’s point of view is privileged only insofar as he remains a spectator alongside the viewer, immune to the allure of action. We are never
quite sure what he sees and how he sees it, and so we can neither
be sure that we are seeing properly either. Nonetheless we feel an
almost ethical imperative to keep watching and to elevate our vision.
It reminds us of the original meaning of the word ‘martyr’; Tarkovskii’s
films bear witness to his world and posit the spectator also as witness.
Quite apart from its inherent difficulties, appreciation of Andrei
Rublev has been handicapped by the form in which it has reached
viewers, especially outside Russia. Tarkovskii completed the film
at 205 minutes in duration in mid-1966 as The Passion According
to Andrei. The State Committee on Cinema then drew up a list of
changes to be made before the film could be officially accepted. By
the end of August 1966 Tarkovskii had made many of these changes,
mostly by re-taping dialogue and cutting scenes and shots, amounting to a loss of about fifteen minutes of film. In the meantime, however, the controversy had been stoked by discussion of Tarkovskii’s
cruel treatment of animals, and the Committee returned to the matter
and demanded more changes. After initially refusing Tarkovskii did
make some further changes, removing a further five minutes from the
film’s duration, but Andrei Rublev remained shelved until 1969, when
a second premiere was held, a print was sent to the Cannes Film Festival and foreign distribution rights were sold to a company linked to
Columbia Pictures. At Cannes Andrei Rublev won the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Prize for the screenplay and embarked on a successful
run in French theatres. Tarkovskii finally saw the film released in the
USSR at the very end of 1971. The best available version of the film is
the first, namely The Passion According to Andrei (available on DVD,
though an intermediate version is scheduled to be shown in 2010).
The shock of its aesthetic difficulty has inclined viewers from across
the ideological spectrum to reduce Andrei Rublev to a tidy ‘message’, invariably ignoring the multivalent texture of the film. This was
not surprising in the Soviet Union, which ideologized all discourse,
Andrei Tarkovskii, Andrei Rublev (1966).
Directory of World Cinema
whether artistic, religious or personal. Moreover, Tarkovskii never
shirked from explaining what his film ‘meant’, but his pronouncements
were often tailored to the needs of the moment. For official Soviet
outlets Tarkovskii stressed the epic qualities of the film, which presents
a panorama of the nation at a crucial historical moment. Elsewhere
Tarkovskii stressed the film’s retrieval of traditional Russian art, society
and religion. However Andrei Rublev has proven disconcerting to
those who would seek in it a salve for wounded national pride. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn found that Tarkovskii contaminated Holy Russia
with Sovietisms (such as Boriska, the Stakhanovite bell-founder) and
‘besmirched’ Rublev’s faith by having him wander around spouting
‘humanistic platitudes’. Such criticism highlights Andrei Rublev’s controversial image of Russia and Russian spirituality, though the film itself
is sometimes viewed as a sacred object that has miraculously survived
the conflagration of history and has been preserved, like Rublev’s
icons, in the embers of time.
Robert Bird
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Andrei Konchalovskii
Valentin Ezhov
Andrei Konchalovskii
Levan Paatashvili
Art Directors:
Aleksandr Adabashian
Nikolai Dvigubskii
Eduard Artem’ev
Valentina Kulagina
275 minutes
At the time of the Revolution, the young Kolia Ustiuzhanin from
the Siberian village of Elan’ falls in love with Nastia Solomina, who
is engaged to Filipp Solomin, and runs away with her to join the
Revolution. A decade later, Kolia returns to Elan’ with his son, Alesha,
to construct a road to the marshlands in the hope of discovering
oil there. Nastia has died ‘defending the Revolution’, which sparks
enmity between Kolia and his brother-in-law Spiridon, who murders
Kolia. Alesha escapes, vowing to avenge his father’s death. When he
returns a decade later, he learns from Taia Solomina that Spiridon has
been sentenced and Alesha falls in love with Taia, when news of the
German attack reach the village. After the war, as a decorated war
hero, Alesha receives a technical education and becomes Master Oil
Driller. He returns to Elan’ with a drilling team, working for several
months without luck. Meanwhile Filipp Solomin, now a Party functionary, attempts to block a plan for a hydroelectric power plant near the
village. Just as leaders in Moscow are making their final decision, oil
bursts forth from the well in Elan’. As the well ignites, Alesha dies in
the flames. Filipp rushes from Moscow to Elan’ and Taia reveals that
she is pregnant with Alesha’s child, the last of the Ustiuzhanins.
Sibiriade was the final film that Andrei Konchalovskii made in the
Soviet Union, before emigrating to France and eventually Hollywood.
This four and a half hour epic was a fantastically expensive film, made
during a year when attendance for Soviet films was at a fifteen-year
low. The fact that Sibiriade was made in the first place indicates
Konchalovskii’s cultural cache in the Soviet film industry, despite the
continued trouble that had plagued his career, from the controversy in
Kirghizstan over his depiction of Kirghiz peasants in The First Teacher
Historical Film 67
Directory of World Cinema
Historical Drama
Vladimir Samoilov
Vitalii Solomin
Sergei Shakurov
Natal’ia Andreichenko
Evgenii Perov
Elena Koreneva
Nikolai Skorobogatov
Pavel Kadochnikov
Nikita Mikhalkov
Liudmila Gurchenko
(1964) to the banning of his next film, The Story of Asia Kliachina,
Who Loved But Never Married (1967, rel. 1987). Nonetheless, authorities in the Soviet film industry recognized him as a talented director,
and like many auteurs, gave him unprecedented access to resources
and money to make the film that he wanted to make.
A project that began as a Stagnation-era production film about
the lives of Siberian oil workers, Konchalovskii transformed Sibiriade
into an ambivalent meditation on modernity and tradition. From an
imperial backwater at the turn of the century to the centre of the
Soviet Union’s oil production region at the end of the 1960s, the village of Elan’ comes to signify both Soviet progress and the destruction to peasant communities wrought by industrialization. Moreover,
in its ethical complexity, Sibiriade contains both clear socialist realist
conventions, along with moments of sympathy for class enemies and
a critical attitude toward social heroes. For example, when Filipp
discovers that Aleksei has been killed in the oil well conflagration,
he asks officials sitting in the Kremlin Palace to rise in memory of a
‘common worker’. Yet such socialist realist myths exist alongside the
conventions of Thaw cinema, with its focus on the individual and private life. In Sibiriade, for example, the Revolution becomes a means
for local communities to understand and articulate their differences
and personal conflicts. At the same time, Konchalovskii refrains from
presenting a simple dichotomy of interior and exterior forces on Elan’.
Modernization is not a force imposed from the outside, but emerges
from within the community, from individuals whose identities are torn
between the village and the city.
Stylistically, Sibiriade combines elements of classical narrative
cinema with several eclectic touches: Fast-paced newsreels of the
Revolution, Civil War, the First Five-Year Plan and the Great Patriotic
War – history proper – are intercut with the slow-moving drama of
Elan’. In its mix of rapid and slow pacing, Sibiriade takes influence
from the early work of Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and his Zvenigora
(1927) in particular. In addition, Konchalovskii is able to mobilize both
tonal and aural shifts, which adds to the stylistic eclecticism of the
film. For example, the image frequently shifts between colour and a
sepia-toned black and white, focusing our mental engagement with
the material in different ways. The realm of memory and dreams is
typically rendered without colour in Sibiriade, although this does not
encapsulate the full extent to which Konchalovskii employs tonal shifts
in any given section in the film. Instead, Elan’ appears to exist simultaneously within the dreamlike space of memory and nostalgia, on the
one hand, and the socially defined space of class conflict and rural
backwardness, on the other. Sibiriade’s soundtrack also defines the
village as liminal space, with its mix of orchestral music, contemporary
Soviet popular songs and 1970s electronic music. While successful
as a work of European art cinema, Konchalovskii’s film failed to draw
audiences at home.
Joshua First
Directory of World Cinema
Proshchanie s Materoi
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
The film is set over the last weeks of summer and the onset of autumn
during the Brezhnev era. The inhabitants of a small island community
in Siberia prepare to leave their homes in preparation for the flooding
of the entire area as part of a huge hydroelectric dam project further
up river. The film focuses on the reactions of three members of the
Pinigin family covering three generations: the younger Andrei (Vadim
Iakovenko), who is committed to the process of modernization; his
father Pavel (Lev Durov), aware that progress is inevitable though
painful; and his grandmother Dar’ia (Stefaniia Staniuta), who represents the values of the past, fears their passing and the destruction of
her community.
The film is based on the 1976 novella (povest’) ‘Farewell to Matera’
by Valentin Rasputin, generally considered to be the last great work
of ‘village prose’ of the 1960s–1970s, and one which thematically
and stylistically brought that movement to a close. The film was to be
directed by Larisa Shepit’ko, but she, along with cameraman Vladimir
Chukhnov and art director Iurii Fomenko, was killed in a car accident
in 1979. Her husband, Elem Klimov, then took on and completed the
project in 1982, though the film was released only in 1984. Rasputin’s
work is suffused with a mysticism that is meant to symbolize the link of
past and present in this rural community. The island community represents the transience of human life in the never-ending waters of time,
and the island itself is protected by the spirit of the past.
The very name ‘Matera’ evokes notions of Mother Russia and
Mother Earth. Klimov’s film plays down the us-and-them antagonisms
between the planners and the villagers, showing not the relentless
workings of ideology, but rather emphasizing that even those in
charge of the implementation of plans drawn up in distant Moscow
are victims of impersonal social processes. Shots of the chaotic
urban settlement where the villagers are to be resettled reinforce
the impression that those making key decisions affecting people’s
everyday lives bear no accountability for the grim consequences of
their actions. Some of Rasputin’s symbolism remains, such as that of
destruction by fire and water, suggesting the end of the world, and
old and young, with the implication that official teleology is rejected.
Shniitke’s evocative music further suggests the link between the villagers and their ancestral past. Both Rasputin and Klimov stress the
link of these villagers with the land that for centuries was the home
of their forebears, and the film features a scene of communal bathing
in the river that is reminiscent of the scene of the pagans’ ‘festival’ in
Andrei Tarkovskii’s Andrei Rublev (1966). Rasputin’s original novel is
linguistically complex, containing many words and phrases peculiar
to the Lake Baikal region of Siberia, making the work difficult even for
other Russians not native to Siberia, but also aligning the author with
the victims of progress. Klimov wisely uses standard Russian throughout the film, but keeps Rasputin’s vague, possibly tragic ending. A
Elem Klimov
Larisa Shepit’ko
German Klimov
Rudol’f Tiurin
Aleksei Rodionov, Iurii
Art Director:
Viktor Petrov
Alfred Schnittke
Viacheslav Artemov
Valeriia Belova
130 minutes
Literary Adaptation, Historical
Stefaniia Staniuta
Lev Durov
Aleksei Petrenko
Iurii Katin-Iartsev
Maia Bulgakova
Vadim Iakovenko
Historical Film 69
Directory of World Cinema
few villagers remain on the island as the floodgates are about to open
and the island will disappear in the ensuing deluge, and a boat sets
off to rescue them. The boat gets lost in the fog, the villagers remain
on the island and both novel and film end at this point. Time remains
suspended, history does not move forward and the future remains
David Gillespie
My Friend Ivan
The film is set in the years 1935–1936, at the onset of Stalinist terror.
A young boy, Aleksandr, lives together with his father, Zanadvorov,
in the provincial town of Unchansk. They live in a communal apartment with Ivan Lapshin and Vasili Okoshkin, both policemen, and
Patrikeevna, a housekeeper. Lapshin and his team are trying to track
down a criminal, Soloviev. Meanwhile, Lapshin’s best friend, the writer
Khanin, arrives in Unchansk. He is grieving from his wife’s sudden
death from diphtheria. A company of actors arrives in Unchansk to
perform an agitprop theatre piece. One of them, the actress Natasha
Adashova, enlists Lapshin’s help to find a real prostitute so that she
can give a better performance in her role as a prostitute. Lapshin
falls in love with Adashova, but she falls in love with Khanin. Because
Khanin has recently lost his wife, he rebuffs Adashova. Some months
later, Lapshin finds Solov’ev. He kills him even though the criminal
asked for and is promised mercy. Khanin leaves town and Adashova
and Lapshin go their separate ways.
Iurii German (novel)
Eduard Volodarskii
Moi drug Ivan Lapshin
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Aleksei Iu. German
Valerii Fedosov
Art Director:
Iurii Pugach
Arkadii Gagulashvili
Leda Semenova
100 minutes
Andrei Boltnev
Nina Ruslanova
My Friend Ivan Lapshin can be considered as one of the most
important films of late Soviet cinema. German subverted the official
interpretation of history by showing the harsh life of Soviet citizens at
the onset of Stalinist terror. Moreover, German sets aside conventional
structure, making it difficult for the viewer to determine the sequence
of events and situations depicted. My Friend Ivan Lapshin, therefore,
was challenging both in content and style. After the first screening,
the film was immediately attacked from within Lenfilm. Goskino, the
State Committee for Cinematography, told German to reshoot half
of the film, which German refused to do. After a two-year skirmish
with Goskino, the film was released in 1985, at the very beginning of
Gorbachev’s glasnost.
The film is based on a novel written by Aleksei German’s father,
Iurii German (1910–1967). The film’s frame is set in 1983 and consists
of a prologue and epilogue. This frame determines the narration’s
point of view of Aleksandr, who tries to remember the events set in his
childhood. German evokes the atmosphere of provincial life on both
the figurative level by using a documentary style and on the narrative
level through a focus on ordinary life. He created Aleksandr’s memo-
Aleksei Iu. German, My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984).
Andrei Mironov
Aleksei Zharkov
Zinaida Adamovich
Aleksandr Filippenko
Iurii Kuznetsov
Valerii Filonov
Anatolii Slivnikov
Andrei Dudarenko
ries by ignoring conventional techniques. The long travelling shots
and the subjective camera are somewhat disorientating to the viewer,
especially given the lack of establishing shots and shot-reverse shots.
The dialogue is frequently drowned out by chatter and screaming.
At first sight, there is no explicit mention of the Stalinist terror in My
Friend Ivan Lapshin. The year 1935, after Kirov was assassinated, was
the last moment before the outbreak of the Great Terror. By means of
omens, the director helps the viewer to imagine the dark future of the
story’s characters after the ending of the film. There are clear premonitions of a dark future when a mirror is shattered and Zanadvorov says:
‘This is a bad omen. And by the way, for all of us’. Near the end of the
film Lapshin is about to leave town for a ‘refresher course’. He seems
to have no idea of the dark fate that awaits him. The detective story
and love triangle overshadow these omens, which in turn inform the
viewer that many of the film’s characters will soon become victims of
the Great Terror. Communist idealism is ultimately represented as a
lost dream.
The film reached Soviet audiences only in 1986, when it was shown
on television, and became the subject of heated debate. At once
exciting and disturbing, it offered a glimpse of a sensitive period in
Soviet history. Yet it proved to be quite disturbing simply because it
was too soon for the general public to take in what it was seeing. German’s film marked the beginning of the cinematic investigation into
one of the blank spots of Soviet history, the Stalinist terror. My Friend
Ivan Lapshin therefore contributed to the debunking of Stalinist myth.
Jasmijn Van Gorp
Historical Film 71
Directory of World Cinema
Cold Summer of
Kholodnoe let 53-ego
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Aleksandr Proshkin
Edgar Dubrovskii
Boris Brozhovskii
Art Director:
Valerii Filippov
Vladimir Martynov
Elena Mikhailova
96 minutes
Valerii Priemykhov
Anatolii Papanov
Zoia Buriak
Viktor Stepanov
Iurii Kuznetsov
Vladimir Kashpur
Nina Usatova
Just three weeks after the death of Stalin an amnesty was decreed,
leading to the release of over a million prisoners from the Gulag.
This film depicts the impact of the amnesty on a small fishing hamlet
in northern Russia. The village is already home to two political exiles:
Luzga, a taciturn, distant man and former captain in the intelligence
service, and Kopalych, once a chief engineer in Moscow. Despite
their marginal status in the village, they turn out to be its saviours.
The amnesty of March 1953 released not only deserving prisoners
but also groups of dangerous bandits and a gang lays siege to the
village. While the local authorities cave in quickly to the criminals’
demands, only Luzga is ready to fight the criminals, aided by the
elderly Kopalych. A dangerous shoot-out ensues. Eventually the
bandits are defeated and peace brought to the hamlet, but not
before a young girl and Kopalych are killed. The ending of the film
shows Luzga returning to Moscow two years later, rehabilitated. He
remains essentially alone, however, and the final shot shows him
walking by himself with his battered suitcase along the capital’s busy
In many ways, the film has all the elements of a traditional Western:
a village is under siege from a group of criminals, the authorities are
powerless and only the heroism of a lone, somewhat marginalized,
individual can save the day. Yet the film evades easy classification for
it is much more than an action movie.
After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, filmmakers were
quick to embark on a reconsideration of the Soviet past in a more
critical manner, with Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, released in
1986, leading the way. Making Cold Summer of ’53 just a year later,
Aleksandr Proshkin also took advantage of the new cultural environment. His film deals with the legacies of Stalinism, though there is
little direct portrayal of the pre-1953 era: he does not use flashbacks
or dreams to reveal his characters’ experiences under Stalin; and the
protagonists, Luzga and Kopalych, speak sparingly of their ordeals.
One of the key figures in the village, the mother of the girl killed, is
a mute, and her character can be seen to symbolize the silencing
effect of Stalinism. Perhaps because the crimes of the Stalinist era
remain unarticulated in this film, their continued hold over the present
appears even greater, and Proshkin effectively shows how very difficult
the effects of the terror were to overcome.
Proshkin’s film suggests that in the summer after Stalin’s death the
first moves to dismantle the enormous prison-camp system he had
created already proved highly destabilizing. From the very start the
viewer is aware of the suspicion in which former prisoners are held
and, even after Luzga and Kopalych’s acts of heroism, the villagers’ reservations do not disappear and they are reluctant to offer
Kopalych, as an exile, a proper burial. In the final scenes of the film,
Luzga, having returned to Moscow, visits Kopalych’s wife and son to
Directory of World Cinema
give them news of his death, but the encounter is an awkward one.
The scene suggests that the returning prisoners made some people
uncomfortable, triggering feelings of shame they preferred to suppress. Such issues became the staple of many of the literary and cinematic treatments of Stalinist terror under Gorbachev. A more unusual
aspect of Proshkin’s film is his readiness to recognize that political
prisoners represented only one type of Gulag returnee. At the time
of Stalin’s death the majority of prisoners were serving time for nonpolitical crimes and, while few were the violent bandits depicted here,
the amnesty does seem to have resulted in a spike in criminal activity
in the summer of 1953. The violent impact of the amnesty, at least in
some areas of the Soviet Union, perhaps helped to reinforce people’s
anxieties regarding Gulag releases. In Proshkin’s vision of 1950s society, people found it hard to distinguish between different groups of
returnees, regarding all with suspicion and caution.
Proshkin’s film implicitly raised questions about whether the
Gorbachev generation would deal with the Stalinist past more easily
than the Khrushchev generation. The film’s huge popularity, both in
the box office and among critics, certainly suggests that there was an
audience eager to engage with these difficult topics. Its popularity
was also, though, the result of both the filmmaking and the acting.
Although Cold Summer is a film full of action, it is beautifully shot, the
characters nuanced and its messages subtly conveyed.
Miriam Dobson
Burnt by the
Utomlennye solntsem
(Soleil trompeur)
Country of Origin:
Camera One
Nikita Mikhalkov
Michel Seydoux
Nikita Mikhalkov
On a Sunday in June 1936 the secret service (NKVD) officer Mitia
accepts and carries out a special assignment: the arrest of the
Red Army Commander Kotov at his family’s dacha near Moscow.
Meanwhile, Kotov enjoys domestic happiness with his wife Marusia
and daughter Nadia. Mitia, a friend of the family and Marusia’s first
love, arrives and spends the day with the family, taking Kotov back
to Moscow with him in the evening. Upon his return to Moscow Mitia
succeeds in his second suicide attempt (having tried to shoot himself
the day before): he cuts his wrists in the bath.
Set in June 1936, the film’s action unfolds before Stalin’s Great Purges
and the show trials, but already anticipates the Great Terror that would
soon become obvious: the impending threat is tangible, audible and
visible. The film captures a moment when the belief in Revolutionary
ideals and a pre-Revolutionary lifestyle was still possible. Burnt by
the Sun contrasts that pre-Revolutionary lifestyle as represented by
Marusia’s family with that of the Soviet reality of Revolutionary leaders
(Kotov), juxtaposes the ideals of the Whites against those of the Reds
and ultimately insists on the destructive power of political ideas as
opposed to personal happiness.
Historical Film 73
Directory of World Cinema
Nikita Mikhalkov, Burnt by the Sun (1994).
Nikita Mikhalkov
Rustam Ibragimbekov
Vilen Kaliuta
Art Directors:
Vladimir Aronin
Aleksandr Samulekin
Eduard Artem’ev
Enzo Meniconi
151 minutes
The film explores the marriage between the old Russian intelligentsia and the Revolutionary system through Marusia and Kotov. Their
marriage is based on lies; it is held together by Marusia’s attempt
to forget the past; and it survives largely because of Kotov’s energy
and (sexual) power, but only in a protected and enclosed space, on
the island of the past in the midst of the Soviet reality of the 1930s:
Marusia’s family dacha.
Kotov confidently executes Stalin’s political will and builds his own
image as leader. Yet while Kotov believes in his own power and relies
on Stalin’s support, Mitia is aware of being a mere arm of power.
Indeed, Mitia is an actor in other ways too: he first appears as an
old, blind man emerging from the Young Pioneers marching past the
dacha; for Nadia, he poses as Father Frost and as a magician; for the
household, he claims to be a doctor. He recites the tunes he taught
Marusia, repeats the steps he learnt in Paris, quotes Hamlet and plays
an invalid at the beach to be helped up by a fat lady. Moreover, when
Mitia tells of the past, he chooses the form of a fairy tale: in a story
Directory of World Cinema
Oleg Men’shikov
Nikita Mikhalkov
Ingeborga Dapkunaite
Nadia Mikhalkova
Viacheslav Tikhonov
Svetlana Kriuchkova
Vladimir Il’in
Alla Kazanskaia
Nina Arkhipova
Avangard Leont’ev
André Umansky
Inna Ulianova
Liubov’ Rudneva
Vladimir Riabov
Vladimir Belousov
Aleksei Pokatilov
Evgenii Mironov
with inverted names, Mitia tells of his lost love – how Yatim fought in
the war, left Russia and returned to find Yasum married to the man
who sent him abroad in the first place. The paradigm of Soviet culture
of the 1930s does not work here: not the fairy tale is turned into
reality, but reality is turned into a horror story where an ogre, Kotov,
destroys the love between Yatim and Yasum.
The impact of destruction is underlined by a special effect, the
fireball: when Mitia tells his tale, the fireball whizzes over the forest,
collides with a falcon and crashes into a single tree; the second fireball
effect accompanies Mitia’s physical destruction, his suicide. Mitia is
politically successful, but his personal life has failed. Kotov has personal happiness and political power, and he loses both. Mitia realizes
the potential permanence of personal happiness as opposed to the
transience of political success. The absence of a personalized past –
parents – is important: Mitia’s parents died during the Civil War; when
Stalin appears as an all-powerful pagan god, rising on the banner
attached to the balloon as the sun is setting, it becomes clear that he
is a father-surrogate to Mitia. Kotov may enjoy protection from Stalin
but, when he realizes that Stalin is now a father for Mitia, he cries like
a child deprived of paternal love.
Stalin’s totalitarian regime is interpreted as a part of history that neither Kotov nor Mitia are directly responsible for. The film relieves the
individual of responsibility for history, and glorifies the Russia of the
past, including its Bolshevik heroes. Mikhalkov here creates an apologia for the intelligentsia’s inertia and sways between a neo-Leninist
and Russophile position.
Birgit Beumers
Khrustalev, My
Khrustalev, mashinu!
Country of Origin:
Aleksei Iu. German
Aleksandr Golutva
Armen Medvedev
The film is set in the last days of Stalin’s rule, in February 1953. Red
Army General Iurii Klenskii works as a military brain surgeon in a
Moscow hospital. After he notices that he is being shadowed by
Stalin’s secret police, he flees to the countryside. One day later he
is arrested as a prime suspect in the ‘Doctor’s plot’. Stalin’s secret
police incriminate him with the conspiracy against prominent Soviet
politicians and generals. After being tortured and raped, he is sent
to Siberia. Upon arrival, he is called back by Beria to tend the dying
leader. When Klenskii arrives at the leader’s dacha, he massages the
comatose man’s stomach and witnesses how Beria closes the leader’s
eyes after he has breathed his last. Beria kisses Klenskii, opens the
door and shouts ‘Khrustalev, my car!’
Khrustalev, My Car! is the late apotheosis of the anti-Soviet films of
Aleksei German. German pushes content and style much further than
in his other masterpieces, making Khrustalev, My Car! at once the
most artistic and most disturbing one of his oeuvre. While his previous
Historical Film 75
Directory of World Cinema
Aleksei Iu. German
Svetlana Karmalita
Vladimir Il’in
Art Directors:
Mikhail Gerasimov
Georgii Kropachev
Vladimir Svetozarov
Andrei Petrov
Irina Gorokhovskaia
150 minutes
Iurii Tsurilo
Misha Dement’ev
Nina Ruslanova
Aleksandr Bashirov
Dmitrii Prigov
Aleksei Iu. German, Khrustalev, My Car! (1998).
films were made during the Soviet era and its oppressive artistic climate, Khrustalev, My Car! was made and released in the 1990s, when
filmmakers enjoyed artistic freedom. However, together with the vast
majority of Russian filmmakers, German was for the first time in his
life confronted with financial restraints because of the transition from
a state-led to a market-based film industry and the economic crisis of
the 1990s. It took German seven years to finish the film.
Khrustalev, My Car! depicts the paranoia in Moscow during the
last days of Stalin’s life. The film is told retrospectively by the son of
the main character, Iurii Klenskii. The film is shot in black and white,
emphasizing the gloom and despair of the period, and with a handheld camera, stumbling into Klenskii’s life without establishing shots.
The film’s focus is on the harsh lives of Klenskii and his Jewish relatives
during Stalin’s last anti-Semitic campaign. Jewish families are evicted
from their apartments; a Jewish boy is molested on a play ground;
and the Jewish nieces of Klenskii’s wife live in the wardrobe of their
communal apartment. The film’s cast consists of carnivalesque characters, contributing to German’s hellish vision on history. Characters spit,
swear and vomit. Everyone screams and lives in a permanent state of
insanity. In one of the most disturbing sex scenes in film history, Klenskii is raped and sodomized by a gang of criminal thugs. In its realistic
depiction of human cruelty, the film can easily stand next to such
films as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997, US version 2007) and
Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 (2007). The film’s anti-Sovietism and
anti-Stalinism is best revealed in the scene of the dying leader. Stalin’s
death is not more than a banal fact. Just one press on the stomach
and a command to make him break wind make up the attempts to
tend to the leader, who lies on the ground.
In 1998 the film premiered at the Cannes film festival as the opening film. The premiere turned out to be a disaster: half of the audience left the theatre during the screening. Khrustalev, My Car! proved
to be hard to watch because of its nervous stylistics, explicit violence
and grotesque characters. After the fiasco in Cannes, a crushed
German withdrew the film a year from circulation. After a year, it got
a limited release in Russia. It was highly praised by Russian critics and
received five Nika awards in 2000. Meanwhile, the film achieved cult
status in European art house circuits.
Jasmijn Van Gorp
Directory of World Cinema
The Barber of
Sibirskii tsiriul’nik
Country of Origin:
Camera One
France 2
Nikita Mikhalkov
Michel Seydoux
Nikita Mikhalkov
Rustam Ibragimbekov
Nikita Mikhalkov
Pavel Lebeshev
Art Director:
Vladimir Aronin
Enzo Meniconi
179 minutes
Historical epic
Julia Ormond
Richard Harris
Oleg Men’shikov
Aleksei Petrenko
Marina Neelova
Vladimir Il’in
Daniel Olbrychski
In 1885 Jane Callaghan travels to Russia because she has been hired
by the inventor Douglas McCracken, who is under pressure from his
creditors, to help him secure funding for his tree-cutting machine.
Jane pretends to be McCracken’s daughter and charms General
Radlov, spending the day with him at a Shrovetide fair, so he exercises
his influence on the Grand Duke. When the cadet Andrei Tolstoy falls
in love with her, Jane is unwilling to abandon her scheme for love’s
sake. Tolstoy sees Jane flirt with the general in the theatre and attacks
his rival with a violin bow during a performance of The Marriage of
Figaro which is attended by the Grand Duke. Radlov subsequently
accuses Tolstoy of an attempt upon the Grand Duke’s life, securing his
own promotion, while Tolstoy is sent to a prison camp in Siberia.
In 1895 Jane is married to McCracken and has a child – Tolstoy’s
son. When McCracken launches his invention, Jane travels with him to
Siberia and finds the house where Tolstoy now lives with his family, but
she fails to meet Tolstoy. In 1905 Jane writes a letter to her son Andrew,
now a recruit at an American military base. He has inherited his father’s
stubborn nature, as Jane explains to his commander during a visit.
The film is set in the Russia of Tsar Aleksandr III (1881–1894), a
reactionary and nationalist ruler, who is here portrayed as a benevolent tsar: he loves children, as can be seen when he takes his son
Mikhail on horseback to a parade. During the same scene, the camera
captures a sparrow at the cadets’ feet as they stand to attention and
closes up on the bird; the shot conveys how the Tsar never neglects
the small at the expense of the grand. The tsar (played by Mikhalkov)
is presented as an ideal father, for his child as well as for the nation.
Mikhalkov conflates time as he sketches an image of Russia that
is derived more from artistic representations than historical fact.
Although the action unfolds in 1885, Mikhalkov’s Russia resembles
that of the mid-nineteenth century under Aleksandr II or even Nicholas I. Indeed, the terrorist activities of the Popular Will (Narodnaia
volia) had come to an end by 1883; there were no fireworks, silver
samovars or silk garments during the Shrovetide festivities; French
and German, but not English, were spoken at the time; and so continues a list of historical infelicities. Mikhalkov glorifies instead a range of
features of nineteenth-century life.
The theme of broken families is important in the film: in the absence
of an intact family life, the military community replaces the family,
while the tsar substitutes the father-figure. Thus, in Mikhalkov’s vision
the whole of Russian society is transformed into one large family with
father-tsar at its head.
The moral values of the young Russian cadet Tolstoy are held up as a
model designed to help contemporary audiences value and love their
fatherland. The film gives a biased view of traditions: Russian rituals and
traditions are shown in great detail, such as Forgiveness Sunday and
the Shrovetide celebrations, offering a view on Russia through the eyes
Historical Film 77
Directory of World Cinema
Anna Mikhalkova
Marat Basharov
Nikita Tatarenkov
Artem Mikhalkov
Egor Dronov
Avangard Leont’ev
Robert Hardy
Elizabeth Spriggs
of a foreign visitor. These values are typical of the nineteenth century,
which Mikhalkov connects to the beauty and the deep sense of Russian
folk traditions. Likewise, the heroism displayed by Tolstoy is possible
only in a setting of the last century. The Barber of Siberia instils in the
spectator nostalgia for tsarist, pre-Revolutionary Russia, related to the
present through the historical event that dominated the year of the
film’s release: the laying to rest of the remains of the last tsar and his
family, the Romanovs, in St Petersburg in July 1998.
The Barber of Siberia makes a moral statement by asserting the
need to have principles; it presents a positive hero with the potential
to instil hope in contemporary Russian audiences. Mikhalkov wanted
to boost the image of Russia as a nation with high ideals, unwilling to
compromise and with a strong leadership. The film is past and future,
objective and subjective, national and international at once, attempting to create a myth for audiences at home and abroad. The Barber of
Siberia aims at the creation of an idealized view of Russia for foreign
audiences through the eyes of a foreigner. However, in international
distribution it failed to make an impact.
As a political manifesto the film contains a strangely nationalistic
statement for the future of Russia, envisaging the resurrection of order
and discipline which would reinstate a value system and thus benefit
the Russian population.
Birgit Beumers
Cargo 200
Gruz 200
Aleksei Balabanov
Sergei Sel’ianov
Aleksei Balabanov
Set in 1984, Cargo 200 is a dark, brutal attack on late Soviet life. It opens
as Artem, a professor of scientific atheism, is visiting his army colonel
brother. On his way back home, Artem’s car breaks down in front of a
former Gulag prisoner’s home. As they drink moonshine, Artem and the
zek argue about God’s existence. Just as Artem departs, a young man
named Valera arrives with Angelika, the daughter of the local Communist
Party secretary. Valera leaves Angelika behind as he and the zek get
drunk. She is kidnapped by a sadistic militia captain, Zhurov, who chains
her to his bed. Angelika claims that her fiancé serving in Afghanistan
will come back and kill her captor. Zhurov learns that the paratrooper
has been killed in action, manages to claim the lead-lined coffin of the
fiancé (the name for these Afghan coffins is ‘Cargo 200’), opens it up,
and deposits the corpse on Angelika’s bed. He then momentarily frees a
criminal to rape Angelika in the same bed while he watches. After he has
killed the prisoner, he reads Angelika’s letters from the dead fiancé whose
body rots alongside her. Eventually the captain is killed, but the horror
onscreen has painted a vivid picture of late Soviet history.
Cargo 200 caused controversy from the moment it debuted at the
2007 Kinotavr Festival in Sochi. Before it aired, pregnant women were
warned to leave the cinema. Some audience members and critics
walked out; others hailed it as a masterpiece. Although it was an art
Aleksei Balabanov, Cargo 200 (2006).
Aleksandr Simonov
Art Director:
Pavel Parkhomenko
Tat’iana Kuzmicheva
89 minutes
Aleksei Serebriakov
Leonid Gromov
Iurii Stepanov
Agniia Kuznetsova
Aleksei Poluian
house movie, Cargo 200 generated a great deal of press coverage
and debate. History – or historical accuracy – fuelled the arguments
about Balabanov’s film.
The director himself has stated that the ‘clearly expressed hero is
a negative’. Cargo 200 is in part the story of how Artem has sold his
soul to the communist devil. Aleksei, the former zek, tells Artem that
‘all the evil comes from you, the communists. You want to replace
God with your Party and your Lenin. […] There’s no God, so everything goes. You can kill millions’. What has happened, in Aleksei
Balabanov’s view, is that communism deprived its citizens of souls and
therefore created a real-life horror film.
The actions of all of Balabanov’s characters reveal a depraved, indifferent, violent, sadistic and impotent citizenry, attributes that the director believed emerged out of the Soviet experiment and that found full
expression in late socialism. The historical setting of the film is crucial
to this point – this is not the Stalinist era, but 1984. Balabanov’s USSR
is not the nostalgic Brezhnev era that many contemporary audience
members yearned for. Nor is it the dystopian world created by George
Orwell. Instead, Cargo 200’s 1984 is a horror show, a nightmarish world
far more frightening that anything conjured up by Orwell because it
has a basis in reality. Tellingly, Balabanov’s 1984 is also more frightening
than what was to come under Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
The unflinching violence and sadism that Zhurov employs has two
roots. First, as a representative of the state, Zhurov embodies the moral
decay of communism. He does what he does, Balabanov suggests,
simply because he can and because he can get away with it. Second,
the roots of Zhurov’s evil stems from the time, when the Afghan war had
gone on for five years and the numbers of Cargo 200 had increased
Historical Film 79
Directory of World Cinema
dramatically. It is an era, as Artem tells his brother at the beginning of
the film, when ‘everyone has begun to fidget’. The long history of state
violence employed by the Bolsheviks and their successors, Balabanov
suggests, has reached its logical if horrific apex in the form of Zhurov.
Audiences and participants in various discussions about Cargo 200
tended to divide into generational camps. For those who remembered 1984 well, the film was a shock and a source of anger; for
the younger generation the film was a revelation, representing an
entirely different story than the one told to them by their parents and
at school. Cargo 200, in other words, served as a cinematic history
lesson for the internet generation. In the end, Cargo 200 is not just
about 1984 but also 2007. Much like Danila in Balabanov’s Brother
films provided a flawed hero for the 1990s, Cargo 200 provided an
antidote to the Putin patriotic nostalgia for the USSR under Brezhnev,
a cinematic shock therapy against forgetfulness.
Stephen M. Norris
Paper Soldier
Bumazhnyi soldat
Country of Origin:
Aleksei A. German
Artem Vasil’ev
Sergei Shumakov
Vladimir Arkusha
Aleksei A. German
Iuliia Glezarova
Maksim Drozdov
Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Art Directors:
El’dar Karkhalev
Sergei Kokovkin
Sergei Rakutov
This historical drama takes place in 1961 in the months leading up to
Iurii Gagarin’s historic flight into space on 12 April 1961. The action
takes place in Moscow and in Baikonur, the Soviet launch site in
present-day Kazakhstan. The story revolves around Daniil Pokrovskii,
the physician for the first group of cosmonauts. Pokrovskii attempts
to be both a friend and a doctor to the first cosmonaut candidates.
He is also part of a love triangle involving his wife Nina (who works
as his assistant in Moscow during cosmonaut training) and his lover
Vera in Baikonur. Pokrovskii is torn between the responsibility for the
cosmonauts and the demands of his job, as well as his private life.
After Pokrovskii’s death, which occurs just before Gagarin’s successful
launch, his wife and his lover remain devoted to Pokrovskii and Vera
moves into the Moscow family apartment.
Aleksei A. German’s period piece uses the events leading to Gagarin’s
historic flight as a backdrop for a love story. It is a romance, however,
that operates on multiple levels: the conventional story of private love
and an equally passionate romance with building a new and more just
society. The public and private romances intersect constantly in the film,
setting the characters’ private interests against their public duties.
At the level of a more conventional love story, the film is a love
triangle between the physician to the first group of cosmonaut candidates, Daniil Pokrovskii, his wife Nina and lover Vera. One would
expect the story to revolve around tensions between the two women
as they compete for the doctor’s love. Both women, however, are
really in competition with something far more compelling: Pokrovskii’s
obsession with launching the first man into the cosmos. Pokrovskii is
a tortured soul – the ‘Paper Soldier’ of Bulat Okudzhava’s 1959 song,
which inspired the title of the movie. Pokrovskii’s Paper Soldier, like
Directory of World Cinema
Fedor Sofronov
Sergei Ivanov
118 minutes
Merab Ninidze
Anastasiia Sheveleva
Chulpan Khamatova
Denis Reishakhrit
Ruslan Ibragimov
Aleksandr Glebov
Fedor Lavrov
Valentin Kuznetsov
Okudzhava’s, is determined to eliminate injustice and remake the world
– and dies in the process. Looming large over all the relationships in
the film is the omnipresent threat of death and sacrifice for the state.
The cosmonauts, as well as their trainers and physicians, are well aware
that their mission is merely to survive – and that they will probably die a
dog’s death, just like Laika, the first creature in space. The anticipation
of death intensifies the personal dramas and friendships.
German’s film is part of a trend among Russian filmmakers to use
iconic episodes and figures from the glorious chapters of Soviet space
history. Those include Aleksei Uchitel’’s Dreaming of Space (2005) and
Andrei Panin’s Gagarin’s Grandson (2007). As with those films, German’s
film exploits nostalgia for the Soviet era. But it is also a creative attempt
to re-spin the Soviet myth of space conquest for the twenty-first century.
Despite its fictional flights of fancy, German’s film in many ways hews
closer to the truth of the Soviet space programme than the earlier
mythologies. German’s retelling weaves a tale in which sacrifice for
private love and for the state intertwine and mix in complex ways.
The film, of course, is not a documentary, but its focus on the tangled
nexus of public service and private life expresses a quality of life
among those, like Gagarin, who were ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Soviet state. German conveys the bleak, empty and impoverished landscape of Baikonur. Trucks, bicycles, cars, carts and people
are constantly getting stuck in mounds of mud – a nearly permanent
state of being ‘en’-mired that contrasts with the rocket that finally succeeds in pulling away from earth’s gravity. Set against a backdrop of
unrelenting bleakness, Paper Soldier puts the romance of Soviet space
flight into proper historical context: a country exhausted by war and
poverty yet determined to shock the world with its grand vision.
Ultimately, the movie suggests that the Soviet dream of launching
humans into space was as much an escape from the challenges of
everyday life as a formula for overcoming them. The doctor’s tragedy
is that he believes that the method of escape – the flight – is actually a
means for overcoming the problems on earth that torment him. As he
notes at the beginning of the film, the doctor awoke in a cold sweat
every night, overwhelmed by an intense feeling of ‘impending doom’.
Andrew Jenks
Aleksei A. German, Paper Soldier (2008).
Directory of World Cinema
The war film has been an exceptionally important genre in Russian
cinema, not just in terms of numbers, but also for the quality of the
films made. Indeed, the first full-length film in Russian cinema history,
Vasilii Goncharov’s The Defence of Sevastopol (1912), was a movie
about the Crimean War. As with any genre, it is often difficult to
decide whether a picture should be considered a ‘war film’, rather
than, say, a ‘historical film’. Since the bulk of Russian war films have
concerned Russia’s twentieth-century wars, this essay shall focus on
movies of World Wars I and II, the Russian Civil War, and the Afghan
and Chechen conflicts.
World War I inspired great filmmaking in Europe and even in
America; not so in Russia, where revolutionary events quickly eclipsed
the ‘imperialist’ war. Even during the war itself, the war film was not a
popular genre, save in the year 1915. By 1916, disaffection with the
war was so great that audiences strongly preferred escapist melodrama to patriotic fare. In the first years of Soviet power, the 1920s,
the ‘historical-Revolutionary’ film dominated, with the Great War
relegated to a footnote in films like Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Revolutionary masterpiece The End of St Petersburg (1927). The only significant
movie about World War I is, therefore, Boris Barnet’s sound film
Borderlands (1931), which concerns two brothers who go to war and
the fate of their father and sister left behind in a small provincial town.
Borderlands exemplifies the ambivalent attitudes toward the war;
Barnet chose to stress internationalism and the brotherhood of workers, rather than jingoistic hatred of the foreign enemy, although that is
also shown.
The Russian Civil War (1918–1921) was among the most terrible
civil wars in modern times, with more than 1 million combatants killed
and several million civilians dead due to starvation and disease as well
as enemy atrocities. The war was a complicated conflict between the
Red defenders of the Revolution and the White counter-Revolutionaries, with ‘Green’ anarchists and nationalists and foreign interventionists thrown in for good measure. There were three key Civil War films
in the 1920s: Iakov Protazanov’s The Forty-First (1927), about a Red
Fedor Bondarchuk, Company 9 (2005).
War Film 83
Directory of World Cinema
sharpshooter who kills her White lover; Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The Heir of Genghis Khan
(aka Storm over Asia, 1928), about the British intervention in Central Asia; and Aleksandr
Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929), a drama about the Civil War and Ukrainian nationalism.
Arsenal stood out for the complexity of its message and beauty of its images.
The most famous of all Civil War films appeared in 1934: Chapaev, the Vasil’ev Brothers’ rollicking picture about the legendary Civil War hero, which was based on Dmitrii Furmanov’s eponymous novel. One of Stalin’s all-time favourite movies, Chapaev
spawned a veritable industry of songs, games, jokes and postcards.
The Civil War faded with the advent of the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is
called in Soviet history) but returned to the screen in 1952, with Mikheil Chiaureli’s The
Unforgettable Year 1919, a Stalin cult film that (falsely) places Stalin at the centre of the
Civil War. Audiences were saved from more such fare by Stalin’s death the following year.
Khrushchev’s cultural Thaw saw a different take on the Civil War for the 40th anniversary
of the revolution, revising the stalwart Civil War hero and giving an achingly human face
to those terrible years.
The last gasp for the Civil War films was in the late 1960s, for the 50th anniversary of
the Revolution. By this late date, the Civil War had turned into the stuff of mass-market
adventure. The final important Soviet film on the Civil War was Aleksandr Askol’dov’s The
Commissar (1968), about a tough female political officer bivouacked with a poor Jewish
family for her pregnancy. The film was banned, primarily for its Jewish content, and not
released until 1987.
The Great Patriotic War quickly replaced the Russian Civil War as the dominant stabilizing myth of Soviet society. Unparalleled disaster – 27 million dead – became victory
against all odds, due to the supposedly unwavering courage and sacrifice of the Soviet
people to save their motherland (rodina) from the German-fascist aggressors. Film directors did not need encouragement to make patriotic films. What sets Soviet World War II
film production apart from that of the other combatant nations is the centrality of pictures
celebrating the role of women as fighters. The three canonical films of this type are Fridrikh
Ermler’s She Defends the Motherland (1943), Mark Donskoi’s The Rainbow (1944), Leo
Arnshtam’s Zoya (1944). With the exception of Comrade Pasha in She Defends the Motherland, the partisan heroines are executed; in the case of Olena Kostiukh in The Rainbow,
after she has witnessed the murder of her newborn son at the hands of the Germans.
As the war drew to an end, agency was withdrawn from both male and female heroes,
in favour of a return to the socialist realist mask. Late Stalinist war films are peculiar, with
dead or maimed heroes predominating, like the unfortunate youth in Sergei Gerasimov’s
The Young Guard (1948) or the legless pilot in Aleksandr Stolper’s The Story of a Real
Man (1948). Given Stalin’s obvious preference for film heroes who could not pose challenges to his role as war-hero-in-chief, it is not surprising that the most vainglorious film
in the Stalin cult should be Chiaureli’s The Fall of Berlin (1949). The film features stylized
combat and a kitschy finale in which Stalin descends from the heavens (in an airplane) to
greet his smiling multi-ethnic troops in Berlin.
Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s Thaw saved the genre from further degeneration, and
in fact led to a flowering. It is arguable that the late 1950s and early 1960s were the
Golden Age of the Russian war film as directors sought to reclaim the war for the people.
They were so successful that the greatest of the war films are also the most important
films to emerge from the Thaw: Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Grigorii
Chukhrai’s The Ballad of a Soldier (1959), Sergei Bondarchuk’s The Fate of a Man (1959)
and Andrei Tarkovskii’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962). All these films put a human face on the
war and complicate the picture of Soviet heroism and sacrifice with views of infidelity,
uncertainty and exploitation.
After Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964, Leonid Brezhnev set about building a World War II
cult with great ambition and earnestness. War movies were an important aspect of the
Directory of World Cinema
cult and became ever more grandiose; the centrepiece being Iurii Ozerov’s eight-hour
five-part combat epic Liberation (1970–1972), which attracted huge audiences for its
first two parts, although attendance dropped precipitously for the final two instalments.
There continued, however, to be humanized resistance to such grandiosity, even in commercial films, most notably in Stanislav Rostotskii’s And the Dawns Are Quiet Here (1972)
and Tatiana Lioznova’s phenomenally popular television mini-series Seventeen Moments
of Spring (1973), which became a cult classic.
Art films continued to stretch the limits of the possible: Aleksei Iu. German’s Trial on
the Road (1971) and Twenty Days without War (1976) and Larisa Shepit’ko’s The Ascent
(1976). Twenty Days without War is an existential journey behind the lines; both The
Trial on the Road and The Ascent deal with the forbidden theme of native collaboration
brilliantly, but with differing results. Trial on the Road was banned until 1987, while The
Ascent was shown to great acclaim in international film festivals although its distribution
at home was curtailed.
Efforts to break the Brezhnevian mould for the war film became increasingly rare, and
by the time of Brezhnev’s death in 1982, war film fatigue had set in. The films for the
40th anniversary of Victory Day in 1985 were a forgettable lot, with one startling exception, Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985). Come and See, which is set in Belorussia in
1943, seeks to bridge the divide between the grand and intimate heritages of the Russian war film and succeeds brilliantly with its story of a teenaged boy’s journey through
hell. After Come and See, the World War II film slipped out of mind as the Soviet film
industry collapsed along with the fall of the Soviet Union. There were no ‘50th anniversary’ films in 1995.
The 60th anniversary of the war was another story, as a number of sensational World
War II films hit the screen, including the television screen, starting in 2002. The main goal
was to revision received truths about the war and to focus on the war’s dark side, as we
see in Nikolai Dostal’s eleven-part RTR series, Penal Battalion (2004). A number of interesting art films appeared, including Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s acclaimed The Cuckoo (2002),
but the best of these was arguably Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Our Own (2004), a compelling and
complex story about wartime collaboration that shows how difficult it can be to determine who ‘belongs’. Interest in retelling the history of the Great Patriotic War continues,
but at a slowing pace.
Russia’s contemporary wars – the Afghan and Chechen wars – have, not surprisingly,
excited the attention of filmmakers and filmgoers alike. The first years of the Russian
Federation saw a violent combat film, Timur Bekmambetov’s The Peshawar Waltz (1994),
about Russian POWs, and the much more interesting The Muslim (1995) by Vladimir
Khotinenko, about a returned Russian POW who has ‘gone native’. The biggest boxoffice hit of the lot of Afghan war films was Fedor Bondarchuk’s Company 9 (2005), which
demonizes the Afghans in racist fashion, but also shows how the war has dehumanized
good Russian boys.
The films about the Chechen wars are also a mixed lot, some relatively quiet and
thoughtful: Sergei Bodrov’s The Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), Rogozhkin’s Checkpoint (1998) and Andrei Konchalovskii’s The House of Fools (2003). Others were loud
and violent: Aleksandr Nezvorov’s Purgatory (1998) and Aleksei Balabanov’s War (2002).
With the exception of Purgatory, all these films offer a jaundiced view of Russian involvement in Chechnya, especially Checkpoint and War, and show how the war has degraded
everyone involved.
Generally speaking, Russian film directors have taken their wars very seriously, and
films about World War II must be counted one of the most outstanding achievements of
Russian cinema.
Denise Youngblood
War Film 85
Directory of World Cinema
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Russian intertitles
Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Daniil Demutskii
Art Directors:
Iosif Shpinel’
V. Miuller
Igor’ Belza (restoration:
Viacheslav Ovchinnikov)
73 minutes
War Film
Revolutionary Film
Semen Svashenko
Ambrosii Buchma
Dmitrii Erdman
Sergei Petrov
Arsenal opens during the late stages of World War I with scenes of
hardship in war-torn Ukraine. At the front, Ukrainian troops of the
Russian Empire retreat before an advancing German army and many
desert. One of the Ukrainian deserters, Timosh, returns to Kiev and
joins with Ukrainian Bolsheviks in opposition to the nationalist regime,
the Rada. A group of pro-Bolshevik workers declare a strike against
the Rada and barricade themselves in Kiev’s Arsenal munitions factory. Timosh leads a Red Army detachment which joins the strikers
in defending the factory. The Rada army launches counter-assaults,
disrupting life in Kiev. After a fierce battle, Rada forces overrun the
Arsenal and begin executing its defenders. Timosh makes a last stand
against the attackers and proves invincible.
Arsenal was inspired by historical events, which events in turn figured
in Soviet Ukraine’s revolutionary lore by the time of the film’s production: in January 1918 Ukrainian communists used Kiev’s ‘Arsenal’ factory as the staging area for an armed mutiny against the Central Rada,
a newly established nationalist government. The building’s battledamaged exterior wall was preserved in later years as a monument
to the Soviet Revolution. In 1928 Dovzhenko was commissioned by
the Ukrainian studio VUFKU to make a film on the Kiev uprising so as
to mark the tenth anniversary of the event. It was to be a generously
budgeted and highly prestigious official project, Ukraine’s equivalent
of such Russian anniversary films as Eisenstein’s October (1928) and
Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg (1927). ‘The assignment to make
the film was entirely political’, Dovzhenko once noted of Arsenal’s
production, ‘set by the [Communist] Party’. Arsenal was commissioned
as a way to celebrate the revolutionary heroism of the Kiev mutineers,
whose armed struggle (according to Soviet histories) helped bring
about the eventual Bolshevik victory in Ukraine.
That celebratory dimension remains muted, however, in Dovzhenko’s cinematic version of the Soviet Revolution, and this sets Arsenal
off from most films of the Soviet Revolutionary genre. In fact, the film
betrays something of a pacifist strain, as Dovzhenko seems to cast
doubt on whether armed revolution is worth the human cost. The film
is divided into two unequal parts. The first part concerns the effects of
combat during World War I, and predictably – given the Soviet view
that the World War was an utterly unredeemed ‘imperialist’ conflict –
the early scenes stress wanton destruction and human suffering. The
episode at the front shows soldiers who seem to be helpless against
the destructive power of their own weaponry (including poison gas),
and scenes in civilian settings show a population rendered catatonic
as a side effect of the war experience. The extended second part
concerns the revolutionary events in and around Kiev, with armed
struggle and its aftermath given considerable dramatic attention.
Rather than finding ways to celebrate military heroism in the second
part, or even to suggest that the Kiev uprising would lead to ultimate
Directory of World Cinema
Bolshevik victory, Dovzhenko dwells on the damage done to the city,
to its inhabitants, and to the combatants themselves. Various visual
motifs from the World War carry over to the combat scenes in Kiev:
e.g., the close-up of a ‘laughing gas’ victim early in the film finds its
visual equivalent at the end in the close-up of a Rada soldier who
seems literally to laugh at death. This visual pattern suggests that a
cycle of violence from the World War was simply repeated during the
Revolution, and the film provides little sense of triumph at the end to
justify the conflict.
The conclusion does have one redemptive passage, however, when
Timosh proves invincible to the bullets of his counter-revolutionary
foes in the film’s final moments. Dovzhenko borrows the scene from
indigenous folk literature that his original audience would have recognized. In this case, he cites the eighteenth-century legend of a serf
rebellion in which the uprising’s peasant leader repelled the bullets of
his aristocratic enemies. Dovzhenko adapts the motif so as to suggest
that a revolutionary spirit can live on, even across the centuries. It is
interesting to note, however, that he must appeal to an ancient folk
motif so as to justify an episode of modern warfare.
Vance Kepley, Jr
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Boris Barnet
Boris Barnet
Konstantin Finn
Mikhail Kirillov
Andrei Spiridonov
Art Director:
Sergei Kozlovskii
From 1914 through 1917, families and friendships are torn apart as a
town on the outskirts of Tsarist Russia bears the tumult of World War
I. Petr Kadkin and his two sons Nikolai and Sen’ka, all cobblers at
the local shoe factory, initially stop work in support of fellow strikers at other factories in town. With the arrival of war, Nikolai and
Sen’ka eagerly heed the call to defend Russia and are sent to the
front, where they experience the horrors of the trenches. Nationalist
pride pits Aleksandr Greshin, who runs his own small shoe workshop,
against his German boarder and regular partner at checkers, Robert
Karlovich. During a bombing raid on the battlefield, Nikolai seeks
refuge alongside Müller, a German soldier who is brought back to
town as a prisoner of war. Kadkin takes Müller under his care, and
romance develops between Müller and Greshin’s daughter Man’ka
despite Müller’s abuse by the angry and resentful townspeople. The
Provisional Government takes control and urges a continuance of war,
allowing the shoe factory to generate enormous profits manufacturing
boots for the Russian troops. Nikolai faces the ultimate punishment
for fraternization but is comforted to learn that the Revolution is well
In Boris Barnet’s first sound film, he ambitiously works to reveal the
interconnectedness of war to capitalist enterprise and nationalist sentiment, and the film navigates rather complicated ideological terrain to
reveal how everyday people are victims of social and economic forces
War Film 87
Directory of World Cinema
Sergei Vasilenko
97 minutes
War Film
Elena Kuz’mina
Mikhail Zharov
Nikolai Bogoliubov
Nikolai Kriuchkov
Mikhail Ianshin
Khans (Hans) Klering
Aleksandr Chistiakov
Sergei Komarov
Boris Barnet, Borderlands (1933).
far greater than themselves. There is notably no strong Bolshevik presence throughout the film; therefore, we lack the explicit declaration of
correct ideology routinely found in later films, usually manifest in one or
more exemplary characters followed across a story arc. Interestingly, the
student Aleksandr Kraevich, the principal agitator and presumed mastermind for the strike at the beginning of the film, is quickly exposed
as bad, a representative of the Provisional Government. While he is
in favour of overthrowing the tsar, he vigorously argues to continue
the war on the grounds of patriotism. The film undermines this position both visually and narratively: he is repeatedly framed alongside a
bishop and the capitalist factory owner to suggest the ideological alignment between all three, and the plot itself systematically reveals the
deadly consequences of such blind devotion to country. Nationalism is
shown to be the cause of unnecessary divisiveness; moreover, it is the
very means by which the masses are manipulated and sacrificed for the
benefit of rich capitalists.
Barnet may not be a typical montage filmmaker in the vein of Eisenstein or Dovzhenko, but in Borderlands he skilfully employs montage
techniques at key moments in the film in order to underscore the
Directory of World Cinema
ideological implications of story events. In one particularly bravura
example, the film indicts the military-industrial complex of capitalism.
After a fellow soldier is killed during a bombing raid, Nikolai tosses
the man’s now unneeded boot up out of the trench and onto the
battlefield. Just before the boot is about to land, there is a cut to two
boots landing on a wooden floor. We have been relocated back to
the shoe factory, which is now manufacturing these very boots for the
military. The factory owner tosses the boots onto an ever-growing pile,
and as he moves to toss another pair onto the pile, we get a shot of a
bomb exploding. We have returned to another bombardment at the
trenches. The editing here indicates both simultaneity and causality,
as the labourers and soldiers – one in the same – are being exploited
and killed for the economic gain of the factory owner. The boot of the
fallen soldier is useless as he is now dead, so it gets tossed away. This
single boot is replaced by two brand-new boots, indicating the need
to replace this dead soldier as well: the greater the number of soldiers
recruited or replaced, the greater the number of boots needing to
be manufactured. The steady slaughter of soldiers guarantees the
factory owner’s continued profits. This message is further emphasized
through the use of discordant sound. War profits allow the factory
owner to upgrade his manufacturing technology, and in the later half
of the film, we see his workers operating large machinery in place of
the awls and hammers from before. The sound of this new machinery
is exactly the sound of a machine gun, and crosscutting between the
new machinery and scenes of battle reinforce the connection. This
machinery has replaced the workers in making the boots that these
workers now wear as soldiers to be killed on the battlefield; furthermore, the machinery has accelerated the rate of replacement for
boots and soldiers alike. Similarly, non-diegetic military marches are
played ironically throughout the film to both heighten the patriotism
of a scene while demonstrating the futility of such a sentiment.
Vincent Bohlinger
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Vasil’ev Brothers (Georgii
Vasil’ev, Sergei Vasil’ev)
In 1919 the Russian Civil War hero Vasilii Chapaev leads his Red
Army division against the Whites in what is now the province of
West Kazakhstan. Commissar Dmitrii Furmanov is sent by the Party
to accompany Chapaev on his campaigns. At first, the two argue
over matters of leadership, but soon a deep and mutual respect and
friendship develops between the two as Chapaev learns much from
Furmanov. Young love blossoms as Chapaev’s orderly Pet’ka teaches
Anna, a new Army recruit, how to operate and maintain a machine
gun. In an attempt to prove his worth to Anna and his superiors,
Pet’ka sets off to capture a prisoner, only to return after having
trapped and released Potapov, a Cossack suffering a cruel test of allegiance to his White commander, Colonel Borozdin. The Whites launch
a ‘psychological attack’, but are beaten back by Chapaev’s forces,
with Anna demonstrating great bravery and skill with her machine
War Film 89
Directory of World Cinema
Iurii Muzykant
Vasil’ev Brothers
Anna Furmanova
Dmitrii Furmanov
Aleksandr Sigaev
Aleksandr Ksenofontov
Art Director:
Isaak Makhlis
Gavriil Popov
92 minutes
War Film
Boris Babochkin
Boris Blinov
Varvara Miasnikova
Leonid Kmit
Illarion Pevtsov
Stepan Shkurat
Viacheslav Volkov
Nikolai Simonov
Boris Chirkov
gun. Furmanov receives reassignment orders from Mikhail Frunze and
takes heartfelt leave of Chapaev. As the Reds encamp in the town
Lbishchensk, Borozdin plans a night time sneak attack that leads to a
climactic end at the Ural River.
Based on Anna Furmanova’s adaptation of her husband’s 1923 novel,
Chapaev is a pivotal film in the development of socialist realism. The
film was released in Moscow on 7 November 1934 in commemoration
of the seventeenth anniversary of the Revolution. It proved enormously popular, breaking all attendance records in Moscow. At just
one theatre in Leningrad, it was reported that over 80,000 people saw
the film within the first three weeks. Indeed, Stalin himself was ultimately reported to have seen the film dozens of times. The commercial and critical success of Chapaev was timely, as the film would stand
out as the culmination of all the work and progress achieved by the
film industry at the fifteenth anniversary of Soviet cinema that January.
It was at this January conference that socialist realism was formally
adopted by the film industry, and Chapaev served as a key example
for the appropriate content and style of socialist realist filmmaking.
The narrative trajectory of the film follows Chapaev’s growing
ideological awareness. At the film’s beginning, he has a number of
laudable positive traits, and he instinctively knows what is generally
right and fair. Throughout the film, however, Furmanov, as the official
representative of the Party, systematically explains and instills proper
Bolshevik ideology in him – and, by default, in the audience as well.
We see Chapaev then impart this new wisdom on his subordinates.
Furmanov does not fundamentally change Chapaev; rather, his inherent goodness is refined via his exposure to and adoption of Bolshevik
ideology. Similar ideological development takes place across the film
within Pet’ka and Potapov.
Scenes in the film often play out a specific ideological lesson
embedded within the very action of that scene. For example, after
Furmanov places one of Chapaev’s officers, Zhikharev, under arrest for
permitting his men to pillage from local residents, Chapaev barges
in and demands to know who is in charge. Chapaev does not wait to
learn Zhikharev’s offense; at stake for him is the honour and respect
of his troops. As Furmanov and Chapaev argue, a peasant enters
and thanks Chapaev for forcing his men to return the stolen goods.
It was in fact Furmanov who issued the order, but he allows Chapaev
to take the credit. The peasant announces his support for the Red
Army because it abstains from the abuses of the Whites. Chapaev is
reminded of whom he is fighting for, and he also realizes that he has
allegiances and duties to more than just his own men. He then angrily
glares at Zhikharev in acknowledgement of the justness of Furmanov’s
actions. The manner in which this scene is shot and edited helps to
underscore the dramatic transition within Chapaev. As Chapaev energetically moves throughout the room while arguing, he and Furmanov
are shown in relatively distant shot-reverse shots. At the very moment
that Chapaev’s loyalties switch from Zhikharev to Furmanov, Chapaev
is shown in a dramatic close-up. Moreover, by virtue of the fact that
Directory of World Cinema
Vasil’ev Brothers, Chapaev (1934).
Chapaev is looking back over his shoulder at Zhikharev, the close-up
of Chapaev is a striking diagonal composition. The unusual aesthetic
qualities of the shot grab the viewer’s attention and expressively reinforce the very moment that Chapaev recognizes the greater Bolshevik
cause. With socialist realism, like Soviet montage, ideological transformation is just as important as any plot event.
Over the decades, the film has remained beloved, and it was by far
the greatest success of the Vasil’ev Brothers. They are buried together
(despite having not been brothers), and an image from Chapaev is
carved onto their gravestone. Jokes based on the film – of varying
degrees of ribaldry – are legion.
Vincent Bohlinger
War Film 91
Directory of World Cinema
The Rainbow
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Kiev Film Studio
Mark Donskoi
Wanda Wasilewska
Boris Monastyrskii
Art Director:
Valentina Khmeleva
Lev Shvarts
N. Gorbenko
93 minutes
War Film
Nataliia Uzhvii
Nina Alisova
Hans Klering
Elena Tiapkina
Anna Lisianskaia
Vera Ivashova
In a Ukrainian village during World War II, the local population, mostly
women, children and old men, unites to resist the German occupiers through death, torture, hunger and extreme cold. The traitors are
the mayor, Gaplik, and Pusia, the German commandant Kurt’s flighty
mistress. Kurt interrogates Olena, a very pregnant, stoic partisan. A boy is
shot when he tries to bring her food, and then secretly buried in the family’s modest hut. Olena, refusing to give any information, is tortured and
shot, but only after Kurt himself mercilessly shoots her baby. Kurt imprisons and threatens to kill villagers who won’t say where the grain or the
boy are buried. Pusia’s attempts to bribe her sister, the stalwart schoolteacher Olga, are unsuccessful. When Germans march prisoners through
the village, women and children bring them food despite the danger.
Finally the village is liberated, the Germans gunned down, the cowering
Pusia shot by her own husband. Fedosia, a strong mother figure, gives
a powerful speech trying to keep the village women from killing the
Germans with their pitchforks: the Germans should be punished by living
to see their armies crushed! A rainbow signals good fortune in the end.
The Rainbow was filmed in 1943 (released in January 1944), in the
middle of fiercest fighting of World War II in the Soviet Union and
is perhaps the best of the war films: a realistic, eerily matter-of-fact
portrayal of the daily suffering and struggle against the cruel German
enemy. The director, Mark Donskoi spent time in recently liberated
villages, interviewing the inhabitants, even including the words of a
peasant woman in a speech at the film’s end. The film had an authenticity and a naked emotional power that amazed audiences, especially
abroad, where it was hailed by Italian neo-realist filmmakers and
screened at the White House to President Roosevelt’s high praise.
Based on a story by a Polish writer, Wanda Wasiliewska, also the
film’s scriptwriter, The Rainbow highlights, like the films She Defends
the Motherland and Zoya, the wartime sacrifice of women. What
viewer could forget the agonized face and scream of the partisan
Olena, filmed in close-up, as she literally falls towards the viewer while
her newborn baby is shot offscreen! Donskoi uses close-ups or shows
actual violence sparingly, relegating it offscreen or just demonstrating
its results – the many bodies hanging off cruciform-shaped telephone
poles. But the mostly spare, realistic cinematography does not offer
an emotionally distanced, or nuanced perspective. The film’s stark
lighting – the Germans’ faces shadowed, the heroine’s brightly lit or
in halo effect, and the powerful orchestral music accompanying the
baby’s birth and Olena’s death, support the renowned critic Neia Zorkaia’s statement that ‘wartime cinema knew no halftones. We and they,
heroism and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal, were the alternatives
that dominated every plot, from a short item in newsreels to a fulllength feature’. In fact, compared to the unflinching Soviet wartime
newsreels with close-ups of dead, mutilated bodies, this emotionally
charged film was visually rather restrained.
Directory of World Cinema
The film’s themes are universal: the village, and the country as
family with shared support and sacrifice. When her baby son is killed,
Olena speaks of the many ‘sons’ she has in the forest. A liberator calls
a villager ‘mother’ and she addresses him as ‘son’. When Olena is
marched barefoot in the snow, the villagers watch, a mother telling
her children: ‘the German soldier teaches us to value the Soviet way
of life’. The word Soviet, however, is soft-pedalled in the film, as are
any signs of Soviet power. The Soviet Union here is a Ukrainian/Russian family: while everyone speaks Russian in the film, with an occasional Ukrainianism, the old grandfather actually sings a Ukrainian folk
song. Is this Russia or Ukraine? The difference between Ukrainians and
Russians is elided as the heroine is played by an acclaimed Ukrainian
actress, other villagers are played by Russians and the collaborator, in
a daring casting against type, is played by a popular Russian film star.
Whether Ukrainian or Russian, the ‘good’ villagers share round
Slavic features and a hardy Slavic constitution: the weak, sharp-featured, shivering German soldiers are wrapped in many layers against
the cold, while Olena survives her forced barefoot march in a light
shift. This symbolism of winter destroying the enemy (as it did Napoleon!) was so important that massive artificial snow was created in the
summer heat in Ashkhabad (Turkmenistan) where the Kiev Studio had
evacuated. Layered with the ever-present Christian symbolism (Olena
gives birth in a manger), the film’s powerful wartime message was that
God, nature and shared Slavic beliefs and traditions would defeat the
German enemy.
Vida T. Johnson
The Fall of
Padenie Berlina
Country of origin:
Soviet Union
Mikhail Chiaureli
Petr Pavlenko
Mikhail Chiaureli
On the eve of the German invasion, exemplary steelworker Aleksei
Ivanov is summoned to Moscow for a meeting with Joseph Stalin. On
his return from the capital, an elated Aleksei recounts the impact of
this event to his girlfriend Natasha Rumiantseva, but their conversation – which evolves into a mutual declaration of love – is interrupted
by a Luftwaffe raid. Wounded by the bombing which also kills his
mother, Aleksei loses consciousness. He recovers three months later,
only to learn that the Germans have approached Moscow and that
Natasha has been captured by the occupiers and driven away to
Germany. Vowing vengeance, Aleksei joins the Red Army, soon finding himself in the heat of the Battle of Stalingrad. Aleksei’s participation in the Soviet troops’ battles is shown against events unfolding in
the war’s strategic centres: in Stalin’s Kremlin and in Adolf Hitler’s inner
circle, as well as at the Allied conference in Yalta. Finally, Aleksei and
his comrades-in-arms take part in the storming of the Nazi capital of
Berlin, where he reunites with Natasha and witnesses Stalin’s triumphal visit.
War Film 93
Directory of World Cinema
Leonid Kosmatov
Art Directors:
Vladimir Kaplunovskii
Aleksei Parkhomenko
Dmitrii Shostakovich
Tat’iana Likhacheva
151 minutes
War Film
Historical Epic
Mikhail Gelovani
Boris Andreev
The Fall of Berlin remains one of the most vivid examples of the
Soviet genre of ‘documentary fiction’, a canonic example of the late
Stalinist ‘Grand Style’, a cinematic monument to Stalin’s personality
cult, and a contribution to the process of the Soviet Union’s self-identification as super-power and to the politics of the early, ‘acute’ Cold
War. At the moment of its production and release, it was to represent
the late Stalin regime’s view of the historical origins of post-WWII
global order in a direct, simplified, monologic propagandist mode,
and to construe a concise history of the recent war’s Soviet episode as
a triumph of Stalinist – or rather Stalin’s – policy and as a warning to
the former allies.
The conscious archaism of The Fall’s style is centred on the figure of
Stalin, putting his supremacy in the framework of strictly hierarchical
religious worship. The extreme artificiality of the film’s aesthetic – stylized colour photography, grandiose décor, a glorifying musical score –
are summoned to separate Stalin from other, non-divine personages:
folkloric characters of common Soviet people, grotesque enemies
and the quasi-realistic figures of lesser luminaries, such as FDR or
the Soviet marshals and generals. And scenes of combat, the most
emblematic and accessible images of war, are assigned in The Fall the
role of illustrative vignettes within the central narrative of Stalin’s wise
and effortless decision-making.
In spite of obvious ideological differences, Chiaureli’s ‘documentary’
epic bears a striking resemblance to the Biblical epics produced by
the entertainment industry of the Soviet Union’s geopolitical adversary
not only with the aim of demonstrating the production capabilities of
Hollywood but also as the affirmation of traditional religious values
in the face of advancing communism. Stalinist culture responded to
this challenge on a similar level: with a film no more secular, no less
lavish and certainly more ambitious and grandiose than, say, Cecil B.
De Mille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) or Mervin LeRoy’s Quo Vadis?
(1951). However, the cinematic inventiveness of The Fall of Berlin is,
eventually, an isolated phenomenon, a ‘thing-in-itself’; while massappeal Hollywood epics contained striking instances of that stylistic
and narrative synthesis which irresistibly attracted Soviet filmmakers of
the late Stalin era and which could be borrowed by them only to get
lost among ideological and narrative immobility.
Sergei Kapterev
Directory of World Cinema
The Cranes Are
Letiat zhuravli
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Mikhail Kalatozov
Viktor Rozov
Sergei Urusevskii
Art Director:
Evgenii Svidetelev
Moisei Vainberg
Mariia Timofeeva
97 minutes
War Melodrama
Tat’iana Samoilova
Aleksei Batalov
Vasilii Merkur'ev
Aleksandr Shvorin
Svetlana Kharitonova
Veronika and Boris Borozdin are in love. When the Nazis attack
the USSR, Boris volunteers for service. On the day of his departure
Veronika is late and Boris leaves without seeing her. Soon Veronika’s
family perishes in a bombing raid and the Borozdins take Veronika to
their home. Not knowing that his nephew Mark is in love with Veronika
too, Boris’s father, Fedor, asks him to look after her. Exploiting her
emotional vulnerability, Mark rapes Veronika. Boris is killed around
the time when Mark rapes Boris’s fiancée. Soon Mark announces that
Veronika and he have decided to get married. Not knowing about
what happened between them, everyone accepts their marriage with
visible uneasiness. Veronika doesn’t love Mark and cannot forgive
herself for betraying Boris. Eventually she leaves Mark. When the
Borozdins learn that Boris got killed, Veronika refuses to believe in his
death. The war ends and Veronika comes to the train station to meet
Boris’s friend Stepan who finally confirms Boris’s death. In the final
scene Veronika gives flowers to people at the station affirming life in
the face of her terrible loss.
Many Russian filmmakers and critics noted that the de-Stalinization
of Soviet cinema started with Cranes. Kalatozov’s home front melodrama redefined the Great Patriotic War as the key event in Soviet
culture. If in the decade after the end of the war, war films told
primarily the story of Stalin as the architect of victory, for which the
entire Soviet nation had to sacrifice itself, Kalatozov chose to depict
the war experience as the female protagonist’s story of suffering, fall
and redemption. In Stalinist films, the representation of the female
heroine followed the dictum of Nikolai Simonov’s wartime poem ‘Wait
for Me’. Those who didn’t wait for their men were judged as traitors.
Kalatozov made such a woman, a woman who failed this ultimate test
of the patriarchal order during the war, the sympathetic protagonist of
his picture.
Following the storyline of Viktor Rozov’s play, on which the film
is based, Kalatozov doesn’t judge his protagonist and makes the
episode of her redemption an ideological alternative to the expected
turn of the Stalinist narrative – a state-backed judgment of the traitor. When Veronika works in the hospital, she witnesses a soldier’s
psychological breakdown when he receives a ‘Dear John’ letter from
his ex-wife. Boris’s father pronounces a harsh speech about women
who forget about their duty to wait. While he means to support the
soldier, he inadvertently hurts Veronika. She is overwhelmed with
guilt and tries to commit suicide under the wheels of a train, but in a
melodramatic turn of events the place of her attempted suicide turns
into a site of last minute rescue and redemption. On her way to the
station Veronika saves an orphan boy who is about to be run over by a
car. His name turns out to be Boris and she decides to adopt him. The
social centre of the melodramatic narrative, the nuclear family, gets
miraculously reintegrated and regenerated despite her fiancé’s death.
War Film 95
Mikhail Kalatozov, The Cranes are Flying (1957).
The potential improvised trial of all the women who failed to wait
turns into a melodramatic scene redeeming the perpetrator.
Among the film’s numerous awards are the Golden Palm and the
first prize for cinematography to the film’s cinematographer Sergei
Urusevskii (Cannes 1958). Urusevskii, a student of a constructivist artist
Aleksandr Rodchenko, articulated in Cranes an innovative visual style
that combined the expressive montage evocative of Soviet avantgarde cinema of the 1920s with deep focus and long-takes cinematography characteristic of European art cinema. Most importantly, as
opposed to Soviet montage cinema that rejected the individual hero,
Urusevskii used conceptual editing inspired by the work of the Soviet
filmmakers of the 1920s to represent the individual’s inner condition
at the moment of crisis. Veronika’s attempted suicide and redemption
scene is based on such a suspension of continuity editing for the sake
of representing Veronika’s inner turmoil via montage of attractions:
rapid editing, the swirling technique and triple exposures.
To represent an individual in the midst of social upheaval Urusevskii
uses long-takes and pans in combination with short focus optics that
allowed an unusual depth and layering of space. The long-takes
define the style of the farewell scene, in which Veronika runs through
Moscow streets in a vain attempt to catch a last glimpse of Boris
before he leaves for the frontline. The scene allows Urusevskii to use
his mobile camera to a full extent and conclude it with a crane shot of
Veronika alone against the tank column. She steps outside the peaceful life into the dehumanized world of war.
Aleksandr Prokhorov
Directory of World Cinema
Ballad of a
Ballada o soldate
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Grigorii Chukhrai
Valentin Ezhov
Grigorii Chukhrai
Vladimir Nikolaev
Era Savel'eva
Mikhail Ziv
Mariia Timofeeva
88 minutes
War Film
Vladimir Ivashov
Zhanna Prokhorenko
Antonina Maksimova
Nikolai Kriuchkov
Evgenii Urbanskii
Alesha Skvortsov, a young Russian soldier, shakes off his frontline
fears and takes out two Nazi tanks. He is granted a leave to visit his
mother to fix her roof, a task he was unable to complete before the
war. Alesha claims he only needs one day; his commanding officer
grants him six. The young soldier then embarks on a harrowing journey behind the lines of the USSR at war. He encounters a young girl,
Shura, who has lost her family; a soldier who has lost his leg and who
is afraid to return to his wife; families dislocated by the war; cowardly
and brave soldiers; and a woman who has left her soldier husband for
another man. Alesha’s journey takes him all six days. In the end, he
only has time to hug his mother and return to the front. He does not
Ballad of a Soldier is a quintessential Thaw film and one of the most
significant Soviet cinematic explorations of World War II. Thaw cinema
stressed ‘unvarnished reality’ over the socialist realism of the Stalin
era. Along with other Thaw-era films such as The Cranes are Flying,
Fate of a Man and Ivan’s Childhood, Ballad challenged the prevailing myths of the Great Patriotic War. In particular, Chukhrai subverted
the myth that all Soviet citizens responded with heroic patriotism to
the Nazi invasion and that all Soviet citizens took part in the Victory.
Ballad offers nuance where previous Soviet remembrances of the war
painted a black and white picture.
Chukhrai’s film used a wartime setting to advocate a form of humanist individualism. Alesha is afraid, unsure and naïve. He is motivated
more by a desire to help his mother than love for his Soviet motherland or for Stalin (whose absence in the film is particularly important).
His fellow Soviet citizens are equally human. Shura is on the run and
afraid. The invalid soldier, played by Evgenii Urbanskii, is afraid that
his wife will reject him. The families Alesha encounters on his journey
are equally unsure about the state of the war and afraid that they will
continue to experience more disruptions and more violence. A Soviet
soldier who bullies Alesha and Shura and threatens to turn them
in for desertion is anything but the heroic defender of the socialist
motherland promoted in countless wartime posters and post-war
statues. A wife who is unfaithful to her frontline husband also acts out
of personal interest and not any commitment to the Soviet cause. In
short, what Alesha discovers – and with him, the viewer – is an honest
assessment of a society at war. Soviet people, like anyone experiencing the hardships of an invasion, are human beings who are all trying
to cope. We see not a monolithic Stalinist citizenry; instead Ballad
reveals a people struggling during war. At the time, Alesha’s consistent acts of kindness offer a believable moral centre to other actions
seen on screen. Most importantly, Chukhrai, a decorated veteran,
focuses on the individual cost of war. A voice over at the beginning
and end of the film explains that Alesha dies at the front. The viewer
therefore knows that Alesha’s journey home and his brief visit with his
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Grigorii Chukhrai, Ballad of Soldier (1959).
mother will be his last. Ballad of a Soldier, more than any other Soviet
film about the war, reveals the sacrifice individuals and individual
families made at the front. The Cannes jury awarded it a special prize
in 1960 for its ‘high humanism and outstanding quality’. Soviet audiences responded to the film for the same reasons – over 30 million
people saw it in the cinemas.
Stephen Norris
Directory of World Cinema
Childhood (My
Name is Ivan)
Ivanovo detstvo
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Andrei Tarkovskii
Vladimir Bogomolov
Mikhail Papava
Vadim Iusov
Art Director:
Evgenii Cherniaev
Viacheslav Ovchinnikov
Liudmila Feiginova
95 minutes
War Film
Nikolai Burliaev
Valentin Zubkov
Valentina Maliavina
Evgenii Zharikov
Nikolai Grin’ko
Irina Tarkovskaia
If one were simply to retell the plot of Ivan’s Childhood, it could be
done in one, albeit long, sentence: a young World War II military
scout, a twelve-year-old man-child orphaned during the war, determined and vengeful, wades across a swampy river from behind
enemy lines with crucial information on the enemy’s whereabouts, and
despite his attempt to run away when his superiors try to get him out
of the front lines, he goes back on another mission and is killed by the
Germans before Russians capture Berlin. But the dark, dirty, sinister
and dangerous wartime reality of the story is contrasted with Ivan’s
vivid dreams – interspersed through the film – of a bright, clean and
happy pre-war existence with his mother and sister. Which ‘childhood’
is the film about then? Although Ivan clearly is killed, as the young
lieutenant Galtsev, the only one of Ivan’s superiors and caretakers to
survive the war, finds his file in a German prison, the film ends with
an ambiguous, and unexplained final ‘dream’ (whose?) of a laughing
Ivan running with his sister along the beach, but ominously running
towards a dead, black tree which fills the screen in the film’s final
Based on Vladimir Bogomolov’s story Ivan, a sparse, realistic prose
account of the heroic missions and tragic fate of one of the many
wartime scouts, Tarkovskii’s poetic, and highly subjective, cinematic
retelling is no typical war film. There is almost no action, the enemy
is mostly unseen, with occasional gun shots and disembodied voices,
and two dead scouts eerily sitting on a riverbank with nooses around
their necks. Narrative information is spare and imprecise: where is
all this taking place? Who is this angry boy who orders about his
higher-ups? Why does headquarters know him? What happened
to his family? Why does he go back behind enemy lines when his
officer friends want him to go to military school to be out of harm’s
way? In his first feature film, Tarkovskii is already challenging viewers to become what he later described as co-creators of the story. To
this end he begins to use what would become some of his favourite
devices: elliptical narration, and retroactive explanation of characters’
actions. In bits and pieces it is revealed that Ivan is so full of hate for
the Germans, and so determined to go on his next reconnaissance
mission because his whole family has been killed.
The poetic dream sequences, both lifelike and surreal, revealing
Ivan’s past, but more importantly his inner feelings, the interweaving
of dream and reality, the highly subjective expressionistic camerawork and sound (especially in Ivan’s hallucinatory ‘game’ where, left
alone in the bunker, he stalks and kills Germans), the daring use of
graphic documentary footage (of the dead bodies in the murder/suicide of Goebbels’s family including small children), were a shocking,
stylistic and thematic tour-de-force, which challenged and expanded
the boundaries of socialist realism. And even among the Thaw-era
films which eschewed the large-than-life, patriotic heroes of the late
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Stalinist period in favour of real, at times flawed individuals, Ivan was
certainly an unconventional ‘hero’, a warped, damaged man-child.
Although it had taken some dozen artistic council meetings and much
criticism of the film at the studio, in the liberal Thaw climate, the film
was approved for release and almost immediately recognized at home
and abroad as a major, though controversial, contribution to Soviet,
and world, cinema. Tarkovskii was to become (along with Parajanov)
internationally the most highly acclaimed filmmaker from the Soviet
Union from the 1960s to his death in the mid-1980s and beyond.
Although Tarkovskii had taken over the filming of Ivan from another
director, and was not formally credited with any script work, Ivan’s
Childhood, the film he called his ‘qualifying examination’, already had
a distinctive ‘Tarkovskian’ stamp. In terms of film style he was yet to
develop his signature lengthy takes and slow tracking shots (found in
his next film, the magisterial Andrei Rublev), and soon gave up the
self-aware virtuoso camerawork, with odd angles, rapid swish pans
and energetic editing (of the dreams and hallucinatory sequences).
But his addition of Ivan’s dreams introduced a major theme: the inner
as well as outward journey of the hero, and a natural world that is
both hallucinatory and palpably real, beautiful or ugly, living or dead
(the rain and apples in Ivan’s dream and the scorched earth of his
Andrei Tarkovskii, Ivan’s Childhood (1962).
Directory of World Cinema
waking reality), but always lovingly shot from extreme close-up to long
shot. (Tarkovskii closely oversaw his directors of photography to create
his own visual style.) Tarkovskii’s favourite motifs – water, fire, horses,
trees, bird sounds, much beloved from his own childhood, added in
this film, as in many to follow, the personal, autobiographical element
that made Tarkovskii’s films haunting, mysterious and yet universal.
Vida T. Johnson
The Commissar
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Gorky Studio
Aleksandr Askol’dov
Klavdiia Vavilova, a Red Army commissar during the Russian Civil
War, becomes pregnant while away at the front. By the time she
returns to base it is too late to have the abortion she wants. She is
billeted on the Jewish Magazannik family. At first a very unwilling
mother, she grows into the role, especially thanks to her developing
friendship with Maria, the devoted mother of many young children;
Vavilova becomes the proud mother of Kirill, named for her lover.
When the Whites threaten the town in which she is stationed, she
realizes the importance of the Revolutionary cause, in part because
of a ‘pre-vision’ of the Holocaust, and what will happen to people like
the Magazanniks. She returns to the front, leaving her baby with the
Magazanniks. In an open ending the viewer is left wondering what will
become of her and her baby.
Aleksandr Askol’dov
Aleksandr Askol’dov’s film The Commissar needs to be located in
three quite separate decades. The movie is set during the postRevolutionary struggles of the early 1920s; it was made in 1966–1967,
just as the Khrushchev inspired ‘Thaw’ was rapidly drawing to a
close. However, sadly for the filmmaker, whose only film this turned
out to be, the film saw the light of day only during the glasnost era
of the 1980s, when it was released to great acclaim in 1988. In fact,
Askol’dov could hardly have chosen a more unpropitious time (in
terms of Soviet cultural politics) to try to make this film. Although
Askol’dov did not know this at the time, the manuscript of Life and
Fate by Vasilii Grossman, on whose story ‘In the Town of Berdichev’
The Commissar would be based, had been seized four years earlier.
A ‘witch hunt’ was beginning, signalled by the arrests of Siniavskii
and Daniel among others. Later the outbreak in June 1967 of the Six
Days War, involving Israel, would be the final blow for the film, with its
‘Jewish theme’.
From the period of the film’s making onwards, the essence of the
controversy surrounding the film has centred around, first, the persona
of the female commissar, Klavdiia Vavilova, and second, and more
particularly, around her decision towards the end of the film to relinquish her baby son Kirill to the care of the Magazanniks, the Jewish
family with whom she has been billeted. On the one hand, Askol’dov
himself informed the Goskomitet in 1967 that ‘motifs clearly convey
Valerii Ginzburg
Art Director:
Sergei Serebrennikov
Alfred Schnittke
Natal’ia Loginova
Svetlana Liashinskaia
Nina Vasil’eva
104 minutes
War Drama
Nonna Mordiukova
Rolan Bykov
Raisa Nedashkovskaia
Liudmila Volynskaia
Vasilii Shukshin
1967 (released 1988)
War Film 101
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Aleksandr Askol’dov, The Commissar (1966).
that, in leaving her baby, the heroine goes on to defend the Revolution and consequently the life and future of her son as well as millions
of children around the world’. However, his claims have not persuaded
some recent critics as to the meaning of his film and its conclusion. A
common view is that, though Vavilova clearly believes in her cause,
her zeal leads to inhumanity, in that she abandons her young baby,
only (probably) to die shortly afterwards herself. According to this
reading, the ending of the film shows how the individual was all too
easily sacrificed to the so-called ‘common good’ – as Askol’dov himself was ironically and tragically to discover.
Indeed, the qualities of Commissar show how much might have
been achieved in a full directorial career. The film is very simply
constructed, with the birth scene at the very centre of the narrative structure. This sequence is also the most striking visually, with a
Directory of World Cinema
whole series of almost surreal metaphors conveying both the pain of
childbirth, but also its symbolic significance for the character and the
politics of the film. Mordiukova handles supremely well the transition from burly, brusque, great-coated disciplinarian to smiling new
mother in frock and headscarf. The Jewish family is deftly characterized, emphasizing the traditional roles of man and woman, but with
both ultimately supporting Vavilova in her dealing with the ethical and
political dilemmas she faces. Shot in crisp black and white, with sparing but very effective use of music, the movie captures evocatively
the buffer region that is the town of Berdichev. Though ultimately the
director’s claims for his only film stand up, it was clearly too ambivalent in its opinions – and especially its ending – for the neo-Stalinism
of the prevailing political climate of the late 1960s, on the eve, of
course, of the crushing of the ‘Prague Spring’ and other forms of
‘socialism with a human face’.
Joe Andrew
The Ascent
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Larisa Shepit’ko
Iurii Klepikov
Larisa Shepit’ko
Pavel Lebeshev
Vladimir Chukhnov
Art Director:
Iurii Raksha
Alfred Schnittke
Valeriia Belova
The Soviet partisans are fighting an uphill battle against the German
invaders in Belarus. After a skirmish, a partisan detachment is
stranded in a forest without supplies or ammunition. Two men are
dispatched to procure food – a battle-hardened veteran, Rybak, and
a schoolteacher turned soldier, Sotnikov. Plowing through a snowy
desert, they eventually stock up on provisions, but on the way back
run into a German patrol and seek refuge in the house of a local
woman. She is unhappy about the visitors, but hides them when the
Germans arrive. They are captured and imprisoned along with their
hostess. Later they are joined in their cell by the local headman (who
is in fact a partisan helper) and a Jewish girl. Sotnikov and Rybak are
interrogated by the collaborator Portnov. Sotnikov is put to torture
but refuses to divulge any information about his comrades or himself.
A more pragmatic Rybak seeks compromise with his captors, hoping
to survive, but the next morning all five are led to execution. Rybak
finally breaks down and begs for mercy, agreeing to change sides.
After Sotnikov and the others are executed, he attempts suicide but
fails and is left alone screaming into the wilderness.
The Ascent, based on the Vasil’ Bykov novella Sotnikov, is that rarity, a
Soviet war film that has won equal acclaim in the West and at home. It
also turned out to be Larisa Shepit’ko’s last completed film before her
untimely death in a car accident in 1979. The liberal Soviet intelligentsia was thrilled to see a film that overimposed Christian allegory onto
a familiar Soviet genre, with Sotnikov standing in for Christ, Rybak as
Judas and Portnov as Pilate. The image of telegraph poles that begins
and ends the film resembles nothing so much as a row of crucifixes.
Some western viewers are still baffled why the Soviet censors let it
War Film 103
Directory of World Cinema
Larisa Shepit’ko, The Ascent (1976).
Directory of World Cinema
109 minutes
War Drama
Boris Plotnikov
Vladimir Gostiukhin
Sergei Iakovlev
Liudmila Poliakova
Victoria Gol’dentul
Anatolii Solonitsyn
Nikolai Sektimenko
Maria Vinogradova
pass. Hadn’t they noticed the religious parallels? They certainly had.
Communism had always viewed itself as a quasi-religion, and in the
1970s its waning appeal as an ideology made its custodians seek new
ways of legitimization. One was Russian nationalism, another Christian
faith. This is not to say that Shepit’ko and her companions were propagating communist dogma, but it does explain the tacit approval from
the authorities. However, it is also the reason why some post-communist Russian critics (e.g. Aleksandr Shpagin) are dissatisfied, pointing
out that Sotnikov is not a Christ, for he does not carry the Word, only
sacrifices himself, like Olena Kostiuk from The Rainbow (1943, Mark
Donskoi) or Zoya (1944, Lev Arnshtam) before him. The Soviet myth
cannot be a receptacle for religious consciousness because they teach
very different moral lessons and are, in the end, irreconcilable.
Time has certainly made many viewers look at the film’s central parable through critical eyes. Ironically, it is the Christ-like Sotnikov that
now seems, at least to this reviewer, the weakest and least believable
character. He remains a cipher: we never learn what gives him the
strength to endure his martyrdom. The frightened Rybak asks him in
prison, ‘Now what? Into the pit? To feed worms?’ Sotnikov’s response
is: ‘That is not the worst. Now I know. The main thing is to have a clear
conscience’. It is hard to argue with Rybak’s contemptuous retort: ‘You
are a fool, Sotnikov. And you’ve been to graduate school’. Earthy,
astute and level-headed, Rybak is neither a coward nor a natural-born
traitor. He is much easier to identify with than the impossibly angelic
Sotnikov. Even the devilish Portnov (Tarkovskii’s stalwart Anatolii
Solonitsyn) evokes a certain morbid curiosity about man’s capacity for
evil. A choirmaster before the war, who taught children Revolutionary hymns and nineteenth-century Russian songs, he has turned into
a monster playing cat-and-mouse games with his helpless victims.
When the Soviet filmmakers wanted to impart a degree of humanness
to Nazi collaborators, they usually hinted that they had been victims
of dekulakization or other Stalinist terrors. No such explanation is
offered here, but the character is not one-dimensional. He seems to
be genuinely intrigued and bothered with the Sotnikov case, a case
he is bound to lose morally.
Whatever its flaws, The Ascent belongs, together with Elem Klimov’s Come and See, among the best of war films, putting to shame
such overpraised but simplistic Hollywood fare as Saving Private
Ryan. The starkly beautiful black-and-white cinematography captures
people’s faces and wintry landscapes in crystalline detail. The sketches
for the film by production designer Iurii Raksha are works of art in
themselves, as is the music by Alfred Schnittke. The Ascent is a rich
and rewarding viewing experience and the British Film Institute placed
it on its 360 best films list in 1993.
Sergey Dobrynin
War Film 105
Directory of World Cinema
Come and See
Idi i smotri
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Elem Klimov
Ales Adamovich
Elem Klimo
Aleksei Rodionov
Art Director:
Viktor Petrov
Oleg Ianchenko
Valeriia Belova
142 minutes
War Drama
Aleksei Kravchenko
Olga Mironova
Liubomiras Lauciavicius
Vladas Bagdonas
Jüri Lumiste
Viktor Lorents
Kazimir Rabetskii
Evgenii Tilichev
Nazi-occupied Belarus, 1943. Fifteen-year-old Flera leaves his protesting mother and his sisters to join the partisans in the nearby woods.
He embraces the life of a resistance fighter until excluded from an
important mission. Disgruntled, he wanders away and meets the
bewitching partisan girl, Glasha. Together they escape a German air
raid which destroys the camp and leaves Flera half-deaf. Upon return
to village, Flera learns that his family and others have been massacred, and blames himself. He rejoins the detachment and goes on
an ill-fated mission, only to witness the death of his comrades and to
seek refuge in another village on the day it is slated for destruction
by the SS. The Germans and their collaborators herd the villagers
into a barn and set it on fire. Flera is left for dead in the burneddown village. The partisans ambush and execute the Germans. Flera,
whose ordeal has turned him into a wizened old man, shoots at the
discarded portrait of Hitler. The shooting alternates with documentary
footage of Hitler’s life run in reverse until he appears as a baby. Flera
stops shooting. The final caption says 628 Belarusian villages were
destroyed by the Nazis in World War II.
A perfect companion piece to The Ascent, directed by Klimov’s wife
Larisa Shepit’ko, Come and See complements the visual and narrative
austerity of the former with baroque imagery and unrestrained emotion. Both are based on canonical works of Belarusian ‘partisan prose’
(Vasil’ Bykov’s Sotnikov and Ales’ Adamovich’s The Khatyn Story,
respectively) and both have abandoned the dry, lapidary book titles
for ones with biblical allusions (Come and See references the Book of
Revelation 6:1). The two films capture and bookend a cultural moment
when the Great Patriotic War has ceased to be a recent memory and
begun to demand a more metaphysical treatment, yet before any
historical re-evaluation has become possible.
These films are markedly different from the early, Thaw-era
attempts at ‘God-seeking’ in Soviet war cinema, but they also stand
in contrast to each other. While The Ascent presents Sotnikov as a
Christ figure who wins a spiritual victory over his tormentors, there
are no such consolations in Come and See, no heroism or hope of
redemption, except on the symbolical level. Its would-be hero is
unaware of his true role: that of a helpless victim and the viewer’s
guide on a tour into the heart of darkness. Some of the film’s most
excruciating moments occur when the character’s tender age and
idealism are pitted against un-childlike reality. The film’s most horrific
scene may not be the final fiery death of a village, but Flera’s return
to his home where everything speaks of tragedy: his little sisters’
dolls scattered across the floor, the soup on the stove, untouched
and still warm. Flera wilfully misinterprets the ominous signs, blabbering excitedly that his mother and sisters ‘have left’. Is he naïve
or in deep denial? A more mature Glasha chokes on the soup
offered her and takes the boy away, glancing back only once to see
a mound of corpses behind the house. After that, the horrors keep
Directory of World Cinema
coming without a minute’s pause. This relentless insistence on the
narrative of victimhood and suffering sets Come and See apart from
other coming-of-age-in-a-war films, such as Evgenii Evtushenko’s
contemporaneous, poeticized Kindergarten (1983) or Andrei Tarkovskii’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), which was released by a US video
distributor as The Youngest Spy. Somebody apparently saw fit to
re-package it as a conventional war story. Come and See will never
be known as The Youngest Partisan.
A film like this could appear only at a particular, pivotal moment in
Soviet history, coming out as it was on the very eve of glasnost and
actually helping usher it in. It could not have been made a few years
before – as witnessed by Elem Klimov’s seven-year struggle to lift the
project, initially called Kill Hitler, off the ground. And were it to be
made later, its partisan characters would probably be less saintly and
its Nazis less single-mindedly evil. However, these vestiges of Soviet
propaganda do not distract from the powerful panorama of man’s
inhumanity to man. The point-of-view Steadicam camerawork of Aleksei Rodionov is masterly without being showy, and the colour palette
is suitably sombre, conveying an almost physical sensation of a foggy
rural morning or a rainy day in the forest. The dialogue by Klimov and
Adamovich (a mix of Russian and Belarusian) was startlingly realistic
for its day and still retains its freshness.
Sergey Dobrynin
Country of Origin:
Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Sergei Sel’ianov
Konstantin Ernst
During the 1990s Chechen War a Russian military unit enters a house
in a local village looking for rebels. A mine explodes killing a boy,
and the soldiers are attacked by village women who blame them for
the boy’s death. A local policeman and a woman are killed. The soldiers are transferred to a remote checkpoint, with an invisible sniper.
With little to do the young soldiers settle into a routine. They have
sex with a deaf-and-mute woman, who is brought to the outpost
by her sister Minimat; they travel to a nearby village to buy dope;
they play cards and tricks on one another. One of the soldiers even
has a budding romance with Minimat. One day a military convoy
arrives from the village where the bloodshed took place. The unit’s
commander realizes that the Russian general betrayed him and his
people to pacify the local population. One soldier is taken away, and
a few days later his mutilated body is left on the road by the checkpoint. The soldier who finds the body sits down in despair, and this
is when the sniper, who is revealed to be Minimat, takes her shot.
The soldier she kills is her lover. Minimat’s sister trips over a wire,
Minimat cries out in horror.
Andrei Zhegalov
Art Director:
Vladimir Kartashov
Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Sergei Gusinskii
Iuliia Rumiantseva
Russia’s war with Chechnya, which began in 1994, shortly after the
collapse of communism, and has continued on and off into the new
millennium, became a subject of heated public debate and the setting
War Film 107
Directory of World Cinema
85 minutes
War Drama
Roman Romantsov
Kirill Ul’ianov
Denis Kirillov
Andrei Krasko
Zoia Buriak
Aleksei Buldakov
Denis Moiseev
Iurii Grigor’ev
Aleksandr Rogozhkin, Checkpoint (1998).
for many films of the 1990s. Like a score of other war films before and
after it, Checkpoint portrays Chechens as aliens, unpredictable and
incomprehensible. Their speech is never translated. In this respect, the
deaf-and-dumb girl – whose fiancé left her after she had been raped
by Russian troops – is Chechnya. As viewers we might be sympathetic
to her but the point-of-view of the film is unmistakable and honestly
Russian. In fact, one of the soldiers in the group provides a voice-over
narration, and his comment, ‘Nobody knows what we are doing here’,
gives the film an absurdist touch but does not change the fact that
these young and nice Russian boys are there with guns.
At the same time, Checkpoint strikes the viewer by its unconventional
minimalism in dealing with such a theme. The narrator introduces each
of his buddies by a nickname, explaining the origins of those: Ratso has
a pet rat, Scag is a dope fiend, Bones – the narrator himself – shed all
his fat in the army. This personal treatment intensifies viewer identification with the young soldiers at the remote checkpoint. They have
nothing to do there except for the guard duty, and in that, as the narrator informs us, they are protecting the road to the local cemetery. The
camera keeps soldiers in tight close-ups and medium shots, bringing
them closer to the viewer and separating them from the surrounding
landscape, just as language separates them from the locals. We only
get a look at the mountains when soldiers look at them through their
rifle sights as they try to locate the sniper.
But this minimalism is well calculated. The film is framed by two
instances of violence: the explosion and shoot-out in the village at
Directory of World Cinema
the beginning and the rapid series of deaths at the end. These two
sequences explode into the narrative abruptly, reminding the viewer
that the war – as invisible and absurd as it might seem – is for real. All
but one of these deaths seem unpremeditated or accidental. The boy
explodes the mine when he plays with it. The two people in the village die during the ensuing commotion. The sniper shoots the soldier
she likes because he exchanged his helmet with his buddy. The only
premeditated murder is the death of the soldier deemed responsible
for the tragedy in the village.
This is a war with no mission or heroism but with real death. The
anti-war message is annunciated in the matter-of-fact narration and
the mundane activities, including various bodily functions. Rogozhkin,
a master of absurd comedy with a ‘Russian national’ flavour, remains
true to himself in Checkpoint. At the centre of the narrative space is a
perfect symbol of the incongruity: the outhouse. This is a place of privacy and peace, a daily chore of cleaning and a reminder of normalcy.
It is also a target for the sniper, a fourteen-year-old Chechen girl who
shoots Russians with the very same bullets they pay her with for sex
with her dumb sister.
Elena Prokhorova
Country of Origin:
Aleksei Balabanov
Sergei Sel’ianov
Aleksei Balabanov
Sergei Astakhov
Art Director:
Pavel Parkhomenko
Marina Lipartiia
Hostages are held for ransom by a band of Chechen terrorists led
by Aslan Gugaev: Ivan Ermakov, a young Russian soldier; Captain
Medvedev, an inspirational leader; and John and Margaret, two
English actors. Aslan sets John and Ivan free to collect ransom for
Margaret. When the British and Russian governments refuse to
negotiate with the terrorists, John devises a plan to free Margaret
and to film the hostage rescue for a British television station. John
travels to Tobolsk to enlist Ivan in his scheme. Ivan has tried unsuccessfully to adjust to civilian life, so he accepts John’s offer to help
rescue the hostages. Back on Chechen territory, Ivan kills some
Chechens, steals their jeep, takes a shepherd hostage, and they
make their way to Aslan’s camp. Ivan and John manage to free the
hostages and capture Aslan. When John learns that Margaret had
been brutally gang-raped by the Chechens, he kills Aslan in a fit of
rage. They flee with Aslan’s band in hot pursuit. After a harrowing
attempt to escape downriver, they are rescued by Russian helicopter
gunships. In the epilogue, we learn that Ivan has been arrested for
the murder of Chechens.
Like his earlier blockbusters Brother and Brother 2, Aleksei
Balabanov’s War presents a politically charged and controversial
look at the aftermath of imperial collapse in the former Soviet Union.
While the Brother films depicted the mean streets of Petersburg,
Moscow and Chicago in the 1990s as an urban free-fire zone in which
War Film 109
Directory of World Cinema
Viacheslav Butuzov
120 minutes
War Film
Aleksei Chadov
Giorgii Gurgulia
Ian Kelly
Ingeborga Dapkunaite
Evklid Kurdzidis
Sergei Bodrov Jr
Vladimir Gostiukhin
the recently demobilized Danila Bagrov outsmarts and defeats the
brutal mobsters who have filled the post-Soviet power vacuum, War
plays out a similar vigilante narrative in a real free-fire zone during the
Second Chechen War (1999–2002). Like Danila Bagrov, Ivan Ermakov
is an army veteran and Russian everyman hero who reluctantly takes
up arms against a violent band of Chechen terrorists and, against all
odds, carries the day. But Ivan’s victory is transformed into defeat by a
society that, because it neither recognizes its heroes, nor understands
what it means to be at war, is doomed to failure.
The central question posed by War concerns what lengths a civilized state can legitimately go to defend itself against fanatical enemies who reject the rules of war. Although Balabanov’s main interest is
with Russia’s conduct of the Chechen war, this question is, of course,
directly relevant to the Global War on Terror that the West has been
fighting since September 11, 2001. Although Ivan’s actions in Chechnya are brutal and technically illegal, the film portrays him as a hero
for his recognition that in war the only rules are to help your friends
and kill the enemy. In this sense, all talk about human rights and rules
of engagement is either naïve and wishful thinking or, simply, hypocrisy. By transforming the film’s representative liberal, the English actor
John, into a cold-blooded killer by the film’s end, Balabanov suggests
how easily idealistic western principles can disintegrate in the crucible
of war. When Ivan is arrested for killing Chechen citizens of the Russian Federation, Balabanov is protesting the absurdity of extending
civil protection to people who are openly at war with Russia.
Many critics and viewers have been repulsed by what they see as
a crudely nationalistic call to arms to Russians fed up with national
weakness, political correctness and western critics of Russia. But while
challenging conventional notions of military restraint in anti-terrorist
operations and satirizing western liberals, Balabanov’s film cannot
be reduced to simple propaganda for the harsh anti-terrorist policies
put into effect by Putin’s government. In fact, the director’s depiction of the Russian government, police and armed forces as corrupt,
incompetent and apathetic to the needs of ordinary people is no less
devastating than his portrait of the Chechen enemy.
For challenging what he sees as the dominant culture of political
correctness, Balabanov and his films have often been called racist. The
director has, it is true, made such criticism more convincing by provocative and outrageous comments at press conferences and on his
movies’ official websites. But while Balabanov’s characters do use racial
epithets and positive Chechen characters are completely absent from
War, it is difficult to see how this differs from many classic Hollywood
war movies, especially those made during on-going military conflicts. Certainly Aslan Gugaev, the leader of the terrorists, is a classic
one-dimensional villain, a violent and brutal sadist without religion or
honour. Yet Aslan teaches Ivan an essential truth: that strong and hard
men are needed in times of war and that the Russians are doomed as
long as they are led by incompetents and cowards who fail to understand the true nature of military conflict.
Anthony Anemone
Directory of World Cinema
Our Own
Country of Origin:
Dmitrii Meskhiev
Set in German-occupied territory in the early months of World War II,
Our Own begins with a Nazi attack on a Red Army unit. A Russian NKVD
officer (Garmash) and a Jewish Commissar (Khabenskii) change out of
their uniforms and into peasant clothes to avoid being shot. They are
captured and meet up with a third man from their unit, a peasant sniper
named Mit’ka (Evlanov). When their prison column nears the sniper’s
village, the three escape. They end up in Mit’ka’s father’s barn. Mit’ka’s
father (Stupka) spent years in the Gulag and has returned to become village headman. His village is occupied by Nazi soldiers and collaborators.
Mit’ka and his comrades threaten the delicate balance that the father
has helped to maintain in difficult circumstances. Eventually, the soldiers
attempt to escape and to join up with the Red Army.
Viktor Glukhov
Sergei Melkumov
Elena Iatsura
Our Own appeared as part of a wave of movies and television series
that revisited the Great Patriotic War’s significance in the Putin era. The
film explores one of the central issues of wartime – the way in which
populations are divided into ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’. Meskhiev does not
settle for simple definitions of these terms and uses his wartime setting
to expose the ways that the Stalinist system worked. He sets his film in
a town occupied by the Nazis, a place where the local population must
choose between resistance and collaboration, passivity or action, life
and death. These choices force the characters in the film to confront
the issue of who exactly is ‘our own’. In the case of the village headman
this choice divides his family. The tension that the film depicts revolves
around the headman and his choices – who, ultimately, is svoi? His son,
whose escape leads the Nazi occupiers to ratchet up searches in the
village? His daughters, whose frontline husbands’ actions also threaten
to destroy the peace? His fellow villagers, including Mit’ka’s girlfriend
Katia (Anna Mikhalkova), who has also learned how to survive under
Nazi occupation? The two escapees and Red Army members, who represent the system that sent him to the camps? Or his occupiers, some
of whom are friends also upset with Soviet power? Meskhiev’s film blurs
the lines between ‘our own’ and ‘them’, categories that Stalinist culture
attempted to define clearly. Moreover, none of the characters represent
an officially approved ‘ours’ in the Stalin era: POWs, kulaks and antiSoviet collaborators are not part of the ideal Soviet society.
The subtitle of Meskhiev’s film offers a clue into the way in which
the film plays with the existing myths about the war – Holy War, Usual
Story (Sviashchennaia voina, obychnaia istoriia). The story told in Svoi,
however, is far from the ‘usual’ one about the war. While the Germans
remain enemies, the film suggests that the ‘real’ enemies are as likely
to be ‘your own’ people. The end of Svoi expresses these debates
quite clearly. The village headman, after his son has killed the local
police chief, turns to the NKVD officer and points his gun. The officer,
thinking he will be killed, cries out ‘I’m one of yours, one of yours (Ia
zhe svoi, svoi)’. The headman answers: ‘no one is going to hurt you’,
then watches as the officer runs way. However, the headman tells his
son to follow the NKVD man, imploring him ‘to go and defend the
Valentin Chernykh
Sergei Machil’skii
Art Directors:
Aleksandr Stroilo
Zhanna Pakhomova
Sviatoslav Kurashov
Marina Vasil’eva
111 minutes
War Film
Konstantin Khabenskii
Sergei Garmash
Mikhail Evlanov
Bogdan Stupka
Anna Mikhalkova
Fedor Bondarchuk
Natalia Surkova
War Film 111
Directory of World Cinema
Dmitrii Meskhiev, Our Own (2004).
motherland’. Despite his hatred for the regime, the old man accepts
that he does have a homeland and that it does represent something
important for him. Our Own therefore sheds light on a Soviet taboo
topic: the experience of occupation. It ultimately offers a tense,
believable story about patriotism and heroism in the face of invasion
that expands Soviet-era cinematic narratives.
Stephen Norris
Company 9
9-aia rota
Country of Origin:
Company 9, set during the final two years of the Soviet-Afghan War
(1987–1989), tells the story of a group of young Soviet soldiers whose
wartime experience bonds them together. The first half of the film
concentrates on the soldiers’ physical and psychological training at
boot camp. The second half of the film, based on actual historical
events, takes place in Afghanistan and focuses on Company 9, into
which five of the soldiers from boot camp enter. As the group endeavours to secure a safe mountain passage into the Khost province, they
reach the height of 3234 metres; the number comes to signify the
locale of the definitive battle that defeated the company.
Directory of World Cinema
Art Pictures
Matila Rohr Productions
Slovo Production
Ukraine Media Group
Fedor Bondarchuk
Fedor Bondarchuk
Elena Iatsura
Sergei Mel’kumov
Aleksandr Rodnianskii
Iurii Korotkov
Maksim Osadchii
Art Director:
Grigorii Pushkin
Dato Evgenidze
Igor’ Litoninskii
135 minutes
War Film
Fedor Bondarchuk
Aleksei Chadov
Ivan Kokorin
Konstantin Kriukov
Artem Mikhalkov
Mikhail Porehenkov
Irina Rakhmanova
Artur Smol’ianinov
Five years in the making and with a budget of 9 million dollars, the
highest of any Russian film ever made at the time of its production,
Company 9 was conceived to be a blockbuster. The film is packed
with Russia’s best male actors, both newcomers (Chadov, Smol’ianinov
and Kriukov) and veterans (Bashirov and Govorukhin). No expense was
spared: the latest cameras, top-quality special effects and sound editing
done by the London studio Pinewood Shepperton combine to make
a professional feature film with undeniable mass appeal – it grossed
$23.47 million in its first month on the big screen. The grandiose scale
of this debut film hints at the director’s privileged position within the
post-Soviet film industry. Son of Sergei Bondarchuk, who directed the
Soviet classics Fate of a Man (1959) and War and Peace (1966–1967),
Fedor Bondarchuk’s access to stars, technology and funds is a rarity.
Fedor Bondarchuk’s experience directing television advertisements
can be sensed in Company 9, which focuses less on the historical
causes and repercussions of the Afghan War, and, instead, makes
emotional appeals to nostalgia, patriotism and friendship. In a sense,
with Company 9 Bondarchuk is selling something: he ‘rebrands’ the
Soviet-Afghan War by looking back at it with a positive retrospective
glance. Use of dreamlike slow-motion shots of soldiers hugging and
cheering after successfully accomplishing a training mission conveys
the sense of sentimentality that pervades the film. Intimate displays
of friendship – for example a scene of the boys sweaty and in various
stages of undress lying on one another as they pass a joint and take
turns making love to a mythical village girl before being deployed to
Afghanistan – constructs the soldiers into a legend about the formative experience of war. Importantly, this wartime camaraderie is linked
to patriotic goals. As the soldiers graduate from boot camp, the
camera, level with a waving Soviet flag, peers down on the rows of
young men through the red flag. The metaphor is clear: Bondarchuk’s
film is filtered through a patriotic Soviet perspective.
The celebration of the soldiers’ strong bonds to one another and the
dignity ascribed to the Soviet mission in Afghanistan pairs strangely
with the film’s visual and narrative quotations taken from American films
about the Vietnam War. The first half of Company 9 borrows liberally from
Stanley Kubrick’s classic Full Metal Jacket (1987). Bondarchuk, following
Kubrick, opens his film in the military barbershop as the young soldiers
get their heads shaved. In both films the soldiers are given nicknames:
in Full Metal Jacket the monikers include Private Joker, Private Pyle,
Private Cowboy and Private Snowball; in Company 9 there is Liutyi (Fierce
one), Chugun (Iron), Vorobei (Sparrow) and Gioconda (i.e, the artist).
The drill sergeant of Company 9 is visually modelled on the sergeant of
Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) – he, too, has a distinguishing scar on his
right cheek. In his behaviour, he’s reminiscent of Sergeant Hartman (R.
Lee Ermey) from Full Metal Jacket: the Soviet drill sergeant (an atypical
character in the Russo-Soviet war film tradition), following the example
of Hartman, greets his soldiers with insults and punches to the stomach.
However, whereas the Vietnam War film employs biting satire to critically
comment on war, Bondarchuk’s film does not ridicule the Soviet campaign
in Afghanistan and does not wonder whether the young soldiers lost their
lives for a legitimate cause. The goal of Company 9 is to sustain the myth
of the Soviet soldier within the post-Soviet culture industry. Ironically, it
takes a Hollywood-sized budget, British sound editing and reference to
the American Vietnam War film to perpetuate this Soviet legend.
Dawn Seckler
War Film 113
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Since its very early years, Russian film has enjoyed a rich and diversified tradition of comedy, and some of the best pre-Revolutionary
films were comedies. Evgenii Bauer’s Cold Showers (1914), and The
Thousand and Second Ruse (1915), are both very funny early examples of the genre, combining bedroom farce (including cross-dressing)
with portrayals of the ‘modern’ woman. But it was with the birth of
the Soviet cinema industry that film comedy really developed its own
identity, and created its own stars. One of the most accomplished
films of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ (1924–1930) of Soviet cinema was
Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land
of the Bolsheviks (1924), which combined political satire – the West’s
ignorance of the new Soviet reality – with knockabout farce, including car chases, a cowboy running amok in Moscow and mistaken
identity. Kuleshov’s nod to Hollywood was noted and criticized. The
decade also produced satirical comedies by Iakov Protazanov, such
as The Trial of the Three Million (1926), with its easy NEP targets such
as thieves, clergy and businessmen, Don Diego and Pelageia (1929),
a clever send-up of petty bureaucracy and St Jorgen’s Feast (1930),
which similarly ticks the right boxes in its mockery of religion.
Protazanov not only made comedies that were popular, but also
ideologically ‘safe’. He helped launch the career of perhaps the Soviet
Union’s greatest comic film actor, Igor’ Il’inskii, who would later create
some of Soviet cinema’s most durable comic characters. But as the
criticism of Kuleshov had shown, comedy was a problematic genre
with its potential for subversive laughter and social satire, and the film
comedies of the succeeding decades were required to support state
Those who set the ideological agenda during the predominance
of socialist realism wished to direct humour into acceptable channels,
so it is no surprise to learn that the comedies of the 1930s and 1940s
were rarely laugh-out-loud funny. But they did not need to be, and the
function of comedy became defined as serving the state in showing an
optimistic and ‘life-affirming’ view of the world, especially life in Stalin’s
Soviet Union. A last hurrah is Grigorii Aleksandrov’s Jolly Fellows
Leonid Gaidai, The Diamond Arm (1968).
Comedy and Musical Comedy 115
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(1934), with its (literally!) knockabout slapstick and celebration of jazz as the expression of
the sheer exuberance of life. One of the first ‘musical comedies’, it is distinctive in that it is
at least funny (though it proved controversial on its release).
Aleksandrov’s subsequent comedies, such as The Circus (1936), Volga-Volga (1938),
The Radiant Path (1940) and Spring (1947), all light-hearted vehicles for his wife Liubov’
Orlova, feature music by Isaak Dunaevskii and predictably cute outcomes. But they
also embed the twin narratives of Stalinist culture: life is good and getting better, and
individual drive and commitment to the cause can bring success and happiness. The
life-as-fairytale motif reaches its epitome at the climax of The Radiant Path, where
Tania Morozova (Orlova) is whisked into an aerial motor tour of the country by her fairy
Ivan Pyr’ev’s collective farm musicals, such as The Rich Bride (1937), and Tractor Drivers
(1939), posit the village as an astonishingly cultural habitat, especially in terms of musical
ability, a motif that reaches its apogee in Kuban Cossacks (1949), where the village shop
has a grand piano for sale. These films all starred Pyr’ev’s wife, Marina Ladynina, another
singing blue-eyed blond, and were intended to celebrate the recent collectivization of
agriculture as an unequivocal triumph for the peasants’ way of life. Kuban Cossacks was
singled out for criticism by Khrushchev after Stalin’s death for its blatant ‘falsification’ of
Comedies of the 1930s and 1940s were popular, and justified the regime’s desire to
make ‘cinema for the millions’. These were films that people wanted to see, and the
musical comedy was the most popular genre of the Stalinist period. They also embedded a narrative of inclusivity and participation, where apparently ordinary folk could
achieve social advancement. In Aleksandr Ivanovskii’s A Musical Story (1940), a taxi
driver becomes an opera singer (though he is played by the outstanding tenor Sergei
Lemeshev), and Ivanovskii focuses, too, on the everyday life of people living in communal apartments. Konstantin Iudin’s A Girl with Character (1939), and Four Loving Hearts
(1941), are light-hearted narratives set among ordinary townsfolk and the military. An
interesting facet of the Stalinist comedy is the admission, in Tat’iana Lukashevich’s The
Foundling (1939) and Iudin’s Twins (1945), of homeless children, but in these films, of
course, children are returned to their parents.
The death of Stalin saw the re-emergence of film satire. Though not a satire as such,
Mikhail Kalatozov’s Loyal Friends (1954) tells its audience that the 30 years of Stalin’s
rule were not happy times, and that real happiness was to be experienced in the 1920s,
and again, hopefully, since the death of Stalin. It also reminded Soviet filmgoers that
film could actually be funny as it depicted the various mishaps encountered by three
childhood friends who meet up after 30 years and, all pillars of the Soviet establishment,
decide to take a river trip and recapture the fun and enjoyment of their youth.
The Thaw years also saw the emergence of the two major figures in post-war film
comedy: El’dar Riazanov and Leonid Gaidai, both of whom would dominate film
comedy for the next two decades. Riazanov’s first major success was Carnival Night
(Karnaval’naia noch’, 1956), with Igor’ Il’inskii reprising his persona from Volga-Volga as
an obstructive administrator who, in one brilliant scene, totally deconstructs a proposed sketch to anaemic absurdity. Riazanov’s subsequent comedies proved very successful and struck a chord with a responsive audience as they addressed topical social
issues, be it car ownership, women in the workplace, the increasing impersonality of
big cities or the black economy that was becoming more and more of a necessity amid
the wholesale deficit of ‘advanced socialism’. The Unbelievable Adventures of Italians
in Russia (1973) was highly unusual in that it was a Soviet-Italian co-production that
featured well-known Italian and Soviet comic actors (Andrei Mironov, Ninetto Davoli),
but also managed to pull of some impressive visual stunts. Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your
Sauna! (1974) continues to be shown on Russian TV on New Year’s Eve, and in 2007
Directory of World Cinema
most of the original cast (including Riazanov himself in a cameo) were reassembled for
a sequel, though not directed by Riazanov. The Garage (1979) is almost a call to arms,
showing the rebellion and chaos that ensues when the weakest and most vulnerable
citizens reject the platitudes and coercion of those in authority.
Riazanov was able to cast some of the country’s best-loved actors in his films, including
Valentin Gaft, Andrei Mironov, Andrei Miagkov, Alisa Freindlikh and Liudmila Gurchenko.
Leonid Gaidai also had his own ‘stable’, especially the trio of ‘ViNiMor’, Georgii Vitsin,
Iurii Nikulin and Evgenii Morgunov, in a phenomenally popular series of films in the
1960s, depicting the hapless adventures of these three Soviet stooges as they engage in
various anti-social and illegal activities (poaching, brewing home-made vodka, kidnapping). The Diamond Arm (1968) was voted in 1995 the best Soviet comedy ever, starring
Iurii Nikulin, Andrei Mironov and Anatolii Papanov in a hilarious story of smuggling and
mistaken identity. Ivan Vasil’evich Changes Profession (1973) achieves the difficult task of
eliciting pity for a time-travelling Ivan the Terrible as he encounters the barriers of Soviet
bureaucracy. Whereas the best comedies of Riazanov relied on witty verbal exchanges
and satirical undertones immediately understood by a knowing Soviet audience,
Gaidai’s comedy was less socially concerned and more physical, with much use of trick
Soviet film comedy fell into decline in the late 1980s as directors were able to address
topics from the recent past or social ills of the present that were far from funny. In the
post-Soviet period directors such as Dmitrii Astrakhan, Aleksandr Rogozhkin and Iurii
Mamin have tried to persuade an impoverished and demoralized population that there
is comedy in their troubled times. These are narratives that emphasize the goodness of
ordinary Russians and their endurance of social ills, where excessive vodka drinking is
celebrated as a national virtue, rather than the killer of thousands of middle-aged men
every year. However, Valerii Todorovskii’s Hipsters (2008) offers an exhilarating and liberating celebration of youth culture in the early 1960s with a clear post-modern wink that
removes the deadpan seriousness of ‘history’.
Film comedy was at its most popular in the otherwise dark years of Stalinism, and
again in the period of economic and social ‘stagnation’ of Brezhnev’s rule, and this can
be no coincidence. In both periods, the political leadership needed narratives to legitimize their authority, and to persuade the citizenry that society was stable, progressive
and just; but the citizenry, too, needed to be persuaded, and occasionally they wanted
to laugh.
David Gillespie
Comedy and Musical Comedy 117
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The Cigarette
Girl from
Papirosnitsa ot
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Iurii Zheliabuzhskii
Aleksei Faiko
Fedor Otsep
Iurii Zheliabuzhskii
Art Directors:
Vladimir Balliuzek
Sergei Kozlovskii
79 minutes
Igor’ Il’inskii
Iuliia Solntseva
Nikolai Tsereteli
An old chestnut – a film about film – with an even older scenario –
three men competing for the attention of an attractive young woman.
Yet, historically and geographically, the story is clearly set in contemporary Moscow, with ample footage of streets, trams, carriages,
shops, monuments, the river and a racecourse. The casting of one of
the eponymous heroine’s admirers as a portly bespectacled and bowtied American businessman, Oliver MacBride, sets the action against
Russia’s New Economic Policy. An office clerk, Mitiushin, of a foolishly
romantic disposition, similarly fixes upon the heroine, Zina Vesenina,
as his object of affection, despite his being averse to smoking, making
even the camera sway queasily. Meanwhile, a film director temporarily
takes a shine to Mitiushin’s long-suffering, buxom neighbour. Zina’s
third suitor is the film director’s cameraman, Latugin. The Cigarette
Girl leaves the viewer in little doubt, ever, as to where Zina will eventually bestow her favours. But it is fun to find out just how, one fine
day, she finally comes to see herself on screen, from a theatre box
above stalls occupied by enthusiastic fellow cigarette sellers.
Against a setting of New Moscow, Latugin’s affection for Zina
(Solntseva) is confirmed by her omnipresence in the rushes screened
of his footage of ‘New Moscow’: Zina smiling on a bridge; at a
fountain; on the street (and, again, with flowers); at the university; at
the river; in a park and ushering children in a parade. Having once
discovered her by chance, Latugin (Tsereteli) proceeds obsessively
to pose test shots of Zina, who, in turn repeatedly rebuffs MacBride’s
lascivious advances and his invitation that she work as a model for
him. Zina is keen to return to him the change from an enormous note
with which he has paid for a packet of papirosi. For MacBride, Zina
is the equivalent of the dumb painted mannequin that he transports
in one of the numerous hampers and cases accompanying him on
his visit. (The carriage from the station collapses under the combined
weight of its passenger and his luggage.) Meanwhile, the hapless
clerk (Il’inskii) mistakes a stunt dummy thrown from a bridge for Zina
herself: elaborately crossing himself and nervously procrastinating
at the water’s edge, he finally launches himself into the shallows and
doggy-paddles towards the body – only to be disappointed before
managing to topple his rescuers’ boat. The director resuscitates
Mitiushin’s neighbour.
Such ‘tricks’ of the cinema were commonly reported in 1920s
popular Soviet cinema journals. Similarly, the rude rejection of the
clerk’s unsolicited, hand-penned film script was an experience with
which a number of film fans and viewers of The Cigarette Girl could,
perhaps, blushingly share. Many fans dreamed of being ‘discovered’,
just as American stars were reputed and reported to have been found
by chance. The bossy director shouts instructions through a megaphone and wields measuring sticks to position his actors in correct
focus. In the film’s slapstick and chase sequences there was yet more
Directory of World Cinema
to amuse a popular audience, even if, on its release, it failed to satisfy
Moscow’s more serious critics. Much of the entertainment is supplied
by Il’inskii who, from 1920, worked as an actor in Meyerhold’s Theatre.
His set-piece turns here provide a case study for the application of
bio-mechanical technique and broadly drawn caricature (abetted
by a prosthetic nose, affected boater and cane, and, after a visit to
the barber’s, a swaggeringly worn, impressively waxed moustache).
When MacBride offers the clerk his fat paw, Il’inskii continues to shake
through his entire body for moments afterwards; a drunken encounter
with a lamp post sends him reeling backwards and forwards across the
street; at dinner he downs not only his own glass but every glass on
the table; frightened by a knock on the door, Il’inskii’s feet fail to find
his slippers.
This physical humour is offset by Zina’s tenderness and Solntseva’s
more naturalistic performance. She gently lays a rose on the hidden
stash of cigarette packets that Matiushin has bought from his favourite
vendor. Solntseva becomes self-consciously amateurish for Latugin’s
footage of his amateur inamorata.
Amy Sargeant
The Girl with a
Devushka s korobkoi
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Boris Barnet
Valentin Turkin, Vadim
Boris Frantsisson
Boris Fil’shin
Art Director:
Sergei Kozlovskii
68 minutes
Wide-eyed and spirited Natasha Korosteleva makes hats with her
grandfather in their small cottage near Moscow. Each morning,
Natasha fends off the clumsy advances of the love-struck Fogelev as
she travels to the city to bring her hats to the pretentious Madame
Irène, who owns a millinery shop and cheats the Housing Committee
by falsely registering Natasha as the resident of her spare room. One
day on the train, Natasha encounters the strapping, big-footed Il’ia,
who has come to Moscow to study and cannot find a place to live. A
series of mishaps keeps Natasha wary of Il’ia, but she soon takes pity
and schemes to marry him in order to grant him legal entitlement to
Irène’s spare room. Irène and her husband Nikolai are angered and
attempt to expose Natasha and Il’ia’s marriage as fraudulent. They
even fire Natasha, but in place of Natasha’s earned wages, Nikolai
pays her with one of his lottery tickets. After that ticket wins a 25,000ruble jackpot, madcap frenzy ensues as Nikolai tries to reclaim his
ticket, while Il’ia and Natasha discover and try to prove their love for
each other.
The Girl with a Hatbox both embodies and lampoons many of the
contradictions in Soviet society during the era of the New Economic
Policy (NEP). The New Economic Policy allowed small-scale privatization to exist within the state-run economy throughout most of the
1920s in order to re-energize and grow the decimated post-Civil War
economy, yet those who participated in this government-sanctioned
capitalism were prone to ridicule as NEPmen and NEPwomen. In
Comedy and Musical Comedy 119
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Anna Sten
Vladimir Mikhailov
Vladimir Fogel’
Ivan Koval’-Samborskii
Serafima Birman
Pavel Pol’
Eva Miliutina
Boris Barnet, Girl with a Hatbox (1927).
the film, Nikolai conforms to the physical stereotypes attributed to
a NEPman, analogous to the typage of a western capitalist: a pudgy
build, dressed in a suit and wearing a bowtie and pince-nez spectacles. Irène is similarly depicted as westernized, with her foreign name,
boyish figure and flapper-esque layered skirts. She puts on airs and
feigns a delicate constitution, all the while haranguing and bullying
everyone around her. She and Nikolai trick members of the Housing
Committee into believing that Natasha lives with them so that they
can use their spare room to host dinner parties for their hoity-toity,
effete friends. They even have a maid, Marfushka, who seems content
to serve them, despite the heightened sense of class consciousness
that should have accompanied the Revolution. Although these characters are sketched broadly for laughs, they also serve as the antagonists of the film and exhibit behaviour to be shunned and condemned
in Soviet society.
The film also mocks absurdist aspects of everyday life, no doubt recognizable to contemporaneous audiences. Il’ia endures the Moscow
housing shortage and is forced to sleep outside in the snow for want
of a room. After Natasha cleverly secures Il’ia the spare room of Irène
Directory of World Cinema
and Nikolai, he faces the tensions of communal living: he is spied upon
during his vigorous morning workout and is shown navigating confusedly through rows of hanging laundry while attempting to locate the
washroom sink. Fogelev is seen struggling to maintain his footing on
icy pathways through the snow, and passengers waiting at Fogelev’s
station must chase after a suburban train that overshoots the boarding
platform. The physical comedy pervading the film was carried out by
actors trained in Kuleshov’s studio and the Meyerhold theatre.
The Girl with a Hatbox represents the kind of Soviet filmmaking that
was often considered to be in opposition to montage filmmaking. It is
‘popular cinema’, seemingly devoid of an overt ideological message
and made expressly to entertain rather than educate its audiences.
As a comedy, the film draws upon the widely practised conventions
of its genre. The narrative is configured around a love triangle, and
its consequent romantic entanglements result in an entirely predictable happy ending that nevertheless is framed as having arisen due
to chance. These generic norms were viewed by critics as emblematic of the film’s western and bourgeois sensibility. Just as the Soviet
economy under NEP could be seen as a compromise of questionable ideology, a film such as this was deemed similarly questionable,
an unjustified compromise with capitalist filmmaking practices that
irredeemably permeated the very content and style of the film. In fact,
the film itself served as an extended promotion for the state lottery
system. Still, despite the film’s supposed lack of ideological rigor, it is
admittedly often witty and thoroughly zany. The Girl with a Hatbox is
a testament to the diversity to be found in Soviet filmmaking of the
1920s, and it certainly lives up to its professed goal of entertaining its
Vincent Bohlinger
St Jorgen’s
Feast Day
Prazdnik sviatogo Iorgena
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Iakov Protazanov
Iakov Protazanov
Vladimir Shveitser
The Cathedral of St Jorgen is preparing for its celebration of the
saint’s feast day, a major profit centre for the church. In order to
extract even more money from the people, the church is preparing
an historical film on St Jorgen’s life and miracles. Pilgrims flood the
town with their offerings; the priests sell relics. The bishop and bankers count their loot. In the meantime, a notorious criminal, Michael
Korkis has escaped from prison, with the help of his trusty sidekick.
The police discover the two men on their train out, but they manage
to escape again, dressed as nuns. Hearing of the riches the church
collects on the feast day, the two men (dressed as themselves again)
join the pilgrimage to the cathedral. After numerous diversions and
chases, Korkis finds himself locked in the cathedral he planned to
rob. His only way out is to impersonate the saint. Miracle! Miracle!
He forgives the people’s sins without payment, to the horror of the
priests. ‘St Jorgen’ beckons his sidekick to be ‘cured’, marries the
saint’s ‘bride’, a woman he had flirted with earlier, and the happy trio
escapes across the border, loot in hand.
Comedy and Musical Comedy 121
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Petr Ermolov
Art Directors:
Sergei Kozlovskii
Vladimir Balliuzek
Anatolii Arapov
Sergei Boguslavskii
80 minutes
Igor’ Il’inskii
Anatolii Ktorov
Mariia Strel’kova
Igor’ Arkadin
Mikhail Klimov
St Jorgen’s Feast Day appeared in the third year of the Cultural
Revolution that accompanied Stalinization. The Cultural Revolution
called for the arts to be ‘in the service of the state’, and the film
served the campaign against religion, one of the cornerstones of
the cultural upheaval of the late 1920s and early 1930s. The alliance
between the clergy and capitalists in extorting the masses is clearly
Protazanov, who was one of early Soviet cinema’s most prominent
popular directors, displays his light touch for weighty issues; the
bishop and his cohort are stereotyped as money-grubbers and con
men, but amusingly so. They merely dupe people who are eager
to be duped, sedated as they are by the ‘opiate’ of religion. His
two crowd-pleasing stars – Anatolii Ktorov as the suave Korkis, and
Igor’ Il’inskii, as his bumbling accomplice – bring established comic
personas to the shenanigans. (The sight of the knobby-kneed Il’inskii
being examined by a team of doctors called by the church must
have resulted in audience mirth.) As the object of Korkis’s affections,
and the beautiful bride of the saint, Mariia Strel’kova provides some
amusing moments; she enjoys being in on the confidence game. As a
result, the film seems a high-spirited romp rather than a hate-mongering diatribe.
The film is also important as an example of the way the early Soviet
sound film combined silent film aesthetics with sound. (Soviet cinema
had a great deal of difficulty making the transition to sound.) The
sound track (added in 1935) mainly consists of naturalistic effects –
bells ringing, hymn singing, dogs barking – but also puts incidental
music to good use. There is also some talking, as the bishop recounts
the tale of the miracle in the framing story that punctuates the film.
Certain scenes employ intertitles and sound together.
Protazanov is not generally remembered as a master of the mass
scene, but in this film, he displays a flair for moving crowds and
individualizing them. He uses crane shots to tower over the masses
of people converging onto the roads leading to the town and then
to the cathedral. The streets gradually fill with pilgrims, whose class
background is evident in the close-ups of their pinched and wrinkled
faces. Their eyes are vacant as they shout hosannas. There is an example of associative montage when the film cross-cuts from the crowd to
a herd of cows being whipped across the road. The film was received
by critics of the time as being ‘valuable’ and ‘well made’.
Denise J. Youngblood
Directory of World Cinema
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Aleksandr Medvedkin
Aleksandr Medvedkin
Gleb Troianskii
Art Director:
Aleksei Utkin
66 minutes
Petr Zinov’ev
Elena Egorova
Lidiia Nenasheva
Happiness tells of Khmyr’ and his wife, Anna, impoverished peasants
in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Khmyr’ dreams of being a wealthy man
with great riches and property. This dream is almost realized when he
finds a purse full of money and is able to buy property and a horse.
However, a combination of thieves, a kulak (rich peasant) and various
representatives of the state gradually expropriates his new-found
wealth. In a state of despair Khmyr’ decides that he is going to die,
yet even this desire is thwarted by religious and military figures who
tell him that, given his role as a food producer for the country, he has
no right to kill himself. He is taken away by tsarist soldiers and suddenly finds himself in the 1930s, in the context of communal farming.
Khmyr’ does not conform to the demands of the collective and still
harbours individualistic dreams. Meanwhile, the kulak Foka starts to
sabotage the farm and tries to burn horses to death in their stable.
Khmyr’ prevents this from happening and suddenly becomes a hero.
This acts as the catalyst for an apparent change of heart as Khmyr’
discards his old peasant costume and looks towards a new future.
Happiness is a truly remarkable film, particularly when one considers the context in which it was produced. By the mid-1930s Soviet
cinema, oriented toward mass audiences, was already making films
that often, if not always, followed uninspired narrative formulas,
featuring political heroes or class enemies. Yet there is little about
Medvedkin’s film comparable to the typical cinema product of the
time. Like his previous work, Happiness gives a humorous and honest
portrayal of country life. It focuses on individual experience and shows
the harsh realities of this life as an endless struggle for resources
and survival. Although the film is a statement against greed (the
original title was Stiazhateli, The Possessors), the viewer is, to some
extent, supposed to sympathize with Khmyr’ and the true aspirations
of the Russian peasant. Medvedkin later pointed out that he aimed
to expose Khmyr’’s dream and idea of happiness as unrealistic and,
although Khmyr’ seems to change his attitude towards the collective
farm at the end of the film, there is an element of ambiguity and,
overall, an absence of the cliché of coming to political consciousness.
The film is extremely imaginative, adopting a mise-en-scène and
narrative that are reminiscent of the witches and country bumpkins of
Russian folklore and the visual codes of the lubok (woodcut). This setting combines with a dark satirical humour which, by the 1930s, was
the exception rather than the rule in Soviet cinema. Khmyr’’s failure
‘to die’ and lie in his coffin and the desperate nun’s failed attempts
to commit suicide on a revolving windmill are among the humorous
moments that stand in stark contrast to the toothless comedy of stateapproved works of literature and film.
Indeed, Happiness raises the question of the function of comedy and
satire in the USSR. It has been suggested that Medvedkin’s strategy of
satirical exposure as a means of persuading people to improve their
Comedy and Musical Comedy 123
Directory of World Cinema
approach to work or social life may have been intended to work in
favour of the Soviet regime, but the director’s biting comedy, allied
to his eccentric filmmaking style, also threatened to undermine that
regime, especially in the eyes of many Bolsheviks. It was this very ambiguity in Happiness that led to its eventual withdrawal from cinemas.
Jamie Miller
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Marion Dixon, an American star performing at the Moscow circus, falls
in love with Russian performer Ivan Martynov, who introduces her to the
values of Soviet society. Franz von Kneischitz, Dixon’s abusive manager,
tries to foil the romance by implying, through an intercepted letter, that
Marion loves the amateur inventor Skameikin, and ultimately attempts
to ruin Dixon by revealing her secret: she has an illegitimate mulatto
child. However, the Russian circus audience welcomes the child without
prejudice, Kneischitz is disgraced and possibly arrested, and Skameikin
in reunited with his true love, the circus director’s daughter, Raechka.
Dixon remains in the land of the Soviets, marching with Martynov and
the other circus performers in the May Day parade on Red Square.
Grigorii Aleksandrov
The plot of Circus is based on Il’f and Petrov’s play Under the Big Top
which Aleksandrov saw at the Moscow Music Hall, quickly deciding
on a film adaptation as his next project. The director transformed
Il’f and Petrov’s comedy about Soviet circus life, which satirized the
political fashions of the day, into a musical comedy film with elements
of melodrama, embodying the core myths of High Stalinism and the
ideals of the new Stalinist constitution: the Soviet New Man, the Great
Family, the spontaneity-consciousness paradigm of socialist realism,
the archetype of the Leader, racial equality, international solidarity of
workers, state support for mothers and children. After the success of
Aleksandrov’s first musical comedy film, Happy Guys, the cinema leadership was so enthusiastic about Aleksandrov’s new project that he
was permitted to begin work without the usual schedule and budget
plan required by the studio, an exception that later caused production problems and delays. Circus was the director’s most stylistically
imaginative and tightly structured film, largely due to his collaboration
with Vladimir Nil’sen, who had just returned from the United States
with a thorough understanding of American production practices and
technology. In Circus, the film’s composer, Isaak Dunaevskii, formulated the musical model which was to govern his work in cinema for
the rest of his career: a central song to be elaborated throughout the
film, one that would be popular outside the movie theatre; musical
leitmotifs for major characters; extensive use of illustrative music to
convey central plot peripeteias to the viewer. The musical centrepiece
of the film, ‘Song of the Motherland’, with its memorable melody and
patriotic message quickly became a second Russian national anthem.
Il’ia Il’f
Evgenii Petrov
Grigorii Aleksandrov
Valentin Kataev
Vladimir Nil’sen
Boris Petrov
Art Director:
Georgii Grivtsov
Isaak Dunaevskii
Vasilii Lebedev-Kumach
94 minutes
Liubov’ Orlova
Evgeniia Mel’nikova
Vladimir Volodin
Directory of World Cinema
Sergei Stoliarov
Pavel Massal’skii
Aleksandr Komissarov
Emmanuil Geller
N. Otto
Jim Patterson
Fedor Kurikhin
Aleksandra Panova
Solomon Mikhoels
Lev Sverdlin
1936 (restored 1970)
During World War II the song preceded announcements of official
orders and later, the call sign with which Radio Moscow began its
morning broadcasts was the first line of ‘Song of the Motherland’.
In Circus the semantics of the circus plot overlay the syntax of the
show musical, combined with elements of the folk musical in its Stalinist iteration. Making a show (the development of the Soviet circus act
‘Flight to the Stratosphere’) parallels the making of a couple identified with differing cultural and ideological values: the American artiste
Marion Dixon and the Soviet performer Ivan Martynov. The secondary
comic couple, one of whom is a rival to the hero or heroine, is also
present in Skameikin and Raechka. Elements of the folk musical, in
which the making of the couple parallels the formation of a community
at the local and national levels, enter the plot as Martynov teaches
Grigorii Aleksandrov, Circus (1936). Martynov, Dixon and Jimmy.
Comedy and Musical Comedy 125
Directory of World Cinema
Grigorii Aleksandrov, Circus (1936). Marion Dizon in a solo number.
Marion the ‘Song of the Motherland’, realizing through a song rather
than a kiss both the couple’s declaration of love and patriotic devotion
to the USSR. The musical’s traditional dual focus on a central hero and
heroine is diminished because Liubov’ Orlova, the pre-eminent movie
star of the Stalin era, is the narrative focus of the film. Nevertheless, the
dual focus still manifests itself in secondary oppositions: the homegrown hero vs a foreign heroine; communist vs capitalist ideologies;
Martynov’s ethic of socialist collectivity vs Dixon’s focus on individual life
experiences; social stability and order vs chaotic passions and deviation
from conventional norms of morality (Dixon’s past). Circus concludes
with multiple finales à la Aleksandrov: the conclusion to the romantic
plot with the reunion of Dixon and Martynov, the conclusion to the
social narrative in the acceptance of Dixon’s black baby by the circus
audience, and the conclusion that opens out into the greater (and real)
Soviet world of the May Day parade on Red Square.
Rimgaila Salys
Directory of World Cinema
Anton Ivanovich
Gets Angry
Anton Ivanovich serditsia
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Aleksandr Ivanovskii
Evgenii Petrov
Georgii Munblit
Evgenii Shapiro
Art Directors:
Abram Veksler
Semen Mandel’
Dmitrii Kabalevskii
Aleksandr Ivanovskii
80 minutes
Musical comedy
Nikolai Konovalov
Liudmila Tselikovskaia
Pavel Kadochnikov
Tat’iana Kondrakova
Sergei Martinson
Vladimir Gardin
Anton Ivanovich Voronov is a highly respected professor at the
Moscow Conservatoire, who places the music of Bach above everything else and regards it as the ultimate yardstick by which other
musical accomplishments must be measured. His daughter, Serafima,
is an aspiring singer with great potential, and her father’s anger is
aroused when she begins singing in the operetta composed by
Aleksei Mukhin, thus abandoning what he considers the higher calling
of opera. Mukhin’s work, however, demands a high level of ability
from his soloist, and Anton Ivanovich is persuaded of the legitimacy of
operetta as a musical genre when, in a dream, he is visited by Johann
Sebastian Bach himself, who tells him that ‘people need all kinds of
A film that begins by contrasting and then ends with reconciling the
elevated genre of classical music with the more prosaic operetta. It
is also a narrative of social inclusivity in which the finale includes all
the major characters. Otherwise, this is a light-hearted comedy of
manners, here reduced to musical tastes. There is a budding romance
between Mukhin and Serafima, but it takes second place to the compatibility of their musical gifts. The guiding motivation of both Anton
Ivanovich (Konovalov) and Mukhin (Kadochnikov), the operetta composer, is quality: both strive for the best and recognize only the best,
refuse to compromise their principles and recognize in each other kindred spirits only at the very end. The film therefore demonstrates that
opera and operetta can live alongside each other in Stalin’s Russia.
The opulence of Anton Ivanovich’s home environment (with servants)
is worthy of note, a sign of old-worldly grandeur that can be achieved
in the ‘new’ world by those with talent and drive. Whereas elitism is
eschewed, stratification according to talent and worth are affirmed.
However, the most interesting character in this otherwise cheery
and sun-blessed story is the hack composer Kerosinov (Martinson),
who works not to satisfy his inner Muse but simply for money, and
who reveals himself to be venal, cynical and manipulative, willing to
exploit others for his personal gain. Unmasked as a ‘tale-teller’, ‘ignoramus’ and ‘rogue’, he is every bit the opportunist who would thrive
on denunciation and strife. But this danger cannot be confronted in
musical comedy, and at the end of the film Kerosinov even plays in
the orchestra that performs the ‘symphonic poem’, an intermediate
genre that unites both feuding composers and family members of
different generations. The film is also noteworthy in that it was the first
starring role for Liudmila Tselikovskaia, and for the cameo appearance
(as Bach) of the pre-Revolutionary director Vladimir Gardin.
David Gillespie
Comedy and Musical Comedy 127
Directory of World Cinema
Kuban Cossacks
Kubanskie Kazaki
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Ivan Pyr’ev
Nikolai Pogodin
Valentin Pavlov
Art Directors:
Boris Chebotarev
Iurii Pimenov
Georgii Turylev
Isaak Dunaevskii
Anna Kul’ganek
111 minutes
Musical comedy
Marina Ladynina
Sergei Luk’ianov
Vladimir Volodin
Aleksandr Khvylia
Sergei Blinnikov
Klara Luchko
Ekaterina Savinova
Vladlen Davydov
Andrei Petrov
Iurii Liubimov
Boris Andreev
Valentina Telegina
Konstantin Sorokin
1949 (restored 1968)
The film is set in the fertile Kuban’ area of Southern Russia where
peasants from several collective farms converge for the post-harvest
fair. The youthful romance of widowed Galina Peresvetova, chair of
‘Lenin’s Precepts’ kolkhoz, and Gordei Voron, chairman of the ‘Red
Partisan’ farm, is rekindled when they meet at the fair. The romance
of a young couple – the agricultural worker Dasha from ‘Red Partisan’
and the horse breeder Nikolai from ‘Lenin’s Precepts’, also blossoms
at the fair, but the couple become pawns in the rivalry between the
quarrelling kolkhoz chairmen whose pride, hot temper and competitiveness, along with a series of comic misunderstandings, stand in the
way of their reconciliation. Nikolai wins the horse race, the culminating event of the fair, thereby forcing Voron to honour his agreement
and allow him to marry Dasha. In the chairmen’s horse-and-buggy
race, Peresvetova initially takes the lead, but seeing Voron’s distress, holds back her horse, allowing him the satisfaction of winning
the race. When Voron demands that Nikolai move to his kolkhoz as
another condition of marriage, the couple marry without his blessing
and move to Peresvetova’s kolkhoz. The two chairs quarrel again over
the young couple, but are reconciled through the mediation of the
regional Communist Party leader.
Kuban Cossacks is Ivan Pyr’ev’s last, technically most accomplished
and ultimately his most controversial musical comedy film. Much of its
success was due to the music of Isaak Dunaevskii, whom Pyr’ev was
able to recruit as composer for the film, after Aleksandrov, Pyr’ev’s
rival in the genre, cut his ties with Dunaevskii during the anti-Semitism
campaign of 1948. The kolkhoz musical is a sub-genre characteristic
of Soviet Russia as a largely agrarian society. The structure of Cossacks
conforms to the paradigm of the folk musical, in which the making of
a couple – here two couples – parallels the task of creating community
and doing the work of the nation. In fact, Cossacks has congruence
with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s folk musical State Fair (1945), in
which a farming family also leaves its routine occupations for the holiday world of the Iowa State Fair, where the parents compete for blue
ribbons and their children find romance. Both films strive to create
an optimistic scenario of recovery and prosperity after the national
traumas of World War II.
In Cossacks the traditional pattern of a primary, serious romantic
couple and secondary comic couple is modified, as the middle-aged
Peresvetova and Voron constantly quarrel in the manner of screwball
comedy and in contrast to the harmonious courtship of the secondary couple. Other secondary male characters from the two kolkhozes
enhance both the comedic flair and folk flavour of the film through
verbal jousting in their roles as matchmaker and resistant senex figures. When the kolkhoz chairs are romantically reunited with the help
of the state, represented by the local Party leader, they are also doing
the work of the country, as the modernizer (read politically conformist) Peresvetova changes the backward economic-social ways of the
Directory of World Cinema
Ivan Pyr’ev, Kuban Cossacks (1949).
Cossack traditionalist Voron. In accord with the folk musical paradigm,
the female harnesses and transforms the potentially destructive but
societally necessary energy of the wandering male, as the reconciled
Peresvetova and Voron are shown riding quietly in her buggy at the
end of the film. The marriage of the young couple, Dasha and Nikolai,
will further the advancement of their specialties, agriculture and horse
breeding, two crucial areas of collective farming in the Kuban’. The
finale literally unites all in community as the film’s actors greet each
other and march toward us, singing in unison.
The embedded show, a performance of amateur kolkhoz talent
which includes female and male folk dancing, brilliantly performed
chastushki (satiric folk couplets) and weight-lifting by a kolkhoz strongman framed as folkloric bogatyr’ (Russian knight), is both organic to
Comedy and Musical Comedy 129
Directory of World Cinema
the folk fair chronotope and responds to the renewed ideological initiative in favour of melodic folk music. The music and lyrics of Cossacks
are characteristic of more sophisticated unified musicals in conveying
through song what is not verbalized in dialogue: Peresvetova’s rueful
love for the dashing but temperamental Voron, Dasha’s as yet unspoken love for Nikolai and the affirmation of nation and future happiness
in a much stronger key than in the comic-romantic narrative. The first
two songs were composed in the folk style and quickly entered the
popular repertoire, enhancing the popularity of the film.
Although Khrushchev initially liked the film, he later made it the
poster child for ‘lacquering’, the falsification of reality in Stalinist
cinema, part of his de-Stalinization campaign of 1956. During perestroika, the debate over Cossacks resurfaced as a three-sided argument among those who viewed it as base falsehood, those who saw it
as a life-affirming idealization that helped the Russian people survive
the difficult post-war years, and those who viewed the film as consistent with their own life experiences in prosperous kolkhozes. With the
passage of time, Cossacks has become a classic of Soviet cinema and
a prime example of the kolkhoz musical comedy genre.
Rimgaila Salys
Carnival Night
A group of enthusiastic students plans songs and skits for a New
Year’s ball. Two of them, Grisha and his sweetheart Lena, struggle
against the bureaucratic meddling of the club’s director, Ogurtsov.
Against the background of Ogurtsov’s constant posturing and
dogmatic utterances, Grisha also tries hard to tell Lena of his affection. Ogurtsov censures all these innocent, heartfelt acts of ardour
and their comedy kits as ‘indecency’, though an undaunted Cupid
also strikes some of the elder members of the club’s organizers. The
director’s ideological zeal is inspiring nobody, to the point where he is
actually kidnapped and locked away during the show itself. Only then
is the real, original programme of song and dance quickly reinstated.
An aged, respectable band of pensioners hired by the director immediately reveals itself as disguised students and light-hearted jazz fills
the hall. Grisha unexpectedly becomes compère, thus boosting his
confidence to tell Lena he loves her. Ogurtsov is now utterly ignored
as balloons and lovers spin across the dance floor.
Boris Laskin
Vladimir Poliakov
Karnaval’naia noch’
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
El'dar Riazanov
Arkadii Kol’tsatyi
Art Directors:
Konstantin Efimov
Oleg Grosse
Anatolii Lepin
This film is famous for sounding the importance of light entertainment
and comedy after Stalin’s death, both in terms of a new, cheerful community and a satirical critique of the old. Innovative social potentials
are evoked in the imagined conflict between some young people and
an aging, intolerant bureaucrat: hardly, it must be said, the stuff of
comic blockbusters, but a dangerous theme in 1956, nonetheless. Any
risks inherent in criticizing the recent past were lessened by setting
El’dar Riazanov, Carnival Night (1956); Grisha and Lena finally dance together.
Directory of World Cinema
A. Kamagarova
78 minutes
Musical comedy
Igor’ Il’inskii
Liudmila Gurchenko
Iurii Belov
Georgii Kulikov
Sergei Filippov
Ol’ga Vlasova
Andrei Tutyshkin
Tamara Nosova
Gennadii Iudin
Vladimir Zel’din
Boris Petker
the film on New Year’s Eve, a time traditionally associated with hopes
for ‘unbelievable’ metamorphoses. Another turn to tradition came
from the film’s recourse to an old, if not pre-Revolutionary art form:
the cabaret or estrada revue, as staged by the students. A heritage of
multiple, multifarious performers and genres on one stage all helped
to bring variety back to the silver screen in a tale of mass inclusion.
Joyful multiplicity and the unexpected, impulsive behaviour of wisecracking students would replace the staid, predictable poses of their
When the film was tested before a small, yet influential audience in
Moscow, members of the film crew were nervous about the degree
of mockery permissible. Legend has it, however, that midway into the
screening, director Riazanov saw one bureaucrat fall from his chair,
another guffaw, a third smile broadly and a fourth wipe tears of mirth
from his eyes. Permission to print and distribute the film seemed
assured. Indeed, the movie would go on to garner several state prizes
and even enjoy popularity overseas. Carnival Night has thus become
a legendary critique of elders’ ‘concern and suspicion’ at everything
unfamiliar. As a story applicable to any generation, it is still a guaranteed fixture in New Year’s TV schedules today.
Most famously, the film offered young drama student Liudmila
Gurchenko her first onscreen role, as Lena, and the chance to crown
the movie with its theme song, entitled ‘Five Minutes’. Millions of Russians still know the words by heart, telling both of hopes for the future
that ‘will never leave you’ and the equally permanent possibility that
life can change for the better in five minutes, if one can simply muster
the magic ingredient of a ‘good mood’.
Lena’s good mood emerges as the result of her romance with fellow
student Grisha, whose initial shy approaches come to nothing. In fact,
on several occasions she specifically upbraids him for both ‘bashfulness and equivocation’. Although these qualities were ineffective in
the brave new Moscow, Grisha announces his love only when out of
sight, in disguise or over an intercom. He does so anonymously and
in such a staid, awkward way that Ogurtsov thinks (wrongly) that these
amplified speeches are, in fact, quotes from the world of histrionic
English drama. Natural, spontaneous emotion had not been seen for
a long time.
In Carnival Night, love is gently, if not coyly proposed in a manner
that hopes to transform the collective from within. Although disagreement emerges between the new society of the students and that of
Ogurtsov, viewers are given no indication that he intends to leave
it. The students’ love and laughter are both within and ultimately
respectful of Ogurtsov’s ‘other’ collective, hence the prevalence in the
screenplay of a withdrawn shyness, not sadness. The joy and security
of post-Stalinist society, left intact by romance, allow Grisha eventually to overcome his bashfulness at the film’s close – when everybody
sings and dances together. Thus began the Thaw.
David MacFadyen
Directory of World Cinema
The Diamond
Brilliantovaia ruka
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Leonid Gaidai
Leonid Gaidai with Moris
Iakov Kostiukovskii
Igor’ Chernykh
Art Director:
Feliks Iasiukevich
Aleksandr Zatsepin
Valentina Iankovskaia
100 minutes
Iurii Nikulin
Andrei Mironov
Anatolii Papanov
Nina Grebeshkova
Nonna Mordiukova
Svetlana Svetlichnaia
Semen Gorbunkov (Nikulin), an ordinary, hardworking family man,
takes a cruise, visiting ports in the Mediterranean. Unbeknownst to
him, his friendly cabin-mate Kozodoev (Mironov) is a member of a
criminal gang smuggling precious stones and bullion into the Soviet
Union. Kozodoev’s task is to pretend to break his arm while visiting
Istanbul. His local accomplices are to pack precious jewels in a plaster
cast on his arm – the ‘diamond arm’ of the film title. However, in a
case of mistaken identity, the goods end up in a cast on Gorbunkov’s
arm. On his return home, Gorbunkov is alerted to the scam and
persuaded to take part in a sting operation. Kozodoev and Lelik
(Papanov), another gang member, are charged with recovering the
goods, but each of their comically hapless attempts at retrieval fails.
Gorbunkov’s increasingly uncharacteristic behaviour – drunkenness,
taxi rides in the dead of night, a hotel liaison with a beautiful woman
– arouse the suspicions, not only of his poor wife, but of the housing
superintendent of his apartment block (Mordiukova). The gang finally
manage to kidnap Gorbunkov, but the goods have already been
removed by the authorities. A police helicopter hooks the gang’s getaway car. The unfortunate Gorbunkov falls out of the boot, breaking
his leg, but is otherwise unharmed and is reunited with his family.
The chef d’oeuvre of Leonid Gaidai’s unique comic genre – encompassing an adventure or detective plot, fast pace, carefully crafted
visual gags and a highly polished script full of clever jokes, ironic
punning and light satire – Diamond Arm is regarded by many as one
of the best popular Soviet films ever made. Gaidai takes the huge
gamble of dispensing entirely with the most successful comic elements of his previous films featuring Nikulin, the famous circus clown
of the late Soviet period. In Gaidai’s short comic films of the 1960s
and in Prisoner of the Caucasus, Nikulin had been cast as the coarse,
clowning ex-con Balbes (‘dolt’ or ‘chump’), one-third of a hugely
popular troika of miscreants. Though still afforded plenty of clowning sequences, in Diamond Arm his character is that of the upstanding Soviet everyman, as honest and trustworthy as the day is long.
Nikulin had not trained as a professional actor and his performance
was criticized as uneven: the more outrageous clowning sequences
involving the hugely enjoyable hamming of Papanov and Mironov
are punctuated by more restrained comic interludes of domesticity
featuring the charmingly uncomplicated physical and ethical presence
of Nikulin. It is often said that Gaidai’s films are loved as much for
the sense of period nostalgia and popular cultural communion they
provoke as the comedy, the physical aspects of which have not aged
quite as well as the verbal. But it is probably the very unevenness of
the central role, a warm and generous performance by Nikulin, along
with his accomplished clowning, that has done most to contribute
to the film’s undiminished popularity. Diamond Arm is so successful
because, for the first time, Gaidai is given enough room to manoeuvre
Comedy and Musical Comedy 133
Directory of World Cinema
in filmic time and space, enough of a large scale cinematic canvas to
realize his vision of an all-encompassing comic world: swans glide on
an indoor pond in a chic restaurant (a Mosfilm studio set) as Nikulin
sings his famous nonsense ‘Song about a Hare’, his dish of grouse
coming to life and flying up into the chandelier; endless fun is poked
at Varvara Sergeevna, the despotic house manager, and the uneasy
experience of the Soviet citizen abroad. The inquisition he receives on
return from his peers about ‘life over there’ is given a suitably ironic
treatment. In Diamond Arm, Gaidai gives full reign to his comic fantasy and creates one of the few truly democratic, popular-taste films
of the Soviet period.
Jeremy Morris
The Irony of
Ironiia sud’by, ili S legkim
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
El’dar Riazanov
Emil’ Braginskii
El’dar Riazanov
Vladimir Nakhabtsev
Art Director:
Aleksandr Borisov
Mikaèl Tariverdiev
Valeriia Belova
155 minutes
On New Year’s Eve four friends gather at the public baths in Moscow
to celebrate the impending departure of one of them to Leningrad.
The ensuing drunkenness makes it impossible to say which of them
should make the flight. After much discussion at Moscow airport, the
wrong man, Zhenia Lukashin, flies off. Due to the complete uniformity
of Soviet cityscapes, he is able to give a taxi driver his street, building
and apartment number, all of which exist in Leningrad, too. Even his key
fits the lock… He falls asleep on a stranger’s bed. When the flat’s owner,
Nadia, returns, she is horrified to discover the inebriated visitor, but
eventually realizes his incredible mistake. Her fiancé (Ippolit), however,
is less than understanding when he arrives, and thinks Nadia guilty of
infidelity. As Lukashin sobers up, he begins to defend Nadia’s innocence and is attracted to her. This attraction grows over the night of
31 December, to the point where Zhenia and Nadia see the failings
in their current relationships. Lukashin and Nadia fall in love before
breakfast, which leads to a return journey to Moscow. Zhenia’s stunned
mother and friends are introduced to this new, remarkable woman, who
has transformed two lives over the course of twelve hours.
When this film debuted on 1 January 1976 at 6pm on central Soviet
television, as many as 100 million people turned on their television
sets. The film was later released in cinemas, where another 20 million
people saw it. Cinema posters around provincial Russia proclaimed
the story as ‘a virtual fantasy – the New Year’s adventures of two of
our contemporaries’. Even in the year of that initial broadcast it was
shown three more times on television, something unheard of for any
dramatic work, old or new.
Nonetheless, as the drunken scenes suggest, there were a few
reasons for the state to feel uneasy about the production, since some
criticized the speed and whimsy of its central romance as problematic,
verging on immorality, even. When, for example, the screenplay had
already been performed in 110 Soviet dramatic theatres prior to being
Directory of World Cinema
Andrei Miagkov
Barbara Brylska
Iurii Iakovlev
Aleksandr Shirvindt
Georgii Burkov
Aleksandr Beliavskii
Liubov’ Sokolova
Liubov’ Dobrzhanskaia
Ol’ga Naumenko
Liia Akhedzhakova
Valentina Talyzina
Gotlib Roninson
filmed, it had not then, for these same reasons, played in Moscow.
The story seemed a bit flippant, tending with little concern towards
the cheeky traditions of bedroom farce. The film muddled its emphases and intentions, being both a ‘document of social psychology’ and
‘a comedy with a slightly sad smile, a kind, gentle sense of humour’.
This picture, suggested another equally confused definition, ‘is not a
musical, though it has a lot of songs, not a satirical comedy but rather
a film-dialog which begins very funnily and ends in great seriousness’.
If that were not puzzling enough, one finds even less assurance in the
film’s classification as a work ‘in which a sense of fatigue is combined
with a passing, light festivity. It’s a mix of buffoonery with drama’.
The very fact that the film contained so much and was so varied in its
designs was itself an expression of hope, change and plurality. For
embodying precisely that hope, Miagkov became Actor of the Year
and the film was awarded Film of the Year, too. The Irony of Fate still
plays (endlessly) on Russian television as 31 December approaches.
This feature film has become arguably the quintessential ‘sad comedy’,
the genre for which Riazanov is best known. As can be seen from the plot
synopsis, these particularly Russian comedies concerned quiet, unassuming members of society who often found themselves in saddening
situations. In a land where the emphasis was always upon grand, impersonal projects of national significance, little time or attention was given
to the (often more pressing) concerns of falling in love, starting a family,
handling a break-up and so forth. The fact that such dilemmas are often
managed in silly, if not laughable ways – ending with resignation rather
than triumph – allowed Riazanov to create a rich vein of bitter-sweet
humour for Russian cinema. The muddled definitions of his genre are
reflected in the indecisive behaviour of his protagonists.
Riazanov shot this film on multiple cameras simultaneously, with
some takes lasting half an hour. His goal was to catch the unstudied,
small-scale and normal emotions that were more familiar to his audience than any barrel-chested hero of socialism. For this very reason,
the shy, bespectacled Lukashin and his cold, but lonely love-interest
have gone on to be national heroes for over three decades. Singing
quiet songs in noiseless living rooms, they continue to symbolize the
smallest opportunity for happiness, come what may.
David MacFadyen
The Sentimental
Chuvstvitel’nyi militsioner
Country of Origin:
The policeman Tolia finds the baby Natasha in a cabbage patch and
brings her to the police station. He manages to calm her by wrapping
her in his shirt. After being examined by a woman doctor, Natasha is
placed in an orphanage. All of a sudden Tolia realizes that he loves
the baby and decides to adopt her. At the orphanage, while he is
told that Natasha has already been adopted by the woman doctor,
Tolia discovers that Natasha is still there, but has been promised to
the woman doctor. Tolia and his wife, Klava, try to win the case of
Natasha’s adoption in court. But in the middle of the trial the doctor’s
first adopted child makes an appearance, thus winning the judges
over. After the trial Tolia and Klava talk about their mutual love and
Klava announces to Tolia that she is pregnant.
Comedy and Musical Comedy 135
Kira Muratova, The Sentimental Policeman (1992).
Primodessa-Film (Odessa)
Parimédia-film (France)
Kira Muratova
Iurii Kovalenko
Aleksandr Andreev
Hughes Borgia
Kira Muratova, assisted by
Evgenii Golubenko
Gennadii Kariuk
Art Directors:
Evgenii Golubenko
Aleksei Bokatov
The film is based on a script written by Kira Muratova in 1976
(Treasure or The Sentimantal Policeman) during one of her long periods of forced inactivity as a film director. The idea of the plot came
from an article by Iurii Usichenko about an adoption trial. But at the
time the script was refused by Soviet television, since ‘there were no
abandoned children in our country’. Muratova decided to shoot the
script after finishing what she herself calls her ‘encyclopaedic film’,
The Asthenic Syndrome. Audience and critics were surprised by this
apparently light film, disconnected from historical and social reality
(though it was shot during the coup in August 1991). The director
describes it as a ‘kitsch bazaar icon’; it is indeed clearly influenced by
popular visual arts. With its frontal, symmetrical and colourful imagery,
the film presents itself as a falsely naïve anecdote.
The Sentimental Policeman, Muratova’s only co-production with a
western country, got a tepid reception from international audiences.
Western festivals lost interest in the film when they discovered that it
dealt with existential problems rather than engaging the moral and
economic chaos in Ukraine at the time. The film was not unanimously
acclaimed in post-Soviet space either. Even some of Muratova’s strongest supporters found the film artificial and the characters schematic
and mechanical.
Directory of World Cinema
Peter Tchaikovsky
Aleksandr Vertinskii
Valentina Oleinik
119 minutes
Nikolai Shatokhin
Irina Kovalenko
Natalia Ralleva
Leonid Kushnir
Iurii Shlykov
Uta Kil’ter
Contrary to her previous films, here Muratova counts on a solid narrative structure to hold the film together. The Sentimental Policeman
repeats the structure of a fairy tale: it contains not only a tripartite
composition with a final combat, but is intentionally anti-psychological
and characters’ emotions are expressed by concrete metaphors.
Thus, Tolia’s love for baby Natasha and his desire to adopt her are
the splinter in his palm; when he loses her in trial, his grief is physically represented by a nosebleed. Another feature of the fairy tale is
the use of magic formulae. But Muratova also suggests an important
inversion of the traditional fairy tale structure: as a rule, the itinerary of
the hero takes him from consanguinity bonds (initial family) to alliance
bonds (marriage). Here, Tolia starts off in a world where no one has
consanguinity bonds (Klava is an orphan, just like baby Natasha), but
ultimately attains a consanguinity bond: Klava is going to give birth.
This clear inspiration through the fairy tale can be found again in
Muratova’s film Melody for a Street Organ (2009). But just as in The
Sentimental Policeman, the codes of the fairy tale are broken to
present a unique Muratovian universe obeying non-magic rules. No
miracle will rescue the abandoned children in Melody, but a magically
found baby will make its way to a true birth in Policeman.
Finally, in her first film released after the fall of Soviet Union, Kira
Muratova establishes a direct link with the legendary Soviet film shot
in Odessa, Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925). But if
for Eisenstein the famous stairs were the site of a struggle for power,
for Muratova they are a site for love.
Eugénie Zvonkine
Window to
Okno v Parizh
Countries of Origin:
Troitskii Most
Films du Bouloi
Sept Cinéma
Iurii Mamin
Nikolai, a music teacher in a post-Soviet business high school, discovers
in his room of a communal apartment a magic portal to Paris, which is
open only periodically. He and his neighbours try to get as much from
the foreign city as possible, each in his own way: while Nikolai glimpses
the other life and even considers work there as a musician, the neighbours snatch as many material goods as possible. Facing the startling
contrast between the uplifting life in Paris and the bleak existence in a
devastated post-Soviet Russia, every character – Nikolai, his neighbours
and his pupils, whom he takes for a tour of Paris – has to make a decision:
on which side of the window they will stay when it closes. Nikolai’s choice
is especially difficult because of the romance between him and Nicole,
a French taxidermist-artist. In the end, having decided in favour of their
motherland and returned to Russia, the characters continue to try to
break the wall between two worlds – an equivalent of the Berlin wall.
Mamin’s social, fantastic comedy explores the ethical as well as aesthetic implications of emigration from post-Soviet Russia. The parable
builds on the idiom ‘window to Europe’, referring to Peter the Great,
Comedy and Musical Comedy 137
Directory of World Cinema
Guy Séligman, Lavrentii
Iurii Mamin
Arkadii Tigai
Vladimir Vardunas
Viacheslav Leikin
Sergei Nekrasov
Anatolii Lapshov
Art Director:
Vera Zelinskaia
Iurii Mamin
Aleksei Zalivalov
Ol’ga Adrianova
120 minutes
Sergei Dontsov (Dreiden)
Agnès Soral
Viktor Mikhailov
Nina Usatova
Andrei Urgant
who opened the passage to the Baltic sea for Russia by building
St Petersburg: the new window directly connects the St Petersburg
communal apartment with Paris. On the one hand, Russia and France
of the early 1990s are explicitly shown as contrasting poles, and
their representations dwell grotesquely on national stereotypes: the
outrageous drinking of the Russians, the mysterious Russian soul, the
brutal yet friendly French obsession with sex and decadent French
art for art’s sake. But the whole structure of the film suggests that
this is an opposition of doubles, each world a mirror reflection of the
other. Mirroring is present on all levels of the film, starting from the
initial scenes when an idyllic picture of Paris on the wall dissolves to a
carnivalized street scene of Petersburg with exaggerated stereotypical signs of the time, including a long vodka queue. When Nikolai
and his neighbours first get to Paris through the magic portal, drunk
as they are, they do not even realize at first that they are in a foreign
country: ‘If it was not for the TV tower, I wouldn’t even have recognized the town’, notes one of them, failing to identify the Eiffel Tower.
First enchanted with the city, Nikolai eventually discovers that Paris
cares for his music no more than does St Petersburg: soon after he
finds a job in an orchestra, he realizes in horror that he is expected to
play without his trousers. Nikolai and his French counterpart Nicole
not only have similar names, but discover darker sides of each other’s
world in parallel. Mamin complicates the choice that his characters
have to make by blurring the binaries between the two worlds.
Similarly, he points to the deep inner affinity of socialism and capitalism: Nikolai claims that the same people who have been nurturing
the builders of communism are now bringing up the young builders
of capitalism. Mamin previously created images of dubious historical
cycles in his film Sideburns. But Window to Paris is not at all pessimistic. Hope emerges through images of the new generation: Nikolai’s
pupils finally agree to return to ‘their wretched country’ and try to
change it. Mamin also uses the liberating potential of carnival, transforming the bleak scenes of Russian aggression into bold buffoonery.
Music is an indispensable part of this carnival. Mamin combines
sources that are iconic references for Russian audiences, but that are
stylistically incompatible, ranging from Tchaikovsky to Revolutionary songs. The recurrent tune of the film is an old French song. All
the characters have their own relation with music, which becomes an
ironic measure for character assessment: they play and sing for joy
and for money, they refuse to subvert music or cheat with the help of
music, and even use pianos as storage cupboards. Like the Hamelin
piper, Nikolai makes the children obey him and follow him from Paris
to St Petersburg; in a similar way, a band playing the ‘Internationale’
leads the angry paupers away from the liquor store.
The rich audio-visual texture of the film, its theatricality and broad
use of mass festivities are the director’s trademark: even though they
have been compromised by the official Soviet mass holidays (Neptune’s
Day), such holidays still preserve the spirit of the Rabelaisian carnival.
Milla Fedorova
Directory of World Cinema
Peculiarities of
the National
Osobennosti natsional’noi
Country of Origin:
Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Aleksandr Golutva
Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Andrei Zhegalov
Art Directors:
Valentina Adikaevskaia
Aleksandr Timoshenko
Vladislav Panchenko
Tamara Denisova
96 minutes
Ville Haapasalo
Aleksei Buldakov
Viktor Bychkov
Semen Strugachev
Sergei Russkin
Sergei Kupriianov
In Peculiarities of the National Hunt (in Autumn) the Finn Raimo, who
is researching the traditions of the Russian hunt from the time of the
tsars to the present, joins a group of Russians, including a general,
a businessman, a gamekeeper and a policeman, in the hunt. The
drinking bouts the Russians associate with hunting, however, are not
what Raimo expects. He initially refuses to drink, while dreaming of
the imperial hunting party of the late nineteenth century as they hunt
down a fox with their dogs, elegantly ride on their horses and, of
course, converse in French. In the meantime, the non-Russian speaker
is marginalized as the Russians indulge in alcohol. The Finn is an
outsider, misunderstood and displaying utterly non-Russian manners:
he tidies up, cares for the environment and waits for the hunt, not
realizing that it has already begun – at least, à la russe.
The film explores the Russians’ notorious love for vodka through a
series of anecdotes. Rogozhkin merges situational comedy (bureaucrats
and officials who do not behave like serious citizens and are helpless in
matters of everyday life) with the eccentricity of character induced by
vodka consumption and isolation from the world of ‘normalcy’.
Rogozhkin draws on the Russian tradition of drinking captured so
well in Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line (1973). More
important still is the impact of advertising campaigns for vodka as broadcast on Russian television in the mid-1990s, especially the commercials
for the vodka label ‘White Eagle’ (Belyi Orel, 1994–1995), produced by
designer Iurii Grymov, known for his extravagant style that knows no
border between the beautiful and the vulgar. The White Eagle campaign
centred on the delirious hero reaching a state of absolute freedom from
social conventions and restrictions thanks to the influence of alcohol. The
beautiful images of delirium contrast with the images of a sober reality.
Similarly, an early 1990s ad for Smirnoff vodka presented the idea of a
clearer reality that can be perceived under the influence of alcohol. The
‘clearness of sensations’ achieved through alcohol consumption allows
the protagonist to unmask reality: he sees the things hidden under the
glossy surface. The guests no longer wear elegant party dresses, but look
like wild animals from a horror movie. It is a frightening, but certainly a
more interesting view than the dull party seen without vodka.
This function of vodka as a stimulant for the clear perception of
reality, together with the structural principle of ads as a series of clips,
without beginning and end, underlies Rogozhkin’s film. The fragmentary structure, the anecdotal character of the dialogue, and the lack
of logic replicate the incoherent speech of a drunkard. His hunters
repeat the same absurd action over and over again.
The characters are representative of the new, no longer classless Russian society: the military, the new Russian, the state official,
the policeman. However, beneath their social image they hide their
authentic selves: the love of animals, humans and nature. Under the
influence of vodka they reveal their true identities and values: the
Comedy and Musical Comedy 139
Directory of World Cinema
Aleksandr Rogozhkin, Peculiarities of the National Hunt (1995).
good and honest demeanour of a Russian folk hero, who kills no
animal, who helps his fellow human beings and who is at one with
nature. Therefore, the general ‘Mikhailych’ Ivolgin deploys his skills
to organize a party or a hunt; the state official Lev Soloveichuk is a
pitiable creature when it comes to practical matters; the policeman
Semenov is always helpful; the businessman Sergei Olegovich has
problems at home; and the forester Kuzmich meditates instead of
clearing forests and hunting animals. Rogozhkin removes all negative
attributes and marks of power from these social types and replaces
them with positive and vulnerable qualities.
Directory of World Cinema
Russian life fails to coincide with the Finn’s imagination. The military and the police hardly reinforce order: a military aircraft is used
to transport vodka and animals, and the police vans facilitate a visit
to some prostitutes. The breakdown of social order in contemporary
Russia is treated with self-irony. Drinking may have no purpose, but
it is a habit that makes social and national differences disappear,
that lifts temporal boundaries by bringing together past and present, and annihilates the borders between animals and humans. The
world returns to its purest form, devoid of boundaries or limits. What
matters in the hunt is not the result, but the time spent in good
Birgit Beumers
The Irony
of Fate: A
As its title suggests, this film ‘continues’ the basic structure of Èl’dar
Riazanov’s classic comedy The Irony of Fate (1975). Kostia, the son
of Riazanov’s original hero, Evgenii, gets drunk in a bathhouse on 31
December – just as his father had more than 30 years ago. Horribly
intoxicated, Kostia wakes up in the bedroom of a strange woman
(Nadia). She, it transpires, is the daughter of Nadezhda Vasil’evna,
whom Kostia’s father almost married three decades earlier. A jealous
young businessman, Iraklii, worsens Kostia’s predicament and is very
keen to get rid of him before the New Year celebrations begin. Kostia,
however, manages to outsmart Iraklii and return to this unknown,
yet alluring young woman. As the plot develops, viewers are also
informed of what has happened to the older characters since 1975:
Nadezhda had actually married Ippolit, Nadia’s father, though she
subsequently got divorced; Evgenii had also married after the affair
with Nadezhda, but could never completely forget her. New love
in the present and old passions from the past conspire to bring two
generations of sweethearts together, leaving them in a shared state of
promise. Maybe these two couples will find a happiness that – as we
now know – eluded them in 1975.
Konstantin Èrnst
Anatolii Maksimov
Ironiia sud’by:
Country of Origin:
Pervyi kanal
Timur Bekmambetov
Aleksei Slapovskii
Sergei Trofimov
Iurii Poteenko
Mikaèl Tariverdiev
Dmitrii Kiselev
Il’ia Lebedev
This film plays the triple role of a sequel, a remake, and – at the same
time – a complex back-story, imagining all manner of events that
befell the characters from Riazanov’s classic. Given the almost legendary fame of that 1975 feature, which enjoys the status of Frank Capra’s
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or B.D. Hurst’s Scrooge (1951) in Russia,
public interest was assured. An enormous advertising campaign
ran nationwide in the months before the film’s release, emphasizing several reasons to see it: the movie would reveal the truth about
Evgenii and Nadezhda; it was officially endorsed by Riazanov himself;
and had been shot by Timur Bekmambetov after his success with the
sci-fi blockbusters Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006). The
Comedy and Musical Comedy 141
Directory of World Cinema
113 minutes
Andrei Miagkov
Iurii Iakovlev
Barbara Brylska
Sergei Bezrukov
Konstantin Khabenskii
Elizaveta Boiarskaia
campaign paid off and the movie became the most profitable film of
2008, grossing $50 million domestically.
Critics of this fiscal success condemned the film, not only because
it turned a universally adored story into a cash cow, but also because
it was full of crude product placements for telephone companies,
cars, mayonnaise, cosmetics, beer, vodka, canned fish, chocolate and
airlines. Fearing this kind of commercial conceit beforehand, screenwriter Aleksei Slapovskii had been extremely wary of taking part in the
project. Similarly, not all the actors from 1975 signed on for a second
tour of duty. Riazanov himself had been offered the chance to direct
the work but, like Slapovskii, worried about spoiling an almost timeless movie. Nonetheless, in a more modest capacity, he did agree to
reappear in his fleeting onscreen role from the original.
The biggest changes, over and above any plot twists, were Bekmambetov himself and his celebrated style of grand, crowd-pleasing
computer generated images. As the magic of New Year allows for all
manner of transformations, both public and private, so Bekmambetov
was able to include a wide range of special effects; some of them,
rather strangely, were based upon visual gags taken straight from
Night Watch. In other words, a few of the CGIs used for this quiet
tale of love unfulfilled came directly from a loud and violent vampire
flick. In some ways, though, these changes just reflected the radically different nature of post-Soviet society and what was needed to
make any depiction thereof convincing in 2008. Here one might point
to the casting of Sergei Bezrukov as Iraklii; as a decidedly non- or
post-Soviet figure, he comes to the screen in 2008 as the high-ranking
executive of a cell-phone company.
In essence, The Irony of Fate: A Continuation reflects the worldview
of the man credited with the project’s inception – Konstantin Ernst,
head of Channel One. An air of stately order pervades the film, with
then-President Putin appearing briefly on a television set. The president’s speechwriter was even responsible for the lyrics to one of the
film’s newer songs, performed by Alla Pugacheva and her daughter,
Kristina Orbakaite. As some commentators pointed out, another facet
of this ‘ideological’ aspect was evident in the lessening role of destiny.
Despite remaining in the title, ‘fate’ is sidelined by the importance
of free will and intelligent choices, be they in the workplace (Iraklii),
or in moments of difficulty (Kostia). Craftiness trumps chance and, as
a result, this sequel and/or remake is much more positive than the
original, which is coloured by an enduring air of melancholy. Bekmambetov’s contemporary and positive outlook, replete with thrilling
effects, make the ‘continuation’ a film of greater western inclination,
as a result of which (and with no sense of irony) it outperformed all
American blockbusters of the same holiday season.
David MacFadyen
Directory of World Cinema
Valerii Todorovskii, Hipsters (2009).
Country of Origin:
In 1955, the stilyagi, or style-hunters and dandies, who imitate
western fashion, are attacked by the Soviet youth organization, the
Komsomol. One evening the Komsomol member Mels chases a stilyaga girl through a park and finds himself attracted to her. He begins
to challenge Soviet conformity and turns into a stilyaga himself, even
learning how to play the sax. Eventually Mels meets Pol’za, the girl
from the park. When Pol’za discovers she is pregnant, they marry;
however, the child is not from Mels, but from a one-night stand Pol’za
had with a black man. In the meantime the stilyaga Fred, the son of
Krasnaia Strela
Comedy and Musical Comedy 143
Directory of World Cinema
Valerii Todorovskii
Valerii Todorovskii
Leonid Iarmol’nik
Leonid Lebedev
Vadim Goriainov
a diplomat, has the opportunity of making a career as a diplomat
with a posting in the United States. Fred immediately relinquishes his
stilyaga antics and marries a girl from a diplomat’s family. When Fred
returns to Moscow for a visit, he sees Mels and tells him that their
idea of a western lifestyle is nothing but a figment of the imagination.
Mels and Pol’za are joined by a crowd of all nationalities and colours,
from past and present on Tverskaia Street as they wander towards the
central square of today’s Moscow.
Iurii Korotkov
Hipsters revives the genre of the musical film and offers a distanced
approach to the 1950s, or more precisely the period preceding
Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 but following Stalin’s death in
1953. Todorovskii characterizes this period by a feeling of suppression
of otherness and a tendency to create uniformity, which is opposed by
the stilyagi in their imitation of western fashion.
The film’s style, with its close-ups and crane shots, musical interludes and colourful dresses – that could never have been captured
on Soviet colour film stock so brightly – deliberately sets itself apart
from the style of the 1950s in order to underline the artificial quality
of the historical setting and thereby emphasize the performative and
glossy nature of the film. Furthermore, songs distance the action from
the present; they are used both for the portrayal of the stilyagi and
the komsomol, ridiculing the komsomol as a dull chorus. The musical
form itself undermines the komsomol’s ethos as a serious ideological
Mels – the name being made up of the first letters of Marx, Engels,
Lenin and Stalin – drops the ‘s’ in his name when he becomes the
stilyaga Mel. This simple act turns into an ideological scandal, since
it means disloyalty to Stalin: Mel has to surrender his Komsomol
membership card. The brutal chopping of the stilyaga’s clothes in
the first Komsomol raid is exaggerated, and the personal rather than
ideological motivation for Komsomol leader Katia’s campaign against
Mel (frustrated love rather then ideological conviction) also contradict
the spirit of the time.
Mel remains a loyal friend and almost conforms to normalcy in his
support of Pol’za and her black child, conceived in a one-night stand
she had with a negro visiting Moscow – for the sake of exoticism
and the encounter with otherness. The reference to Aleksandrov’s
The Circus (1934) is obvious: Marion Dixon and her black child are
integrated into the Soviet collective represented by the circus audience. Pol’za becomes an average Soviet mother, concerned with
the child and household chores rather than her outfits. Mel’s ideals
are shattered when Fred tells him that the stilyaga would stick out
in the crowd even on Broadway. Otherness is an invention, a myth.
The film’s finale sings a song of praise to the present – rather than
the past – for allowing genuine multi-culturedness, otherness and
difference – ideals promulgated in Soviet propaganda. Only now, in
present-day Moscow, on Tverskaia Street, can the stilyaga Mel – the
flawed predecessor of multi-culturedness – be joined by a crowd of
different people, from skinheads to punks, who populate contem-
Roman Vas’ianov
Art Director:
Vladimir Gudilin
Konstantin Meladze
not known
136 minutes
Musical Comedy
Anton Shagin
Oksana Akin’shina
Maksim Matveev
Sergei Garmash
Oleg Iankovskii
Irina Rozanova
Leonid Iarmol’nik
Directory of World Cinema
porary Moscow. In this sense, the film debunks the stilyaga myth as
an illusion and shows the time and place for genuine variety as the
Moscow of today, playing into the hands of liberal and democratic
The film treats the past as an aesthetic phenomenon rather than
exploring social or historical issues. Therefore, the musical numbers,
from the jazz gigs played by Mel and his friends, underline the literally
and figuratively dissonant voice of the stilyaga, which contrasts with
the threatening and monotonous chorus of the Komsomol.
Birgit Beumers
Comedy and Musical Comedy 145
Directory of World Cinema
Initially a distinct theatrical genre that emerged during the aftermath of the French Revolution, melodrama is now understood more
broadly as ‘a mode of heightened dramatization’ and a ‘certain
fictional system for making sense of experience’, to use Peter Brooks’s
terminology. The melodramatic mode of expression can manifest itself
in a variety of genres and art forms, ranging from early modernist
novels to pulp fiction, and from soap operas to the ‘staged’ funerals
of national celebrities. In short, melodrama can be understood as a
genre, as well as a style and a specific aesthetic category.
While some of its characteristics may stand out more prominently
than others, it is commonly agreed that melodrama is based on the
aesthetics of excess, presenting its characters and their environment
in an exaggerated way. Visually, this penchant for excessiveness may
find expression in sumptuous sets, interiors jam-packed with luxurious
objects and flamboyant dresses intended to enhance the characters’
sex appeal; psychologically, it comes to the fore in the characters’
inability to control themselves and the ‘melodramatic’ way in which
they express their emotions (high-pitched voices, wild gestures). Hence,
melodrama’s predilection for scandal scenes and improbable plot turns
that tax the characters to the limit, while simultaneously keeping the
viewer emotionally enthralled. Because melodrama deals primarily with
such basic human emotions as love, hatred and jealousy, the plot can
be situated in any social environment. Its typical setting, though, is the
private or domestic sphere, and its main character is usually female.
The earliest melodramas, especially those penned by the genre’s
spiritual father, René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt, were designed
to satisfy the audience’s need for poetic justice. Relying on an antithetical understanding of good and evil, de Pixérécourt and his followers made sure to offer dénouements that had the villain punished
and the fair maiden rescued. This tendency to reduce the story to a
battle between virtue and vice, and to identify the former with the
existing order, has earned melodrama a reputation as a conservative
genre. Rather than challenging the status quo, classical melodrama
resolves conflict by restoring and affirming traditional hierarchies.
Abram Room, Bed and Sofa (1927).
Melodrama 147
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In the course of the nineteenth-century, however, and especially with the onset of
modernity, the genre’s moral rigour considerably decreased. Modern scholars have questioned the notion of melodrama’s inherent conservatism, pointing out that the restoration of the status quo does not necessarily imply that all problems have been overcome.
Once considered a form of ‘escapist’ entertainment, melodrama is now regarded as an
ambiguous and ideologically more complex genre with a potential for problematizing,
rather than reinforcing existing hierarchies.
Russian film melodrama emerged almost immediately after the national film industry
had taken root in the 1900s. Even if it endured fierce competition from historical films
and screen adaptations of classical literature, silent movie melodrama enjoyed enormous popularity, reaching its heyday between 1913 and 1917 when directors like Nikolai
Larin and Evgenii Bauer quickly rose to prominence. Set in milieus as divergent as the
merchant class and the aristocracy, the films of these directors can best be understood
as ‘domostroi dramas’, as Louise McReynolds has described them: their fictional worlds
recall the sixteenth-century manual for good house-keeping (Domostroi) which asserted
the authority of the father, while demanding complete obedience from other family
members. The plot revolves around a heroine’s attempt to free herself from the stultifying atmosphere of the patriarchic home. This attempt usually provokes a reaction from
the patriarch (father or possessive husband) who denies her claim to independence:
she is callously married off in order to cement relations with a business partner, sexually abused or otherwise mistreated. The heroine may then be granted some form
of revenge (killing the perpetrator, starting an independent and successful life as an
actress); the ending, however, is not entirely happy because it leaves the heroine marked
for life and often involves bloodshed (e.g., suicide of the male antagonist).
While this sort of closure has been regarded as a common preference among pre-Revolutionary Russian directors for ‘tragic endings’ (as opposed to the happy endings more
typical of Western melodrama), the labels ‘ambiguous’ and ‘conservative’ may be more
appropriate. In films like Drama on the Volga (1913), Twilight of a Woman’s Soul (1913)
and A Life for a Life (1916) conflict is not resolved in a ‘conservative’ fashion by the
restoration of old power relations; rather the heroine challenges and undermines these
relations, which may result in her own destruction. In contrast to the women characters,
the men in these melodramas leave anything but a favourable impression. Weak, ineffective or morally corrupt, they desperately and vainly try to hold on to the ‘old ways’.
For obvious reasons, the first two decades of Soviet power were not conducive to
melodrama in its ‘purest’ form, although melodramatic elements can easily be pointed
out in a variety of early Soviet films, even in the experimental films by Grigorii Kozintsev
and Leonid Trauberg (The Devil’s Wheel, 1925; The Overcoat, 1926). Melodrama’s traditional focus on private, rather than public life, as well as its preoccupation with personal
emotions, made it an inappropriate vehicle for conveying the collectivist worldview of
communism. Profound changes in the organization of everyday life, ranging from setting
up communal apartments to publicity campaigns urging women to cast off the yoke of
housekeeping and calling for the destruction of the stuffy bourgeois home, also contributed to the genre’s demise. Characteristically, in Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (1927), one
of the very few melodramas produced during this period, the heroine literally walks out
on both her husband and her lover, leaving them behind in their cluttered private apartment. Like the strong and independent women in Evgenii Bauer’s films, this new Soviet
woman tries to assert herself by fleeing an oppressive and male-dominated world that
already belongs to the past.
Even if the 1930s saw the return of more traditional gender stereotypes that relegated
women back to the family as the site of their primary responsibility, films dealing with
family life as such were considered suspect. The nuclear family, though partly restored
as the bedrock of the nation (as evinced by the institution of ‘maternity medals’), was
Directory of World Cinema
deemed irrelevant to the ‘Great Family’, which consisted of the Soviet people and
‘father’ Stalin. This situation began to change during World War II when the nuclear
family was allowed to occupy a modest place in films showing life on the home front. Yet
although these movies centre more on the vicissitudes of an individual couple separated
by the war and less on heroics performed in combat, the characters’ private concerns
remain subordinated to the great cause. Married or engaged, what really unites the
couple is their staunch patriotism. Consequently, the hero’s safe return from the front
and his reunion with the heroine, as in Aleksandr Stolper’s Wait For Me (1943), do not so
much signify the preservation of the nuclear family, as the survival of the great family of
the Soviet people. Only towards the late 1950s do we see a significant reversal of this
situation. In Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1958), it is the heroine’s personal
experience of the war that propels the plot forward. Thus starting in the first years of
‘developed socialism’, the family drama takes precedence over the social (or national)
drama, even if the latter does retain some relevance.
Two developments mark the evolution of melodrama during the Stagnation era
under Brezhnev: first, its gradual disconnection from traditional associations with ‘low’
culture and its recognition as a legitimate and commercially lucrative genre. For all the
undeniably melodramatic ingredients operative in Soviet film of the 1950s and 1960s,
melodrama’s existence in contemporary Soviet cinema had always been denied. That
situation changed dramatically in the early 1970s, and by the end of the decade the
genre figured prominently in the production plans of Goskino. Second, in comparison
with the melodramas of the Thaw era, in Brezhnevite melodrama the balance between
public and private life tipped even further in favour of the latter. In Vladimir Men’shov’s
Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1979), for instance, professional success is shown to
be insufficient or even counterproductive for attaining personal fulfilment.
With the exception of Nikita Mikhalkov’s and El’dar Riazanov’s forays into historical melodrama (Slave of Love, 1976; A Cruel Romance, 1984), over the past 30 years,
the genre has addressed contemporary issues by refracting them through the lens of
personal relationships and family life. Melodramas of the late 1990s and the new millennium tend to focus on the disintegration of the family, in particular on the figure of the
ineffective or failing father (Ivan Vyrypaev’s Euphoria, 2006; Katia Shagalova’s Once Upon
a Time in the Provinces, 2008). At the same time, a number of directors appear eager to
suggest a way out of Russia’s family crisis, concluding their films with the reconstitution of
the nuclear family (Pavel Lungin’s Wedding, 2000) or the reconciliation of a generational
conflict (Aleksei Popogrebskii’s Simple Things, 2007). Especially for this last category of
filmmakers, the option of a ‘conservative’ or ‘happy’ dénouement seems more attractive
than the alternative of an ambiguous or ‘tragic’ ending.
Otto Boele
Melodrama 149
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The Merchant
(Drama on the
Doch´ kuptsa Bashkirova
(Drama na Volge)
Country of Origin:
Grigorii Libken’s Volga Co.
Nikolai Larin
Grigorii Libken
Nikolai Larin
Ianis Dored
43 minutes
Natalia, the title character, has fallen in love with Egorov, a young
clerk who works in her father’s shop. The patriarchal Bashkirov,
however, has already arranged her marriage to one of his colleagues;
the two men sign the formal agreement, and then toast with vodka
shots, to the evident distress of the merchant’s wife. When her mother
arranges a few moments for the young lovers to be alone in Natalia’s
room, the father returns home unexpectedly. The women hide Egorov
under Natalia’s mattress, accidentally suffocating him. They enlist
a brawny peasant to hide the corpse, which he nails into a barrel
and then unceremoniously dumps into the Volga. When the body is
discovered, the wily peasant then realizes that he has leverage over
the women, and he blackmails Natalia into coming to his hut, where
he rapes her. He then pressures her to meet him in a bar, where she
keeps pouring the vodka until he and his buddy pass out. Natalia
sets fire to the place after blocking the exits, and then dissolves into
hysteria as she watches the flames.
Produced by a small provincial film company in 1913, this movie was
quickly purchased by the Pathé Frères Company, which maintained
an office in Moscow. Supposedly based on a true story, the plot had
been staged for the theatre in 1894 as The Murderess: The Merchant
Osipov’s Daughter. A merchant family named Bashkirov objected
to the film’s title, prompting it to be distributed as Drama on the
Volga. The thematic intertwining of the conflicts between generation
and gender keeps this movie fresh today as a window to the past.
Costumes code the class structure: the patriarchal merchants in their
caftans wear beards and part their long hair down the middle, in sharp
contrast to the stylish Egorov. The mother is also particularly interesting, as she tries to help her daughter despite her inability to challenge
her husband’s authority. The peasant-rapist contradicts any possible
nostalgia for the provincial sublime, despite several evocative outdoor
shots of the river. Nor does he inspire socialist sympathies, reminding viewers instead of the visceral and brutal anger that fuelled many
from the underclasses. Politics aside, this film also fits into the growing
popularity of cinematic violence. Natalia’s collapse into a hysterical
fit in the last scene was at the time also becoming a familiar trope of
feminine frustration. Director Larin did not move far professionally
after this in Russian cinema; his last known film was The Father-in-Law
Killer and Nastia, the Beauty (Svekor-dushegub i krasotka Nastia,
1916), based on a novel by Aleksei Pazukhin, one of the most prolific
writers of serialized sensational novels published in the tabloid press.
After emigrating in 1920, Larin continued as a filmmaker in Bulgaria
and Germany.
Louise McReynolds
Directory of World Cinema
Evgenii Bauer, Life for a Life (1916).
A Life for a Life
Zhizn’ za zhizn’
Country of Origin:
Khanzhonkov & Co.
Evgenii Bauer
Aleksandr Khanzhonkov
Evgenii Bauer
Two daughters of a wealthy, and female, factory owner (Rakhmanova)
fall in love with the same Prince Bartinskii (Polonskii). One of the
daughters, however, Nata (Kholodnaia), is adopted and therefore
without a dowry. The prince marries the biological daughter, Musia
(Koreneva), and Nata is forced to marry a businessman (Perestiani),
who is as kind and wealthy as he is older than she. The prince, an
utter cad, seduces the willing Nata, and then steals from her husband
by forging his signature to a promissory note. Although he treats
her coldly, Musia still loves her husband and begs her brother-in-law
not to prosecute the prince. The irate mother, aware of the prince’s
deceptions, can tolerate him no longer. She shoots him, and then
stages his murder to look like suicide. Both distraught daughters rush
to his corpse.
A Life for a Life was rightfully heralded as Russia’s contribution to the
large-scale international productions of the era. Its stars were the
Melodrama 151
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Boris Zavelev
66 minutes
Vera Kholodnaia
Lydia Koreneva
Vitol’d Polonskii
Ol’ga Rakhmanova
Ivan Perestiani
brightest, and its director, Evgenii Bauer, boasted a cinematic eye as
innovative as any of his western peers. For this film he finally received
the budget capable of funding his opulent visuals. Based on Georges
Ohnet’s potboiler Serge Panine (1885), which the author had only
recently adapted for the French cinema and which was subtitled ‘A
Tear for Every Drop of Blood’, the film was re-titled for its American
release Her Sister’s Rival – a rhetorical manoeuvre that reflected a different theme than that emphasized by Bauer. This was a distinctively
Russian film, the epitome of the culture’s melodrama both thematically
and aesthetically. Bauer artfully contrasted noble decadence to bourgeois morality, one of the genre’s commonplaces. Virtue triumphs,
but only ambiguously, as both daughters clearly prefer the decadence
that their mother destroyed in order to save them. Renowned for his
uses of mise-en-scène, Bauer staged the scenes to evoke the emotional despair with which the film ends. Rather than rivals, the sisters
are victims, each overwhelmed by spacious sets and furniture that
renders them too small to assume a stance equal to the prince’s. The
lavish sets are also multi-layered to emphasize the mutual implications
of every relationship. Poignantly, Nata can only drape herself across
the back of a bedroom chair when her cuckolded husband discovers
her with her lover. Musia sits even more dejectedly, dwarfed by a fireplace in their connubial apartment. In his signature film, Bauer projects the political culture of the age, the inability of Russians to wrest
themselves from the stranglehold of a social and political system,
even when they themselves could recognize its decay.
Louise McReynolds
The Devil’s
Chertovo koleso
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Grigorii Kozintsev
Leonid Trauberg
Adrian Piotrovskii
Andrei Moskvin
Originally entitled The Sailor from the Aurora, the film shows the
NEP-era misadventures of a young sailor assigned to the revolutionarily iconic cruiser Aurora. Vania finds himself in Leningrad’s ‘Narodnyi
Dom’ amusement park, where he is distracted from his revolutionary
zeal by the beauteous delinquent, Valia. The Aurora leaves without
him and, overwhelmed by his deserter’s guilt, Vania comes with his
damsel-in-distress to a den of the NEP criminal element. Leningrad’s
lower depths are depicted with imaginative gusto; and admiringly,
especially owing to the figure of the charismatic gang leader ‘Human
Question’. In a disproportionately aggressive operation, the police
exterminate the gang and its leader, and this grandiose finale overwhelms whatever attention the viewer might pay to Vania’s melancholic return to the Aurora in the dim Leningrad morning.
The plot of this film bears an uncanny resemblance to Veniamin
Kaverin’s 1924 novella The End of the Gang, though all the parties
involved denied any immediate borrowing or influence. Playing
as it does with the concept made famous by Kozintsev’s teacher/
Directory of World Cinema
Art Director:
Evgenii Enei
Boris Shpis
76 minutes
Petr Sobolevskii
Sergei Gerasimov
Ianina Zheimo
Liudmila Semenova
Andrei Kostrichkin
Sergei Martinson
rival Sergei Eisenstein, The Devil’s Wheel can be described as a
‘montage of distractions’, though attractions, including those of
Narodnyi Dom park, also play a crucial role in this rich and ambivalent work. While the protagonist is distracted from his duty by his
libido and by the picturesque chaos of the Leningrad underworld,
the audience in turn is distracted from the sailor’s ideological tribulations, and whatever lesson these may convey, by this mesmerizing
underworld, ‘another’ world normally excluded from the conception
of the Soviet city.
The great magnetic force of the plot lies in its witty inclusion of the
elements required by the urban melodrama, particularly the Dickensian species thereof: the ‘angelic’ protagonist Vania (Sobolevskii),
lured by dark forces; the quasi-prostitute Valia (Semenova) with a
heart of gold; and the irresistibly attractive villain, the ‘Human Question’ (Gerasimov). Trauberg and Kozintsev moreover appropriate the
main vector of the melodramatic plot – that of the fall, which the film
instantiates in Vania’s descent from the heights of ideological chastity
into the embrace of a ‘delinquent’ girl and her way of life. But in order
for this metaphor to take hold of the audience, the cinematography of
Moskvin (who joined Kozintsev on this film) had to embody a dizzying
roller-coaster ride thrilling to audience and character alike, and to take
the notion of the fall to its full, vertigo-inducing realization. Surviving
several collapses of his still less-than-perfect movie camera, Moskvin
made the combination of technical virtuosity with the realization of
metaphor his signature.
Also symptomatic is the episode in the park’s dance-hall, which
Moskvin, searching for the perfect opportunity to indulge his interest
in drastic chiaroscuro lighting, insisted on shooting at night. Kozintsev recalls: ‘we drew a rope over the crowd’s heads and asked
everyone to smoke as much as they possibly could. The beam of a
strong searchlight was aimed in such a way that only heads could
be seen. Moving slowly, the searchlight exposed silhouettes of the
heads, the transparent smoke backlighting the fragile figure of the
Moskvin’s technique exposes, as is typical for his style, not just the
heads of Leningrad idlers but the underlying pathos of the film: the
desire to peek into the dark but attractive world of social marginals.
Contemporary critics reacted to this pathos with unanimous hostility:
they sensed (rightly) that instead of lauding the Aurora and her sailors,
the Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS) had staged an expressive
farewell to the wild spirit of the 1920s and to the idea, threatened by
rising Soviet homogeneity, of Petersburg’s otherness.
Polina Barskova
Melodrama 153
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Bed and Sofa
Tret’ia meshchanskaia
(Liubov’ v troem)
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Sovkino Moscow
Abram Room
Abram Room
Viktor Shklovskii
Grigorii Giber
Art Directors:
Vasilii Rakhal’s
Sergei Iutkevich
74 minutes
Nikolai Batalov
Liudmila Semenova
Vladimir Fogel’
One morning in July 1926 a young print worker, Volodia (Fogel’),
arrives in Moscow to look for work. A husband and wife, Kolia
(Batalov) and Liuda (Semenova), go about their usual routine in
their tiny apartment in Third Meshchanskaia Street. Volodia finds
a job, but has nowhere to live; he bumps in to his old army friend,
Kolia, who suggests he stay on their sofa. Liuda is not consulted
and not pleased. However, Volodia is attentive and helpful to Liuda,
in marked contrast to her husband, and when the latter goes on
a business trip (he is a construction worker), they embark upon an
affair and Volodia exchanges the sofa for the matrimonial bed. Upon
Kolia’s return he is told the truth and leaves, only to come back
later and occupy the sofa. Before long Liuda finds that Volodia is as
flawed a partner as Kolia and, feeling sorry for her husband, allows
him back in to the matrimonial bed, sending Volodia back to the
sofa. When Liuda realizes she is pregnant, but unsure who the father
is, both men decide she should have an abortion. Liuda decides
against the men’s wishes and leaves them, her home and Moscow.
Kolia and Volodia share a momentary pang of guilt, but ultimately
remain unchanged.
Bed and Sofa is a beautifully crafted, engaging and intellectually
provocative film, which still exudes the energy and enthusiasm poured
into it by its makers. Room’s film was initially entitled Ménage à trois
(Liubov’ v troem), but this wording was considered too explicit in the
late 1920s.
The key themes touched upon in this film are very much of their
time: on the one hand there is the issue of social change and the
role of women in society, as represented by Liuda’s initial stifling role
as a bourgeois housewife and her eventual escape; on the other the
theme of people like Volodia coming to the capital to start new lives.
The latter idea is neatly subverted by Liuda’s leaving Moscow at the
end of the film, leaving her destination, fate and many other questions deliberately unresolved.
The plot is merely the framework upon which Room has piled detail
upon detail, and it is these minutiae that make the film a work of
art. The subtle precision of the acting reveals the characters’ psychological states. The finely tuned variations of lighting (by Grigorii
Giber) add meaning and aesthetic integrity to the film. Stylistically,
as otherwise, Bed and Sofa is a highly skilful work, and it is noteworthy that the lattice-effect shadows cast on Volodia and Liuda at
different moments (thereby linking them symbolically) prefigure and
pre-date Aleksandr Rodchenko’s famous Girl with a Leica by seven
years. The density and richness of the textures and surfaces within the
film, almost at times to the point of overload, convey the oppressive
nature of the cramped space within the apartment, or the relative
spaciousness of the world outside, especially as perceived by Liuda.
In historical terms, the film leaves a lasting legacy, as the aerial views
Directory of World Cinema
of Moscow include shots of the original Church of Christ the Saviour,
which are significant documentary records as well as pure art.
Room explicitly directed the camera to look at the world through
the eyes of the protagonists, particularly in shots from Liuda’s point of
view, whether with semi-obscured views of the legs of passers-by from
the window, conveying her sense of being an imprisoned observer,
or panoramic scenes from the aeroplane Volodia takes her on, or the
cinema he takes her to (where she is again an observer). Volodia briefly
takes her away from it all, literally and figuratively, and these scenes are
clear examples of Room’s love of spectacle (which feature in most of
his films in some form). However, Liuda soon returns to a reality even
more oppressive than before Volodia’s arrival. By contrast, Kolia has
been escaping from the domestic environment daily when he goes to
work, where he is able to look down upon Moscow from the top of the
Bolshoi theatre, which he is restoring. In Room’s film the city is visually
striking, but also highly symbolic; Moscow looks impressively modern,
yet by restoring that particular building, Kolia is preserving an element
of the pre-Revolutionary past, which reflects his attitude to family life.
Liuda’s rejection of this attitude is revealed in an equally symbolic act,
as she wrenches her photo from its restrictive frame and leaves for
good; the frame on the wall is shown poignantly empty.
Room’s film has enduring appeal; there are academic studies of Bed
and Sofa from various decades and countries, but different kinds of
tributes have also been made to the work: in 1997 the opera Bed and
Sofa. A Silent Movie Opera was staged in New York and later released
on CD. In 1998 the director Petr Todorovskii filmed an odd ‘re-make’
of the film, set in contemporary Russia, called Retro vtroem.
Milena Michalski
Wait for Me
Zhdi menia
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Central United Feature Film
Studio (TsOKS)
Aleksandr Stolper
Boris Ivanov
Konstantin Simonov
In Moscow, at the home of pilot Nikolai Ermolov, friends and family
gather to mark his imminent departure for the front. Ermolov’s wife,
Liza, insists on spending the last hour alone with her husband. Soon
afterwards, Nikolai’s plane is shot down by the Germans; Nikolai
and his friend, war correspondent Mikhail Vainshtein, survive and
manage to escape, albeit separately: Mikhail saves valuable documents, whereas Nikolai joins a guerilla unit. Back at home, Liza helps
digging trenches while keeping her firm belief that Nikolai is alive.
She chastizes her friend Sonia who no longer thinks that her husband,
Andrei, will ever come back. When Andrei does return, he is heartbroken over Sonia’s betrayal; he feels dead long before his actual death
from an exploding bomb. Liza keeps waiting, and finally Nikolai opens
the door to their apartment.
Konstantin Simonov, the most celebrated Soviet World War II correspondent, wrote his legendary poem ‘Wait for Me’ in 1941. It brought
Melodrama 155
Directory of World Cinema
Samuil Rubashkin
Art Directors:
Artur Berger
Vladimir Kamskii
Nikolai Kriukov
Iurii Biriukov
Evgeniia Abdirkina
87 minutes
War Melodrama
Mikhail Nazvanov
Valentina Serova
Elena Tiapkina
Boris Blinov
him instant fame and the gratitude of countless men and women in
the military. Simonov turned the poem into a play and later a screenplay. Director Aleksandr Stolper, whose Lad from Our Town (1942)
had demonstrated his ability to combine patriotic optimism with
intimate melodrama, was assigned to direct Wait for Me together
with Boris Ivanov. Given the still precarious situation of the Red
Army in 1942–1943, encouragement and optimism were expected
from feature films above all. Not surprisingly, Simonov’s script is
relatively simplistic, juxtaposing the ‘positive’ Liza who maintains an
unshakeable faith in her beloved’s survival to the ‘negative’ Sonia
who gives up on her husband and enjoys the benefits of an extramarital affair. However, there are a number of elements that soften
the moral lecturing so typical of Stalinist cinema. Already in the first
scene, Liza’s insistence on being left alone with Nikolai in the hour
of farewell is a violation of traditional collectivist standards. Indeed,
the actress portraying Liza, Valentina Serova, was the ideal choice
for conveying such a surprisingly independent attitude – she owed
her stardom to the title role in A Girl with Personality (1939). Stolper,
a reliable craftsman, did his best to visualize the harsh reality of war
to the maximum degree tolerated at the time. Wait for Me skilfully
contrasts the warmth and protection of Moscow interiors – designed
by the experienced Artur Berger – against the wildly inhospitable
winter storms in which the men have to fight. The interior scenes
convey an uncommon atmosphere of intimacy, condensed in several
excellent close shots, while the exterior episodes emphasize Soviet
fighters’ heroism. It is peculiar for this melodrama that the fighters’
selflessness in the open sphere is motivated by the protectiveness of
the private space that they are leaving behind. Although Wait for Me
contains some declamatory elements, too, their number is noticeably
limited, and not once do the characters mention ‘comrade Stalin’ or
‘our Communist Party’. Instead, their conversations deal with everyday problems in war conditions, not the macro-political purposes of
their struggle. It was this sense of civility, love, friendship and trust
that endeared Wait for Me to millions of viewers. Communist watchdogs disliked its central metaphysical message, which normally would
have been seen as incompatible with the Marxist-Leninist materialist
dogma, but allowed it since its positive effect on soldiers’ motivation
was undeniable.
Some external factors, too, have to be taken into consideration in
order to explain the film’s unusual emotional impact on contemporaries. Many viewers were familiar with Valentina Serova’s story: her
first husband, pilot and hero of the Soviet Union Aleksandr Serov
(1910–1939), had fought in the Civil War in Spain and later perished
in a plane crash. Konstantin Simonov, Serova’s second husband, dedicated his ‘Wait for Me’ to her and wrote the screenplay with her in
mind. Moreover, the role of Nikolai Ermolov was the last performance
of Boris Blinov who had portrayed Chapaev’s commissar Furmanov
with charm and reserve – he died of typhoid fever in Alma-Ata at the
age of thirty-four. And yet, the film’s intrinsic qualities are far more
important than contextual factors, primarily the convincing performances by Serova, Blinov, Lev Sverdlin, Mikhail Nazvanov and Elena
Tiapkina, who provide their rank-and-file characters with a blend of
Directory of World Cinema
strength and tenderness, humour and melancholy, down-to-earth
rationality and hope against all odds. While the film’s emphasis on the
vital connection between the front and the rear made it a useful tool
for propaganda, its focus on the human dimension of a horrific war
endeared it to rank-and-file Soviet citizens.
Peter Rollberg
Kalina krasnaia
Country of Origin:
Vasilii Shukshin
Vasilii Shukshin
Anatolii Zabolotskii
Art Director:
Ippolit Novoderezhkin
108 minutes
Literary adaptation
Vasilii Shukshin
Lidiia Fedoseeva-Shukshina
Georgii Burkov
Lev Durov
The film begins in a ‘corrective labour facility’ with an evening concert
given by the inmates. Those about to be released sing the ‘Bombom’ chorus in the popular ballad ‘Vechernii zvon’ (‘Evening Bells’).
Among them is Egor Prokudin (Vasilii Shukshin), a career criminal. On
his release his attempts to re-establish links with his former gang and
girlfriend result in disappointment, and Egor travels to the village of
Iasnoe (‘Clear’), where he hopes to make a fresh (and honest) start.
While in prison he had been in correspondence with a resident of
the village, Liuba Baikalova (Lidiia Fedoseeva-Shukshina), and while
living with her and her parents he works first as a chauffeur and then a
tractor-driver. It becomes clear that the reason Egor has chosen Iasnoe
is because his mother lives nearby. Though he has not seen her since
he was sixteen, he refuses to make himself known to her when he and
Liuba visit. Egor is found by his former gang, and shot by Guboshlep,
their leader (Georgii Burkov). Egor dies in a field. Liuba’s truck driver
brother Petro rams the gang’s car and pushes it into the river, then
waits for the police to arrive.
One of the most popular films of the 1970s, it was written for the
screen by Shukshin and published as a novella (povest’) in 1973.
Shukshin himself died shortly after its release the following year. On
the level of plot the film was sensational on its release, as it was the
first to show prison life in (admittedly sanitized) detail, and not only
acknowledged the existence of the criminal underground but even
showed its workings. Guboshlep is a charismatic leader, but beneath
his surface charm he is a psychopath who thinks nothing of killing.
The character of Egor Prokudin spoke to an entire generation,
men and women uprooted from their rural communities through the
tumultuous social and political processes of the 1930s and 1940s,
but unable to adapt to urban life. Despite his criminal past, Egor is
essentially an honest, even innocent soul looking for some purpose
and identity, which he hopes to find through an emotional release he
formulates as a ‘festival of the soul’ (prazdnik dushi). When he arrives
in Iasnoe he is struck by the wide-open expanses that can provide
an inner sense of freedom (volia). Liuba offers him not so much a
romantic relationship as a mother-figure providing the security and
home he left as a teenager. Prokudin’s personal tragedy is framed as
the symbolic death of the Russian peasant, surrounded by gleaming
Melodrama 157
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Vasilii Shukshin, Red Guelderbush (1973).
church cupolas and with a choral soundtrack accompanying his last
minutes. His death is associated with Sergei Esenin, the ‘last poet of
the Russian village’, whose poem ‘Pis’mo materi’ (‘A Letter to Mother’)
is sung diegetically in the last minutes before Egor is shot. Prokudin
has abandoned his mother and his roots, and he knows nothing about
village life, throwing hot water onto Petro rather than on the bathhouse coals. Whereas the spiritual wholesomeness of village life is
signified by Liuba’s white dress, the town is associated with crime and
loose morals. Egor’s attempt to organize a ‘debauch’ proves farcical.
Only in death is Egor reunited with the Russian earth, and he dies ‘a
peasant’. The film, therefore, offers a significant development of the
thematic concerns of ‘village prose’ of the 1960s and 1970s. Here the
link of man and nature is broken, Russian life is dominated not by the
‘soft’ feminine principle but by the hard and violent masculine ethos
of gangsterism and prison. Significantly, Guboshlep equates his own
brand of violence with that administered by the Soviet state during
the purges: ‘when you cut down the forest, wood chips fly’ (les rubiat,
shchipy letiat). Rather like Elem Klimov’s Farewell, Red Guelderbush
shows the very human cost of Russian social and political history in the
twentieth century.
David Gillespie
Directory of World Cinema
A Slave of Love
Raba liubvi
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Nikita Mikhalkov
Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii
Fridrikh Gorenshtein
Pavel Lebeshev
Art Directors:
Aleksandr Adabashian
Aleksandr Samulekin
Eduard Artem’ev
Liudmila Elian
94 minutes
Elena Solovei
Rodion Nakhapetov
Aleksandr Kaliagin
Oleg Basilashvili
Konstantin Gregor’ev
In the midst of Civil War, in an unnamed resort town in Southern
Russia, a Moscow film company is working on a new picture starring a famous actress, twenty-eight-year-old Ol’ga Voznesenskaia.
She becomes interested in Viktor Pototskii, a cameraman, who also
secretly films war documentaries for Bolsheviks. After she helps
him to hide one of his films, he invites her to a secret night screening of his footage. The footage shocks her and she decides to go
back to Moscow, but is convinced to stay. Once again Ol’ga helps
Pototskii. She also admits her love to him and realizes that he loves
her back. However, when Pototskii is driving off with a promise to
come by that evening, he is blown up in front of her eyes. In search
of Pototskii’s film, the White Army officer Captain Fedotov invades
the studio and Ol’ga shoots him, but misses. Seconds later, the
Bolsheviks storm the studio, kill the captain and save Ol’ga, by
putting her on a tram that goes to town. However, the tram’s driver
jumps off the moving tram and abandons her to the Whites as a
Revolutionary. The film ends with the White officers chasing after
horrified Ol’ga in an empty tram.
Essentially, Nikita Mikhalkov’s A Slave of Love is a love story. In the
centre of the film is a nascent feeling between Ol’ga Voznesenskaia
and Viktor Pototskii. In a way, following tradition of a pre-Revolutionary melodrama, where no happy end is possible, Pototskii dies
before he gets a chance to have an affair with Voznesenskaia. As to
Voznesenskaia, her death is implied at the end as well, as she left
alone in a tram exclaiming to the Whites, ‘You are animals, gentlemen;
you will be cursed by your country’.
With that said, A Slave of Love is about love for that wealthier,
carefree life that is slipping away. Famous Chekhov’s ‘to Moscow, to
Moscow’ is the film’s leitmotif. Moscow – so desirable but impossible
to come back to – represents that lost life. For the film’s crew the past
is irrevocable, and the only way to live it is through cinema. Mikhalkov
manages to express the feeling of those, who are left behind; it is the
feeling found in The Cherry Orchard. In general, Chekhovian motives
and influences are quite obvious in the film, and just like in Chekhov’s
plays, the old wealthier classes here are quite often funny in their
absurdity and oblivion. The film recreates the atmosphere of this
general confusion and loss both visually and contextually. Kaliagin,
the film’s director, is not sure how to proceed filming without his male
lead. Voznesenskaia is repeatedly shown as lost and restless. Significantly, at the film’s basis is a figure of the silent screen queen Vera
Kholodnaia, here Ol’ga Voznesenskaia. Kholodnaia, just like Voznesenskaia, was a symbol of that leisured life, so glamorous and tragic
at the same time. Quite often Mikhalkov films her moving away from
the camera and disappearing. This could be read as a loss of that
glamorous life, for which the figure of Voznesenskaia (and Kholodnaia)
stands for.
Melodrama 159
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Nikita Mikhalkov, Slave of Love (1976); Elena Solovei and Rodion Nakhapetov.
Nevertheless, A Slave of Love is also about love for film and art in
general. The film revolves around a melodrama production, in which
Voznesenskaia stars. The issue that arises and is carried throughout
is the one of an adequacy of such a production during the Civil War.
Both Voznesenskaia and Kaliagin find their art empty and pointless.
At first, the filming seems not to be going well because Voznesenskaia’s partner, Maksakov, is still in Moscow. However, as Mikhalkov
seems to suggest, it is not about Maksakov. Maksakov stands for
something bigger, it is not just a lack of a male lead – Maksakov
represents that purpose, that ideal that this bourgeois art lacks. It
becomes especially obvious when the rest of the crew arrives and
brings a newspaper, which announces Maksakov’s acceptance and
support of the Revolution (and with that, his choice to remain in
Moscow). Lacking a purpose and a male lead the film cannot be
completed successfully, which implies that this art cannot survive in
its old ‘bourgeois’ form.
Thus, Voznesenskaia embodies this loss: she cannot function
without the male lead and an idea (as it quite often happens in
Directory of World Cinema
Mikhalkov’s films, a male figure is connected to the ideological in the
film). As soon as she finds her own a male lead (Pototskii) and with
that a purpose (helping Bolsheviks), she loses them both to the war,
thus proving the impossibility of being in between, or trying to keep
the old life style in this new order, of being a ‘bourgeois’ actress in the
Revolutionary film. Mikhalkov’s ability to express this atmosphere of
melancholy and nostalgia, of a life that is slipping away, stresses not
only the ideological, but also humane attitude toward those who have
lost their past, and have no place in the present.
Mariya Boston
Moscow Does
Not Believe in
Moskva slezam ne verit
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Vladimir Men’shov
Valentin Chernykh
Igor’ Slabnevich
Art Director:
Said Menial’shchikov
Sergei Nikitin
Valeriia Belova
150 minutes
The film follows the destinies of three friends – Ekaterina, Antonina
and Liudmila – from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Originally living
together as students in the same dorm room, they subsequently make
very different life-choices. The three girls represent three character
types: one is dedicated to her career, the second to a simpler life
with her husband and the third to nothing in particular, eventually
falling victim to her own laziness. Ekaterina begins her career on
the noisy floor of a factory, but works her way up to senior management; Antonina is attracted by the idea of marriage and a family
early on and soon retreats to something of a rustic idyll. Liudmila
is most attracted to Moscow but she fares worst of all. Enamored
with glamour and stardom, she never applies herself after graduation. Adulthood brings her nothing more than a drunken spouse
and wretched domestic life. Meanwhile Ekaterina – the most socially
mobile character – overcomes difficulties caused by an early pregnancy to reach the upper flight of socialist society. Ironically, though,
when she finally meets a suitable lover, Gosha, he is unnerved by her
remarkable (or non-traditional) success. Only through a compromise
between her careerism and his class-related anxieties does the couple
find harmony and happiness.
The story of this film’s creation begins in 1978 when the screenplay
was first under consideration at the state studios of Goskino. The
project was approved with relative speed, but one particular problem
arose during casting. Director Vladimir Men’shov had difficulty finding
a suitable male actor for the role of Ekaterina’s ultimate companion,
Gosha. After some debate, the role was offered to Aleksei Batalov,
already well known as the hero of some rather dated dramas such as
A Grand Family (1954) or The Rumiantsev’s Case (1955). Nonetheless
it was precisely because of these old-world associations that Batalov
was chosen. The director was looking for the embodiment of a
working-class ‘slogger’, as he put it, the kind of man who embodied
a certain constancy in Soviet values, no matter how petty a modern
Melodrama 161
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Vladimir Men’shov, Moscow does not Believe in Tears (1980); Katia leaves the maternity ward.
Directory of World Cinema
Vera Alentova
Aleksei Batalov
Irina Murav’eva
Aleksandr Fatiushin
Raisa Riazanova
Boris Smorchkov
Iurii Vasil’ev
Natal’ia Vavilova
Oleg Tabakov
Evgeniia Khanaeva
Viktor Ural’skii
Zoia Fedorova
Liia Akhedzhakova
Valentina Ushakova
Innokentii Smoktunovskii
family movie might seem. Rather than bow to the modishness of a
bourgeois melodrama, he wanted Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
to ‘capture the Russian popular spirit’.
That phrase speaks directly to the most commonly debated aspect
of the film: whether it does indeed surrender political purpose to a
kitchen-sink drama, or whether the sub-plots such as Ekaterina’s workplace success prove exactly the opposite, that the movie celebrates a
greater potential for advancement enjoyed by Soviet women, especially when compared to their western counterparts. Ironically these
issues arose more overseas than in Russia, where the film was seen as
blissful escape from archetypal Soviet moviemaking, burdened with
heavy-handed politicking. Given that the feature affords much time
to widespread, yet arguably trivial problems – such as the life of a
single mother – Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears was referred to in
the Soviet press as a work of ‘consoling realism’. It brought comfort
to people in their private difficulties, without necessary reference to a
loud and public ethos.
Even though the film was shortlisted in Hollywood for the 1980 Best
Foreign Film Oscar, many US papers prior to the awards dismissed
it as throwaway twaddle. The New York Times, for example, called it
‘hackwork’ in comparison to Truffaut’s submission (The Last Metro) or
Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Critics saw little originality in the movie, comparing it to the ‘flabby comedies’ of 1930s Hollywood, thus – ironically
– offering a variation on Men’shov’s own love for Russian film of the
same period. The Hollywood tropes stolen by so many Stalinist classics remained recognizable for American critics, but they took on an
inverted significance in another country. Rarely were these Hollywood
parallels treated kindly.
Nonetheless, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears won the 1980
Oscar. At the peak of its social significance, this sprawling family
saga ran simultaneously in twenty Moscow cinemas and would eventually be seen by 85 million people across the Soviet Union. It even
enjoyed great popularity among American audiences, reflecting
perfectly the workings of Cold War détente: Ronald Reagan would
subsequently feel that this film could help him ‘know’ the desires
of Soviet delegates at a Cold War summit. Despite any presidential
wish for happy universality, though, public suspicion endured in
America that Katia, Tonia and Liuda were ‘loose, whining characters’.
Whatever they were trying to do, it looked more like a sad, sorry
melodrama or unfunny spoof than romantic comedy. Only in Russia
did the political context remain in the background, where the film is
loved to this day.
David MacFadyen
Melodrama 163
Directory of World Cinema
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Sergei Solov’ev
Sergei Livnev
Sergei Solov’ev
Pavel Lebeshev
ASSA is a nonsense word suggested by the rock musicians starring in
the film. ASSA is the first film in the trilogy, followed by Black Rose is
a Symbol of Sorrow, Red Rose is a Symbol of Love (1989), and House
Under the Starry Skies (1991); there is also a sequel, 2 ASSA 2 or the
Second Death of Anna Karenina (2009).
The film is set in the resort town of Yalta in winter. A young woman,
Alika, comes to town to meet with her older lover, a mobster named
Krymov. While he is delayed, she meets young rock-musician,
Bananan, who plays in the restaurant with his rock band. Alika reunites
with Krymov, but her friendship with Bananan grows and she begins
to spend more time with him, while Krymov is busy plotting the theft
of an antique violin. Krymov and his accomplices are secretly watched
and investigated by the police. Krymov becomes suspicious and jealous of the relationship between Alika and Bananan. At first he warns
Bananan, then tries to bribe him to leave the town. When the young
man refuses, Krymov murders him. Alika in turn shoots Krymov when
she finds out about Bananan’s death.
Art Director:
Marksen Gaukhman-Sverdlov
ASSA is considered one of the most important films of the perestroika
period. ASSA was the first Soviet film to feature Russian underground
rock music. In 1988 this meant public recognition for underground art
and public acceptance of the youth subculture as an agent of change.
The young generation was an important subject in perestroika cinema
that produced a corpus of youth-oriented films that described it either
as a lost generation (Little Vera, Vasilii Pichul, 1989) or as the generation of hope and change (Is it Easy to be Young?, Juris Podnieks,
1987). ASSA’s reception made it a cult film among young people in
the late 1980s. The screenings were accompanied by an ‘art rock
parade’ – live concerts of banned rock groups, exhibits of contemporary underground artists and fashion designers. ASSA became the
embodiment of the spirit of change, drawing unprecedented numbers
of viewers. It captured the hopes and aspirations of the late perestroika era, which produced a sense of individual and public empowerment, when a free society seemed to be within reach and the old
taboos could be done away with overnight. This message is especially
evident in the end of the film, when Viktor Tsoi, leader of the group
Kino, sings ‘We Wait for Change’ (My zhdem peremen), and the scene
that starts as a rehearsal at the restaurant turns into a concert with
thousands of fans.
However, the final song with its hard rock beat and straightforward
rebellious message contrasts with the tone that ASSA sets. ASSA
mostly features music by Boris Grebenshchikov and Aquarium, known
for subversive tongue-in-cheek texts and experimental musical forms.
This choice compliments pastiche style, formal experimentation and
an absurdist touch characteristic for ASSA. The film’s formal sophistication starts with art direction that fills the scenes with the strange
objects that seem to come straight from a conceptual installation.
Boris Grebenshchikov
Vera Kruglova
153 minutes
Sergei Bugaev (Africa)
Tatiana Drubich
Stanislav Govorukhin
Aleksandr Bashirov
Boris Grebenshchikov
Viktor Tsoi
Directory of World Cinema
Solov’ev also uses his signature techniques, such as the use of graphics and text within visual material. Bananan’s dreams are presented as
film stock with bright abstract pictures painted on it, and the film is
interrupted with onscreen text commentary explaining the meaning of
the youth slang.
In terms of genre, ASSA is eclectic, combining melodrama with a
criminal thriller about cops and gangsters; fantasy sequences about
a coup d’état against Paul I that comes to life as Krymov reads
about it in a book; and a social message brought in by Russian rock.
None of the genres is entirely functional: the cops and gangsters
story seems not only irrelevant but is openly mocked in the end,
when long onscreen text describes all the financial scams perpetrated by Krymov. Life, death and mafia power boil down to dull
description in the Soviet ideolect. The heart of the film is obviously
with youth subculture, whose absurd lyrics and crazy stunts are
positioned as more meaningful than an elaborate heist or Mafiosi
brought to justice. Russian rock has a long tradition of cultural resistance that manifested itself in the kind of absurdity and irony that
Sergei Solov’ev uses in the film. However, the budding relationship
between Alika and Bananan is depicted with utmost tenderness and
The incongruence of genres adds to the film’s compartmentalized nature. The different stories exist as different worlds – a commentary on the radical changes that befell Russia with the advent of
perestroika. Solov’ev’s visual and narrative techniques emphasize the
divide between the old and new. The sunny southern Yalta is covered
in snow and mud. The young couple go on a mountain lift and the
background song tells about a golden city under the blue sky, while
the camera pans and reveals the unkempt, grey city underneath. The
cops, gangsters, lovers and rock musicians exist in parallel universes,
and when they meet the results are either frightening – as in the
gruesome death of Bananan, or grotesque – as in the final triumph of
the police. The fantasy sequences about the murder of Paul I during
the coup d’état suggest a parallel both to the martyred Bananan and
the fading of the old generation, the death of Krymov, in the name of
the future that bursts onto the scene with the end song, demanding
Volha Isakava
Melodrama 165
Directory of World Cinema
The Wedding
Countries of Origin:
Arte France Cinema
Lichtblick Cologne
Cine B
Pavel Lungin
Catherine Dussart
Erik Waisberg
Aleksandr Galin
Pavel Lungin
Aleksandr Burov
Art Director:
Il’ia Amurskii
Vladimir Chekasin
Sophie Brunet
99 minutes
Tania, a model living in Moscow, returns to her home town to marry
her earlier love Mishka Krapivin, now a miner. When Mishka at last
receives his wages, he still has no money to buy his bride some eyedrops. With his friend Garkusha he tries to sell knives to make some
money, but Garkusha would rather exchange knives for vodka, so they
both end up totally drunk. When they come across a rich Ukrainian
woman on a staircase, Garkusha steals her eye-drops and gives them
to a dead-drunk Mikhail. The police arrive at the scene and identify
Mishka as the perpetrator and arrest him. In exchange for a wedding invitation, the police officer releases Mishka for two hours so
that he can get married. At the wedding party, Tania’s ex-boyfriend
shows up, the rich Muscovite Mafiosi Vasilii Borodin. He tries to win
Tania back, but to no avail. However, when the wedding party is over,
Mishka has to go back to prison. While Garkusha pilfers a gun from
the police officer, Mishka and Tania manage to escape. Borodin leaves
for Moscow and the guests at the wedding party, including the police
officer, continue to celebrate.
After several darker films, such as Taxi Blues (1990) and Luna Park
(1992), Lungin wrote and directed the comedy The Wedding (2000).
In the same vein as Hollywood comedies, the film depicts the events
before and after a wedding and contains the usual characters of a
good and bad guy vying for the love of a beautiful girl. However,
in essence, the film explores the specificities of Russianness. The
Wedding shows a rural community with high unemployment figures,
where people try to find some relief in the copious consumption of
alcohol. The social realism is enhanced by the documentary style
of the film, which is shot with a hand-held camera, using no special
effects and no additional soundtrack. In spite of their poverty, everyone does their very best to help Mishka and his parents organize a
good wedding party. Mishka’s colleagues from the mine give him
their salaries, the market vendor gives him a bunch of flowers for
free and a truck driver sells his cement and gives Mikhail the money.
Verbally, the Russians’ generosity is related to their utter humaneness.
Donating a big fish, the grocery shop owner states, ‘Please, take this
fish as a present. We are human beings too’. The police officer is the
only person in town to be shown as inhumane. He refuses to close
the case against Mishka, although people ask him to be human. At
the very end of the film, then, the police officer finally shows mercy
and refuses to arrest Garkusha for his crimes. Instead, he takes a
glass of vodka, embraces Garkusha and starts the after-party. The
humane features of the townspeople, and to a wider extent Russians,
are contrasted with the lack of humaneness in the rich Muscovite
Borodin. He is a ‘New Russian’, a man with loads of money and arrogance, but no moral values. Moscow here symbolizes the bad side of
Russian life, underlined by the fact that the successful and beautiful
Tania decides to leave the glitter and glamour of the capital for a
Directory of World Cinema
Marat Basharov
Mariia Mironova
Andrei Panin
Natal’ia Koliakanova
Marina Golub
rural, but essentially Russian town. In this respect, the film conveys
a message about the present state of Russia: by choosing Mishka
instead of Borodin, Tania installs hope for a better future for Russia
that can be found by returning to the roots. The wedding itself is a
culmination of Russian traditions: guests drink litres of vodka, propose toasts to the married couple and dance to traditional wedding
songs. The film draws on the happiness of parties and gatherings. It
is the film’s happy end, the celebratory atmosphere and the smiling
faces that make it a real feel-good movie.
Jasmijn Van Gorp
Melodrama 167
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The history of Russian cinema is inseparable from that of the film
adaptation. From its inception, Russian film engaged in a dialogue
with literature, first modelling itself upon theatre and classical fiction
in order to consolidate its own cultural status, then attempting to
establish itself as ‘high art’ in its own right. Many early Russian films
were adaptations of nineteenth-century Russian fiction. The birth of
cinema coincided with a surge of national feeling and adaptations
of the quintessentially Russian works of Lermontov and Dostoevsky
exploited the new medium to promote a revitalized Russian self.
Literature’s influence on cinema continued to reverberate within
revolutionary avant-garde cinema through the involvement of leading
formalists, Viktor Shklovskii and Iurii Tynianov, in ekranizatsii during the
1920s and 1930s. One reason for formalism’s prominent role in cinema
was the ability of many of its protagonists to compensate for the lack of
good scenario writers who would also be ideologically sound (a recurrent problem in Soviet cinema history). For this reason, following Stalin’s
clampdown on avant-garde culture, film provided both writers and
critics with a refuge from the ravages of the repressions.
For a while, formalist notions of the essential differences between
film and literature coincided with Bolshevik sensibilities. Formalist
technique and radical Marxism merged in one of the most important
early Soviet films: Pudovkin’s adaptation of Gor’kii’s novel, Mother
(1926). Pudovkin’s striking use of montage and cinematic synecdoche,
and his presentation of the characters as expressionist archetypes
mark the film as a conscious visual reinterpretation of a source whose
revolutionary message it distils into stark blocks of cinematic meaning.
As the utopian experimentation of the early 1920s waned, the purpose of the ekranizatsiia changed as it became ever more subordinate
to the demands of a repressive state apparatus desperate to consolidate its still precarious hold on power.
The same contradiction emerged in what became the chief rationale for the Stalinist screen adaptation: its ability to reinforce the
dogmas of socialist realism. With a remit to furnish a middlebrow culture capable of appealing to the masses, cultural policy makers placed
a premium on accessibility. Bridging the divide between highbrow
literature and popular film, the ekranizatsiia was ideally suited to this
purpose. It facilitated the rapid canonization of key texts. Aleksandr
Fadeev’s The Rout and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don
Nikita Mikhalkov, Unfinished Piece for a Mechanical Piano (1976);
Sashen’ka and Platonov.
Literary Adaptation 169
Directory of World Cinema
were adapted as early as 1931, Chapaev in 1934, with Nikolai Ostrovskii’s How the Steel
Was Tempered following later in 1942. The ekranizatsiia also legitimated socialist realism
by demonstrating its links with pre-Revolutionary literature and with progressive world
culture as a whole. Nineteenth-century classics featuring criticism of the old tsarist order
were milked for all they were worth.
Early twentieth-century works which openly embraced the coming Revolution (such as
Gor’kii’s autobiographical trilogy), and Soviet fiction set in the pre-Revolutionary period,
were prominent amongst 1930s and 1940s adaptations. Such adaptations offer a convenient solution to the representational paradox of how to demonstrate the immanence
of the socialist utopia within an everyday reality stubbornly resistant to the optimistic
paradigm imposed upon it.
The 1930s and 1940s also saw a steady stream of ekranizatsii of judiciously selected
world classics (predominantly those dealing with social themes or popular uprisings),
providing socialist realism with organic roots in world history. However, the ekranizatsiia
was compelled to engage with some of the tensions entailed in managing the relationship between the verbal and the visual, the official and the popular. Film’s visual regime
entails a subjectivization of experience at odds with the pseudo-objective rhetoric of the
narrative voice it translates into cinematic language. In classic socialist realist adaptations
like And Quiet Flows the Don and The Rout, the camera frequently adopted the viewpoint of the leading character, subjectivizing viewer experience in a manner subversive of
the official rhetoric of the transcendence of ‘spontaneity’ by ‘Party consciousness’.
In the later Stalin period, the ekranizatsiia’s allegiances with the new rhetoric of the
outstanding individual accorded more readily with official discourse which was, by now,
fully engaged with fostering the Stalin personality cult. One of the most important films
of the late 1930s was Vladimir Petrov’s adaptation of Aleksei Tolstoi’s historical novel,
Peter the Great (1937). While the novel evoked favourable comparisons between Stalin
and Russia’s first iron-willed reformer, Petrov ensured that the parallels conformed to
contemporary ideological orthodoxies.
The dual tendencies observed in the ekranizatsiia of the 1930s intensified during
and after World War II. On one hand, they continued to serve as a means of popularizing, canonizing and ‘correcting’ key texts. On the other hand, during the war the rigid
dogmas of socialist realism began to splinter under pressure from twin imperatives: the
need to unite the Soviet people under the banner of a revived Russian national spirit,
and the need to celebrate individual acts of heroism. Here, too, with its grounding in
native literary tradition, the screen adaptation was a useful tool. An interesting example
is Aleksandr Stolper’s 1948 adaptation of Boris Polevoi’s socialist realist paradigm, ‘Tale
of a Real Man’ (1946). Polevoi’s text centres on the true story of Aleksei Mares’ev, a
double amputee who, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles to his desire to fly again, finally
takes to the air in battle again. The tale’s theme of resistance to impersonal, institutional
obstacles is at odds with socialist realist convention and is omitted in the film. However,
by expanding on a brief scene in the novella in which Mares’ev dances to a folk song in
his new prostheses, the film underscores the Russian nationalist theme.
In the early 1950s, film adaptations returned to more conventional Stalinist themes.
Films were made of some of the most trenchantly socialist realist novels. Thus, Vsevolod
Kochetov’s production novel, The Zhurbins was adapted by Iosif Kheifits in 1954 as The
Big Family. Kheifits’s reworking of Kochetov is unsurprising in the context of the infiltration into post-Stalinist cinema of the concerns of the individual and private. Two of
the main characteristics of early Thaw film adaptations were a reshaping of the literary
canon to include some previously ignored or suppressed works; and a re-interpretation
of canonical texts to reflect the shifting of values away from the tenets of Stalinist collectivism. Thus, Ivan Pyr’ev used his position at the summit of the Soviet film hierarchy
to rehabilitate the works of Dostoevsky. Meanwhile, 1958 saw a new version of Fadeev’s
Directory of World Cinema
The Rout retitled as The Youth of our Fathers in a manner indicative of the wave of early
Thaw-era nostalgia for the purity of Leninist principles.
At the same time, cinema itself was advancing in new directions and, rather than
fade into insignificance, screen adaptations often spearheaded these innovations. For
example, the career of Tarkovskii, who achieved world recognition for articulating a pure
cinematic vision inspired by his veneration of his father’s poetry, began with a highly
impressionistic interpretation of the tale of a war orphan, Ivan’s Childhood.
Experimentation ground to a halt with Khrushchev’s demise. The new, repressive atmosphere accounted for the banning or shelving of several groundbreaking ekranizatsii.
Nonetheless, the increasing premium placed on ‘culturedness’ (kulturnost’), reflecting anxiety
over the influences of Western mass culture, meant that there remained a place for tasteful
adaptations of the Russian classics, a number of which appeared in the Brezhnev period.
Another approach to the issue was to cast popular media stars in serious literary adaptations. Vladimir Vysotskii, who had attained popularity of mythical proportions through
his guitar poetry and appearances in war films, is one example. An unanticipated consequence of this phenomenon was that it contributed towards the growing trend towards
interpretations of ekranizatsii which stressed parallels between the represented literary
past and the Soviet present, making it difficult to avoid the sense that these films were
replete with hidden, allegorical meaning.
The ekranizatsiia also became the locus for a revitalized Russian nationalism which
could now be grounded in nostalgia for the lost splendour of the pre-Revolutionary
years, as evidenced in the lush cinematic landscapes favoured by the early film adaptations of Nikita Mikhalkov.
With the coming of glasnost, coded allegorizations were replaced by open polemic, as
film began to reflect the ideological challenges posed to communist orthodoxy mounted
across the breadth of Soviet culture. Adaptations of the late 1980s were a key forum
for the re-evaluation of Soviet history. Thus, Evgenii Tsymbal’s 1988 adaptation of Il’ia
Zverev’s short story ‘Defence Attorney Sedov’ deals with the manipulation of an honest
attorney by the Stalinist regime during the 1930s purges.
The introduction under Gorbachev of market forces inspired an awareness of cinema’s
commercial potential, resulting in adaptations of contemporary crime thrillers, both Russian and Western. However, few non-commercial Russian writers of the glasnost period
were adapted for screen in the 1980s, or the 1990s. The early post-communist period
was marked by a prolonged financial crisis throughout the arts and resource-hungry
cinema was particularly harshly affected.
In the post-Soviet period, the removal of state subsidies for cinema and television
entailed a significant reduction in the number of film adaptations. Nonetheless, large-scale
literary adaptations are not extinct. The early 1990s witnessed a number of provocative
post-Soviet reinterpretations of nineteenth-century classics, including the cinematic transposition of Tolstoy’s Prisoner of the Caucasus, set in the tsarist Caucasus, onto latter-day
Chechnya. However, in a reprise of Stalinist policy, but to reverse ideological effect,
established literary classics are now screened to bolster an officially sanctioned Russian
national identity. With state-controlled television now spearheading the Russian national
identity project, the ekranizatsiia has once again emerged as a key cultural form. Money is
abundantly available, provided it is spent on the (re)canonization of approved texts. Ambitious television serials based on Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina have been shown in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
In short, reports of the death of Russian literary culture are premature. This is thanks in
no small part to the vitality of the ekranizatsiia, whose dialogue with its verbal sources, with
the cinematic art whose fraught relationship with literature it mediates, and with the official
culture to which it so often lends support will continue long into the twenty-first century.
Stephen Hutchings
Literary Adaptation 171
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The Queen of
Pikovaia dama
Country of Origin:
The film opens with a group of military officers playing cards, save
one, German (Mozzhukhin), who only observes. One of the players
then tells of his grandmother (Shebueva), a compulsive gambler,
who wagered her fortune on a particular sequence of cards. German
becomes obsessed with this story, to the point of seducing the grandmother’s ward (Orlova) to gain access to the now elderly countess.
Desperate to learn her secret, one night he threatens the old woman
with a pistol. She dies of fright, but reappears to him later and confides the sequences: three, seven and ace. German plays the game,
chemin de fer, and wins handsomely the first two nights, playing the
Iakov Protazanov
Iosif Ermol’ev
Fedor Otsep
Iakov Protazanov (based on
Aleksandr Pushkin)
Evgenii Slavinskii
Art Director:
Vladimir Balliuzek
Rafal Rozmus
63 minutes
Ivan Mozzhukhin
Vera Orlova
Tamara Duvan
Nikolai Panov
Pavel Pavlov
Elizaveta Shebueva
Iakov Protazanov, Queen of Spades, 1916.
Directory of World Cinema
first two cards. On the third night, thinking that he has played the ace
to win the final pot, German sees that he has laid down the Queen
of Spades, and loses everything. The face on the card is that of the
countess. German goes mad.
Based on a popular short story by Aleksandr Pushkin, The Queen
of Spades was filmed twice by the pre-Revolutionary movie industry. The first version, directed by noted director Petr Chardynin in
1910, appeared before narrative cinema had become sufficiently
sophisticated to capture the psychological nuances of obsession and
insanity that make the plot so compelling. Where Chardynin filmed
the flatness of a staged production, director Protazanov and actor
Mozzhukhin used cinematic innovations in transferring Pushkin’s ideas
onto the silver screen. Protazanov pioneered in flashbacks, dream
sequences and crosscutting to tell the secondary story of the countess
gambling in her youth within the dominant narrative arc of German’s
growing obsession. Mozzhukhin, the most popular actor of his age,
demonstrated remarkable range, from haughty to haunted. His final
scene, played in a mental institution, depends upon facial features to
expose mental collapse. Ironically, most reviewers in 1916 were unimpressed with both director and actor, failing to recognize how far the
pair had advanced Russian filming techniques. The negative reception
can be attributed to rivalries among the major studios, and the problems any beloved fiction faces when adapted to another medium. A
viewing of the two versions side-by-side serves as a history lesson in
the development of the Russian cinema before the combined political
and artistic revolutions that followed.
Louise McReynolds
The Mother
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Vsevolod Pudovkin
Somewhere in Russia, 1905: a dissolute peasant father is persuaded
by Tsarist agents to provoke strikers at a factory – including his
own son, Pavel. A fight ensues and the father is shot dead. While
the tired and beleaguered widow watches over the laid-out body,
troops arrive to restore order. An initial police search of the house
produces nothing, but a second visit scares the mother into revealing the cache of guns hidden by Pavel, in the hope of saving him
from retribution. She is wrong. Pavel is hit in the face and arrested.
At Pavel’s perfunctory trial, his mother cries out for justice. During
Pavel’s imprisonment, she is helped and comforted by his friends,
subsequently abetting his escape. Pavel and his mother join a May
Day procession, with the red flag passing forwards and upwards
through its ranks. When Pavel falls, she seizes the flag; when she,
too, falls, the flag is passed on.
Natan Zarkhi (based on the
novel by Maksim Gor’kii)
Literary Adaptation 173
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Vsevolod Pudovkin, The Mother (1926).
Anatolii Golovnia
Art Director:
Sergei Kozlovskii
David Blok (Tikhon Khrennikov)
Mikhail Doller
66 minutes
Literary adaptation
Vera Baranovskaia
Nikolai Batalov
Aleksandr Chistiakov
Anna Zemtsova
Maksim Gor’kii’s novel, The Mother, and Natan Zarkhi’s screenplay for
Pudovkin’s film, drew on newspaper reports of events contributing to
the 1905 Revolution. Furthermore, Gor’kii’s novel, a casualty of Tsarist
censorship, had been endorsed by the Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin.
A first film version of The Mother, directed by Aleksandr Razumnyi,
had appeared in 1919, but had been judged ploddingly episodic by
the Commissariat of Enlightenment, Anatolii Lunacharskii. Indeed,
it still seems so. Zarkhi responded by purposefully expanding the
role of the father (Aleksandr Chistiakov – also cast in Pudovkin’s
1933 The Deserter), in order to set him all the more forcibly against
Pavel (Nikolai Batalov) and his friends (Pavel, even asleep, carries
a hammer in his pocket in order to defend his mother against his
father’s drunken attacks). The thrift and resourcefulness of the mother
(played by Moscow Art Theatre star Vera Baranovskaia – similarly
cast in Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg, 1927) are set against the
father’s weakness when he steals the clock-weight in the hope that it
will barter him vodka. An older generation is set against the aspirations of a younger generation (into which the mother is initiated).
Zarkhi economically conveys the long span of Gor’kii’s novel by means
of significant events: Pavel’s arrest; trial; death; sublimation and the
mother’s journey from passivity to action (or, as contemporary critics
suggested, a plot defined by treachery, judgement and flight).
Directory of World Cinema
The mother sheds ‘dull’ tears at her husband’s death, displaced
to shots of a constantly dripping trap. Old women warn her against
her rebellious son – but she learns to know better. At Pavel’s arrest, a
friend willingly volunteers himself in his place; during Pavel’s imprisonment, various friends support and (implicitly) enlighten her – including
the love interest (here, as in Pudovkin’s 1925 Chess Fever, played by
Pudovkin’s wife, Anna Zemtsova). Golovnia’s starkly lit, closely framed
shots prompt the viewer to endorse the mother’s growing distrust of
authority: a police officer (played by Pudovkin himself) looks askance
through wire spectacles, while Pavel, brightly smiling and wideeyed, looks constantly ahead – towards the sun. At the trial, while
the mother arrives early and wrings her hands, the judges exchange
photos of ‘fine fillies’, doodle racehorses on their blotters and cast
surreptitious glances at their watches. Acknowledgly, this scene owes
as much to Tolstoy (Pudovkin’s favourite author) as it does to Gor’kii.
Pudovkin and Golovnia here establish a vocabulary of shots drawn
from nature to which they return in The End of St Petersburg and
Storm over Asia (1928): water; shivering trees; slavering horses and
dogs. Pavel’s escape over the melting ice-floes seems indebted to
D.W. Griffith’s 1920 Way Down East, but here snow flakes on water are
adeptly deployed by Pudovkin to reflect the accumulation of demonstrators marching towards their goal. Pudovkin interjects humour
and humanism, with a bourgeois boy cadet receiving a clipped ear
for his spontaneous cheering of the May Day procession. Significantly,
Pudovkin cuts the smooth kid gloves of the factory master (who will
not sully his own hands) against the knuckle-dusters of his hired lackeys and the ‘pillars of justice and honour’ of the court are intercut with
cropped shots of heftily booted guards and mounted policemen.
Despite the expediency of its commissioning – for a particular
purpose, at a particular time – the impact of The Mother has proved
long-lasting and far-reaching. In the 1960s, Pier Paolo Pasolini cited
the ‘Spring’ sequence, which greets the mother’s return home from
her son’s prison cell, in support of his own understanding of poetic
realism. Here, as in Pasolini, the poetry, and the realism, reside as
much in the duration of performances as in individual shots.
Amy Sargeant
The Overcoat
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
The Overcoat opens with a peculiar collage of story elements borrowed by screenwriter Iurii Tynianov from two other novellas of
Gogol’s Petersburg cycle: ‘Nevskii Prospect’ and ‘How Ivan Ivanovich
quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich’. The film’s second half faithfully
follows Gogol’s celebrated tale about the meek bureaucrat Akakii
Bashmachkin who falls in love with the dream of having a new overcoat that could protect him from the icy abysses of Petersburg. He
subsequently is deprived of his beloved overcoat in a robbery, loses
the remains of his dignity in a visit to a Very Important Person, dies
and turns into a deranged vindictive ghost.
Literary Adaptation 175
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Grigorii Kozintsev
Leonid Trauberg
Iurii Tynianov
Andrei Moskvin
Evgenii Mikhailov
Art Director:
Evgenii Enei
Aleksei Shelygin
Boris Shpis
66 minutes
Literary Adaptation
Andrei Kostrichkin
Sergei Gerasimov
Ianina Zheimo
Aleksei Kapler
Using the mosaic method, Tynianov and directors Grigorii Kozintsev
and Leonid Trauberg create a contextualizing prelude for this story
of the meek bureaucrat Akakii Bashmachkin (Kostrichkin). By reframing Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’, they hint at the continuity of the motif of the
fragility of individual identity in the face of Petersburg-wrought dehumanization: in their treatment, Bashmachkin has as a young man been
the victim of a mysterious con artist, a languid prostitute, and their
savvy client/co-conspirator (who will later become the VIP). Humiliated
and confused, the protagonist embarks on a path leading ultimately
to an empty, ‘ghostly’ existence, and to madness.
The Overcoat is arguably the most conceptually ambitious adaptation in the Soviet film canon, conceived as it was at the height of the
collaboration between FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) and the
formalist school, in which Tynianov among others championed the view
of art as a system of devices. Tynianov explains the principles governing his adaptation of Gogol’ thus: ‘Illustrating literature for the cinema
is a difficult and inauspicious undertaking, as the cinema has its own
methods and devices, which do not coincide with those of literature.
Film can only attempt to reincarnate and interpret literary characters
and literary style in its own way. This is why this film represents not a
tale from Gogol’, but a cinema-tale in the Gogolian manner.’
Most important to Tynianov in his source-text are the themes of
carnal lust, temptation and the unavoidable punishment that befalls
one who dares to entertain desires outstripping social status. Building
on Gogol’s playful coinage of the overcoat as ‘Bashmachkin’s pleasant
mistress’, the screenwriter conjures from the texture of ‘Petersburg
Tales’ the persona of the Nevskii Prospect femme fatale, an embodiment of its lascivious mirages. For the purposes of the plot, she is
needed to confuse Bashmachkin and lure him into professional error
(in his dreaming, the clerk miscopies ‘retired major’ as … ‘heavenly
creature’). Bashmachkin, who thus fails in his primary function in
the bureaucratic universe, is severely punished by a public humiliation that Tynianov codes in his script as castration: ‘He suddenly
started to blink, clutched his trousers with his hands, and sat down.’
This devastation propels the protagonist into a realm of entities of
emptiness, a hollow world Kozintsev, Tynianov and cinematographer
Andrei Moskvin endeavour to translate from the pages of Gogol’ to
the screen. The most important body of emptiness in this regard is
the city of Petersburg itself, which Tynianov defines as a ‘huge void’
bereft of meaning, depth or any trace of humanity. This monster (an
alluring one) becomes one of the central characters of the film. A
defining characteristic of such a void, moreover, is that its utter lack
of essence is concealed; thus, following Gogol’s lead, Tynianov and
Kozintsev carefully construct various devices to stand in for reality:
dolls/automata, masks, signboards, surreal dreams. This poetics might
have come across as superficial were it not for Moskvin’s exquisite
camerawork, which relies on the device of depiction via silhouette – as
portraiture, highly popular in Gogol’s time – highlighting the contrast
between three- and two-dimensionality, the animate and inanimate,
motion and stillness.
Directory of World Cinema
The film leaves the intrigue that undoes Bashmachkin rather vague:
though Tynianov stubbornly endeavours to explicate it in an introduction to his ‘libretto’, we still wonder why the bribery/forgery sub-plot is
not further developed. It seems that the filmmakers are interested not
in a particular crime per se, but in that web of provocation that has
served since Dostoevskii and Belyi as the fulcrum of the ‘Petersburg
tale’ genre. A young Sergei Gerasimov was cast as the agent-provocateur, a charismatic figure of fluid, dangerous identity. The Overcoat
became Kozintsev’s main contribution to the Petersburg text: neither
his dreamed-for Bronze Horseman (proposed in 1927) nor, conceived
much later, his Gogoliad (1973), were allowed to come to fruition.
Polina Barskova
The Lady with
the Lapdog
Dama s sobachkoi
Country of Origin:
Iosif Kheifits
Dmitrii Gurov (Batalov) is a Moscow banker spending his vacation
alone in Ialta, as he has for years, when he makes the acquaintance
of Anna Sergeevna (Savvina), a married woman from the provinces in
Ialta for the first time. Gurov has a world-weary, rather cynical attitude
to women and short-term romances, and treats this current liaison as
not much more than one of the many flings he has had in the past.
Their relationship develops into a sexual one, and as the holiday
season comes to an end they depart, seemingly never to see each
other again. Back home in Moscow Gurov is troubled by his memory
of Anna, and resolves to travel to the town of S* to try to see her.
There he comes across her and her husband in the theatre, much to
her amazement and fear, and Anna agrees to visit him in Moscow.
This she does, and the film ends with she and Gurov continuing their
clandestine relationship and aware that ‘the most difficult time of their
lives was only just beginning’.
Iosif Kheifits
Based on one of Chekhov’s best-known short stories, Kheifits’s film
was admired both at home and abroad not only as a faithful adaptation, but also as an indicator of the new emphasis on ‘human’ values
and individual experience that characterized the post-Stalin Thaw.
Indeed, Chekhov was the in many ways the ideal writer to adapt for
the new ‘humanism’ of the Thaw, with his interest in the individual and
the uniqueness of human experience. Kheifits remains faithful to the
text’s theme of the essentially duplicitous nature of human life, the
inner privacy each person needs and protects, and the complexity of
human relationships. Similarly, the film reflects Chekhov’s use of landscape to suggest human emotion. But Kheifits nevertheless provides
a more explicit ideological critique than is evident in the original.
Scenes set in Moscow emphasize social deprivation and desperate
poverty, and Gurov’s social circle is shown as dissolute and beset by
domestic disharmony. These are motifs absent in the Chekhov text
but included by Kheifits the scriptwriter. Chekhov’s realism is thus
Andrei Moskvin
Dmitrii Meskhiev
Art Directors:
Isaak Kaplan
Bella Manevich
Nadezhda Simonian
E. Bazhenova
83 minutes
Literary adaptation
Literary Adaptation 177
Directory of World Cinema
Iia Savvina
Aleksei Batalov
‘adapted’ to claim the writer as a man of great foresight, pinpointing
the social inadequacies that would eventually lead to revolution. The
added ideological dimension, however, should not detract from the
aesthetic qualities of the film. Both Savvina, in her first film role, and
Batalov are nothing less than convincing as, respectively, a wideeyed innocent who sees in Gurov a good man, and a middle-aged
roué who falls in love for the first time in his life. Similarly, Ialta and its
surrounding landscape provide an evocative background for burgeoning emotions and emerging human closeness. Chekhov’s eye for the
telling detail is also well realized visually, conversations are rendered
faithfully and narrative asides become part of Gurov’s internal monologues. In technical terms, Kheifits’s film provides a master class in the
art of literary adaptation. But it also reminds us of that in the Soviet
Union the transfer of text to screen always required a clear ideological
David Gillespie
Iosif Kheifits, Lady with a Lapdog (1960).
Directory of World Cinema
Grigorii Kozintsev, Hamlet (1964).
Country of Origin:
Grigorii Kozintsev
Grigorii Kozintsev
Jonas Gricius
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is distraught following the death of his
father, the King, and the subsequent marriage of his mother Gertrude
to the King’s brother, Claudius, who has assumed the throne. The
father’s Ghost tells Hamlet that he has been murdered and impels the
Prince to take revenge. Hamlet reflects on what he should do. The
King’s chamberlain Polonius thinks Hamlet is mad when he brutally
rejects Ophelia, his love. When a group of visiting players visits the
court at Elsinore, Hamlet persuades them to enact a scene of murder.
Claudius’s reaction persuades Hamlet of his guilt. Claudius decides
to send Hamlet to England in the company of his childhood friends
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in a plot to have Hamlet killed. Hamlet
returns to kill Polonius, thinking it is Claudius. Ophelia commits
suicide. Her brother Laertes takes revenge on Hamlet for his father
Polonius’s death. In the ensuing duel, Claudius provides Laertes with
a sword with a poisoned tip, and also prepares some poisoned wine.
Hamlet is mortally wounded, Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine, and
a dying Hamlet then kills Laertes and Claudius. All four lie dead as the
Norwegian prince Fortinbras arrives to assume the throne, and orders
a military funeral for Hamlet.
Literary Adaptation 179
Directory of World Cinema
Art Directors:
Evgenii Enei
Grigorii Kropachev
Simon Virsaladze
Dmitrii Shostakovich
Evgeniia Makhan’kova
140 minutes
Literary adaptation
Innokentii Smoktunovskii
Mikhail Nazvanov
Iurii Tolubeev
Anastasiia Vertinskaia
Regarded by many as the best film adaptation of Shakespeare’s most
famous play, Kozintsev’s version succeeds in being a film very much
of its time, while conforming to accepted ideological requirements.
It both reflects the anti-authoritarian ethos of the Thaw by showing a
society dominated by fear, suspicion and denunciation, and makes of
the Prince of Denmark a socialist realist positive hero, complete with
the far-seeing gaze that perceives the future vistas of a world without conflict. Filmed in black and white, the film is heavily influenced
by Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version, but with significant departures
(not least in removing the suggestion of incest between Hamlet and
Gertrude). Looming shadows and huge portcullises reinforce Hamlet’s
assertion that ‘Denmark is a prison’, and when Ophelia is encouraged
to inform on Hamlet’s intentions by her father, then the analogy with
the recent Soviet past is clear. Smoktunovskii’s Hamlet is above all a
man not of words but of action, his ‘To be or not to be’ speech, like
much of Olivier’s, filmed as interior monologue and set against the
crashing waves of the sea that signify his own internal turmoil. Indeed,
this pivotal moment is shown not so much as an indication of Hamlet’s
indecision, based on an awareness that to avenge a murder he will
have to commit a murder himself, as of his resolution. Hamlet may be
out for personal revenge, but by righting a wrong he also becomes
an agent of social justice. Both Smoktunovskii and Olivier wear white
shirts, beacons of moral probity amid the corruption of the ‘unweeded
garden’ all around them. Hamlet dies, but his death, like that of the
‘positive hero’, is a sacrifice that helps sweep away the old order, to
be replaced by the new world represented by the ‘fair Fortinbras’.
Kozintsev’s achievement is in adapting a classic text for the demands
of his society and his time, removing Shakespeare’s key ideas from the
confines of a family melodrama and enriching them with an awareness
of history in the making (and not a little ideology).
David Gillespie
War and Peace
Voina i mir
Country of Origin:
Sergei Bondarchuk
Bondarchuk’s four-part epic follows Lev Tolstoy’s novel closely in
breadth if not in depth. Part I, ‘Andrei Bolkonsky’ introduces several prominent St Petersburg and Moscow families. Prince Andrei
Bolkonsky’s wife is pregnant and he takes her to his stern father’s
country estate. Andrei’s friend Pierre Bezukhov, an outsider in the high
society and an admirer of Napoleon, leads a dissolute life. When his
adoptive father dies, Pierre suddenly becomes one of the richest men
in the empire and marries the beautiful, but immoral Ellen. In ‘Natasha
Rostova’, Andrei joins the army to fight Napoleon in Austria; during the
disastrous campaign he is wounded. Upon his return he learns of his
wife’s death in childbirth. At a ball he meets the young and charming
Natasha Rostova and falls in love with her. Yet the impulsive Natasha
is under the influence of Pierre’s scheming wife and her brother. The
Directory of World Cinema
Sergei Bondarchuk
Vasilii Solov’ev, based on the
novel by Leo Tolstoy
Anatolii Petritskii
latter plans to elope with Natasha but the plan is thwarted. Andrei
is heartbroken and leaves again for the war. ‘1812’ tells the story of
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, with the epic battle of Borodino taking
up the bulk of the film. The final part, ‘Pierre Bezukhov’, recounts
Pierre’s attempt to kill Napoleon in Moscow, Pierre’s imprisonment
and the French retreat from Russia. On his deathbed, Andrei forgives
Natasha. After the war, Pierre meets Natasha again.
Art Directors:
Mikhail Bogdanov
Gennadii Miasnikov
Said Menial’shchikov
Viacheslav Ovchinnikov
Tat’iana Likhacheva
Elena Surazhskaia
431 minutes
Literary adaptation
Sergei Bondarchuk
Liudmila Savel’eva
Viacheslav Tikhonov
Boris Zakhava
Anatolii Ktorov
Oleg Tabakov
Vasilii Lanovoi
War and Peace is one of the most ambitious Soviet film projects and
certainly the most costly. The film took seven years to produce and
cost about $100 million. Adjusted for inflation, this comes to $700
million, making War and Peace one of the most expensive films ever
made, as well as one of the most elaborate in production design.
It is one of only few Soviet films shot in 70mm format. In short, War
and Peace was designed as a Soviet prestige object, demonstrating
the superiority of Soviet cinema. It won both an Oscar and a Golden
Globe Award for Best Foreign Language film and was nominated for
Best Art Direction by the Academy Awards and BAFTA.
Bondarchuk combines epic scale, an unlimited budget and readily
available human resources (the Battle of Borodino scene involved
20,000 soldiers, all dressed in impeccable period garb), with art
cinema devices. Virtually every shot claims aesthetic value. There are
dozens of complicated aerial tracking shots, elaborate use of montage
in superimpositions and split screen shots, deep focus and point-ofview shots and so forth. The several-minute long take of the grand
ball, shot by an extremely mobile camera that now follows Natasha,
now slides along the dancers or swoops up, is a worthy predecessor of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, without the perks of digital
technology and the steadicam. This visual cornucopia testifies to the
technical achievement of War and Peace.
Yet human relationships and Tolstoy’s profound insights into human
nature are either absent or rendered formally, with Tolstoy’s text in
voice-over as an excuse. Simply speaking, Bondarchuk is much better
at portraying epic battles and spectacular balls than at capturing
individuals. Clearly, even eight hours is not enough to pay full tribute
to Tolstoy’s epic. Secondary characters and plot lines are drastically
reduced: Nikolai Rostov’s engagement to Sonia and his marriage to
Bolkonsky’s sister are missing. Andrei Bolkonsky’s journey, so important to Tolstoy’s critique of romanticism, is rendered in a combination
of monumental shots of Tikhonov and a voice-over conveying his
dreams of personal glory. With its overwhelming focus on war at the
expense of peace and community, one way to approach the film is as
a literal, visual illustration of Soviet high-school reading of Tolstoy’s
novel. The episodes chosen by Bondarchuk for an extensive treatment
follow the Soviet ideological clichés. The most important one is people-mindedness, exemplified by the scenes of Andrei Bolkonsky and
the ‘simple soldier’ Tushin, Natasha’s ‘people’s dance’ at her uncle’s
country house and Pierre’s meeting with Platon Karataev in the burning Moscow. And, as every Russian schoolchild can testify, the end of
Tolstoy’s novel always gets scrambled. So it is in Bondarchuk’s film.
Literary Adaptation 181
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After the epic burning of Moscow and the voice-over (Bondarchuk’s
own) solemnly delivering Tolstoy’s words that good people should
unite, Pierre comes to Andrei’s estate where he meets Natasha. Here
the film abruptly ends.
Tolstoy’s anti-war message clashes with the film’s relishing of battle
scenes. The camera repeatedly soars over the field of Borodino
and the majestic palaces, portraying people as part of an elaborate
mosaic. It is no accident that in the part ‘1812’, the opening credits roll against the background of Franz Rubo’s majestic Borodino
Panorama: much of this film seems to consist of animated pictures
from the latter. But even if War and Peace falls short of Tolstoy, it
remains a spectacular monument to Soviet cinema’s ambitions and
Elena Prokhorova
Uncle Vania
Diadia Vania
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Andrei Konchalovskii
Andrei Konchalovskii
Georgii Rerberg
Evgenii Guslinskii
Art Director:
Nikolai Dvigubskii
Alfred Schnittke
Liudmila Raeva
L. Pokrovskaia
104 minutes
The retired professor Serebriakov and his young and beautiful wife
Elena spend the summer on Serebriakov’s estate which is run by his
daughter Sonya and Serebriakov’s brother-in-law by his first wife,
Uncle Vania. They are in the frequent company of the country doctor
Astrov, who is passionate about nature and trees. Uncle Vania feels
that he has wasted his life, and drinks vodka with Astrov. Sonya loves
Astrov, but is too meek to tell him and when Elena tries to find out
whether Astrov reciprocates Sonia’s feelings, he misunderstands
and they end up kissing. Serebriakov announces he wants to sell the
estate and settle in Finland – leaving his daughter and Uncle Vania
with nowhere to go. Angrily, Uncle Vania fires a shot at the professor.
Eventually, Serebriakov and Elena leave and everything returns to its
status quo.
Uncle Vania hardly goes beyond a theatrical approach as the action
remains largely confined to the inside. There is another world outside
the house, which is visible through the windows and the open doors:
the real space of the Russian fields. Instead, Konchalovskii concentrates on the emotional relationships between characters and makes
elaborate use of colour, style of costumes and decor.
The film begins with a series of documentary photographs of
scenes from Russian life in the 1890s: pictures from Chekhov’s photo
album show the writer in the company of friends and actors; pictures
that could have been taken on Chekhov’s journeys to the distant and
deprived regions of Russia, showing dying children; historical photographs of the tsar and his family, the tsar on the hunt with a shot deer;
and photographs documenting the famines of 1891–1892, revealing
newspaper reports and images of a starving population, of barren fields
and thinned woods. These photos are interspersed with the opening
credits and set to the cacophonous music of Alfred Schnittke, which
Directory of World Cinema
Andrei Konchalovskii, Uncle Vania (1970).
Literary Adaptation 183
Directory of World Cinema
Literary adaptation
Innokentii Smoktunovskii
Sergei Bondarchuk
Irina Kupchenko
Vladimir Zel’din
Irina Miroshnichenko
integrates sounds diegetic to the photographs (crying of a child, train,
chorus, marches, bells). Later in the film Astrov looks at these pictures
and pins some of them onto the wall; he also shows them to an uninterested Elena Sergeevna, almost interrupting the film’s narrative with
these illustrations that accompany his speech on nature. The pictures
reveal Astrov’s disillusionment: he may plead for nature, for the importance of flora and fauna, but he knows only too well the reality that
surrounds the estate. The scenes of the exploitation of the earth shown
on the photos forebode in an apocalyptic vision the end of an era, the
end of the Romanovs, the end of nature, the end of mankind. Konchalovskii uses photos as a document of the real – as opposed to the artificial – world in the house, thus referring subtly to the absurdity of the
situation that the play creates: the frivolity of everyday melodrama is set
against a backdrop of the end of an era. Russia’s historical reality of the
photos is more tangible than the family’s emotional reality; the aesthetic
realities (set, nature) have a more serious quality than the trifles and
psychological entrapments of the characters. Nothing changes for the
characters, but Russia stands on the brink of an abyss.
The drama proper begins with black-and-white shots of the interior
of the house, which gradually becomes inhabited. Every act starts
off with a black-and-white sequence before moving to colour, and
even then colour is restricted to a blue-green-white palette. The
film shifts to colour when the Serebriakovs arrive; when Elena has
rejected Voinitskii’s love; when Voinitskii catches Elena and Astrov in
an embrace. In each act, the shift to colour occurs when the dull life
acquires a different twist: the arrival; the refusal to rekindle an old
love; and attempted seduction. These are all attempts, doomed to
failure, to breathe new life into the dull existence of the estate. In the
final act Konchalovskii operates the same principle in reverse: after
the Serebriakovs’ departure (in colour) the film switches back to black
and white as Sonia, Voinitskii and Astrov carry on with their dull lives.
The dullness and boredom of their existence is associated with a
warmly tinted black and white, while the unrest brought about by the
Serebriakovs brings cold hues of colour into the house.
Birgit Beumers
An Unfinished
Piece for a
Neokonchennaia p’esa dlia
mekhanicheskogo pianino
An Unfinished Piece for a Mechanical Piano is an adaptation of a little
known play by Anton Chekhov, written in his youth (rejected for stage
performance by the theatre director Mariia Ermolova) and commonly
known as Platonov (draft 1878–1979, completed 1883), which raises
many themes of his later major plays in an unwieldy dramatic form.
The script also draws on several of Chekhov’s short stories, such as
‘The Literature Teacher’, ‘On the Estate’, ‘Three Years’ and ‘My Life’.
At the Voinitsevs’ estate, the landlady Anna Petrovna has invited
guests for dinner, including the Platonovs. They spend the afternoon
in the open and adjourn inside the house for dinner. As tensions
rise between the old landowners and the new merchant class and
Directory of World Cinema
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Nikita Mikhalkov
Aleksandr Adabashian
Nikita Mikhalkov
Pavel Lebeshev
Art Directors:
Aleksandr Adabashian
Aleksandr Samulekin
Eduard Artem’ev
Liudmila Elian
103 minutes
Literary Adaptation
Aleksandr Kaliagin
Elena Solovei
Evgeniia Glushenko
Antonina Shuranova
Iurii Bogatyrev
Oleg Tabakov
Nikolai Pastukhov
Pavel Kadochnikov
Nikita Mikhalkov
Anatolii Romashin
Natal’ia Nazarova
Kseniia Minina
Sergei Nikonenko
Serezha Gur’ev
between masters and servants, a performance on the mechanical
piano is supposed to diffuse the atmosphere. Yet instead another conflict erupts, between past and present, as Platonov relives his youth
romance with Sof’ia, young Voinitsev’s wife, and regrets the loss of his
potential to effectuate change – in life and in society, as he is stuck
in a marriage that stifles any potential activity through overwhelming
love. He makes a farcical attempt at suicide before surrendering and
returning to the status quo.
Mikhalkov’s film begins with a scene in the open: Anna Petrovna
Voinitseva, the widow of a general and landlady of the estate, is
playing chess with Triletskii while a conversation between Voinitseva’s
stepson Sergei and family friend Glagol’ev can be heard. The opening
establishes Mikhalkov’s favourite scene: the open field bordering on a
river; an old stone mansion with steps leading up to it; stucco-decorated windows and an ornate stone banister along the balcony.
Glagol’ev returns from a boat trip with Sergei’s wife, Sof’ia (Solovei),
and soon after the Platonovs arrive – in a prelude to the meeting
between Sof’ia and Platonov (Kaliagin), old lovers who are now both
married to other partners. Sof’ia remembers Platonov, but fails to
recognize him. They have not met in seven years, since he was a
student; now he is a schoolteacher, although he never graduated.
Platonov introduces his wife Sashen’ka, with whom he has a son. He is
uncomfortable in the confrontation with his old love, reminding him of
unrealized potential, and resorts to playing the fool. Mikhalkov structures the film around Platonov as a series of carnivalesque interludes
interspersed with more serious dialogues.
Anna Petrovna’s suitor Shcherbuk arrives with his daughters and
proclaims his belief in natural historical selection, in the primacy of
aristocracy over the peasants and in the impossibility for the peasants
to achieve anything. Mikhalkov parodies his noble status by dressing both daughters in green dresses – a colour Chekhov considered
Meanwhile, the conversations between Platonov and Sof’ia set a
serious counterpoint to the grotesque. Sof’ia refuses to remember
the past, while Platonov recalls their meetings in great detail. Sof’ia
holds it against Platonov that he never transformed his plans into
actions, words into deeds, while she herself verbosely presents her
vision of Russia’s future. The situation intensifies as the number of
cynical and grotesque moments increase. In order to release tension
Anna Petrovna reveals the mechanical piano and asks her servant to
perform a piece by Chopin. The servant ‘plays’ before stepping back
to leave the piano to play on its own. Sashen’ka is so impressed that
she faints, leaving Platonov both concerned and embarrassed.
During a dinner scene in a dark and gloomy room, the characters’
real faces emerge: the doctor, Triletskii, has no sense of responsibility and refuses to attend to a patient; Petrin, the son of a worker,
announces that he paid for the dinner, because Anna Petrovna is
bankrupt; Shcherbuk, convinced of the nobility’s superiority, leaves
the table, while Anna Petrovna proposes a toast to Petrin, who has
Literary Adaptation 185
Directory of World Cinema
enabled her to keep the estate at the price of her honour. Platonov
tells a story, which faintly disguises his past affair with Sof’ia when they
were students; then Sof’ia left for St Petersburg and he waited for her,
abandoning his studies. Realizing his unfulfilled potential, Platonov
attempts suicide, but this is turned into a farce as he jumps into the
lake at its shallowest spot. In the finale Sashen’ka swaddles him in her
scarf, underscoring visually his inability to take meaningful action: all
he, and the other characters, are capable of is to create absurd and
ridiculous scenes without taking any action.
Critics have addressed the issue of the film’s fidelity to Chekhov,
of his ambivalent attitude towards the old order and an admiration
for the new, noting the farcical tone of the film, but they have largely
failed to infer the significance of the critique of inactivity to contemporary Soviet society.
Birgit Beumers
Lonely Voice of
a Man
Odinokii golos cheloveka
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Aleksandr Sokurov
Iurii Arabov
Sergei Iurizditskii
Art Director:
Vladimir Lebedev
Irina Zhuravleva
Vladimir Persov
A. Bespalova
82 minutes
Based on Andrei Platonov’s story ‘The River Potudan’’ (with elements from his novel Chevengur) Sokurov’s first feature film depicts
a soldier’s difficult re-adjustment to civilian life after he returns home
from the battlefields of the Russian Civil War ca. 1921. Nikita Firsov is
re-united with his sweetheart, the orphan Liubov’ (Liuba) Kuznetsova.
During their courtship Liuba loses her close friend Zhenia to typhus,
and Nikita also survives a bout of the illness. After his recovery Nikita
and Liuba marry and he moves in with her. Crushed by his impotence, Nikita abandons home to wander the market of a nearby town,
whence he is fetched home by his father, who tells him that Liuba had
attempted to drown herself. The narrative scenes are interspersed
with documentary sequences, still photographs and lyrical interludes,
particularly of the colourful moment of the lovers’ first meeting after
the war. Two sequences – of Nikita eating with a monk and of two
men in a boat discussing the afterlife – are relatively independent
Sokurov cuts Platonov’s already meagre dialogue to a bare minimum,
using photographs, documentary footage and an array of distorting
lenses and filters to compensate for the loss of Platonov’s dizzying
verbal (il)logic. The film begins with old documentary footage in slow
motion: a river, lumber floating on water and (twice) a huge wooden
wheel being turned by workers. After the initial credits a series of
colour shots (interspersed with more credits) show a young man walking across the steppe, each one at closer distance and at a different
angle. This sequence ends with an enigmatic long shot of him jumping off a river bank. A shot of his home is then followed by four more
documentary shots in slow motion, showing industrial workers, after
which domestic scenes alternate with old photographs, some of them
Directory of World Cinema
Literary adaptation
Tat’iana Goriacheva
Aleksandr Gradov
Vladimir Degtiarev
Liudmila Iakovleva
Nikolai Kochegarov
Sergei Shukailo
Vladimir Gladyshev
Ivan Neganov
Evgeniia Volkova
Irina Zhuravleva
Viktoriia Iurizditskaia
1978 (released 1987)
examined with tracking shots and close-ups. The film is obviously
less interested in telling a story than in examining the distances that
separate us as viewers from the historical, emotional and technological conditions of the time. As with Platonov’s prose, the meaningful
development occurs less in the narrative content than in its constantly
changing texture.
Nikita is usually at the centre of the camera’s attention, but he
is precisely its object, not its subject. The non-professional actors
behave as if their world has just been illuminated after 50 years of
hibernation. The snippets of clumsy Platonovian dialogue are pronounced woodenly, giving little insight into the characters’ subjective
states. In the story the reader is informed of Nikita’s sparse memories
and thoughts, but the film refrains from associating the documentary
footage or family snapshots directly with Nikita’s or Liuba’s consciousness; indeed, some of them look more like Platonov himself, as if the
author and his style are being made the subjects of representation.
There are drastic shifts of perspective, a technique characteristic of
Platonov, where familiar characters are suddenly encountered as if
they are strangers; thus the watchman at the market discovers a mute
vagrant who turns out to be Nikita, while Nikita encounters a man
who turns out to be his father. Sokurov marks these sudden shifts
visually; the scene of the mute Nikita at the market is in high-contrast
black and white, and slow motion, approximating the visual qualities
of the documentary sequences. This multiplicity of perspectives is not
informed by any obvious hierarchy; the perspectival shifts reveal less
about Nikita as a character than about our evolving vision of him and
his world. Nikita’s final illumination comes when he declares to Liuba
that he ‘has got used to being happy’ with her. This recovery of love in
the depths of abandonment is analogous to the viewer’s rediscovery
of vision amidst a world that is constantly slipping into obscurity and
inscrutability. It is an intimacy possible only in the cinema.
Both in narrative and in visual style Sokurov draws heavily on the
cinema of Andrei Tarkovsii, even to the point of presenting Nikita’s
home village in the style of Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow (which
Tarkovskii cited in Solaris and Mirror). Sokurov’s cameraman has
recalled how he tried to reproduce the inverse perspective of Kuz’ma
Petrov-Vodkin’s painting and the orthodox icon.
Sokurov’s film was submitted as his degree project at VGIK, but it
was rejected by the administration and left on the shelf until it was
restored and released by Lenfilm in the midst of perestroika. It is not
entirely clear to what degree Sokurov changed the film in 1987; there
is at times a marked discrepancy between the dialogue and the visuals. In any case Lonely Voice of a Man marks a high-point of Soviet
art cinema and can usefully be contrasted to Andrei Konchalovskii’s
Maria’s Lovers (1984), which is based on the same Platonov story. It is
widely regarded as one of Sokurov’s finest films.
Robert Bird
Literary Adaptation 187
Directory of World Cinema
Lady Macbeth
of Mtsensk
Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo
Countries of Origin:
Soviet Union
Roman Balaian
Katerina Izmailova is a young woman married to the elderly merchant
Zinovii. She is unhappy and bored in her childless household until the
new farm worker, Sergei, arrives. Katerina and Sergei become lovers.
When the husband unexpectedly discovers the lovers, a brawl ensues
and Katerina kills her husband. She and Sergei start living together
almost openly, but their plan to take over the estate is disrupted, since
the husband had a distant male relative who is considered an heir. The
boy and his elderly caretaker move in with Katerina, who is genuinely
happy to have the child around. Sergei, however, expresses concerns
that their rights and privileges will be taken away by the underage heir.
Katerina’s initial reaction to the possibility of violence against the child is
negative, but she is quickly overpowered by the displeasure and discontent on Sergei’s part. When the boy is left alone in the house, Katerina
and Sergei suffocate him, with Katerina initiating the murder. Their crime
is discovered and both are sentenced to prison. During their transfer to
another prison, Sergei abuses Katerina, and starts having an affair with
another female prisoner. During a river crossing Katerina throws herself
and her rival into the frozen river, where both women drown.
Mediactuelle SA (Switzerland)
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is based on the physiological
sketch by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov. Lady
Macbeth quickly became a culturally significant narrative, touching on
many issues of nineteenth -century Russian culture and literary tradition. The story has been the subject of different artistic adaptations,
notably Dmitrii Shostakovich’s opera. Another adaptation is Moscow
Nights (1994) by Valerii Todorovskii, set in contemporary Moscow
and stylized as a film noir rather than a naturalist sketch. The original
literary text presents Katerina as a cold-blooded murderess, meticulously narrating all the gruesome details of the crimes she plans and
commits. The story describes Katerina as a kind of monster from the
unconscious, governed by a drive for pleasure, with no capacity for
self-reflection or moral judgment. Shostakovich’s opera emphasizes
the naturalist element in the story – Katerina becomes a victimized
figure: unhappily married, a product and a prisoner of her social
milieu, reflecting another position in the long-standing debate of
whether evil is the product of individual will or society’s pressure.
Roman Balaian’s adaptation stands somewhere in-between, endowing Katerina with monstrous and redeeming characteristics. Visually
the film is done in the tradition of the ‘picturesque style’ movement
(zhivopisnyi stil’, a term coined by the critic Valentin Mikhailovich in
1978) – a trend in Soviet cinema of the 1970s that brought new poetic
and lyric qualities to cinema via beautifully and carefully constructed
mise-en-scène, reminiscent of painting; an aesthetically self-conscious
and nuanced vision that focused on environment and technique rather
than story and character motivation. This style was attributed to such
directors as Sergei Solov’ev, Nikita Mikhalkov and cinematographer
Pavel Lebeshev (who worked with Balaian on Lady Macbeth). Lady
Macbeth of Mtsensk District is beautifully done: with intricate play of
Roman Balaian
Pavel Finn
Pavel Lebeshev
Art Directors:
Said Menial’shchikov
Aleksandr Samulekin
Evsei Evseev
Polina Skachkova
80 minutes
Literary adaptation
Natal’ia Andreichenko
Aleksandr Abdulov
Nikolai Pastukhov
Tat’iana Kravchenko
Directory of World Cinema
light and shadows, soft colours and idyllic landscapes, where Katerina
and Sergei spend their romantic dates, feeding horses and playing
games. There is an intentional discrepancy between the love scenes
in the bright open air, bathed in sunlight, and the dimly lit interiors
where lust and murder emerge as the driving force of the film.
Katerina is presented as a paradoxical character – a caring tender
lover and a brutal murderess, a bored idle wife who yawns and
stretches with remarkable regularity and a strong-willed woman who
turns her life around for herself. The film has an obsession with mirrors: Katerina is reflected in multiple wall and hand mirrors that she
intently looks into, examining her face. The film starts and ends with
the image of Katerina as a little girl looking in the mirror in the sunlit
background, examining her teeth; then, the child’s image turns into
an image of Katerina as an adult in shackles in the winter, looking in
the mirror with the same intensity and curiosity. Katerina is like Caliban
who does not see ‘his face in the glass’ – her identity is obscured
primarily from herself. She cannot see that she is a monster – which in
itself becomes a redeeming quality for the film’s heroine. Admittedly,
Katerina is not indifferent to taking others’ lives – the film positions
her more as confused about ethics, succumbing to her desires, rather
than indifferent to morality altogether as in the original story or defiant of society’s norms as in Shostakovich’s opera. That is why Balaian’s
Katerina hangs on to the only thing she knows for certain, her attachment to Sergei. In the end she sacrifices her life and that of another
woman for this feeling of certainty. The film’s contrast between visual
beautification of Katerina’s environment and the dark subject matter
underscores this confusion, pointing out that Katerina’s love for Sergei
is a happy joyful feeling and a dark murderous passion, and that she
cannot discern where one ends and the other begins. The music in
the film, composed by Evsei Evseev, comprises chiefly piano and
music box melodies that play over and over again, reflecting the
vicious circle that the film perpetuates – love and murder, morality and
identity being blurred together not in a fatal fusion of passion and
crime, but in a petrifying state of confusion.
Volha Isakava
Katia Izmailova/
around Moscow
Katia Izmailova/
Podmoskovnye vechera
Countries of Origin:
Katerina Izmailova (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) works as secretary to Irina
Dmitrievna (Freindlikh), a romantic novelist. She begins an affair with
the carpenter Sergei (Mashkov), with whom Irina Dmitrievna may also
be romantically involved. When her mistress discovers the affair she
becomes very angry, and Katerina allows her to die by not giving her
access to her medication. Katerina’s husband Mitia also finds out about
the affair, and Sergei kills him. Katerina confesses to the police chief
Romanov (Iurii Kuznetsov), but he dismisses her confession and seeks
evidence. Katerina and Sergei take Irina Dmitrievna’s latest novel and
give it a happy ending, but it is rejected by the publisher. Sergei revives
his interest in the nurse Sonia (Shchukina), with whom he had already
been emotionally involved. Katerina offers to drive them to the railway
Literary Adaptation 189
Directory of World Cinema
Les filmes du rivage
TTL Films
Valerii Todorovskii
Marc Ruscar
Igor’ Tolstunov
Alla Krinitsyna, with François
Cecile Vargaftig
Marina Sheptunova
Stanislav Govorukhin
Sergei Kozlov
Art Director:
Aleksandr Osipov
Leonid Desiatnikov
Elen Gagarin
Alla Strel’nikova
96 minutes
Literary Adaptation
Ingeborga Dapkunaite
Vladimir Mashkov
Alisa Freindlikh
Aleksandr Feklistov
Iurii Kuznetsov
Natal’ia Shchukina
Avangard Leont’ev
station, and on the way devises a pretext for Sergei to get out of the
car. She then drives the car off a bridge with herself and Sonia inside.
A loose adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella ‘Lady Macbeth of
Mtsensk’, with the subject matter brought forward to the post-Soviet
present, with stylish clothes, fast cars and opulent interiors. Leskov’s work
foregrounds the sexual attraction and capacity for violence of the main
characters, and Todorovskii does not let his expectant audience down.
But his ambition is much greater than simply updating an accepted if
controversial classic of Russian literature. Rather, the theme of the film
is not the ravages of uncontrolled passion but literature and the force
of the written word. As she is about to allow herself to be seduced by
Sergei while sitting at her typewriter, she tells him ‘I am not writing, I
am retyping’. By then attempting to rewrite Irina Dmitrievna’s novel she
wants to be able to write her own happy end, but, as in life, this does
not convince. Katia wishes her life to be part of an accepted literary
convention, but life does not provide conventions. Indeed, as Sergei’s
subsequent behaviour shows, life is far from simple and happy. The
police chief Romanov is obviously based on the figure of Porfirii Petrovich
from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, thus providing an extra literary reference point. But Todorovskii confounds cultural expectation by
showing the police chief as incompetent, unwilling to accept a confession
as proof of guilt and thus unable to secure a conviction for the murders.
Life and literature, the director tells us, are very different. Todorovskii also
litters the narrative with telling references to Russian literature, French
and Hollywood film noir, especially with regard to the popular plotline
of unfaithful-wife-and-lover-kill-husband (cf. The Postman Always Rings
Twice, Les Diaboliques, Blood Simple). The film is a successful literary
adaptation that remains faithful to the spirit of the original text while
making the book’s central idea relevant and interesting to a modern audience well versed in western and Russian literary and cinematic traditions.
David Gillespie
Down House
Daun Khaus
Country of Origin:
On a highway, Count Myshkin is picked up by a bus. Travelling from
Zurich to Moscow, Myshkin meets Rogozhin, a New Russian millionaire, who has broken his leg in a skiing accident. Myshkin is returning
to Russia for the first time and is to meet up with his only relative,
the wife of General Epanchin. The general is attempting to marry off
Nastas’ia Filippovna, Rogozhin’s beloved, to his trusted employee
Gania Ivolgin. Intrigued by the story of Nastas’ia Filippovna, Myshkin
enters the race to marry her. Rogozhin wins, but Nastas’ia Filippovna
runs away from the registry at the last minute. Myshkin seeks
Rogozhin to comfort him and the two exchange crosses as a sign of
brotherhood. However, Rogozhin tries to kill Myshkin, who is rescued
Directory of World Cinema
Roman Kachanov (Jr)
Sergei Chliiants
Iurii Tiukhtin
Roman Kachanov
Ivan Okhlobystin
Mikhail Mukasei
Art Director:
Ekaterina Zaletaeva
Evgenii Rudin (DJ Groove)
Natal’ia Sazhina
95 minutes
Literary Adaptation
Fedor Bondarchuk
Ivan Okhlobystin
Anna Buklovskaia
Aleksandr Bashirov
Jerzy Stuhr
Juozas Budraitis
by Aglaia, General Epanchin’s daughter, on a red scooter. The two
prepare to get married, but on the wedding day, Nastas’ia Filippovna
turns up and Myshkin is again won over, only for her to quickly leave
him again. Rogozhin invites Myshkin to dinner, where they feast, to
Myshkin’s surprise, on Nastas’ia Filippovna, whom Rogozhin has just
killed. Myshkin walks into a sun setting over a desert.
The fact that Down House is an adaptation is evident from the beginning: the first words uttered are ‘Idiot, idiot …’, as Myshkin boards the
bus to Moscow. Furthermore, as the title Down House appears (derived
from Down’s Syndrome), a small picture of Dostoevsky appears in the
background, but quickly fades away, suggesting that the film has a
connection to the famous novel. True, this is not an ‘ordinary’ adaptation. However, the film is very close to Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot;
for example, all the names and plot are kept, yet the setting changes
completely to both contemporary and futuristic exploits. The dichotomy
between materialism and spiritualism is also present in the film. Even
stories told within the main narrative are given prominence in the film,
as small clips are inserted to visualize characters’ storytelling. At the
beginning of the film Myshkin is uninterested in sex (true to Dostoevsky’s
character), but Aglaia awakens his sexuality: he almost marries her, turning the saintly figure into a human character of flesh and blood. Thus,
rather than saintly or foolishly, he has just taken too many drugs and
therefore constantly hallucinates, which is magnificently put to use in the
cinematography: Myshkin jumps through paintings, Moscow is experienced as a sci-fi city, his landlady transforms into atoms, and desert sand
with neon flashing light confine the space for Myshkin’s final scene. The
film takes Myshkin seriously by making him human, but retains his characteristic features of exposing the corruption, vulgarity and absurdity of
(post-Soviet) Russia. ‘Sarcasm hits harder while in laughter’ could be the
motto of the co-authorship that Kachanov and Okhlobystin establish.
In Down House their combined skills of mindless silliness and a Monty
Python-esque fusion of moving images and drawn cartoons gives the
classical story a makeover that has no equal – where else would one
find ‘beauty will save the world’ in neon lights. The beauty of Kachanov
and Okhlobystin will not save anything other than a few laughs brought
about with the absurd realization that history repeats itself – which rings
true for both the postmodernist and post-communist spirit.
The iconoclastic features of Kachanov’s and Okhlobystin’s film are
everywhere and could be in themselves the aim of the film. The whole
point of taking on a classic and turning it on its head shows that a reexamination is taking place. On the other hand, the film is also about
the metaphorical killing of the master-writer, or at least the death of
the celebration of the writer. Russia does not kill authors (any more),
but China does, as Myshkin narrates in a vignette about the execution
of a Chinese writer. While the story about the Chinese writer might
serve as a new border where artists are executed or not (Asians as
incomprehensible Others), it is more pertinent to view this within the
overall effort of getting rid of elitism and logocentrism. Rather than
proclaiming the ‘death of the author’, Down House, and subsequently
Kachanov and Okhlobystin, give birth to a new future for Russia without the author/prophet guiding people to become saints or demons.
Lars Kristensen
Literary Adaptation 191
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The genre designation ‘biopic’ (short for ‘biographical picture’) refers
to an acted (i.e., non-documentary) film with a real-life historical
figure as the protagonist and a narrative based, with a widely varying
degree of verisimilitude, on that person’s own actual experiences. It
is sometimes considered a sub-category of other genres, such as the
historical epic or costume drama, and also frequently overlaps with
genres such as the war film and even the comedy and the romance.
Biopics have accounted for many of the best-known works of world
cinema, especially Hollywood cinema, many of whose biopics have
been among the most acclaimed and prize-winning films: Milos
Forman’s Amadeus (1984), Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982),
Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s
List (1993), Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull (1980) and Mel Gibson’s
Braveheart (1995), to name just a few. (This representative list of
American and British biopics, when contrasted with the Russian examples of the genre discussed below, underscores how often Western
biopics depict subjects outside the country of the films’ production,
and how seldom Russian film did so.)
In Russia and the Soviet Union the biopic has been primarily a
sub-category of the historical film and, from the 1930s until the early
1980s, of that most distinctly Soviet genre, the historical-Revolutionary
film. The very first Russian acted film, Vladimir Romashkov’s Stenka
Razin (1908) was technically a biographical picture; the protagonist
– the Cossack leader of an anti-tsarist uprising in the seventeenth
century – was an actual person, although the film is based more
immediately on a folksong about him than any historical or biographical documents. Still, that film established the Russian film industry’s
self-reflexive interest in the nation’s historical personalities that would
continue, especially during the Soviet period.
After 1917, and especially after the institution of socialist realism
as the officially prescribed mode of cultural production in the early
1930s, the Soviet state cultural industries strove to populate the
newly created national mythology with real-life heroes. This process
involved, of course, enshrining the feats of the Revolutionary leaders
Andrei Kravchuk, Admiral (2008); Konstantin Khabenskii.
Biopic 193
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(Lenin, Stalin, etc.) on film, but also re-presenting and redefining the role of pre-Soviet
historical figures. Tsarist military men and explorers such as the hero of the Napoleonic
Wars Marshal Kutuzov, for example, enjoyed lionization on screen (Vladimir Petrov’s Kutuzov, 1944), as did the geographer Nikolai Przheval’skii (Sergei Iutkevich’s Przheval’skii,
1951). The obvious monarchist loyalties of these past figures were deemed secondary
to the importance of their role in defending and expanding the Russian empire. Sergei
Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (Part I, 1944; Part II, 1946, rel. 1958) is another example of
this strategy, albeit a much more complex and idiosyncratic one, as is Vladimir Petrov’s
two-part biopic Peter the Great (Part I, 1937; Part II, 1938).
Pre-Soviet cultural figures also became the protagonists of Soviet-era biopics intended
to draw a clear connection between contemporary Soviet society and forward-thinking
artists and writers of the imperial past. One of the earliest and most popular subjects
of the Russian biopic has been the ‘national poet’ Aleksandr Pushkin, who was featured
even before the Revolution in Ivan Goncharov’s Life and Death of A.S. Pushkin (1910),
and several times during the Soviet period, most notably in Vladimir Gardin’s The Poet
and the Tsar (1927) and Abram Naroditskii’s Youth of the Poet (1937); the latter was part
of the Stalinist state’s elaborate celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death.
The Stalin period especially produced numerous biopics about Russian cultural giants,
including composers (Lev Arnshtam’s Glinka, 1946; Grigorii Roshal’s Mussorgskii, 1950),
poets (Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dmitrii Vasil’ev’s Zhukovskii (1950)) and scientists (Roshal’’s
Academician Ivan Pavlov, 1949). The contemporary ‘national author’, Maksim Gor’kii,
was himself the subject of a trilogy of biopics (based on his own autobiographical trilogy)
produced a mere two years after his death: Mark Donskoi’s Gorky’s Childhood (1938), My
Apprenticeship (1939) and My Universities (1940).
Another popular choice for depiction in Russian biopics was, and still is, the twentiethcentury military hero (and occasionally heroine). The film often credited with being the
first successful manifestation of socialist realism in Soviet cinema, Georgii and Sergei
Vasil’evs’ Chapaev (1934), is based on a ‘biographical novel’ about Vasilii Ivanovich Chapaev, martyred peasant-general of the Russian Civil War. Lev Arnshtam’s Zoya (1944) tells
the story of Zoia Kosmodemianskaia, a teenaged partisan killed by the Nazis.
Soviet cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s saw a relative paucity of biopics, as
the film industry, like other cultural media, turned to more lyrical and ‘everyday’ themes
in the wake of Khrushchev’s liberalizing de-Stalinization policies. The emphasis on the
‘great man’ theory of historical progression that seemed to characterize Stalinist cinema,
especially late Stalinist cinema, was also giving way to a new concern with collectives
that did not lend itself as well to the biopic genre. Khrushchev and his successors as general secretary were not portrayed on screen as was Stalin (for example, in Mikheil Chiaureli’s The Vow, 1946) and Lenin (for example, Mikhail Romm’s Lenin in October, 1938).
Although in Russia as elsewhere in the world the biopic most commonly overlapped
with popular, ‘mainstream’ genres such as the costume drama or the war film, some of
the leading Russian auteur directors have also tried their hands at biographical (including
autobiographical) filmmaking. Most notable in this regard has been Aleksandr Sokurov,
who has finished three of a planned four films about powerful men. Moloch (1999) is
about Hitler and Eva Braun. Taurus (2001) is a highly stylized glimpse of a frail Lenin in
‘retirement’ after a series of strokes at a remote country estate with his wife, Nadezhda
Krupskaia. The Sun (2005) is about the Japanese emperor Hirohito, and the fourth film
of the tetralogy is a planned adaptation of the Faust story (not technically a biopic). Two
of Andrei Tarkovskii’s films – Andrei Rublev (1966) and The Mirror (1975) – are in the
biographical tradition, although again with a strong auteur signature. The latter film is a
non-linear narrative that uses autobiographical elements from the director’s life.
Russian cinema during perestroika (1985–1991) certainly had a keen interest in historical events, but not in the sub-genre of the biopic, which had been so important to the
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Soviet filmmaking that many directors in the new, open atmosphere were eager to reject.
Historical films during the Gorbachev years most often dealt with the effect of historical forces and events on anonymous and often fictional Soviet citizens. There were also
several revisionist portrayals of such Soviet personae non grata as Leon Trotsky (Leonid
Mariagin’s Trotskii, 1993) and Nikolai Bukharin (Bukharin, Enemy of the People, also
directed by Mariagin, 1990). The Revolutionary and Stalinist past were also re-examined
in such films as Karen Shakhnazarov’s Assassin of the Tsar (1991) and Andrei Konchalovskii’s Inner Circle (1991), both of which focused on real-life but non-famous people
present at historically significant moments in Russian history.
After the first post-Soviet decade, which saw not only a sharp decline in film production generally but also the dominance of the crime film, the biopic and other varieties of
the historical film have once again come to the fore. The ascension of Vladimir Putin to
the Russian presidency in 2000 saw the beginning of the reassertion by the sate of keen
interest in, if not direct control over, cultural production. Lenin’s famous characterization
of cinema as ‘the most important of arts’ was certainly still operative, as state financing
(often via state-controlled television channels) again became a major factor in the film
industry. Some of the resulting films have been revisionist historical (including biographical) epics. Vladimir Khotinenko’s 1612: A Chronicle of the Time of Troubles (2007), for
example, portrays the future Romanov tsar, Mikhail, as a romantic hero and a great
liberator of the Russian land from the pernicious interference of Poles. Vitalii Mel’nikov’s
Poor, Poor Pavel (2003) treats the life of one of Russian most neglected rulers, Tsar Pavel I.
The perestroika-era impulse to expose the villains of the Soviet past has recently seen its
converse enacted on the screen, with a highly laudatory biopic about one of the most
notorious enemies of the Revolution, Admiral Kolchak (Andrei Kravchuk’s Admiral, 2008).
Putin’s own biography was the inspiration for a film that should certainly be included
among Russian biopics, even though none of the characters are named Putin: Ol’ga Zhulina’s A Kiss – Not for the Press (2008). The film is a love story depicting the acquaintance
of a young woman with an up-and-coming Leningrad politician who is eventually elected
Seth Graham
Biopic 195
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Peter the First
(Part I)
Petr pervyi
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Vladimir Petrov
Nikolai Leshchenko
Vladimir Petrov
Aleksei Tolstoi
Viacheslav Gardanov
Vladimir Iakovlev
Art Directors:
Vladimir Kaliagin
Nikolai Suvorov
Vladimir Shcherbachev
N. Kerstens
103 minutes
Nikolai Simonov
Nikolai Cherkasov
Mikhail Zharov
Alla Tarasova
Peter the First (Part I) depicts Russia’s war against Sweden over the
outlet to the Baltic Sea and the initiation of Peter’s reforms. After the
defeat against the Swedish army at Narva, Tsar Peter resolves to make
great changes to strengthen Russia against her enemies. He puts
pressure on the boyars and merchants to contribute financially to the
war effort, sends their sons to Europe to learn shipbuilding, orders
church bells to be taken down and made into cannons and recruits
serfs into the army. With these reforms his troops prove victorious
against King Charles XII. Peter founds the new capital, St Petersburg,
along the banks of the Baltic. Falling ill after a flood, the tsar realizes
that his heir Aleksei is hostile towards his reforms and will not continue his deeds. The narrative concludes with the birth of Peter’s son
with new wife Ekaterina.
At the time of writing the screenplay for Peter the First with the director Vladimir Petrov, Aleksei Tolstoi had published two instalments
of his novel documenting the life of Peter the Great. His work with
Petrov carried on from the point where the novel had ended – the
Russian army’s defeat at Narva. The film initiated the cycle of historical
biographies of the late 1930s and 40s, including Alexander Nevsky
(1938), Suvorov (1940), Kutuzov (1943) and Ivan the Terrible (1944),
which took on the task of rehabilitating figures from the Russian past
as national heroes. The film creates a close analogy between Peter’s
progressive reforms of Russia and the restructuring of Soviet society
under Stalin. In portraying the strengthening of Russia against external
enemies, the growth of cities, industry and self-sufficiency, and the
battle against internal saboteurs, the film reflects many of the concerns of the late 1930s. ‘We used to live like pigs in dirt and now have
built a paradise’, the emperor declares at the film’s finale.
The struggle for modernization forms the central narrative line of
the film. The contrast between Peter’s determined strive forward and
his deeply religious, weak-willed son Aleksei symbolizes the battle
of progressive tendencies against the backwardness, autocracy and
superstition of the old world. Showing no regard for the established
authority of the church, Peter orders the taking down of church bells
when it proves necessary to put the metal to use in the defence of
the country. Depicted as a ‘Bolshevik before his time’, he values
ability and dedication above inherited status, ruthlessly overturning
traditional hierarchies and undermining accepted codes of ‘royal’
behaviour. Characterized throughout by means of antithesis, whereas
Aleksei is shown surrounded by priests and boyars, the tsar’s closest
associate Menshikov is a former street pie seller, his wife Ekaterina
a former servant girl. While the cowardly Aleksei shuts himself away
from the needs of the people and the demands of the epoch, Peter
takes all manner of tasks into his own hands in the service of Russia.
Presenting his unity with the will of the Russian narod (people), the
film introduces the narrative line of Fedka, the former serf everyman
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(and by analogy the ‘Soviet New Man’), whose story develops alongside Peter’s reforms.
Nikolai Simonov’s dynamic incarnation of the monarch as a larger
than life, tempestuous force of nature won high praise from contemporary critics. The image of the tsar created onscreen demonstrates
the ‘king’s two bodies’ duality characteristic of portrayals of leaders in the Stalin era. At the same time as the film celebrates Peter’s
simplicity, humanity and oneness with the people, it shows him to be
set apart by the great force of history that moves through his towering body. Although susceptible to illness and human errors, Peter’s
otherworldly bogatyr’ (epic hero) spirit is personified in his boundless
energy and impulsiveness, his characteristic bellowing laugh threatening to tear itself away from mere materiality. His battle to defend
Russia against external threats and internal conspiracies continues in
the second part.
Anna Toropova
Lenin in
Lenin v oktiabre
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Mikhail Romm
Dmitrii Vasil’ev
Aleksei Kapler
Boris Volchek
Art Directors:
Boris Dubrovskii-Eshke
Nikolai Solov’ev
Anatolii Aleksandrov
Tat’iana Likhacheva
October 1917. Lenin arrives in Petrograd by train from Finland.
Despite being pursued by agents of Kerenskii’s Provisional
Government, he attends a meeting of the Bolshevik Party Central
Committee where it is decided to launch an armed uprising against
the Provisional Government. Announcing this decision on 10 October,
Lenin also criticizes fellow leaders Trotsky, Zinov’ev and Kamenev for
their ‘sheer idiocy and treachery’ for not supporting the immediate
seizure of power. As the Petrograd workers prepare for the uprising,
arming themselves for the struggle, the Mensheviks and Socialist
Revolutionaries attempt to wreck the revolutionary activities of the
workers and help Kamenev and Zinov’ev in their plans to stop the
uprising. On the night of 25 October Lenin arrives at the Smolnyi
Institute and takes command of the Bolshevik uprising. Petrograd’s
revolutionary workers, sailors and soldiers, carrying out Lenin’s plan,
take the central telegraph. The Bolsheviks’ militant supporters storm
the Winter Palace, the ‘last stronghold of Russian capitalism’, and
arrest the members of the Provisional Government. Lenin and the
other Bolshevik leaders then enter the great hall of Smolnyi, where
he pronounces to the masses assembled for the Second All-Russian
Congress of Soviets that ‘the Workers’ and Peasants’ Revolution has
been accomplished’.
In its full, original version, Romm’s film clearly sets out to show the
closeness of Lenin and Stalin during the critical days of the Bolshevik
seizure of power. By 1937, the Stalin cult was reaching its pre-war
height, and the film essentially represents a cinematic version of the
Revolutionary history presented in the ‘definitive’ Short Course of the
History of the All-Union Communist Party, the ultimate Stalinist history
Biopic 197
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103 minutes
Boris Shchukin
Nikolai Okhlopkov
Vasilii Valin
Elena Shatrova
of the Revolution, published in the year of the film’s release. Each of
the film’s key scenes of Revolutionary activity serves to construct the
myth of Stalin’s unique ‘link’ with Lenin. Upon his arrival in Petrograd,
the Bolshevik leader goes straight to a meeting with Stalin ‘on the
very next day’, a discussion which lasted ‘four hours’. At the ‘critical’
10 October meeting, Stalin stands behind Lenin as he speaks, a visual
manifestation of the ‘natural’ succession from one man to another,
and one which is echoed in the film’s iconic final scene. As Lenin
proclaims power, arm outstretched, Stalin is once again seen standing
directly behind him.
Stalin is also protective towards Lenin, which intrinsically puts him in
a superior position. He tells the worker Vasilii to take care of Vladimir
Il’ich and not let him out onto the street. Lenin asserts during the
10 October meeting: ‘as Comrade Stalin absolutely rightly says, we
must not wait’. Not only is this crucial phrase of Lenin’s transferred to
Stalin, but his rectitude is contrasted with the ‘idiocy or total treachery’ of Kamenev, Zinov’ev and Trotsky, whose disgrace by 1937 was
total. Just as it was important to show that Stalin had been crucial to
the Revolution from the very beginning, it was also essential to show
how the ‘enemies of the people’ of the late 1930s had been traitors
all along. For the audience of 1937, Stalin is thus present at all the
film’s key ‘historical’ moments.
The 1963 version of the film represents one of the starkest examples of ‘de-Stalinization’ in Soviet cinema. Using various techniques
ranging from new voiceovers, to ‘blocking’ Stalin’s image with the
use of a newly added head of a Central Committee member, to cutting many scenes completely, any image or mention of Stalin was
expunged from the film. Upon its re-release, audiences were not
shown that Lenin met Stalin alone upon his arrival in Petrograd, or that
Stalin ordered the worker Vasilii to keep Lenin safe. Stalin is seemingly
absent from the critical 10 October meeting, his hip just visible for
those ‘in the know’ behind the enormous superimposed head of an
anonymous Central Committee member. Lenin no longer asks Vasilii
to urgently get hold of Stalin and Sverdlov upon reading of Kamenev’s
treachery; instead a voice which impersonates that of Shchukin simply
asks the worker to fetch Sverdlov. Lenin’s old comrade Kamenev,
along with his ‘accomplices’ Trotsky and Zinov’ev, is, however, in full
accordance with the limits and contradictions of Khrushchev’s ‘deStalinization’ programme, still very much described as a traitor to the
Romm’s film thus acts as a demonstration of the turbulent and
contested mythmaking of the world of Soviet history cinema, making
its own journey, along with the rest of Soviet society, from the extreme
heights and distortions of the ‘cult of personality’ to the selective
iconoclasm and ‘renewed truth’ of the ‘Thaw’. All commercial editions
of the film, even now, are of the re-edited 1963 version, making it
very difficult for viewers to gain access to Romm’s original cinematic
dramatization of Stalin’s Short Course.
Daniel Levitsky
Directory of World Cinema
Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Shchors (1939).
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Kiev Film Studio
The year is 1919, and during the Civil War Ukraine is occupied by
German and Polish forces. The Reds also do battle with Ukrainian
nationalists under the leadership of Semen Petliura who occupy Kiev.
Bolshevik forces under the leadership of the charismatic and ironwilled Nikolai Shchors march on Kiev, capturing some cities but losing
others on the way. Inspired by the personal courage of Shchors, the
Bolsheviks capture Kiev. At the end Shchors greets the massed ranks
of marching soldiers in a final affirmation of the link of Ukraine and
Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Iuliia Solntseva
Kiev Film Studio
Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Dovzhenko was one of the great directors of the ‘golden age’ of
Soviet silent cinema in the 1920s, his lyrical film-poem Earth (1930)
being both its pinnacle and culmination as sound cinema began
to take hold. Shchors is of interest, therefore, primarily as a record
of how an innovative director with an original, poetic vision was
Biopic 199
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Iurii Ekel’chik
Art Director:
Morits Umanskii
Dmitrii Kabalevskii
O. Skripnik
118 minutes
Evgenii Samoilov
Ivan Skuratov
Luka Liashchenko
Nina Nikitina
drummed into the service of Stalinist cinema, and forced to legitimize
the Stalinist interpretation of recent history. Stalin himself suggested that Dovzhenko, a Ukrainian himself, make a film about the
Revolutionary leader Nikolai Shchors (1895–1919), and the film was
closely supervised at every turn. But rather than make the hero into a
Ukrainian Chapaev, Dovzhenko created a type who was to become a
staple figure in the biopic sub-genre. Dovzhenko’s Shchors is a man
without feelings, without human passion, and, as played by Evgenii
Samoilov, without any facial expressions. He is an embodiment of
pure ideology. We know that he is the repository of truth because
several times he announces ‘Lenin himself told me’. He has a wife, we
learn, but he communicates with her only by telegram, and then dryly
and without betraying any emotion. As he declaims: ‘The revolutionary goal is always victorious over personal interests.’ Because of his
heroic status even brides-to-be show their attraction, but he does not
respond. Shchors’s mission, and that of the film, is to prove that the
future of the Ukrainian people lies not as a separate national entity,
but in a united state under Bolshevik leadership. There is some condescension in the portrayal of Ukrainians themselves, who wear quaint
flowery national dress and speak with the thick accent that native
Russians find so amusing. But even in showing a Revolutionary hero
who would provide the model for future national heroes – emotionless, entirely devoted to the cause, neglecting his family (if he has
one) – Dovzhenko allows some glimpses of his former artistic self. The
film begins with shots of sunflowers, an immediate reminder of the
opening of Earth, and then partisans seem to rise from the earth to
attack the foreign invader. The Ukrainian land itself becomes an active
participant in the battle for national sovereignty. Dovzhenko has made
a film to order, and one that consciously denigrates Ukrainian national
culture and history, but he leaves at least a residue of equivocation. In
real life Shchors was killed in 1919 but, unlike Chapaev, he is allowed
to survive in the film version.
David Gillespie
Ivan the Terrible
Ivan Groznyi
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Eisenstein’s unfinished trilogy follows Tsar Ivan IV (1530–1584) from his
traumatic childhood through his efforts to establish a modern, centralized state against the opposition of the Orthodox Church, the ruling
boyars and hostile neighbours. Eisenstein chose events from Ivan’s
life to explain both his achievements and his methods: intimidation,
demagoguery, deception and terror. This treatment challenges the
audience to consider whether the ends (imperial conquest, national
power) justify the means. After his wife is poisoned and his friend
Kurbskii turns traitor, Ivan forms an ominous band of royal servitors.
When the church, represented by another friend, Filipp, threatens to
oppose him, Ivan has Filipp’s family executed. When the boyars, led
by Ivan’s relatives, Efrosinia and Vladimir Staritskii, threaten to assassinate him, Ivan tricks Vladimir into getting murdered instead. And
Directory of World Cinema
Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein
Andrei Moskvin
Eduard Tissé
Art Directors:
Sergei Eisenstein
Isaak Shpinel’
Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Eisenstein
Esfir Tobak
99+85 minutes
Nikolai Cherkasov
Liudmila Tselikovskaia
Serafima Birman
Pavel Kadochnikov
Mikhail Nazvanov
Andrei Abrikosov
Mikhail Kuznetsov
Mikhail Zharov
when (in Part III), the oprichnik leaders Aleksei and Fedor Basmanov
seem to betray him, Ivan has the son Fedor kill his father Aleksei.
The only friend Ivan can count on is Maliuta Skuratov, his spy and
executioner. By the end of Part III, Ivan achieves his goal of reaching
the Baltic Sea. He is at the height of his powers but utterly alone and
Russia is in ruins, everything sacrificed for the Great Russian State.
Eisenstein’s legendary trilogy consists of Part I, completed in 1944 and
released in 1945; Part II, completed 1946 and released in 1958; Part III
Ivan the Terrible is a haunting treatment of power and violence, with
an eccentric form that emphasizes dialectical conflicts at the heart of
Ivan’s persona, processes of historical change and the nature of visual
perception and signification – this is not a typical biopic. The duality at the heart of Eisenstein’s thinking, the film’s visual style and the
political conditions of its making, have made Ivan difficult to interpret:
was Eisenstein praising or condemning Ivan, or both, or neither?
Some believe Eisenstein made a politically orthodox film because he
cared more about aesthetics than politics or because he had to follow
the party line. Some believe that authorial intent is irrelevant and
analyse the film in relation to other philosophical, psychological or
aesthetic texts. Others see the treatment of Ivan as a visionary leader
in Part I and a murderer in Part II as evidence that Eisenstein eventually gained the nerve to criticize the ruler. These approaches, while
valuable, underestimate the film’s complexity, production history,
multitude of sources, many-layered structure and its linkage of history,
politics, psychology and aesthetics.
Eisenstein was interested in how Ivan became Terrible. This coincided with his curiosity about his own biography; how the human
develops, nations evolve, history proceeds and how we come to
understand our own individual and collective pasts through art. He
explores contradictory perspectives on Ivan, modelling him variously
on himself, his father or his mentor Vsevolod Meyerhold, and on
Stalin. There are aspects of Eisenstein’s portrait that are unmistakably
Stalinist, scenes that are clearly rooted in Soviet experiences of terror,
compliance, resistance and corruption; and there are archival documents that demonstrate that while Eisenstein admired Ivan and his
vision for Russia, he did not approve of the methods used to materialize that vision. He viewed Ivan’s fate, however, as tragic because Ivan
suffered remorse and begged for forgiveness, while Stalin suffered no
such pangs, eventually telling Eisenstein in person that he considered
the film’s Ivan insufficiently ruthless and overly prone to self-doubt.
The larger tragedy to be found in Eisenstein’s Ivan resides in the
historical inevitability of betrayal and violence, the cyclical paths of
history and the human capacity for self-delusion and destruction, the
only reliable relief from which is the pleasure found in art.
For many, the passion Eisenstein invested in Ivan is obscured by
cinematic strategies that distance the viewer: inscrutable gender
characterizations, expressionistic and melodramatic acting, symbolic
usage of lighting and sets, contradictory storylines and a profusion of
Biopic 201
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Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1946).
visual details that led Roland Barthes to develop his theory of visual
‘excess’. The historical context and the director’s intent help us make
sense of the film and its lasting significance.
Ivan raises questions that still matter about politics, individual
responsibility and human nature. Eisenstein’s treatment of these issues
derive from his wide reading, but also from his personal experience
of Stalinist hypertrophied power, with its unpredictable judgements,
uncertain boundaries between public and private and its corrupt and
corrupting forces in everyday life. Eisenstein believed that all people,
even tyrants, are divided by contradictory impulses for power and
compassion, revenge and friendship, feeling and thinking, and the
film’s emphatic contrariness asserts the artist’s right to ask hard questions instead of offering consoling solutions. This strategy produced
the opposite of amoral relativism: it denied viewers a neutral vantage
point and challenged them to reclaim their own authority to make
meaning from observation and experience. Ivan the Terrible is difficult
film because it denies us a hero to identify with or to judge, but it is
a great film because it offers us an artist working at the height of his
powers to create a portrait of evil that resists simplification. In a world
that preferred its heroes simple and its enemies undiluted, this was a
courageous project.
Joan Neuberger
Directory of World Cinema
Ivan Pavlov
Akademik Ivan Pavlov
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Grigorii Roshal’
Mikhail Papava
Viacheslav Gordanov
Evgenii Kirpichev
Mikhail Magid
Lev Sokol’skii
Art Directors:
Abram Veksler
Evgenii Enei
Dmitrii Kabalevskii
Valentina Mironova
98 minutes
Aleksandr Borisov
Nina Alisova
Nikolai Plotnikov
Marianna Safonova
Fedor Nikitin
Grigorii Shpigel’
Russia, 1875: In Riazan’, Dr Pavlov is summoned to a landowner
who refuses to accept the inevitability of his death; to Pavlov’s
dismay, he orders the destruction of a beautiful apple orchard. 1894:
Experimenting on dogs, Pavlov tries to comprehend the interaction
between nerves and external signals governing digestion. In 1904, he
formulates the principles of conditional reflexes. When Zvantsev, an
opponent of Pavlov’s materialist worldview, leaves the laboratory, the
scientist hires Varvara Ivanova who becomes his most reliable assistant. 1912: Pavlov receives an honorary doctorate from Cambridge
University. 1917: Despite Pavlov’s political scepticism, the Bolshevik
administration treats him with great respect. Maksim Gor’kii pays a
visit to inquire about his needs, revealing that Lenin personally sent
him. On tour in the United States, Pavlov is attacked by a racist and
defends his view of the equality of all human beings. Communist
hack Sergei Kirov oversees the creation of a large centre for physiological research. At the Fifteenth World Congress of Physiologists,
Pavlov gives a passionate speech in support of world peace. Shortly
before his death in 1936, he sends an inspiring letter to the komsomol
The most famous Russian scientist of his time, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov
(1849–1936) presented a ticklish subject for Stalinist cinematic hagiography. Pavlov was an outspoken critic of the Soviet government and
remained an unabashed Christian believer to the end who used his
immense authority to protect people in danger. But in the late 1940s,
with the Cold War atmosphere worsening, Pavlov’s international reputation and his well-known insistence on staying in the Soviet Union
were useful ingredients for a prestige biopic, as was his pride in the
achievements of Russian science that could be misinterpreted so as to
corroborate the vicious campaign against ‘cosmopolitanism’.
Mikhail Papava’s screenplay is structured in a linear chronological
manner, selecting situations in which Pavlov makes grandiose statements or demonstrates personal features such as compassion with
simple folk, tenacity in pursuing scientific hypotheses and a principled
stance against reactionaries of various persuasions. Roshal’’s direction
gives Aleksandr Borisov ample opportunities to shine, portraying Pavlov’s hot temper, stubbornness, charming eccentricity and dry humour.
The result is a largely convincing character portrait, with secondary
characters functioning as mere pawns, including Nina Alisova’s assistant Ivanova and Fedor Nikitin’s Zvantsev.
From a historical point of view, the film’s falsifications are considerable. Thus, on several occasions Pavlov states that he does not believe
in a soul, accusing a disagreeing colleague of cowardice and implying
that he himself is an atheist. Gor’kii, as portrayed by Nikolai Cherkasov,
expresses his dismay over not being a member of the Bolshevik Party
– at a time when his actual criticism of Lenin and the destruction of cultural values led to serious conflicts with the Bolsheviks. In accordance
Biopic 203
Directory of World Cinema
with Roshal’’s ultra-rationalist concept of Pavlov, Evgenii Enei’s interiors
are kept deliberately geometrical and simplified, never even trying to
achieve realistic effects. The exteriors are filmed in an emphatically
poetic style, pointing toward the scientist’s love for the motherland.
In many respects, Academician Ivan Pavlov is a replica of Baltic
Deputy (1937), featuring an idiosyncratic, world-famous intellectual
who willingly co-operates with the Soviet state. In both cases, Lenin is
personally concerned about the wellbeing of the central character; to
support Pavlov, the government releases a decree elevating his physiological research to a national priority. The main difference between
the two films lies in their depiction of the scientific community: while
the fictitious biologist Polezhaev in the earlier picture is an outsider
shunned by his colleagues, Pavlov enjoys the admiration of a majority
of scientists, especially the young generation. The Russian intelligentsia is shown as intrinsically democratic and gregarious while invariably
maintaining high intellectual standards. Another indisputable strength
of Roshal’’s film is its apt visualization of scientific truth-finding. Thus,
an episode depicting a public experiment on canine salivation generates genuine suspense. On the whole, the anti-western paranoia
typical of the Stalinist biographical genre is kept to a minimum; the
Cambridge scenes even contain some benevolent humour, and while
Pavlov’s appearance in the United States emphasizes – quite realistically – the presence of racist views, that episode also features a crowd
of American admirers of the Russian’s work. Although openly didactic
and artistically pedestrian, Roshal’’s biopic nonetheless describes
intellectual work with unequivocal respect and conveys this attitude to
the viewer.
Peter Rollberg
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Andrei Tarkovskii
A prologue shows a stuttering boy undergoing successful speech
therapy, at the close of which he announces: ‘I can speak’. There
follow approximately twenty sequences which comprise the invisible protagonist Aleksei’s memories of childhood (from ca. 1936 and
1942) and experiences as an estranged husband and ineffectual father
in present-day Moscow (ca. 1969), interspersed with documentary
sequences relating these experiences to historical events (most notably Stalinist celebrations, the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the
Sino-Soviet conflict). The soundtrack features extracts from numerous
classical compositions and three poems by Tarkovskii’s father Arsenii.
The voice of the protagonist is supplied by Innokentii Smoktunovskii.
In the final frame the two dimensions of memory and vision coalesce
into a single image.
Aleksandr Misharin
Andrei Tarkovskii
Mirror represents Tarkovskii’s most ambitious and experimental
film both in its narrative structure and in its cinematic style. At
Directory of World Cinema
Georgii Rerberg
Art Director:
Nikolai Dvigubskii
Eduard Artem’ev
Liudmila Feiginova
108 minutes
first screening it can be very difficult to work out the connections
between the sequences, which Tarkovskii claimed to have rearranged many times before settling on the right order. Complicating
matters is the fact that the same actress plays the protagonist
Aleksei’s mother and his estranged wife, while the same young actor
plays Aleksei at the age of about ten and his son Ignat. Though
Aleksei quickly points out that he always remembers his mother with
his ex-wife’s face, many of Tarkovskii’s colleagues at Mosfilm – and
countless viewers since – have wondered, in the words of Marlen
Khutsiev, ‘Who is who?’ The confusion underscores the interrelatedness of all images and their inseparability from the imagination
which engenders them.
The intersection between this personal imaginary and the broader
social imaginary is explored in the documentary sequences. On one
Margarita Terekhova
Filip Iankovskii
Ignat Danil’tsev
Nikolai Grin’ko
Alla Demidova
Iurii Nazarov
Anatolii Solonitsyn
Innokentii Smoktunovskii
Larisa Tarkovskaia
Mariia Tarkovskaia
Andrei Tarkovskii, Mirror (1975).
Biopic 205
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level the Spanish footage is a kind of flashback to explain the presence in Moscow of a Spanish family which finds itself tugged in the
conflicting directions of nostalgia and assimilation. However this is
but one function of the footage, which does not so much authenticate
the fictional narrative as it fills in the history of the protagonist’s vision.
The film might even be seen to be arresting the authenticity of the
documentary footage, questioning whether it might not be even more
subject to the pressure of the imaginary than the authorial record of
personal experience.
A similar ambiguity pervades the scenes of supernatural intervention, which might just be a figment of the characters’ imagination.
The visitation of the mysterious guest is prefaced by a long take
featuring the boy Ignat and his mother Natalia which situates the
supernatural in the everyday. In her haste Natalia drops her handbag,
and Ignat eagerly begins to help pick up the spilled coins from the
parquet floor, pressing them into his palm and tracing their design
with his finger. When he reaches for another coin he quickly pulls his
hand away, explaining that he had received an electric shock; he then
smirks and remarks that he is experiencing dejà vu: ‘It’s as if all this
has already been once, though I’ve never been here before.’ Natalia answers: ‘Give the money here. Stop imagining things [Perestan’
fantazirovat’], I implore you.’ Throughout the shot Eduard Artem’ev’s
electronic score features a harsh crescendo that prepares the viewer
for the irruption of outside forces; however this discontinuity is
embedded within the fluid continuity of Tarkovskii’s signature long
takes. The complex confluence of temporalities and dimensions of
reality within the shot is analogous to the way the coins conduct multiple dimensions of physical and psychic reality: material history and
electrical charge converge with the less tangible currents of memory,
fantasy and vision in a single imprint of currency.
Tarkovskii uses film to show the friction caused by the imaginary
coming into contact with time. Though it is not a direct critique of the
Soviet imaginary, Mirror seeks to redefine the viewer’s very attitude
towards images not as the storehouse of the past, but as a condition
for experiencing the world.
Robert Bird
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Russia 1916. Nationwide discontentment threatens the monarchy with
collapse, but Tsar Nicholas II ignores the impending danger. Deeply
concerned about his haemophiliac son, he puts all his trust in faith
healer Grigorii Rasputin, thus allowing him to assume an unassailable
position. Rasputin has Prime Minister Goremykin replaced by the
incompetent Slavophile Boris Stürmer and gets away with sexually
assaulting a baroness in public. Meanwhile indignation over Rasputin’s
behaviour is growing. Prince Iusupov, whose wife has aroused
Rasputin’s sexual appetite, and Grand Duke Dmitrii Pavlovich discuss
the possibility of his elimination. A mysterious woman calls Rasputin
Directory of World Cinema
Elem Klimov
Semen Lungin
Il’ia Nusinov
Leonid Kalashnikov
Art Director:
Shavkat Abdusalimov
on the phone and invites him over, but the rendezvous is a trap
organized by the Orthodox Church. Exiled from Petrograd, Rasputin
forces his way into the palace at Tsarskoe Selo where he manipulates
Nicholas into launching the so-called Baranovichi operation (one
of Russia’s worst defeats in World War I). News that the offensive
has failed reaches Rasputin in his native Siberia. After his return to
Petrograd, Iusupov, the Grand Duke and Duma-member Purishkevich,
carry out the assassination. A burial scene featuring the tsar, the
empress and Rasputin’s family, is followed by a cut to black-and-white
imagery of Bolsheviks saluting the October Revolution.
Alfred Schnittke
Originally entitled The Antichrist and shown in the West as Rasputin,
Agonia (Death Throes) is as much about the last convulsions of the
Russian monarchy as it is about the assassination of its central character. With its many references to the inevitability of revolution, the film
recalls (and borrows from) such epic movies as Pudovkin’s The End of
St Petersburg and Eisenstein’s October (both 1927). This tribute to the
montage school is not accidental, as Rasputin was initially intended
for release to mark the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution in
1967. Yet the message of Klimov’s film is considerably less straightforward than that of the anniversary movies of the 1920s. Nicholas II
is shown as a weak, yet cultured man capable of feeling remorse over
Bloody Sunday (9 January 1905). Rasputin, too, is a more complicated
character than the lecherous fraud he was traditionally made out to
be. The film contains an episode in his native Siberia illustrating his
complicated relationship with his family and fellow villagers. Despite
a new title and a number of changes in the script, KGB chief Iurii
Andropov remained dissatisfied with the final result, arguing that the
film paid too much attention to the personal lives of Rasputin and
the imperial family. Completed in 1974 and immediately ‘shelved’,
Rasputin was shown in Venice in 1982 and released in the USSR only
in 1985.
Rasputin is structured as a double narrative that unfolds through
the alternation of (authentic) black-and-white footage and acted
sequences in full colour. The documentary images offer a harrowing
panorama of the people’s suffering, accompanied by a voice-over
spelling out all the woes under the last tsar, while the acted scenes
predominantly feature members of Russia’s corrupted elite. These
two storylines eventually merge when a frantic Rasputin runs into a
demonstration and discovers one of his future assassins. The scene
is shot alternately in black and white, and colour, suggesting that the
morally depraved in-crowd of pre-Revolutionary Russia, epitomized by
Rasputin, is doomed to be crushed by the course of history.
Throughout Klimov employs Eisenstein’s concept of intellectual
montage, particularly the device of the non-diegetic insert. For
example, the scene that features a frenzied Rasputin stammering the
word ‘Baranovichi’ in the presence of Nicholas and his wife Alexandra
is intercut with black-and-white images of running sheep (barany),
alluding to the catastrophic outcome of the battle at Baranovichi. The
same scene contains a flash cut to Rasputin dressed as a groom and
Valeriia Belova
151 minutes
Historical drama
Aleksei Petrenko
Anatolii Romashin
Velta Line
Alissa Freindlikh
Aleksandr Romantsev
Iurii Katin-Iartsev
Leonid Bronevoi
Biopic 207
Directory of World Cinema
carrying a woman in his arms (a metaphor for Russia). This particular
image, which echoes the age-old idea of the monarch being wed to
his country, illustrates that Rasputin, not the tsar, is ruling Russia.
Based on meticulous archival research, Rasputin pays due attention to historical figures who tried to use Rasputin for their own goals.
This adds to the psychological complexity of Rasputin who gradually
becomes aware of being a pawn, rather than an agent. Yet perhaps
the most telling sign of the film’s unorthodox approach is the fact that
Rasputin is shown in different roles and capacities: he is simultaneously a shrewd manipulator, a loutish womanizer, a (lacking) father and
a social outcast in his native village. Even if the sceptical reception by
his countrymen is intended to ‘prove’ that Rasputin is not a man from
the people (as the empress believes), his apparent frustration over this
rebuke makes him almost human; more human than Soviet censorship
could possibly allow.
Otto Boele
Country of Origin:
Aleksandr Sokurov
Viktor Sergeev
Iurii Arabov
Aleksandr Sokurov
Art Director:
Nataliia Kochergina
Andrei Sigle
Leda Semenova
Unfolding over two days in 1924, the film depicts the dying Lenin,
world revolutionary and father of the USSR, now powerless and isolated at his Gorki estate. Cared for by his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaia,
sister Maniasha, his German doctor and several attendants, Lenin
raves about his diminishing faculties, discusses the deaths of great
figures (including Marx), rides a car to a picnic in a meadow and
ponders his historic legacy. In a key scene the ‘great leader’ interacts
with a visitor, his eventual successor Joseph Stalin, asking for poison
to hasten his demise. At film’s end, Lenin is left alone in his wheelchair
while Nadezhda rushes off to answer a long-awaited telephone call
from the Party Central Committee. His cries are answered only by the
distant lowing of a cow. The once-all-powerful despot, at the end of
his life, stares longingly at clouds in a bottomless sky. A storm looms.
Like the other works in Sokurov’s ‘Men of Power’ tetralogy – Moloch
on Hitler (1999), The Sun (2005) on Hirohito and a planned adaptation of Goethe’s Faust – Taurus utilizes unconventional cinematography, unorthodox performances, slow pacing and a highly imaginative
approach to its subject for a meditation on the dehumanizing effects
of absolute power. While some critics fault Sokurov for the film’s rambling script and ‘stagy’ shots, others highlight the comedic potential
of a once-towering figure like Lenin diminished to a sick, ranting old
man (seen naked more than once). Still others accuse Sokurov of
over-humanizing his dictators, glossing over their crimes in pursuit
of some a-historical ‘universality’ of mortal existence. In evoking
compassion for Lenin’s death agonies, so goes this critique, the film
risks betraying the many victims of his policies. On the other hand,
Taurus hardly heroicizes its subject. Deprived of the telephone, even
Directory of World Cinema
Aleksandr Sokurov, Taurus (2001);
Lenin and Krupskaia.
Biopic 209
Directory of World Cinema
94 minutes (cinema)
104 minutes (video)
Leonid Mozgovoi
Mariia Kuznetsova
Sergei Razhuk
Nataliia Nikulenko
Lev Eliseev
Nikolai Ustinov
a newspaper (rudely snatched away by an orderly), Lenin knows the
Party he founded has abandoned him; explosions of rage alternate
with a muted resignation and transient pleasures of the natural
world (birdsong, thunder, sunlight through a window). While based
on accounts of Lenin’s final days (following a series of strokes), the
film’s idiosyncratic representation of historical figures renders them
by turns sympathetic and grotesque – perhaps a corrective to the
many Soviet-era cine-panegyrics to the ‘dear leader’ such as Mikhail
Romm’s Lenin in October (1937). The petty, whining Lenin of Taurus
could not be further from the strong, avuncular figure of Stalinist
Still, at times the film seems fascinated by the iconicity of its
subjects: one shot in particular lingers on the just-arrived Stalin in
his greatcoat, standing like a predator beside his car. These images
enact a haunting ‘resurrection’ of the dead; from such a distance the
illusion of a living Stalin seems disturbingly convincing. Yet Sokurov
will often deflate such apotheosizing imagery; for example, the meeting between Stalin and Lenin includes shot-reverse shot extreme
close-ups of the two leaders, revealing (through his facial expressions
and eyes) Lenin’s craven baseness as he begs for poison, and Stalin’s
deceitful, pock-marked, mannequin-like visage. Here the director
most blatantly strips the legend from the man.
For Taurus, Sokurov served for the first time as his own cinematographer; his dark, saturated, oft-blurred images flirt with inscrutability. The estate often appears in fog, its interior a labyrinth of murky,
green-tinted rooms; even when the sun breaks the imagery recalls
day-for-night photography. As in Mother and Son, many shots hark
back to the silent era. As pointed out by several critics, the film’s
greenish, gloomy palette makes it appear as if the action is occurring underwater. As in much of Sokurov’s work, these atypical visual
strategies reference European art, in this case Vermeer and – in part
through the colour scheme and repeated mentions of an approaching
storm – Giorgione’s ‘The Tempest’ (1506–1508).
Like many films of its time, Taurus focuses on themes of death and
decay, in part as a means of exorcising Soviet-era ghosts. In this sense
one may compare it to Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (1994) as
a re-examination of the Stalinist past, albeit in an unorthodox manner.
Similarly, like Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (2003) and other recent
films, Taurus ironicizes the theme of paternity through the figure of a
decrepit father whose ‘progeny’, the Soviet Union, is itself now defunct.
Taurus seems to be a sustained meditation on illness, the body and
the universality of the dying process, the loss of control at the end of
life – regardless of one’s earthly achievements. Yet some have seen
in Sokurov’s dying yet stubbornly atheistic Lenin a perverse parody of
the communist fixation on materialism.
José Alaniz
Directory of World Cinema
Country of Origin:
Trial Blok
Pygmalion Production, with the
support of the Cinematography
Section of the Russian Ministry
of Culture
Aleksandr Veledinskii
Aleksei Aliakin
Sergei Chliiants
Maksim Lagashkin
Aleksandr Robak
Aleksandr Veledinskii, based on
Eduard Limonov
Pavel Ignatov
Art Director:
Il’ia Amurskii
Aleksei Zubarev
Tat’iana Prilenskaia
112 minutes
Andrei Chadov
Ol'ga Arntgol’ts
Evdokiia Germanova
Mikhail Efremov
Eddie is a working-class teenager in 1959 Kharkov. He hangs out with
shady characters, but is also a gifted poet, albeit one who uses his
talent to distract crowds while his friend picks pockets. He pursues
a local beauty, Sveta, promising her a date in a restaurant with the
implicit assumption that she will repay him sexually. When he catches
Sveta kissing his friend, Ed shows up at her flat with a knife, but runs off
before she opens the door. He wanders the snowy streets and nearly
commits suicide before his mother finds him and has him put in the
Saburka, an infamous psychiatric hospital whose patients had included
the artist Mikhail Vrubel’ and the futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov. There
Ed bonds with the other maltreated patients, one of whom introduces
him to the richness of Russian literature. After a brief escape, during
which he climbs a church tower and prays for ‘an interesting life’, Ed is
recommitted to the asylum, which prompts his mates to stage a ‘storming’ of the hospital (à la the storming of the Winter Palace in October
1917) in protest. When he is finally released, he has learned hard truths
about his place in the world as a son and an artist.
The title of Russian in the original is Russkoe, which refers not to ‘a
Russian person’ or the Russian language, but something closer to
‘Russianness’ or ‘things that are essentially Russian’ (indeed, one suggested English translation is It’s Russian). ‘Russkoe’ is the title of an
early poem by the Russian author and (more recently) radical nationalist political figure Eduard Limonov, on whose autobiographical novels
Veledinskii’s film is based. Despite the title’s seeming nod, however
ironic, to idealistic Russian soul-searching and abstract values, the film
is nevertheless also firmly in the realist tradition. The tight, disciplined
narrative remains focused on its hero’s negotiation of the social reality
that surrounds him and discovery of his potential place within it. Yet
Russian is by no means a straightforward biographic film of Limonov.
It is also a largely unsentimental contemplation of the East vs West,
Spirit vs Flesh dilemma that is every Russian’s celebrated and accursed
Poetry in the film is represented as both divine and visceral, the
coin of a value system that Russia has traditionally posited as an alternative, a way out of the messy world of material values. Veledinskii’s
attempt at reconciling the filth, viscera and squalor of modern Russian
life with both a sense of ‘higher values’ and an engaging, marketable
film product is ultimately more honest than other such attempts, and
does not resort to crude juxtaposition with an Other to define a Russian Self.
Someone once said that there are four escape routes from reality: into crime, into art, into madness and into religion. In Russian,
what we have is a struggle among the four for the fate of the young
protagonist. The material reality of a late 1950s Soviet city is, on the
surface, dominant. Even before the narrative begins, during the credits, each name we see projected on the screen is accompanied and
Biopic 211
Directory of World Cinema
Vladimir Steklov
Aleksei Gorbunov
Dmitrii Diuzhev
represented by an object. Poverty and squalor dominate the miseen-scène. The plot itself, especially before Ed enters the Saburka, is
driven by exchange, barter and transfer of things of value: a knife, a
razor, a ring, a book, a maidenhead, souvenir badges, a notebook, a
photograph, eyeglasses, nylons, mandarin oranges, vodka, roubles.
Ed’s sole motivation in the beginning of the film is the achievement of
a physical act (sex with Sveta) by material means (buying her dinner
in a restaurant). Sveta’s calculating promiscuousness is mitigated,
however, by the fact that she will trade her physical affection not only
for material wealth and status, but also as a token of her appreciation
for good poetry and for the company of a true poet. In a film in which
there is no shortage of mentors (which can be seen as a nod to the
classic mentor-initiate model of Soviet socialist realism), Sveta’s lesson
for Ed (which he misses, tragically, the first time she offers it, when he
comes to her door with the knife) may be the most relevant to his personal arc: that poetry is a useful tool for negotiating reality, especially
in Russia, where the line between art and reality has so often been
Seth Graham
The Admiral
Country of Origin:
Channel One
Film Direction
Dago Productions
Andrei Kravchuk
Dzhanik Faiziev
Anatolii Maksimov
Dmitrii Iurkov
Vladimir Valutskii
Zoia Kudria
Igor’ Griniakin
We are introduced to Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak (1874–1920) relatively late in his career, in 1916, when he is in command of a Russian
ship in the Baltic Sea during World War I. Thanks to his calm and
quick thinking under fire, a more powerful German warship is sunk.
At a celebration soon thereafter in Finland, he meets and falls in love
with Anna Timireva, the wife of one of his subordinate officers. She
reciprocates, and the two maintain a chaste, long-distance affair as
the tumultuous events of the day send them to various places inside
and outside the crumbling Russian empire. Kolchak, sent into exile
by the head of the Provisional Government in mid-1917, returns
to Russia after the October Revolution to fight the Bolsheviks. He
appoints himself supreme ruler of Siberia, the base for his campaign
against the Reds in the Russian Civil War. Anna finally leaves her
husband and joins Kolchak permanently in Siberia, but the Whites
suffer defeat after defeat. Kolchak is arrested by the Bolsheviks and
shot in 1920. An epilogue shows Anna as an extra on the set of
Fedor Bondarchuk’s film War and Peace in 1964, looking wistfully at
a ballroom scene.
Five years in the making, sophomore director Andrei Kravchuk’s The
Admiral is a well-produced mix of epic history and romantic melodrama that recalls David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, with its wartime trains,
constantly re-separated lovers and anti-Bolshevik message, and, ultimately, James Cameron’s Titanic, with its fatefully truncated romance
and epilogue showing the woman’s life decades after her lover’s
Directory of World Cinema
Art Directors:
Mariia Turskaia
Aleksandr Zagoskin
Gleb Matveichuk
Tom Rolf
124 minutes
Konstantin Khabenskii
Elizaveta Boiarskaia
Sergei Bezrukov
Vladislav Vetrov
watery demise. Unlike those two blockbusters, however, The Admiral
is also a biopic, and one that flirts with hagiography even before
Admiral Kolchak’s martyred body is thrown into a cross-shaped hole
in the ice (conveniently left over from a recent church baptism ceremony) by his godless Bolshevik executioners. In part the thoroughly
uncritical portrait of Kolchak is compensatory; for so long, and for
obvious ideological reasons, White Army leaders could only be pilloried in the Russian media, especially cinema, the main vehicle for
populating the official dramatis personae of historical heroes and
villains. The few detectable character flaws in Kravchuk’s representation of Kolchak come at moments when the admiral’s penchant for
self-aggrandizement comes to the fore. For example, his repeated
assurances that the city of Irkutsk – effectively already firmly in the
hands of the Reds – will be secure the moment he personally arrives,
suggest that he views himself as the ultimate repository of Russian
imperial sovereignty. The scene in which he takes a solemn and religiously toned oath before his troops, as ‘Supreme Ruler of Russia’,
at a time when the Whites’ eastern front was thousands of kilometres
east of Moscow, similarly suggest an unjustifiably inflated self-image.
Most of the battle scenes showcase his own bravery, rather than that
of his sailors and soldiers (an exception is the scene in which the
White soldiers, having run out of ammunition, attach their bayonets
and charge out of the trenches directly towards the Red machine
Yet criticizing the film’s lack of nuance and dramatic license is, in a
way, not entirely fair. The biopic genre arguably lends itself to such
one-sided portrayals, and The Admiral is certainly less revisionist and
nationalistic than other post-Soviet Russian historical epics such as
Nikita Mikhalkov’s Barber of Siberia (1998) or Vladimir Khotinenko’s
1612: A Chronicle of the Time of Troubles (2007). It is also important to remember that Russian filmmakers are still in the process of
creating a profitable, popular national cinema, a project in which
watchable, mainstream films are essential. In this respect, Kravchuk’s
film was a success, as it represented another benchmark hit in the
resurgent Russian film industry, which began recovering from a dismal
decade (both financially and artistically) early in the new millennium.
The Admiral had a budget of $20 million, extremely large by Russian
standards, and earned an impressive profit. Much of the budget was
spent on CGI, which certainly shows in the impressive naval-battle
scenes. The wide-screen potential of the Siberian countryside, staple
of so many Russian films before and after the fall of the Soviet Union,
is also used to full effect.
Konstantin Khabenskii plays Kolchak with a reserved propriety, even
in the romantic scenes, which adds to the sense of Kolchak as a force
of history rather than a human character. Khabenskii has become a
sort of Russian Harrison Ford, having starred in no less than four of
the largest-grossing Russian films of the new millennium, all of which,
except for The Admiral, directed by Timur Bekmambetov: Night
Watch (2004), Day Watch (2006) and the sequel to the 1970s favourite
The Irony of Fate (2007).
Seth Graham
Biopic 213
Directory of World Cinema
The cinematic genre of action films reveals a high degree of crossover
with the genre of the adventure film (not covered in this volume).
While both rely upon a juxtaposition of good and evil, the ‘action flick’
is arguably more concerned with physical conflict and violence, while
filmic adventures frequently align their chase sequences or rescue
scenes with travel-related plots.
According to Hollywood’s conventions, action and adventure films are
usually those in which movement is more important than speech. In the
early days of Soviet cinema, this concern with movement is reflected in
such films as Lev Kuleshov’s Mr West (1924), which draws on a number
of devices taken from Los Angeles: continuity editing (which Kuleshov
called ‘American montage’) or chase scenes between characters modelled on the stars of American cinema (such as Harold Lloyd and Douglas Fairbanks). In addition there is a shift towards acrobatic stunts instead
of the psychological characterization so distinctive in pre-Revolutionary
theatre. All this speaks to Soviet cinema’s attempts at creating adventure
or action films in order to match the fiscal benchmarks of their US counterparts, which flooded Soviet distribution in the 1920s.
Indeed, Russian cinema has long struggled with a range of terms
for the action or adventure film: while the label ‘adventure film’
(prikliuchencheskii fil’m) can be frequently found in genre classifications of Soviet and Russian movie making, alongside it there existed
the ‘thriller’ (ostrosiuzhetnyi fil’m, or triller) and the ‘action film’
(boevik); under the influence of post-Soviet shoptalk the phonetic
transcription of ‘action’ as èkshn has also gained currency. Given this
wavering, it is telling to look at ways in which the Russian action/
adventure tradition developed.
The action or adventure film often placed the prowess of a lone
hero against a collective enemy, a principle which lent itself to the
portrayal of ideological clashes between Reds and Whites during the
Civil War, widely used as a historical backdrop for films in the 1920s
and 1930s. Both historical and biographical films were popular, such
as the famous Chapaev (1934), but a specifically Soviet variant of the
genre of the action/adventure film would only emerge decades later.
Aleksei Balabanov, Brother (1997); Sergei Bodrov as Danila Bagrov.
Action/Red Western 215
Directory of World Cinema
Blessed not only with great physical skill, but also moral justification, the male protagonist of the Western adventure/action genre would typically overcome great odds at
sea, upon land or even high in the clouds. These swashbuckling Hollywood traditions,
often set in distant times and very formulaic, would subsequently be given new life by
the real-life events of World War II. The resulting camouflaged heroes, in turn, would
slowly transform into the more debonair spies of Cold War escapades.
In the same American context, by the 1970s and 1980s this kind of generic purity
was lost to a series of expensive and profitable blockbusters. Such testosterone-fuelled
films, meagre in terms of screenplay, almost always bore their central message through
visible, visceral deeds. Heroes showed what mattered, often through direct and violent
conflict with the representatives of opposing worldviews. The morality of these well-built
matinee idols was grounded in certain assumptions: heroism is often a lonely calling and
champions of any laudable cause will rarely have many friends or meaningful relatives.
Such was the life of an adventurer.
This kind of movie would become a genuine artistic and commercial force in Russia
thanks to the hugely popular tradition of ‘Red Westerns’ or so-called ‘Easterns’. Presaging their themes of perilous uncertainty – and therefore audience exhilaration – is
Vladimir Motyl’’s White Sun of the Desert (1970), in which a Red Army soldier during the
Civil War is unexpectedly caught up in haphazard action along the Caspian Sea. This
apparent formulaic clarity is distinctly undercut by our hero’s (comedic) need to spend
more time defending a local harem than Moscow’s value-system. Increasingly, Motyl’’s
viewers are left with a sense of unpredictability, both in terms of filmic plot and social
causality; almost anything can happen. Nonetheless, both profits and viewer satisfaction
increased as a result; White Sun of the Desert remains a cult film of the Stagnation era to
the present day.
This use of illogicality – based upon vigorous subversions and plot twists – adopts
a more serious quality in those Red Westerns produced by Central Asian film studios.
The significance of random chance is evident in Shaken Aimanov’s End of the Ataman
(Kazakhfilm, 1970), or Ali Khamraev’s Seventh Bullet (Uzbekfilm, 1972), both set in
capricious times and places. Closely involved with film production in the same region,
the young Moscow intellectuals and Film Institute graduates Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii and Nikita Mikhalkov would contribute to scripts of some local Red Westerns.
More precisely, Mikhalkov later drew on his experiences with this genre – and the classic westerns of American cinema – for his debut feature At Home among Strangers…
(1974). Despite the fact that these Soviet films employed – successfully – the same
brooding sexuality of their American forerunners, they would fall out of fashion in the
1980s. To a large degree, tales of daring loners lost ground to special effects and the
‘disaster movie’.
This territory is notably opened by Aleksandr Mitta’s grandiose feature, Air Crew
(1980); despite the recourse to loud explosions and noisy chaos in such movies, a certain
conservatism returned to adventure features of the 1980s. In action or catastrophe-driven
movies of the same decade in the West, elements of conformist consolation are almost
always evident, in that virtuous characters survive – no matter the apocalyptic ravages of
storms, war or disease. Air Crew works to similar effect: unforeseen earthquakes conspire
to severely damage a Soviet airliner en route to Moscow. All ensuing, potentially awful
dangers are overcome thanks only to the bravery of the aircrew, who rise above their
personal problems in order to give everything – for the passengers. Mikhalkov’s doubts
over ideological zeal among Revolutionary troops become for Mitta a similar reliance
among a steadfast, intrepid minority, but here that comradeship is tempered in the more
institutional environment of a state airline crew. Thus the social tedium of Brezhnev’s era
starts to create action movies at the expense of peril. The ‘right’ people always make it
Directory of World Cinema
Hence, perhaps, the brief return to irony and jesting under Gorbachev as a means
to challenge narrative certainty and reinstate the risky/risqué value of unpredictability.
Alla Surikova’s Man from the Boulevard des Capucines (1987) coincided with the erratic
faltering of the Soviet grand narrative after perestroika by looking at the ability of cinema
to create – and even falsify – reality. This story of silent movies in the Wild West almost
becomes an action film not by virtue of its cowboys and bar brawls, but because we
never know what new realities or worldviews will be shaped – and manipulated – by film
It seems possible, therefore, to speak of different kinds of Soviet action movies over
the course of the twentieth century. The first exists on a sliding scale – back and forth
– between severe peril and an ideological interpretation thereof, where disaster never
truly looks likely. The degrees to which actuality might be under threat are sometimes
assessed in between conservative assurance and genuine unease, in realms where only
small, dependable enclaves of friends might offer resistance against unpredictability. If
so, then a second type of ‘action’ also appears. Films styled along the lines of Surikova’s
goofball adventure, emphasizing the arbitrarily fictive nature of film – the fact it can build
any reality – suggest that bona fide jeopardy, which cannot be remade or redirected, is in
the outside world.
The more commercialized post-Soviet film industry has seen a return to the action
genre in its ‘pure’ form, without ideological strings attached. Indeed, some of Russia’s
more recent action movies suggest – in a dead-end, documentary manner – that the nastiness of an unsafe reality is all around us. Aleksei Balabanov, Sergei Bodrov Jr and Petr
Buslov have all portrayed a world dark enough to make viewers lose their faith in several
nationwide institutions or time-honoured places of refuge. Buslov’s Bimmer, for example,
turns the entire idyll of the Russian countryside into an impulsive realm of unrestrained
crime and cruelty.
This, perhaps, gives us the Manichean balance of Timur Bekmambetov’s action
blockbusters, Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006). Here good and evil both exist
with equal influence. Any thrilling action – any danger – comes from not knowing which
of the two will have the upper hand, or when: Heaven only knows – quite literally. Since
these two movies are, to some degree, a slightly consoling response to the unbalanced,
disastrous action of Russian lawlessness in the1990s, it comes as no surprise that the
conservative politics of Putin’s period in office produced a return to the ‘managed’ action
feature – to controllable degrees of peril, held in check by some greater force.
David MacFadyen
Action/Red Western 217
Directory of World Cinema
The Extraordinary
Adventures of
Mr West in the
Land of the
Neobychainye prikliucheniia
mistera Vesta v strane
The naïve American Mr West sets off to visit the USSR, having been
warned that Bolshevik savages run the country. He is accompanied by
his bodyguard, the cowboy Jeddy. Upon arriving in Moscow, Mr West
falls into the clutches of a gang of Russian thieves. In an elaborate
extortion scheme, they prey on his fears of Bolshevism and trick him
into turning over his American dollars. Meanwhile, after a series of
misadventures in Moscow, Jeddy is brought into contact with Soviet
authorities, who turn out to be quite civilized and conscientious. They
rescue Mr West from the criminals and then show him that Soviet
Russia is actually an enlightened and progressive nation.
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Lev Kuleshov
Nikolai Aseev
Vsevolod Pudovkin
A. Levitskii
Art Director:
Vsevolod Pudovkin
Aleksandr Levitskii
86 minutes
Action comedy
Porfirii Podobed
Aleksandra Khokhlova
Boris Barnet
Vsevolod Pudovkin
Sergei Komarov
Lev Kuleshov’s Mr West can be seen as an elaborate student project,
a diploma film of sorts. From 1920 to 1924 Kuleshov taught at the
State Film School in Moscow, working with a remarkably talented
circle of students, the so-called Kuleshov workshop. Included in the
group were Vsevolod Pudovkin, Boris Barnet, Aleksandra Khokhlova
and Sergei Komarov, all of whom were destined for stellar film
careers. The group’s film education was initially constrained by a
shortage of available film stock in the early 1920s, and students had
to learn about cinema without enjoying the opportunity to shoot
much original footage. Kuleshov innovated ‘films without film’,
staged plays that imitated cinematic technique. He also encouraged
his students to study extant feature films, including the many foreign
films that were entering the Soviet exhibition market in the early
1920s. The majority of the imports were Hollywood features, and
Kuleshov and his students took particular interest in those American
movies which seemed to offer a dynamic style and sophisticated
editing. Kuleshov posited that Hollywood film techniques could and
should be adopted by Soviet filmmakers. He and his students did
exactly that in Mr West, a feature project they were able to undertake through Moscow’s Goskino studio in 1924 when film stock
finally became available. Kuleshov directed and his students played
the lead roles.
The film pays homage to its American source material in a number
of ways. The title character resembles Harold Lloyd, and the acrobatic Jeddy is based on Douglas Fairbanks, both of whom were quite
popular with Russian audiences. The film is a political comedy, but
it draws on other genres that Kuleshov identified with Hollywood,
including Westerns, action-adventure films and slapstick. Kuleshov
and his group also tried out many of the techniques they had studied
in the class. For example, Mr West utilizes a variant of Hollywood continuity editing – what Kuleshov called ‘American montage’ – in action
scenes. Specific devices practiced in the workshop were also given a
filmic incarnation in Mr West. In the eye-line matches at the film’s end,
when the title character looks out on scenes of the ‘real Russia’ and
registers his approval, one sees an application of the famed Kuleshov
Directory of World Cinema
Lev Kuleshov, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West… (1924).
The film’s main comic target was the political divide between Soviet
Russia and the United States, caused, Kuleshov suggests, by international misunderstandings. Although many Americans in the 1920s
may have feared the intentions of Revolutionary Russia, Kuleshov saw
around him a Russian population that embraced America’s cultural
exports, especially its movies. It is telling that Kuleshov applied an
American model of filmmaking to a Soviet movie that he hoped might
help bridge the political gap between the United States and the
Vance Kepley, Jr
Action/Red Western 219
Directory of World Cinema
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Mikhail Romm
Iosif Prut
Mikhail Romm
Boris Volchek
Art Directors:
Vladimir Egorov
Mikhail Kariakin
Andrei Nikulin
Anatolii Aleksandrov
Tatiana Likhacheva
86 minutes
Revolutionary drama
Ivan Novosel’tsev
Elena Kuz’mina
Aleksandr Chistiakov
Andrei Fait
Red Army commander Ivan Zhuravlev accompanies ten honourably
discharged soldiers on their way to the city. With them are Zhuravlev’s
wife, Masha, and an old geologist, Postnikov. Amidst the Karakum
desert, they stumble upon a hidden well located near an ancient
tomb. They also find brand new weapons belonging to Shirmat Khan
and his anti-Bolshevik insurgents, the so-called basmachi. Zhuravlev
gives order to wait for Shirmat Khan and fight him until regular Red
Army troops arrive. Eager to get to the well, Shirmat Khan’s men
attack the group relentlessly. One by one, the Soviet soldiers are
killed. However, Private Muradov, sent out as a messenger, is able
to lead a Red Army battalion to the embattled well; he and the last
survivor, Iusuf Akchurin, are honoured as heroes – while Shirmat and
the remnants of his gang are arrested.
Thirteen is one of the most remarkable Civil War thrillers in the Soviet
cinema. Dedicated to the twentieth anniversary of the founding of
the Red Army, its story was inspired by John Ford’s The Lost Patrol.
Ironically, neither Romm nor screenwriter Iosif Prut had seen Ford’s
epic, yet their boss, Boris Shumiatskii, then in charge of the Soviet
film industry, had related the story verbally. This was Romm’s second
feature after a silent Maupassant adaptation, Boule de Suif (1934).
The film’s well paced adventure plot, narrative stringency, overall
economy and psychological plausibility meet the highest international
Thirteen is largely free of the ideological verbosity and demagoguery that burden Romm’s Stalinist pictures. From the very first scene,
the film generates suspense and human interest. The dominating
visual motif – ever-changing wave patterns across the endless desert
sands – serves as a constant reminder of the one element that is
vital to friend and foe: water. The way in which each group member
handles water, negotiating the rations, drinking, sharing or saving it,
characterizes them as individuals. Water is the main theme of their
conversations and also the underlying reason for the clash with the
Islamic rebels (although Zhuravlev makes it clear that the Red Army
forces have been trying to capture Shirmat Khan for some time).
Romm creates a desert realm that is infinite yet claustrophobic;
although there are no visible boundaries, there is also no alternative
to staying together since the surrounding desert means certain death
for anyone trying to find a way on their own. Water’s status as the
most precious commodity of all becomes obvious when one of the
soldiers climbs into the hidden well for the first time, watching a small
cup slowly filling up. Both the process of observing the dripping water
and waiting for the arrival of Shirmat Khan’s troops determine the
film’s temporal structure during its first third.
For the remaining two thirds, it is a sequence of deaths that both
form a tense rhythm and convey a sense of tragic inevitability. All the
same, the group accepts this inevitability. Consisting of representatives
Directory of World Cinema
of various nationalities – Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars – each member
is marked by a specific speech pattern and accent, sometimes in a
humorous way. Military and civilians stand by each other, sharing a
sense of genuine mutual care and common civic duty. These ten soldiers, so recently anticipating a return home, agree with Zhuravlev that
neither the discovery of the well nor the chance to capture Shirmat
should be dismissed lightly.
Only one soldier breaks rank when, in a feverish fit, exhausted and
hysterical, he hopes to save his life by switching sides. Not surprisingly, his comrades finish him off. All the others remain loyal to the
cause, meeting their death in a quiet, deferential manner. Even an
undisciplined, quarrelsome old scientist takes up a gun, quickly learns
the basics of shooting and begins to kill basmachi. Likewise Masha,
the commander’s wife, initially stays behind the frontline, but when
the fighters are shot in rapid succession, including her beloved husband, she takes a rifle and joins the fight – until she, too, is killed. Collective interests trump those of the individual. Likewise a higher cause
– defeating the enemy of a Bolshevik state – enables these individuals
to transcend any brute survival instinct.
The heroism in Romm’s picture is of an unspectacular kind – no
wounds are shown, no cries are heard. Moreover, there are no political
sermons, and the instructions and orders of the commander are calm,
pragmatic and to the point. This understated pathos is unusual for
Soviet cinema in the 1930s and has secured the film its freshness and
enduring appeal alone.
Peter Rollberg
White Sun of
the Desert
Beloe solntse pustyni
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Vladimir Motyl’
Valentin Ezhov
Rustam Ibragimbekov
Mark Zakharov
At the close of the Russian Civil War, Red Army officer Fedor Ivanovich
Sukhov is finally making his way home after years of fighting in the
deserts of Central Asia. As he strides the shifting sands, he dreams of
his verdant homeland and beautiful wife. His journey is interrupted,
however, when he finds himself first called upon to protect a harem
from their husband – the notorious bandit Black Abdullah. Sukhov
leads the wives to a town on the edge of the Caspian Sea where they
set up a dormitory and he attempts to teach them to be liberated
Soviet women. With the help of a young Russian soldier, an embittered local man (Sayid) a Tsarist excise man, and a museum curator
(Lebedev), he mounts a desperate defence against the bandits. In the
ensuing bloody action, the bandits are killed to a man, and Sukhov
emerges from the final standoff with Abdullah wounded but victorious. However, victory has come at a price: one of the wives has been
murdered, and all of his allies, except for Sayid, are dead. At the film’s
conclusion, Sukhov and Sayid part ways amicably, and Sukhov continues his journey home.
Action/Red Western 221
Directory of World Cinema
Eduard Rozovskii
Art Directors:
Valerii Kostrin
Bella Manevich-Kaplan
85 minutes
Raisa Kurkina
Anatolii Kuznetsov
Spartak Mishulin
Pavel Luspekaev
Kakhi Kavsadze
Tatiana Fedotova
Tatiana Denisova
Nikolai Godovikov
White Sun of the Desert was to be the Soviet answer to the popular
Western. Yet, while clearly drawing on Western cinematic tropes,
the film undoubtedly spoke to Soviet audiences regarding issues of
nation and empire, since it promulgates nationalist ideals of a Russiandominated Central Asia. Since the film’s release, however, screenwriter
Rustam Ibragimbekov has vehemently denied such intentions. Indeed,
looking closely at how Motyl’ visually constructs the film, it becomes
clear that he emphasizes the incompatibility of Soviet and Central
Asian cultures, plus the failure of the Soviet project in the East. This
was an interesting cinematic stand to take at a time when the idea
of the ‘brotherhood of nations’ was still very much alive in Soviet
The core narrative revolves around a love triangle, so to speak.
Sukhov is torn between a love for his wife, Katerina, and his attraction to the harem. Within this structure, Sukhov is a model of Soviet
strength, ingenuity and virtue. Sukhov’s wife, who becomes the visual
embodiment of Russia, represents ‘Home’. Abdullah’s harem is associated with a generic, decaying and unassimilated Central Asia. Thus,
perhaps, Motyl’ portrays the Soviet involvement in Central Asia as a
betrayal of the homeland.
Sukhov’s uniform clearly identifies him with Soviet military power.
He is not the only Red Army soldier in the film, but whereas other
soldiers’ uniforms become sweaty and tarnished in the heat and the
sand, Sukhov’s uniform is almost always pristine, as if he is a mythic
Soviet soldier, unaffected by the weather or general conditions around
him. Furthermore, Sukhov is always filmed either in the foreground
or silhouetted on top of a dune, standing out sharply against the sky.
In this way, Motyl’ establishes both Sukhov’s power and his foreignness. By contrast, the wives are often shown as emerging from behind
the sand dunes, or enclosed in ancient decaying buildings. They are
further associated with the foreign, unassailable East by their heavy
horsehair veils which cover them entirely. All is hidden.
While Sukhov is placed outside the desert, the woods and
grasslands of Russia envelop Katerina. Moreover, Katerina strongly
resembles Soviet images of Mother Russia. The camera pans slowly
up her legs in order to focus on her pelvis; the folds in her red
dress underscore both her sexuality and her fertility. By sexualizing
Katerina in this way, Motyl’ emphasizes Sukhov’s uncomplicated
visual possession of her body and, by extension, the motherland as
a whole.
The resulting narrative of betrayal, enacted in the East, is most
obviously enunciated in the scene in which Giuchitai attempts to
seduce Sukhov. Sitting up late, preparing for battle, Sukhov suddenly
hears the tinkling of bells as Giuchitai – unveiled – dances provocatively towards him. As Giuchitai attempts to explain the advantages
of polygamy, Sukhov honourably refuses to look at her. An image
of lovely Katerina flashes up before him and Sukhov sends Giuchitai
away. This scene establishes that the film’s central question, perhaps,
is not whether Sukhov, the embodiment of Soviet military power, can
possess Giuchitai and Central Asia, but whether he should.
Directory of World Cinema
Vladimir Motyl’, The White Sun of the Desert (1970).
This moral hazard for Russia is illustrated not only through the
theme of infidelity, but also through the real physical danger in which
various Russian characters find themselves. By the end of the film, all
of Sukhov’s Russian allies in the village have been killed: the priest,
the Tsarist excise man and the young soldier. Furthermore, Sukhov’s
potential wife Giuchitai is murdered by her husband, the bandit
Abdullah. Her death is directly a result of her own ‘betrayal’, a result
of living under Sukhov’s protection. Ultimately we are lead to consider
the possibility that Russia’s presence in Central Asia not only endangers Russian purity, but also destroys an engaging, exotic, traditional
Eastern culture, represented by Giuchitai.
Emily Hillhouse
Action/Red Western 223
Directory of World Cinema
The End of the
Konets Atamana
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Shaken Aimanov
Andrei Konchalovskii
Eduard Tropinin
Askhat Ashrapov
Art Director:
Viktor Lednev
146 minutes
Red Western
Asanali Ashimov
Viktor Avdiushko
Gennadii Iudin
In 1921, at the height of the Civil War, the Red officer Chadiarov is
assigned a special task: to kill the ataman Dutov, a collaborator of the
Whites. During this operation Chadiarov discloses the spy in the Red
Army headquarters in his Kazakh hometown. In order to fulfil his mission, Chadiarov, who is a Chinese prince, has to get himself arrested
as a spy by the Soviet commander; then he escapes and crosses the
border to China, where he pretends to side with the ataman who
resides there. Chadiarov fulfils his secret mission successfully while its
full scale and significance of his action transpire only at the end.
The film’s director Shaken Aimanov (1914–1970) was an actor and
director at the theatre in Alma-Ata before he made the first genuine
Kazakh feature film, A Poem About Love, in 1954. The film studio in
Almaty is named in honour of this first ethnic Kazakh filmmaker.
The film is part of a trilogy about the Revolution: The End of the
Ataman was followed by Trans-Siberian Express (1977) and The Manchurian Version (1989). Andrei Konchalovskii wrote the script for this
film together with Eduard Tropinin, which earned him a Kazakh State
Prize in 1972.
The theme of the Civil War raging in the southern and eastern borderlands of the Soviet empire offered a most suitable subject matter
for adventure or action films, genres that were in early Soviet cinema
tied closely to the Revolutionary struggle, translating in ideological
terms into the opposition of the Red vs White Army to match the
classical Hollywood opposition of the action/adventure between good
vs evil. Cavalry chases, escapes, hide-outs in the steppe made this
film a true gem in the tradition of the ‘Eastern’, or ‘Red Western’, but
even more significantly this was a film which showed that support for
the Red Army extended way beyond ethnic Russians, showing the
Chinese prince Chadiarov as a Soviet hero, thus reflecting the full
Sovietization of Central Asia.
The second film in the trilogy, Trans-Siberian Express, follows
secret agent Chadiarov to the Manchurian city of Kharbin, where in
1927 he resides under the pseudonym of Fan and poses as manager
of a cabaret. Fan is blackmailed by a banker to travel to Moscow
with a Chinese passport and in the company of his ‘wife’ Sasha. He
soon discovers a plot to kill the Japanese businessman Saito, travelling on the same train to offer economic collaboration to the Soviet
regime. A criminal gang – composed of Sasha, Saito’s bodyguard
and a journalist – intend to blame the murder on Fan, who will
appear as a Soviet secret service agent. Thus, the counter-Revolutionaries will prevent economic collaboration with Japan, while the
blame will fall on the Soviet Union. As the train travels through Mongolia and Siberia Fan works out the plot and, continuing to play the
foolish and silly cabaret owner Fan, he sows suspicion among the
enemy. Once Fan has debilitated the gang and prevented the crime,
the Red officers arrive to arrest the criminals. The film adopts the
Directory of World Cinema
style of a detective story, with clear references to a Soviet version of
the ‘Orient Express’.
The three films represent an attempt to create, in the popular genre
of an ‘Eastern’ action film, the story of a secret agent’s life, bringing
out his commitment to the communist cause and underscoring the
unity in Central Asia with the Soviet Empire during the 1920s. The
choice of a spy story further aligns the film with genre cinema at a
time when spy films flourished both in Russia and abroad. The entire
project of the trilogy made at Kazakhfilm is significant for the Eurasian
theme, the links between the centre and the periphery, between Asia
and Europe. In the context of Soviet cinema of the 1970s Central Asia
was an attractive location for the adventure genre, and the popular
film White Sun of the Desert (1970), directed by Vladimir Motyl’ and
scripted by Rustam Ibragimbekov, further underpins the popularity of
these exotic settings.
Birgit Beumers
The Seventh
Sed’maia pulia
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Russian and Uzbek
Uzbekfilm Studio
Ali Khamraev
Fridrikh Gorenstein
Andrei Konchalovskii
Aleksandr Pann
Art Director:
Emonuel Kalantarov
Rumil’ Vil’danov
V. Makarova
Uzbekistan in the 1920s: Bolshevik commander Maksumov returns to
the Uchkurgan settlement after spending a few days in the regional
capital. He finds the place devastated and depopulated. His opponent, Hayrullah, a leader of the anti-Soviet basmachi, has not only
defeated the Red Army troops but also convinced more than a hundred of them to switch sides. Maksumov decides to go to the lion’s
den on his own in order to confront the enemy. With him is Aigul, a
young woman who has been bought by Hayrullah as his new wife.
Maksumov joins a caravan on its way to the basmachi camp. Tied up,
humiliated and harassed by Ismail who claims that Maksumov killed
his brother, the Bolshevik commander is brought to Hayrullah, who
tries to corrupt him. After Maksimov’s refusal to serve the basmachi,
Aigul frees him from prison. During the ensuing struggle, Maksumov
is victorious and kills Hayrullah, yet Aigul also loses her life.
Ali Khamraev’s The Seventh Bullet belongs to a peculiar sub-genre,
sometimes referred to as the ‘Eastern’, a Western-type action flick
with an explicit pro-communist propaganda message, usually taking
place during the 1920s Civil War. The Eastern typically features a
Bolshevik superman as its central character, a man just as apt in
delivering ideological arguments as in handling guns and martial arts.
Commander Maksumov in The Seventh Bullet, ably portrayed by
Kyrgyz star Suimenkul Chokmorov (1939–1992), is a stony-faced, fearless hero with a highly controlled body language; his physical prowess
and strategic aptitude ultimately convince the doubting natives to
rejoin his military unit. On several occasions, he recalls his suffering
at the hands of the tsarist police, which provides motivation for his
staunch pro-Soviet position.
Action/Red Western 225
Directory of World Cinema
84 minutes
Psychological thriller
Suimenkul Chokmorov
Dilorom Kambarova
Khamza Umarov
Bolot Beishenaliev
Maksumov’s opponent, Hayrullah, come across as a mere stock
character – a ruthless, brutal, one-eyed patriarch in the service of
British imperialists, whose airplanes he is impatiently expecting.
Somewhat questionably, Fridrikh Gorenshtein’s and Andrei MikhalkovKonchalovskii’s script also repeats a clichéd constellation from the
latter’s The First Teacher (1965), with a virile Bolshevik leader and
a teenage girl who is erotically attracted to him. Among the film’s
strengths is a credible evocation of impending doom during the
opening episodes, created by Aleksandr Pann’s camera – with wide,
dust-filled vistas of devastation and hopelessness. Rumil’ Vil’danov’s
dramatic, dissonant score is dominated by drums and trumpets and
adds to the suspense. The film, as with many other Easterns, uses the
exotic nature of Central Asia to impressive visual effect. The chase
and fight scenes are staged in a professional manner, arguably to the
standards of international cinematography.
Interestingly, both the habits and rituals of the native population are
depicted with similar degrees of authenticity and respect. Noteworthy
is the film’s ambiguity in regards to Islam. While Maksumov states
at the beginning of the feature that ‘Right now, a Red Islamic unit is
more important than Russian troops’ and quotes the Koran in an affirmative manner, one of his opponents later observes that ‘The men are
beginning to believe in the Bolsheviks more than in Allah’. The film’s
dark, anti-climactic ending adds to this air of instability, both standing in contrast to Maksumov’s military victory and giving the viewer at
least some indication of Civil War’s widespread, tragic destruction.
Peter Rollberg
The Red
Poppies of
Alye maki Issyk-Kulia
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Russian, Kyrgyz
Kyrgyzfilm Studio
Bolotbek Shamshiev
Iurii Sokol
Vasilii Sokol
Somewhere in Kyrgyzstan in the 1920s, a pro-Soviet guard Karabalta
– his name means ‘black axe’ – detects secret paths in the mountains
used by smugglers to transport opium across the Soviet border.
Meanwhile, a strange man named ‘Golden Mouth’ offers to accompany a patrol unit led by Russian commander Kondratii, promising
to help find these smugglers and their camp. He claims to know
a location where hundreds of pounds of opium are stored. When
Kondratii goes on a mission to find the opium storage, smugglers
attack the Soviet camp and take Karabalta and Kondratii’s wife
hostage. Karabalta finally encounters the leader of the gang, Baidak,
and challenges him to fight Kyrgyz-style, one on one, resulting in
Baidak’s defeat. The natives are told by the victorious Soviet troops
to go home and till their land – the new government will protect their
peaceful work.
The literary source for Shamshiev’s thriller, Aleksandr Sytin’s novella
The Smugglers of Tian-Shan, provided a plot in accordance with
the basic formula of the Soviet Western (the so-called ‘Eastern’, or
Directory of World Cinema
Viktor Ovsennikov
Art Director:
Aleksei Makarov
Mikhail Marutaev
99 minutes
Historical action
Red Western
Suimenkul Chokmolov
Sovetbek Dzhumadylov
Eleubai Umurzakov
‘Red Western’): a larger-than-life Bolshevik superman fights a violent
native gang operating under the leadership of a cunning and ruthless criminal patriarch. In Red Poppies of Issyk-Kul, an ascetic, quiet
superman – as usual – embodies the film’s positive moral core, but
this time he is not fully in charge. The Russian commander repeatedly
appears as a competitor for leadership, resulting in miscommunication
and, ultimately, a loss of life. Tellingly, Karabalta is forthcoming only in
the company of his fellow countrymen, whereas he remains guarded
with the Russians. Almost until the end, his personality remains hard
to read, which adds not only to the film’s suspense, but also to the
Russians’ suspicions. Karabalta indicates that, years ago, he was
imprisoned by the tsarist authorities, then escaped to China and later
found a safe haven at the border, taking his family to an inhospitable
mountain region. Although the Russian Bolsheviks and their Kyrgyz
allies work together, there still is a certain amount of mutual distrust.
In particular, the lifestyle of the natives is not fully comprehensible
to the Russians. However, when the normally reserved Kyrgyz people
are among themselves, they do reveal a broader, clearer emotional
register. Thus, on one occasion, Karabalta even sings a ballad to the
dombra, enchanting the native community (the song’s various stanzas
are illustrated with a montage of poetic images). The Soviet forces
are depicted as promoters of a necessary modernization against the
resistance of patriarchal, backward Kyrgyz forces, whose purported
spirituality is mere hypocrisy and whose patriotism just a means to
manipulate the native population. The rank-and-file Kyrgyz are torn
between tribal loyalty toward their leaders and the new powers that
treat them more humanely.
Interestingly, Baidak loses the people’s support not because he
fights the Soviets, but because he kills the winner of a horserace,
violating ancient national law. At the end, however, the Kyrgyz masses
march in close togetherness and wash their faces in the river – a
symbol of cleansing the traces of the past and looking forward to the
Shamshiev’s contribution to the historical action genre that enjoyed
particular popularity in the late 1960s–1970s carries a strong national
flavour. Unlike other directors, he seems to have appropriated the
action-filled and suspenseful plot as a means to capture cultural
peculiarities, rather than for mere entertainment or propaganda. The
film is distinguished by superb camerawork, praising the beauty of
Kyrgyzstan’s wild nature in lavish widescreen images. This beauty,
too, is of conceptual relevance, since nature is a de facto ‘ally’ of the
natives. Thus, Shamshiev’s sensitive treatment of seemingly trivial
subject matter elevates The Red Poppies of Issyk-Kul to a remarkable
artistic level.
Peter Rollberg
Action/Red Western 227
Directory of World Cinema
At Home among
Strangers, a
Stranger at Home
Svoi sredi chuzhikh, chuzhoi
sredi svoikh
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Nikita Mikhalkov
Eduard Volodarskii
Nikita Mikhalkov
Pavel Lebeshev
Art Director:
Aleksandr Adabashian
Eduard Artem’ev
Liudmila Elian
97 minutes
Red Western
Iurii Bogatyrev
Anatolii Solonitsyn
Sergei Shakurov
Aleksandr Porokhorshchikov
Nikolai Pastukhov
Aleksandr Kaidanovskii
Konstantin Raikon
Aleksandr Kaliagin
Nikita Mikhalkov
In the early 1920s, five friends bound together by the Revolution are
building a new life as Communist Party officials in a small, southern
border town. While the war has almost ended, there are still gangs
of outlaws and scattered groups of pro-tsarist Whites operating
in the region. When one of the friends, Egor Shilov, is ordered to
bring expropriated gold to Moscow, his mission is not unanimously
endorsed because his brother had once fought for the Whites. The
night before the journey he is kidnapped and drugged, returning
home only after the gold has been removed from the train by an
enemy faction. Then the train is attacked for a second time, now by
the gang of the Cossack captain Brylov. Shilov becomes the prime
suspect and can only exonerate himself by finding both the money
and a turncoat. While Shilov pursues Brylov, the Cheka is looking for
the traitor. In the meantime the gold has been hidden by the Tatar
Kayum, who first tries to kill Shilov but helps him when the latter saves
him from drowning. Together, they follow Brylov and in a shoot-out
Kayum and Brylov are killed. Brylov’s gang is destroyed by the Reds,
the traitor is discovered – he is none of the old friends who finally
meet among the barren hills, celebrating a new victory over the
enemies of the state.
This directorial debut of the popular actor Nikita Mikhalkov represents, perhaps, the most successful marriage of the traditional Soviet
and Revolutionary adventure film and the equally traditional American
genre of Westerns; here they are transformed into the so-called
‘Eastern’, or ‘Red Western’ of Eastern European cinema. Mikhalkov’s
feature, though, was not the first attempt. Five years earlier, Vladimir
Motyl’ made White Sun of the Desert (1969), a highly successful
Eastern set in the 1920s, in a desert near the Caspian Sea. This would
be followed by The Seventh Bullet (1972) by Ali Khamraev, based
on a script by Friedrich Gorenstein and Mikhalkov’s elder brother,
Andrei Konchalovskii. Konchalovskii, coincidentally, also co-authored
the script of yet another Soviet Eastern, The End of the Ataman by
Shaken Aimanov (1970).
Having decided to make this feature himself, Nikita Mikhalkov
took the most basic conventions of the Western and Eastern; he
then combined and contrasted them. In At Home among Strangers… the ‘iron’ communists of the 1920s are remarkably similar to
the lonesome heroes of classic Westerns. There is an avenger whose
personal issues (of suspect honesty and political adherence) force him
to fight for a civic purpose; and there is the revelation of a traitor and
discovery of stolen gold. Then there are horseback chase sequences,
train robberies, shoot-outs, issues of greed or violence, brooding
silences and moments of comic relief. While it is true that the money
is dutifully dispatched to Moscow – to help with famine relief – and
all the main characters are staunch members of the Communist Party,
there is talk here of both Marx and God. Contemporary reviewers,
Directory of World Cinema
Nikita Mikhalkov, At Home among Strangers… (1974), Nikita Mikhalkov as Brylov.
while noticing such thematic daring, also criticized the film’s frequent
recourse to narrative clichés, saved only occasionally by some formal
Mikhalkov transformed a very simple, sometimes implausible story
into a complex plot full of ellipses, flashbacks and time-distortions.
The film embodies these with jump-cuts, unmotivated crane- and
tilt-shots that have no foundation in the narrative, along with switches
from scorched-like sepia frames to monochromes. Some of these
transformations were later explained by film crew members as the
result of economic factors rather than conscious artistic decisions.
Pavel Lebeshev’s fluid camera movements are interlaced by heartrending melodies written by Eduard Artem’ev. Previously Artem’ev
had composed the score for Andrei Tarkovskii’s Solaris and would
subsequently do the same for Mirror and Stalker. Likewise, some
of Mikhalkov’s actors were also connected with Tarkovskii: Anatolii
Solonitsyn was known for his roles in Andrei Rublev and Solaris, while
Aleksandr Kaidanovskii would go on to play the role of Stalker. All of
these contributors transform a genre exercise into a bold parable and
a striking credo that friendship trumps political alliances, personal
needs and even the needs of the state.
Natalia Riabchikova
Action/Red Western 229
Directory of World Cinema
Air Crew
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Aleksandr Mitta
Iulii Dunskii
Valerii Frid
Aleksandr Mitta
Valerii Shuvalov
Art Director:
Anatolii Kuznetsov
Alfred Schnittke
Nadezhda Veselevskaia
144 minutes
Georgii Zhzhenov
Aleksandra Iakovleva
Leonid Filatov
Elena Koreneva
Ekaterina Vasil’eva
Andrei Vasil’evich, a reserved and laconic veteran of the skies, heads
the crew of an international Aeroflot aircraft. Valentin, a helicopter
pilot, has tried for several years to save his failing marriage. After
a difficult divorce, he joins Andrei Vasil’evich’s flight crew. Igor’, a
flight engineer, is a sociable and carefree ladies man who becomes
enamored with Tamara, a flight attendant. The second half of the film
details what begins as a routine flight. The crew is to deliver emergency supplies to an unnamed country, suffering from the aftermath
of an earthquake. Upon arrival, a tremor shakes the earth, damaging
the runway. Despite unstable conditions the plane, filled with children,
women and injured passengers miraculously takes off. However, it is
discovered that the plane was damaged on takeoff, making it unlikely
that the aircraft will reach its destination. Igor’ and Valentin are sent to
the exterior of the plane to repair a crack in the body. After extreme
turbulence, the flight successfully concludes, despite the loss of the
plane’s tail on landing. After the flight, Andrei Vasil’evich gets used
to life on the ground as he is forbidden to fly due to his health. The
personal strife that Valentin and Igor’ experienced in the first half of
the film is resolved.
Although many films in the Soviet era were shown in two sections, Air
Crew actually changes genres between Parts I and II. Aleksandr Mitta,
previously known for low-key melodramas, possibly could not resist
the slow and methodical drawing-out of the heroes’ personal lives in
the first half, which is practically the length of a feature film. The result
is that one feels as if two separate feature films are on display.
The first half is a quirky Soviet comedy drama, detailing the personal lives of the three main members of the crew who lead separate,
although sparsely interconnected lives. Andrei Vasil’evich’s health is
declining and after returning from a flight, the first thing his wife does is
check his blood pressure. His teenage daughter, now pregnant, causes
him much grief, reminding him that soon he will stop flying and can
raise a grandchild. Valentin is trying to save his marriage, but his wife
is becoming more temperamental and unpredictable. She is clearly
suffering from the double burden of raising the child and working,
while Valentin is away flying helicopters on disaster missions. She starts
suspecting him of having affairs during his extended absences and
gains custody of their son after a bitter divorce battle, accusing him of
being a drunk before the judge. Igor’, an unabashed bachelor, seduces
women with his exotic treasures, gathered in foreign lands. Citing the
progressiveness of Soviet society, he does not believe in marriage. His
attitude begins to change when he falls for Tamara, a stewardess. She
tells him that contrary to what he believes, all women want to get married and have children, asking him why she needs the independence
and modernity he seems to be championing for the opposite sex.
Whereas the first half of the film offers gripping snapshots of the
private lives of Soviet pilots, the second part turns the film into an
Directory of World Cinema
action-adventure epic. Upon landing in the city of Bidri, the damage is
apparent. When a tremor rocks the land soon after arrival, explosions
light up the sky. The men of the crew immediately demonstrate their
courage and decide to take off, despite the dangerous conditions. A
woman cries for the men to do something; Andrei Vasil’evich stoically
declares: ‘We cannot take off, but we cannot stay.’
Andrei Vasil’evich quickly assumes the archetype of an older action
hero, showing resolve and unflinching bravery in the midst of panic.
Both Igor’ and Valentin also demonstrate masculine courage, daring
to repair external damage to the aircraft despite the obvious risks.
Their daring contrasts with images of frightened female passengers,
hiding in blankets underneath the shadows. Upon landing, the women
aboard the plane mob the captain, lavishing him with kisses and
praise. The modest Andrei Vasil’evich calls his wife. Not wanting to
worry her, he explains that poor weather had caused their delay.
Andrei Vasil’evich does not pass his next health test and takes
his ‘grounding’ hard. Whereas Igor’ and Valentin were seemingly
punished in the first half of their film for their apparent selfishness,
now they are rewarded for their valour. Igor’ and Tamara get back
together; she forgives him for his infidelity, being clearly overcome
with respect for his bravery and resolve. The affable Valentin also finds
love and is soon free from the tyrannical memory of his first wife.
While Air Crew was perhaps the most ambitious action-adventure
film shot in the Soviet Union, the special effects are by today’s standards primitive and unconvincing. Many of the action scenes rely on
decelerated or sped-up motion sequences, plus countless explosions,
in order to disguise the inadequacy of a Soviet studio’s technical capabilities. While the action scenes remain improbable, the sub-plot of
Soviet virility is entirely convincing. All of the men suffer bruised egos
and this fated flight grants them an opportunity to permanently regain
any machismo lost in the first half. Viewed as a two-part or double
feature, however, Air Crew is a strange marriage of genres.
Joe Crescente
A Man from
Boulevard des
Chelovek s bul’vara
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Johnny First, an early cinema entrepreneur, arrives in a forlorn
Western settlement where he begins to screen silent films at a local
saloon. A firm believer in the educational potential of cinema, Mr
First soon transforms rowdy cowboys into sober and polite moviegoers and gains the love of Ms Diane Little, a local cabaret star.
Their engagement upsets Pastor Adams, Ms Little’s unlucky suitor.
The saloonkeeper harbours a grudge against Mr First as well: with
no more drunken brawls, his income radically drops. To top it all,
additional free screenings are held for women and Indians, both reaffirming First’s democratic view of art. As these conflicts escalate, the
Pastor and the saloonkeeper hire Black Jack to gun down this recently
arrived missionary of cinema, but the latter miraculously survives.
Nevertheless, anything resembling calm is quickly destroyed by
Action/Red Western 231
Directory of World Cinema
Alla Surikova
Mr Second, another travelling entrepreneur who, during First’s short
absence, begins to screen morally degrading films, and the town
descends back into violence. The film ends with Mr First, his fiancée
and Black Jack all leaving the town in hopes of penning splendid new
pages for the future history of cinema.
Eduard Akopov
Released during perestroika, A Man from Boulevard des Capucines
transposes a Soviet image of the Wild West, formed during the previous decades, onto the canvas of a late-Soviet musical comedy par
excellence. This universe of merry drunken brawls, ruthless gunfights
and capitalist ‘spiritual decay’ would enter Russia’s collective imagination as one of the last Soviet blockbusters. Similarly, the death of
Andrei Mironov before the film’s release marked the beginning of the
end of Soviet cinema.
One of the film’s awards was granted ‘for a truthful depiction of
the Wild West in the equally wild conditions of Soviet filmmaking’.
Besides a few items borrowed from studios in Czechoslovakia, all film
props, including the cowboy hats, were domestically produced, thus
creating the film’s distinctly Soviet-Western atmosphere. Another
obvious example of these ‘wild conditions’ was Gorbachev’s simultaneous anti-alcohol campaign of 1985–1987. Resulting censorship
on the depiction of spirits resulted in absurd big-screen images of
cowboys sipping milk while watching their first silent shorts.
Surikova’s movie focuses upon the collision between different systems of image production and dissemination. From the film’s opening
seconds the viewer is immersed in a universe so remote that modernity itself makes an entrance not via the traditional use of locomotives,
but merely a delayed image thereof: Lumière’s Arrival of the Train.
Encountering these new, enticing tableaux of civilization, the saloondwellers give up their cheerful, booze-addled self-destruction and
approach instead the unknown realm of onscreen emotional experiences geared to educate their human sensibilities. As the audience for
this pedagogical enterprise gradually expands to include minorities,
control is seemingly lost over the population according to economic
or religious factors. This loss brings new problems: with the advent of
‘lowly mass entertainment’, the very same audience, hoping for visual
enlightenment, seems easily swayed by decadent images as it begins
feeding on high art’s corpse. Ironically, it is now an outlaw who comes
to the defence of culture’s lost cause.
Despite the celebratory comic mode of the film, its grim message
foreshadowed future developments in Soviet cinema. Vasilii Pichul’s
Little Vera, a blockbuster produced one year later, exposed these
latent processes of moral degradation and civic disintegration. Highly
entertaining on the surface, A Man from Boulevard des Capucines
resists making any subversive political statements. Instead, we see a
star-studded cast of Soviet actors playing with onscreen alternative
identities only four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Grigorii Belen’kii
Art Director:
Evgenii Markovich
Gennadii Gladkov
L. Gorina
99 minutes
Musical Comedy
Andrei Mironov
Aleksandra Iakovleva
Mikhail Boiarskii
Oleg Tabakov
Nikolai Karachentsev
Igor’ Kvasha
Sasha Razor
Directory of World Cinema
Country of Origin:
Brother introduces a young man, Danila, who has just finished his military service in southern Russia. His mother sends him to St Petersburg
to live with his older brother, Viktor, who, viewers soon discover, is a
hit man. Without any hesitation or scruples, Viktor involves Danila in
the criminal world, causing him to risk his life. Danila, however, having
just returned from war, cannot be easily trapped in Viktor’s plan and
effectively deals with his assassins. After discovering that his brother
has set him up, Danila spares Viktor’s life, gives him some money and
sends him to live with their mother before himself leaving for Moscow.
Brother created a new type of hero in post-Soviet film: the hit man
who follows his own moral standards in deciding whom to kill and
whom to spare. He protects the poor and delivers justice, yet upholds
no coherent moral principles and kills callously. Viewers of Brother
know nothing of Danila’s past with certainty. He claims to have served
at ‘the Headquarters’, but his skills in assembling hand-made guns
make one question the accuracy of this information. One may argue
that Danila seeks guidance and is even concerned with existential
and philosophical questions. In Brother, the story takes place almost
entirely in St Petersburg and only once shows Danila’s hometown in
the provinces. St Petersburg is marked in the Russian imagination as
the Russian ‘window to the West’. Embarking on the crucial process
of westernization of Russian culture, history and identity, in 1703 Peter
the Great built the city with western architectural style and ambience.
In this city, the window to the West, Danila meets Kat, who hangs out
at McDonald’s and takes him to a party with foreigners.
On his first day in the city, Danila befriends an ethnic German, Hoffmann, living in Russia. Here Danila also encounters Hoffmann’s friends
at a Lutheran cemetery, a reminder of the other in the Russian predominantly Orthodox tradition; here his brother has acquired the nickname
‘the Tartar’. Contrary to such exposure to otherness, Danila declares that
he is ‘not wild about Jews’, refuses to have anything in common with
Southerners and despises Americans and the French, recognizing no
difference between the two. Unlike the somewhat enigmatic characterization of the male protagonist, the female characters bear uniformly
negative portrayals: Danila and Viktor’s mother still lives in the past,
unaware of her sons’ real lives; Sveta, one of Danila’s girlfriend, opts to
remain in an abusive relationship; Kat, another girlfriend, is a junkie, who
hangs out at McDonald’s. Balabanov somewhat deviates from the rules
of the action genre, and, through periodic fade-to-black, he punctuates
the pace of the action and creates a unique rhythm. This technique ruptures the plot and relates to the unstructured and inconsistent character
of the main protagonist. The director often uses the black screen to
imply brutal violence or gratuitous sexuality without actually showing it.
With the fade-to-black technique and quick cutting from one scene to
another, Balabanov avoids the onscreen representation of cruelty.
Aleksei Balabanov
Sergei Sel'ianov
Aleksei Balabanov
Sergei Astakhov
Art Director:
Vladimir Kartashov
Viacheslav Butusov
Marina Lipartiia
96 minutes
Sergei Bodrov Jr
Viktor Sukhorukov
Svetlana Pismichenko
Mariia Zhukova
Iurii Kuznetsov
Viacheslav Butusov
Irina Rakshina
Yana Hashamova
Action/Red Western 233
Directory of World Cinema
Brother 2
Brat 2
Country of Origin:
Aleksei Balabanov
In Brother 2 viewers follow Danila from Moscow to Chicago, where he
goes to avenge the brother of a fellow soldier from the Chechen war. He
hitchhikes from New York to Chicago and befriends an American trucker.
In Chicago, equipped with the power of a children’s poem about love for
the homeland, Danila kills a number of African-Americans and climbs a
skyscraper via an outside emergency staircase to confront an American
business man, who has abused the trust of a Russian hockey-player. While
in Brother he sleeps with Kat and Sveta, very opposite and yet ordinary
young women, in Brother 2, his mere appearance is enough to infatuate
the pop star Irina Saltykova (played by Irina Saltykova herself). In Chicago,
he saves the Russian prostitute Dasha, who decides to follow him and go
back to her country. He even has a sexual encounter with the AfricanAmerican television reporter Lisa Jeffry (also playing herself). At the end,
Danila and Dasha return triumphantly to their beloved homeland.
Sergei Sel'ianov
Three major characteristics define Danila in Brother 2: First, he loves
his motherland precisely because it is his; second, he does not care
about money; and third, he is a super-man. Love for the motherland
is supported by a racist attack on American democracy, with its political correctness and ‘hypocritical’ regulations. Viktor is shocked when a
policeman wants to arrest him for drinking from an open bottle in public
because he has seen others drinking in front of the store. (He failed to
notice that they were hiding the bottles in paper bags.) The predominant
image of the United States shown to viewers is that of problematic realities subject to selective, over-emphasized and exaggerated treatment
in the interests of negation. Expanding the boundaries of resentment, in
Brother 2, Viktor does not like Filipp Kirkorov, a contemporary Russian
pop singer, because he uses make-up and is Romanian. When corrected
about Kirkorov’s nationality (Bulgarian), Viktor answers in the usual way:
‘What’s the difference?’ The hatred in Brother – directed only against
such ‘traditional enemies’ as Jews, Chechens and westerners – spreads
over in the sequel to include all non-Russians – Romanians, Bulgarians
and Ukrainians, too. When Viktor runs into Ukrainians in Chicago he refers
to them with a pejorative ethnic term and calls them Nazi collaborators.
In all his conquests in America, Danila aspires to obliterate the
enemy’s identity structure: he achieves his goal by downplaying the
western belief in its supremacy, by physically eliminating his American
enemies and all others who stand on his way, and by emasculating
America, as he sexually conquers the African-American journalist.
These negations are also reflected in editorial techniques. Although
the director continues to use the fade-to-black technique in Brother 2,
it does not work as effectively. The practice is used less and appears
only before or after an important episode. Similar observations can be
made about the use of music and colours in the films, where problems relate to a loss of subtlety. In the sequel, the colours are much
brighter. Along with the shades of the first film, the philosophy and
mystery about the meaning of life and death soon disappear.
Aleksei Balabanov
Sergei Astakhov
Art Director:
Aleksei Giliarevskii
Viacheslav Butusov
Marina Lipartiia
122 minutes
Sergei Bodrov Jr
Viktor Sukhorukov
Sergei Makovetskii
Irina Saltykova
Kirill Pirogov
Aleksandr Diachenko
Dariia Lesnikova
Yana Hashamova
Directory of World Cinema
Country of Origin:
Sergei Bodrov Jr
Sergei Sel'ianov
Gul’shad Omarova
Sergei Bodrov Jr
Sergei Bodrov
Valerii Martynov
Art Director:
Vladimir Kartashov
Viktor Tsoi
‘Agata Kristi’
Natal’ia Kutserenko
80 minutes
Oksana Akin’shina
Katia Gorina
Roman Ageev
Dmitrii Orlov
Aleksandr Bashirov
A young girl, Sveta, is preparing a party to celebrate the release from
prison of a man who is both her mother’s new husband and her halfsister’s father. She currently lives with her grandmother and is quickly
disgusted by the wealth of her new family. It soon transpires that Sveta’s
new stepfather, Alik, is both a local mafia boss and accused of stealing
from the local godfather. In order to protect his eight-year-old daughter
Dina from being kidnapped, Alik tries to hide the two half-sisters in a
flat, but they are immediately exposed. Sveta, nonetheless, manages
to escape with her sister. First they try hiding with relatives, but these
family members are too scared to house them. Consequently, Sveta
breaks into a friend’s dacha (or so she thinks). Alik’s rivals, though, have
established the girls’ whereabouts and they burn down a dacha, albeit
the wrong one. Without a place to stay, the sisters take off with a group
of gypsies, who have been begging on a train. The next day, while
working for the gypsies, the girls are taken by the police and are soon
to be brought to Alik’s rivals. The policeman in charge of the exchange,
though, takes pity on the girls and moves them to his house on a small
river island. As the rivals close in on the girls’ final hiding place, Alik and
his crew turn up to save the girls at the last minute.
There are several references to Bodrov Jr’s own persona throughout
the film; he stars in a cameo role and is accompanied by the music of
rock group Bi2, which was intrinsic to the character of Danila Bagrov
in Brother 2. The title of Bodrov Jr’s directorial debut also seems to
mirror that (in)famous precursor. However, despite being in the same
cinematic style as Balabanov’s popular films, Sisters is thematically
richer. If we continue with the motif of music, then the blend in Sisters
of 1980s Soviet rock and Indian Bollywood melodies makes any
simplistic narrative of national identity impossible. Sveta herself is a
product of diverse cultures, one Asian and the other western, which
combine in order to inform a (Russian) whole.
Sveta is also contrasted with her sister, Dina, who has grown up in
wealth as a gangster’s child; Dina, though, has yet to face her own
demons and accept the brutal reality of her father. The two sisters are
marked by difference, something underscored visually through their
clothing and verbally through their worldviews. Sveta wants to be a
sniper in Chechnya, while Dina pretends that her hat makes her invisible. Both escape their quotidian realities through self-deception, while
at the same time probing into a feared ‘Real’ that is hinted at through
Dina’s drawings and Sveta’s enquiry about her real Chechen father.
On one level, the sisters’ backgrounds could be interpreted as a form
of class struggle (New vs Old), but this duality is complicated with the
inclusion of the Gypsies. In the company of the Gypsy family, both sisters
are privileged ‘White’ kids on the run. They lose their sense of family
unity, projected through motifs of a dinner gathering that again frustrate
any easy interpretations of kinship or nationhood. Bodrov Jr is – thus
far in the movie – interested not so much in group membership as in its
margins or edges. Thus the gangsters are predominately seen in maritime environs, yacht harbours or ferry terminals; these places suggest a
Action/Red Western 235
Directory of World Cinema
Sergei Bodrov Jr, Sisters (2001).
desirable locale of possible departure, without the risk of ever going away.
The girls are associated with urban outskirts and suburbs. These places are
full of lakes, water basins, rivers and scrubland – all barren landscapes that
emphasize the loneliness and isolation of the two main characters.
The girls’ final hideaway, the policeman’s house, is isolated by
water; it is an island from which the only retreat is through the boating
or maritime sphere associated with gangsters. However, the same
water becomes a space that allows the girls to change identities. It is
here that Dina dances for her sister; we are shown the girls exhibiting
their talents and togetherness – now despite their differences. They
are shown dancing against the cloudless, light-blue sky. The penultimate scenes, therefore, speak of mergers.
The resulting dream of linking Asia to a Russian nationality is not
without its nostalgia for the Soviet ‘friendship of peoples’. After all,
Dina is shown dancing to Indian motifs that speak of Soviet retro-radio
broadcasts. Bodrov Jr is of course complicit in this politicized portrayal of
the girls; in fact he appears as the narrative’s guardian angel, even, magically promising to protect Sveta. With this type of simplified or codified
conclusion, the film falls back into an easy duality of mafia-related, ‘Good
vs Bad’ tale, despite the earlier investigations of complex identities, and
social peripheries. Black and white prevail over anything grey.
Lars Kristensen
Directory of World Cinema
Country of Origin:
Pygmalion Production
Petr Buslov
Sergei Chliants
Vladimir Ignat’ev
Petr Buslov
Denis Rodimin
Daniil Gurevich
Art Director:
Ul’iana Riabova
Sergei Shnurov
Ivan Lebedev
110 minutes
Gangster Film
Vladimir Vdovichenko
Maksim Konovalov
Andrei Merzlikin
Sergei Gorobchenko
In Russian, bumer is the vernacular for a BMW; consequently this feature concerns a sleek, imposing BMW 750 IL that cruises the streets
of Moscow. Initially, the car carries four young men who are trying to
escape from the mafia. A scuffle with some bandits in a local street
puts one of the main characters into a dangerous position; his friends
come to his rescue. Together they head out of the Russian capital,
leaving their loved ones behind. With no clear idea of their final destination, the four men start an extremely problematic journey through
the Russian provinces. As they pass through a series of challenges and
trials, their bond becomes stronger; the BMW, however, appears to
be both their only reliable transport and the cause of their troubles.
As the foursome’s mistakes start to overshadow their progress, further
still from Moscow, even the car will fail them.
Bimmer is one of the first important films of the new century that
focuses on Russian life outside of Moscow. The friends’ escape from
the capital provides the director with an opportunity to explore the
social and cultural order in the countryside. The journey serves as a
narrative tool that brings together a series of accidents and confrontations. Each of them accentuates a specific feature of Russian rural life:
for example, a clash with local bandits exemplifies issues of widespread power struggle, while an encounter with a faith healer provides
commentary on the ethical nature of current social conflict. The film, as
we see, presents various members of Russian society at war with each
other; state authorities fail to provide them with either support or protection. The four friends, although presented in a sympathetic fashion,
are in facts bandits ready both to avenge and kill, if needs be. They,
too, epitomize conflict. As a result, this film makes some critical observations about the confused morality of contemporary Russian society;
this is a civic realm where survival instinct, not the rule of law governs
individuals. The heroes’ survival depends on their solidarity, while destiny – or their own wrongdoing – continuously tests that bond.
The film presents an exploration of contemporary Russian masculinity: each member of the central foursome is unable to maintain a
loving relationship with friends or family. This is embodied in terms of
failed communication: a mobile phone they believe helps to connect
them with their families is, in actual fact, used as a tracking device by
their enemies. Though they travel as a group, each of these young
men has to confront his inner conflicts individually. Thus the movie
demonstrates a crisis both of friendship and of individual identities.
These four hyper-masculine buddies emerge both vulnerable and
unable to function in the unknown world of rural Russia. The film
utilizes elements of a road movie, gangster movie and action flick. It
even recalls elements of various Soviet war features that once focused
on the collective heroism of groups. Bimmer, nonetheless, presents a
process of de-heroization and emasculation by underscoring a loss of
both purpose and progression.
Action/Red Western 237
Directory of World Cinema
The film was well received by Russian audiences who saw it as a
symbol of the ‘perestroika generation’ finding its way in post-Soviet
Russia. The appeal of the film was in a graphic representation of
violence, together with a procession of expensive cars or mobile
phones. The ringtone used frequently throughout the film has been
one of the most popular among Russian men ever since. Bimmer thus
helped to establish its leading men in Russian cinema; most of them
remain primarily associated with gangster and crime movies. The film
was followed by a sequel as well as a few parodies, including Dmitrii
Puchkov’s Anti-Bimmer.
Vlad Strukov
Night Watch
Nochnoi Dozor
Country of Origin:
Pervyi kanal
Kinokompaniia Tabbak
Timur Bekmambetov
Varvara Avdiushko
Konstantin Ernst
Timur Bekmambetov (based on
the novel by Sergei Lukianenko)
Sergei Trofimov
Art Director:
Valerii Viktorov
Iurii Poteenko
Dmitrii Kisilev
114 minutes
A new type of social order dominates contemporary Moscow; ‘Others’
who possess supernatural powers, live among normal humans. The
Others fall into two groups – the Dark Ones, or ‘Day Watch’, who
gain their power by feeding on the blood of humans, and the Light
Ones, or ‘Night Watch’, who are supposed to protect people from
their Dark opponents. This struggle dates back centuries, when an
ancient conflict was instigated by an awful curse, imposed on a semimythical virgin who once lived in Byzantium. In the Moscow of 1992,
city dweller Anton Gorodetskii seeks help from a sorceress in order
to regain his unfaithful wife; he learns that she is carrying another
man’s child. Anton asks the sorceress to terminate the pregnancy;
the Night Watch, however, intervenes and saves the child. They also
bring Anton into their order. Thereafter he begins hunting vampires
who attack innocent Muscovites. Twelve years later, in today’s city,
Anton comes across his son, Egor, on the Moscow Metro; Anton tries
to re-establish his parental authority but to no avail. Egor, revealed to
viewers as one of the Others, chooses the Dark side. Anton, himself
under similar pressures, is simultaneously attracted to Svetlana, a very
powerful member of the Night Watch.
The film documents the social and cultural changes that occurred in
Russia under Putin; these are presented through elements of fantasy,
horror and science fiction. By introducing the conflict between the Day
Watch and Night Watch, the director attests to divisions in Russian
society that, in his mind, emerged after Yeltsin’s transitional period of
the 1990s. The movie’s fragile truce between the Dark and Light forces
epitomizes the weakness of the Russian law in modern-day Moscow.
The son of the main character, Egor, symbolizes the new nation: his
father, Anton, had attempted his son’s murder in 1992 (through abortion) but the boy survived. That dramatic salvation becomes a metaphor for Russia’s difficult rebirth after the demise of the USSR.
The on-going struggle between Anton and Egor is established as
the movie’s narrative driving force. In fact, the majority of the film’s
Timur Bekmambetov, Night Watch (2004); Konstantin Khabenskii as Anton Gorodetskii.
Konstantin Khabenskii
Vladimir Men’shov
Viktor Verzhbitskii
Mariia Poroshina
Rimma Markova
other characters merely embody variations upon this complex fatherchild conflict with sub-plots of parental responsibility and filial ties.
Together they might be seen as an extension of the Oedipus complex, resulting in the movie’s stubbornly mythological register. Night
Watch is one of many films produced in Russia since the end of the
1990s that explores the problem of father-child relationships in depth.
The film is loosely based on a series of novels by Sergei Lukianenko,
which accounts for the sometimes confusing storyline. The narrative includes multiple flashbacks that explain the reasons behind the
conflict; thus the viewer gradually learns the ‘new laws’ that govern
Moscow. Much, however, remains obscure.
The film includes many celebrities from Russia’s cinematic heritage, creating a unique, post-Soviet panoply of mass entertainment.
The movie is especially famous for its innovative digital effects; their
wizardry matches the abandon with which Bekmambetov mixes old
and new film stars. Night Watch engages with a new, digital culture
through set-pieces inspired by computer gaming and various websites. Although visually and emotionally dark, the film contains many
humorous one-liners and visual tricks that produce a rich, constantly
energetic spectacle.
Night Watch was Russia’s first major blockbuster after the fall of the
USSR, and garnered a considerable amount of international attention.
The film also propelled the career of its director, Kazakh-born Timur
Bekmambetov into the limelight. He has since become one of the top
producers in Hollywood.
Vlad Strukov
Action/Red Western 239
Directory of World Cinema
Day Watch
Day Watch is a sequel to Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (2004).
Both films tell a story of the struggle between two opposing forces,
the Day Watch and Night Watch. Their leaders are Zavulon and Geser,
respectively. The confrontation between them is ancient; viewers learn
of this history first through flashbacks to World War II, and then to the
thirteenth-century Mongol occupation of Russia. Their historic, mythological and fantastic confrontation is played out in the private lives
of the main characters. The central figure, Anton, tries to re-establish
contact with his son Egor, and he is ultimately torn between parental
responsibility and a new-found love for a troubled stranger, Svetlana.
Kostia, Anton’s neighbour, has to choose between the orders of the
Day Watch and his passion for a mysterious female, Alisa. Kostia’s
father is ready to sacrifice himself in order to protect the future of his
endangered son. Disaster seems inevitable. Anton manages to resolve
his own conflicts – and those of others – by snatching a magical ‘chalk
of destiny’, returning to the past and rewriting the future.
Natela Abuladze
Konstantin Ernst
Dnevnoi Dozor
Country of Origin:
Pervyi kanal
Kinokompaniia Tabbak
Timur Bekmambetov
Timur Bekmambetov (based on
the novel by Sergei Lukianenko)
Sergei Trofimov
Art Director:
Valerii Viktorov
Iurii Poteenko
Dmitrii Kisilev
132 minutes
Konstantin Khabenskii
Vladimir Men’shov
Viktor Verzhbitskii
Mariia Poroshina
Rimma Markova
Zhanna Friske
Aleksei Chadov
Dmitrii Martynov
The plot of Day Watch revolves around various tactics of retribution
that the Dark and Light forces employ against each other; these alternating acts of vengeance are paralleled by a strong sense of equality
and ultimate justice. Alisa, for example, attempts to take revenge
on the murderer of her best friend, Galina; Egor carries out a harsh
reprisal against his father, and so forth. A resulting metaphor of vampirism is used as a narrative device to blur (through digital imagery)
any clarity of stable characterization or enduring moral dispositions.
Computer-generated imagery allows for the constant transformation
of people into animals and birds, toys into destructive weapons and
so forth.
The same effect is used with regard to time. The film’s characters
inhabit the real spaces of contemporary Moscow as well as the historical past; all events appear to be linked and governed by the flexible
truce between the Day and Night Watches. Between these opposites
lies the so-called ‘gloom’, an alternative third space where the laws of
time and gravity cease to exist.
Day Watch features a greater number of characters and plot-lines
than its prequel, yet it is more successful in rendering the central narrative and providing psychological characterization. Multiple storylines
gain clarity because each of them develops a central issue of fatherchild relationships and an associated morality. In the final scene of the
film these lines are brought together in a literal fashion as all forces
converge for the grand, final ball sequence. Festivities soon turn to
hellish fighting, full of phantasmagorical visions that refer to different
cultures, myths and legends. The film overwhelms the viewer with its
chaotic cultural, social and political references, providing a network
of possible interpretations ranging from a biblical creation myth to
the modern conflicts between the KGB and CIA. The film borrows
creatively from The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings and other modern
Directory of World Cinema
epic trilogies, resulting in a kaleidoscopic series of double entendres
and other associations.
The feature benefits from a star cast that includes Russia’s film,
television and music celebrities. Released on 1 January 2006 (that
is, on Russia’s main public holiday) the film offers a feast of celebrities, special effects, mischievous humour, extraordinary stunts and
melodramatic twists. The movie manages, as a result, to stretch genre
boundaries, emerging as an extraordinary hybrid of Christmas fairy
tale, national epos, horror film, comedy and drama. Day Watch broke
all box-office records for Russian domestic film distribution, earning
more than 30 million dollars in order to surpass the previous record
holders, including Bekmambetov’s own Night Watch (2004).
Vlad Strukov
Action/Red Western 241
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Although the first films targeting children as its prime audience
appeared in Imperial Russia, it was the Soviet government that
put a special emphasis on cinema as a tool of children’s education
and propaganda. In 1918 the government set up the Children’s
Cinema Section within the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment
(Narkompros). While the Bolsheviks dreamt of pictures glorifying
the Revolutionary ethos, the culture under the New Economic Policy
(1921–1928) required ideological compromises with commercial
culture. In literature, writers embraced Nikolai Bukharin’s notion of
Red Pinkerton; in cinema, directors used adventure as a vehicle for
the new ideology. Ivan Perestiani’s Red Imps (1923) became a model
of successfully combining communist ideology with a Western-style
By the late 1920s the NEP-era compromises with commercial
cinema were over, and cultural administrators established children’s
cinema as a special branch. By the mid-1930s Soviet children’s cinema
acquired institutional and aesthetic forms that it preserved until its
demise in the late 1980s. The government established a special children’s cinema infrastructure by creating studios dedicated to films for
young audiences (Soiuzdetfilm and Soiuzmultfilm) and building special
cinemas for children.
Evgenii Dobrenko notes that socialist realist literature and cinema
made for adults gravitated toward cultural production for children in
its simplified language, heroes and clear polarization between good
and evil. Many films not specifically addressed to children became
nevertheless popular with children at the time: Nikolai Ekk’s Road to
Life (1931) and the Vasil’ev Brothers’ Chapaev (1934). Road to Life
dealt with the resocialization of juvenile criminals and established the
school film as one of the main variants of the socialist realist master
Stalinist cinema also played a special role in providing visual
confirmations of the utopia that was supposed to come true in the
USSR. The fairy tale and the adventure film about children helping
adults in their struggle for social justice became the major sub-
Sergei Solov’ev, A Hundred Days after Childhood (1974).
Children’s Films 243
Directory of World Cinema
genres of cinema for children. Two filmmakers, Aleksandr Ptushko and Aleksandr Rou,
were the main filmmakers engaging in fairy tale films. In 1935 Ptushko released his
first fantasy, New Gulliver, combining live action with animation. Ptushko specialized in
adaptations of Soviet fairy tales, such as Golden Key (1939), Tale of Lost Time (1964),
and films based on Russian epics, such as Sadko (1952) and Il’ia Muromets (1956). Rou
specialized in adaptations of Russian folk and fairy tales, with Vasilisa the Beautiful
(1939) and Jack Frost (1964).
The Stalinist revival of imperialist expansionism found its representation in the adaptations of the novels by Jules Verne and Robert Lewis Stevenson. In these films, filmmakers
often ‘improved’ the original story to suit Marxist ideology. Thus, in Children of Captain
Grant (1936), the villain Thomas Ayrton is redeemed because his crime stemmed from
the class oppression experienced in the British Navy. Finally, Aleksandr Razumnyi, and
Arkadii Gaidar, synthesized Verne’s adventure and Soviet ideology in their film Timur and
his Team (1940). The story, originally titled Duncan and his Team, was inspired by Verne’s
novel about Captain Grant’s children.
Vladimir Shneiderov produced ethnographic films about Soviet scientists’ travels
in Central Asia and the Far East: Dzhulbars (1935), Golden Lake (1935), The Alamasts
Gorge (1937), Gaichi (1938). In these films, scientists and secret service agents prospect
the natural resources and help the locals find the path toward the correct ideology.
Shneiderov’s adventures shared their vigilant spirit with numerous spy films for children
(Lenochka and Grapes (Kudriavtseva, 1936), Train Goes to Moscow (Gindelshtein and
Poznanskii, 1938), High Award (Shneider, 1939)).
An overview of Stalin-era children’s cinema would be incomplete without discussing
the alternative voices to Stalinist mainstream. In the 1930s, Mark Donskoi filmed his
famous trilogy based on Gorky’s autobiography, which anticipated neo-realist aesthetics,
favouring the child protagonist and the nuclear family as the core of the protagonist’s
world. The 1930s is also the time of Margarita Barskaia’s experiments as she sought the
sources of authentic performances in children’s improvisation. Her first film, Torn Boots
(1933), featured children as lead actors, while her second film Father and Son (1936)
depicted the Soviet family as a site of social crisis; this film was banned.
During the Great Patriotic War, Soiuzdetfilm was evacuated to Stalinabad, where the
studio produced twelve films; these were fairy tale films, adventures and films about
children helping adults in socialist construction. The war effort also increased a demand
for the films about young heroes sacrificing their lives in the fight against the Nazis.
Only two films of the 1940s challenged the aesthetics of official children’s cinema: Once
Upon a Time There Was a Girl, an understated melodrama about war orphans (Eisymont,
1944) and Cinderella, a self-reflexive fairy tale, evoking avant-garde acting of the 1920s
(Kosheverova and Shapiro, 1947).
During the post-war reconstruction, children’s cinema was a low priority for the Soviet
government. In 1947 Soiuzdetfilm was reorganized into the Gorky Film Studio without
any mandate of making films for children. Only in 1957 was the production of films for
children increased. Mosfilm established a special children’s cinema unit, ‘Youth’. In 1963
Gorky Studio gained the status of a studio producing films for children and adolescents.
The revival of cinema for children was inspired by the de-Stalinization policies during
the Thaw. Under the influence of neo-realism, young heroes acquired the status of
paragons of innocence and integrity. The child hero became the protagonist not only
in films for children but also in films for general audiences, because the child embodied
anti-monumentalism as the key trope of de-Stalinization.
Thaw filmmakers also reconsidered the conventions of the school film and the collective’s central role in the socialization of children. While the children’s collective remained
the key social unit in the films, many films emphasized the value of the individual as well.
Such films as Tale of the First Love (Levin, 1957), And What If This is Love? (Raizman,
Directory of World Cinema
1962) raised issues of privacy and human relations, where the school as a state institution
had no business whatsoever.
Thaw-era filmmakers challenged Stalinist aesthetics by invoking on screen the Revolutionary art of the 1920s. In 1966 Aleksei Batalov adapted Iurii Olesha’s Three Fat Men
(1966), while Edmond Keosaian released a remake of Red Imps titled The Elusive Avengers (1966). In the same year Gennadii Poloka created a comic adaptation of Grigorii
Belykh and Leonid Panteleev’s Republic ShKID.
In the 1960s, inspired by European art cinema, Soviet directors started making auteur
films, which were officially listed as films for children. The ‘Youth’ unit, for example,
started its production of children’s films with Andrei Tarkovskii’s The Steamroller and the
Violin (1960). Among the auteurs, Rolan Bykov emerged as the filmmaker who dedicated
his talent to art cinema for children: Dolittle-66 (1966), Attention, a Turtle! (1970) and The
Scarecrow (1983). In his films, children try to identify their authentic feelings against the
barrage of ideological narratives foisted upon them at school.
Bykov redefined the mission of children’s cinema from a tool of state propaganda to a
mouthpiece of Thaw intelligentsia’s ideology. The best films for children of the 1960s and
1970s were made by art cinema filmmakers (Bykov, Leonid Nechaev, Dinara Asanova,
Boris Rytsarev) and promoted such values as the respect for the individual and ideological tolerance.
In the 1970s science-fiction films for children took off with the success of Richard
Viktorov’s Moscow-Cassiopeia (1973) and Teenagers in the Universe (1974). These films
combined space adventure with a thinly veiled critique of Soviet society. At the centre
of the films stood failed extra-terrestrial civilizations, where the totalitarian repression
of the individual led to ecological disaster. While science-fiction films for children thus
used Aesopian settings to hint at the fact that Soviet utopia had long gone astray, social
problem films of the 1970s and 1980s, above all Dinara Asanova’s Tough Kids (1983)
and Bykov’s Scarecrow, openly questioned the ideological premises of Soviet cinema
for children and, in the final analysis, served a lethal blow to this branch of the Soviet
propaganda industry.
The ideological crisis of children’s cinema went hand in hand with the changes in the
economic priorities of the Soviet film industry. The Gorky Studio switched to making
B-quality detective films in order to increase revenues. From 1981 to 1985, out of 105
films released by the Gorky Studio, only seven were for children.
After the fall of the USSR, Russian screen culture for children was increasingly dominated
by Hollywood and Disney products. In their turn, Russian filmmakers tried to create domestic cinema and television for children and family audiences. In 1989, Bykov established
the Rolan Bykov Foundation with a mandate to create a television channel for children,
produce films and hold an annual festival of children’s cinema. The foundation released
two civic-minded documentary series: The Sacred War (about war through children’s eyes)
and Children of the Countryside: SOS! (about social problems of children in rural Russia).
In the late 1990s the St Petersburg studio ‘Windmill’ (Mel’nitsa) started the production
of animated features and television series for family audiences (Adventures in Emerald
City, 1999; The Little Long Nose, 2002; Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Dragon, 2004;
Dobrynia Nikitich and the Dragon, 2006; and Il’ia Muromets and Nightingale the Bandit,
2007), while only few live-action films for children appeared in the same period, largely
about poverty and street urchins (e.g. Andrei Proshkin’s Spartak and Kalashnikov, 2002).
The immediate future of screen culture for children seems to belong to state-controlled television. In 2006 Vladimir Putin spoke to the Duma about creating specialized
television channels for children, and in the following year two state-controlled media
holdings, First Channel and VGTRK, launched such channels: Teleniania and Bibigon.
Aleksandr Prokhorov
Children’s Films 245
Directory of World Cinema
Red Imps (Little
Red Devils)
Around 1920–1921, in a small Ukrainian village near the Crimean
coast, the teenager Misha does metalwork repair on railroad
cars with his father Petrov. Misha reads and fantasizes about the
‘Leatherstocking Tales’ of James Fenimore Cooper, while his sister
Duniasha is obsessed by Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly. When the
anarchist peasant army of ‘Bat’ko’ Nestor Makhno attacks the village,
Petrov is mortally wounded. With his last breaths, he instructs his
children to fight the enemy together with the Red Army. Misha and
Duniasha set off to join forces with the First Cavalry commanded by
Semen Budennyi. They soon meet a black street acrobat named Tom
Jackson and become fast, dear friends. The adventurous, goodnatured threesome encounters a range of wild exploits, from beatings and kidnappings to gun skirmishes and cavalry attacks. After
many death-defying escapades, they finally succeed in capturing the
erratic and sadistic Makhno and bring him to Budennyi. Crowds cheer
enthusiastically as Budennyi kisses and bestows the Order of the Red
Banner upon the three protagonists.
Pavel Bliakhin
Ivan Perestiani
Krasnye d’iavoliata
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Kinosektsiia Narkomprosa Gruzii
(Goskinoprom Gruzii)
Ivan Perestiani
Aleksandr Digmelov
Art Director:
Fedor Push
130 minutes
Children’s Film
Konstantin Davidovskii
Pavel Esikovskii
Sofiia Zhozeffi
Kador Ben-Salim
Vladimir Sutyrin
Vitalii Brianskii
Originally released as a two-part serial, Red Imps was the first
domestic box-office hit of the Soviet film industry. Although set in
Ukraine and featuring Ukrainian historical figures from the Civil War,
the film was produced in Georgia by the Film Section of the Georgian
Commissariat for Education. Furthermore, much of the cast and crew,
including director Ivan Perestiani, came from Georgia. This kind of
cultural hybridity can also be found in the narrative structure and
overall style of the film. As Soviet audiences strongly favoured foreign
films, Perestiani incorporated various aspects of western – particularly
Hollywood – filmmaking into a story that otherwise seemed distinctly
local and appropriately Soviet.
The narrative design of Red Imps largely follows that of American
serial queen melodramas and Douglas Fairbanks-style swashbuckling
adventure films. The film maintains a fairly loose structure, with a
series of individual set pieces linked together by a single, relatively
vague but overarching goal: to defeat and/or capture Bat’ko Makhno.
The narrative is driven by distinct obstacles that arise within each
set piece. In each instalment of a serial such as The Perils of Pauline
(1914) or The Exploits of Elaine (1914), the brave heroine would find
herself facing an altogether new hazard – trapped on a runaway hot
air balloon, locked in an underground tunnel flooding with water, etc.
Typically, each set piece would involve yet another elaborate scheme
by the antagonist to entrap the protagonist, who, surely enough,
would fall haplessly for it. The protagonist would then have either the
proper wits or the good fortune to overcome or be rescued from this
predicament. The antagonist would once again be forced to hatch a
new plot and the story would continue. Such is the narrative design of
Red Imps: Misha is captured by Makhno’s bandits, knocked unconscious, thrown from a cliff into the sea, and it is Tom who must save
Directory of World Cinema
Ivan Perestiani, Red Imps (1923).
him; Duniasha is captured by Makhno’s bandits, knocked unconscious,
strung upside down from a tree, and it is Misha and Tom who must
save her; Misha is captured by Makhno, forced to fisticuffs against
Makhno’s goliath warrior, and it is Misha who must save himself. In
principle, such a structure allows the filmmaker to easily expand or
contract the narrative as needed, the only required resolution being
the unmasking and/or capturing of the antagonist. As the film centres
on individual scenes of orchestrated action, Perestiani draws upon
analytical editing traditions and accelerated editing rates – both
common in the West – in order to clearly depict spatial relationships
within a scene and heighten the sense of action and suspense.
Western influences are also acknowledged in the books that are
read and then ‘lived’ by our young heroes: the fearless outdoor
Children’s Films 247
Directory of World Cinema
adventures of the American James Fenimore Cooper combined
with the revolutionary fervour and romance of the British Ethel
Voynich. Perestiani tellingly shies away from pre-Revolutionary Russian cinema’s interest in exploring character psychology. Misha and
Duniasha’s father is murdered, yet throughout their supposed quest
for vengeance, they consistently sport either good-humoured grins
or game-faced determination. As in its Hollywood counterparts, the
emphasis here is strictly on action and our plucky heroes have no time
to ponder the morbid or morose.
The success of the Red Imps led to four sequels: Savur-Mogila, The
Crime of Princess Shirvanskaya, The Punishment of Princess Shirvanskaya and Illan Dilli. These sequels were produced in 1926, directed by
Ivan Perestiani and featured the same principal characters and cast as
the original. A sound version of Red Imps was released during World
War II, and in 1966 Edmond Keosaian released a colour widescreen
remake under the title The Elusive Avengers.
Vincent Bohlinger
The Road to
Putevka v zhizn’
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Nikolai Ekk
Aleksandr Stolper
Regina Ianushkevich
Nikolai Ekk
Vasilii Pronin
Art Director:
Ivan Stepanov
Iakov Stolliar
95 minutes
The Road to Life tells of the fate of the thousands of homeless children in the USSR during the early 1920s. The film begins by showing
how the children are exploited by a certain Fomka Zhigan, who forces
them to trick and rob people on the streets so that they can survive.
The children are eventually rounded up by a commission of social
workers. One of the workers, Nikolai Sergeev, devises a plan to create
a children’s collective, where they will learn to be joiners, mechanics
and shoemakers. Despite initial hostility on the part of the children,
the collective is formed. The attempts to change the children’s bad
habits are not instantaneously successful; when supplies of raw materials run dry and the leadership of Sergeev is absent, they go on a
spree of vandalism. Later Zhigan makes a return when he finds his
income is gone and that life is difficult with nobody to exploit. He
attempts to draw the boys back into his world by getting them drunk,
but fails. The film ends on both a tragic and triumphant note. The
boys complete their work laying a local railway which is opened with
celebration. Yet this is tinged with sadness as one of the head boys,
Mustafa, who has successfully moved on from his past, dies and so the
celebration is also a tribute to him.
The Road to Life is deservedly considered to be a key film in the history of Soviet cinema, not just because it was the first, proper feature
film with sound, but also due to the high quality of the production as
a whole. The theme of homelessness among children was a matter
of grave concern for the Soviet leadership, yet it also made for a dramatic, profound and entertaining story. This, alongside the fine work
of the filmmakers, led to both popular and critical success at home
Directory of World Cinema
Children’s film
Nikolai Batalov
Iyvan Kyrlia
Mikhail Zharov
Regina Ianushkevich
Vladimir Vesnovskii
and abroad. In America the film enjoyed relative popularity and this
may have been related to the problem of homelessness during the
Great Depression.
At one point the film refers to the need to end homelessness
among children and to make them happy citizens (accompanied by
an image of Lenin). Yet the film is less about didactic preaching than it
is a humane, universally applicable story. In the first place, it seeks to
explain why homelessness can happen, without blaming the pre-Revolutionary era. We are shown one, initially happy, family in which the
mother dies. The father then begins to drink heavily and beats his son
Kolia, who then finds himself on the street. The attempts to resolve
the situation through labour appears to be a fairly predictable solution
to the problem. However, Nikolai Sergeev’s efforts to subtly show the
boys the meaning of trust, structure and the surrogate family of fellow
urchins, makes for a believable and convincing narrative.
By 1931, the montage movement had already faded and this
film, as with the majority of movies in the 1930s, is centred on the
script and dialogue. Nonetheless, the director does have a distinctive visual style. In particular, he frequently edits together close-ups
of the characters reacting to events, such as the death of Kolia’s
mother. Although this can be rather sentimental at times, it also
effectively conveys a whole range of complex emotions among the
children, including distress, confusion, anxiety and humour. This is
also achieved by the superb level of acting across the board. Nikolai
Batalov is outstanding as Sergeev with his charismatic inspiration,
bringing meaning to the children’s lives. Indeed, the child actors are
also highly effective, including Iyvan Kyrlia who played Mustafa, yet
had no professional training. The Road to Life proved to be Ekk’s most
famous film and it remains a classic of Soviet cinema.
Jamie Miller
Torn Boots
Rvanye bashmaki
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Margarita Barskaia
Margarita Barskaia
Torn Boots was, according to Margarita Barskaia, the first children’s
sound film when it was released in 1933. The story takes place in
Germany as the Nazis rise to power. The dock-workers are on strike
and this event is contextualized within the working-class family where
there is poverty, hunger and hardship. Initially, children play at being
families and doctors, but, as the plot develops, we are drawn more
and more to the idea that the children are not immune to the class
conflict of the adult world. Child labourers are shown working at a
rubbish tip and can only dream of having the wonderful toys displayed in a shop window. The film shows the children as they become
more politically aware in the school environment. Eventually, the workers’ children unite to join their fathers as they protest, but a young
child, Bubbi, is mercilessly shot dead by the police. The film ends with
young communists defiantly marching into the future, suggesting that
this terrible sacrifice has not been in vain.
Children’s Films 249
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Georgii Bobrov
Sarkis Gevorkian
Art Director:
Vladimir Egorov
Vissarion Shebalin
88 minutes
Children’s Film
Mikhail Klimov
Ivan Novosel’tsev
Vladimir Ural’skii
Torn Boots is essentially an example of political propaganda aimed
at children, although it has a distinctly adult tone in many places. It
replicates the coming to communist consciousness that characterized so many Soviet films, especially during the 1930s. The children
begin with their naïve games, but they experience the harsh realities of everyday life, for example in school. Here they are subjected
to corporal punishment, overly authoritarian teachers and relentless
religious dogma, which is associated with the conservatism of Nazi
politics. The school also acts as an arena of class conflict between
children who are in favour of the striking fathers and those who are
against. Eventually, the working-class children prevail and reach a
form of class consciousness. This is particularly clear after the death of
the young hero, Bubbi Slezak.
Yet it would be unfair to dismiss Torn Boots as merely a crude piece
of propaganda. Although this function is central, the film is made
to exceptionally high standards. One of its obvious strengths is the
extraordinary skill shown by the child actors. In a variety of situations
the children are able to convey extremely complex emotions. In one
scene, Bubbi looks through a toy shop window at the bewildering
array of objects on display and reacts with the most natural expressions of joy, delight and surprise. The film also reveals the influence of
the 1920s montage movement. Following Bubbi’s death the turmoil
of the situation is powerfully conveyed by rapid shots of panic-stricken
crowds and a mother who is blind but hears the shot and fears for
the life of her own child. Perhaps the most significant message of the
film is not the obvious one we see in the narrative, but another idea
that, with hindsight, seems more profound. Barskaia’s film is slightly
ambiguous as it also suggests that political conflict destroys childhood: it is the necessity of coming to consciousness so early that
denies the children the normal everyday joys of being children and
robs them of their naïveté. This idea is of great relevance to the fate
of children under the Stalinist regime.
Jamie Miller
New Gulliver
Novyi Gulliver
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
At a summer camp in the Crimea, the young pioneer Petia falls
asleep in the sun during a group reading of his favourite book,
Gulliver’s Travels. Petia dreams that he is Gulliver on board a sailing
ship attacked by brutal pirates. Along with three others he triumphs,
but the ship sinks spectacularly when it crashes into rocks. When he
wakes up, he is tied up and surrounded by Lilliputians. This monarchy
is strictly divided into grotesquely depraved courtiers supported by
their soldiers and the oppressed workers slaving under ground in
munitions factories. In this communist revisioning of Swift’s story, Petia
duty-bound as a young pioneer, takes a different approach to his literary predecessor. The ‘Man Mountain’ Petia sides with the oppressed
Directory of World Cinema
Aleksandr Ptushko
Serafima Roshal’
Grigorii Roshal’
Aleksandr Ptushko (based
on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s
Nikolai Renkov
Art Directors:
Iurii Shvets
A. Nikulin
Aleksandr Zharenov
Lev Shvarts
68/73 minutes
Aleksandr Ptushko, New Gulliver (1935).
Children’s Film
Literary Adaptation
Vladimir Konstantinov
Ivan Iudin
Ivan Bobrov
F. Brest
workers who warn him that the king’s men intend to poison him for
his suspiciously egalitarian views. Petia unites with the workers who
have started a revolution in response to the despotic king’s ministers
attempt to destroy them. Together they are able to overcome the
king’s armies and take over the country. However, their victory celebrations are interrupted by the laughter of the young pioneers who
have been listening to Petia talking in his sleep.
1935 (restored 1960)
Freely adapted from Swift as a Soviet satire of capitalism, New
Gulliver was a groundbreaking work. Ptushko’s first feature film was
not only one of the first full-length animated films made anywhere in
the world, but it also stunningly combined live action and stop-motion
three-dimensional puppet animation in an extraordinary fantasy
Three years in the making, New Gulliver was a technological feat.
The Lilliputians were highly expressive with more than 1,500 (some
accounts claim 3,000) separate ‘puppets’ employed. They had detachable heads to provide the opportunity to effectively animate different
facial expressions. The king’s evil ministers perform the most detailed
gestures. Some of the finest characterizations are those of the sniggering idiot king and his sadistic ministers – exquisitely stereotyped
capitalist monsters who stop at nothing in their lust for power. The
fight in parliament is hilarious and the continuity of the mass action
scenes is fluid and lively. For a Marxist revision, it was surprising just
how dynamic the grotesque ruling class characters were. In contrast,
the workers were made uniformly of dark plasticine with little individuality to avoid making them appear parodic. However, this denied
Children’s Films 251
Directory of World Cinema
them revolutionary zeal by symbolically accentuating the faceless
dullness of the working class.
Remarkably, this painstaking technique was combined intimately
with the young Gulliver’s live-action performance in powerful mass
scenes. The strangest of them featured Gulliver consuming food
delivered by a conveyor belt and seated opposite the king while they
are entertained by a bizarre line-up of ballet dancers, love serenades
and dwarf microputs. These breathtaking scenes are wonderfully
staged with strong dramatic connections between Gulliver and the
The cohesiveness of the action is juxtaposed against the purposeful
clash of logic, styles and historical periods. The architecture is medieval but with constructivist flourishes of swinging cranes. The munitions factory is a modernist nightmare with astonishing machinery and
massive spidery robots. The King’s courtiers get about in ancient wigs
and large cars while the soldiers wear armour and gas masks.
Ptushko’s sound design was equally impressive with startling synchronized dialogue and innovative recording techniques producing
the definitive squeaky, high-pitched sped-up voices forever associated
with puppets. The dialogue scenes of the shrill tremolo courtier Lilliputians produced a disquieting effect that was modulated when the
more sonorous Lilliput workers spoke with Gulliver. The lampooning of
romantic love songs with the grimacing, toothy rendition of ‘My Lilliput Girl’, accompanied by a burlesque ballet, became an enduring hit.
Technology is ingeniously represented through sound when the devious ministers use a record player to deliver the idiot king’s lip-synched
speeches while a sparsely modernist sound design sets the mood for
the mechanical nightmare of the munitions factory.
The film’s success was phenomenal domestically and internationally,
with the critics and the general public. While the film can be seen as
communist kitsch, it continues to maintain its appeal with its innocent
impulse to fairness embedded in a fantastical adventure. Ptushko
only made one more film (The Golden Key, 1939) that combined live
action with animation. The success of New Gulliver facilitated Ptushko’s considerable future experimentation in special effects and fantasy,
and gave rise to the on-going popularity of stop-motion animation.
Greg Dolgopolov
Captain Grant’s
Deti kapitana Granta
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
The crew of Scottish Lord Glenarvan’s yacht, the Duncan, finds in the
stomach of a caught shark a message from shipwrecked sea captain
Harry Grant. After a request from Grant’s children, Robert and Mary,
mediated by Glenarvan’s wife, Glenarvan launches a rescue expedition – in spite of the refusal of assistance from the London authorities,
which suspect him of nationalist, anti-English sentiments. On their
long voyage, the rescuers are joined by the very knowledgeable, but
extremely absent-minded French explorer Jacques Paganel. After
many dangerous adventures in Patagonia and the Southern Seas
Directory of World Cinema
Vladimir Vainshtok
David Gutman
Oleg Leonidov
Arkadii (Abram) Kal’tsatyi
Art Directors:
Vladimir Balliuzek
Iakov Rivosh
Isaak Dunaievskii
83 minutes
Children’s Film
Literary adaptation
Iurii Iur’ev
Nikolai Cherkasov
Iakov Segel’
(including captivity by a Maori tribe), the search party rescues Captain
Grant from an island in the South Pacific, leaving behind the criminal
Ayerton, who is to blame for Grant’s troubles.
A period adventure film aimed primarily at children and adolescents,
Captain Grant’s Children remains a source of uncomplicated but
enjoyable entertainment – a relative rarity among ‘adult’ Soviet films,
but a more frequent feature of Soviet children’s cinema. This phenomenon can be observed particularly during the Stalin regime, with its
didactic pretensions and the wish to extend its control to all sections
of the population.
The film’s director Vladimir Vainshtok belonged to the second tier
of Soviet filmmakers; his successes were few, but notable, not least
because he belonged to that relatively small group of directors who
preferred to work in cinematic genres usually associated with western
‘bourgeois’ cinema. While compelled to include in his films some
ideological content (most notably in the 1937 adaptation of R.L.
Stevenson’s Treasure Island), Vainshtok still managed to convincingly
convey the spirit of adventure – something which still makes Captain
Grant’s Children one of the most successful screen adaptations of
Jules Verne’s works and a real pleasure to watch and recall. Indeed,
it is the sense of modest but tangible and practically uninterrupted
pleasure – enhanced by a bookish pace and an archaic style in which
even the technical imperfections of the soundtrack and special effects
play a positive role – that allows this film to be singled out as an
almost unique experience not only within Stalinist cinema but Soviet
film culture in general.
The film’s pleasurable mood is most strikingly conveyed by Isaac
Dunaievskii’s musical score and the acting of Nikolai Cherkasov.
Unlike the orchestral music in many of Hollywood’s adventure films,
Dunaievskii’s score is situational and unobtrusive. The same is true of
Cherkasov’s performance as the eccentric geographer Paganel: his
acting is psychologically precise and only slightly self-ironic. Therefore, it is integral to the film’s mix of subdued sentimentality and
carefully constructed credibility (among other things, guaranteed by
the expertise of the Academy of Sciences’ Ethnographic Museum)
called upon to relate both to the sincerity of child’s fantasies and to
the Stalinist concept of man’s conquest of nature – in this case applied
to a refreshingly and curiously broader category than the new Soviet
Sergei Kapterev
Children’s Films 253
Directory of World Cinema
Vasilisa the
Vasilisa prekrasnaia
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Aleksandr Rou
G. Vladychina
Ol’ga Nechaeva
Vladimir Shveitser
Ivan Gorchilin
Art Director:
Vladimir Egorov
Leonid Polovinkin
Kseniia Blinova
72 minutes
Children’s Film
Fairy tale
Georgii Milliar
Sergei Stoliarov
Lev Potemkin
Nikita Kondrat’ev
V. Sorogozhskaia
Irina Zarubina
Through a combination of impetuousness and fate, the young and
immature Ivan meets the beautiful and enchanted Vasilisa, who
assumes the form of a frog in public and performs chores while out of
sight. Ivan’s older brothers choose brides too, but choose them badly.
The jealousy of these women leads to Vasilisa being kidnapped by the
dragon Zmei Gorynych, and Ivan has no choice but to leave his home
in pursuit of his abducted fiancée. Having cast off the provinciality
of his origins, Ivan traverses the majestic Russian land, overcoming
challenges and maturing into a hero. By the time he enters the dark
forest where Zmei Gorynych dwells with his ally Baba Yaga, he is a
mighty defender of the Russian people. Evil schemes cannot keep the
destined pair apart; Ivan and Vasilisa overcome their enemies, and,
their joint victory complete, they greet a glorious sunrise spreading
over the Russian land where they return.
Although it shares its title with a Russian folktale, Aleksandr Rou’s
Vasilisa the Beautiful is not a filmic adaptation, so much as a synthesis
of several traditional tales in a new form, which adapts some ideas
for the contemporary viewer. Vasilisa thus occupies a middle ground
between traditional folk culture, as it came to be celebrated during
the Stalin period, and the new socialist realist tales composed as part
of the revival of Russo-centric nationalism after Stalin’s consolidation
of power in the late 1920s. As might be expected from this cultural
context, the film incorporates folkloric motifs into a form defined by
the aesthetic and ideological demands of socialist realism.
Vasilisa begins with a frame narrative in which three epic bards,
dressed in traditional Russian costumes and plucking the strings of
traditional Russian instruments, inform the viewers that they are about
to witness ‘popular truth’. As they fade out, the main plot commences
with placid nature scenes in which the youthful protagonist Ivan soon
appears. These first few shots reveal many of the central themes
of the film. The epic bards, situated, like Ivan, in a natural environment, already suggest the primacy of magnificent nature over insipid
culture. Ivan, who is noble and graceful on his own in the forest,
regresses in the company of his immature brothers, but his degradation is only partial, as he does not follow them home. In their squalid
hut, the brothers expect the father to feed them, but he spills their
food on the floor.
It is not altogether clear why a merchant’s daughter and noblewoman condescend to marry into this family, but when they do, they
introduce chicanery to the previously innocent incompetence of the
familial arrangement. Only the arrival of Vasilisa adds an element of
order and dignity to the family scene, as she cleans the house and
harvests wheat. Unfortunately, the treachery of the upper-class brides
leads to her abduction by Zmei Gorynych.
Vasilisa’s kidnapping is an opportunity in disguise for Ivan, for only
by leaving his home behind can he mature and become a hero. As
Directory of World Cinema
he departs, his father tells him to seek knowledge among the people.
Ivan’s development will involve getting to know the people and the
land – that is, acquiring a national consciousness. The process of
maturation reaches its completion when the young peasant, having
travelled beyond the Russian land (and therefore able to apprehend
it as a whole in contrast to the dark forest he now enters) is instantaneously transformed into an epic hero.
The mise-en-scène establishes three spatial zones in the film: Ivan’s
village, the Russian land and the dark forest – the latter consisting of
animations and sets reminiscent of the jagged, angular mise-en-scène
of German expressionist films. Ivan must leave behind the confining
domestic space of his village, mature as he travels the Russian land
and defeat the threat emanating from the dark forest. His mission
complete, Ivan cannot possibly go back to his dysfunctional village
life: he is now an epic hero and a defender of a collective and national
Russian space against foreign threats and domestic corruption. But
Ivan is no individualist hero: he owes his victory to the power latent in
the Russian land and the wisdom of its people.
Vadim Shneyder
Two Captains
Dva kapitana
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Vladimir Vengerov
Veniamin Kaverin
Evgenii Gabrilovich
In a provincial Russian town, the young Sania Grigor’ev finds a bag
with letters, which, among other things, refer to a lost Arctic expedition under Captain Tatarinov. After he moves to post-Revolutionary
Petrograd, orphaned Sania gets acquainted with Tatarinov’s family
and decides to find out the truth about the ill-fated expedition. Sania
learns that the expedition was ruined by the greed and intrigues of
Captain Tatarinov’s brother Nikolai, now the director of the school
he attends, where Sania also meets the Captain’s daughter Katia
and falls in love with her. The suicide of Katia’s mother, for which
Nikolai Tatarinov blames Sania’s arrogant insensitivity, separates the
two young people for several years. They meet again after Sania has
become an Arctic pilot, still pursuing his search for traces of Captain
Tatarinov’s expedition. Neither World War II, nor the new intrigues of
the perished captain’s brother and his minion Romashov can prevent
Sania from finding the truth about his hero’s last days. During an Arctic
mission against German warships, he discovers the remnants of the
lost expedition.
Apollinarii Dudko
Art Director:
Work on the screen adaptation of Two Captains, Veniamin Kaverin’s
Bildungsroman which paralleled the stories of a pre-Revolutionary
Russian and a Soviet Arctic explorer, started in the Stalinist 1940s.
However, the filmic version of the novel appeared only in 1956,
just after the Soviet Communist Party’s anti-Stalinist Twentieth Party
Congress. While Vladimir Vengerov’s adaptation could hardly be
regarded as radical or controversial, the film’s partial renunciation of
David Vinitskii
Oleg Karavaichuk
Evgeniia Makhan’kova
Children’s Films 255
Directory of World Cinema
98 minutes
Children’s Film
Literary Adaptation
Aleksandr Mikhailov
Ol’ga Zabotkina
Evgenii Lebedev
Leonid Gallis
ideological settings in favour of psychological authenticity represented
post-Stalinist Soviet culture’s shift toward a less constrained model.
Vengerov’s film was one of the first successful efforts to establish
new cinematic conventions that would transport the still inevitable
ideological message in a more palatable manner, with a nod towards
international cinema as Soviet audiences got acquainted with foreign
films after World War II and with a retrospective look at Russian
cultural tradition. The plot-driven, eventful material of Kaverin’s novel
provided the basis for a cinematic narrative which efficiently discarded
secondary details and concentrated on the book’s dynamic components. At the same time, the avoidance of suspenseful junctures (in
spite of the story’s detective and melodramatic aspects and such
plot turns as suicide, battlefield betrayal and the discovery of the lost
expedition’s last stand) subordinated narrative intricacies to a nuanced
treatment of the complexities and subtleties of human relationships.
Non-emphatically but compellingly, Two Captains represents a transition from the cinema of the late Stalin period to more liberal postStalinist aesthetics: the strategy of early post-Stalin cinema, with its
search for new themes and motifs, was emblematized by the balanced
and transparent technique, as well as the streamlined and reserved
narrative dynamic employed by the filmmaker. The aesthetic of representational and stylistic equilibrium and of subdued dynamism – in
this particular case borrowed from a canonical socialist realist literary
work aimed primarily at younger readers and representing officially
approved, ideologically sound entertainment – rejected the static
extremism of the Stalin era but, at the same time, sought to avoid
conflicts with the emerging political establishment, whose inherent
conservatism still demanded non-controversial, ideologically sound
artistic works with transparent narratives. Two Captains was not only a
successful interpretation of a Soviet literary classic, but also an instrument of the ‘creeping’ subversion of the outdated Stalinist aesthetics.
Sergei Kapterev
The Republic of
Respublika ShKID
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Gennadii Poloka
In the 1920s Leningrad, the Dostoevsky School of Social-Labour
Education (ShKID) opens its doors to the first pupils. The students,
homeless children from the streets of the city, have a hard time
adjusting to the school’s discipline and the even rebel when one of
their favourite teachers is fired. However, the school’s principal, Viktor
Nikolaevich Sorokin (Vikniksor as students call him), finds a common
language with the pupils based on absolute trust and care. He helps
them organize a republic, compose a hymn and suggests self-government, in which student representatives are in charge of all the school
activity. But things go wrong when bread disappears from the kitchen;
however, the students learn to deal with the culprits themselves. The
ShKID pupils also learn about pioneers and, when they are refused
membership, they create an organization of their own. The film ends
with all the students and pioneers coming together to celebrate
Directory of World Cinema
Aleksei Panteleev
Dmitrii Dolinin
Aleksandr Chechulin
Art Directors:
Nikolai Suvorov
Evgenii Gukov
Sergei Slonimskii
103 minutes
Children’s Film
Sergei Iurskii
Pavel Luspekaev
Iuliia Burygina
Aleksandr Mel’nikov
Vera Titova
Anatolii Stolbov
Mamochka, one of ShKID’s ex-students who is in hospital, because he
stood up for a pioneer. Vikniksor forgives Mamochka for disappearing
with the money earlier and announces that students’ secret organization shall be legalized from now on.
Poloka’s The Republic of ShKID is based on the famous novella of
the same title by Grigorii Belykh and Aleksei Panteleev (pen-name of
Aleksei Eremeev, written in 1927). Following the novella’s popularity,
the film was very popular and became a major box-office success;
it became a Soviet classic not only for children, but also for adults
and many generations of Russians, who still incorporate quotations
from the film into everyday speech, like the famous ne shali (‘don’t
be naughty’) that the enormous gymnastics teacher repeats to his
students. The film has all the vital elements for a Soviet blockbuster:
it advocates proper Soviet morals of fairness, responsibility and hard
work. It tells about the birth of a nation that takes care of its youngsters, pulling them off the streets, giving them an education and eventually turning them into productive members of a socialist society. All
this is accomplished with self-irony and humour, but also with seriousness regarding the difficulties of the student-teacher relationships and
the purpose of education in general. Significantly, Poloka managed
to convey the atmosphere of post-Civil War Leningrad: poverty and
hunger are emphasized both visually and contextually throughout the
film. The students have political consciousness: they stage Blok’s ‘The
Twelve’ and make ‘revolutionary’ posters during their ‘revolt’.
Vikniksor’s rejection of class prejudice for the sake of ideological
tolerance represents the values of the Thaw-era intelligentsia. The
film starts with the headmasters of different boarding schools rejecting an orphan; only Vikniksor takes him on condition of receiving an
Gennadii Poloka, The Republic of ShKID (1966).
Directory of World Cinema
extra pair of pants, nails and some sugar (at the orphan’s suggestion).
Significantly, from the start, the headmaster listens to this young man,
and this theme stands at the centre of the film: to overcome prejudice
and not approach the students as ‘criminals’, but take them for what
they really are. As the film suggests, they really are intelligent (albeit
tricky), energetic and even eager young people who love arts and
music, who have different talents and understand honour and fairness.
Significantly, it is the teachers – representatives of Russian intelligentsia – who bring forth these qualities. The old school headmaster,
who does not believe in violence but in persuasion and respect, earns
the students’ trust by respecting them. Thus, the students learn to
overcome their own preconceptions of intelligentsia. Despite her
initial fear of the ‘hooligans’, the only female teacher at the school,
Ella Andreevna Lumberg, controls the pupils in the end by the simple
blow of a whistle when confronted by a pioneer leader’s statement
that the intelligentsia should not be trusted with these kids. Hence, on
a different level, the film promulgates a sort of collaboration between
the two forces or orders. The Republic of ShKID seems to propose
not a complete rejection of experience (here embodied in the school
staff), but their incorporation. Quite literally, the old intelligentsia’s
experiences teach a lesson to the new order, the Republic of ShKID,
where each participant has his own responsibilities and where teachers are open to the students’ suggestions. The film stresses that only
with that collaborative effort can the new order function.
Mariya Boston
A Hundred
Days after
Sto dnei posle detstva
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
During a sojourn in a young pioneers’ camp, fourteen-year-old Mitia falls
in love with his classmate Lena and sets out to win her affection. Over
the course of the three summer months (the ‘hundred days’ of the title)
Mitia, inspired by his conversations about art with the charismatic camp
counsellor Sergei, attempts to use literature to aid him in his quest. He
tries everything from behaving like a fictional character in a novel to
performing the part of a jealous, passionate husband to Lena’s tragically
misunderstood wife in a camp performance of a classical play. But every
attempt to impress Lena is ultimately cancelled out by Mitia’s vain and
cynical nemesis, the teacher’s pet Gleb, who turns out to be the true
object of Lena’s affection. After Mitia finally confronts Lena and learns
of his failure, another girl, whose advances Mitia has himself ignored for
some time, professes her affection for him; he is unable to return it.
Sergei Solov’ev
A Hundred Days after Childhood was Sergei Solov’ev’s first film with a
contemporary setting. Until then he had only directed screen versions
of works from the Russian literary canon: Anton Chekhov, Maksim
Gor’kii and Aleksandr Pushkin. Entrusted with what was ostensibly
a children’s film on a non-controversial topic – a caption at the end
Boris Gostynskii
Directory of World Cinema
Aleksandr Aleksandrov
Sergei Solov’ev
Leonid Kalashnikov
Art Director:
Aleksandr Borisov
Isaak Shvarts
Alla Abramova
89 minutes
Children’s Film
Tat'iana Drubich
Boris Tokarev
Sergei Shakurov
Irina Malysheva
of the film defines the theme explicitly as ‘sentimental education’ –
Solov’ev once again turned to the Russian literary tradition. The camp
counsellor promotes, and Mitia eventually embraces, the literary cult
of Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841), the author of the novel A Hero of
Our Time, whose awkward minor character Mitia tries to emulate by
putting a fake cast on his leg and parading in front of Lena, and of the
drama Masquerade, which the campers produce, with Mitia and Lena
co-starring as the married couple whose ruin the character played by
Gleb effects. The conceit of the film’s setting further helps frame the
story’s well-worn topoi – first love, summer in the country, love triangle
– as echoes of a rich and deeply meaningful but mysterious cultural
tradition: the camp is housed in an eighteenth-century manor house,
complete with a theatre, and cared for by an elderly woman who
serves as a living link to the pre-Revolutionary world.
A few telling attributes of Soviet life are strewn about: a young-pioneer necktie here and there, an authoritarian camp director, a vintage
socialist realist plot digression involving cabbage-picking that leads
to a fight between Mitia and Gleb. But the film gently resists being
turned into a Soviet summer-camp satire; unlike Elem Klimov’s scathing
Welcome, or No Trespassing (1964), it does not present camp life as a
metaphor or microcosm. That life is instead unobtrusively marginalized,
rendered seemingly irrelevant to the film’s primary concerns. Klimov’s
black-and-white grotesque is countered by sequences that flaunt their
indulgence in color and soft-focus close-ups to the accompaniment of
Isaak Shvarts’s poignantly excessive waltz in a minor key. Solov’ev offers
no apologies. Michelangelo’s sculpting technique and Leonardo’s vision
for Mona Lisa – however trite (especially for the film’s adult viewers),
these subjects, discussed breathlessly by the camp counsellor with his
students, are what sustains Mitia in the end. Growing up is figured as a
discovery of an alternative, though not subversive, aesthetic universe –
a discovery that helps transcend rejection and humiliation.
A set of melodramatic narrative and visual clichés about adolescence
gives rise to an earnestly self-deprecating statement of the central,
abiding and ubiquitous fantasy of the Soviet 1970s: that acute nostalgia for an idealized inaccessible world, be it Russia’s cultural legacy,
the West or childhood delusions (the film puts forth its visual argument
in part by rendering these equivalent), can sublimate, suspend and
possibly redeem the daily, unavoidable pressures of politicized realia.
The narrative is broken into a brief prologue and thirteen ‘chapters’,
whose titles are announced by captions; while the sequencing of these
episodes preserves conventional causality and linearity, the possibility of un-narrated, un-filmable gaps cultivates an illusion of intimacy,
of a mythic autonomous sphere of emotion and aesthetic curiosity,
on whose existence the film’s story of adolescent angst depends for
its own artistic redemption. In the 1980s Solov’ev returned over and
over to the search for an inaccessible world – with differing degrees
of cinematic experimentation, ideological cynicism and appeals to the
Russian intelligentsia’s famously literature-centric predilections. But the
illusory boundary of that world is first charted in a children’s film that
seeks to educate the sentiments by suspending history.
Boris Wolfson
Children’s Films 259
Directory of World Cinema
The Scarecrow
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Rolan Bykov
Vladimir Zheleznikov
Rolan Bykov
Anatolii Mukasei
Art Director:
Evgenii Markovich
Sofiia Gubaidulina
Liudmila Elian
127 minutes
Children’s Film
Social Problem Film
Iurii Nikulin
Kristina Orbakaite
Elena Sanaeva
Mitia Egorov
Rolan Bykov
Lena Bessol’tseva comes to a new school in a provincial town, where
she moves in with her grandfather, an art collector. On the first day of
school she gets the nickname ‘Scarecrow’ for being a little awkward
and smiling too much. The true troubles start when a class trip to
Moscow is cancelled because of their skipping a class and going to
the movies instead. Lena’s new friend, Dima Somov, accidentally runs
into Margarita Ivanovna, their teacher, and tells her where everyone is.
The film then revolves around the issue of betrayal: Dima denounced
his classmates to the teacher, thus everyone is punished. Lena then
tells her classmates that she did it and becomes an outcast, hated by
everyone. She, however, believes that Dima will eventually tell the
truth, but every time he has a chance, he fails to do so. The classmates’ hatred eventually forces Lena out of town. Her grandfather
goes away with her, bestowing his art collection on the town. He also
gives a portrait that looks just like Lena to the school. Dima finally tells
the truth, but it is too late: Bessol’tseva is gone.
‘I am not afraid of anyone’, says the main heroine, Lena Bessol’tseva.
This sentence in a way reflects one the most important ideas in the
film. The Scarecrow, based on Vladimir Zheleznikov’s novella, tells a
story of fear and bravery, honour and betrayal, true friendship and
first love. The story, however, is complicated by the fact that it is
twelve year olds who have to deal with all these issues. For them,
there are no grey areas – one is either best friend or enemy, coward or
hero, loved or hated. Just like many Western films, and unlike Soviet
‘school’ films, The Scarecrow focuses on the children’s cruelty. The fire
scene seems to be the epiphany of ruthlessness: the pupils burn a
scarecrow dressed in Lena’s clothes and make her watch it. Lena pulls
down her effigy, saves her dress and thus metaphorically saves herself,
taking control of the situation. This symbolical burning gives her new
power. She forgives Dima ‘because she was on fire’, but she does not
care any more, because she is not longer afraid to be judged.
As often happens, children’s cruelty is influenced by the relationships with their parents. Marina, one of the classmates, is upset
about not going to Moscow because she misses her father who lives
there and because she cannot stand her mother. The ‘steel button’
Mironova, who never cries, always follows the rules and cannot forgive
traitors, at the end of the film cries out that everyone around her is
‘just like’ her mother, who wants everything done hush-hush. Thus,
Bykov seems to suggest that a lot of the children’s problems stem
from the parents, or from a lack of a relationship with them. The
adults never interfere with the children’s troubles, which, as it appears,
poses a problem in itself. Adults never really show any interest in the
children’s affairs and are often presented as bystanders. This is repeatedly emphasized visually, when the audience’s attention is drawn to
the adults on the screen rather than the children in the background.
Raised by single mothers, alcoholic fathers and grandparents, the chil-
Directory of World Cinema
Rolan Bykov, The Scarecrow (1982). Lena.
dren are forced to create their own (cruel) rules in order to make sense
of their world, to distinguish between true friends and enemies. Thus,
the problem of alienation and hatred as raised in the film is social as
much as psychological.
The Scarecrow gives two different parts of the story. The first one
is presented through flashbacks as Lena tells her grandfather about
the cancelled trip to Moscow and everything that leads up to it. The
second part deals mostly with the present which, however, does not
bring a true resolution. On the contrary, the film ends on a rather pessimistic note: Lena leaves the town with her grandfather, who abandons all his beloved paintings. Her classmates feel incredibly guilty
and remorseful as they realize that she is a most honourable person.
Nevertheless, they are not brave enough to apologize directly to Lena
and can do so only when she is gone, writing ‘Forgive us, Scarecrow’
on the board above the lookalike portrait. Lena, on the other hand,
has come to say goodbye and forgive Dima. Her grandfather, who
listened to her and tried to support her, played a key role for her confidence. Perhaps this could be read as Bykov’s commentary on society
in general, where children feel unloved, ignored and misunderstood
and where physical and emotional tortures go unnoticed.
Mariya Boston
Children’s Films 261
Directory of World Cinema
Tough Boys
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Dinara Asanova
Iurii Klepikov
Instead of becoming a sports coach, Pavel Vasil’evich has taken on the
responsibility of supervising and educating a group of teen hooligans
in a rural summer camp. To the boys he is known as Pasha. He has
created a commune where all the participants must contribute to
the collective efforts. In the evenings all the members of the camp
gather for open assemblies where issues are discussed and birthdays
celebrated. In contrast to his assistant Oleg Pavlovich, Pasha does
not consider himself to be an educator whose task it is to discipline
the children; instead, he sees himself as an older brother to the boys.
One day, when Pasha is in town, the boys stage a rebellion after an
altercation with Oleg Pavlovich. In the process, they destroy much
of the camp. When Pasha returns, he is undeniably angry as he feels
that his trust has been broken. The boys try to rebuild what they have
destroyed and earn Pasha’s forgiveness. In the end, when one of the
boys runs off to the city, all the boys follow Pasha to demonstrate their
allegiance to him.
Iurii Veksler
Art Directors:
A classic of late stagnation-era Soviet cinema, Tough Boys begins with
a documentary-style montage of scenes of troubled teens being asked
questions about their misdeeds. The final question posed is ‘Who is a
kind person?’ to which the boys have difficulty answering. In a juvenile
court Vova Kireev is being sentenced for petty theft. Pavel Vasil’evich
pleads with the judge to allow him to take Vova with him to his camp.
At fifteen, Vova is malnourished, he tells the judge: he has never known
a parent’s love and is embarrassed about his lacks and ashamed for
himself, which shows that the boy has a conscience. The judge agrees.
Nearly all of the film’s action takes place on the grounds of a makeshift lakeside camp and is shot in grainy colour. Pasha encourages
the children every evening before dinner by asking them to think of a
good deed they have done in the course of that day. Pasha operates
differently from the younger Oleg Pavlovich, a hot-headed and feared
figure, who sees the children in an ‘us vs them’ relationship. According
to him, the goal of the camp is to turn the boys into men, whereas for
Pasha the goal is to ‘awaken their hearts’. These are boys that must be
loved, he states.
Much of the first half details preparation for a visitor’s day. Many
relatives and friends arrive with gifts. One boy is visited by his grandmother: when he asks where his mother is, she tells him right away
that she is drinking again. Another boy is visited by his father, who
is inebriated during the ceremony. The parents of one particularly
troubled youth who has escaped across the river (and whom Pasha
nonetheless periodically visits and feeds) arrive to see their son. Pasha
rows them across the river, but the boys have moved on from their
spot. These parents differ from the others, as they belong to the intelligentsia. Pasha encourages them to take their son home and raise
him properly, but they seem utterly confounded as to how to deal
with their child.
Natal’ia Vasil’eva
Vladimir Svetozarov
Viktor Kisin
Vitalii Chernitskii
Tamara Lipartiia
97 minutes
Children’s Film
Youth Drama
Social Problem Film
Aleksei Poluian
Valerii Priemykhov
Ol’ga Mashnaia
Ekaterina Vasil’eva
Zinovii Gerdt
Marina Levtova
Iurii Moroz
Lidiia Fedoseeva-Shukshina
Directory of World Cinema
Valerii Priemykhov in the lead role won the USSR State Prize in 1984
for his work in the film. He is outstanding and utterly convincing in the
role, capturing Pasha’s compassion, disappointment and patience.
While the weariness occasionally shows on his face, Pasha goes to
great lengths to explain to judges, documentary filmmakers and
parents why his camp is important and why the children should be
loved and cared for. The children, led by Andrei Zykov as Vova Kireev,
form a brilliant acting ensemble. They effortlessly portray the confusion, sadness, deviance and misplaced goodness of these tough, yet
fragile and helpless youths. Dinara Asanova’s brilliant direction allows
the actors to shape the action. Many of the cast are non-professionals,
and a number of scenes were improvised, allowing for an extremely
natural feel to the film. Asanova was posthumously awarded a USSR
State Prize.
Music is the centrepiece of the film, with songs (by Vitalii Chernitskii and Viktor Bolshakov) acting alternately on the sidelines and
in the centre of the action. It is not a musical, however, and there
is no forced importance of the music. The soundtrack seamlessly
moves from the background to the foreground and fades out again.
Occasionally the songs are performed by a few of the boys as an
ensemble, while at other times they resemble singalongs with Pasha
joining in the choruses. All the songs are communal and melancholy,
and they compliment rather than upstage the action of the film. Many
have become classics in their own right, among them ‘I Called for My
Horse’ and ‘Shirt of a Nettle Leaf’.
Joe Crescente
Freedom is
S.E.R. (Svoboda – eto rai)
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Sergei Bodrov Sr
Sergei Bodrov Sr
In the courtyard of a special school it is announced that Sasha has
escaped. Sasha boards a bus and arrives at Klava’s to ask about his
father’s whereabouts; he wants his father to recognize him as his son.
Klava, though, turns him in and Sasha is given one last warning. But
Sasha escapes again, this time by hiding in a truck. He gets help from
a woman whom he has just attempted to rob, but with cash in hand
and travelling by train, he manages to get closer to the labour camp
in Arkhangel’sk where his father is in prison. But once again, Sasha
is caught. Before he is taken back, Sasha swallows a large nail and,
when at the hospital for an x-ray, he runs. Back on the train, he is
caught stealing, but jumps from the toilet window off the train. Now
on foot, Sasha continues his journey hitchhiking. A truck takes him to
a port, where Sasha boards a ship. He finally reaches the labour camp.
However, his dad is in isolation and cannot receive visitors. But the
colonel in charge allows Sasha to see his father and stay overnight.
The father realizes that he has no one except Sasha and promises to
be there for Sasha when he is released. Sasha, on the other hand, is
taken back to the school in Kazakhstan.
Children’s Films 263
Directory of World Cinema
Iurii Skhirtladze
Art Director:
Valerii Kostrin
Aleksandr Raskatov
Natal’ia Kutserenko
90 minutes
Youth Drama
Vladimir Kozyrev
Aleksandr Bureev
Svetlana Gaitan
Vitautas Tomkus
SER was produced by Mosfilm and based on Bodrov’s short story
Cross-Eyed Sasha. The film enjoyed success outside the Soviet Union,
which was rare for a film of this kind. SER is not a subversive film that
challenges the socialist system: Sasha is brought back to his institution
and Sasha’s father shows signs of remorse and wants to change at the
end of the film. Yet SER is also ahead of its time: its cinematic style,
simplistic narrative and play on audience emotions are features that
would become typical of popular films of the 1990s. Already when the
opening credits roll, accompanied by the song ‘Goodbye America’
of Nautilus Pompilius, Bodrov’s immersion in underground and youth
culture becomes clear. Nautilus’ song about the old jeans becoming
too small reflects back on Sasha in SER and his desire for escaping the
institutions that holds him. The forbidden fruit that Sasha has learnt to
love is distrust in the system that has bred him. Sasha is at the bottom,
as he once points out, of an allegedly classless society that sees male
dominance and militarism ruling people’s lives; everyone is encaged,
just as the animals Sasha encounters at the zoo. Women are marginalized as paid prostitutes (the woman Sasha robs) or as seeking male
patronage in order to get by (Klava). While the men are in command,
Sergei Bodrov, S.E.R (1989).
Directory of World Cinema
leisurely getting treatment from the children at the school, the women
lack maternal instincts (they abandon their kids, as for example Sasha’s
grandmother). This is a serious simplification of gender roles that has
its origin in the stagnation period and in popular films like Moscow
Does Not Believe in Tears (1980) and continued in post-Soviet films.
Bodrov’s film does not pass judgement on its characters (male or
female); rather it functions like the snapshots of Japan that one of the
orphans shows. Disinterested and formulaic, Japan is reduced to a
few learnt phrases accompanied by clichéd pictures. In the same way,
Bodrov steps back from deepening and explaining the adult characters of the film; they are one-dimensional, flat stereotypes. However,
this leaves Sasha with agency and an internal naturalness. Sasha’s
environs (human or nature) are reduced – the flat landscape, the road
where only military trucks pass, the journeys on bus, train or boat, all
of which enhance Sasha’s character as he has only one goal: to see
his father. Bodrov squeezes the story to the plight of a child, but in
turn reveals the absurd world of adults that is the Soviet Union. While
Sasha is only one of many boys for whom freedom is paradise, it is
the individualized fixation on Sasha that makes the story transgress
to a universal level; even Sasha’s x-ray offers a chance to ‘peek’ inside
him, to find the ‘nail’ that causes all the trouble. Yet Bodrov gives
no definite answers. Focusing on a child protagonist would become
one of Bodrov’s trademarks: the child protagonist instils empathy in
audiences, which is well illustrated when Sasha hangs from the toilet
window of the running train, indicating both how desperate Sasha
is and how we, as viewers, have invested our emotion in him. The
viewer has become part of his blurry world, and this subjectivity is
underlined by the fading colours and slow-motion sequence after the
jump. Bodrov excels precisely at placing the spectator inside the main
Lars Kristensen
Children’s Films 265
Directory of World Cinema
Władyslaw Starewicz is traditionally considered the ‘father’ of Russian
animation; he was also the world’s first puppet animator (although
recently discovered footage of Aleksandr Shiryaev predates and
surpasses Starewicz’s work – even if these films were not made for the
public). The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) and The Dragonfly and the
Ant (1913) were parables of modern life set in the world of insects and
flowers. Starewicz’s interest in insects led him to use artificially created
beetles, turning them into anthropomorphic figures with clear human
After the Revolution Starewicz emigrated to France and it was
graphic art which came to the fore in the development of drawn
animation. Dziga Vertov was inspired by the Pravda cartoonist Viktor
Deni for his animated film Soviet Toys (1924), parodying the New
Economic Policy that had introduced some private enterprise to boost
the economy. Yet cartoons were still a by-product of a department
of Mezhrabpomfilm working on caricatures, ads and film titles. Ivan
Ivanov-Vano (1900–1987) agreed with the studio’s head that he would
make an independent cartoon based on Kornei Chukovskii’s story
‘Crocodile’: the resulting film, Senka, the African Boy (1927) opens
with real-life footage of a boy visiting the zoo, where he finds a book
about African animals. The pictures carry the boy on an imaginary
journey to the distant land. This framing device became typical for
Soviet cartoons, suggesting that the animated world is a fantasy
world. These early cartoons were made by projecting the negative
image onto a mirror, as cel became available in the Soviet Union
only after 1934. The Leningrad book illustrator Mikhail Tsekhanovskii
(1889–1965) created The Post (Lenfilm, 1929), based on a story by the
Soviet children’s writer Samuil Marshak; it consists of sophisticated
and detailed black-and-white drawings. A boy is sitting at a table,
writing a letter for Boris Prutkov; the cartoon follows the journey of
this letter around the world and praises the reliance of the Soviet
postal system.
In 1936 the animation studio Soiuzmultfilm was established with
a remit to produce cartoons for children. By the mid-1930s Disney
Iurii Norshtein, Tale of Tales (1979).
Animation 267
Directory of World Cinema
had firmly established the cartoon as a powerful tool for entertainment. Soviet animators, largely trained as designers and illustrations, were drawn upon to compete with the
Disney output. Later, in 1939, Ivanov-Vano founded the Department of Animation at the
Film Institute in Moscow (VGIK). Moreover, animation had to adapt to sound technology,
setting the movement of characters to melodies. Tsekhanovskii’s adaptation of Pushkin’s
Tale of the Priest and his Worker Balda, a musical set to a score composed by Dmitri
Shostakovich, was halted by the censors in 1934 because of the satirical approach to a
classical work. The innovator Aleksandr Ptushko (1900–1973) used combined shots to
achieve tricks in the style of Melies, stunning audiences by life-size humans in the same
frame as little puppets in his New Gulliver (1935).
During the war Soiuzmultfilm was evacuated to Samarkand, where the lack of production facilities made it impossible for work to continue. After returning to its production
base in Moscow, Soiuzmultfilm produced a number of drawn cartoons based on fairy
tales, in an attempt to compete with Disney’s Snow White (1937). The fairy tale suited
propaganda purposes for two reasons: it relied on Russia’s national heritage, and it
contained an element of moral instruction. The fairy tale’s hero is granted magic help as
a reward for a good deed, while the fairy tale world offers an escape from an unpleasant reality, instructing children while turning both punishment and reward over into the
realms of the magic world. The animated fairy tale also instilled moral values, and thus
occupied a niche left by ideological instruction, namely that of teaching children a sense
of right and wrong.
Animators took full advantage of the possibilities that cel offered for the movement
of animals and humans. Ivanov-Vano elaborated those features that made animals
more comic and flexible than humans. A good example is his animation of the horse in
The Humpbacked Horse (1947, remake 1975), the USSR’s first full-length animated film:
the clever, resourceful and witty little horse moves with great expediency across the
The Brumberg Sisters’ Fedia Zaitsev (1948) revealed the instructive potential of the
cartoon in a contemporary context: the Soviet schoolboy Fedia returns to the newly
decorated school after the summer vacation and draws a smiley face onto the wall. Fedia
does not confess even when his friend is suspected. Plagued by a bad conscience, Fedia
is tormented in his sleep by his toys as they turn on him: he admits his deed the next
day. Fedia lives in a world of toys and tin soldiers and has no contact with the outside
world: the child is essentially secluded and isolated. Indeed, Soviet children of the 1960s
and 1970s no longer have a social role, but withdraw from the collective to the toy world
that teaches human values of love and comfort.
The encouragement of animation to produce cartoons for adults from the 1960s
onwards is indicative of a broader auteur tendency in cinema. Fedor Khitruk’s History of
a Crime (1962) is an example of this, offering a critique of contemporary society (housing
problems, alcoholism, monotony of life), for which the cartoon was criticized in the Soviet
Union but won international acclaim. Cartoons for adults tended to cause more controversy, as they were critical and often satirical of modern life. Indeed, the only cartoon
banned in Soviet history is Andrei Khrzhanovskii’s Glass Harmonica (1968), a satire on
In the late 1960s cartoons for television reach large audiences. Just You Wait (1969–1987,
17 series) by Viacheslav Kotenochkin explored the conflict between the wolf and the
hare/rabbit, which has a long-standing tradition in Russian folk tales and fables. It
replicated in a modified way the cat-and-mouse conflict of Disney’s Tom and Jerry
(1940–1957). The late 1960s also saw adaptations of foreign and contemporary children’s
stories, such as Boris Stepantsev’s cartoons based on Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson stories,
but more importantly the popular cartoon versions of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh created by Fedor Khitruk.
Directory of World Cinema
During the 1970s cartoons are increasingly concerned with the role of the child in the
modern world. Toys appear as cartoon characters and animals acquire toy-like features
in their movement, bringing puppets back into animation. Roman Kachanov and the
designer Leonid Shvartsman created the most important puppet of Soviet animation:
Cheburashka. Kachanov’s fine and sensitive understanding of the children’s world as
superior to the adults’ world is evident in his puppet animation The Mitten (1967), but
it is Eduard Uspenskii’s story ‘Crocodile Gena and his Friends’, which he turned into
four cartoons, that brought his success. Cheburashka is a loveable toy: yellow-brown
and fluffy, with large ears and rolling eyes; she is a cross-mixture of a teddy bear and
an orange. Cheburashka wins our hearts and needs our empathy because she does not
belong anywhere. Indeed, Cheburashka became the Mickey Mouse of Soviet animation
and the emblem of the studio Soiuzmultfilm.
Uspenskii’s stories about Prostokvashino were turned into cel-animated film by
Vladimir Popov in the late 1970s. The cartoons trace the loneliness of a boy from the
city, which is remedied in the countryside and through the company of a cat and a dog.
The theme of isolation also inspired Fedor Khitruk’s award-winning cartoon Island (1974)
about a man stranded on a desert island, and the theme also preoccupied Iurii Norshtein, whose world famous Tale of Tales (1979) is a metaphor for isolation composed of
memories about a wartime childhood.
With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 the main cartoon studio, Soiuzmultfilm,
folded its production branch. A variety of animation studios were established, but most
cartoons from this decade were screened only at festivals. Many animators moved into
advertising to earn a living. Garri Bardin founded his studio Staier, where he created the
puppet animated Choocha (three parts, 1998–2005), a non-verbal cartoon based on the
tunes of Glenn Miller. The studio Pilot was founded in 1988 by Aleksandr Tatarskii, who
created the ‘Pilot Brothers’ series (1990s), featuring two plain drawn characters who comment on modern life, providing a satirical gloss on politics. In 2005 Tatarskii launched
The Mountain of Gems which produces a series of short cartoons based on folk tales.
This project has helped established and young cartoonists to experiment with the short
form and to reach an audience through the release of the series on DVD.
A major breakthrough for Russian animation came when the Yaroslavl animator
Aleksandr Petrov won Russia the first Academy Award (Oscar) in animation for The Old
Man and the Sea in 2000, the first cartoon made for 70mm format, in a technique of oil
painting on glass. The Petersburg studio Melnitsa, founded in 1992, has played an active
part in creating animation that is viable for distribution, co-producing Konstantin Bronzit’s
feature-length cartoon Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Dragon (2004), a drawn animation about the Russian folk hero Alesha Popovich who features as the Russian superman:
he is dumb, but innately good, and although he cannot read or write, his muscles can
shift rocks and mountains. His speech caricatures the incorrect language of the New
Russians: Alesha’s body is muscular, but his brain is underdeveloped. The style was
continued in Ilia Maksimov’s Dobrynia Nikitich and Gorynych the Dragon (2006) and Ilia
Muromets and Robber-Nightingale (2007), directed by Vladimir Toropchin. The commercial success of these new Russian cartoons – Alesha Popovich had a budget of $4 million,
grossing $1.7 million; Dobrynia Nikitich had a budget of $4.5 million and grossed $ 3.5
million, while Ilia Muromets had a budget of $2 million and grossed $9.8 million on the
Russia market – gives hope for the future.
Birgit Beumers
Animation 269
Directory of World Cinema
The Cameraman’s
Mest’ kinematograficheskogo
Country of Origin:
Russian (intertitles)
Wladyslaw Starewicz
Aleksandr Khanzhonkov
Wladyslaw Starewicz
Wladyslaw Starewicz
Art Director:
Wladyslaw Starewicz
13 minutes
Puppet Animation
The Cameraman’s Revenge is the story of Mr and Mrs Zhukov, a pair
of beetles. Mr Zhukov feels restless at home and frequents a cabaret,
the ‘Merry Dragonfly’ (Veselaia strekoza), where a beautiful dragonfly
performs as a dancer. On this particular visit, Zhukov fights a grasshopper for the dancer’s attention and emerges victorious, taking the
dragonfly back to the Hotel d’Amour. Unfortunately for Mr Zhukov,
the grasshopper is a cameraman who secretly films the entire affair
between Mr Zhukov and the dragonfly, including what the grasshopper sees through the keyhole of the hotel room. Meanwhile, Mr
Zhukov’s wife sends a note to her own lover, an artist, who comes to
visit her. Mr Zhukov returns home and proceeds to find and chase out
his wife’s lover, despite the artist’s attempt to sneak out through the
chimney. Mr Zhukov forgives his wife and takes her to the movies. The
projectionist is none other than the grasshopper-cameraman, who
shows footage of Mr Zhukov’s affair, which he titles The Unfaithful
Husband. The couple begins to fight, accidentally setting fire to the
projection room in the process. The final intertitle suggests that their
home life will hopefully be less exciting now that they live together in
The Cameraman’s Revenge reflects Starewicz’s fascination with technological innovations. The film not only features several of Starewicz’s
own experiments with technology, such as the use of stop-motion
animation of puppet insects and the inclusion of scenes from The
Cameraman’s Revenge itself projected at a cinema within the film, but
it also possesses a plot-line that is dependent on filmmaking, a new
technology. The resolution of the melodrama in The Cameraman’s
Revenge can only occur after it is filmed and shown on screen. The
film also includes several minor, realistic details related to cinema and
the filmmaking process. The grasshopper-cameraman is concerned
with transporting his large camera and tripod and adjusting the
camera to get the perfect shot. His finished product, The Unfaithful
Husband, even features the Khanzhonkov film studio name and logo.
The Cameraman’s Revenge also serves as a parody of a popular
genre of early Russian cinema: the melodrama. The film features the
typical characters of an early twentieth-century melodrama and their
frivolous lifestyles. Mr Zhukov is a hot-tempered, jealous businessman,
with double standards for his behaviour and for that of his wife. His
wife stays at home by the fireplace and is waited on by their servant.
Both Mr Zhukov’s lover, a dancer, and his wife’s lover, a painter, are
stereotyped by their relationship to art and entertainment, implying that their lives are centred on superficial activities. These characters ride in cars, unlike the grasshopper-cameraman who travels
by bicycle, and have the time and means to go to the movies as a
leisure-time activity. The fact that these characters are all insects gives
the film a parodic tone. The use of insects as main characters facilitates the mocking of the sensationalist melodrama’s excessive use of
Directory of World Cinema
violence and eroticism. Violence turns to comedy as the insects enact
scenes that would seem serious if performed by human actors, such
as the fight between Mr Zhukov and the grasshopper. Starewicz also
uses elements of slapstick comedy, including Mr Zhukov’s destruction
of a painting by smashing it over his wife’s head. Depicting insects
in compromising sexual situations ruins the erotic appeal that these
scenes would have otherwise had. By applying new experimentation
with stop-motion animation and new technology to a familiar genre,
Starewicz creates a parodic masterpiece unlike anything that had
appeared on the screen before.
Erin Alpert
Soviet Toys
Sovetskie igrushki
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Russian (intertitles)
Goskino (Kul'tkino)
Dziga Vertov
Dziga Vertov
This early Soviet animation enacts many of the diverse political and
newsworthy events of the early 1920s, which appeared in the newspaper Pravda. The animation encourages citizens of the Soviet Union to
join the Soviet worker, the Soviet peasant and the Red Army against
the evil forces who are working with the NEPman (New Economic
Policy) against the Soviet State. The Soviet worker and peasant battle
the gluttonous behaviour of the NEPman, work together to control
the two priests representing the schism in the Russian Orthodox
Church and use a pair of scissors to represent the common man’s
triumph over the Scissors Crisis, a period in early NEP when there was
a widening gap between industrial and agricultural prices. Soviet Toys
also pays homage to the power of advertisement and the role of film
advertising in saving the Soviet economy from NEPmen. Just before
the ending of Soviet Toys the appearance of the advertising man
forces the NEPman to shrink back down to size, so that advertisement
of state goods is the ultimate destroyer of the NEPman’s power.
Aleksandr Dorn
Art Directors:
While demonstrating Vertov’s early theory and cinematic techniques,
Soviet Toys offers the viewer a greater understanding of the nexus
between 1920s politics and agitational journalism. Like Vertov’s
Kinoprada, his early newsreels, Soviet Toys draws directly from the
news of the day. The film uses current political events from the
newspaper Pravda and the work of political cartoonist Viktor Deni
as inspiration. Deni’s political cartoons and Soviet Toys are strikingly
similar in their depictions of the position of the so-called NEPmen and
NEPwomen (products of the New Economic Policy), the schism in the
Russian Orthodox Church, and the union of the peasant and worker.
The image designs and animation in Soviet Toys have raised questions about the technical competence of these early Soviet animators.
The image design for Soviet Toys deliberately alternates crude childish drawings and more elaborate iris shots. Despite the apparently
incomplete and primitive quality of the animation for this time, Vertov
is intentionally playing on viewers’ familiarity of news print media. For
Aleksandr Ivanov
Ivan Beliakov
11 minutes
Drawn Animation
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Dziga Vertov, Soviet Toys (1924).
example, there is very little depth or detail to the Red Army Soldiers,
the Worker and the Peasant who look like caricatures from the newspaper. Early animators rely on an iris shot to economize the drawings
and cut-outs and to effectively create more complete personalities for
the characters. The iris shot, a transition analogous to the fade-in used
in early silent film, forces the viewer to focus on something particular; the rest of the screen is blacked out. One of the most extensive
uses of the iris shot is during the section of the film devoted to the
Scissor Crisis, the period in early NEP when a widening gap between
industrial and agricultural prices appeared. This gap reached a peak
in October of 1923 when industrial prices were three times greater
than agricultural prices. During this time peasants’ incomes fell and
it became impossible for peasants to buy manufactured goods. As a
result NEPmen were subjected to various taxes and other restrictions
on their ability to conduct commerce. In the film the worker and the
peasant come together to crush the NEPman’s stomach, which the
priests are hiding behind. Money rolls out of the NEPman’s stomach
and straight into the People’s Bank. Iris shots magnify the fear in the
NEPman’s face and in the faces of the Old and the New churchmen.
Directory of World Cinema
The last iris shot in the scene is a close-up of the peasant’s traditional
blunt-pointed hand-woven bast shoe tearing into the NEPman’s stomach as if he were made of newspaper like Deni’s cartoons.
Vertov’s Soviet Toys is more than just an animated version of his
newsreel featuring newsworthy events; it also pays homage to the
power of advertisement and the role of film advertising in saving
the Soviet economy from the NEPmen. Just before the ending the
audience is once again reminded of the importance of film advertising. A man with a propeller for a mouth and camera lenses for eyes is
shown with a sign for film advertisement within Goskino. The appearance of the Soviet advertising man forces the NEPman to shrink back
down to size, so that advertisement of state goods is the ultimate
destroyer of the NEPman’s power. In Vertov’s Soviet Toys the power
of animation and advertisement bolster the Soviet economy through
the advertising services of Goskino. In the last scenes of the animation
the NEPman, the NEPwoman and the Russian Orthodox priests, who
all represent the past, are shown hanging from a tree built from Red
Army soldiers.
Lora Wheeler Mjolsness
The Post
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Russian (intertitles)
Sovkino Leningrad
A boy is sitting at a table, writing a letter for Boris Prutkov. The cartoon follows the journey of this letter from Rostov to Leningrad, where
its addressee Prutkov has just left for Berlin; when the letter arrives
in Berlin, Prutkov has just departed for London; as the letter arrives
in London, Prutkov is already on a steamboat to Brazil; and once the
letters is delivered by the postman Don Basilio, Prutkov is already on
his way back to Leningrad – where the letter, having followed Prutkov
around the world, finally reaches him. The film sings a song of praise
to the global postal services and to the reliability of the postmen, but
it also tells the story of a journey around the world, returning once
more to the new Soviet capital: Leningrad.
Mikhail Tsekhanovskii
The book illustrator Mikhail Tsekhanovskii (1889–1965) created one
of the earliest drawn cartoons with The Post, based on a story by the
Soviet children’s writer Samuil Marshak. The animation consists of
sophisticated and detailed black-and-white drawings and uses the
new sound technology with music specially composed by Vladimir
Deshevov. Tsekhanovskii begins with a white on black paper cut-out
showing a boy sitting at a desk. His letter is drawn in subtle grey
shades, with an authentic wax seal and stamps in the corner of the
envelope, and the squiggly handwriting of a child for the address. The
postmen in each country are characterized through elements of local
colour that make them typical for a whole nation: the Russian postman is efficient and agile, climbing the stairs with no trouble: he is an
example of the new energetic Soviet worker; the German postman is
Samuil Marshak
Konstantin Kirillov
Art Director:
Mikhail Tsekhanovskii
Vladimir Deshevev
30 minutes
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fat and plump, proud of his uniform with shiny buttons and plied trousers; the English postman is cold-faced and shows no emotions; the
Brazilian postman is dressed leisurely, making his postal round appear
like a stroll through the jungle. The means of transport by which the
letter is carried from one place to another are carefully chosen and
poignantly illustrated. The journey from Leningrad to Berlin is by train
and involves going through a tunnel that turns to a vortex, which
echoes the motion of the train’s wheels. Prutkov, in the meantime,
travels by air – with the plane offering a superior, aerial view onto
the world. The sea passage to Brazil sees the steamship in turbulent
waters, and the vessel seems to be not as safe as train or plane (Soviet
symbols of the conquest and appropriation of the vast Soviet lands).
Finally, the return from South America to Leningrad happens by plane
and zeppelin; both vehicles travel around the globe, which is displayed as a ball with the letters ‘USSR’ usurping half of the round.
The sound version (1930) with the text spoken by Daniil Kharms
appears to be lost. The film was remade by Tsekhanovskii himself in a
wide-screen version in 1964. The original 1929 version was restored
by the studio Shar in 1996.
Birgit Beumers
The Humpbacked
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Ivan Ivanov-Vano
Boris Vol’f
Evgenii Pomeshchikov
Nikolai Rozhkov
Nikolai Voinov
Art Director:
Lev Mil’chin
Ivan, the youngest of three sons, catches a magical horse, which has
been ruining his family’s fields. In return for her freedom the horse
gives Ivan two beautiful horses and a funny little humpbacked horse.
The humpbacked horse becomes Ivan’s faithful companion. After the
tsar has purchased the two beautiful horses, Ivan agrees to work as his
stable master. Encouraged by the former stable master, the tsar forces
Ivan to carry out three impossible tasks, including catching the firebird
and capturing the tsar-maiden. With the help of the humpbacked
horse, the carefree Ivan is successful, but when he brings back the
tsar-maiden she refuses to marry the old tsar. Instead, she suggests
that the tsar turn himself young by climbing into three fiery cauldrons
filled with cold water, boiling water and milk. The tsar orders Ivan to
take his place and the humpbacked horse is locked up to prevent
his involvement. At the last moment the humpbacked horse manages to break free and save Ivan one last time. The tsar-maiden’s task
transforms Ivan into a handsome youth, while the tsar boils himself to
death. The story ends as the tsar-maiden and Ivan go into the palace
Ivanov-Vano’s animated film The Humpbacked Horse is based on
a narrative poem of the same title written by Petr Ershov in 1834.
Ivanov-Vano selected Ershov’s tale for his first full-length animated
feature for its folk language, its humorous heroes and its fantastical
escapes, which he believed complemented the medium of animation.
Directory of World Cinema
Viktor Oranskii
58 minutes
V. Iastrebova
Iu. Chernovolenko
Galina Novozhilova
Anatolii Kubatskii
Alik Kachanov
Georgii Milliar
Valentina Sperantova
Leonid Pirogov
After World War II many animators turned to folklore as a source of
inspiration as it was considered an art form of national importance.
Ershov’s original has been noted for its folk sense and Ivanov-Vano
follows Ershov’s path in the creation of his film. The Humpbacked
Horse features Russian folk paintings, architecture, ceramics, toys and
woodcuts to create the mood for the film, but this is only part of what
makes The Humpbacked Horse stand apart from other animations of
this time.
This animation strives to bring the real and fantastic together so
that the fairy tale is felt; nevertheless, Ivanov-Vano’s focus is on the
satirical premise of Ershov’s tale, which is rendered chiefly through
characterization. Every character in the film has its own personality,
distinguishing characteristics and mannerisms. For example, the tsar
has a child-like quality about him, which makes him look infantile and
capricious. His robes are too big on him and they hang over his hands
and over his feet. The tsar and Ivan also have the same baby-round
nose and rosy-fat cheeks, which are associated with youth. The tsar
also has the tendency to flap his arms and over-gesticulate with his
hands, giving him a comical appearance. The power the tsar wields
over Ivan contrasts highly with his image creating a satirical version of
a ruler. The full-length format of this film allows Ivanov-Vano to successfully create complex characters who reference not only Ershov’s
original, but also Soviet ideas about past rulers and their relationships
to the common people.
The film has both shortcomings as well as strengths in technical
competence. The lack of fluidity in movement and lack of rhythm
between characters’ movements is often noted, but Ivanov-Vano
Ivan Ivanov-Vano, The Humpbacked Horse (1947).
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worked diligently on the use of colour to strengthen the emotional
reception of certain scenes. This colour principle is first used in the
scene where the tsar receives the firebird’s feather. In his bedchamber
the tsar is asleep in half-darkness lit only by the flickering of candlelight and the chamber is depicted in browns, greys and dark reds.
The former stable master wakes the tsar and presents the feather.
Suddenly a blinding light flares from the feather and engulfs the halfdark bedchamber in light. The chamber is shown in yellows, tans and
brighter reds. Ivanov-Vano uses colour in the same manner during the
scene when the firebird is caught. This colour principle brings a fairy
tale-like and fantastic atmosphere to these scenes and allows IvanovVano to link both the visual and dramatic experiences of the tale, thus
creating a stylistic whole. The film pleased audiences and inspired
other animators in their artistic endeavours.
The Humpbacked Horse was remade in 1975 by Ivanov-Vano when
the negative of the original film was deemed to be of insufficient quality for a re-release. In 2004 new technology allowed the original film
to be restored.
Lora Wheeler Mjolsness
Fedia Zaitsev
Fedia Zaitsev
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Valentina Brumberg
Zinaida Brumberg
Mikhail Vol’pin
Nikolai Erdman
Nikolai Voinov
Art Director:
Anatolii Sazonov
Viktor Oranskii
On 1 September, Fedia Zaitsev is the very first child to arrive at
school. The school has been freshly painted and cleaned. In his
excitement he draws a ‘little man’ with an umbrella on the wall inside
his classroom. In class, the teacher notices the drawing and asks the
children to admit to the wrongdoing. Fedia rubs his hands together
so that they appear clean, but his friend, with whom he has shaken
hands earlier, has dirty hands and is blamed for the drawing. Fedia
goes home without saying anything, but he is unable to sleep peacefully because of his guilty conscience. In his dreams his toys begin to
taunt him. It is the Little Man himself who decides that the truth must
be known. He goes to Fedia’s home and on the way he meets other
children’s drawings including an animal of unknown breed that agrees
to give him a ride to Fedia’s home. With the Little Man’s encouragement Fedia agrees to admit his guilt the next day at school.
After World War II Soviet animation began to explore new stylistic
directions and innovative content. Despite the increased pressure
from the Communist Party to clearly illustrate communist ideology in
animated films, the Brumberg sisters were able to decisively fill this
demand and at the same time to expand their visions as artists with
the film Fedia Zaitsev. The Brumberg sisters are best known for their
didactic films aimed at getting children to behave better and Fedia
Zaitsev is an ideal example of this type of film.
Regardless of the educational message, Fedia Zaitsev holds a
valued position in Soviet animation because the film highlights one
Directory of World Cinema
21 minutes
Sergei Martinson
Vera Bendina
Lidiia Koroleva
Vladimir Gotovtsev
Mikhail Ianshin
of the most important attributes in animated film – the ability to
interweave the real world with the fantastic. Fedia Zaitsev’s drawing of
the Little Man is a funny and primitive drawing by a child, a glorified
stick figure with an umbrella and a hat, who represents the fantastic
world when he suddenly comes to life. The Little Man is more than
a contrast of the real world with the imaginary world. As one of the
main characters in the film, the Little Man’s iconic appearance contrasts greatly with his personality. The Little Man is the perfect hero:
brave, truthful and kind. His sticklike appearance is also at odds with
his movement and voice. He moves in an old-fashioned way, displaying a very upright carriage and gesticulating his umbrella with flair. His
words, voiced by Mikhail Ianshin, are pronounced in an almost classic
theatrical manner. Hence, there is a large difference between the
behaviour of the Little Man and his appearance.
The Little Man’s upstanding moral character drives the plot of this
film and produces a satisfactory ending. The Little Man will not allow
another student to take the blame for his existence. He sets out in the
middle of the night across an animated Moscow to search out Fedia.
Along the way the fantastic and the real come into contact. He talks a
chalkboard drawing into taking his place on the wall, he rides a child’s
street drawing, an animal of unknown breed with eight legs, and he
draws with his umbrella his own smaller set of stairs on the wall of
Fedia’s home in order to climb into the window. This interweaving of
Brumberg Sisters, Fedia Zaitsev (1948).
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the real word and the fantastic world was inspirational for other Soviet
animators who took this idea and adapted it to their own works.
While the Little Man is the most powerful force in the creation of
the two animated worlds, this film also brings the child’s real world to
life. During the night Fedia tries to read Arkadii Gaidar’s Timur and
his Gang, but the drawing of Timur, the perfect Soviet Young Pioneer,
comes to life and tells him the book is not for him. Classic nineteenthcentury Russian literature is also unfriendly to Fedia. The illustration
of Anton Chekhov’s Kashtanka reaches up from the cover and nips his
fingers as he tries to read. Fedia is also left alone by his other toys. His
Red Army men march themselves back to the store and his matreshka
doll reproaches him for not telling the truth. Only the Little Man
himself can convince Fedia to go back to school and admit his guilt.
The Brumbergs undercut the fantastic world near the end of the film,
leaving the animated real world in place. Fedia wakes up to realize
that the events of the night were all just a dream. He must face the
real world and tell the truth at school that morning.
Lora Wheeler Mjolsness
Story of a
Istoriia odnogo
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Fedor Khitruk
Michael Vol’pin
Boris Kotov
Art Director:
Sergei Alimov
Andrei Babaev
Story of a Crime illustrates in a satirical and humorous way the story
of how the noise and behaviour of ‘uncultured’ neighbours brings a
simple accountant, Mamin, a good and meek citizen, to commit a
murder. The film goes back in time, 24 hours prior to the murder, and
depicts a typical day of Mamin’s life, from the moment he gets up and
goes to work, to the sleepless night, during which he has to cope with
his noisy neighbours.
Story of a Crime can be considered a landmark in a new phase of
Soviet animation. After years of cartoons directed exclusively at children, during the Khrushchev’s Thaw Soviet animated films branched
out to target adult audiences while tackling contemporary topics.
With Story of a Crime, the director Fedor Khitruk ventured to offer
an in-depth reading of that particular time in Soviet history. Posters,
slogans and especially hints to the vast building projects of those
years concretize the world depicted in the film, suggesting a specific
time and space – Khrushchev’s era in the Soviet Union. Story of a
Crime presents an honest picture of the illnesses of Soviet society and
attacks the weaknesses of Soviet people through parody and satire
rather than heavy criticism.
The style proposed by Khitruk and the art director Sergei Alimov
highly differs from the Disney style thoroughly adopted by the studio
Soiuzmultfilm since its foundation. The stylized manner adopted for
Story does not ground on Disney’s meticulous attention to details,
but on conventionality of the drawings, essential traits in the description of characters and background and lack of words. Principles of
Directory of World Cinema
20 minutes
Zinovii Gerdt
minimalism and modern design features such as flatness and skewed
prospective, together with geometric angularity of the images particularly suit the satirical tone adopted in the film. The environment and
the characters are deprived of depth and volume, while pure colours
underline the flattening-out effect of the figures. By emphasizing flatness, on the one hand, the animators stress the very specificity of their
own artistic medium, the flat surface on which a drawing is traced;
on the other, the flat characters in Story of a Crime are not perceived
as characters with a life of their own, but become conventional signs
able to convey with minimum traits a general characteristic; they
become ‘types’ easily recognizable by the audience. The use of ‘type’
recalls Eisenstein’s practice of casting non-professional actors and
choosing the characters of his films on the base of their physical characteristics, expressions and postures. Khitruk and Alimov create similar
characters, individuals that are not psychologically fully developed,
but rather respond to specific behavioural and external characteristics
– the idlers at work, the drunk man coming home, the noisy neighbour with an enormous stereo system, the men playing dominoes in
the courtyard, the people reading in the subway, the guests singing at
a party. These stereotypical personages present a variegated society
that displays conflicts within itself; it is not an ideal world, but a collective composed of people violating norms of social order, people who
do not belong to the complex field of ‘cultured-ness’ (kul’turnost’, a
quite complex term that here can be defined as an unwritten Soviet
etiquette which included manners and ways of behaviour). In Story of
a Crime, each character represents a particular violation of the norms
of ‘cultured-ness’ – self-centredness or not caring for one’s neighbours, breaking the rules or idling at work – and the main character’s
proper attitude repeatedly clashes with this uncultured behaviour.
Mamin represents an exception to the general attitude of the people
around him; he is depicted as the ideal proper Soviet man, he is nice
with children and polite with his fellows, he opens doors, offers his
seat in the subway, he observes the rules and is dedicated to his work.
The paradoxical result is that ‘cultured-ness’ in this film is represented
by a man who committed a crime.
With this peculiar depiction of the main character and a criticism of
Soviet society based on daily life, Khitruk paved the path to a series
of cartoons which focused on social criticism and were targeted to
adults rather than children. Yet, the innovative style adopted in this
film inspired most of the aesthetic of the Soviet animated films made
in the 1960s, including also films addressed to young audiences.
Laura Pontieri Hlavacek
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The Mitten
Country of Origin:
The Mitten tells of a little girl, whose mother does not allow her to
have a dog, so she creates a loveable puppy from her woollen, red
Soviet Union
Roman Kachanov caught international attention at the Annecy
International Animation Festival, where The Mitten won him the main
award. The film was based on an original script by Zhanna Vitenzon,
which was stripped entirely of the dialogue, using instead music hall
tunes to set pace and mood. Leonid Shvartsman, who would later
create the famous Cheburashka, designed the puppets.
The girl first appears in a window frame seen from the outside: she
lives in a protected world and looks on to the outside world through
the window that is, however, frozen over, echoing the emotional coldness of her world. Outside, the courtyard is covered in snow, but here
people are walking their dogs. The girl seeks companionship, so she
fetches a puppy from the upstairs neighbours. Her mother forbids her
this pleasure: adults do not understand children. The girl goes for a
walk outside where her dream comes true: her mitten turns into her
puppy companion. Back inside the imaginary puppy transforms back
into a mitten: the excursion into the outside world has taken place in
the child’s imagination, which has, however the power of transforming
The girl dreams of another collective than the family: of society
at large and of her peers, of lonely dog-owners who can share their
emotional life with a pet. The home that fails to provide emotional
warmth is set against a world of love and care – for pets. When the
mother realizes the child’s despair as the girl pours milk for the mitten,
she fetches the black puppy from upstairs. As the puppy licks the
mother’s face, she smiles: at last an emotional response is elicited
from this stern face.
The lonely and isolated child creates an emotional rapport with the
mother through a pet that she is allowed to keep because of a strong
desire as articulated through her imagination. Kachanov shows a sensitive understanding of the children’s world as superior to and wiser
than the adults’ world.
Roman Kachanov
Zhanna Vitenzon
Iosif Golomb
Art Director:
Leonid Shvartsman
10 minutes
Birgit Beumers
Directory of World Cinema
Stekliannaia garmonika
The film is a parable on the fate of the artist in a totalitarian society.
The music played on the glass harmonica strove towards higher ideals
of beauty, and when the authorities destroy the instrument, life turns
ugly – until a new glass harmonica appears.
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Andrei Khrzhanovskii
Gennadi Shpalikov
E. Rizo
Art Directors:
Iurii Nolev-Sobolev
Ülo-Ilmar Sooster
Alfred Schnittke
21 minutes
Based on a tale by Lazar Lagin, Glass Harmonica tells about the desire
for power that corrupts people, and about the spiritual revival that art
can bring. At the centre of the film stands a musician with a glass harmonica, which is broken by a ‘man in power’ who resembles Magritte’s
man in a bowler hat. The son of the painter Iurii Khrzhanovskii (who
had worked with Pavel Filonov and other masters of the late avantgarde period), Andrei Khrzhanovskii uses multiple references to old
masters, such as Hieronymus Bosch, Pintoricchio and Albrecht Dürer
to fill his world with beautiful characters.
The love of money turns the people into grotesque and ugly
creatures. They destroy their cultural heritage. Only art, represented
by the sound of the glass harmonica, and of course by the visual references offered through the art work, allows humanism to surface once
again and the people begin to rebuild the clock-tower. The music was
specially composed by Alfred Schnittke, while the art work was carried
out by Ülo-Sooster, an Estonian non-conformist and surrealist painter,
along with Iurii Nolev-Sobolev.
The film was banned for its controversial treatment of the relationship between the authorities and the artist, which had always been a
thorn in the flesh of the censors. Glass Harmonica remains the only
Soviet cartoon of the post-war era that was shelved until after the collapse of the USSR.
Birgit Beumers
Krokodil Gena, 1969;
Cheburashka, 1971;
Shapokliak, 1974 and
Cheburashka idet v shkolu,
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
A small furry big-eared creature unknown to science is discovered
in a crate of imported oranges by a grocer. The creature is so dazed
by his long journey he promptly falls down and the grocer names
him ‘Cheburashka’, from the Russian vernacular term ‘topple over’.
Cheburashka is lonely but soon finds a friend in Gena, a kind crocodile bachelor who works in the local zoo and who is equally lonely.
Together they perform a number of good deeds such as building a social club for lonely animals, constructing a children’s playground, halting the pollution of river, and helping repair a school.
They become inseparable; always ready to help out those in need
and keen to get involved in such worthy social activities such as
Animation 281
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Roman Kachanov
Roman Kachanov
Eduard Uspenskii
Teodor Bunimovich
Art Director:
the Young Pioneer movement. The local miscreant, an old woman
named Shapokliak with her pet rat, Lariska, at first try to foil these
civic-spirited actions, playing all kinds of unpleasant tricks on the pair.
However, Shapokliak is soon won over by Gena’s gentlemanly conduct
and Cheburashka’s child-like charm. Finally, Cheburashka is able to go
to school and learn to read.
The four twenty-minute episodes of the Cheburashka series
(Crocodile Gena, 1969; Cheburashka, 1971; Shapokliak, 1974 and
Cheburashka Goes to School, 1983) remain probably the best-loved
animations of all the Soviet period. The films manage to excel in
every department. The stop-motion animation is of outstanding
quality for its time, creating fully rounded personalities out of the
Leonid Shvartsman
Roman Kachanov, Cheburashka (1969).
282 Russia
Directory of World Cinema
Vladimir Shainskii
20 minutes
sometimes crudely put together puppets and sets. With great
economy of movement the animators convey a wide range of emotion and expression in their models. The combinations of a slightly
washed-out pastel colour palette for the sets, a strong attention
to detail in the modelling of individual realia items and cleverly
achieved sense of depth and kineticism (gravity, inertia and momentum are almost tangible to the viewer) create the unmistakable world
of Gena and Cheburashka – a world where talking giraffes and welldressed gentlemanly lions rub shoulders with world-weary school
directors, leather-jacketed taxi-drivers, highly strung factory owners
and, of course, lonely bachelor crocodiles. Kachanov’s adaptation of
Uspenskii’s stories retains the essentially kind wistfulness and irony
of the original but adds a wicked sense of subversive humour to the
mix, appreciated by children and adults alike. As well as absurdist
moments, Kachanov includes mildly ironic side references to the
endemic workplace theft, backsliding and officiousness of Soviet
society. Especially memorable is the gentle deflating of the Pioneer
movement: its snotty kids aren’t interested in the civic aspects of
membership – they just want first prize in their contest and the status
a uniform brings. Finally there is the unforgettable music – of both
the songs and voices. Shainskii’s minor-key songs have become as
memorable a part of the Cheburashka phenomenon as the animations themselves. The long-serving animation voice-over actor Vasilii
Livanov, who went on to play Sherlock Holmes in the Soviet screen
version, voices Gena. His, by turns, creaky, grumpily resigned and
melodious voice is perfectly complimented by Klara Rumianova’s
intensely sweet, childlike Cheburashka.
The Cheburashka series is much more than a well-executed quartet
of short stop-motion films for children. As a cultural icon of the late
Soviet period, the image of Cheburashka has been continually appropriated and reinvented by official and sub-cultures alike. It has served
as the official mascot for the Russian Olympic team and its name used
as a slang term for a variety of objects, some with ear-like appendages such as an Antonov cargo jet, others that are merely small or
cute (a one-third-of-a-litre glass bottle). In sub-culture Cheburashka
has long been appropriated for use in narrative jokes some of them
bawdy, and more recently in a host of internet parodies, notably of
the character of Yoda from Star Wars. Perhaps most interesting is his
appearance in the post-Jungian theory of socionics where his character is used to illustrate a personality type that does not fall into any of
the sixteen categories of introvert and extrovert types. In addition to
Russia, Cheburashka has found success in Japan and Sweden.
Jeremy Morris
Animation 283
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Tale of Tales
Skazka skazok
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Iurii Norshtein
Iurii Norshtein
Liudmila Petrushevskaia
Igor’ Skidan-Bosin
Art Director:
Francesca Iarbusova
Mikhail Meerovich
Nadezhda Treshcheva
29 minutes
Tale of Tales operates through a series of returning, metamorphosing motifs. Central among them are an apple, ripe and dappled
with raindrops; a baby at its mother’s breast; a wolf cub; and people
gathered around an outdoors dinner table in the company of a
good-natured Minotaur. The little wolf cub, itself taken directly
from the words of a lullaby, is comforted by the sight of a human
baby, but external events from the adult world spoil this idyll. Initial
signs of impending disaster come when the diners are subjected to
worsening weather and the peace of the cub’s residence is ruined
by increasing industry and traffic. Worst of all, however, are a series
of references to World War II. Waltzing women on the eve of a
frontline draft are slowly robbed of their loved ones, who vanish
from the dancefloor with awful speed. Meanwhile the wolf cub tries
to steal some paper from a rather lazy poet; the paper becomes a
baby, a symbol of the way in which creativity must partake of natural
processes of unfettered growth. Yet, for all the cub’s efforts to champion creative metamorphoses, the men continue to vanish from the
dancefloor. In the competition between life and death, the former is
under considerable pressure …
One of the most straightforward explanations of these motifs, or at
least of their provenance, came in an interview with the screenwriter
Liudmila Petrushevskaia, where she recalled being approached in
March 1976 to work with Norshtein on a new film about his wartime
childhood. Petrushevskaia was eight-months pregnant and not keen
to shoulder the responsibility of a fresh, probably lengthy project.
Norshtein suggested visiting Petrushevskaia’s apartment to lessen
the workload and thus she consented – with the proviso that after
the birth he also walk the baby in a pram. Consequently much of the
screenplay was created during long strolls, and the initial childhood
of early drafts and motifs became those of a newborn wrapped in
the draft papers of a writer. Petrushevskaia said: ‘I was full of milk and
could think only about children. That’s why a baby in the screenplay
had to be born swaddled in one of those pages.’ Such is the origin of
the natural, ‘productive’ or fertile motifs.
Extra inspiration came when Norshtein both sent Petrushevskaia
a book of translated poetry that included lines by Nâzim Hikmet,
and then showed her albums with various drawings by Picasso. The
Hikmet poem would ultimately sit at the centre of the film, a tiny
text also entitled ‘Tale of Tales’. A prosaic translation of it might
read: ‘We stand above the water: The sun, a cat, plane tree, me
and our fate. Cool water, a lofty plane tree, the sun is shining and
the cat dozes. I compose a poem. Thank Heavens that we are alive!
The glare of the water shines in our face; it shines [even] at the sun
itself, upon the cat, the plane tree, on me and our fate.’ Accordingly
Petrushevskaia suggested that perhaps the central human protagonist should be a poet. This explains the literary elements and the
‘human’ paper.
Directory of World Cinema
The wolf comes from a famous Russian lullaby ‘Baiu-baiushki-baiu’,
warning of ‘a little grey cub who’ll come and grab your sides. He’ll
drag you off into the forest, under a brittle willow bush’. This character was Norshtein’s suggestion; Petrushevskaia, however, countered
it with less sentimental memories. She had been seven years old in
1945, too poor to have shoes, and sometimes even ate food from
urban gutters. A common and concrete reminiscence they shared,
however, was that amateur impassioned music had been used by
families and other groups in both times of grief and celebration. A
title for the first version of the screenplay was a direct quote from
sung lines of the lullaby: ‘The Grey Wolf Cub Will Come’. The film
studio executives declared it too scary, so the Hikmet title was used
The itinerant little wolf became in Petrushevskaia’s drafts ‘an eternal
soul, who could visit the Golden Age [of Russian poets in the nineteenth century], a quiet seaside abode where a happy fisherman lives
with his family. In their pram a chubby child lies quietly. His sister – in
a ball gown and hat – skips rope with one of Picasso’s Minotaurs …
They have guests – a balding poet with a lyre and a young, chance
visitor who is a young man, free from material things: a pensive
passer-by’. This sketch entered the cartoon, prior to the sequence of
young wartime girls bidding farewell to their lovers; thus idylls and
tragic transience were slowly juxtaposed, creating a work that has
been voted the ‘Greatest Animated Film of All Time’.
David MacFadyen
The Old Man
and the Sea
Starik i more
Countries of Origin:
Ogden Entertainment
Aleksandr Petrov
Pascal Blais
Bernard Lajoie
Jean-Yves Martel
Based on Ernest Hemingway’s story written on Cuba in 1951, the
film tells of the old fisherman Santiago and his struggle with a
marlin. Santiago has not caught any fish for several weeks, and his
apprentice Manolin is no longer allowed to fish with him as he is
clearly under a spell of bad luck. Once day a marlin takes his bait
and Santiago struggles with the fish for three days, when he is finally
able to kill the marlin with a harpoon. On the way back to the shore
his boat is attacked by sharks that devour the marlin. The old man
returns to his home exhausted and falls asleep, dreaming of his
The story of an old man struggling with nature – the sea, the marlin
and the sharks – offers at first sight little action and therefore not
much attraction for animation. However, the Yaroslavl animator
Aleksandr Petrov, whose technique involves oil painting on glass,
turned this story into a poetic sequence of images, capturing the
texture of the sea and the sky beautifully on this first animated film
made for 70mm IMAX format, produced largely in Canada. The Old
Man and the Sea went on to win the first Academy Award (Oscar) for a
Russian animator in 2000.
Animation 285
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Shizuo Ohashi
Tatsuo Shimamura
Aleksandr Petrov (based on
Ernest Hemingway)
Art Director:
Aleksandr Petrov
Denis L. Chartrand
Normand Roger
20 minutes
Gordon Pinsent
Kevin Duhaney
Petrov’s technique is unique and finds full expression on the
70mm format: his use of oil colour on glass creates an almost threedimensional texture, not unlike Iurii Norshtein’s three-dimensionality
achieved through different levels (rather than layers) of cel. The texture of the sea and the sky, uniformly grey-blue in colour, acquires an
authentic feel so that the monochrome colour-scheme no longer looks
dull. On the contrary, the sparkling drops of water and the shining
stars appear almost naturally through a combination of lighting and
The short film explores the relationship of man and nature through
subtle and detailed images of sea life, weaving a harmonious entity
from the forces of man and nature. Both technically and in terms of
the chosen story, Petrov re-established Russia in the world of animation as a country that trains excellent animators and with an industry
capable of co-production. It thus opened the path for further development of the art and the commercial exploitation of animation at a time
when Russia’s animation industry lay in disarray.
Birgit Beumers
Popovich and
Tugarin the
Alesha Popovich i Tugarin
Country of Origin:
Konstantin Bronzit
Sergei Sel’ianov
Aleksandr Boiarskii
The story takes place in the medieval town of Rostov, focusing in particular upon a boy called Alesha. Although this youngster is blessed
with a remarkable strength, he is equally cursed by an inability to
control it gracefully. One day, however, he is given the chance to put
his prowess to good use.
A terrible danger appears. The feared army of Tugarin the Dragon
comes to Rostov and demands that the town hand over all of its gold
supplies. A true hero is now needed, for the people cannot defend
themselves. The citizens of Rostov therefore turn to Alesha. He agrees
to help, but initially the plan goes very wrong indeed: not only does
Tugarin escape with all the gold, but Rostov is decimated in the
Thus begins the real adventure: Alesha’s quest to clear his name,
regain the gold and rebuild Rostov. He goes off to lands unknown
with some elderly relatives, a talkative donkey, a horse and his fiancée.
Over the course of multiple adventures, which at times become so
superfluous as to be potentially endless, Tugarin is brought to justice,
the gold is returned to its rightful owners, and Alesha settles down
with his true love.
At the time of the film’s release, some Moscow newspapers were
claiming that children had entirely forgotten folklore and, therefore,
Bronzit’s witty, self-deprecating use of ‘serious’ legends was poten-
Directory of World Cinema
Maksim Sveshnikov
Konstantin Bronzit
Il’ia Maksimov
Aleksandr Boiarskii
Valentin Vasenkov
72 minutes
Oleg Kulikovich
Anatolii Petrov
Liia Medvedeva
Natal’ia Danilova
Dmitrii Vysotskii
Ivan Krasko
Sergei Makovetskii
Tat’iana Ivanova
Konstantin Bronzit
tially detrimental. The serious archetype, said the press, needed to
re-establish itself before being subjected to any silliness. Cartoons
used to (and still should) address important ‘pedagogical’ issues, such
as correct social behaviour and a respect for authority.
In interviews surrounding the film, Bronzit spoke of this feature as a
way to solve and surpass the problems of underfunded, over-commercial animation during the mid-1990s. He also addressed the national
issues of a Russian story, made in Russia to aid that same nation’s
cinema while nonetheless relying on an aesthetic that owes much to
American craftsmanship (both verbally and visually). This complicated
definition of a nationally specific cartoon recalled some very Soviet
insecurities. Bronzit, for example, was keen to point out that his recent
employment outside Russia would not lessen the cultural specificity
or validity of his art. His time in France working on At the End of the
World was not of significance to his Russian modus operandi; as additional defence, he referred to Andrei Tarkovskii as a Russian craftsman
similarly unaffected by his place of work.
These arguments hoped to deflect some criticism of America’s influence in Alesha Popovich, in particular the similarity between Alesha’s
wisecracking horse and Eddie Murphy’s garrulous donkey in Shrek
and Shrek 2 (2001 and 2004). Although Bronzit said he can only watch
Shrek 2 with a ‘gun placed to his head’, he admitted that Russian
animation has always learned its skills ‘like a child, through imitation’.
In Alesha Popovich, Sergei Makovetskii dubs the voice of a Kievan
prince; his performance lacks all reverence for courtly propriety, and
presents the prince as ‘cowardly, greedy, sly – and homosexual’. All in
all, said disapproving voices, this amounted to a loud and irresponsible critique of Putin’s role in modern Russian society.
The assumed stability of valued stereotypes is mocked on many
occasions in this cartoon. This occurs on both historical and stylistic
levels – that is, the degree to which proper storylines are respected
(and here again, there is a discernible nod in the direction of Shrek).
When characters are dispatched into danger, the hero and heroine,
we are told, need to survive this tale (of martial conflict) in order to
reach its dénouement (of marital cohesion). They therefore should not
be sent off to unspeakable danger; minor figures, of little importance
to the plot, should do the job. Such is the argument put forward by
Alesha’s arrogant steed. In a similar spirit, the voice used by Dmitrii
Vysotskii to dub that same horse sounds a great deal like comedian
Maksim Galkin whenever he ridicules Nikita Mikhalkov’s grandstanding in his nationally broadcast skits for a number of TV variety shows.
The dark forces facing these heroes are similarly ‘tweaked’ in order
to make solemn, adequate enemies more modern (and more fun, too).
Though the ‘Muslim’ nature of Tugarin’s threat is named explicitly and
early on, any geopolitical wrangling of the past is soon displaced by
jokes about the mafia, marketplace conmen, suspect lottery tickets and
the all-important need for connections in high places to escape any of
these threats today. All in all, the film interweaves a large number old
ancient stereotypes and modern jokes; whether such techniques vivify
or spoil national folklore is an argument that still continues.
David MacFadyen
Animation 287
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Russian documentary film begins, as does all documentary film, with
actualities, picturesque travel or expedition films and newsreels. While
Russia features as an exotic ethnographic topic in Pathé newsreels at
least as early as 1908, few significant works were made in the genre
until World War I, when Russian, rather than foreign, cameramen were
required to film the war effort for domestically produced newsreels.
Cameramen such as Petr Ermolov began work here, before building a
post-war career first in Soviet newsreel, and subsequently in features.
Russia’s first lasting contribution to documentary film came with the
work of Dziga Vertov, starting with his Kino-Pravda newsreel series,
the name of which, in French translation, gives us the term cinémavérité. Vertov’s 1920s films and theorizations of documentary were the
most influential and significant of a wider body of work, including that
of Esfir’ Shub and the ethnographic filmmaker, Vladimir Erofeev. The
pivotal importance of documentary film in 1920s cultural politics is
evident from the 1927 New Lef debates, republished in Screen in the
1970s. Throughout, the emphasis is upon the epistemological claims
of the form. However, when the state began to invest more resources
in documentary towards the end of the 1920s, it was less interested
in the niceties of methodology, but rather in the reliable, economically efficient delivery of a message according to a standardized
technique. This meant the greater importance of detailed scenarios
scrutinized in advance, and a tendency to privilege events that either
could be planned ahead, such as with Viktor Turin’s Turksib (1929), or
that could simply be staged, albeit with non-professional actors, as
with Mikhail Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia (1930). The short agitational
pieces produced by Aleksandr Medvedkin’s film train were innovative
in their proximity to local problems, but again heavily reliant on staging previously scripted incidents. Such tendencies were strengthened
still further with the coming of sound, which again demanded greater
investment, and with it came still more political and administrative
control. While Vertov’s Enthusiam: Symphony of the Donbass (1931)
was one of a number of early sound films to employ naturalistic
sound recorded on location extensively, such experiments were
Mikhail Kaufman, cinematographer of The Man with the
Movie Camera (1929).
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Directory of World Cinema
quickly curtailed, in favour of the recording of cliched, highly rehearsed speeches, the
dominance of non-diegetic music and the voice-over commentary. Soviet newsreel and
documentary of the 1930s was henceforth dominated and stifled by the need to control
in advance, and hence by interchangeably predictable films of parades, air shows, military exercises, races and expeditions. Interesting films resulted only on the rare occasion
where circumstances conspired against the pre-approved plan, as with the 1934 film
Cheliuskin, where the ship sank, unexpectedly, and the expedition had to be rescued.
Events, however, were conspiring to jar the Soviet Union, and Soviet documentary,
from contemplation of Red Square parades, as the rise of fascist militarism provoked it to
use film on the international stage to rally support against this explicitly anti-communist
force. The first example of this was Abyssinia (1935), directed by former Vertov protégé
Il’ia Kopalin, which shows the Italian campaign to subdue the East African state through
the feared, new military strategy of bombing the civilian population. More sustained and
significant were the efforts of Roman Karmen, rising star of Soviet documentary film in
the late 1930s, a former photo-journalist who was sent to Republican Spain to produce
regular newsreels conveying the Soviet perspective on the conflict. These reels became
the major source for images of the isolated, losing side in the Civil War. This powerful
and insightful footage was later edited into Spain (1938), a full-length documentary by
Esfir’ Shub. As with Kopalin’s earlier film, Karmen’s footage shows the aerial bombardment of civilians, but here it is far more effectively rendered.
The Nazi attack on the Soviet Union of 22 June 1941 forced Soviet newsreel to record
a new kind of war: one launched with an ultimately genocidal logic upon ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’. The first significant documentary arising from the conflict was Il’ia Kopalin’s and
Leonid Varlamov’s The Defeat of the Germans near Moscow, released in February 1942,
notable for its dynamic battle-action footage, and harrowing images of Nazi atrocities
against Soviet civilians, shown domestically, and then in Britain and the United States,
where a re-edited, rewritten version won an Oscar nearly three years before images of
the liberation of the camps in Bergen-Belsen and Dachau were screened in spring 1945.
Kopalin and Varlamov’s film was followed by a number of others showing similar sights.
The only example of note for the history of documentary film is Aleksandr Dovzhenko
and Iuliia Solntseva’s The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine (1943), which, extraordinarily
for the time, uses a number of synch-sound sequences, including witness testimony of
atrocities, to powerful effect. However, like other Soviet war films, it does not differentiate the fate of the Soviet Jews murdered by the Nazis, and here treats them as Ukrainian
The immediate post-war period until the death of Stalin was as lean for Soviet
documentary film as it was for Soviet cinema more generally, although Karmen and
Medvedkin continued working in this period, producing films in the established Soviet
propagandistic, persuasive mode. The 1960s, however, enabled them to make more
interesting films about overseas politics: neo-Nazis, Cuba, Vietnam and Chile. The most
noteworthy film of the decade, however, was Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (1965),
innovative for its highly personalized voice-over, as well as revelatory use of archive
footage. However, alongside films made in this traditional manner, there emerged films
and filmmakers whose prime purpose was to develop documentary as an art, rather
than a political instrument. For directors such as Gerts (Herz) Frank, the rediscovery of
Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, and publication of a selection of his writings in 1966
imparted an important impetus in this direction. Frank was the most notable figure in a
Riga-based school of poetic documentary cinema.
Artavazd Peleshian’s work also has its roots in the 1960s, when he made his first films,
which eschew the voice-over in favour of a more demanding visual style. Likewise, his
concept of Distance Montage (1974) is the product of the reappraisal and reflection on
the form initiated by the filmmakers of the 1960s.
Directory of World Cinema
While the artistic and political trends lived in some kind of more or less peaceful
co-existence until the 1980s, Soviet documentary was transformed, as it was the world
over, by the rise of TV, a decade later here than in Western Europe. The immediacy of TV
news reports killed off theatrically distributed 35mm newsreels, but also created a new
incubator and outlet for documentary filmmakers. Soviet newsreel studios, where most
documentaries were made, were technically backward and slow to adapt to the rise of
the technology of video. Nevertheless, the perestroika era meant that Soviet documentary was able to end on a high note, as Frank’s Last Judgment (1987) and Juris Podnieks’s
Is it Easy to Be Young? (1988) drew huge crowds on their theatrical release. For a brief
moment, documentary as an art and as popular social commentary coalesced, before
the two went their separate ways once more with the commentary continuing in works
such as Stanislav Govorukhin’s This is No Way to Live (1990), which features the director as a Michael Moore-style presenter-provocateur, but lacks Moore’s wit. Probably the
most extreme example of documentary as an art without social commentary and almost
without an audience is the work of Aleksandr Sokurov, more celebrated for his feature
films. With a technique that has its roots in the ‘distance montage’ method of Peleshian,
and Frank’s interest in psychology and privileging of the reaction shot, Sokurov has made
a number of documentaries aimed primarily at film critics and festivals.
However, Sokurov is one of a number of contemporary Russian documentary filmmakers who have productively explored the potential of digital media to reinvent the genre.
His film Spiritual Voices (1995) and Service (in Russian Povinnost’, inexplicably mistranslated for the English DVD release as Confession, 1998), which run to a colossal length of
327 and 225 minutes respectively, exploit to the utmost, it would seem, the durational
qualities of the long-take to challenge the spectator to find sense. Viktor Kosakovskii’s
film Quiet! (2002) takes almost the opposite approach, by editing an enormous quantity of observational footage into a pithy, allegorical tragi-comedy of repeated failed
attempts to fix a hole in the road. Yet another tack is taken by Vitalii Manskii’s 2005 ‘Real
Cinema’ Manifesto, which explicitly proclaims that digital technology enables documentary filmmakers to witness life as a process, in a way they never previously could,
since they can carry a camera with them almost continually. His recent films convey the
intensity of the close-up insight into the subject’s life.
With the break up of the Soviet Union, and fragmentation of the film industry in the
1990s, many of the prominent contemporary documentary directors are no longer based
in Russia, but their films are still, for the most part made in the Russian language and in
some sense belong to a Soviet or Russian tradition of documentary filmmaking. Vitalii
Manskii’s institution of ArtDokFest, a festival for Russian language documentaries which
expand the language of cinema, wherever they were made, recognizes and embraces
this diasporic dimension of the genre.
Jeremy Hicks
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The Fall of
the Romanov
Padenie dynastii
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Esfir’ Shub
The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is essentially a compilation film
based on the editing of footage, largely from Western Europe and
Russia. It shows events, beginning with tsarist Russia on the eve of
World War I and finishing with the Bolshevik seizure of power. Shub’s
film is edited together to reveal the nature of class exploitation in the
country. We are shown, on the one hand, the vast, grand properties of
Russian landowners and this is contrasted with the poverty of peasant
life. In both the towns and the countryside ordinary people toil in terrible conditions and those who object are punished accordingly. The
film then elaborates a story of a conspiring ruling class of elites from
Russia and west European states who stand behind the organization
of World War I which, at its heart, is seen as an imperialist adventure
in the interests of capitalist gain. The film provides a grim portrait
of the realities of this war; namely, extreme violence and the consequences of mass death and suffering. The Bolsheviks are presented
as the solution with their promises of peace, bread and freedom and
the film finishes with the famous image of Lenin shaking hands with a
comrade, symbolizing the new era.
Esfir’ Shub
The most important part of the film, from the point of view of the
director, is clearly the argument it seeks to convey to the viewer.
Shub’s edited footage constructs a narrative that suggests that the
Russian monarchy of Nicholas II, in a similar way to his royal cohorts
in countries such as France and Great Britain, is allied together with
government ministers and capitalists to create a transnational conspiracy. The purpose of this is to maintain their collective wealth and
power and to accumulate the wealth of other countries through careful collaboration in war that generally involves exploiting the masses
as cannon fodder in their wicked game. This type of argument was
commonly found in many different forms of art and political literature
during the early part of the twentieth century and such conspiracy
theories were often related to so-called ‘vulgar Marxism’, due to their
over-simplification of the ideas of Marx himself. Nonetheless, Shub’s
film was intended for mass audiences as persuasive, punchy propaganda and, therefore, this was clearly her intention.
It is fair to say that this strategy is sometimes very effective. For
instance, Shub employs a fairly successful technique to lend her argument historical authenticity. She includes shots of various documents
at different stages of the film. So, when Nicholas II abdicates we are
shown written proof of this declaration juxtaposed with cheering
crowds of workers. The documents and declarations confirm what
we see and read in the intertitles: at one demonstration the people
demand peace, bread and freedom. The front page of Pravda is then
shown repeating this demand as a confirmation of popular opinion.
Although the film’s argument now looks rather crude, Shub’s work
is remarkable in other aspects. She uses powerful imagery to contrast
the servitude of, for example, sailors scrubbing decks with society’s
66 minutes
Directory of World Cinema
elite dining in highly opulent surroundings. Her film technique also
has a distinct rhythmic quality: as the conspiracy becomes more and
more obvious to the viewer, her cuts become shorter and shorter
creating a sense of momentum towards war. This military rhythm is
also emphasized by the cutting of carefully selected shots of columns
of soldiers and guards which are always acting in the interests of the
wider conspiracy.
The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is one of Esfir’ Shub’s major
achievements. Regardless of its political tendentiousness, the film
preserves images that may otherwise have been lost. The work, alongside Shub’s other films is deservedly recognized as an important part
of film documentary history. In particular, Shub is remembered as a
pioneer of the compilation style of documentary filmmaking which
developed in new directions in subsequent years.
Jamie Miller
Man with a
Movie Camera
Chelovek s kinoapparatom
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
The All-Ukrainian Photo-Cine
Directorate (VUFKU)
Dziga Vertov
Assistant Director and Editor:
Elizaveta Svilova
Mikhail Kaufman
68 minutes
Man with a Movie Camera is a formally innovative silent film documentary, which uses no intertitles, and follows a complex structure.
Ostensibly, it shows a cameraman’s day, as he records the city around
him. Deeper consideration of the film reveals it does not record a city,
but create one from elements of several, including Moscow, Kharkov
and Odessa. Moreover, while the cameraman is the most recognizable figure, the film shows editing, projection and spectatorship, as
well as polemicizing with clichés from feature films. From its opening statement, proclaiming it ‘a film on film-language, the first film
without words’, Man with a Movie Camera celebrates documentary
cinema’s magical power but also discusses and demystifies filmmaking as a form of healthy leisure and as a form of labour analogous to a
dynamic, urban, industrial world.
Man with a Movie Camera is a landmark in documentary film, a film so
formally and conceptually rich it has generated a plethora of competing interpretations, and numerous film scores, including one by
Michael Nyman.
Man with a Movie Camera was made by Vertov at the culmination of
a decade in which he had pioneered the documentary form, exploring
and refining its possibilities as a tool for analysis and persuasion. While
often said to be a manifesto, Man with a Movie Camera functions as
an essay on the making and meaning of film in the modern world, a
defence of Vertov’s vision of documentary as a form accessible to all.
At the same time, it is important to remember that Vertov’s conception of documentary precluded the notion of a rigid scenario prior to
the process of shooting, and the film reflects a perceptual process
whereby sense is made from the initially dizzying whirr of modern life,
itself celebrated and evoked in the film’s often frenetic pace.
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By contrast, the images of the woman waking up are constructed
so as to parody the tropes of feature films, condemned by Vertov as a
harmful illusion, preventing people from looking at and analysing the
world around them, as his film strives to. Yet, while it is a film about
film which articulates a message to filmmakers and critics, the sheer
visual merits of this, one of the last great silent films, its dynamic,
diagonal compositions, and the associative way the film combines
shots, have the widest and most lasting appeal on spectators. Many of
the images share the clashing perspectives of constructivist photographers Lazlo Moholy-Nagy or Aleksandr Rodchenko, but Elizaveta
Svilova’s editing performs the greatest wizardry, as what in other
hands might seem an inventory of urban life becomes both a powerful evocation and a clinical dissection of it. Different forms of work,
transport or leisure are edited together wittily, and with an eye for
corresponding details or contrasting connotations. As the film reaches
its crescendo, it is fitting that the editor’s art is celebrated as we see
her cut splice, play and pause shots at will. The film’s last sequence
shows Svilova pulling the dominant strands of imagery together, and
it is her light blue iris that fittingly ends the film superimposed upon
the camera shutter.
Jeremy Hicks
Turksib, AKA Stal’noi put’
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Viktor Turin (sometimes spelled
Iakov Aron
Viktor Shklovsky
Evgenii Slavinskii
Boris Frantsisson
59 minutes
The film documents the construction of the Turkestan-Siberian
Railway, which was conceived by the Soviet government to connect the cotton fields and sheep herds of Central Asia (what is now
Kazakhstan) to the grain fields of Siberia. The film begins by stating
the problem: Turkestan lacks sufficient water for efficient grain cultivation, but its immediate need forces it to use its potentially rich cotton
fields for grain. As animated maps demonstrate and bold intertitles
declare, the problem can be resolved by the simple and elegant
solution of bringing grain from Siberia. The second half of the film
explores the further ramifications of modernization in Central Asia and
issues a plea for construction to be completed in 1930.
Turin’s most well-known film illustrates three major facets of Soviet
aesthetics in the late 1920s. First, it celebrates the belief in the ability
of rational design to conquer natural chaos. This belief was central
to the First Five Year Plan which began in 1929 and featured several
large-scale construction projects like the Turkestan-Siberian Railway,
most of which sought to unite the far-flung production of the Soviet
lands into a single transport and electrical grid. The film projects
ideals of social and ethnic unity (for instance, in the group of surveyors who include both ethnic Europeans and Central Asians) that will
follow from the physical unification of the land into a single grid. The
entire Soviet project is summed up in the elegance of an animated
Directory of World Cinema
map which shows how stubborn, age-old problems can be resolved
by a simple bold gesture. The Soviet project is also encapsulated in
the totemic image of the locomotive, which is shown to be the literal
engine of revolutionary transformation. The image of the camel sniffing the unfamiliar rails became clichés for depicting the clash between
old and new in Soviet Central Asia, appearing on the cover of the
official history of the Turksib construction project.
The film also demonstrates how documentary genres were deployed
as a way for artists to co-ordinate their efforts with those of the overall
plan. Since the railway line is itself a bold act of imagination and a
thing of beauty, the artist can do no better than to record its projection
and implementation. The seeming passivity of the artist before history
is actually his participation in its progress. Thus it is in documentary
genres that artistic media come to occupy a crucial role in social and
industrial praxis. This argument was most famously expressed in the
1929 volume Literatura fakta, whose contributors included Viktor Shklovskii, who not only co-wrote the screenplay but also published a 1930
volume on the project utilizing stills from the film. This ‘documentary
moment’ did not last long, as documentary genres increasingly ceded
to the new fiction of socialist realism. The role of journalists at the opening of Turksib was specifically satirized in Il’f and Petrov’s 1931 novel
The Golden Calf.
Lastly, Turksib demonstrates the linkage between revolutionary
activity and rapid montage, the technique pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein. The juxtaposition of images is here the form par excellence of
dialectical thinking, and the visual resolution of the manifold contradictions of Central Asia facilitates their elimination in practice.
Robert Bird
Symphony of
the Donbas
Entuziazm: Simfoniia
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas shows images of drunks intercut with hidden camera shots of religion and worshippers accompanied by wailing, accordion music and cacophonous bells. To the
beat of a drum, communists and pioneers transform a church, the old
world, into a workers’ club, symbolic of the new. This is being listened
to by a woman sound engineer wearing headphones, who appears
only in this section, drawing our attention to the act of listening itself.
Marking a transition to the second section of the film, the passage of
time is implied through the speeded-up image of clouds passing. In
the second part the theme that dominates is work, and the need for
the whole Donbas, the whole of society, to work harder than ever to
make good the shortfall in coal and build socialism. This they do as
work is celebrated in the final part of the work.
While many of the greatest filmmakers of the silent era, famously
including Eisenstein, were sceptical about the benefits of sound film,
Dziga Vertov
Documentary 295
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Assistant Director and Editor:
Elizaveta Svilova
Boris Tseitlin
N. Timareev
65 minutes
Vertov unambiguously welcomed it, and was quick to start work on
Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas, which he stressed was the first
Soviet sound film conceived as such from the outset (rather than having
sound added subsequently). Its use of sound is certainly the most interesting element of the film, firstly in the embodied sound spoken by on
screen presences which organizes much of its material, rather than relying upon voice-of-God style commentary. Most importantly though, the
film uses a great deal of concrete location recorded sound, as we hear
a hooter, steam engines, and a pneumatic press intercut with images
of industrial production. Initially the noises are linked with their original
source, but they are then also used separately to comment upon other
scenes. The overall effect here is to redouble the sense of dynamic
progress suggested by the images alone. The means of achieving such
effects are startlingly original, and only rivalled in avant-garde and
experimental post-war western filmmakers.
The film is engaging too in its visuals, with the opening sequence
the most arresting in its sharply contrasting low- and high-angle shots:
a large number of low-angle shots of churches, high-angle shots of
a statue of Jesus on a church, contrasting the immense sculptured
form with tiny, barely visible human beings below. Worshippers and
drunks are photographed either from a high angle, as they prostrate
themselves, or straight on. They are predominantly static, or, like the
final drunk’s feet, shot with a wobbly hand-held camera, barely able
to walk. All this changes when the church becomes a workers’ club,
after which we see a huge array of low-angle shots of workers framed
against a light sky. Frequently they are looking upwards, typically they
are hard at work, or in motion, filing past the camera before a red flag.
Vertov marshals his considerable resources as a filmmaker to evoke a
sense of the energy and enthusiasm of work.
Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas is a film valuable above all
for its daring exploration of the possibilities of sound: it is hard to
believe Vertov was able to achieve so much in such difficult political
and administrative circumstances.
Jeremy Hicks
Obyknovennyi fashizm
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
In sixteen chapters Mikhail Romm, the film’s director and narrator,
explores the nature and origins of National Socialism. Chapter I opens
with children’s drawings and reflections about the universal meaning
of childhood and parenting. Suddenly, a photo of a German soldier shooting a mother appears, followed by more images of killed
children, demonstrating the inhumane essence of Nazism. Romm
discusses the message of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, its author, his youth
and political development. Chapter IV deals with the newsreels of
the 1920s and 1930s, Chapters V and IX with the ‘culture’ and ‘art’ of
the Third Reich. The cult of the ‘Fűhrer’ (Chapters VII, X, XIII) is linked
to the devaluation of the individual, ultimately resulting in the willing
participation of millions in unspeakable crimes. The film proves the
Directory of World Cinema
Mikhail Romm
Iurii Khaniutin
Maia Turovskaia
German Lavrov
Alemdar Karamanov
Valentina Kulagina
138 minutes
intrinsic link between the ideology of national superiority (Chapter VI)
and the racist contempt for other nations materializing in ghettos and
concentration camps (XIV). A discussion of neo-Nazi tendencies in
West Germany and other countries, as well as the forces that withstand these trends concludes the film.
Mikhail Romm was not a novice to documentary filmmaking, but for
Ordinary Fascism he explored new aesthetic paths. A more than twohour long film essay combining pre-made footage with contemporary
shots (often by hidden cameras), narrated by the director himself, was
unheard of in Soviet cinema. Moreover, no other Soviet director had
dared to focus exclusively on the political, social, cultural and especially
psychological roots of National Socialism as did Romm. To be sure,
he had already gained the reputation of an eminently political filmmaker, from Human Being # 217 (1944) about a young Russian woman
deported to Germany who has to face the ordinary Nazi mentality
in the family of a German butcher, to The Russian Question (1948),
a starkly anti-American Cold War pamphlet. However, in Ordinary
Fascism, Romm decided for the first time to express his views on
Nazism explicitly, without fictional mediation. The preparatory work
was enormous: the director and his team previewed hundreds of
thousands of metres of German newsreels, propaganda documentaries and personal photographs. The selected material then was
arranged in book-like chapters, each opening with a headline and an
epigraph, continued by a visual/verbal narration meandering between
the objective and the subjective, the analytical and the artistic. The
deliberate contrasting of images, juxtaposing peaceful civilization with
barbaric destruction, sometimes causes shock effects. Yet Romm’s
intention obviously went beyond that – he wanted to evoke a viewer’s
response balancing emotional reaction and rational analysis. The
narrator-director exposes the audience to a persuasive arrangement
of historical documents, with verbal announcements often preceding
the images to follow. Thus, Romm acts as the viewer’s personal guide
through the realm of images, constantly sharing his own thoughts,
expressing dismay, sarcasm or hope, and building a fundamental case
against Nazism, racism, anti-Semitism, and militarism. Nazi Germany
is depicted as an anti-intellectual society first and foremost, one that
reduces individuals to thoughtless minuscule particles arranged geometrically by a ruthless dictator and his minions. Romm’s alternative
is based on humanism and education, presenting communism as a
logical heir to universal cultural achievements. Hitler is portrayed as
a dangerous, grotesque psychopath empowered by capitalism, but
his opponent is not Stalin – who goes unmentioned – or the anti-Nazi
alliance, but decent, rank-and-file people all over the world. This
historically reductionist but doubtless humanist concept also implies
repeated arguments for a ‘better Germany’, identified both as the
Goethe and Schiller heritage and present-day East Germany. With his
open criticism of anti-intellectualism and anti-individualism, Romm
implicitly attacked similar trends in the Soviet Union. This and the sober
analysis of a totalitarian system’s inner functioning, albeit tempered
Documentary 297
Directory of World Cinema
by pro-Soviet and pro-communist statements, alarmed censors on all
levels. Only Romm’s unrivalled authority as a filmmaker – he had been
named People’s Artist of the USSR in 1950 and was considered a ‘living
classic’ of Soviet cinema – as well as the relative cultural liberalization in
the early 1960s allowed him to embark on this risky project. Indeed, for
several months after its completion the film did not get permission for
release. Shortly after Khrushchev’s demise, though, during a personal
meeting of leading filmmakers with the new general secretary Leonid
Brezhnev, Ordinary Fascism was given the green light. To this day, it
remains one of the most astonishing achievements of Soviet cinema
and arguably the most brilliant of all of Mikhail Romm’s films.
Peter Rollberg
The Seasons
(The Seasons of
the Year; Four
Vremena goda (Tarva
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Artavazd Peleshian
Mikhail Vartanov
Boris Ovsepyan
G. Chavushyan
29 minutes
‘This film is about everything, not only about the seasons of the year
or people, it is about everything.’ Peleshian’s own interpretation of
The Seasons is quite accurate, taking into account what he generally
says about his films: ‘It’s hard to give a verbal synopsis of these films.
Such films exist only on the screen, you have to see them.’ Putting
aside the director’s understandable reluctance to translate this
poetic black-and-white firework of montage and rhythm, one could
say that The Seasons is above all a film about life in the Armenian
mountains. Farmers tend to their animals and harvest under incredibly fierce conditions (they transport sheep over boulders and
through white-water, or chase huge haystacks down steep slopes);
a young couple’s marriage excites the whole village. Accompanied
by natural sounds or contrasted by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and folk
music, the images – sometimes manipulated by slow-motion or
time-lapse, sometimes interrupted by old-fashioned intertitles –
evolve into a dynamic rhythm of faces and hands in close-up, herds
of sheep, cloud formations, shadow landscapes and rustic dwellings,
rituals of work in the fields and stock breeding. A life of labour and
hardship, nature and beauty, handcraft and decoration – the poetry
of cultural tradition.
Two earlier films (Beginning, 1967; We, 1969) and two later ones
(The End, 1992; Life, 1993) won awards, however, it is The Seasons
(together with Our Century, 1982) which can probably be regarded
Artavazd Peleshian’s best-known film, marking also a significant shift
in his work. For the first time his approach towards a ‘contrapuntal’
or ‘distance montage’, as he calls it in his theoretical text ‘Distance
montage, or the theory of distance’, was realized not by using archive
footage but original images. For the last time he collaborated with the
other Armenian documentary auteur of greatest importance, Mikhail
Vartanov, whose cinematography delivered the magic pictures of The
Directory of World Cinema
It took Peleshian three years to create these 29 minutes of cosmic
energy and complex structure. The result is so astonishingly strong,
both visually and audibly, that once seen, heard and motorically
perceived (‘relived’ in a way), the intensity stays on forever, physically.
The beginning and the end especially, where nature, animal and man
are bound together in a fierce and yet harmonious struggle, reveal
a subtle poetry of rhythm that is developed from an inner quality of
the images. The movements constituting the washing of the waves or
the floating of the clouds determine the steady flow of the editing,
its repetitions or interruptions, its acceleration or retardation. Unlike
in the case of Vertov or Eisenstein, the montage is not based on two
adjacent shots, but rather on the concept of taking apart (‘distancing’)
that which is related to each other.
Most significantly this also holds true in the relation of image and
sound: ‘[With distance montage] you will not only see the image and
hear the sound, but you will also hear the image and see the sound’.
In perception, the close-ups of faces and hands, the long and medium
shots of the herds, the lashing of the torrents or the high-speed of the
haystacks are as ‘present’ as Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ or the melodies
from the duduk at the wedding. It is thus not a synthetic, but rather an
emphatically autonomous concept treating film as a hybrid medium
with synaesthetic qualities. Even the few intertitles (‘he got tired’,
‘do you think that elsewhere it is better’, ‘This is your land’) do not
complement the images or add to up to a plot, rather they figure as
an aesthetical index saying – these are the elements of film (like black
and white, light and shadow, sounds and images, music and voices).
Formally the intertitles are a reminder of the good old days relating
to the archaic traditions celebrated in The Seasons (the film is, after
all, a hymn to Armenia’s cultural heritage). Their ‘messages’, however,
contribute to the creation of the evidential guiding editing principle,
namely the mythological time structure, with a focus on ‘work’ in the
first half and on ‘leisure’ in the second. A spiritual universality lies
above all this, an existential drama that is not the product of narration
but of the montage of leitmotif (shepherds and sheep intertwined)
and other structures of motifs. It’s the intrinsic rhythm, the balance
of repetition and variation, and the constant competition for mastery
between ethnographical detail and cinematographic form that makes
The Seasons such an outstanding ‘poetic documentary’ in Soviet film
history. Peleshian’s cardiogram of the soul and spirit of the Armenian
people is a paradoxical ‘national monument’, being neither nationalist
nor monumental. He does not create the story of individuals, but an
organic image of the people, his people. A higher form of civilization
this is, beyond the limits of progress. Rhythm and beauty, force and
love are the ingredients of this alphabet in cinema.
Barbara Wurm
Documentary 299
Directory of World Cinema
Is It Easy to Be
Vai Viegli Būt Jaunam?
(Latvian) / Legko li byt’
molodym? (Russian)
Country of Origin:
The film starts with the court investigation of an incident of vandalism
on a train, perpetrated by young rock fans returning from a concert.
The film explores different youth sub-cultures, featuring interviews
with punks, drug addicts, young artists, students and looks at the
burning political and social issues of the perestroika era, namely
Chernobyl and the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of the young
Soviet Union
Juris Podnieks’s Is It Easy to Be Young? is one of the key perestroika
films that enjoyed enormous mass popularity and critical attention.
Its cultural significance is comparable to the documentary Ordinary
Fascism (1965) by Mikhail Romm. It is one of the first perestroika films
that looked at Soviet society through the eyes of the young generation. What it means to be young in the Soviet Union was one the main
themes in perestroika and early post-Soviet filmmaking. The young
generation was viewed as the bearer of hope, freedom and change
(as in ASSA, Sergei Solov’ev 1988) or as the lost generation that
struggled amidst hypocrisy and inadequacy of the ‘adult’ Soviet world
(as in Little Vera, Vasilii Pichul, 1989). Podnieks’s documentary displays
a sophistication in weighing both of these options, and personalizing
them in the reflections that the interviewed participants share with
the camera. The film explores several dimensions of what it meant
to be young in the Soviet Union, and Latvia in particular: how youth
related to the Soviet system of values and institutions, and the role
the young generation played in the dangerous ‘hot spots’ of the late
Soviet history – Chernobyl and Afghanistan. Tracking the participants
of a rock concert who vandalize the suburban train and are brought
to court, the film seems to be firmly on the side of the young people
– misunderstood, constrained and abused by the system of ideological clichés. The film sides with the youth in a ‘j’accuse’ moment when
it narrates the story of a young woman faced with a criminal trial and
psychiatric ward because she stole a ballet dress to pose for pictures.
The unruly punks in the film pronounce the judgement that would
be reiterated in other perestroika narratives: the young generation
despises the Soviet way of life as deeply hypocritical, superficial and
stifling self-expression.
However, Podnieks’s film goes beyond simple negative identification of the sore points in the late Soviet history. Another immensely
popular film, This is No Way to Live (dir. Stanislav Govorukhin, 1990)
is a very good example of a documentary in which the sole goal is
to dismantle, dispute and debunk the Soviet way of life. Podnieks’s
film gives a more nuanced picture, making individual fate and moral
choice the focus of his story. The variety of subjects interviewed in the
film talk about their lives and their experiences. And while these experiences are pieced together by history, such as the war in Afghanistan
or Chernobyl disaster, they remain in focus as individual existential
and moral choices. Thus, Podnieks interviews a young amateur
Riga Film Studio
Juris Podnieks
Baiba Urbane
Abram Kleckin
Evgenii Margolin
Juris Podnieks
Kalvis Zalcmanis
Antra Cilinska
80 minutes
Directory of World Cinema
Juris Podnieks, Is it easy to be young? (1986).
filmmaker who shoots a film about young people. His film within
Podnieks’s film addresses the audience with abstract and allegorical
figures – a maze-like hallway, a cloaked figure of death, young people
standing in the strikingly blue sea at the end, a symbol of hope. The
introduction of abstraction highlights the ways Podnieks’s film transcends concrete history and returns to questions of personal choice,
of what it means to be young – right now and always. The film is shot
in a combination of colour and black-and-white stock, reserved mostly
for the to-camera interviews, creating a sense of chronicle, something
recorded for history. The variation of film stock serves the purpose
of joining historic reference and personal experience, the concrete
chronicled time and abstract values that govern people’s choices. This
combination of acute awareness of individual fate and historic and
social experiences that affect us makes Juris Podnieks’s film a unique
documentary and a landmark in perestroika filmmaking.
Volha Isakava
Documentary 301
Directory of World Cinema
The Last
Film Materials
(Final Verdict;
The Highest
Vysshii sud – kinomaterialy
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Riga Film Studios
Herz Frank
Herz Frank
Andris Seletskis
73 minutes
The Last Judgement recounts the story of Valerii Dolgov, a man
who has committed a murder of a black market trader, at the age
of twenty-four. The first part of the film is a piece of investigative
journalism, in which the director attempts to establish the facts of the
case, the identities of both victim and perpetrator, and then, through
interviews, to understand what led Dolgov to commit the murder. The
court’s verdict of the death sentence changes the nature of the interviews profoundly, and a strong bond develops between Frank, who
conducts the interviews himself, and Dolgov. From attempts to justify
himself, and explain his actions in terms of his ambition and environment, the condemned man increasingly reflects in more philosophical
terms about love, God, conscience, death and the moment of murder.
The film seems to grant insight into the course of Dolgov’s thinking,
the thought processes of someone facing death.
The Last Judgement is a powerful example of film as a process of
analysis and of thought: the filmmaker could not have known when he
began shooting, what kind of film he would end up with. Thus the first
part of the film seems very much of its time, as the director attempts
ever so tentatively to ask why there is crime in a socialist society, and
to reveal the then startling insight that even the son of an engineer
engaged in the heroic process of the construction of socialism can
become involved with organized crime and commit murder. While
this portrait is of its time, the time is a historic one, when a generation
of Soviet youth rejected the normal steady job with a meagre salary,
instead taking advantage of the possibilities for rapid enrichment
offered by the expansion of the black market and collapse of the state
control over the economy. Dolgov’s ‘moral collapse’ as he terms it,
is part of a wider societal shift. The link with broader social themes
is made in stylistic terms too by the insertion of footage relating not
only to the investigation and legal process, but also to the kinds of
honest labour, notably construction, that Dolgov turned his back on.
After the death sentence is passed, the film no longer traces Dolgov’s relations with society, but with his own impending death and his
parents. He becomes transformed as his rational censor gives way to a
free flow of association, and it seems as if Frank’s camera has crossed
a line, over which, as he says ‘the living should perhaps not cross’.
There is a eerie sense that this is no longer a normal interview, as the
conversations take on a more ‘confessional’ tone, as Frank later said.
The camera records a process whereby Dolgov is stripped down to
his palpable fear of death and begins to talk about the importance of
love, and of his conscience.
The power of Frank’s film lies in its psychological intensity. While
the film can be compared to treatments of a similar theme in Richard
Leacock’s 1965 The Chair, and Nick Broomfield’s 2003: Eileen: Life
and Death of a Serial Killer, Frank’s command of the documentary
form is no less assured: the occasional voice-over is insightful as to his
Directory of World Cinema
Hertz Frank, High Court (1987).
own feelings and the process of making the film; the music is dramatic
at first, but later ceding place to diegetic sound and the subject; and
the camera tellingly pinpoints Dolgov’s nervous mannerisms, such as
his fidgeting with a box of matches. The use of still photographs, however, is particularly effective in the final images of Frank and Dolgov
leaving the death row cell, and then of the empty cell. Thus Frank
attempts to resist the temptation to show too much after the manner
of 1980s and 1990s Soviet ‘dark naturalism’ or chernukha. Nevertheless, when Dolgov’s sentence was carried out in the week the film was
released, its initial success owed something to its sensational topicality. The Last Judgement’s international acclaim, with prizes at Nyon
(1987) and Amsterdam (1988) documentary film festivals, however,
demonstrated its greater and lasting value. This achievement was subsequently reiterated by Moscow’s ‘Stalker’ Human Rights Film Festival
in 1995, which recognized the film’s ‘artistic honesty.’
Jeremy Hicks
Documentary 303
Directory of World Cinema
Solovki Power
Vlast’ Solovetskaia:
Svidetel’stva i dokumenty
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Marina Goldovskaia
Viktor Listov
Dmitrii Chukovskii
Marina Goldovskaia
Art Director:
P. Safonov
Nikolai Karetnikov
Marina Krutoiarskaia
M. Kareva
88 minutes
Dmitrii Likhachev
Efim Lagutin
Oleg Volkov
Zoia Marchenko
Ol’ga Adamova-Sliozberg
Anatolii Gorelov
Samuil Epshtein
Aleksandr Prokhorov
Andrei Roshchin
Savelii Savenko
Fekla Fofanova
Aleksandr Proshkin
This multiple award-winning documentary describes the prison camp
located on the Solovetsk Islands (Solovki) in the White Sea. For
centuries a monastery, Solovki was officially converted in June 1923
to a ‘Special Purpose Camp’, a prototype for what would become
the Gulag. Solovki was in operation until August 1939, when some
of its prisoners were relocated to Siberian camps such as Norilsk
and Dudinka, while others were never seen or heard from again.
The film shows numerous excerpts from a propaganda film about
Solovki shot in 1927–1928, and interspersed throughout are scenes
of a modern-day team unearthing and reading old letters and other
documents found at sites on Solovki. The film draws extensively on
the personal recollections of those who were at the camp, including
Andrei Roshchin (a former member of the Cheka who worked there
as a guard), Fekla Fofanova (a cleaning lady at the camp) and Savelii
Savenko (a cameraman for the Solovki propaganda film). The most
moving testimony comes from those who were imprisoned there:
Dmitrii Likhachev (an academic), Efim Lagutin (worker), Oleg Volkov
(writer), Zoia Marchenko (stenographer), Ol’ga Adamova-Sliozberg
(economist), Anatolii Gorelov (writer), Samuil Epshtein (economist) and
Aleksandr Prokhorov (engineer).
Solovki Power is Marina Goldovskaia’s most important and well-known
film. Goldovskaia began working on the film near the beginning of
the glasnost era, when Mikhail Gorbachev sought greater openness
and transparency in discussing and critiquing Soviet history as well as
contemporary Soviet policies. Despite the greater freedoms seemingly guaranteed at the time, Goldovskaia was nervous to undertake
such a project at a documentary film studio or a television station. To
secure herself greater control over the content and design of the film,
she made it within an otherwise fiction-film unit at Mosfilm, which at
the time was run by a friend of hers from film school. To get the project approved and funded, she downplayed her interest in the prison
camps and cleverly assembled a very different proposal for a documentary on the historical and cultural artifacts to be found on Solovki.
The film helped to make public the issue of past government
oppression and abuse, something that most people certainly knew of
but had only cautiously talked about in private. Sensationally, the film
showed that Solovki started taking prisoners on 6 June 1923; thus,
the system that would develop into the ‘Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies’ (Gulag) began under Lenin – not
Stalin, as many had believed. In addition to detailing the capricious
cruelties that prisoners suffered, the film exposed camp hierarchies, in
which actual criminals usually were treated more favourably and often
were assigned to terrorize the intellectuals and religious devotees
deemed enemies of the state. The film’s title is a bastardization of the
oft-championed phrase ‘Soviet Power’, and the film demonstrates that
on those islands of Solovki, there was an altogether distinct, perverse
Directory of World Cinema
Marina Goldovskaia, Solovki Power (1988).
regime – a different authority and a separate set of rules under which
one was forced to endure.
The film’s strength lies in its powerful resonances and striking juxtapositions. The accumulation of stoic testimony from the eight featured
survivors details the vast range of experiences they underwent at the
same time that it confirms the shared depth of their suffering. They
recount how they came to be sentenced and brought to Solovki,
and their stories reveal the systemic arbitrariness that governed their
lives: Oleg Volkov refused to be an informant for the secret police,
Zoia Marchenko was found in possession of correspondence from
her brother revealing the tortures that he had endured in prison, Efim
Lagutin was simply a teenage runaway who stowed away on a ship
that had been abroad. Their stories are often most compelling when
they overlap on specific events. They reveal how they hid or cowered on the night of 28 October 1928 as 300 prisoners were brutally
executed as a warning to the others. They object to the footage from
the Solovki propaganda film and describe a very different reality from
the one shown on screen.
Throughout the film, we are generally left with verbal accounts in
place of any visual evidence of abuse. For example, despite hearing
of the extensive range of torture administered on Sekirny Hill – considered the most terrible place on Solovki – what we see instead is the
desolate, rugged allure of that landscape. The many shots of quiet,
scenic beauty optimistically suggest renewal, as this place bears little
trace of its past horrors. However, in the very stillness and emptiness of
these shots, we are also made to realize the absence and loss of those
who did not live to tell their stories. We are cautioned that nature and
architecture alone will not preserve this history, and are reminded that,
as the narrator declares, ‘We do not have the right to forget’.
Vincent Bohlinger
Documentary 305
Directory of World Cinema
Moscow Elegy
Moscow Elegy
Country of Origin:
Soviet Union
Leningrad Studio of
Documentary Film (LSDF)
Union of Cinema Workers
Aleksandr Sokurov
Georgii Bagoturiia
Vladimir Mikhailov
Tat’iana Aleshkina
Aleksandr Burov
Aleksei Naidenov
Liudmila Krasnova
Liudmila Feiginova
T. Belousova
A. Zhikhareva
Leda Semenova
L. Volkova
88 minutes
Moscow Elegy is Sokurov’s homage to his mentor Andrei Tarkovskii on
the occasion of his death on 29 December 1986. Sokurov augments
extensive excerpts from Tarkovskii’s films Mirror (1975), Voyage in
Time (1980) and Nostalgia (1983) with video footage from the shoot
of Sacrifice (1986, supplied by Anna-Lena Wibum) and of Tarkovskii’s
fatal illness and funeral (supplied by Chris Marker). Photographs document Tarkovskii’s childhood. Original footage documents Tarkovskii’s
homes in Russia. The broader historical context is suggested by
footage of the funerals of Brezhnev and Iurii Andropov. Eschewing
chronology or analysis of Tarkovskii’s cinematic oeuvre, Sokurov’s quiet
but emotional narration presents Tarkovskii’s passing as the end of an
epoch in Russian spiritual existence.
Moscow Elegy culminates with video footage of Tarkovskii’s final
months, his funeral and his grave. Sokurov features French TV reports
on Tarkovskii’s death, highlighting the disconcerting way that this
epochal event became trivialized as breaking news communicated
over modern mass media to an indifferent public, to be forgotten
on the morrow. But Tarkovskii’s traces are also captured only within
technological media, both documentary footage and an audio recording of Tarkovskii reading his father’s poem ‘I fell ill in childhood’. By
posing the problem in this way Moscow Elegy links Tarkovskii’s death
to a central concern in Sokurov’s cinematic aesthetic, especially in the
genre of the documentary elegy: the tension between the intimate
experience of time, loss and death and the modern, mechanical
media by which we access it.
In Sokurov’s numerous other cinematic homages, from Sonata
for Viola (1981, about Dmitrii Shostakovich) to Conversations with
Solzhenitsyn (1999), he has tended to focus his camera on the
physical presence of his subject. Though Sokurov begins Moscow
Elegy as a search for Tarkovskii’s presence, it ends up registering his
absence: from Russia, from his own homes, from the public record
and even from his own films. Sokurov highlights three key moments
of Tarkovskii’s life: Russian childhood, Italian exile and death in Paris.
The only specific places featured are Tarkovskii’s now-empty homes:
in Zavrazh’e, Shchipok (in Moscow), Miasnoe, Mosfil’movskii pereulok; he takes us on a posthumous tour of the latter three, noting
their sparse furnishings and their present state of abandonment. He
shows footage of Tarkovskii in Marlen Khutsiev’s Il’ich Gate (1962)
and in a documentary study of cinema protagonists (1969), but only
to stress Tarkovskii’s seemingly alien guise in these ‘roles’. Only sparing traces of his grown presence remains. One stunning sequence
imposes Viacheslav Ovchinnikov’s soundtrack to Ivan’s Childhood
(1962) over documentary footage of Sheremet’evo airport, Tarkovskii’s final port of call in the USSR, culminating in the discovery of
the birch woods that surround the airport. Sokurov tries to recover
the sense of Tarkovskii’s final glance at his loved ones and his home
Directory of World Cinema
landscape by reproducing the autobiographical elements of Tarkovskii’s fiction films.
Throughout the film Sokurov eschews the words ‘USSR’ or ‘Russia’,
preferring ‘rodina’ – homeland, a concept symbolized by this birch
forest. Narrating Tarkovskii’s final days, he laments that ‘We in the
homeland knew next to nothing about the state of his health’. One
wonders what would have changed had they known; it is, of course, a
typically illogical expression of grief, of irredeemable loss. Sokurov’s
despondence over Tarkovskii’s death (to which he also devoted a
1987 memoir Death: the Banal Equalizer) reveals a sentimentalism
and nostalgia capable of paralyzing those who remain. All we can do,
it would seem, is to open museums on the sites of his homes, lovingly
preserving the arrangement of objects as he left them.
Made at the peak of perestroika, Sokurov’s lament for Tarkovskii
was perceived as mourning ‘the Russia we have lost’ (to quote the
title of another perestroika-era documentary by Stanislav Govorukhin).
Recent history – most notably the funerals of Brezhnev and Andropov
– feels as distant as if it is the history of another planet. In this sense
Moscow Elegy is less about Tarkovskii per se that about the condition
of historical abandonment symbolized by his death.
Robert Bird
The Russia That
We Lost
Rossiia, kotoruiu my
Country of Origin:
Russian, some French
Stanislav Govorukhin
A political documentary, directed and narrated by Stanislav Govorukhin,
which seeks to rehabilitate pre-Revolutionary Russia, while debunking the Soviet mythologies of the Revolution. The film is divided into
three parts, the first of which delineates the pre-Revolutionary idyll.
Part I paints modern Russian history in broad strokes, using newsreel
footage from the period, and crosscutting it with scenes from contemporary life in Russia. Here, Govorukhin makes his general argument that
Russia was already advancing toward modernity before the Revolution,
and that real progress was stunted throughout the Soviet period. The
director tackles other claims made by the Communist Party, such as the
equality of women, only to dispel them. The second part of The Russia
That We Lost provides detailed portraits of Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin, Prime
Minister Petr Stolypin, alongside analyses of the Russian Army during
World War I, and the meaning of 1917. The third part details the early
crimes of the Bolsheviks, in particular the murder of the royal family and
the Cheka’s violent campaign against Russian Orthodoxy.
Vladimir Dostal’
The Russia That We Lost is a none too subtle piece of political propaganda, at times delving into Russian nationalism with its whitewash of
the period of Nicholas II’s reign. In pre-Revolutionary Russia, according
to the film, peasants and industrial workers happily labour. And the
elite are harmless purveyors of social ritual and good taste. Imperial
Russia in this conception is a space of traditional values and at the same
Stanislav Govorukhin
Gennadii Engstrem
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Art Director:
Al’bert Rudachenko
Petr Tchaikovsky
Sergei Rachmaninoff
Nina Vasil’eva
106 minutes
time developing into a modern nation on the cusp of joining Western
Europe. While there is poverty and inequality in such a space, there is
little social conflict. Russian (as opposed to foreign) capitalists were in
control of the economy and managed relations with workers in a just
and patrimonial fashion. The first part of the film does not yet provide
evidence of the director’s claims, only a juxtaposition of early actualités
shot during the first decade of the twentieth century with contemporary
footage. The moving images suggest a vibrant and rich society on the
eve of revolution, rather than the picture of a declining empire that
Soviet historiography had emphasized previously.
The second part of The Russia That We Lost introduces the recurrent visual and narrative motif of the archive. The film constantly
cuts between an objective examination of old photographs and
newsreels and Govorukhin’s deliberately subjective tour through the
archives and written documents. In one case, the camera pans across
the record of a politburo meeting, while Govorukhin reads the text
aloud, tapping his pen underneath the words as he goes. The archive
becomes the director’s key source of credibility in the film, even as it
highlights the subjective act of selecting and interpreting historical
documents. In this respect, the archive motif in The Russia That We
Lost is highly unusual in documentary filmmaking, a tradition which
usually obscures the process of constructing evidence.
Govorukhin’s organization is also unusual in The Russia That We
Lost, contributing at times to the film’s sprawling quality. The second
part, for example, is sub-divided into the following categories: Petr
Stolypin; Nikolai Romanov; Vladimir Ul’ianov; The Russian Army; and
The First Russian Revolution. The first two individuals serve to represent the positive values of the empire: order; love; family; and culture.
The film details the everyday lives of the royal family, emphasizing
the storybook quality of the Romanovs. Govorukhin then addresses
Lenin’s upbringing in Simbirsk. While remaining without direct comment, the director emphasizes the Soviet leader’s hidden Jewish
ancestors, suggesting a contrast between the Romanovs’ moral
authenticity and the Bolsheviks’ amoral duplicity. In the following section, the director details a movement from a united and patriotic army
in the imperial period to a military force that revealed the incompetence of Soviet leaders and the deep fractures in Soviet society.
Key to Govorukhin’s argument is that the First Russian Revolution in
February 1917 had already led the country down the path of violence,
chaos and destruction. Even though Russians were initially celebrating
their new political freedoms that emerged from revolution, Govorukhin cites political intrigue, an immediate degradation of morals
and the loss of legitimate authority as factors that led to the complete
breakdown of Russian society during 1917, even before October. The
only factor that the Bolsheviks introduced to the context of 1917 was
political terror, which he details in the film’s third part.
In the conclusion to the film, ‘The Epoch of Degeneration’,
Govorukhin suggests that the amorality of Lenin and the Bolsheviks
produced an amoral society. Consequently, the only Russians who
maintained not only their culture, but also the morality of the empire,
were the émigré communities in Paris and Berlin.
Joshua First
Directory of World Cinema
The Belovs
Country of Origin:
Studio of Documentary Films
St Petersburg
Viktor Kosakovskii
Viktor Kosakovskii
Leonid Konovalov
59 minutes
‘What is so interesting here that you are filming it? This is my brother
Misha. We are ordinary people. We live here where the river has its
source. There is nothing special about us and this place.’ – Anna
Fedorovna Belova’s words are directed straight into the camera.
The ordinary rules in the old Belovs’ everyday village life. Mikhail,
self-appointed philosopher and part-time drinker sits at the kitchen
table, smooches his dog and occasionally leaves the house for a short
check-up of his sister’s working progress in the kitchen-garden. Anna,
two times widow, milks the cows and talks to them (in a far more
human way than she does to Misha), she works, laughs, cries and
sings chastushkas. One day their two brothers from the city come to
visit. The Belovs exchange opinions on perestroika politics and metaphysical problems as well as a handful of hard-core curses. Left behind
in their twosome loneliness Anna and Misha continue to swear their
guts out and end their day in the living room: the drunkard crawling
on the floor, his sister enchanted by a dance of grief and anger, of lust
and exaltation. After all, this is quite an unordinary life.
Viktor Kosakovskii’s The Belovs is maybe the perfect example of a
deconstructivist documentary. On the threshold between cinemavérité realism and mythology, this one-hour movie in sepia unfolds its
quality by functioning on both levels, the face value of a story set in
1992 Russia, in a run down provincial shack on the one hand, and the
symbolic decoding of classical topoi on the other (like the universal
brother-and-sister-plot, the ‘typical Russian’ aspect of it, matching
a male drinking theoriser and a female practical family-sustainer, or
the mythological setting of a place ‘where the river has its source’).
Everything seems to happen in an actual, short time span (something
like ‘one day in the life of …’) but is at the same time part of a ritual of
much larger dimensions.
This radicalizes the relationship between actuality and potentiality
on the level of the representation, between realism and idealism on
the level of existence, whereas on a temporal level it brings together
a linear and a circular structure, thus creating an interference or rather
tension that in turn produces the scaffold for a convincing yet open
editing policy. A long sequence of Misha the philosopher sitting at the
kitchen table is followed by a sequence shot of the river landscape,
the image being confronted with music from a popular old Indian
movie; Anna’s simultaneous talking to the camera and her cows as
well as her restless activities are countered by Misha’s coincidental
metaphysical monologues on justice, freedom, singularity, the bourgeoisie, Russian imperialism, Yeltsin, Gaidar and his personal pedagogical doctrine: to forbid the public production of toys, so girls can
knit their own puppets and boys construct their own buildings.
It is not the peculiarity of these characters as such, but rather Kosakovskii’s way of portraying them that makes The Belovs such an outstanding documentary and an unofficial role model for the generation
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to come. Whereas the typical perestroika non-fiction film, fighting the
old paradigms of Soviet documentary stylistics, turns to the subaltern
in order to enforce ‘true’, ‘authentic’ outings of the dirt and decay of
the time, Kosakovskii never drives his protagonists into revealing their
souls in front of the camera. He doesn’t inspire or analyse or generalize anything; above all, he never accuses anyone.
Kosakovskii’s camera depicts wonderful, spontaneous moments,
like Anna’s furious comment on one of Misha’s endless tirades (‘Karamazov – sit!’), her useless attempts to keep the dog from playing with
a hedgehog (‘Here you go, take the candy instead!’), her reading of a
letter to the son who left ages ago (‘Don’t forget to take the propolis,
and keep your feet warm!’) addressed to a birch tree, the brothers’
lashing in the bathhouse (accompanied by the tender melody of ‘The
moon was yellow, and the night was young’), or the chasing of cows,
chicken, babushka and ants (this time with some Latin samba as the
musical background). But the very subtlety of Kosakovskii’s moves
and takes, his documentary credo, is displayed at the very end;
during a verbal battle of sheer incredible cruelty (‘All you possess
are two balls between your legs, and those are dirty!’ – ‘I need to kill
you in order to liberate society. You need to be eliminated, you are
interfering with our lives.’) Kosakovskii decides to turn off the sound,
only to have Anna listen to the recorded quarrel through earphones
later, while Misha ultimately falls over. Anna seems shocked by what
she hears, she is ashamed, and breaks out into hysterical laughter
and crying. The film has become part of her life. And we realize that
watching The Belovs we have been on the edge to voyeurism. On
the edge only.
Barbara Wurm
Bread Day
Chlebnyi den’
Country of Origin:
VKSR (Higher Courses for
Directors and Scriptwriters)
Sergei Dvortsevoi
Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
A deserted settlement, 80 km from Saint Petersburg. Only a few
elderly people are left. It is Tuesday again, ‘bread day’. In deep snow
they are already waiting for the wagon. Excitement. The locomotive
disappears, the wagon stays. Half a dozen of people, female mainly
it appears, have to push the wagon themselves, along the rails, 2 km,
towards the settlement. An endless shot. They are desperate. Pan
across the settlement. Glorious nothingness. A she-dog bites away
her own puppies who want to feed. They are desperate. Two goats
find each other through the window. They kiss, it seems. Unloading of
the bread. The first bags are being stuffed. In another eternal shot, a
man buys out nearly all the bread there is, engaging in a fierce verbal
battle with the shop assistant (‘the ruler of fate’). All other customers remain still. There won’t be any bread left. A goat enters the
shop, also desperate for food – or bored, who knows? A drunkard,
too, wants bread. There is nothing left. Another quarrel. This time it
gets physical. Sunset. Sunrise. The empty trays are put back into the
wagon. The wagon is pushed back along the rails. Fifty-five minutes –
or seventeen shots of classical documentary.
Directory of World Cinema
55 minutes
Dvortsevoi once said: ‘To be ready for a shot means that I can wait for
a week, for two weeks, three, a month … I will wait for exactly the shot
I want, and I know that I can wait for it and that I will get it’. Beginning
in the early 1990s and together with one of Russia’s best cameramen, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, Sergei Dvortsevoi has developed a
convincing method in documentary ethics and stylistics. He observes
and waits and tries to be prepared for ‘the event’ to happen (again).
Then he shoots, without the slightest interference. This way, each
scene takes the time it needs. In his earlier masterpiece Happiness
(1995), a clumsy little nomad kid eating his porridge absorbed the
attention of an astonished international film community – for an eternity, it seemed. In Bread Day – the depiction of one day required a
three-month presence on site – wagons, goats, dogs and seniors take
the scene, as if each was performing its role, a little autistic somehow,
busy with themselves, reluctant to communicate with others of their
Whereas the Central-Asian setting of his first two films contributed
to an outstanding anthropological and ethnographic quality of contemplation, Dvortsevoi’s ‘thick’ observations of this classical (not-yetpost-)communist scenario on Russian soil – peripheral remoteness,
constant shortcomings, silent despair, tedious yet useless activity,
greed, mismanagement and endless debates over the sales counter
– bring in an additional political layer. ‘This film is about us, don’t you
realize!? It’s the wagon they uncoupled from world civilization in 1917,
and we have spent an entire 70 years pushing it towards communism,
wasting our time in queues.’ Even if this interpretation might seem
somewhat forced, the essential political insight put forth by Dvortsevoi is that these people did and still do not seem to even notice the
misery and deadlock they are living in. All they do is continue their
daily routines (small-minded talk of shortages with an extra pinch
of maliciousness and some great sarcastic humour) and struggle for
some loaves of bread. ‘Poekhali’, is their slogan: let’s go! – and this is
not an expression of enthusiasm but a quote from Gagarin.
The outstanding ethical quality of Bread Day lies in its rigorous
aesthetic form. Each shot is so deliberately established that it seems
to be staged but isn’t: the orchestration takes place on the spatial and
temporal level only. The animals and humans do not act, but they do
not hide either. Every movement, gesture or verbal utterance (including some serious swearing) is caught by a stubbornly fixed camera
filming from a respectable distance and closing the shot only when
the sequence itself has come to a conclusion. Thus Bread day delivers images humble in intention but strong in expression. The balance
between the director’s cinematic intervention and the protagonists’
sovereignty of action seems unique in the history of documentary film.
As a result one feels compassionate but far from being drawn in by
manipulation, reinforced voyeurism or external pathos. The turn of the
millennium, says Dvortsevoi, was a ‘time for documentary filmmaking’. Bread Day is the perfect example for that. Its appropriately quiet
and patient pace reflects the ambiguity of the ‘radical changes’ in
society. Not much is happening here, in this deserted periphery. And
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everything seems more or less the same as it used to be. Complaining
remains complaining. Swearing remains swearing. Getting upset is useless – but happens. And the name-calling ranges from hyper-offensive
to super-cautious. There are snakes in the grass. ‘If you want a change,
why don’t you look for another shop assistant’, mumbles the grumpy
old woman behind the sales counters. ‘We will do that’, the nagging
pain-in-the-ass customer answers, ‘and it won’t be hard to find another
such beauty (krasavitsu)’. ‘Beauty – why did you just use this word?’
Barbara Wurm
Chronicles: A
Chastnye khroniki.
Country of Origin:
MV Studio
REN-TV (Russia) with YLE-TV2
Vitalii Manskii
Natal’ia and Vitalii Manskii
Vitalii Manskii
Aleksei Aigi
86 minutes
Private Chronicles: A Monologue is a compilation of amateur film footage which is used to narrate the life of a fictional individual born on
11 April 1961, a day before Iurii Gagarin’s successful flight into space.
By adding a voice-over commentary identifying himself and various
figures in his life, as well as commenting on various rites of passage
(such as the death of elderly relatives or sexual awakening), cultural
institutions (such as the dacha or the subbotnik), social trends (such as
migration to Moscow) and wider political events (such as the Moscow
Olympics or Brezhnev’s death) the film traces the life of a kind of Soviet
everyman of the post-war era, a cynical child of the idealistic 1960s
generation. The structure of this narrative is further stressed by the
titles marking the changing of the year which have images of major
national or international events. The narrator drowns in the Admiral
Nakhimov naval disaster on 31 August 1986, at the beginning of the
Perestroika era, before the failed attempt to reform, and subsequent
death throes and demise of the system with which he is identified.
Private Chronicles: A Monologue is a groundbreaking film through
its pioneering of a totally new form: it makes a work of art, a biography, out of amateur footage. The purpose is to attempt to illustrate a
sense of private life as a positive achievement, as something wrested
from and maintained in spite of the symbols and demands of the
Soviet political system, but somehow still defined by it. The urgency
of the project is all the greater, as the generation it speaks to attempts
to mediate their mixed attitudes towards the years of their youthful
vitality lived under a moribund political system. Manskii’s film stresses
a sharp line between the official political culture, which is consistently
ridiculed by the voice-over and barely reflected in the home movies,
and the physiological processes of growth and death, the sexual, the
sub-cultural life of fashion and popular music, of parties and leisure
time, which dominate the images. This often means the narrator commenting upon the meaning and importance of various stages of life
or institutions: childhood as a brief window of freedom, marriage as
the only ritual of personal life where the state helped, holidays on the
Black Sea and the flexible nature of the flat.
Directory of World Cinema
This device of describing and commenting upon the life around him,
like a visiting anthropologist, enables Manskii to get around the fact
that the footage does not follow a specific group of people, or indeed,
even any one single person consistently enough to identify them. It also
means that his film shows someone he calls a ‘representative of the last
generation of Soviet people’, rather than a single individual. This is a
paradox, since the nature of the footage and much of the commentary
stresses the primacy of the individual and family life over that of the
collective. While this contradiction maybe attributed to this generation’s
ambivalent attitude to the Soviet past, the effect is to transform the
material of private memories into a broader, rather monolithic, vision of
the Soviet past, centripetally-focused on Moscow, permitting little space
for specifically individual, ethnic or other variations. In this regard, the
initial image is a telling one, in that it starts as a tiny box in the middle of
the screen, and slowly, to the sound of Aleksei Aigi’s mesmerising violin,
expands until it occupies the whole of the screen. This seems to suggest
the way in which Manskii makes the private, note the Russian sense of
the term chastnaia, the partial, the fragmentary, expand until it occupies
the whole of the screen, until it becomes central.
If this is a problem, it is also an incredible achievement to have
moulded these fragments, which he has been collecting since 1996,
into a whole. While the amateur films have a certain intrinsic warmth,
they often frame their subjects poorly, and suffer from other technical faults, which would be forgiven when shown to the filmmaker’s
family and friends, but not by us outsiders. Manskii’s editing of each
sequence and the whole structure, create a sense this is a whole. Yet
the sound too plays a pivotal role, especially the voice-over, brilliantly
paced by Aleksandr Tsekalo, the use of various sounds to accentuate
themes such as that of water and Aleksei Aigi’s virtuouso, Nymanesque score, which encapsulates and welds together the moods of
menace and merriment, the mixed emotions about this past.
Jeremy Hicks
The Siege
Country of Origin:
Studio of Documentary Films,
St Petersburg
Sergei Loznitsa
Loznitsa’s The Siege presents a series of seemingly random episodes
from the siege of 1941–1944. The director found these materials
dispersed and collecting dust in various Petersburg archives. Many
of his findings chosen for inclusion are the censored remains of the
Battle for Leningrad (1942), the main cinematic text of the official
propaganda of the Siege. Six decades after the events, Loznitsa has
created a film that radically reverses the rules and expectations of
the Soviet ethos of Siege representation. The film concentrates on
the most unbearable topoi of life in the besieged city – corpse-filled
streets, buses and trucks frozen into ice, Way to Calvary-like expeditions to obtain bread and water; it also empathically follows the
changes in the city’s image – the disappearance of monuments, the
embankments and facades ‘wounded’ by the constant shelling and
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Viacheslav Tel’nov
Sergei Loznitsa
52 minutes
This film challenges the overpowering desire for a teleological masternarrative that would ascribe meaning to the hellish world of the Siege.
The final version of Battle for Leningrad was permeated by the consoling commentary of its voice-over narration and uplifting soundtrack,
and the montage principle of organization took the Smolnyi Party
headquarter’s point of view on the Siege. Loznitsa’s film, on the
other hand, works rather as a Siege diary, reflecting on the notions
of limited space and the difficult progression of time. As would a
citizen caught unawares in the besieged city, this film dashes from one
impression, experience and tragedy to the next.
Loznitsa’s editing keenly follows one element of urban life that
many inhabitants of the city came to see as a crucial leitmotif of their
existence in Leningrad both before and during the Siege – the streetcar, that for many symbolized the distinction between the ‘life’ and
‘death’ of/in their city. If one were to seek unifying strategies in the
fragmented body of Loznitsa’s film, one might claim that the streetcar
becomes this film’s protagonist. Its task is to signify the flow of time in
the city, where time, according to many diarists, was experienced as
having come to a halt. We see the streetcar in October, stubborn and
still energetic, we see it in November, as a suffering victim of dystrophy (its slow movement here might be explained by the constant possibility of sudden shelling), and then in January. By now the streetcar
is frozen, covered with incrustations of ice, its function changed as
well – now turned into an improvised morgue. The streetcar becomes
the embodiment of the spectacle of the Siege, signifying both the
memories of and hopes for the time without the Siege as well as the
new meanings inscribed into the urban text by the reality of the Siege.
Another aspect of the Siege site that interests Loznitsa is how
people look at one another. The camera allows us to participate in the
dramatic exchange of gazes between passers-by on Nevskii Prospect
and German soldiers taken in captivity in the Fall of 1941. The faces
of Leningraders express rage, disgust and a certain disbelief – captive
Sergei Loznitsa, The Siege (2006)
Directory of World Cinema
German soldiers were rare that autumn, when millions of Russian soldiers were taken in captivity. These gazes are active, almost material,
weapon-like. They are markedly different from the gazes that Loznitsa
studies in the episode depicting perhaps the most painful instance of
the Siege existence – citizens walking by corpses in the centre of the
city. This condition defines the tension of the episode: we, the audience, are horrified by the spectacle of corpses on Nevsky and along
the Griboedov Canal, and equally we are petrified by the expectation
– will the urban flow slow down for the dead? According to Loznitsa,
sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.
One of many sensorial contradictions of the Siege was that though
it established a new and poignant version of the urban spectacle, visibility was simultaneously severely compromised and consequently a
unique auditory environment was created. In a city robbed of electricity and where windows were blacked out, people had to learn to interpret many layers of acoustic information. Besides the famous ‘voice of
power’ embodied by the Leningrad radio (and almost entirely absent
in Loznitsa’s film), the system of sounds and noises of the Siege was
dense and diverse; it was largely defined by the gripping contrast
between the regular sounds of air-raid sirens, shelling and bombing
(citizens learnt to define the location of bombing according to the
intensity of sound, thus establishing a new kind of interpretive topography) and an unusual silence caused by the lack of cars and public
transportation, the relative scarcity of people and fading industrial
activity in the city. Since the actual ‘raw’ footage material that Loznitsa
used for his film had no sound, the director’s task was to recreate, to
evoke, to invent the sounds of the Siege. In Loznitsa’s film, sounds
are also fragmented, superimposed over each other, disorganized;
while creating a disconcertingly ambivalent ‘dialogue’ between the
background ‘white’ noise of the Siege and ambiguous solo sounds,
Loznitsa highlights meanings and sensations by exaggerating volume.
In episodes depicting explosions and fires, the sound becomes overwhelming; the rawness of destruction emerges even before its visual
counterpart: we hear death before seeing it.
Polina Barskova
Documentary 315
(Listed here are only English-language books)
Attwood, Lynne (ed). Red Women on the Silver Screen: Soviet Women and
Cinema from the Beginning to the End of the Communist Era. London:
Pandora, 1993.
Barker, Adele Marie (ed). Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society
since Gorbachev. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
Beardow, Frank. Little Vera (KinoFile 8). London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
Berry, Ellen E. and Anessa Miller-Pogacar (eds). Re-Entering the Sign:
Articulating New Russian Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,
Beumers, Birgit (ed). 24 Frames: The Cinema of Russia and the Former Soviet
Union. London: Wallflower Press, 2007.
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I.B. Tauris, 1999.
—— (ed). ‘Special Focus: Soviet and Russian Blockbuster Films’, Slavic Review
62.3 (2003).
Beumers, Birgit and Mark Lipovetsky, Performing Violence, Bristol and Chicago:
Intellect Books, 2009
Beumers, Birgit. A History of Russian Cinema. Oxford: Berg, 2009.
——. Burnt by the Sun (KinoFile 3). London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.
——. Nikita Mikhalkov (Kino Companion 1). London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
——. Popular Culture Russia! Santa Barbara, Denver, London: ABC Clio, 2005.
Bird, Robert. Andrei Rublev. London: BFI Classics, 2004.
Bordwell, David. The Cinema of Eisenstein. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard
University Press, 1993.
Brashinsky, Michael and Andrew Horton (eds). Russian Critics on the Cinema of
Glasnost. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Bulgakowa, Oksana. Sergei Eisenstein: A Biography. Berlin & San Francisco:
PotemkinPress, 2001.
Cavendish, Phil. Soviet Mainstream Cinematography: The Silent Era. London:
UCL Arts and Humanities Publications, 2007.
Cherchi Usai, Paolo, et al (eds). Silent Witnesses. Russian Films, 1908–1919.
Coordination by Yuri Tsivian. London: BFI, 1989.
Christie, Ian and Richard Taylor (eds). Eisenstein Rediscovered. London:
Routledge, 1993.
Directory of World Cinema
Condee, Nancy (ed). Soviet Hieroglyphics: Visual Culture in Late TwentiethCentury Russia. London/Bloomington: BFI/Indiana University Press, 1995.
Condee, Nancy. The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema. Oxford and New
York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Dobrenko, Evgeny. Stalinist Cinema and the Production of History. Edinburgh:
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and the Fall of the Soviet Film Industry. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State
University Press, 2000.
Galichenko, Nicholas. Glasnost: Soviet Cinema Responds. Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1991.
Gillespie, David. Early Soviet Cinema: Innovation, Ideology and Propaganda.
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——. Russian Cinema. New York: Longman, 2003.
Golovskoy, Val and John Rimberg. Behind the Soviet Screen. Ann Arbor: Ardis,
Goodwin, James. Eisenstein, Cinema & History. Urbana & Chicago, IL: University
of Illinois Press, 1993.
Goulding, Daniel J. (ed). Post New Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and
Eastern Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Graffy, Julian. Bed and Sofa (KinoFile 5). London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
Graffy, Julian and G. Hosking (eds). Culture and the Media in the USSR Today.
London: Macmillan, 1989.
Hashamova, Yana. Pride and Panic: Russian Imagination of the West in PostSoviet Film. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect Books, 2007.
Haynes, John. New Soviet Man: Gender and Masculinity in Stalinist Soviet
Cinema. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003.
Hicks, Jeremy. Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film. London: I.B. Tauris,
Horton, Andrew. Inside Soviet Film Satire. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1993.
Horton, Andrew and Michael Brashinsky. The Zero Hour: Glasnost and Soviet
Cinema in Transition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Hutchings, Stephen and Anat Vernitski (eds). Russian and Soviet Film
Adaptations of Literature, 1900–2001. Screening the Word. London:
Routledge, 2005.
Recommended Reading 317
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Johnson, Vida T. and Graham Petrie. The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual
Fugue. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Kelly, Catriona and David Shepherd. Russian Cultural Studies. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1998.
Kenez, Peter. Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917–1953. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1992.
——. The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization,
1917–1929. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Kepley, Vance (ed). ‘Contemporary Soviet Cinema’ [special issue], WideAngle
12.4 (1990).
——. The End of St Petersburg (KinoFile 10). London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
Laurent, Natacha. L’oeil du Kremlin: Cinema et censure en URSS sous Staline.
Toulouse: Privat, 2000.
Lawton, Anna. Imaging Russia 2000. Film and Facts. Washington: New Academia
Publ., 2004.
——. Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in Our Time. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1992.
—— (ed). The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema. London and
New York: Routledge, 1992.
Le Fanu, Mark. The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky. London: BFI, 1987.
Leyda, J. Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1960.
Liber, George. Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film. London: BFI, 2002.
MacFadyen David. The Sad Comedy of El’dar Riazanov. Montreal and London:
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.
Marshall, Herbert. Masters of the Soviet Cinema: Crippled Creative Biographies.
London: Routledge, 1983.
Mayne, Judith. Kino and the Woman Question: Feminism and Soviet Silent
Cinema. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.
Michelson, Annette (ed). Kino-eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1984.
Miller, Jamie. Soviet Cinema. Politics and Persuasion under Stalin. London: I.B
Tauris, 2010.
Nesbet, Anne. Savage Junctures. Sergei Eisenstein and the Shape of Thinking.
London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
Neuberger Joan. Ivan the Terrible (KinoFile 9). London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
O’Mahony, Mike. Eisenstein. London: Reaktion, 2009.
Petric, Vlada. Constructivism in Film: The Man with the Movie Camera.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Rimberg, John. The Motion Picture in the Soviet Union, 1918–1952: A
Sociological Analysis. New York: Arno Press, 1973.
Roberts, Graham. Forward Soviet. History and Non Fiction film in the USSR.
London: IB Tauris, 1999.
——. The Man with the Movie Camera (KinoFile 2). London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.
Salys, Rimgaila. Laughing Matters. The Musical Comedy Films of Grigorii
Aleksandrov. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect Books, 2009.
Sargeant, Amy. Vsevolod Pudovkin: Classic Films of the Soviet Avant-Garde.
London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
Schmulevitch, Éric. Réalisme socialiste et cinéma: Le cinéma stalinien
(1928–1941). Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 1996.
Shlapentokh, Dmitry & Vladimir. Soviet Cinematography, 1918–1991. New York:
Aldine de Gruyter, 1993.
Directory of World Cinema
Stites, Richard. Russian Popular Culture. Entertainment and Society since 1900.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Synessiou Natasha. Mirror (KinoFile 6). London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
Tarkovskii, Andrei. Time within Time: The Diaries, 1970–1986. London: Faber,
Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
Taubman, Jane. Kira Muratova (Kino Companion 4). London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
Taylor, R and Derek Spring (eds). Stalinism and Soviet Cinema. London:
Routledge, 1993.
Taylor, Richard. Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. London:
I.B.Tauris (original edition 1979), 1998.
——. October. London: BFI, 2002.
——. The Battleship Potemkin (KinoFile 1). London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.
——. The Politics of the Soviet Cinema, 1917–1929. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1979.
Taylor, Richard (ed). The Eisenstein Collection, London, New York, Calcutta:
Seagull Books, 2006.
——. The Eisenstein Reader. London: BFI, 1998.
Taylor, Richard and Ian Christie (eds). Inside the Film Factory. New Approaches
to Russian and Soviet Cinema. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.
——. The Film Factory. Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896–1939.
London and New York: Routledge, 1988.
Taylor, Richard, with Nancy Wood, Julian Graffy and Dina Iordanova (eds). The
BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema. London: British
Film Institute, 2000.
Tsivian, Yuri (ed). Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception. Chicago and
London: U of Chicago Press, 1994.
——. Ivan the Terrible. London: BFI Classics, 2001.
——. Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties. Pordenone, 2005.
Turovskaya, Maya. Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry. London: Faber, 1989.
van Geldern, James and Richard Stites (eds). Mass Soviet Culture in Soviet
Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
Widdis, Emma. Alexander Medvedkin (Kino Companion 2). London: I.B. Tauris,
——. Visions of a New Land: Soviet Film from the Revolution to the Second
World War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Woll, Josephine. Real Images. Soviet Cinema of the Thaw. London: I.B. Tauris,
——. The Cranes are Flying (KinoFile 7). London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
Woll, Josephine and Denise Youngblood. Repentance (KinoFile 4). London: I.B.
Tauris, 2001.
Youngblood, Denise. Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society
in the 1920s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
——. Russian War Films: On the Cinema Front, 1914–2005. Lawrence: University
Press of Kansas, 2007.
——. Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, 1918–1935, Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1985.
——. The Magic Mirror. Moviemaking in Russia, 1908–1918. Madison, WI and
London, University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
Zorkaya, Neya. The Illustrated History of the Soviet Cinema. New York:
Hippocrene Books, 1991.
Recommended Reading 319
Searchable database of Russian animation, in Russian and English.
Encyclopedia of National Cinema (Entsiklopedia otechestvennogo kino)
Created under the editorship of Liubov Arkus, this is the most complete
and searchable catalogue of films, filmmakers and other artists, festivals and
organizations. In Russian.
Directory of World Cinema
The website for the Directory of World Cinema series featuring film reviews and
biographies of directors.
Catalogue of the archive, in Russian.
Internet Movie Database
Leading source of information for international cinema and industry news, with
pages devoted to individual films, directors, actors, crew members and regularly
updated links to breaking news and interesting articles.
Iskusstvo kino (Film Art)
Leading Russian film journal, covering international film studies and published in
Russian (index in English).
Directory of World Cinema
Founded in 2003, the journal is published four times per year with reviews of
new Russian films, articles on visual arts and trends in filmmaking and festival
reports. Two special issues focus on national cinematographies of former Soviet
republics and Central European countries; these are guest-edited.
A French-based database and information portal on Russian cinema, with
a searchable catalogue (partly transliterated and partly translated), offering
annotations or synopses in French (not always in English) and information on
festivals with Russian films.
Kinovedcheskie zapiski (Film Scholars’ Notes)
Scholarly journal on Russian cinema, published by the research institute NIIK in
Moscow, in Russian.
Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive (RGAKFD), Krasnogorsk
Searchable catalogue for the archive’s holdings.
An important journal on film, edited by Liubov Arkus. It appears at irregular
Senses of Cinema
Online journal devoted to a serious discussion of cinema. Senses of Cinema
is primarily concerned with ideas about particular films or bodies of work, but
also with the regimes (ideological, economic and so forth) under which films are
produced and viewed, and with the more abstract theoretical and philosophical
issues raised by film study.
Russian Cinema Online 321
1. What is the Russian term for ‘auteur cinema’?
2. Which Russian director was the son of an opera singer and a famous zither
3. Which film by Evgenii Bauer is often referred to as an ‘encyclopedia’ of
Russian life?
4. Extensive use of radical montage is a recurring feature in which Russian
director’s works?
5. The life of which tyrannical tsar was depicted in Eisenstein’s 1945-48 historical epic?
6. Who developed the ‘kino-eye’ method of filming?
7. Which American writer wrote the short story on which Andrei Tarkovskii’s
1956 film was based?
8. Name the director who, as a youngster, was famously expelled from school
for skipping classes in order to film.
9. Mikhalkov’s 2007 film Twelve is a re-make of which American classic starring
Henry Fonda?
10. What is the name of the controversial Sokurov film that follows the home life
of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun?
11. A taxi driver becomes an opera singer in which of Aleksandr Ivanovskii’s
12. Name the director who, as well as being widely recognised as the ‘father’ of
Russian animation, also holds the title of the world’s first puppeteer?
13. What was the name of the cartoon character that during the 1970s became
the Mickey Mouse of Soviet animation and the emblem of the Soiuzmultfilm
14. Which documentary captured more drama than was anticipated when its
subject unexpectedly sank in the Arctic Sea?
15. The true story of the events leading to Iurii Gagarin’s historic flight into
space in April 1961 inspired which recent film?
16. Which 1993 film follows the life of a Russian music teacher who discovers a
magic portal to Paris in his room?
Directory of World Cinema
17. Which musician composed the soundtrack to Andrei Khrzhanovskii’s Glass
18. Which Russian film won the 2000 Academy Award for Best Animated
19. What was the name of the radical Russian film (and rock) festival that later
became known as ‘Kinotavr’?
20. Who played the title role in Grigorii Kozintsev’s Hamlet?
21. Before the first stationary cinema venues emerged in Moscow in 1903 where
were early Russian films often shown?
22. Which 1986 documentary scrutinized the political and social issues of the
perestroika era?
23. Which literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s inspired revolutionary
avant-garde cinema during this period?
24. What country served as a major source of artistic inspiration for Sergei
Eisenstein in the early 1930s?
25. Which of Iurii Zheliabuzhskii’s comedies can be described as a film about a
26. Which festival devoted to Russian Cinema has been held annually in Sochi
since 1991?
27. Name the two government-owned studios that were set up in the mid-1930s
for the purpose of creating films for young audiences.
28. In 1967 Sergei Bondarchuk’s adaptation of a literary classic won him both an
Oscar and a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language film. What was
the name of this film?
29. Who directed sci-fi classic Solaris?
30. Which short animated feature by Roman Kachanov tells the story of a little
girl who creates an imaginary puppy from a red woollen mitten?
31. Who starred as Rasputin in Elem Klimov’s classic biopic?
32. What is the most common label for Soviet action films of the 1960s and
33. Which Russian comedy film depicts a time-travelling Ivan the Terrible?
Test Your Knowledge 323
Directory of World Cinema
34. When was the first cinematograph presented in Russia?
35. Which documentary ends with the famous image of Lenin shaking hands
with a comrade, symbolizing the beginning of a new era?
36. Artavazd Peleshian’s documentary The Seasons is accompanied by the
music of which famous composer?
37. Who wrote the novel on which Aleksandr Sokurov’s Lonely Voice of a Man
was based?
38. Which director cast his brother in his films Nest of Gentlefolk and Siberiade?
39. Which of Vasilii Shukshin’s films caused waves on its release for being the
first film to show and explore prison life?
40. What is the title of the only Soviet film to have won a Golden Palm at
41. What is the literal translation of ‘Karabalta,’ the name of Bolotbek
Shamshiev’s male lead in his 1972 film The Red Poppies of Issyk-Kul?
42. Which melodrama won an Academy Award in 1980?
43. Vasilii Goncharov’s The Defence of Sevastopol related the events of which
44. Who starred as the title character in Vitalii Mel’nikov’s Poor, Poor Paul?
45. Which 1995 comedy film explores the Russians’ notorious love for vodka
through a series of anecdotes?
46. Which famous director made cinema a family affair, in the early part of his
career employing his brother as cameraman and his wife as editor of his
47. Pavel Vasil’evich and Oleg Pavlovich are characters in which Dinara Asanova
48. ‘Four friends… In a life without rules… One incredible adventure…’ was the
English tagline for which recent film?
49. Which famous Russian cartoon was scripted by Liudmila Petrushevskaia?
50. Which 1935 film is often read as a communist adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s
Gulliver’s Travels?
Directory of World Cinema
1. avtorskoe kino
2. Evgenii Bauer
3. Silent Witness
4. Sergei Eisenstein
5. Ivan the Terrible
6. Vertov
7. Ernest Hemingway
8. Nikita Mikhalkov
9. 12 Angry Men
10. Moloch
11. A Musical Story
12. Wladyslaw Starewicz
13. Cheburashka
14. Cheliuskin
15. Paper Soldier
16. Window to Paris (by Iurii Mamin)
17. Alfred Schnittke
18. The Old Man and the Sea
19. Moscow Outskirts
20. Innokentii Smoktunovskii
21. Fairgrounds
22. Is it Easy to be Young?
23. Formalism
24. Mexico
25. The Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom
26. Kinotavr
27. Soiuzdetfilm and Soiuzmultfilm
28. War and Peace
29. Andrei Tarkovskii
30. The Mitten
31. Aleksei Petrenko
32. Red Western
33. Ivan Vasil’evich Changes Profession
34. 4 May 1896
35. The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty
36. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons
37. Andrei Platonov
38. Andrei Konchalovskii
39. Red Guelderbush
40. The Cranes are Flying
41. Black Axe
42. Moscow does not Believe in Tears
43. The Crimean War
44. Viktor Sukhorukov
45. Peculiarities of the National Hunt
46. Dziga Vertov
47. Tough Boys
48. Bimmer
49. Tale of Tales
50. New Gulliver
Test Your Knowledge 325
The Editor
Birgit Beumers is Reader in Russian Studies at the University of Bristol. She
specializes in contemporary Russian culture, especially cinema and theatre. Her
recent publications include A History of Russian Cinema (2009) and, with Mark
Lipovetsky, Performing Violence (2009). She is the editor of the online journal
KinoKultura and of Intellect’s journal Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema. She
is currently working on Russian animation and post-Soviet Russian cinema.
The Contributors
José Alaniz is Associate Professor in the Departments of Slavic Languages and
Literatures and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington, Seattle.
His research interests include post-Soviet Russian culture, death and dying,
disability, cinema, eco-criticism and comics. He is the author of Komiks: Comic
Art in Russia (2010). His current projects include a history of Czech comics and a
study of disability, death and dying in the American superhero comics genre.
Erin Alpert is a graduate student in the Department of Slavic Languages and
Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her BA in Russian Studies
from the College of William and Mary and her MA in Slavic Languages and
Literatures from the University of Pittsburgh. She serves as co-editor for the
journal Studies in Slavic Cultures. Her publications have appeared in KinoKultura
and The Slavonic and Eastern European Review.
Joe Andrew is Professor of Literature and Culture at Keele University. He has
been researching feminist approaches to literature and film, while his main
focus has been nineteenth-century Russian literature. He has published five
monographs, as well as many edited volumes in that field. More recently, both
his teaching and research interests have expanded into film studies, and he has
now published several articles on Russian cinema. Among his research plans are
books on Politics and the Cinema, and on key moments in Russia film.
Directory of World Cinema
Anthony Anemone is Associate Professor of Russian and Assistant Dean for
Faculty Affairs. at The New School in New York City. A specialist in modern
Russian literature and cinema, he is the editor of Just Assassins: The Culture of
Terrorism in Russia (2010).
Polina Barskova is Assistant Professor of Russian literature at Hampshire College.
Her scholarly publications include articles on Nabokov, the Bakhtin brothers,
early Soviet film and the aestheticization of historical trauma. She has also
authored seven books of poetry in Russian. She is currently working on a book
project entitled Petersburg Besieged: Aesthetics of Urban Rereading.
Robert Bird is Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and
Literatures, Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. His main
area of interest is the aesthetic practice and theory of Russian modernism. He
is also the author of two books on Andrei Tarkovsky: Andrei Rublev (2004) and
Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema (2008). His works in progress include a
biography of Dostoevsky.
Otto Boele teaches Russian literature and film at the University of Leiden,
Netherlands. He is the author of The North in Russian Romantic Literature (1996)
and Erotic Nihilism in Late Imperial Russia: the Case of Mikhail Artsybashev’s
‘Sanin’ (2009). Currently he is working on Lev Tolstoy’s private correspondence
with his admirers in the Netherlands.
Vincent Bohlinger is Assistant Professor of Film Studies in the Department of
English at Rhode Island College. He is currently working on a book on Soviet
socialist realist film style.
Mariya Boston received an MA from Moscow State University and is a PhD
candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Davis, writing
on Russian and American modernist literature and silent film. Her research
interests include Russian and American twentieth-century literature, silent film,
contemporary Russian film and popular culture, and Russian postmodernism.
Nancy Condee is Associate Professor of Slavic Studies and member of the
Film Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh. Her publications include
Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema (2009) as well as the edited volumes
Soviet Hieroglyphics: Visual Culture in Late 20c. Russia (1995); Endquote: SotsArt Literature and Soviet Grand Style (with M. Balina and E. Dobrenko, 2000);
and Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity
(with T. Smith and O. Enwezor, 2008).
Frederick Corney is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the
College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the author of
Telling October: Memory and the Making of the Bolshevik Revolution (2004).
He is interested in issues of cultural memory in modern Russia, specifically the
refractions of that memory by various collectivities.
Joe Crescente is a PhD student in socio-cultural anthropology and the
programme in Culture and Media at New York University. His research concerns
the creation of new forms of sociality, belonging and social distinction in urban
Notes on Contributors 327
Directory of World Cinema
Sergey Dobrynin is a Russian cultural scholar and teacher. Born in Ulan Ude,
Russia, he received his PhD from the Central European University in Budapest.
He currently lives in Toronto.
Miriam Dobson completed her PhD at the School of Slavonic and East European
Studies, University College London. Since 2004 she has worked as a lecturer
at the University of Sheffield. She recently published a monograph entitled
Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform
after Stalin (2009).
Greg Dolgopolov is a Lecturer in Film at the University of New South Wales,
Australia. He completed his PhD on the transformations of post-Soviet television
culture at Murdoch University. His primary areas of interest are Australian
cinema and television, screen theory, video production, mobile devices and
documentary. He has published on Australian and Russian cinema, new media
and documentary. He has worked as an actor, director and a ‘spin doctor’.
Milla Fedorova is Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages at
Georgetown University. Her area of expertise is twentieth-century literature and
film. She is especially interested in relations between the visual and the verbal,
and the intercultural dialogue between Russia and America.
Joshua First received his doctorate at the University of Michigan in 2008 and is
Croft Assistant Professor of History and International Studies at the University
of Mississippi. He has published articles on Soviet film sociology, 1970s Soviet
melodrama and on Ukrainian poetic cinema. He is currently working on a
monograph on the history of Ukrainian cinema during the 1960s.
David Gillespie is Professor of Russian language at the University of Bath.
His research concentrates on modern Russian literature and film, and he
has published books and articles in both areas. He is the author of Russian
Cinema: Inside Film (2002) and Early Soviet Cinema: Innovation, Ideology and
Propaganda (2000). He is currently working on a monograph-length study of the
construction of masculinity in post-Soviet literature, film and TV.
Seth Graham is Lecturer in the Russian Department, School of Slavonic and East
European Studies, University College London. He taught previously at Stanford
University and the University of Washington, Seattle. He has published articles
and chapters on Russian humour, Russian and Soviet film, Central Asian film and
contemporary Russian literature, and he is the author of Resonant Dissonance:
The Russo-Soviet Joke in Cultural Context (2009). He is currently working on a
book-length analysis of genre in post-Soviet Russian cinema.
Yana Hashamova is Associate Professor of Slavic Studies and Director of the
Center for Slavic and East European Studies at the Ohio State University. She
is the author of Pride and Panic: Russian Imagination of the West in Post-Soviet
Film (2007) and editor (with H. Goscilo) of Cinepaternity: Fathers and Sons in
Soviet and Post-Soviet Film (2010).
Jeremy Hicks is Senior Lecturer in Russian at Queen Mary University of London.
His research interests lie especially in documentary and film history. He is the
author of Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film (2007) and various articles on
Directory of World Cinema
Russian and Soviet film, literature and journalism. He is currently writing a book
about Soviet wartime film representations of the Nazi genocide.
Emily Hillhouse is a PhD candidate in Modern European History at the University
of Texas, Austin. Her Masters thesis explored Russian national identity in
1960s Soviet film. She has recently returned from her Fulbright research trip
to Bulgaria, which will provide the foundation for her dissertation on the
role played by images of Bulgarian peasants in the formation of the modern
Bulgarian nation.
Volha Isakava is a doctoral student in the Department of Modern Languages and
Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Her research
interests include perestroika and contemporary Russian cinema, literature and
culture, American film noir and critical theory.
Andrew Jenks is Associate Professor of History at California State University,
Long Beach. His is the author of Russia in a Box: Art and Identity in an Age of
Revolution (2005) and Perils of Progress: Environmental Disasters in the 20th
Century (2010). His biography of the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is forthcoming.
Vida Johnson received a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Harvard
University. She is Professor of Russian language, culture and film at Tufts
University in Boston. She is the author of articles and reviews on literature and
film and co-author, with Graham Petrie, of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A
Visual Fugue (1994). Her current area of research is contemporary Russian and
Central Asian cinema, as well as the cinemas of the former Yugoslavia.
Sergei Kapterev is Senior Researcher at Moscow’s Research Institute of Cinema
Art (NIIK). He received his PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University
(2005). He specializes in the intellectual and political aspects of the interaction
between Soviet and American cinemas. Other interests: Soviet film propaganda;
cinema of the late Stalin period, the Thaw and the Cold War; Russian and Soviet
films about the Far East; practice and theory of film editing and sound.
Vance Kepley, Jr is Professor of Film and Director of the Wisconsin Center for
Film and Theater Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the
author of In the Service of the State: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko
(1986), The End of St. Petersburg: The Film Companion (2003), and several
essays on Soviet cinema.
Svetlana Khokhriakova is the cinema section editor of the weekly Kul’tura
newspaper in Moscow. She consults and acts as press officer to a range of
national festivals.
Lars Kristensen completed his PhD in Film Studies at the University of St
Andrews in 2009 and is a Research Associate as the University of Central
Lancashire. He has published several articles on cross-cultural issues related to
Russian cinema and is currently working towards a monograph entitled Russians
Abroad in Postcommunist Cinema.
Daniel Levitsky is a Teaching Fellow in Modern Russian History at the School of
Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He is currently
Notes on Contributors 329
Directory of World Cinema
completing his PhD thesis, entitled Soviet History in Thaw Cinema: The Making
of New Myths and Truths.
Mark Lipovetsky is Associate Professor of Russian Studies at the University of
Colorado-Boulder. He has written on Russian literature and culture, including
Russian Postmodernist Fiction: Dialogue with Chaos (1999); Modern Russian
Literature: 1950s–1990s (co-authored with N. Leiderman, in Russian, 2001);
Paralogies: Transformation of (Post)modernist Discourse in Russian Culture of
the 1920s–2000s (in Russian, 2008) and Performing Violence (with B. Beumers,
David MacFadyen is Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UCLA. He
has authored and edited eleven books on various aspects of Russian or Soviet
culture, including on filmmaker Eldar Riazanov; on Soviet animation; on popular
song; on the poet Joseph Brodsky; on Russian television serials and other
fields of cultural expression. Currently he is researching social networking in the
Russian internet, and is busy with the biggest online resource dedicated to new
music from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus:
Louise McReynolds is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill. Specializing in the growth of commercial culture in the nineteenth
century, she explores the evolution of civil society and questions of the
formations of identities within it. Her publications include Russia at Play: Leisure
Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era (2003), The News Under Russia’s Old
Regime: The Development of the Mass-Circulation Press (1991), and numerous
articles and translations.
Milena Michalski is a Research Associate at King’s College London. She is author
(with J. Gow) of War, Image and Legitimacy: Viewing Contemporary Conflict
(2007), and of various articles on film. She has worked on projects with the
British Film Institute and Tate Modern. Current research focuses on film and
photography of the 1920s–1930s in the USSR, and Joris Ivens’ Komsomol.
Jamie Miller is Lecturer in Russian at Queen Mary, University of London. He
specialises in the relationship between politics and film in the USSR under Lenin
and Stalin. He is the author of Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion under
Stalin (2010) and journal articles on film politics of the 1920s and 1930s. He is
currently researching the history of the Mezhrabpomfilm studio from 1923 to
Lora Mjolsness received her PhD from the University of Southern California in
Slavic Languages and Literatures. She is currently a lecturer at the University
of California, Irvine and the Director of Program in Russian Studies, teaching
interdisciplinary courses on new Russian cinema and on the history of Soviet
animation. Her primary research interests include early Russian and Soviet
Jeremy Morris is an Area-Studies specialist with extensive in-country experience
and knowledge of contemporary Russia, having lived and worked there in the
1990s. He has written on contemporary Russian literature and visual culture.
His current research focuses on ethnographic and interpretive approaches to
understanding ‘actually lived experience’ in the former Soviet Union.
Directory of World Cinema
Joan Neuberger is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.
She is the author or co-author of an eclectic range of publications, including
Hooliganism: Crime and Culture in St Petersburg, 1900–1914 (1993); Ivan the
Terrible: The Film Companion (2003); Europe and the Making of Modernity,
1815–1914 (2005); Imitations of Life: Melodrama in Russia (2001) and Picturing
Russia: Explorations in Visual Culture (2008).
Stephen Norris is Associate Professor of History at Miami University, Ohio. He
is the author of A War of Images: Russian Popular Prints, Wartime Culture,
and National Identity, 1812–1945 and the co-editor of Preserving Petersburg:
History, Memory, Nostalgia (with H. Goscilo) and Insiders and Outsiders in
Russian Cinema (with Z. Torlone). He is currently finishing a book entitled
Blockbuster History: Movies, Memory, and Patriotism in the Putin Era.
Karen Petrone is Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky.
Her research interest is in twentieth-century Russian (and Soviet) cultural and
gender history. She is the author of Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades:
Celebrations in the Time of Stalin (2000); she is co-editor of The New Muscovite
Cultural History: A Collection in Honor of Daniel B. Rowland (2009) and of
Gender Politics and Mass Dictatorship: Global Perspectives (2010). Her latest
book, The Great War in Russian Memory, will be published in 2011.
Laura Pontieri Hlavacek completed her PhD on ‘Russian Animation of the 1960s
and the Khrushchev Thaw’ at Yale in 2006; she examined the evolving functions
and styles of Soviet animation during the Thaw period, providing a case study
of the dynamics of interaction between art and power. Her research interests
include twentieth-century Russian literature and theatre, Russian and Czech
cinema and animation. She is currently writing a book on Russian animation.
Aleksandr Prokhorov is Associate Professor of Russian and Film Studies at the
College of William and Mary. His research interests include Russian visual culture,
genre theory, and film history. He is the author of Inherited Discourse: Paradigms of
Stalinist Culture in Literature and Cinema of the Thaw (in Russian; 2007). His articles
and reviews have been published in a number of specialist and scholarly journals.
Elena Prokhorova is Assistant Professor of Russian at the College of William and
Mary, where she also teaches in Film and Cultural Studies program. Her research
focuses on identity discourses in late Soviet and post-Soviet media.
Sasha Razor is currently a doctorate student at UCLA where she received her
MA degree in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009. Her research interests
include: new media, film and video games; theory of adaptation; artistic
mechanisms of social transitions; hybrid literatures and contemporary RussianAmerican writers.
Peter Rollberg is Professor of Slavic Languages and Film Studies at George
Washington University in Washington, DC. He earned his PhD in 1988 at
the University of Leipzig and came to GWU in 1991 after teaching at Duke
University. His publications include articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century
Russian literature and Soviet cinema. Since 2000, he has directed the GWU Film
Studies Program. He is the author of Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet
Cinema (2009).
Notes on Contributors 331
Directory of World Cinema
Rimgaila Salys is Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Colorado at
Boulder and a specialist in twentieth-century literature, culture and film. Her
most recent books are Tightrope Walking: The Memoirs of Josephine Pasternak
(2005) and The Musical Comedy Films of Grigorii Aleksandrov: Laughing Matters
Natalia Ryabchikova holds a degree in Film Studies from the Russian State
University of Cinematography (VGIK). She has contributed articles on Soviet film
history to Russian and English-language scholarly journals.
Amy Sargeant is Reader in Film at the University of Warwick. She has
written extensively on British and Russian cinema history and contemporary
representations of Russia. Her publications include Vsevolod Pudovkin: Classic
Films of the Soviet Avant-Garde (2000) and Storm over Asia (2007).
Dawn Seckler received her PhD in Russian Cinema from the University of
Pittsburgh. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Williams College.
Her research interests include Russian genre cinema and representations of a
masculine crisis in late Soviet culture.
Vadim Shneyder is a graduate student in the Department of Slavic Languages
and Literatures at Yale University. His research interests include Russian and
Soviet intellectual history, Stalinist ideology and Soviet Jewish culture.
Vlad Strukov is Assistant Professor at the University of Leeds. He has published
on contemporary Russian film, animation, digital media, especially the internet,
and popular culture. He is the editor of Celebrity and Glamour in Contemporary
Russia: Shocking Chic (2010) and of Digital Icons: Studies of Russian, Eurasian
and Central European New Media (
Anna Toropova is completing a PhD at the School of Slavonic and East European
Studies, University College London. Focusing on the cinema of the Stalin period,
her research explores the relationship between affect, ideology and genre. She
teaches Russian language and courses on Soviet mass culture at undergraduate
Jasmijn Van Gorp received a PhD degree in Communication Studies from the
University of Antwerp with a dissertation on post-Soviet Russian film policy. She
conducted research at the Russian Film Institute (NIIK) and the Sociological
Research Institute (INION) in Moscow. Since 2009 she is a postdoctoral fellow at
Utrecht University, where she is investigating the role of Dutch popular television
in the identity construction of East European migrants.
Boris Wolfson teaches Russian culture, film and language at Amherst College.
He is completing a study of literature, theatre and modes of self-understanding
in the Stalinist 1930s.
Barbara Wurm is currently Assistant for Film Studies at the Slavic Seminar of the
University of Basel, Switzerland. She works as freelance curator and film critic.
Her publications include articles on the bio-politics of seeing in early Soviet
non-fiction film and a booklet on Gerbert Rappaport; with Klemens Gruber she
co-edited Digital Formalism. Die kalkulierten Bilder des Dziga Vertov.
Directory of World Cinema
Denise J. Youngblood is Professor of History at the University of Vermont. She
has written extensively on Russian and Soviet cinema, most recently Russian War
Films: On the Cinema Front, 1914-2005 (2007) and Cinematic Cold War: The
Soviet and American Struggle for Hearts and Minds (2010).
Eugenie Zvonkine defended her PhD in 2009 on Kira Muratova’s work, entitled
‘States of Dissonance in Kira Muratova’s œuvre, 1958–2009’. She has published
in English a paper on the narrative structure in The Sentimental Policeman and is
currently teaching film history and aesthetics at the University Paris 8, France.
Notes on Contributors 333
Be they musicals or melodramas, war movies or animation, Russian films
have a long and fascinating history of addressing the major social and
political events of their time. From Sergei Eisenstein’s anti-tsarist drama,
Battleship Potemkin, to socialist realism, to the post-glasnost thematic
explosion, this volume explores the socio-political impact of the cinema
of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Introductory essays establish key
players and situate important genres within their cultural and industrial
milieus, while reviews and case studies analyze individual titles in
considerable depth. For the film studies scholar, or for all those who
love Russian cinema and want to learn more, Directory of World Cinema:
Russia will be an essential companion.
Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema aims to play a part in moving
intelligent, scholarly criticism beyond the academy by building a forum for
the study of film that relies on a disciplined theoretical base. Each volume
of the Directory will take the form of a collection of reviews, longer essays
and research resources, accompanied by film stills highlighting significant
films and players.
Directory of World Cinema ISSN 2040-7971
Directory of World Cinema eISSN 2040-798X
Directory of World Cinema: Russia ISBN 978-1-84150-372-1
Directory of World Cinema: Russia eISBN 978-1-84150-343-1
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