Father and Son

Even though they record moments which may never appear in the film, production stills are strangely powerful instruments, constructing in retrospect the moods and memories of a production – a bit like the artificial memory of replicants in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1983) which remain as coherent echoes long after the action disappears from the screen. Such is the case with the exuberant production still from Alexei Uchitel’s Progulka (The Stroll) (2003) on the program brochure for the recent Russian Resurrection Film Festival, screened in Sydney and Melbourne, showing the actors clowning around for the camera, costumed though no longer “in character”, stepping out of time into the present and conveying a spirit of optimism in contemporary Russia which seems to exist above and beyond the film.

The still achieves something else as well in bringing together two key films by two St Petersburg-based directors whose efforts exemplify this new mood in Russia. In Progulka, a Pushkin figure in period costume walks into the frame, talking on a mobile phone and for awhile is joined by a group of performers in costume, who pass through the action. The moment acknowledges Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2003), where the figure of Pushkin frequently appears walking through the action. But Uchitel takes it several steps further. Sokurov’s protagonist, De Custine, who leads us through Russian Ark refuses to enter the 20th century – a central paradox in Russian Ark in that this film which represents a new direction for cinema, is unprepared to enter cinema’s century (1). Uchitel, on the other hand, embraces the youthful energy of the postmodern city, activating this particular city with dynamic camera movement more energetic than Russian Ark‘s considered classicism and expressing a spirit of freedom reminiscent of, for example, the early French New Wave. Uchitel’s work is growing in stature and Progulka is his most impressive achievement so far. His last film, Dnevnik yevo zheny (His Wife’s Diary) (2000) dealing with the life in exile of the writer Bunin, conveyed both the complications of the writer’s life as well as the complexities of exile in a biopic much better than most.

Progulka

Like Russian Ark, Progulka is made with a troupe of performers – not the classical Mariinsky performers of Sokurov’s film but a more experimental group, the Moscow-based Petr Fomenko Workshop. The beautiful Olya (Irina Pegova), steps out of a car in busy traffic and before long is chatted up by Alyosha (Pavel Barshak), who announces almost immediately that he’s in love with her. Their “stroll” through the streets is more like a gallop and all the while, the camera speeds along with them, their conversation as free and easy as is the camera movement. Olya’s mobile phone rings constantly and she keeps answering it, a device which brings into the narrative another layer or connection beyond the moment, suggesting that events are being directed from outside the frame (but within the narrative). Alyosha’s best friend, Petya (Yevgeny Tsyganov) soon enters into the emotional mix, but the character of St Petersburg is another key element of the energy which carries the film – and the audience – driving the spirited movement through the invigorated city in summer. The film reminds us most notably of Danieliya’s emblematic Thaw-era film, Ya Shagayu po Moskve (I Walk Through Moscow) (1963) – starring Nikita Mikhalkov in one of his first acting roles. By coincidence, Uchitel won the Nikita Mikhalkov Award for Best Young Talent for Progulka in 2003 and Irina Pegova’s performance gained her a Best Actress Award at the Russian National Academy of Cinematography Awards.

If Progulka is firmly located in the present, Russian filmmakers have by no means abandoned the past, which still remains principal territory for a virtually inexhaustible cinematic mining operation. The festival’s opening night film, Bednyi, Bednyi Pavel, directed by Vitali Mel’nikov, is based on a 1908 novel by Symbolist poet and philosopher, Dmitri Merezhkovsky about the reign of the unfortunate Czar Paul I, Catherine the Great’s son and successor. Pavel is crowned in 1796 after Catherine’s sudden death and assassinated in 1801, by officers, many of whom would later become the Decembrists, at the end of the reign of Alexander I – Pavel’s son and successor. Key conspirator in the events is Count Von Pahlen, played with manipulative menace by Oleg Yankovsky. Pavel (Viktor Sukhorukov) is portrayed as infantile and at the mercy of Von Pahlen’s control of politics in a world awash with republican sentiment in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Even members of the royal family are attracted to republicanism in this climate of modern ideas and Alexander – the eldest of Pavel’s ten children – is initially a vacillating liberal. Reluctant to become Czar, he fantasises unrealistically (under the circumstances) about abdication and the liberation of the serfs; in the end, though, he is persuaded to become monarch, announcing at his ascendancy – and with a force he has not previously manifested – that everything will be restored to order. The film conveys something of the complexity of kingship in this period, as modern statecraft challenges and displaces hereditary rule in Europe (though it ultimately takes longer in Russia). Impressively realised, the film follows Mel’nikov’s earlier forays into the territory of the eighteenth century and the topic of succession in Tsarskaya okhota (The Royal Hunt) (1990) about the pretender, Ekaterina Tarakanova, imprisoned by Catherine the Great and Tsarevich Aleksei (1996) about Peter the Great’s son, condemned to death for treason by his own father.

Bednyi, Bednyi Pavel ends with Von Pahlen leaving St Petersburg and welcoming the new century which has just begun, speculating on the 20th which will follow. Another shadow of Russian Ark here in this speculation on the future, which Von Pahlen, unlike de Custine, is happy to enter, as uncertain as he is of what will follow. Merezhkovsky, a social conservative and notable anti-Bolshevik believed that political emancipation had to be combined with spiritual and religious revival and although a Western audience might see in the film all the reasons why the Revolution eventually had to occur (the waste and mind-numbing boredom of court life, the necessity for reforms, etc) the film seems finally to support a neo-conservative longing for a Russian past, where spiritual values are paramount, as an alternative to Western secularity and political ideals.

Zvezda

Nikolai Lebedev’s Zvezda (Star) (2002) demonstrates that belief in a higher purpose also existed in the Stalin years – in this case the idea of personal sacrifice and commitment in the Great Patriotic War, suggesting that nobility and heroism are by no means restricted to aristocrats.. Although the war film is a staple of Stalinist cinema, and this one is based on another literary source (a Kazakevich short story, written in 1947), this film revives the history and spirit of national pride in a country where it has been lost in the transition to market capitalism with all the ugliness of this transition. In this film – and in Russia more generally – the Great Patriotic War has taken on the symbolic value which the Revolution once possessed – as a pure example of ideal struggle and victory, a claim which does not have to be maintained by ideology. The film – with sensational pyrotechnics – follows a team of scouts who go behind enemy lines in 1944 to observe German troop movements, reporting back to base by radio. Their code-name zvezda (star) locates them in an otherworldly place, beyond the earth (the code-name of their base is zemlya – earth) and there is an almost religious or saintly representation of the leader, Travkin (Igor Petrenko), who is loved by the young radio operator, Katya,(Yekaterina Vulichenko) but remains chastely untouchable in the manner of a typical Stalinist hero.

Although there may be shades of Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) in this film, there is an innocence in the characters here which could never be represented with any conviction in a Hollywood film today –making it an absorbing product of a national film industry where the past is still very much alive. The film is composed in the style of classical Socialist Realism: the Red Army are the only heroes here and the Germans are reduced to mere sculptural forms, most strikingly in a shot where we see the back of a German’s head wearing a helmet held in tightly framed close-up for much more time than the narrative requires. The film restores to memory the stories of soldiers who were often regarded as deserters in the late Stalin period – and more notably, promotes a new kind of positive hero, custom-made for the cultural revivalism of these Putin times.

In Vladimir Khotinenko’s 72 Metra (72 Metres) the military drama takes a dive into deep waters, in a submarine story, based on a novel by Alexander Pokrovsky made all the more powerful after the Kursk disaster. A box office success in Russia, with premiere screenings led by military band performances and audiences full of proudly worn medals pinned to puffed up chests, 72 Metra explores the camaraderie and rivalries of a nuclear submarine crew. Based on a novel by ex-submariner, Alexandr Pokrovsky, the film exceeds Zvezda in its positive hero quotient – although there is more spirit here, more ambivalence, and a little more life beyond the boat (the fantasy scenes in the permanent spring/summer of the Black Sea, in contrast to the permanent autumn/winter of the Barents Sea). On the release of K-19 (Kathryn Bigelow, 2002), depicting the 1961 Soviet submarine disaster, survivors objected to the insubordination and profane language of the Hollywood film – but there is plenty of profanity in 72 Metra, notwithstanding the incomprehensible subtitles.

72 Metra

Like the strongest works in the submarine sub-genre (for example, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot [1981] and Byung-chun Min’s Yuryeong [1999]), 72 Metra is mythic in its reach, taking us on a journey through the underworld, its claustrophobic interior revealing and transforming character, underlining – above all in this case – the clear distinction between civilian and military being. This distinction hinges on duty – the duty to defend the civilian, at the cost of self-sacrifice – and yet a kind of contempt for the civilian’s view of reality and relative weakness, both physically and morally. This conflict between military and civilian, between life’s meaning within and beyond the submarine is sustained throughout 72 Metra, supported by a haunting Ennio Morricone soundtrack and spectacular cinematography and special effects – one of the few examples of a strong story holding its own in the face of excessive spectacle. Khotinenko’s earlier work includes the well-regarded Musulmanin (The Moslem) (1995), about a Russian, who returns to his village, after having converted to Islam during military service in Afghanistan, encountering racism and, ultimately, tragedy.

The complexities of military/civilian being in Russia are made clearer in the contemporary “civilian’ films of the festival – Liubovnik (The Lover) (Todorovsky, 2002), S Liobov’yu, Lilya – (With Love, Lilya) (Sadilova, 2002) and Shik (The Suit) (Khudoinazarov, 2003), which are altogether bleaker in the social reality depicted and none of the characters are committed to any higher purpose than the everyday hope of survival. In only two of the contemporary films of the festival does the action revolve centrally around a woman – Progulka and S Liobov’yu, Lilya. In S Liobov’yu, Lilya, the heroine works in a gruesome chicken factory and dreams only of falling in love and marrying, and in Liubovnik the woman who is at the centre of the narrative dies at the beginning and we learn of her only through the relation between the men in her life – her husband, son and lover.

At the Cannes screening of Otets i syn (Father and Son) (2003) Sokurov strongly rejected the suggestion that the film is homoerotic, attributing the possibility of such a reading to dirty-minded Western decadence. Although such a literal reading is inescapable, there is, at the same time, nothing which can be thought of as realistic about this film; its cinematography (by Aleksandr Burov) distorts the human form, its sound design (by Sergei Moshkov) minimises voice, using silence (with emphasis on the sound of the breath) and the shooting location (in Lisbon) distances the narrative from a Russian setting, placing it in an imaginary space which belongs nowhere and from which Sokurov reflects on the nature of military and paternal authority which goes way beyond the incestuous relation of an individual father and son. It’s a profoundly cinematic vision – and yet Sokurov’s cinematic ambivalence is also present, as the work becomes more like painting and music than cinema. It is a discomforting film because of the troubling intimacy of the relation between the father and son. At one point the son asks the father, ‘Where is Mother?’ (“Gde Mama?”), seeming to castigate the father for the mother’s absence. This crucial question which lies at the heart of this film might be asked of almost all the contemporary films in this festival and it is also a deep question for a military culture in the process of reviving itself, seeking a meaningful civilian reality and renewed moral authority, acknowledging that patriarchal order on its own requires counterweight if human relationships are not to be distorted.

To commemorate the centenary of Chekhov’s death, the festival featured a program of films based on Chekhov plays or stories, providing a sample of Brezhnevian cinema – which is to say, the films are less cinematic and more theatrical, relying much more on language than image. The exceptions here were the two works by the Mikhailkov-Konchalovsky brothers, Neokonchennaia p’eca dlia mekhanicheskogo pianino (Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano) (Nikita Mikhailkov, 1977) and Dyadya Vanya (Uncle Vanya) (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1971). At least in Chekhov the position of women is central and the angst and boredom of bourgeois domestic life and frustrated hopes has a particular resonance in Australia today. Ironically it is in part thanks to Chekhov’s death that this Russian film festival took place, since the festival gained NSW Premier’s Department financial support for the festival because Bob Ellis, the Premier’s speechwriter is a fan of Chekhov. It was a pity then that a more contemporary film such as Kira Muratova’s Chekhovskie motivy (Chekhovian Motifs) (2002) was not included in the program.

The festival also revived two classics – Mikhail Kalatazov’s superb Thaw-era masterpiece, Letiat zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying) (1957) and Elem Klimov’s chilling early Glasnost work, Idi I smotri (Come and See) (1985). Both films provide historical perspective on contemporary Russian cinema, illustrating that the best new cinema does not arrive on the global scene, as if fully formed from the head of Zeus, but can only arise from filmmakers who have intimate acquaintance with their country’s history and culture alongside good formal training – proving yet again that no country can have a vibrant film culture if it fails to honour its own cinematic past.

This film festival is a welcome addition to local film culture, now that any systematic film studies has disappeared from Australian universities. Let’s hope that future programs might incorporate more contextualisation and debate around the films, as well as a wider and more adventurous range of Russian films – and not just festival prizewinners and box office successes (around 100 films a year are currently being made in Russia, making it a much richer source of new film than is acknowledged by local film distributors and exhibitors). Let’s also hope that the AFC, in its push for better Australian scripts, might think about bringing a few Russian scriptwriters to Australia to give us advice on how to tell our own stories, providing some kind of balance to the Hollywood script experts we always seem to get.

Endnotes

  1. For the best critical discussion of Russian Ark, see Dragan Kujundzic, “After ‘After’: The Arkive Fever of Alexander Sokurov”, Art Margins website, accessed September 2004.