Soviet cinema from its inception has been strictly connected with the national political reality. It has been a sensitive recorder of socio-economic changes and of shifts in cultural policies. The beginning of the Gorbachev era, with its broad program of reforms, its dynamic foreign policy, its media awareness, its openness, and its sophisticated public relations, has also been the beginning of a new orientation in the cinema industry. To mark this new stage of development the Soviet filmmakers called it the new model.
After the Golden Age of the twenties and the subsequent Stalinist freeze, Soviet cinema experienced an artistic renaissance at the time of Khrushchev’s cultural “thaw.” In the late fifties and early sixties, the change in the political leadership and the emergence of a new generation of talent brought fresh energies into film production. Creativity was allowed a freer hand and new themes and styles, inspired by a general concern for the individual and his inner world, made their way to the screen. In addition, there was a modest revival of formalistic experimentation, most notable in the “poetic” style of several directors from the southern republics, and in the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. The trend of the sixties reflected to a great extent the filmmakers’ aesthetic and moral concerns, as well as the public’s demand for engaging subject matter and films with emotional appeal. After two decades of make-believe, audiences yearned for a measure of truth. How large that measure could be, no one knew for sure. Notwithstanding the relaxation in cultural policies, Party directives could not be ignored. Filmmakers had to test their limits and operate within the realm of the permissible. The revival of film art in those years brought Soviet cinema to the attention of international audiences and critics, and, as it did in the twenties, it scored high marks. Soviet cinema underwent such a radical renewal that the conservative aftermath of the “thaw” could not erase what was gained, much less turn the clock back to the forms of the Stalinist years.
However, for more than a decade there were no significant aesthetic and thematic developments. The Brezhnev era was a period of cultural stagnation. The prevalent policy aimed at suppressing creativity and favored entertainment genres that supported the status quo. Commercial considerations became an important factor. The increasing availability of television required cinema to become commercially competitive. To fill the movie theaters and fulfill the yearly financial quota established by the Ministry of Culture, film producers, distributors, and exhibitors had to cater to public taste. The genre repertoire widened considerably, and the commercial film directors became increasingly skillful at presenting ideology as entertainment. Public expectations for engagé films of the previous decade were dulled by the prevailing consumeristic atmosphere, which was expressed by light genres and simplistic morals. There were no troubling discoveries; rather, self-complacency and benign irony created a comfortable psychological setup. Within this general trend, however, there were isolated achievements. A few talented directors were able to rise above the level of greyish mediocrity and stand up for humanistic values and artistic integrity. Most of them belonged to the generation that emerged in the sixties as an innovative force, others were no-less-talented newcomers. Unfortunately, a number of remarkable films made in the seventies were either shelved or, at best, had limited circulation. Only now, as a result of the change that is reshaping the Soviet film industry, are those films beginning to come out.
Following a brief period of transition, the eighties mark the end of an era and the beginning of a new phase in the history of the Soviet Union. The parallels with Khrushchev’s “thaw” are numerous, as are the differences. Cinema is undergoing a creative revival similar to that of the sixties. However, the upsurge of creativity during the sixties occurred as the by-product of a general policy of liberalization and soon had to be contained, while this more recent artistic renaissance has been planned and sustained by the Party. Furthermore, the new regime has created the conditions for a radical restructuring of the cinema industry’s administrative apparatus, which will ensure a long-term commitment to the goals of today and make it difficult to reverse the process. This is not to deny the role of the filmmakers. In fact, a creative ferment has been building for more than a decade, and Gorbachev’s policies provide a much needed outlet.
This essay illuminates the recent changes in the context of the developments of the past ten years, through the decline of the Brezhnev era and the period of transition, to the new phase of glasnost and perestroika.
THE BREZHNEV ERA, 1976–1982
The year 1976 was a middle point in the Brezhnev administration and marked the beginning of its decline. The Ninth Five-Year Plan (1971-1975) had produced rather disappointing results. Designed as the first plan to provide for faster growth in the consumer sector (rather than in the producer), its projections foresaw a dramatic rise in the standard of living through a combination of scientific and technological innovations, greater managerial efficiency, and increased labor productivity.
Several factors intervened to thwart those optimistic goals. The automation of factories and industries depended to a great extent on the steady input of new technology and expertise from the West. However, there were already signs that detente would not last forever. Even more damaging to the process of modernization was internal opposition from conservative economists and Party ideologues. Unable to come to terms with revisions of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine, they defeated the Kosygin reforms of 1965 and subsequently fought against any deviations from pure Communist orthodoxy. They denounced such innovations as system analysis, economic forecasting, and decentralized decision-making, and opposed a plan to assign priority to the consumer sector. Even a passive and corrupt managerial class was eager to defer to the conservative view in order to avoid responsibilities and unnecessary stress.
To worsen the situation, the country suffered two major crop failures, the first in 1972 and the second in 1975. Grain imports alone could not make up for the food shortages, and the standard of living, which had been slowly improving in the early seventies, took a turn for the worse. Even before the latest crop disaster the average family spent 40 to 50 percent of its income on food. After it, prices rose and the state had to intervene with massive subsidies in order to stifle public discontent. However, the revenues from energy exports temporarily compensated for the mismanagement of the nation’s economy. The catastrophic results of two decades of government passivity became painfully obvious in the early eighties and inflicted a mortal blow on the Party and state gerontocracy. But, for the time being, the old guard still held firmly to their key positions.
The twenty-fifth Congress of the CPSU, held in February 1976, did not offer new perspectives. On that occasion Brezhnev criticized failures in the economy, but found many achievements to praise and restated the same goals for the next Five-Year Plan with an even more optimistic forecast. He stressed the need for an immediate restructuring of the economy and exhorted scientific and technical personnel at all levels to improve efficiency and quality. But the guidelines he issued did not translate into action.
Younger leaders of the new generation were needed to carry out the plan. They were slowly rising through the ranks and impatiently awaiting their day. Meanwhile, more of Brezhnev’s cronies were appointed to the Central Committee and the Politburo. The consequences were disastrous for the political, economic, and cultural life of the nation. As the ailing leadership clung stubbornly to their chairs and to each other, refusing to relinquish power and demanding order and stability, the granting of privileges to extended family became a common practice and corruption was rampant. During his last years, a direct ratio can be observed between Brezhnev’s failing health and his accumulation of honors and titles. This was apparently an attempt to sustain the leader’s prestige which was rapidly fading, both nationally as well as internationally.1
After the honeymoon with the Nixon and Ford administrations which allowed the Soviet Union to modestly improve its standard of living and to rise to an international position of strength, Brezhnev clashed with Carter over the Soviet policy on Afghanistan and Poland. Ratification of the SALT II treaty by the U.S. Senate was suspended, the American athletes boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games, the Soviet Union closed the doors to Jewish emigration. The era of detente came to an end and was replaced by a Cold War syndrome that plunged to severely low temperatures with the incoming Reagan administration. The deterioration of international relations was paralleled by a domestic atmosphere of cultural reaction and rapid economic decline.
The Cinema Industry
The general political trend of the period was reflected in the administrative structure of the cinema industry as well as in film production and distribution. From the time cinema was nationalized, in 1919, by a Lenin decree, film production and distribution had been regulated by a government institution, the State Committee for Cinematography (Goskino),2 which gradually gained complete control over the film industry. In the seventies, Goskino suffered from the widespread national epidemic of bureaucratic growth. Its inflated cadres, securely entrenched behind their desks, ran the film industry as a state chancery. They dealt with the artistic sector as they would with an unfortunate nuisance. The newly appointed head of Goskino, Filipp Ermash (1972–1986), came from the Central Committee’s Department of Culture and enjoyed high connections in the Politburo as a relative of Andrei Kirilenko, one of Brezhnev’s closest personal and political associates.
Brezhnev’s foreign and domestic policies had brought about a measure of material comfort, especially perceptible toward the middle of the decade. Mounting corruption in the higher echelons and an increasing preoccupation with material goods trickled down to the middle and working classes.3 The current atmosphere favored the breeding of a consumer mentality. The public taste in entertainment turned “bourgeois.” Goskino was quick to exploit this conjuncture. Under Ermash’s leadership, the Soviet film industry moved decidedly in the direction of commercial films which met the public demand and increased profits for the Soviet government. The educational function of cinema, however, could not be neglected. Conveniently, the commercial genres were labeled as “popular.” Unlike the “elite” films that indulge in aestheticism, popular films were supposed to sustain orthodox ideology and socialist moral values. This combination found its most successful expression in the film that crowned the decade, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1980), and which was hailed in equal measure by Party ideologues, Soviet audiences, and, ironically, the Hollywood Oscar prize givers. But most of the time commercial considerations worked against not only artistic endeavors but also ideology. Toward the end of his tenure, Ermash was despised by the film artists and disapproved by the ideologues.
Cinema in the Soviet Union has been for decades the main filler of leisure time. As television became available to a larger number of the population, movie theatre attendance registered a sharp decline. While in the late sixties ticket sales were close to 5 billion a year, in 1977 they had dropped to 4.2 billion, with a per capita sale of 16.4,4 still sizable figures when compared to those in any Western country. Very revealing of the public taste is the breakdown of the attendance figures per film, which show that a mere 15 percent of all Soviet feature films released in a given year (the yearly output is approximately 150 films) account for 80 percent of all ticket sales. A comparison of the already-mentioned Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, which drew 75 million viewers over the first twelve months of its circulation, to Andrei Tarkovsky’s philosophical parable Stalker, which was seen by a mere 3 million over the same period, shows where the people’s preferences lie. True, Stalker did not enjoy the support of Goskino’s competent (or, incompetent?) authorities, and it had limited circulation. Nevertheless, there are indications that it would not have fared well in any case. Research conducted at the State Institute for Cinematography (VGIK) ranked some common film features in the order they appealed to the masses:
1. Contemporary theme.
2. Russian production (as opposed to other republics).
3. Adaptation of a popular book.
4. Fast tempo.
5. Continuity (no flashbacks).
7. Spectacular (special effects, crowd scenes, and costumes).
8. Active and attractive leading characters.
9. Appealing title.5
By adding sex and violence, and substituting “American” for “Russian” in point No. 2, this list could be used to characterize most U.S. box office successes of the past decade. Not without foundation was Ermash known to be a secret admirer of the Hollywood motion picture industry.
Thus, Goskino promoted the production of films that suited the public taste. In order to do so, it needed the cooperation of film workers. This meant the studios and the Filmmakers Union, which supposedly represented the interests of workers in the field. However, the Union supported its members only nominally. In effect, throughout the seventies and up to 1986, the Union was burdened by a very conservative and passive leadership, which provided material assistance but did not stand up for creative freedom and decentralized decision-making.
Lack of support from the Union was reflected in the studios where the actual creative process took place. Of all the studios of the 15 republics, Mosfilm was, and still is, by far the largest and most prestigious, followed by Lenfilm (Leningrad studios), and at a considerable distance, the Georgian, Ukrainian, Armenian, and Kirgizian studio. The production of the Baltic republics was negligible.6 In the seventies, both the head of Mosfilm, Nikolay Sizov, and his deputy in charge of scriptwriting, Leonid Nekhoroshev, were well regarded by the filmmakers as rather sensitive intellectuals, authors of several books. They were also well connected politically. Sizov had been a Party functionary and was currently a member of the Moscow City Council and a deputy chairman of Goskino. Nekhoroshev was a graduate of the Social Science Academy of the Central Committee. Both were seasoned politicians not devoid of intellectual sophistication. Mosfilm therefore managed to satisfy the requirements of Goskino while giving elbow room to the most creative directors. In fact, besides the bulk of commercial films, known as “greyish” films from an aesthetic as well as a political point of view, Mosfilm produced a good number of stimulating pictures. However, the best films were not always released, and if they were, only a few copies were printed.
The tendency toward the mass genres enlarged the traditional repertoire with a considerable number of melodramas, comedies, detective stories, science-fiction films, and musicals. Because of their poor quality, however, the majority of these films were not well attended. The audiences demanded light genres, but they had reached an average level of sophistication (at least in the major urban areas) and would not put up with facile plots and sloppy techniques. Often, but not always, the films that rose above mediocrity were also the most successful with the public.
One trend revived from the repertoire of the late twenties/early thirties became predominant: the bytovoy film. The term can be approximately translated as “slice-of-life” film. These are stories about contemporary society, individual lives and relations, current problems, and human values. The bytovoy film could be anything from comedy to “problematic melodrama.”7
The preoccupation with economic growth and reforms was reflected in a long series of bytovoy films concerned with factory problems—the so-called “production movies.” The prototype of the trend, many times imitated but hardly ever matched, was The Bonus (Premiia, 1975) by Sergei Mikaelian.8 It marked a new approach to the worker and the work place. This film does not follow the traditional socialist-realist model where enthusiastic shock-brigade workers, inspired by their infallible leader, overcome the challenges of enemies and saboteurs, fight against all odds with superhuman strength and moral stamina to overfulfill the plan, and in the end happily applaud the brigade leader, who, with much fanfare, is awarded the decoration of hero of socialist labor. In The Bonus there are no far-fetched dramatic situations, no heroics. Most of the action unfolds in one room during a meeting of a construction enterprise’s Party committee. The only dramatic device that gives the screenplay the tension necessary to sustain the action is the conflict which arises between workers and management when a construction team refuses to accept their yearly bonus.
The situation seems odd in a society accustomed to accepting whatever benefits they can get without questioning. What is the workers’ motivation? Is this another edifying example of self-abnegation resurrected from movies more than thirty years old? The screenwriter, Alexander Gelman, is not so naïve. His numerous works, primarily for the stage, have won him a solid reputation as a writer of psychological dramas with popular appeal. In The Bonus the reasons behind the workers’ behavior turn out to be complex and engaging in their apparent simplicity. The construction team refuses the bonus because they feel cheated. The workers think that bad management and poor work organization were responsible for low productivity and personal financial losses which were not adequately compensated with the bonus.
However, the workers’ motivations are not totally materialistic. The token bonus becomes a symbol of the hypocrisy and concealment which surround the country’s problems, hinder economic growth, and thwart the possibility of healthy social development. The film does not provide a solution to the problem, but it raises the viewer’s awareness of a life based on complacency and devoid of spiritual values. It also suggests that it is the people’s responsibility to denounce the current situation both in their own interest and in the interest of the nation.
The confrontation takes place between the brigade leader, Potapov, and three executives of the construction enterprise, while the Party representatives preside over the meeting. It is clear from the outset who is the villain and who is the hero. The attribution of roles, however, was bound to generate uneasiness. This perhaps explains why the film’s authors, although breaking important ground in this direction, stopped short of carrying the denunciation of management to the very top. The main villains are the senior engineer, Lyubaev, a weak, servile man with an unctuous smile, and the assistant director, Shatunov, a ruthless careerist whose main pleasure in life is to carry out the director’s orders. However, the director himself, Batartsev, is not devoid of redeeming qualities. A pragmatist versed in the art of compromise, he comes to the meeting with the self-assurance of an experienced negotiator convinced of an easy victory. But Potapov’s tough stance and unshakable convictions make it difficult for him to score with his usual ease. Actually, the values of youth, which had been dulled by the requirements of a managerial career, are reawakened, and allow him to make a moral choice.
On the opposite side, fighting for truth and justice, stands the brigade leader Potapov. No knight in white armor, he is a stocky middle-aged man, slightly overweight, with a round, good-natured face and a bald pate. The role is performed, brilliantly, by Evgeny Leonov, better known to the audiences for his numerous comic characterizations. But already in the film Byelorussia Station (Belorusskii vokzal, 1972) there were signs of a change toward serious, engaged roles. Nevertheless, when director Mikaelian cast him as Potapov the choice made more than one eyebrow rise among the members of the production team, including the screenwriter. In fact, the script called for “a young Communist,” assertive, principled, with high morals—in other words, a traditional “positive hero.” Leonov does not fit the exterior model, but the inner qualities he gradually displays are worthy of his role. The hero Potapov, at first awkward, somewhat bashful and ineffective, looks like an easy contender to his opponents and a disappointing champion to the audience. But in the course of the meeting it becomes abundantly clear that Potapov’s modest appearance conceals a lively mind, sound common sense, and the courage to stand up for his co-workers’ rights and for basic truths. Because of these qualities Potapov turns out to be stronger than his more powerful and sophisticated adversaries, a true folk hero who strikes a deep sentimental chord in the viewer’s heart.
How does the transformation take place? Mikaelian explains:
In the shooting of The Bonus everything was subordinated to the actors. Therefore, down with cinemascope, no music with eternal “accents,” no contrast of colors. It was not necessary to vary the place of the action (oh, how they insisted on that!). Let the camera follow the actors, let it come closer to the actor in the course of the film, closer and closer . . . In this film an old truth triumphed: the depth and strength of a person’s character are revealed by the totality of the smallest features.”9
Another variant of the bytovoy film is the light comedy involving a love story, humorous situations, and vignettes of social and private life. One of the most successful directors of this genre is Eldar Ryazanov, who, since the mid-fifties, has worked both in cinema and the theater. He co-wrote a large number of stage plays together with Emile Braginsky, as well as many scripts for his own films. The first movie comedy that brought them fame and popularity was Beware of Automobiles (Beregis’ avtomobilia, 1965) starring the actor known abroad as the Russian Hamlet, Innokenty Smoktunovsky. One of the hits of the mid-seventies was Irony of Fate, or Have a Good Sauna (Ironiia sud’by, ili S legkim parom, 1975), originally made for television and based on a play which itself was staged in more than one hundred theaters all over the country. This film has been called a “comic-musical-psychological-fantastic tale.”10 Its appeal comes from the use of a classical comedy-of-errors plot device in a modern urban context. A man, after a drink too many, goes home to what seems to be his apartment only to discover that he is in another city and in the apartment of an unknown woman. The residential outskirts of the big cities, and the lives of their dwellers, have become so uniform and depersonalized that this sort of mix-up, with a little stretch of the imagination, is conceivable. It is even conceivable to use the key to one’s own Moscow apartment to open someone else’s door in Leningrad. But the encounter of the two strangers, after a first moment of fear and hostility, leads to the discovery of love and brings magic back into everyday routine. By a wide margin of its readers, Irony of Fate won a popularity contest held every year by the journal Soviet Screen.
A few years later, another comedy by the same authors, An Office Romance (Sluzhebnyi romans, 1978) became a box office success and scored the highest mark in the Soviet Screen contest for 1979. In many ways this film resembles its predecessor. In an ordinary environment (a statistical bureau) and among ordinary people (middle-aged clerks whose zest for life has been dulled by years of office routine) a “miracle” suddenly takes place. The bureau director, a stern, colorless woman, falls in love with one of her subordinates and, as if by magic, she is transformed into a sensitive, elegant, young-looking beauty (an easy feat for the makeup artist, since the role is played by the indeed beautiful Alisa Freindlikh). Similarly, the initially frightened petty clerk turns into a self-assured, attractive man. What is more, the love that radiates from the happy couple gives a rosy coloration to the office and its drab occupants.
Some Western feminist critics have read the transformation process as a male affirmation of traditional sex roles.11 This is a possible reading, given the general social context of male chauvinism in the USSR. Nevertheless, it seems that in these films transformation works primarily as a traditional fairy tale element. Ryazanov and Braginsky have snobbishly been criticized for creating contemporary urban fairy tales meant to “reassure” the viewer, to which Ryazanov answers:
First of all, to reassure, to encourage the viewer, in order to make it easier for him, to cheer him up, to help him believe in himself, it’s not such a sin in my opinion. And secondly, when I work with Braginsky on our stories we do not force a happy ending on them. Perhaps, we are so disposed that it’s more interesting to us to talk about what unites people, rather than what separates them.12
Perhaps, but are Ryazanov’s “fairy tales” as innocent as they seem? From the very beginning, satirical elements were interspersed in the text, although offset by the general tone of good-natured humor. In the following film, Garage (Garazh, 1980), good-natured humor decisively turned into biting satire and the film’s overall effect was quite unsettling.
This was a departure not only from Ryazanov’s and Braginsky’s dominant style but from the common practice of Soviet screenwriters and directors. Satire was virtually effaced in Soviet cinema by the non-conflict theory of socialist realism. One of the characters in Garage, having learned that the woman he is talking to is a scholar doing research in satire, says: “You have an odd profession. You’re studying a subject which does not exist.”13
In Garage, conflict and contrast, both on the narrative and the stylistic levels, are the main structural elements. A group of citizens, the staff of the Research Institute for the Protection of the Animals against the Environment, has entered as a cooperative into a contract with the state to build a number of garages (a commodity in very short supply) under the supervision of a Committee. Halfway toward completion of the work, the state changes the plan, and four garages have to be scratched from the project. The Committee chairman calls a meeting to decide which staff members will lose their garages. The film starts at this point. The action is static, developing in one place at one time, and the subject is banal. The meeting takes place in the Research Institute’s exhibition hall, which hosts an array of stuffed animals in danger of becoming extinct. Through a clever mise en scène and skillful camera work, the Institute staff blends with the fauna, and in the viewer’s eyes, becomes an endangered species itself—one that needs “protection against the environment.” In fact, under a veneer of democratism mixed with self-congratulatory pomposity, the Committee chooses as victims the four most harmless and helpless of the “animals.” Although they are aware of the injustice being perpetrated, the decision is supported by a collective that turns against its kind in order to ensure their own survival (or, more appropriately, the survival of their garages). Ryazanov himself plays the role of Sleepy, one of the four victims who sleeps throughout the entire meeting. Another victim, Mute, is the only one who is ready to protest the decision, but unfortunately, he has no voice because he is suffering from a case of laryngitis. And so, the meeting is adjourned.
What follows is a turning point which, according to conventional dramatic rules, should radically affect the outcome of the story. As the participants are about to leave, they discover that the door is locked and the key is lost. They are totally cut off from the rest of the world, entrapped in a grotesque menagerie of mummified mammals. What is worse, in a desperate act of protest, Mute has swallowed all the documents relative to the garage project, which means that the organization no longer exists, since within a bureaucratic structure identity depends on papers. Having lost their official status, the members of the group gradually reacquire some human characteristics, or so it seems, if one reads the film on the narrative level alone. They go through a night of mea culpa speeches, confessions of wrongdoing, stories of corruption, hypocrisy, and callousness. Finally, the Committee is disbanded and the cooperative members resolve to decide their destinies by drawing lots instead of relying on arbitrary decisions. All seems fair and good: repentance and catharsis.
With the light of a new day the door opens and, as the tired protagonists leave the building, the viewer is confronted with an open ending. Is this the beginning of a new life based on moral principles? Or, is this a return to routine law and order, and the usual mores, after the nightly carnival? The sustained grotesque that runs throughout the film heavily tips the scales in favor of the second option by undercutting all the conventions of the socialist realist model structure, including a moralizing happy ending.
Ryazanov had to pay a price (however small) for depriving the viewer of fairy-tale psychological comfort. Although Garage was held in great esteem by the educated public and the liberal critics, and was well attended, it turned up in ninth position in the popularity contest, whose first place that year (1981) was stolen by the great favorite, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.
Menshov’s film has been widely seen and discussed in the United States, and it is not necessary to go into details about it here. It is sufficient to say that by portraying a conventional literary plot in a classical cinematic form (in the sense of “Hollywood classical”), the film reiterates traditional values as the foundation of society, while effacing the disturbing problems connected with the disappearance of those values. In other words, in this film the hero is a hero and the heroine is a heroine; success and happiness await them at the end of the road because they are dedicated to work, moral rectitude, and human compassion. Obviously, average viewers (and not only in the USSR) are willing to suspend their disbelief in order to identify themselves with the “winners”—successful, respected, loved—rather than with Ryazanov’s pathetic specimens of an endangered species. Curiously enough, according to Western theories of Marxist criticism, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears may be easily classified as a “bourgeois” film, insofar as it sustains the status quo by reaffirming that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, while Garage falls into the category of “revolutionary” films, which are meant to disturb the established ideology and challenge the viewers’ self-satisfied perception of themselves.
Another son of the sixties, Georgi Danelia, made his debut with the remarkable film A Summer to Remember (Serezha, 1960), codirected with Igor Talankin. He then proceeded alone with a steady flow of good movies, among them Afonia (1975) and Mimino (1977). By the end of the seventies he put on screen the very successful and highly praised Autumn Marathon (Osennii maraton, 1980).
This film is a sympathetic but ironic portrait of a gentle university professor in his mid-forties, entering the “autumnal” phase of his life. Incapable of turning down anyone’s requests, Professor Andrei Buzykin (interpreted with extreme sensibility by Oleg Basilashvili) has spread himself so thin that he can no longer cope with the increasing demands in his professional and private life. Although meaning well and trying to please everyone, he ends up causing great unhappiness to both his wife and his mistress, and disappointing his greedy colleagues as well as his concerned friends and neighbors. At one point Andrei seems to have found a way out of the impasse. But it is only a brief delusion; life then returns to the normal routine. He is trapped in a vicious circle which he has helped to create. In fact, his positive qualities—intelligence, sensitivity, kindness of soul—are offset by one dominant trait: total passivity. He does not act in life; he simply reacts to people and events as best he can, without any protest and with a resigned smile. This is what he does every morning when his foreign colleague, a Danish professor and a physical fitness devotee, rings his doorbell and drags him out to go jogging.
The structure of the film is circular. It starts and ends with a jogging session in the dark morning hours. In the northern city of Leningrad, where the action takes place, darkness is a sign of autumn and the oncoming winter. The visual metaphor does not suggest the possibility of a new spring in Andrei’s life. In the final sequence the jogging path is punctuated by a row of street lamps leading to infinity. This delicate comedy of manners—whose basically elegiac tone is enlivened by a measured sense of humor—seems to find its inspiration in the cultural tradition of the past century by proposing an updated version of a typical literary figure, the so-called “superfluous man.” Certainly, it is not by accident that Danelia chose to set the story in Leningrad, the city that since Pushkin’s time has bred a vast fictional progeny of gifted and inept anti-heros.
Although a Mosfilm production, Autumn Marathon shares many features of the “Leningrad school,” which emerged in the mid-seventies. This group includes directors such as Alexei German, Gleb Panfilov, llya Averbakh, Vitaly Melnikov, and Dinara Asanova, whose films are characterized by stylistic restraint in treating the “eternal questions” of the human predicament. And yet, they probe deeply into the complexity and ambiguity of everyday life.
While most of those filmmakers are practically unknown abroad, Alexei German and Gleb Panfilov in the last year have suddenly come to the attention of foreign audiences and critics with the release of films previously censored. However, the sensationalism attached to the films’ belated release is less important than their intrinsic value.
Panfilov started his career with the film No Ford in the Fire (V ogne broda net, 1968), followed shortly by Debut (Nachalo, 1970). In both films, as in those which followed, his wife Inna Churikova played the leading role. An extremely gifted actress, Churikova has been called a Soviet Giulietta Masina because of “her touching and comical facial expressions, and awkward movements.”14 But to Panfilov she has “a face, a personality, marked by God.”15 She very aptly embodies the central theme of these two movies: the idea that the divine gift of artistic inspiration resides in an unsophisticated and sensitive soul. In the first film a young peasant woman turns out to be a naif painter of great talent, and in the second a simple worker is chosen to play the role of Joan of Arc in a movie and reveals the same spiritual strength of the French heroine.
Panfilov’s next film, May I Have the Floor (Proshu slova, 1977) continues to develop that theme, although the heroine here has superficially changed. She is now the mayor of a provincial town and, therefore, a middle-class lady, with a middle-class family and a mid-level education. But her purity of soul, inner strength, and creative potential remain those of the simple women of the previous films. It is to Panfilov’s credit that he succeeded in presenting true heroines while denying the heroic genre through both stylistic and narratological devices.16
After this film, and some disagreement with the local authorities, Panfilov moved to Moscow to work at Mosfilm where he obtained approval for his next picture Theme (Tema, 1979). Upon completion, however, Theme was shelved for seven years. When it was finally released, in 1986, it brought the director international fame and awards. It is once more the problem of artistic creativity which constitutes the main “theme” of this film, and it is once more Churikova who represents the source of spirituality. She is contrasted with the figure of a renowned and solidly established playwright whose artistic vein is drying out, played by the seasoned and talented Mikhail Ulyanov. The central character, by the ironical name of Kim Esenin,17 has reached a creative impasse. Accompanied by a colleague—a hack writer more interested in the comforts of life than in the pangs of creation—Esenin takes a trip to the ancient town of Suzdal to find inspiration for the historical theme of his new play. There, immersed in the atmosphere of old Russia, in touch with the land and the people, he rediscovers the traditional values which he had lost, and realizes that his highly acclaimed works and his very life are a sham. What precipitates Esenin’s spiritual crisis is the encounter with the local museum guide, Sasha Nikolaeva, who is the quintessential expression of the Russian soul and the custodian of the national cultural heritage.
An interesting counterpoint to Esenin is provided by the character of Borodaty, with whom Sasha is in love. Borodaty is a disaffected Jewish writer who, having suffered some injustice, seeks to emigrate. The issue of emigration is discussed in a dramatic confrontation between Sasha and Borodaty—he maintaining that he must leave in order to seek creative freedom, she maintaining that he would no longer be able to create in a foreign land after having severed his cultural roots. In the end, Esenin’s crisis, as well as the other characters’ destinies, remain unresolved, as the film focuses on the human drama and avoids easy solutions. The camera work underlines the human turmoil by contrasting expressive close-ups of the characters with lyrical longshots of Russia’s vast expanse, her snowy plains, and her serene medieval settings.
When Theme was completed it did not pass the last censorship scrutiny. Obviously the subject of emigration was still considered too sensitive at that time. Panfilov may have staked his chances on the fact that Jewish exit visas had been steadily increasing to reach the record number of 51,320 in 1979. He could not have foreseen that a combination of unfortunate international events would prompt the Soviet Union to reverse its policy and drastically curtail emigration (the decline reached its lowest level in 1984, when only 896 people left). But another, less topical reason may have played a role as well. The portrayal of an official playwright doubting the value of his own work, and consequently the values of the writers’ community and of society at large, may have been seen as a threat to the cultural establishment. The fact that Theme has now been released and presented at international festivals testifies to a healthy change of policy and a willingness to face the nation’s problems. Thus, while Theme is a film of the seventies, reflecting the nation’s issues in those years, its release is a phenomenon of the eighties, which will later be discussed in more detail.
The work of another representative of the “Leningrad school,” Dinara Asanova, is interesting in many respects. She was a Kirgiz who moved to Leningrad and worked at Lenfilm from the early seventies until her untimely death in 1985. Her ethnic background is not apparent in her films, as she was able to assimilate the mood and the habits of her adoptive Russian city. Her films, in fact, fit well in the frame of the “Leningrad school,” with their dry, unadorned style, and their difficult questions left unanswered. Asanova’s style reveals her interest in the documentary, an interest that she inherited from her teacher Mikhail Romm, and which, in 1983, manifested itself in a TV series on juvenile delinquents.
She made her debut with the film Woodpeckers Don’t Get Headaches (Ne bolit golova u diatla, 1975) from a screenplay by luri Klepikov, who wrote most of the scripts for her subsequent films. With this first work Asanova established the theme that became a constant feature of her films—the world of adolescents, with all the uncertainty and uneasiness of a time of transition, and their troubled relations to adults. In Woodpeckers, Asanova focuses on the idyll of two fourteen-year-olds, their discovery of unknown feelings, their awkward behavior, their naïve happiness, their comic “serious” talks, and in the end, their all-encompassing grief. A train takes the girl away. The boy runs after it. The idyll ends, and with it, childhood. In the background, Asanova shows the adult world, self-centered and often insensitive to the adolescents’ precarious state of mind. Besides providing a dramatic tension, it also provides a backdrop of unromanticized everyday reality.
The gap between generations came to the foreground in her subsequent films, and Asanova did not conceal her contention that most of the blame lies with the parents. Referring to her film The Restricted Key (Kliuch bez prava peredachi, 1977), set in a high school and dealing with the relationships between teachers and students, she said: “At sixteen . . . the human soul is especially fragile, defenseless, it needs to be treated extremely cautiously and tactfully. . . . It is very painful to tenth-graders when they feel they are not trusted, looked down upon, patronized.”18 Following one of her favorite practices, in this film she mixed professional actors of a high caliber, such as Lidya Fedoseeva-Shukshina and Alexei Petrenko, with nonprofessional teenaged performers. During the shooting, it turned out that the young people actually imposed their own point of view, giving the film a truthful ring. This, obviously, happened with the director’s blessing. According to Asanova: “We had to give them freedom. . . . This group of kids put us in a situation which excluded all lies, all taboos, even the slightest expedients which may be forgivable in a different situation.”19 Given the subject of this film, which hinges on the right to privacy versus obedience to authority and poses the question of what constitutes honesty, the attitude of the adolescents seemed to fall perfectly in line with the director’s design.
Asanova had been rather outspoken about social problems even before the age of glasnost, and yet none of her films were shelved. She made eight films in ten years, through which she has left a portrait of a generation, puzzling in its taste for Western music and punk attire and its honest search for a new identity.
Asanova was not the only one to treat the theme of contemporary youth. The subject became a trend, sometimes attaining excellent results (for example, Sergei Solovev’s A Hundred Days after Childhood [Sto dnei posle detstva, 1975]), but more often producing undistinguished films for mass consumption (for example Pavel Lyubimov’s box-office success School Waltz [Shkol’nyi val’s, 1979]). The trend assumed more dramatic accents in the eighties, as discussed later.
Women directors are rather scarce in Soviet cinema (as elsewhere). Educated women in Soviet society usually reach a comfortable mid-managerial level of employment but are rarely allowed to operate at the top of any industrial, cultural, or political establishments. In the film industry there are many female editors, costume designers, make-up artists, and actresses, but very few directors. Those few are, therefore, the best of the best.
Lana Gogoberidze, like Dinara Asanova, is one of those few. Before graduating from the State Film Institute she already had a background in philosophy and poetry. A Georgian working in the Tbilisi studio, she made documentary and feature films throughout the sixties and seventies. But it is with the film Some Interviews on Personal Matters (Neskol’ko interv’iu po lichnym voprosam, 1979) that she gave full expression to her talent as a director and co-screenwriter. Her previous film, Commotion (Perepolokh, 1977), had already drawn praise, although of a peculiar kind, as she ironically reports: “After viewing my film . . . a well-known director told me: ‘This is your first truly manly film,’ assuming that to be ‘manly’ is the ultimate goal of a woman’s art—manly films, manly poems, manly paintings. I smiled to myself at that boundless male presumption (can you imagine the opposite case, of a woman saying to a man: ‘This is your first truly womanly film’?!).”20
And so, Some Interviews is the film of a woman about a woman. The part of the protagonist, Sofiko, was written expressly for the beautiful, sensitive, intelligent Sofiko Chaurieli, who distinguished herself in numerous Georgian films, including Paradzhanov’s The Colors of the Pomegranate (Tsvety granata, 1968). The fictional Sofiko is a woman in her early forties, a professional journalist, a devoted wife, a loving mother, an affectionate daughter, and an overall caring human being. She has it all, like the heroines of the many third-rate movies which exalt the woman as the keeper of family unity and as the model of civic responsibility, at the cost of her personal happiness. This detail, however, did not bother anyone because the sacrifice was presented as the ultimate virtue. But something unusual happens with Sofiko. She reaches a point where she is no longer able to reconcile all the different aspects of her life, to satisfy all the demands placed on her. One solution her husband suggests is to get a less demanding job, perhaps as a secretary. But Sofiko is not the kind of heroine willing to suppress her creativity. She can only live one kind of life, a life which involves all of herself. And so, her marriage falls apart as her husband finds himself a more convenient companion. This film, therefore, does not end with the apotheosis of the heroine, rather with a question: Who is to blame? The admirers of “manly” films would have no trouble pointing a finger at Sofiko. The script allows this presumptuous interpretation. But the camera does not. Throughout the film it conveys Sofiko’s point of view, or penetrates into her inner world by closing up on her expressive, dark eyes. There is sadness and happiness in those eyes, there is compassion, curiosity, humor, disbelief, pain, but not defeat. Sofiko is a feminine creature of extraordinary strength, because she has found a solid anchor in herself. And so, who is to blame? Perhaps the habits and conventions of a society which places on the woman too many demands and expects too much from her. This point is also conveyed by the women Sofiko interviews as part of her assignment. Gogoberidze, through the journalist Sofiko, offers the viewer a fascinating and challenging gallery of women’s portraits and, while focusing on “personal matters,” points out a general social problem.
The director continued to focus on the woman’s world view in her next film The Day Is Longer than the Night (Den’ dlinnee nochi, 1984). Much more ambitious in scope, and aesthetically uneven, this film covers the life of the heroine from early youth to old age, tying it to half a century of recent national history.
These films reflect a general thematic trend. Since the early seventies, short stories and novels about women have become more and more frequent. The press started debating women’s issues, mostly concerning the double workload women had to carry—on the job and at home—and the problems connected with shopping hours, queues, and poor service. By the middle of the decade the “woman theme” in film became fashionable. The titles were worded to appeal to the masses: A Sweet Woman (Sladkaia zhenshchina, by V. Fetin, 1977), A Young Wife (Molodaia zhena, by L. Menaker, 1979), A Strange Woman (Strannaia zhenshchina, by lu. Raizman, 1978), The Wife Has Left (Zhena ushla, by Dinara Asanova, 1980). Most of these films focused on the psychology of the new woman, independent and self-sufficient, and the way her new status affected the traditional woman/man relationship. While simplistic films offered simplistic solutions, films like A Strange Woman and The Wife Has Left raised troubling questions. Are independence and love incompatible? What is the role of the man? Is woman going to find happiness within herself? Other films without the specific “woman trend” touched on the same problems. For example, Five Evenings (Piat’ vecherov, 1979) and Kinfolk (Rodnia, 1982), both by Nikita Mikhalkov, reflect women’s material responsibilities and spiritual frustration.
Historical Dramas and Literary Classics
At the opposite pole from the bytovoy pictures, historical periods and exotic settings were prominent in the seventies. Some of the most popular films in this category were foreign imports from India, which excited the popular imagination, especially in the provinces, with inflated tales of love, death, magic, and heroic pursuits. The national production displayed a more serious approach to the genre. Nikita Mikhalkov, who had been acting in film since the early sixties, made his debut as a director in 1975 with the film At Home among Strangers, Stranger at Home (Svoi sredi chuzhikh, chuzhoi sredi svoikh) which, after the “spaghetti Western” attribution of worldwide fame, can aptly be called a “pirozhki Western.” Unlike other Westerns, however, here train robberies, horseback chases, and shootouts are set against the backdrop of the Reds and Whites in the Civil War. Mikhalkov himself plays the main role in a duster and hat à la Clint Eastwood. Mikhalkov’s second film, A Slave of Love (Raba liubvi, 1976), is set in the same period and, like the previous one, indulges in playing with cinematic genres. The self-reflexivity of genre is here even more explicit, since this film, in a Felliniesque vein, portrays the shooting of the silent melodrama, “A Slave of Love.” But filmmaking is not the only concern of Mikhalkov, who intermingles with the melodrama the political events of the day—the conquest of the Crimea by the Red Army—and the tragic destinies of the protagonists. Because of a construction en abîme (a film within a film) the boundary between illusion and reality is blurred and, in the end, it is not possible to rely on facile assumptions.
Mikhalkov moved slightly back in time with his third film, Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano (Neokonchennaia p’esa dlia mekhanicheskogo pianino, 1977). The basis for the script was Chekhov’s play Platonov, which lent the film the decadent atmosphere of a collapsing culture.21 Disregarding class ideology, Mikhalkov transferred to the screen the neuroses of an aristocratic and nouveau riche milieu which were relevant to the upper circles of contemporary Soviet society. What the director emphasized was the spiritual bankruptcy and isolation of every character. The disintegration of society as a meaningful agglomerate was conveyed by placing particular emphasis on group games as an illusory means of keeping the social fabric together. But what is particularly important to Mikhalkov is neurotic alienation as a direct consequence of estrangement from nature and gradual identification with the machine. The player piano, with its mechanical, soulless performance, is obviously the central metaphor of the film. This theme recurs in Some Days in the Life of I. I. Oblomov (Neskol’ko dnei iz zhizni I. I. Oblomova, 1980). The film is based on excerpts from the novel by Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov (1859), which raised heated debate among contemporary critics, and whose protagonist became, in Russian radical criticism, the quintessential example of the “superfluous man.”22 Mikhalkov, rather than following the official negative interpretation of Oblomov as the product of a parasitic aristocratic country estate, stresses his child-like poetic nature, his inclination toward daydreaming, his ties with nature and with the feminine life principle—the mother. By contrast, maleness, energy, progress, productivity, and technology are attributes of Oblomov’s childhood friend, Andrei Stoltz. Born of a German father, Stoltz has inherited these “non-Russian” features, which were hailed by the progressive socialist critics of the past century, but are looked upon with apprehension by Mikhalkov’s post-positivist, post-Stalinist generation.
A film with a vast historical background, Siberiade (Sibiriada, 1979), was made by Mikhalkov’s older brother, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky. An outspoken sustainer of the “American model” both in terms of filmmaking and marketing techniques, Konchalovsky wanted to produce an epic with popular appeal. The film did very well at the box office. Then, suddenly, it was withdrawn from circulation when Konchalovsky traveled to the West and rumors began that he was going to defect.23
Siberiade, first conceived as the story of the development of Siberian oil wells, turned into a much more complex work, intertwining history and fiction. This “cine-epos” covers the events connected with the lives of two families in a small Siberian village, from the beginning of the century through the sixties. The major historical events that shook the nation are presented in select documentary inserts, which introduce the fictional episodes as, so to speak, epigraphs. Besides chronicling half a century of the country’s history, the film also raises questions of universal significance, as vast as the scope of the epos. These are questions about the eternal struggle of man against nature—man’s drive to conquer and nature’s power to annihilate, man’s suffering and nature’s impassivity, and most of all (as metaphorically conveyed by the character of Afanasy) man’s irrepressible need to cut a road through the wilderness for no other reason than to pursue a dream.
Many historical films did not score high marks despite the efforts of reputable directors of the old guard, such as Sergei lutkevich who made Lenin in Paris (Lenin v Parizhe, 1981) with all sorts of “poetic” embellishments. However, worthy of mention in the historical category is Elem Klimov’s Rasputin (Agoniia, 1975), which was released only in 1984. The version that has been circulated in the USSR and abroad was drastically cut, and it is, therefore, difficult to judge the film with fairness. What remains is a glimpse of the Romanov family and their empire on the verge of collapse. The film offers an intriguing portrait of the two main figures, Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas, who, according to the original plan, would have functioned as each other’s doubles. As the film stands, this point is unfortunately lost.
World War II Films
Films about World War II have been the staple of Soviet cinema since the early forties. So many pictures have been made on this theme that they soon constituted a genre with its own peculiar conventions. The treatment of war changed over the years in the works of a few creative directors who ran against the conventions of the genre. The turning point came at the beginning of the sixties when there developed a new sensibility for the personal lives of human beings caught in the war catastrophe. Nevertheless, dozens of conventional and insufferably flat war movies continued to be made throughout the seventies. One exception was a film by Larisa Shepitko, Ascent (Voskhozhdenie, 1977)—a stylized parable heavy with biblical metaphors. Here, the war situation is used to test the moral stamina of the protagonist. The logic of the film, and the implacable will of the director, require that the protagonist ascend his “Golgotha” in order to restore mankind’s hope in spiritual rebirth. Although rather obvious in its symbolism, this film has been acclaimed by both domestic and foreign critics.
The best war movies of the seventies undoubtedly belong to Alexei German, whose latest film My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Moi drug Ivan Lapshin,1983; released in 1985) finally revealed him to be one of the most brilliant and innovative directors of his generation. German made only two films in the seventies, Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, 1971; released in 1986), based on motifs from the war stories of his father luri German, and Twenty Days without War (Dvadtsat’ dnei bez voiny, 1976), loosely adapted from a novel by a classic author of Soviet literature, Konstantin Simonov. Only the second film was released upon completion, and therefore German remained virtually unknown among the public-at-large until now. However, with that one film he already caught the attention of the critics.24
Although made in the early seventies, Trial on the Road belongs in a discussion of the past ten years of Soviet cinema because of its recent release and also because it shows German’s progression toward his latest brilliant achievement. The time is the winter of 1942; the setting, a Nazi-controlled region in northwestern Russia. Sergeant Lazarev (played by V. Zamansky), a POW suspected of having been a collaborator with the Nazis, lets himself be captured by a partisan division (as his name suggests, he comes back from the “dead”). As a reformed traitor, he must undergo several tests of courage and loyalty in order to win the trust of the officers and his comrades-in-arms. The leadership is represented by two officers whose opposite world views constantly clash and provide the plot’s dramatic tension. The stiff-necked Major, played with cold precision by the gifted (now deceased) Anatoly Solonitsyn, is a fanatical doctrinaire who places ideology above human lives, while the commander of the partisan division, played with compassion and a touch of humor by Rolan Bykov (one of the audience favorites), is a simple man who relies on basic human feelings rather than military rules. After several trials and humiliations, Lazarev finally redeems himself in a hyperbolic war-action sequence, where he single-handedly guns down a detachment of Germans and dies in the process. Clearly, the censors objected to the unconventional treatment of the protagonist—the “traitor” turned “hero.” This was a bold violation of the Soviet narrative canons, which showed German to be an innovator even in those early days. However, the style of the film does not match the boldness of its conception. German still uses the traditional stylistic devices of the Soviet war genre, albeit applied to unorthodox characters and situations. The director at that time had not yet found his true cinematic language.
With his second film, Twenty Days without War, German leaves the combat zone to concentrate on the lives of ordinary people in the rear. By moving away from the war, he also moves away from the rhetoric of the genre and displays an admirably restrained realistic style. It is December 1942. The newspaper correspondent Lopatin (lu. Nikulin), on a roundabout route to the Caucasus front, stops in Tashkent, an evacuation point overcrowded with war refugees. There he has a brief and meaningful affair. It is a fleeting encounter of two human beings brought together and soon separated by the cataclysm of war. Contrary to the melodramatics of the genre, this encounter is devoid of the fateful overtones which typically bear on the destinies of lovers. In German’s film, the encounter is a serene pause in a difficult journey, a poor but hospitable refuge to share the intimacy of each other’s bodies and feelings. To avoid trite sentimentality, the camera maintains a controlled detachment throughout the film. One example is the scene of the morning after, where the two lovers are enjoying a chat over a cup of tea, containing their sadness with laughter before saying good-bye, and the camera discretely remains outside, watching them through the window panes and preventing the viewer from overhearing their conversation. Another example is the scene on the train, where Lopatin meets a pilot who tells him a long and melodramatic story of love and betrayal, involving himself, his wife, another man, and an illegitimate child. The story has all the elements of an ordinary tear-jerker, and that is what it would have been, had German exploited it cinematically. But he did not. The pilot pronounces his monologue in a static close-up of ten minutes’ duration. The melodramatic effect is destroyed, and by dint of the interview-type shot the story acquires a ring of verisimilitude. After all, melodramatic stories do happen in real life; they only look unreal when placed within certain narrative conventions.25
On his journey Lopatin meets many victims of the war who share with him their personal tragedies, thus weaving the canvas of a larger common tragedy. The gloomy picture of life on the home front, shot in greyish tones and from neutral angles, is contrasted to Lopatin’s visit to a movie set where they are shooting a typical war film of the period, imbued with phony heroism. The juxtaposition of the two styles makes a statement both about true heroism and true cinema. This introduces the theme of the interplay of reality and illusion which is central to German’s next film, Ivan Lapshin.
The “Poetic” Film
Several films with a tendency toward lyricism and a highly metaphorical style left a mark on the sixties and continued to be produced in the seventies, although on a smaller scale. Their structure, based on analogical images rather than narrative logic, resembled that of a poem. In fact, this trend was known as the “poetic school.” It was also characterized as the “archaic school,” because these films were often based on folk tales and legends. The directors belonging to this school were mostly from the Caucasus or the Ukraine, and regarded themselves as the heirs to Alexander Dovzhenko and the “poetic” style of his early films. Among them were the controversial Sergei Paradzhanov,26 himself an Armenian but occasionally working at the Ukrainian studios named after Dovzhenko (Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors [Teni nashikh zabytykh predkov, 1965], The Colors of the Pomegranate, and most recently, The Legend of the Surami Fortress [Legenda o Suramskoi kreposti, 1984; released in 1986]); the Ukrainian luri llenko (On the Eve of Ivan Kupala [Vecher na kanune Ivana Kupaly, 1969] and White Bird with a Black Mark [Belaia ptitsa s chernoi otmetinoi, 1972]); the Georgian Tengiz Abuladze (The Prayer [Mol’ba,1969] and The Tree of Desire [Drevo zhelaniia, 1978]); and later Otar loseliani, also from Georgia (Pastorale [Pastoral’, 1977]) and the Kirgiz Bolotbek Shamshiev (The White Ship [Belyi parakhod, 1977]). These films were never box-office successes, though they were highly regarded among cinema connoisseurs. Some critics expressed deep appreciation, but others attacked them in the press for being “difficult” and self-indulgent. As a consequence, those directors were only allowed to make a few films over the years.
Such was the case with Andrei Tarkovsky, who may be regarded as a northern offshoot of the poetic school. The poetic elements clearly present in his early film, Andrei Rublev (1965), came to full bloom in his movies of the seventies, Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975) and Stalker (1980). Mirror reflects the director’s search into his childhood for those fragments of experience which determined the course of his life. Memory brings into focus disconnected episodes, events out of chronological sequence, flashes of relationships charged with intense emotion, or simply visual and aural impressions. Recurrent images and poetry on the soundtrack (by Tarkovsky’s father) connect the protagonist’s childhood to his adult life. The same actress (Margarita Terekhova) plays both the role of the young mother and later the wife, while Tarkovsky’s real mother (M. Vishniakova) appears briefly at the end of the film. This poetic autobiography conveys the inner world of the child in relation to the surrounding reality—the parents’ divorce, the hardships of war, life in the countryside, the mother’s struggle for economic and political survival—as well as the effect of the child’s experience on the adult protagonist. Tarkovsky fills his Mirror with a delicate canvas of aesthetic images and human emotions which both challenge and fascinate the viewer. Actually, the director himself was not totally pleased with the result, judging by the following interview:
Many think that Mirror is my favorite film. But it’s not my very favorite. . . . It was very difficult to make it, almost impossible to edit it. . . . I had to make nineteen versions of the editing, each one fundamentally different from the others, where each episode was moved back and forth before we achieved a satisfactory version. . . . To me Mirror is too motley a picture to say it expresses my aesthetic taste.
For his next film Tarkovsky found different formal solutions, as he stated in that same interview: “In Stalker . . . it seems to me that I achieved a simpler form, asceticism as a narrative form.”27
We have to agree with Tarkovsky’s statement, especially in view of the future developments of his “ascetic” style, which matured through Nostalgia (1983) and achieved the perfection of a Japanese haiku in his last film, The Sacrifice (Zhertvoprinoshenie, 1986). These two films do not belong to the history of Soviet cinema. They were made abroad and are connected with Tarkovsky’s last few years of painful exile and fatal illness.28 A few words about Stalker, however, must be added to point out the main theme that runs through most of Tarkovsky’s films: the discrepancy between the spiritual and the material in the human being. The director’s main concern is moral as well as philosophical. Tarkovsky goes beyond questions of ethical behavior to touch on the deeper problem of the spiritual essence of the human being. The protagonists of his films are engaged in a quest for a return to a state of grace, a recovery of the soul that was suffocated by matter. The Stalker is one of those marked creatures, blessed with a special sensibility (fools in Christ, or “poets”), that allows them to find the path to the hidden truth—the essence of things beyond their material appearance. The Stalker feels that he has a mission to help mankind achieve the ultimate vision. The characters in the film are symbolic of three states of mind: the Stalker as the visionary, the Professor as the positivist, and the Writer as the skeptic. The action is a metaphoric voyage through a dangerous and mysterious “zone” filled with the material debris of our civilization, in order to reach the Chamber of Desires where the pilgrims would have their most intimate wishes fulfilled. Eventually, the mission fails because the Professor and the Writer do not undertake the quest with a pure heart, and are unable to enter the Chamber. The film ends with the Stalker crushed by failure. But a final note of hope is conveyed by the Stalker’s daughter, whose glance is so powerful as to be able to impress a kinetic force on inanimate objects (an allusion to the “kino” artist?). Stalker was based on a science-fiction story by the brothers Strugatsky, but Tarkovsky departed from the genre and created a philosophical parable of stunning visual beauty.
The Ecological Theme
A major figure in the cinema as well as the literature of the early seventies was Vasily Shukshin (deceased in 1974). First popular as a movie actor, he then had a large following as a writer and film director. His best films—Strange People (Strannye liudi, 1970); Shop Crumbs (Pechkilavochki, 1973); The Red Guelder Rose (Kalina krasnaia, 1974)—are based on his own stories. As a writer, Shukshin belonged to the trend of so-called “country prose,” whose practitioners look at village life as an alternative to the loss of traditional values and spirituality caused by the big city. Their lifestyles, based on natural life cycles and folk rituals, are opposed to the dehumanizing effects of technology. Himself from a Siberian village, Shukshin transferred to the screen the thrust of his books, which emphasized going back to the roots in search of the real man. He did so in an unconventional style with many suggestive images and ingenious camera work. His film The Red Guelder Rose, the only one which has been widely seen abroad, was extremely popular in the USSR and won the Soviet Screen contest for 1974. It tells the story of an ex-convict (played by Shukshin himself) who, after serving time, goes back to his native village in order to cleanse his spirit of urban corruption. Eventually he is hunted down by his old gang and killed. Notwithstanding the unhappy ending and the symbolic style, Soviet audiences sympathized with the protagonist’s longing for spiritual rebirth. His tormented soul-searching is all the more poignant as it is set against a backdrop of petty bureaucrats and indolent workers.
Close to Shukshin’s works because of the ecological theme is the film Farewell (Proshchanie, 1982), completed by Elem Klimov after the tragic death of Larisa Shepitko, who initiated the project. Loosely based on a novel by the “country prose” writer Valentin Rasputin, Farewell is a moral-philosophical tale concerned with the biological (and sacred) ties between the human being and the place he calls home. The film has practically no plot. The action consists of the evacuation of the small island of Matyora, which, according to government plan, is going to be flooded to create a water reservoir. We are again confronted with the dilemma of industrial progress disrupting the natural environment. But the film does not pretend to offer a solution, or even to argue against the advancement of civilization. Its purpose is to focus on the other side, to show the villagers who live not on the island but together with it. With a stylistic restraint which defies the facile idealization of the peasant, Klimov conveys the organic, and at the same time reverent, relation of the people to the land (Daria praying in the woods), the water (the ritual of communal bathing in the lake), the house (Daria washing and decorating her room). Conversely, he puts more dramatic pathos in the scenes depicting the violence perpetrated on the land (the furious attack on the “tree of life” by the driver of the bulldozer). Farewell is ultimately a film about death. Whether it is justified in the name of progress, the flooding of Matyora is shown in the last sequence as the entombment of life under a still, cold, marble-like, black liquid expanse.
THE YEARS OF TRANSITION, 1983–1984
When the Brezhnev era came to an end it seemed that the country was headed for a period of moral and economic regeneration. Brezhnev’s demise was expected and the new leadership had been positioning itself for at least a year.29 The new General Secretary, luri Andropov, an enigmatic, ascetic man with the methods of a KGB chief and the mind of an intellectual, was quick to crack down on corruption and privilege. Many heads fell, including some that were very close to the Brezhnev family.30 Andropov sought to renew Party and government cadres, at the highest as well as the lowest levels, and to inject energy and purpose into the stagnating economy. The country was at a turning point. Economic indicators were alarming, due in part to American punitive measures, and in part to another disastrous harvest, the fourth in a row. Furthermore, the war in Afghanistan, the Polish engagement, and other foreign misadventures were draining financial resources needed for domestic use. A new elite of technocrats, economists, and intellectuals was painfully aware of the current situation and looked to Andropov for leadership. The other two main sustainers of the new leader were the KGB, which Andropov had refurbished and brought to a new level of sophistication, and the armed forces. As a measure of social uplift, Andropov promoted campaigns against alcoholism, petty theft, and black marketeering, and encouraged discussions of these problems in the press. While censorship was firmly maintained in the arts, a movement towards constructive social criticism was favored. Cinema picked up on this trend, and the most notable films of those years fell within these parameters.
When speaking of the period of transition, we cannot strictly rely on chronology because films which appeared in 1983 had to have been started at least a year earlier, before Andropov. Conversely, films planned under Andropov came out in 1984, when Chernenko was already trying to turn the clock back to the ways of the old regime. Nevertheless, Chernenko had little impact on cultural life. The films discussed here, therefore, characterize the end of the Brezhnev era and the dawning of a new period which later acquired more defined features under Gorbachev.
The Underground Economy
Cinema turned its attention to the underground economy and offered the audience a gallery of portraits of a new social type: the enterprising middleman, or, depending on the point of view, the black market profiteer. The film that anticipated this trend was Train Station for Two (Vokzal dlia dvoikh, 1983), by Ryazanov and Braginsky. Extremely popular, and mostly well-received by the critics, the film introduced black marketeering as a secondary motif. The focus of the story is on the encounter between a provincial waitress (interpreted by Liudmila Curchenko, unfailingly good in all her roles) and an intellectual from the big city (played by Oleg Basilashvili, the protagonist of Autumn Marathon). Both have serious problems with their lives and eventually find in each other love, compassion, mutual support, and the hope for improvement. The sentimental strand was responsible for the film’s success. Nevertheless, like all of Ryazanov’s works, this was a comedy (perhaps a tragi-comedy, as it was called in the Soviet press) with biting satirical elements. The action unfolds in a railroad station, a symbol for transitoriness, disorderly life, superficial relations, vagrancy, underground deals—in a word, anarchy. In that railroad station, it seems, social rules and the moral imperative are no longer operative. The target of the satire is a train conductor, masterfully played by Nikita Mikhalkov with the cocky self-assurance of a successful rogue. He has established a profitable (and illegal) cantaloupe trade with the help of the waitress from the station café. When the train arrives from the south, the flamboyant macho conductor dumps a couple of suitcases full of cantaloupes on his waitress and even manages hurriedly to enjoy her favors in an empty compartment. This half-willing, half-misguided woman eventually finds a way out of the demeaning situation through her encounter with a gentle and sensitive man, himself the victim of unfortunate circumstances. Because of a car accident caused by his wife—a materialistic woman representative of the nouveau riche mentality—he is serving time in a penal colony, and is, in fact, hurrying back to prison after a brief leave. The penal colony setting, with its rules, rigidity, law and order, conformism, and discipline is a metaphorical opposite to the train station; both are seen as dehumanizing environments. Between is the private space of the two lovers, where they find the spiritual nourishment necessary to their survival.
Several films subsequently picked up on the rogue theme and offered an interesting social commentary, however superficial and wanting on the artistic side. Among them, The Blonde Girl Around the Corner (Blondinka za uglom, 1984), directed by Vladimir Bortko, tells the story of a pretty and frivolous food shop clerk who affords a life of affluence by privately trading state-owned groceries. Viktor Tregubovich’s A Rogue’s Saga (Prokhindiada, 1984) is a satirical “epic poem” about the modern rogue. An amiable wheeler-dealer, an energetic, hard-working entrepreneur, he neglects his regular job in order to pursue his private business of trading favors, establishing connections, and providing services—placing someone’s son in graduate school in exchange for a vacation on the Black Sea, in exchange for a role on stage, in exchange for a good deal on a car, and so on. As a result, he lives “above his salary,” which means that his apartment is a consumer goods showcase. To press their case against the swindler (who, by the way, is able technically not to break the law, but to operate on the edges), the film’s authors suggest a parallel with the prototype of all Russian rogues: Chichikov from Gogol’s Dead Souls.31 Like Chichikov, who evades his chasers in a flying troika, our contemporary speeds away in his white Mercedes and vanishes into thin air.
A similar character is the protagonist of Sincerely Yours . . . (Iskrenne vash . . . , 1985), by a woman director, Alla Surikova. The character’s personality, the comedy situations, the consumeristic paradises, the bonanza of imported clothes and electronic gear, the petty concerns of a materialistic society—all of these are characteristic of the rogue trend. However, we must note that in all these films the rogue is a person of medium social status, an average citizen in no position of power. The causes for the social malaise—the inefficiency of the economic system itself and the self-serving attitude of Party and government functionaries—are not discussed. The films simply show alarming symptoms, leaving it to the viewer to figure out the causes and the cure. Obviously, the filmmakers were testing the new parameters of censorship, and, at the same time, pushing for their expansion.
To soften the critical discourse and to make it more acceptable, many filmmakers added to their films elements of the fantastic. The extent of this practice led Soviet critics to develop a new term with which to characterize these films: “social fiction” (sotsial’naia fantastika), analogous to “science fiction” (nauchnaia fantastika). The fantastic element may be more or less prominent in certain films (The Blonde Girl and A Rogue’s Saga both have “fantastic” endings), but is rarely absent. In One of a Kind (Unikum, directed by Vitaly Melnikov, 1985), an employee of a scientific research center discovers that he has the mental power to transmit his dreams; he goes into show business, so to speak, and establishes a profitable enterprise selling his dreams to a sleeping audience.
One of the best achievements in this genre is the film by Eldar Shengelaia, Blue Mountains, or An Improbable Story (Golubye gory, ili Nepravdopodobnaia istoriia, 1985). The “improbable story” occurs in an unidentified institution (a publishing house, a magazine’s headquarters?) where extremely busy employees attend to their business with meticulous scrupulousness day after day. Unfortunately their business is not the same as the institution’s. They study French, grind coffee, knit, play chess, or run between absorbing activities taking place elsewhere. As a result, the young writer who submits his manuscript, “Blue Mountains,” has to wait a year, only to learn that the manuscript has been lost. In the end, because of neglect, the institution’s building collapses on the heads of its oblivious staff. No one is hurt (after all, this is a fantastic story), and the institution is moved to a modern building of glass and concrete. There everything is new—except for the institute’s operations, which resume their usual activities—knitting, coffee grinding, chess playing, French spelling, etc.
The fantastic in this film extends beyond the narrative level. It is also conveyed through a style which is hyperbolic in its realism of detail. The discrepancy between the hyperrealism of the environment and the triviality of the action attains a level of absurdity. The institution becomes an empty shell, and the characters become grotesque masks without souls.
Outside the realm of the fantastic, but within the trend of social criticism, is the winner of the popularity contest for the year 1984. Once again, it was a film by Eldar Ryazanov, A Ruthless Romance (Zhestokii romans,), which is based on the nineteenth-century play by A. Ostrovsky, Without a Dowry. The merchant milieu, materially rich but spiritually poor, served Ryazanov well as a parallel to certain circles of the contemporary Soviet “bourgeoisie.” But the audience was probably attracted by the tragic destiny of the heroine, who succumbs to the requirements of a tyrannical environment and to the romantic glamour of a refined swindler (another superb interpretation by Nikita Mikhalkov).
To a certain extent the film Vassa (1983), by Gleb Panfilov, belongs to the same genre, inasmuch as it is about an industrialist’s family of the early twentieth century and is based on the play Vassa Zheleznova, by Maksim Gorky. However, as in all of Panfilov’s films, the figure of the heroine here is strong and positive. Notwithstanding the fact that she is the representative of the capitalist world on the verge of collapse, she fulfills her destiny with dignity and responsibility.
Corruption and disillusionment in public life had a counterpart in films concerned with personal problems, family, and love. The peculiar themes of the so-called “chamber films” are reflected in titles such as Private Life (Chastnaia zhizn’, directed by luli Raizman, 1983) and Without Witnesses (Bez svidetelei, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, 1983). The former is about an executive going into retirement and discovering his true self through closer contact with his family; the latter, about a divorced husband who visits his ex-wife and engages her in a bitter confrontation in order to gain psychological revenge.
Another film by luli Raizman, Time of Desires (Vremia zhelanii, 1984), is interesting as a sequel to the “woman films” of a few years earlier. The character type epitomized by the heroines of Strange Woman (also by Raizman) and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Vera Alentova played the leading role in both Moscow and Time of Desires), independent but romantically disposed and seeking a true love relationship, has turned into a practical, efficient, energetic provider of material comfort, a woman of useful connections, whose aim is to fit her own and her husband’s lives into the fashionable mold of her desires—needless to say, with catastrophic consequences.
Quite different in tone are the films of Petr Todorovsky, Waiting for Love (Liubimaia zhenshchina mekhanika Gavrilova, 1983) and A Wartime Romance (Voenno-polevoi roman, 1984). These are delightfully unpretentious comedies, humorous and touching at the same time. A sui generis “chamber film” was Success (Uspekh, 1984), by Konstantin Khudiakov, telling the story of a strong-willed stage director possessed by a fanatic dedication to the theater and determined to achieve artistic perfection at all costs—even at the cost of trampling on human feelings.
The film Look Back (Oglianis’, 1984), by Aida Manasarova, touches on the specific problem of the generation gap. More precisely, it portrays the drama of a mother whose teenage son has turned into an egotistical monster full of repressed fury. Although the film hints at the causes for the young man’s troubles by vaguely suggesting that the mother in earlier years did not give her infant son enough love and attention, it finally seems to exonerate her because of her suffering and honest efforts to correct her mistakes. The viewer is left without a solution and with the uneasy feeling that a young life will be wasted.
The Problem of Youth
The issue of difficult youth, and often of outright juvenile delinquency, once a theme to be avoided, was singled out by the press in the early eighties as one of the main social problems to be addressed without delay. Newspapers, especially in the provinces, frequently reported stories of brutality among teenagers and showed that juvenile delinquency was on the rise. Both the stage and the screen reflected this trend.32
One film that had a vast following all over the country, but also raised a chorus of indignant protests, was Scarecrow (Chuchelo, 1984) by Rolan Bykov, a veteran actor eventually turned director. Scarecrow tells the story of a twelve-year-old girl, Lena Bessoltseva, who becomes the target of her schoolmates’ vicious attacks. Because of a banal incident she is unjustly accused of having betrayed the group, and after a period of ostracism and psychological abuse she is burned at the stake, in effigy. The metaphor of the burning dummy, with Lena watching it, is more eloquent of her suffering than any scene of explicit violence. Bykov probes an issue which is often hidden behind a neat facade of respectability. In this film the setting is a small provincial river town, with its pretty old houses, a church, a model school. It is, in fact, a tourist attraction. The school children look as neat and pretty as the surrounding environment, but under the surface they hide disquieting personalities. They have a tendency to act as a collective, no doubt instilled by official education and upbringing and aggravated by the disintegration of the family. This would not be a bad thing per se, except that this collective, in order to have a raison d’être, needs a victim to hate and torment.
Thus, besides denouncing a current youth problem, this film carries deeper implications. Artistically woven into its texture is the idea that the collective can become a tyrant. In this teenager microcosm one can observe familiar patterns of denunciation, purge, demagoguery, lack of moral stamina, and loss of individual integrity typical of behavior that, although most prominent in the Stalinist years, is not completely obsolete. One image that functions as a metaphorical link between past and present is that of the marching band. The omnipresent bands of the thirties used to play their martial tunes in parks, city squares, workers’ clubs, steamboats, train stations, and every other public place, in order to lift the people’s morale and cover up the drab reality of the day with a cheerful note of optimism. In Scarecrow, the marching band, with its smart uniforms and shining brass, blends well with the rest of the neat town’s facade. One would hardly notice it, were it not for its conductor. Bykov himself makes a brief appearance in this role, and his simple expression of embarrassment and shame at performing the usual upbeat tune upon Lena’s final departure, provides the viewer with the key to the entire film.
Another great success was the film by Dinara Asanova Tough Kids (Patsany, 1983). Based on real-life episodes and characters (Asanova eventually turned her research materials into a documentary for television), this film is set in a correctional institute, more precisely a summer camp for male teenage offenders. The camp director, Pavel Antonov (simply Pasha to the boys), rejects abstract pedagogical principles in favor of spontaneous human relations. In other words, he believes that his young friends can be reformed not through regulations, but through love and understanding. He establishes a big-brother relationship with each of the boys and pursues his mission with total dedication. Eventually, the experiment fails when the kids suddenly go on a rampage of violence and vandalism.
One of the merits of Asanova’s films is that they never idealize heroes or vilify villains. Pasha is neither a saint nor a guru, just a decent man with strengths and weaknesses. His weakness, in fact, is brought into focus when he vents his rage and frustration on the youths for having failed him. In a dramatic scene, where the boys—sincerely sorry for their deeds of the previous night—come to Pasha to apologize, he repeatedly shouts at them in a crescendo of fury: “I will not forgive you!” In the end, it is clear that Pasha will not give up his mission. But it is also clear that he is shaken and does not have any concrete answers. Thus, the film raises once more the problem of the generation gap, and poses the question of how to reach out to youth and reestablish the missing link.
Asanova’s next and last film, Dear, Dearest, Beloved . . . (Milyi, dorogoi, liubimyi, edinstvenriyi . . . , 1984),33 touches on the same problem, but in a different setting and mood. This film was not as popular as Tough Kids because of its “difficult” structure—allusions, innuendoes, bits and pieces of information that the viewer had to reorganize in order to make sense of the story. One can even say that the film borders on “social fiction,” given the absurd (and yet, totally believable) mind set of the young heroine. A nineteen-year-old, in the eccentric attire of the latest counter-culture fad, holding an infant in her arms, jumps into the car of a stranger and asks him to “rescue” her. The driver, a good-natured fellow a generation older, is taken by surprise and willing to help. Driving around Leningrad in the course of the night, he tries to establish a dialogue with the young woman. He wants to understand her problems, to assist her and the baby. But all he gets is a confused story about her “dear, dearest, beloved” who kicked her out of the house. Ultimately, it turns out that she is being chased by the police for having stolen the baby from another woman. Her motive? To blackmail her estranged lover by having him believe that the baby was their own. The kind “rescuer” (played by Valery Premykhov, who also played Pasha in Tough Kids and wrote the script for this film) in the end is totally baffled and, while discussing the incident at the police station, he offers the audience a question to ponder:
What can I teach them? You, yourself, do you understand anything about these . . . kids? For me this is the first time I have run into one of them. Who are they? What do they want? Before, when there was famine around, they engaged in theft, vandalism . . . this can be understood, justified. But now, what do they want? Do you, yourself, know?34
Asanova does not pretend to know what they want, but in the course of the film she suggests what is wanting: a family environment, loving parents, and the transmission of values—all things that the pitiful heroine of this story did not get.35
Escapism and Politics
To balance the serious genres engaged in social criticism, the Soviet audiences were offered a good number of light musicals. Some of them were bound to be popular in spite of weak plots and poor production values, simply because they featured celebrities from the musical world. Among them were Don’t Get Married, Girls (Ne khodite devki zamuzh, directed by Evgeny Gerasimov, 1985), with the pop singer Valery Leontiev, and I Came to Talk (Prishla i govoriu, directed by N. Ardashnikov, 1985), with the rock queen Alia Pugacheva. Others had more substance and were made with taste and ingenuity; for example, the films of Karen Shakhnazarov, jazzman (My iz dzhaza, 1983) and A Winter Evening in Gagra (Zimnii vecher v Gagrakh, 1985).36
Escapist, but with a clear political slant, was a series of movies belonging to the detective genre. In the early eighties, when the period of international detente came to an end, the Soviet leadership intensified anti-Western propaganda (anti-American, in particular) in the mass media and in film. This marked the beginning of a new trend which exploited the entertainment value of the detective genre borrowed from the West, while presenting an image of the West that suited the current political mood. And so, the audience got a taste of James-Bondism Soviet style, with less explicit violence and no sex, but with enough intrigue, chases, stunts, and karate chops to please the popular taste. Eloquent examples of this genre are Unmarked Freight (Gruz bez markirovki, directed by V. Popkov, 1985), Cancan in English Garden (Kankan v Angliiskom Parke, directed by V. Pidpalyi, 1985),37 Two Versions of One Accident (Dve versii odnogo stolkno veniia, directed by V. Novak, 1985), European Story (Evropeiskaia istoriia, directed by Igor Gostev, 1984), and the television series TASS Is Authorized to Announce (TASS upolnomochen zaiavit’, directed by Valery Fokin, 1984).38
Less adventurous but just as propagandistic were the films We Accuse (My obviniaem, directed by T. Levchuk, 1985), a dramatization of the trial of the American pilot, Gary Powers, in the sixties; and Flight 222 (Reis 222, directed by Sergei Mikaelian, 1985), based on a real-life incident involving a Soviet ballerina who, upon departure from New York, was detained by the Immigration Service, together with an Aeroflot jet full of passengers, in order to ascertain whether she was going back of her own will. As expected, in these films the Americans are the villains. However, one must note that the targets of Soviet criticism are generally government officials or people somewhat connected with the “military-industrial complex.” Not infrequently, the average American citizen comes across as a good fellow, although naïve and misguided. On balance, the Hollywood producers of recent hits have concocted a much more monstrous image of the enemy.39
The Abdrashitov-Mindadze Team
The works of Vadim Abdrashitov (director) and Alexander Mindadze (screenwriter) do not fall neatly into any of the trends discussed above. Both Georgian but working at Mosfilm, Abdrashitov and Mindadze have been collaborating for ten years and their co-signature has always been a guarantee of aesthetic achievement and moral commitment. Their early films include Speech for the Defense (Slovo dlia zashchity, 1977), The Turning Point (Povorot, 1979), and Fox Hunt (Okhota na lis, 1980). Each in its own way is concerned with the protagonist’s sudden awareness of a reality that transcends the illusory world of social conventions. The consequences of the awakening are not pleasant, as the individual in question is alienated from what was previously his/her own environment.
This theme has remained a constant in more recent films, such as The Train Stopped (Ostanovilsia poezd, 1982). Here, an investigator pursuing the causes of a train accident struggles to break through a shield of lies and indifference in the working community where the accident occurred. The search for the truth becomes the focal point of his life, but he has to give up when he realizes that the community resents the investigation—the results of which are bound to disturb the quiet flow of life. Hypocrisy and comfort are preferable to turmoil and truth. The next film, Parade of Planets (Parad planet, 1984), treats the same theme in an allegorical form. In the opening titles, the authors announce that this is “a quasi-fantastic story.” Indeed, the story, although justified on a realistic level, is set in environments which destroy the perception of everyday reality. Not only the viewers, but the film’s protagonists themselves, have the impression of having stepped into an uncanny world. The six protagonists are forty-year-old reservists who were called upon for the last time to play war games. In the course of the maneuvers (a perfect stylization of the classic Soviet war movies, which reinforces the illusionist motif), they are “killed,” and subsequently dismissed. Wanting to prolong the game for a couple of days before going back to their jobs and families, the “ghosts” set out on a journey that takes them first to “the city of women” (a textile factory town), an idyllic and sensuous spot inhabited exclusively by charming and hospitable females, and then to the “old people’s world” (an institution for senior citizens), where semi-surrealist figures of gentle octogenarians bring them in touch with history. The voyage for the six reservists has been an exploration into the self, the experience of a reality which seems illusory only from an ordinary point of view. Now they know that the illusion is on the other side, the positivist world of social conventions and conformism. Will they be able to readjust? The viewer does not know. At parting, the men disperse in the woods shouting nonsensical playwords at each other.
Besides being very successful at home, Parade of Planets was screened at the 1985 Venice Film Festival, and later received the first prize at the Avellino Festival. Together with The Train Stopped, it has been shown in the major European capitals, and was highly praised by the critics.
GORBACHEV IN POWER
With the general atmosphere of cultural renewal that has spread throughout the USSR since the spring of 1985, perhaps no other field has responded to the Party directives for perestroika and glasnost with more enthusiasm and concrete action than the cinema industry. All the art fields were shaken by a sudden creative upsurge and the urge to reshape their administrative structures. While change occurred randomly and on individual initiatives, the film industry was the first to institutionalize the new policy in order to ensure continuity.
A major administrative shakeup took place in May 1986, at the Fifth Congress of the Filmmakers Union. On that occasion, three-fourths of the conservative Union’s Secretariat was replaced with younger members from the creative ranks rather than the bureaucratic apparatus. For the first time, nominations to official posts were not prearranged by the incumbent leadership, which allowed the up-to-then-controversial film director, Elem Klimov, to be elected First Secretary of the Union, ousting Lev Kulidzhanov who had afflicted the filmmakers with two decades (1965–1986) of superconservative policies. This event has been characterized in some Western circles as a small revolution. Actually, Klimov’s election was the result of a backstage strategy devised by the new political forces. His nomination was sustained, if not suggested, by Alexander Yakovlev, who at that time was the head of the Central Committee’s Propaganda Department, and who is credited with being the main architect of glasnost.40 In line with Gorbachev’s policies, therefore, the Filmmakers Union acquired a dynamic and progressive leadership. Nevertheless, for all its progressiveness, the new Secretariat, like the previous one, consists of men alone.
Six months later, in December 1986, it was the turn of Goskino to have its director replaced. Another old pillar of conservatism, Filip Ermash, was replaced by Alexander Kamshalov. Kamshalov comes from the Central Committee’s Department of Culture and represents the Party policy on the cinema industry. He is expected to establish a viable relationship with the Filmmakers Union and to foster a policy that favors artistic expression. Where in the past, Goskino was responsible for all aspects of film production and exercised ideological and financial control, the latest reorganization has tipped the scales a bit by increasing the Filmmakers Union’s decision-making power. Individual studios may now decide on scripts, shooting schedules, and film releases, and, more important, they may move toward self-financing. Censorship is being dismantled as an institution, although Goskino can still influence decisions. The process of decentralization means greater autonomy and greater responsibility on the part of the filmmakers, most likely resulting in a greater number of films of artistic value and public appeal.
The resolution of the Fifth Congress was reaffirmed less than a year later, in February 1987, at the plenary session of the Filmmakers Union. In his opening speech, Elem Klimov made it clear that “the first plenary session after the Fifth Congress must be devoted . . . to the most complex and the hottest issue of our cinematography—the issue of its fundamental, radical perestroika.”41 With this in view, he proposed to work toward a “new model” of film production and distribution. A few days later, an article in Pravda officially sanctioned the filmmakers’ position. It read:
The new model is a moral one. . . . Although in our Constitution there are good pronouncements on creative freedom, this freedom has not yet been implemented in practice. As soon as the studios become autonomous and self-supporting . . . the artist whose thoughts are shaped through suffering and who is in touch with his time will acquire a greater weight. . . . The Fifth Congress of the Filmmakers has started a struggle against routine thinking . . . and has marked a change of style in Soviet cinema.42
One cannot help but note that “the change of style” has been remarkable in journalism as well. Actually, the new model tag can be applied to Gorbachev’s leadership in general. Filmmakers have made explicit references to the fact that they were following the “revolutionary” directives announced by Gorbachev at the Twenty-Seventh Congress, which “created the political, ideological, and psychological preconditions” for a sharp turn.43
There has been a great deal of speculation in the West about Gorbachev’s motives in fostering the policy of glasnost. The most convincing argument is that for his program of general reforms he needs the support of the intelligentsia and the consensus of the people. By making concessions to the artists, Gorbachev seeks to make faithful allies and, at the same time, to open a dialogue with the people. This is particularly true for a medium as far-reaching as cinema.44
It is too early to talk about new model cinema (although it is easy to prediet that this term will become a historical landmark, like new wave or neorealism). It will take more than one year before today’s productions are released. But one can talk about a new mood in which old films, previously censored, are now distributed, and provocative recent ones are appearing. The first measure taken by the newly elected Union leader was to appoint a Conflict Commission to screen all the films which had been shelved over the years because of censorship. As a result, Alexei German’s Trial on the Road was finally released. This followed the release, one year earlier, of his most recent film, My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Moi drug Ivan Lapshin, 1983; released in 1985), which was distributed on the regular circuit and broadcast on national television, becoming the subject of heated debate among the public.
The controversial success of Ivan Lapshin was due primarily to the fact that it dealt with an extremely sensitive period of Soviet history—the thirties, the years of forced collectivization, famine, the purges. Although this background is absent from the film, the realistic portrayal of ordinary life in those days, so different from the propagandistic films of the period about the marvels of industrialization, was in itself a sensation to the Soviet viewer. Since then, the theme of Stalin has been profusely treated in the media and in fiction as part of the Party policy to restore a historical period that was virtually erased, and to come to grips with its problematic legacy.
The action takes place in a northern provincial town, and is related by a narrator who “witnessed” the events as a child. The main plot hinges on the struggle of the head of a small police unit, the NKVD officer Ivan Lapshin, against a gang of bloodthirsty criminals who terrorize the local population. But this movie is more than a simple detective story. In fact, its slow-paced rhythm and fragmentary structure deny the conventions of the genre. Rather, the film is the evocation of a forgotten past—a past marked, on the one hand, by brutality, lawlessness, prostitution, and the hardships of life, and on the other, by lofty as well as naïve ideals. The grim reality of life in the provincial town is juxtaposed to the idealized world of a play which is being staged in the local theater. In the play, criminals can be reformed through labor, and prostitutes can be redeemed through love and compassion.45 Lapshin knows that in real life criminals are often shot in cold blood (as he eventually does with the gang’s chief), and love is an elusive dream (the actress of the local theater rejects him for a friend of his). And yet, as a simple man with a basic faith in the human being, Lapshin accepts the illusion of the theater as the depiction of the ideal toward which he is striving. The motif of illusory reality runs through the film as a reminder of the Stalinist myth that was being built in the thirties. By juxtaposing these two planes, German succeeds in removing all naïveté from his film while preserving the substance of the ideal.
My Friend Ivan Lapshin has troubled some Western critics, who perceived a certain nostalgia for those years and questioned the intentions of the director. Indeed, there is an aura of nostalgia, deliberately conveyed through the film’s structural and stylistic devices, but it is not nostalgia for the Stalin regime. On the contrary, it is nostalgia for a lost dream. The year of the film’s action, 1935, was the last moment before the beginning of the great terror (right after the murder of Kirov), a moment when it was still possible to believe in the Communist utopia.46 After that, one had to face the reality of the purges, the Gulag, collectivization, and famine, and the dream was destroyed forever. With this film German acknowledges a loss of innocence typical of his generation. There is more cynicism now. True, this accounts for a more realistic and mature attitude—precisely the responsible attitude that informs German’s film. The director looks back at the early thirties and at the naïve heroes of the country’s childhood from the vantage point of an adult, with tenderness and a bit of nostalgia.47
Besides the thematic level, this film is extremely interesting for its innovative form. German is undoubtedly one of the most original directors of his generation, whose creative talent has developed in spite of the fact that he was not allowed to work for many years. The simultaneous release of two films separated by a fifteen-year lapse testifies to the evolution of his style, from a traditional romantic form to a post-structuralist open text.
Another film dealing with the thirties, Repentance (Pokaianie, 1984; released in 1986) by Tengiz Abuladze, brings the viewer face-to-face with the years of terror. Repentance is a production of Gruziafilm—the Georgian film studio. The fact that it was possible at all to get this film past preliminary censorship (script approval, etc.) and into production was due in part to the personal support of the Georgia Party Secretary, Eduard Shevarnadze (now, Foreign Minister), and in part to the geographical location. Georgia is far removed from the center and enjoys a certain degree of autonomy, thanks to the official policy of support for ethnic cultures. According to this policy, Georgian television can use a three-hour period daily for local broadcasting, unsupervised by the central Gosteleradio administration. Hence, Repentance was made for Georgian television. Because the film is on its way to becoming an international hit, and one of the most sensational productions in the history of Soviet cinema, the circumstances of its making become almost anecdotal. At the same time, they testify to the talent, inventiveness, and expediency of the Georgian filmmakers who are regarded as being among the best in the Soviet Union.
Repentance is dominated by the grotesque figure of Varlam, the incarnation of the quintessential dictator. Varlam is a composite caricature of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, as his features and behavior suggest. But to a Soviet audience he is also the effigy of Lavrenti Beria, who headed Stalin’s secret police. This surrealist tale of horror is set in an imaginary time and place, so that by its abstraction from history it could be endowed with a more profound and universal significance. However, no matter how generalized the characters and the situations are, the symbolism of the film cuts very close to the bone for a Soviet viewer.48 Repentance not only explores the past, but it also relates the past to the present and warns that the legacy of Varlam is still alive and has to be confronted in order to be exorcised. The film moves back and forth in time without any marked transition, and the same actor (Aftondil Makharadze) plays both the dictator and his son Avel, who is not able to face the past and tries to justify it. By so doing, Avel perpetuates his father’s legacy. In a dramatic finale Avel’s son, disgusted with hypocrisy and injustice, commits suicide, and this tragedy prompts Avel to unearth Varlam’s body and throw it over a cliff. Now the viewer, having been delivered from evil, can sigh with relief; except that all of this was a daydream—a fantasy going on in the mind of the film’s heroine, whose family was destroyed by the tyrant Varlam. Thus, the viewer, deprived of a catharsis, is left with the uneasy feeling that he is the one that has to perform the exorcism.
The latest film by Abdrashitov and Mindadze, Plyumbum, or A Dangerous Came (Pliumbum, ili Opasnaia igra, 1987) probes deeply into the philosophical roots of evil. The film’s protagonist is a sixteen-year-old boy who, in his spare time, helps the police in their fight against robbers and other outlaws, while he works under the pseudonym of Plyumbum. He becomes involved in this “dangerous game” through a sense of justice, having himself been robbed. But the game Plyumbum plays proves to be dangerous, first of all, to his spiritual well-being. His original motivation gradually turns into an obsession, and the moral idea that was the basis for his actions becomes evil. Plyumbum’s mechanical pursuit of “justice,” devoid of love and human compassion, leads him to betray his father and to cause the death of his devoted girlfriend, Sonia. There are ominous echoes of Dostoevsky’s characters in this film (primarily Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment), which remind the viewer that the moral foundation of ethics is not an abstract principle of justice but the human feeling of brotherly love.
The year 1985, the fortieth anniversary of the victory in World War II, called for an extraordinary number of war movies. Most of them were mediocre productions; some were spectacular but shallow.49 Only one is worthy of note, Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985) by Elem Klimov. This film, based on an actual event, depicts the brutality of the Nazi invaders in the Byelorussian village of Khatyn. It was awarded the first prize at the Moscow International Film Festival, and since then has attracted millions of viewers in the Soviet Union. The sparse American audiences that saw it were profoundly disturbed; they either loved it or hated it. Indeed, this film does not allow the viewer to remain indifferent. The viewer’s senses are relentlessly attacked by the powerful camera work, combined with striking imagery, a harrowing soundtrack, and even a palpable illusion of smell. The medium itself, more than the narrative, conveys the horror of the war by taking the viewer through a painful physical experience. This is supposed to parallel the ordeal of the film’s protagonist, Flyor, who is able to preserve his human dignity amid violence and destruction.
Klimov’s film suggests two levels of meaning. While focusing on violence and brutality, its symbolism is intended to transcend the physical experience and raise the viewer into the realm of spiritual values. Evocative in this respect is Mozart’s cathartic Requiem, underscoring the final camera tilt toward the sky. Therefore, while portraying the war, Come and See wants to spread a peace message. In line with the Soviet policy of arms control, the film with its apocalyptic title warns the viewer about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust.50
This theme is treated more directly in Letters of a Dead Man (Pis’ma mertvogo cheloveka, 1986), by the young director Konstantin Lopushansky. The film portrays life in an underground shelter after a nuclear explosion. The dominant brownish coloration corresponds to the somber emotional tone of the movie. The central figure, a scientist (played by Rolan Bykov) who feels he has contributed to the destruction of mankind, carries the philosophical theme throughout the film. Contrary to positivistic logic, this ex-scientist believes that although the genetic base of life has been destroyed, the human spirit will survive and be able to regenerate mankind. Therefore, the film is an affirmation of hope—crystallized in the image of the Christmas tree which the scientist builds from fragments of scrap metal for a group of traumatized children condemned to die in the nuclear winter.51
Lopushansky is representative of a generation of promising young directors whose works have attracted the attention of the critics at home and abroad. Among them is Alexander Sokurov with the film, A Lonely Man’s Voice (Odinokii golos cheloveka, 1978; released in 1987). He is considered to be a disciple of Andrei Tarkovsky, and to be just as uncompromising as his mentor was. This film is the story of Nikita, a lower-class man who after the revolution marries a woman who once belonged to a higher class. The mismatched couple cannot overcome their differences. Nikita retreats to a small town where he is able to find the meaning of his existence. The film is based on Andrei Platonov’s stories, but the central theme is very Tarkovskian. As Sokurov himself put it: “In the context of the young man’s lofty spiritual claims, the erotic motivation reveals how the lonely voice of the spirit dies in the face of matter.”52 Sokurov’s latest movie Solemn Heartlessness (Skorbnoe bezchuvstie, 1987) is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Heartbreak House.
Another new voice is that of Sergei Ovcharov, who emerged with the film Believe It or Not (Nebyval’shchitsa, 1983). It is a comic fairy tale based on folkloric motifs and stock characters, such as the peasant, the blacksmith, the soldier, the housewife, and the devil. The style wavers between the surrealism of the images and the slapstick of the situations. Ovcharov’s fascination with the rich Russian cultural heritage is also evident in his latest film, Lefty (Levsha, 1987) from a nineteenth-century tale by Nikolay Leskov.
From Georgia comes an original film by Nana Djordjadze, one of the youngest representatives of the small pool of women film directors. Her film Robinsonada, or My English Grandfather (Robinzonada, ili Moi angliiskii dedushka, 1986) won the Golden Camera award at the Cannes Film Festival (1987). It is both a political satire and a romantic comedy—the story of a British engineer who comes to Soviet Georgia in the twenties to help with the construction of a telegraph line. He falls in love with the sister of the local Party chief, and gets involved in a series of comic situations in an effort to be with his beloved.
Many more young directors are worthy of mention—Yuri Mamin, Neptune’s Holiday (Prazdnik Neptuna, 1987); Timur Babluani, The Sparrow’s Flight (Perelet vorob’ev, 1986); Mikhail Belikov, The Night Is Short (Noch’ korotka, 1981), but it is sufficient to note that the new spirit which informs the Soviet cinema industry is supportive of young talent; and that there are plans to increase experimental workshops and offer the young broader opportunities. Special festivals devoted to the work of young filmmakers have been organized for the first time in Riga (the cine-forum “Arsenal,” 1986) and Leningrad (“Leningrad Young Cinema,” 1987).
Besides nurturing a new generation of filmmakers, the film industry pays a great deal of attention to today’s teenagers. This concern is reflected in the latest hit films, The Burglar (Vzlomshchik, 1987; director, Valery Ogorodnikov), Is It Easy to Be Young? (Legko Ii byt’ molodym?, 1987; director, Iuris Podnieks), and The Courier (Kur’er, 1987; director, Karen Shakhnazarov).53
The Burglar focuses on modern youth subculture, specifically that of rock music. It is the story of a “difficult” teenager who tries to give meaning to his life by participating in an illegal deal in order to help his brother. Is It Easy to Be Young? is a documentary produced by the Latvian studio, which presents a compassionate but disturbing picture of alienated and disaffected youth. Hard rock, punk attire, drugs, the megeneration syndrome, mystical flights into the world of Hare-Krishna—it seems that they have caught up with the West, at least in this sphere. However, the causes of the phenomenon are domestic, as a candid review of the film suggests: “What they say from the screen is: ‘ You made us the way we are with your duplicity, your lies.’ . . . Let us recall one of the many tragedies in Repentance. One, but perhaps the most severe . . . Varlam’s grandson putting a bullet through his heart.”54 And so, it is all the parents’ fault. A young viewer in a newspaper commentary reinforces this opinion:
Our generation . . . grew up in an atmosphere of pompous ceremonies, at the sound of prerecorded ovations and ‘Hurrah!’ shouts. . . . Many of those words which we heard from childhood . . . became a habit . . . lost their meaning, and their utterance became a ritual. We were obedient and observed the rituals . . . did our homework without asking about its purpose, its meaning. . . . We lost our illusions incredibly fast, and at 17-18 years of age we feel completely powerless. What can we change? We cannot escape those decades. . . . That’s the way they have shaped us.55
But if Soviet teenagers cannot escape their legacy they are nevertheless trying very hard to submerge it in the latest musical fad. The Courier, like Shakhnazarov’s other films, is a musical. While the previous films were devoted to jazz and then tap dancing, this one hinges on break dance. The director, sympathizing with the youth, draws a parallel between the illogicality, absurdity, and bold spontaneity of break dance and the mental setup of today’s teenagers. Break dance is a metaphor for the deep-set antagonism to the values of the parents’ generation, an antagonism which, in the protagonist’s normal life routine, is expressed through mute, hostile passivity. Who can blame him? At the end of the movie the seventeen-year-old hero is drafted into the army. The last shot shows him pensively staring at a comrade who has just come back from Afghanistan.
So, “the new model is a moral one,” and the Soviet filmmakers are taking it seriously. They are not only exploring troubling problems, they are pointing at the causes. They are no longer glossing over the surface of the social malaise, they are going to the roots. They are not remaking history according to the heroic code, they are uncovering dark spots. This is a new type of discourse which cannot be sustained by old-fashioned aesthetics. Formal experimentation is an instrinsic part of it, as some of the most recent films have already shown. And so, the new model is also an aesthetic one. The next few years will determine how and to what extent it is possible to implement it.
I want to thank the Hoover Institution, which provided me with a six-month fellowship for this project. I also want to thank my colleagues Richard Stites and Denise Youngblood for their close reading of this essay, their expert suggestions, and insightful comments. Finally, I want to express my appreciation to all the colleagues who at different times over the past two years were willing to engage in discussions of the aesthetic and social contexts of Soviet cinema.
1. He was promoted to marshal of the Soviet Union (among the politicians only Stalin held that military rank) and chairman of the presidium (not even Stalin held both the presidency and the Party secretaryship simultaneously). He was also awarded the Lenin prize for literature, for his memoirs and collected works, most, if not all, of them written by a professional writer.
2. Before being called Goskino, it had several other names. A detailed description of Goskino and other institutions pertaining to the movie industry can be found in Val Golovskoy, Behind the Soviet Screen (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1986). This book covers the years 1972-1982, and does not reflect the changes that have taken place more recently in the administrative structure of the movie industry.
3. It is viable to use class terminology to describe Soviet society, if one replaces the concept of property with that of power and privilege.
4. Golovskoy, p. 59. The data that follow come from this same source.
5. Ibid, p. 61.
6. The most prestigious studio of the Caucasian republics is Gruziafilm, in Georgia. An interesting case is that of the Kirgizian studio, which acquired a reputation through the works of a few talented film directors (Tolomush Okeev, Bolotbek Shamshiev), but primarily because of the studio’s director, Chingiz Aitmatov, a novelist known and appreciated nationwide. Many Kirgiz films were based on his literary works. Furthermore, he produced the first films of young directors from other republics, such as Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky and Larisa Shepitko.
7. This term was used by Maya Turovskaya in “Why Does the Viewer Go to the Movies?” Zhanry kino, (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1979), pp. 138-154 (all translations are mine).
8. The subject was actually broached in an earlier film by Yuli Raizman, Your Contemporary (Vash Sovremennik, 1967, which anticipated this trend.
9. Sergei Mikaelian, “The Bonus,” Sovetskii ekran, No. 21 (1977), p. 21.
10. Inna Levshina, “A New-Year Tale by Eldar Ryazanov,” Sovetskii ekran, No. 24 (1975), p. 10.
11. Franboise Navailh, “La femme dans le cinéma soviétique contemporain,” Film et Histoire, ed. Marc Ferro, (Paris: Editions de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1984). pp. 155-161.
12. Sovetskii ekran, No. 5 (1977), p. 11.
13. Quoted in an article which castigates Ryazanov’s grotesque style. Andrei Zorky, “Standing in Line for Garages,”! Sovetskii ekran, No. 11 (1980), p. 7.
14. Jeanne Vronskaya, Young Soviet Filmmakers (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1972), p. 49.
15. Alla Terber, “Actress,” Sovetskii ekran, No. 24 (1976), p. 7.
16. The subtext of May I Have the Floor is the film, Member of the Government (Chlen pravitel’stva, 1940) by A. Zarkhi and I. Kheifits, an apotheosis of the heroine who honestly and laboriously works her way up from worker to leader.
17. All Soviet citizens from their school years are acquainted with Sergei Esenin (1895-1925), a “peasant” poet who represents a nostalgic attachment to the land and folk traditions (his bohemian life and formalistic experimentation with verse are usually glossed over). The name Kim is an acronym for Communist International of Youth (Kommunisticheskii Internatsional Molodezhi). Many people born in the twenties and thirties were given similar names by zealous idealistic parents.
18. Dinara Asanova, “The Diarector Presents Her Film,” Sovetskii ekran, No. 3 (1977), p. 10. Soviet children begin school at age seven.
20. Lana Gogoberidze, “Some Interviews,” Sovetskii ekran, No. 2 (1979), p. 16.
21. Another director, Emile Loteanu, transferred a Chekhov story into luscious images of a decaying world in his film The Shooting Party (Moi laskovyi i nezhnii zver’, 1979).
22. The radical critic Nikolay Dobrolyubov (1836-1861) started this trend with his famous article “What Is Oblomovitis?”
23. Since the early eighties, Konchalovsky has been living in Hollywood, where he directed a number of movies. Among them, Maria’s Lovers, Runaway Train, Duet for One, and Shy People.
24. Insightful observations on German’s style in Twenty Days were published in N. Dymshits, “Under Another Name. The Metamorphoses of the Melodrama,” Zhanry kino, pp. 155-170; and V. Mikhalkovich, “Cinema Style and Film Style,” Iskusstvo kino, No. 1 (1979).
25. Another significant deviation from the cliché in this film was to cast luri Nikulin, a clown of the Moscow circus, in the leading role. Nikulin turned out to be an excellent interpreter of the compassionate, sensitive, intelligent Major Lopatin.
26. Very controversial has been the case of Sergei Paradzhanov, who was arrested on a charge of homosexuality and given a seven-year sentence. He was released after four years, partly because of pressure from the West. He resumed his work as a director in the early eighties.
27. Andrei Tarkovsky, “Confession,” Kontinent, No. 42 (1984), p. 400.
28. Tarkovsky was given permission to go to Italy, in 1982, to work on the film Nostalgia. When, in 1984, he decided to extend his stay, the Soviet authorities stripped him of his citizenship. Tarkovsky died of cancer in Paris, in December 1986. Contrary to practice, and thanks to the new policy of glasnost, the major Soviet newspapers carried obituaries, and the film magazines published several articles on the deceased artist. The Moscow Film Festival (July 1987) hosted a retrospective of Tarkovsky’s Soviet films.
29. After the death of Mikhail Suslov, in January 1982, old Communists started dying one after another, leaving a void in the top echelons which Andropov’s men proceeded to fill.
30. The crackdown on Brezhnev’s extended family began even before the leader’s death. In January 1982, the KGB arrested a ring of diamond smugglers and black marketeers which was headed by a senior official of the Ministry of Culture, Anatoly Kolevatov, his deputy Viktor Gorsky, and Boris Buryatia (alias Boris the Gypsy), a flamboyant ex-circus performer and the lover of Brezhnev’s daughter, Galina. About the years of transition, see Dusko Doder, Shadows and Whispers (New York: Random House, 1986).
31. Alexander Kalyagin, who played the rogue in the film, also portrayed Chichikov in a dramatization of Gogol’s novel which was aired on national television close to the time of the film’s release.
32. Examples of plays dealing with juvenile delinquency were Dear Elena Sergeevna (Dorogaia Elena Sergeevna), by Lyudmila Razumovskaya, staged at the Lenin Komsomol Theater in Leningrad; The Little Carriage (Vagonchik), by N. Pavlova, produced at the Little Stage of the Moscow Art Theater; and Bait Size 46, Medium Short (Lovushka No. 46, rost vtoroi), by luri Shchekochikin, staged at the Central Children’s Theater in Moscow.
33. Dinara Asanova died of a heart attack in April 1985, during the shooting of the film The Stranger (Neznakomka), which remained incomplete.
34. See V. Antonova, “A Call in the Night,” Iskusstvo kino, No. 7 (1985), p. 84.
35. Other films dealing with youth were In Broad Daylight . . . (Sred’ bela dnia, by V. Gurianov, 1984); The Cage for Canaries (Kletka dlia kanareek, by Pavel Chukhrai, 1984); Overheard Conversation (Podslushannyi razgovor, by S. Potopalov, 1985); and the documentaries First Sorrow (Pervaia bol’, 1985), It Is Painful to Draw Mama’s Portrait (Mne strashno risovat’ mamu, 1985), The Most Beautiful (Samaia krasivaia, 1985), The Kids Cet Even (Rasplachivaiutsia deti, 1985.)
36. Special mention must be made of two very recent films devoted to the figure of the poet and balladeer, Vladimir Vysotsky. In life, he was loved as no other cultural figure for his simple and straightforward protest songs, and he became an object of veneration after his death (August 1980). He was tolerated by the authorities because of his extraordinary popularity at home and abroad, but he had no access to print or broadcast. Now, the director Alexander Stefanovich has produced the movie Begin at the Beginning (Nachni snachala, 1986), which features some of Vysotsky’s songs and stars another controversial musician, Andrei Makarevich. A long video entirely devoted to Vysotsky, Remembrance (Vospominanie, 1987), has been produced by director Vladimir Savelev for the Ukrainian studio.
37. The title refers to Englischer Garten in Munich, where the headquarters of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe are located.
38. This TV series won the KGB movie award for 1984. The Soviets have numerous contests and festivals sponsored by various institutions, including the KGB.
39. In the escapist genre we should also list the “disaster movies,” such as The Crew (Ekipazh, by Alexander Mitta, 1979), which was rated third on a list of the ten greatest box-office successes. Literaturnaia gazeta (January 14, 1987), p. 8.
40. Yakovlev became a Politburo member in June 1987.
41. “Toward a New Model for Cinematography,” Sovietskii ekran, No. 6 (1987), p. 2.
42. S. Freilikh, “The New Model Is New Thinking,” Pravda (3/7/1987), p. 3.
43. “Toward a New Model for Cinematography,” p. 2.
44. Television, too, has undergone dramatic changes and is being skillfully used to the same end.
45. It is easy to recognize in that provincial production the much acclaimed play The Aristocrats (Aristokraty), by Nikolay Pogodin, which premiered in 1935 at the Moscow Realistic Theater.
46. This is suggested by the strategic placement of the portraits of two political figures. The portrait of Kirov is shown at the beginning of the movie, in the communal apartment where Lapshin lives. As a counterpoint, in the final sequence, a tram carrying a marching band (again, the marching band!) toward “the future” is decorated with a smiling portrait of Stalin. I am grateful to my colleague, Richard Stites, for his insightful observations concerning the historical setup of this film.
47. From an interview with Aleksei German:
The story I’m telling is about the real life of these people, their faith, their melancholy, the fact that they go straight ahead toward Communism without understanding that the road is long and dangerous. Maybe these people included my father and my mother. Some people understand that. Others don’t.
Catalog of the 30th International San Francisco Film Festival (April 1987), p. 37.
48. This is what the poet Robert Rozhdestvensky had to say about Repentance:
And so, ‘Once upon a time. . .’ No, no more make-believe and pretending that nobody understands and remembers anything! Yes, all this happened in our country! Our country, mine and yours . . . But the lessons of the past, even the most difficult and painful ones, do not disappear. It is necessary to learn them, to get to know them to their full extent. Otherwise, what kind of lessons are they?—Literaturnaia gazeta (January 21, 1987), p. 8.
49. For example, Victory (Pobeda), directed by Evgeny Matveefv; The Shore (Bereg), directed by Alexander Alov (recently deceased) and Vladimir Naumov; The Battle for Moscow (Bitva za Moskvu), by luri Ozerov, who also directed the 1972 epos Liberation (Osvobozhdenie).
50. Klimov himself made that connection: “After the premiere of the film . . . a Japanese film critic told me: “Your Khatyn is our Hiroshima’,” Iskusstvo kino, No. 12 (1985), p. 38.
51. The documentary The Bell of Chernobyl (Kolokiol Chernobylia, 1987), which won much praise at the 1987 West Berlin Film Festival, is another poignant warning against a nuclear catastrophe.
52. Press materials of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Festival “New Voices from the Soviet Cinema,” November 1987.
53. The Courier was awarded the Special Prize at the Moscow Film Festival (July 1987) together with the Polish film The Hero of the Year.
54. Alexander Egorov, “These Are Our Problems,” Sovietskii ekran, No. 6 (1987), p. 9.
55. Tatyana Maksimova, “We Are Your Children,” Literaturnaia gazeta (June 3, 1987), p. 8.