998 (133). Tale of Tales (1979, Yuriy Norshteyn)

Screened February 8, 2010 on veoh (see embedded video after the break) TSPDT #992  IMDb Wiki


First off, I want to encourage everyone in New York City to take advantage of an opportunity that I will sorely miss: an in-person appearance (alternative link to event) by  Yuriy Norshteyn. This legendary 68-year old Russian animator rarely comes to the US; he may very well be traveling to raise funds for his first feature film The Overcoat, which he has been working on for nearly 30 years. In any case, please go in my place, as I will be on a flight to Berlin as he makes his appearance at the SVA Theater:

Monday, February 15: School of Visual Arts Theater (333 W. 23rd Street, between 8th/9th Ave.) This event is billed only as a Q&A so be aware that there may not be a screening. No price is indicated so I’m also assuming it’s free.

To be honest, I am a recent convert to Norstein, like, as of this week. He has been touted on this site before, as one of the 100 Most Important Directors of Animated Shorts, as voted on by my colleagues at IMDb. Still, when Tale of Tales appeared for the first time on the TSPDT 1000 upon its most recent update, I had never heard of the film, despite it being voted the greatest animated film of all time at polls conducted by two animation film festivals.

So I won't pretend to be an expert on this film when I've been acquainted with its filmmaker for all of a week, and when there is already a book length study by animation scholar Claire Kitson available, which I will seek out. I will only say that I've seen this half-hour masterpiece four times in four days, and it feels like it's stayed with me for four years. It's as if Norshteyn sat with these images all his life, drawing them with such lucidity and palpable depth of feeling, that they make even the untold hours of ingenuity and laborious craft behind Pixar films feel relatively disposable. It summons a concept of the fermented image: a vision that has stayed with a person for as long as they've been breathing, and perhaps beyond that, like the wolf that lurks throughout the film, a folkloric figure as old as Russian blood.


It's a vision that nurtures, like the suckling breast that satiates the infant who sees the wolf just as its eyes pull into sleep.


The whole film seems to be a drunken/lucid suckling of images, images that have nourished a lifetime of sublime melancholy and wonder, reflected in so much of what's on screen. And the way each image is rendered with a delicacy verging on dissolution conveys a yearning for that same image, as fragile as the decaying memorabilia of one's childhood:


or one's memory rendered through a ghostly gauze - such as these tangoing couples about to be severed by the War raging around them...


Another recurring motif feels slightly more contemporary (with sharper lines, brighter hues and more fashionable clothing), involving an apple-loving boy who fancies himself feeding crows in the tree boughs as his parents loiter on a bench below:



The film cycles through these visuals in such a way that the repetition invokes instant affection and nostalgia, as with films by Duras or Wong Kar-wai. The wolf figures as the protagonist, the only one who seems to traverse from one zone of memory to another, often by crossing through forests that at times give the only acknowledgment of late 20th century modernity:


But his experiences of the hopscotching bull, the dancing phantoms, even the snowbound family, are all mediated by some sort of illuminated threshold: an entrancing fire on the hearth, or light raptruously emanating from a doorway or from a manuscript, as if these visions are liminal states into which he is lulled repeatedly. But it still doesn't account for other images that seem to inhabit an interzone apart from the more sharply defined worlds, an eden blanketed in Tarkovskian dampness and mist:



And all these visuals still don't account for images that I didn't capture because they only make sense in motion: soldiers marching into a swallowing blackness; windows boarded up without hands or hammers; a pile of wood suddenly combusting; a tablecloth that seems to billow under the breezes of history. Or the sounds: a record skipping as men disappear from their lovers' embrace; the wolf blowing on his hands as he tries to handle a hot potato. And the lullaby that begins the film and tips the film's hand as a lullaby to all of us, whisking us to a world of beauty whose liquid lucidity can only exist in sleep, except when an artist is somehow able to extract these moments from a lifetime of dreaming. Again, it would be a privilege to meet such a person.


Watch Tale of Tales on Veoh

The following citations were counted towards the placement of Tale of Tales among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Doug Cummings, One-Line Review (2009) John Davies, One-Line Review (2009) Keith Griffiths, Time Out (1995) Annecy Festival, 100 Films for a Century of Animation (2006) Cinematheque Quebecoise, FIAF: Film History (1995) Film: The Critic's Choice, 150 Masterpieces of World Cinema-The Art of the Impossible (2001) Olympiad, The Champions of Animation (1984)


Despite its simple beauty, "Tale" was not made with children in mind. In the sequence imagining the huge losses Russia experienced in World War II, couples dance to the famous tango "Weary Sun." Every time the old record skips, one man disappears from the frame and then the women dance alone.

Norstein says "Tale of Tales" is a film about the way memory is conjured up. He says the role of the artist is to allow people to "experience life yet unlived. This is the most significant thing we can get from art."

Fans like to watch the film again and again. "I have seen it many times," says Yulia Zotova, 42, who attended the exhibit of Norstein's work in Moscow. " 'Tale of Tales' evokes these emotions in me. I've always been fascinated with the character Little Wolf because he's a symbol of wisdom and love. My impression is that spiritually we are searching for this wisdom and this love and we find it in his films."

In the last quarter of a century, the film has inspired filmmakers, animators and writers. In June 2002, the Zagreb International Animation Festival published the results of a poll of animators to establish the best animated film of all time. It was "Tale of Tales." A 1984 poll of animators came up with same result.

- Peter Finn, The Washington Post


Norstein’s initial script treatment for Tale of Tales was approved by the Soviets but he summarily dismissed it, producing a much more ambiguous and emotionally complex piece than was originally planned. Tale of Tales juxtaposes images of innocence and gaiety with images of war and vanishing soldiers, nostalgic visions of childhood with an alcoholic parent chugging a bottle of vodka. The Soviet film authorities, baffled by the film’s poetry, deemed it subversive for its lack of social realism, and demanded that Norstein make extensive changes. He refused, and luckily, had just been awarded a State honor that made it virtually impossible for the authorities to enforce their demands or suppress the work.

- Doug Cummings, Film Journey


Tale of Tales is laminated with enchantment. Layer by layer. A suckling baby is sung a lullaby, wooing it to sleep lest the little grey fox abduct him to take him into the scary woods where a green apple glows wet with rain.

The little grey fox is maligned. He is sweet, clever and curious. He flirts with himself in shiny hubcaps. The exhaust fumes of cars make him sneeze and his sneeze startles birds into flight. A hot potato burns his paws. A young girl jumps rope with a steer that, every now and then, likes to take its turn. A poet anguishes over what to envision, what to say. Women and men dance underneath a streetlight and each time the record skips another husband / father / son is lost to the ravages of war. A one-legged veteran plays a sad concertina. A fish floats in the sky catching the attention of an idle cat who, by caterwauling, teaches the poet how to orate. A boy imagines himself befriending winter birds on a tree limb above him. Is the baby dreaming all of this? Is this where the lullaby has taken him? Is this where it has taken us? Whimsical and poignant, Tale of Tales masterfully purveys a deep realm where images are deftly woven into feelings.

- Michael Guillen, The Evening Class


Like Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, figuring out a specific meaning for each scene is difficult if not impossible and useless. Norstein, like Tarkovsky a few years before him, is delving into his own memories and displaying the results (...) Thus, it could be said that the only one who truly understands Tale of Tales is Norstein. What keeps me from embracing this criticism is that, impermeability notwithstanding, I was constantly occupied with emotions and ideas throughout the film’s duration. Does it matter that I don’t understand every scene? Am I supposed to? I don’t think so. This film is going more for rhythms and moods, different drawing styles alternating between each other, each suggesting a different reality: there’s the parent storyline of the little wolf; there’s the poignant visual poem about the effects of wartime on civilians; there’s the aside to the apple-loving boy and his alcoholic father; and finally there’s that bit with minotaurs, jumping ropes, and harps. These sections weave together and combine. Memory and dreams emerge from the fantasy of the little wolf. We navigate each reality, notice melancholy patterns: departures, time lapses, destruction, burning, death, and other natural cycles. Free association takes us to random places, but there seems to be a structure, an emotional core. I have only seen Tale of Tales once. These kinds of films have a way of being new with every return. You find currents and threads that had been invisible during the introductory voyage.

- Elevator to Alphaville


Voted as the best animated film of all time by animators and critics at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales, is a personal, and often profound, statement of atavistic recollection. Norstein uses the animated form to recall primal and ancestral sources of human feeling and experience. Fusing folk-tale, memory and personal symbolism, Norstein achieves associative relations which move beyond the realms of standard representations of time and space, privileging the psychological and emotional as the focusing agents in relating images, rather than using orthodox modes of story-telling. As Norstein himself suggests, 'The sanctity of the image, or rather its construction, seems to move in gradually from all sides; the elements that coagulate create the image'.

Whilst the workings of an artist like Norstein may, in the first instance, seem impenetrable to the viewer, it is important to recognize that such methodologies foreground the idea of image-making as a tension between conscious and unconscious experience. This may be understood as a process which accepts and includes images which emerge from a number of sources and which seem at first to have no particular relationship. Further, such images, whether they are perceived constructions of real physical space, fragmentary recollections of dreams, half-remembered visions, hallucinations and fantasies, or pictures without past or purpose conjured in the mind, are not forced into a coherent story, though they do possess their own narrative which informs the relational conception of the film. The images possess an ontological equivalence, and in being valued as equally valid and important whatever their source, occupy a narrative space which refuses to categorise any one character or event as its presiding or dominant element. Tale of Tales refuses all obvious signposts of plot, preferring instead a system of leitmotifs, recurring images that play out their own subtle differences and developments as part of a wider scheme of recollection. It may be useful to stress that Norstein's work is recollection; a gathering of images which define the psyche and the act of memory as an act of creativity. As Mikhail Yampolsky has noted, 'What confronts us is not simply a film about memory, but a film built like memory itself, which imitates in its spatial composition the structural texture of our consciousness.'

Animation is especially suited to the process of associative linking, both as a methodology by which to create image systems, and as a mechanism by which to understand them. Understanding these images only comes from an active participation in the images as the repository of meaning in their own right, and not necessarily, in direct connection to other images. Norstein and Tarkovsky create works which ultimately require the viewer to empathise as well as analyse, and this dimension of feeling - what Norstein calls the 'spinal cord' of emotional recognition - is the quality which lyricises the image. The 'deductions' that are made possible by this kind of involvement are those which relate the personal to the universal. Norstein essentially engages with his childhood during the war, and through the accumulation of the everyday details and events (real and imagined) of his past life, given special emphasis by the selectivity of memory, he creates a text which elevates the expression of the psyche's own sense of history to the level of poetic insight and spiritual epiphany.

- Paul Wells, Understanding Animation. Routledge, 1998. Pages 93, 94

Widely acclaimed as the best animated film of all time, Tale of Tales is a poetic amalgam of Yuri Norstein's memories of his past and hopes and fears for the future: his post-war childhood, remnants of the personal tragedies of war, the little wolf character in the lullaby his mother used to sing, the neighbors in his crowded communal flat, the tango played in the park on summer evenings, and the small working-class boy's longing to emerge from the dark central corridor of the kommunalka into a luminous world of art and poetry. In Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: An Animator's Journey, Clare Kitson examines the passage of these motifs into the film and delves into later influences that also affected its genesis. More than merely a study of one animated film or a biography of its creator, Kitson's investigation encompasses the Soviet culture from which this landmark film emerged and sheds light on creative influences that shaped the work of this acclaimed filmmaker.

- From jacket description of Yuri Norstein and Tale of Tales: an Animator's Journey, by Claire Kitson. University of Indiana Press, 2005



IMDb Wiki

Yuri Norstein, who has been working for years under the veteran Russian animator Ivan Ivanov-Vano, has emerged as one of the world's leading animators. His film, The Tale of Tales , was considered the most artistic production to come out of Eastern Europe in years. The success of this film, as well as others such as Hedgehog in the Mist The Vixen and the Hare , and The Heron and the Crane , is due to his unique style of multidimensional figures and backgrounds that have depth, roundness, and shading, giving a visual quality to his scenes seldom seen in other films. His humor is full of human observation, contrasting emotion over a broad scale from gaiety and laughter to sadness and disappointment. The fact that these moods are happening to animals and birds with their own particular environment provides an element of magic, and once again proves that the art of animation can bridge the biological barrier between human and animal worlds.

Norstein considers animation to be a new field of art, but underestimated, its artistic plasticity and social significance not having been explored so far. According to him its principles are taken from life, avoiding a documentary approach in describing a social situation. Aristotle said, "art, above all teachers, allows people to enjoy life." This principle still holds. Norstein takes his own material from an ordinary situation and develops it in his own particular way. His material consists of human emotions: joy, tears, love, and all levels of emotion within the experiences of life. Norstein, apart from being a filmmaker, is also a good painter and brilliant illustrator, which explains the high visual quality of his backgrounds and the expressions of his characters. He has a close relationship with his young children and closely considers their reactions before making a film. He thinks that only those who understand children's psychology should make a film for them. If one has sympathy with them and can play with them, one is able to look at the world through their minds and eyes.

On the question of visual quality, he thinks that animated film directors should be interested in fine arts, especially painting, since films have a dual objective: the creation of a new and original setting and a defined dramatic action within the setting. The spectator should be able to adapt to such a background and participate in the film on the terms present in the subject. Norstein recognizes that a film is composed of various elements. It contains myth, fantasy, cosmographic ideas, sound, absolute realism, and naturalism. The combined quality of these elements could be of great value, lifting animation above all other media, but so far he has not seen any film, short or long, able to make full use of such total potentialities. He holds that a feature-length film should not only tell a story but present the richness of human life, make full use of the specific properties of animation, and look for its own way of development.

John Halas, Film Reference.com

Norstein was born during World War II and spent his childhood in the northern suburbs of Moscow. Though Stalin’s reign of terror softened a bit in the postwar era, anti-Semitism and intense cultural control remained, constraining the young Norstein on many occasions. Luckily, his entry to adulthood coincided with the Soviet Thaw during the more liberal Khrushchev era of the late-’50s, which saw an influx of foreign art and an openness to experimentation. Films such as The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Ballad of a Soldier (1959), and Destiny of a Man (1959) were being produced which invigorated the cinematic milieu. (Unfortunately, history would reverse this opportunity when Russian resources dried up duringglasnost at the height of Norstein’s acclaim; he’s still trying to finish The Overcoat, a film he began in 1981 with his wife and longtime collaborator, Francesca Yarbusova.)

Norstein studied at the Soyuzmultfilm animation studio, which began producing a small but sophisticated body of work that appealed to adults as well as children in the ’60s. For years, he worked as an unassuming animator until he began directing his own films during the less-hospitable Brezhnev era of the ’70s, known for banning art and artists that weren’t deemed properly Social Realist. “In one word,” Norstein says, “[the era] was stuffy. We didn’t have enough air. But the strange thing is that when a lot of things outside you are closed off, you go inside yourself and find the freedom you need.” Norstein developed a highly complex and nuanced style of multiplane animation using paper cutouts on layers of glass; it produced the internationally venerated works The Fox and the Hare(1973), The Heron and the Crane (1974), and Hedgehog in the Fog (1975). (All of these films are available on DVD in the Masters of Russian Animation series.)

Glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union kept Norstein out-of-work for many years, but he was finally able to travel, and has spent the last couple decades lecturing and attending tributes to his career. He also continues producing The Overcoat (his first full-length feature) and occasionally provides short pieces for commercials and title sequences for Russian and Japanese television. Fervently in love with his homeland, Norstein has rejected several international offers to finish The Overcoat abroad, choosing instead to develop the film little by little, year after year, in the country of his birth. Let us hope the film materializes fully formed one day soon.

- Doug Cummings, Film Journey

See also Cummings' report of Norstein's visit and talk at the University of Southern Calfornia, Los Angeles

The nerve center of Norstein's life -- both as a filmmaker and as the husband of artist and collaborator Francesca Yarbusova -- is their studio. Drawings of little gray men scratching backs, scratching noses and picking up spoons cover the walls. Yarbusova draws the figures and imbues them with a haunting beauty and sense of loss.

"We are tied together and we are interdependent," Norstein says, sitting in his merrily cluttered kitchen, the walls covered with photos, sketches, an icon, bric-a-brac and shelving spilling over with videos. "I draw all the compositions, but this is the dry soil which must then be filled with feeling. We have scandals and rows. But now her work is on display and she says to me, 'It is all you -- you were guiding me.' "

"Francesca participates in the movies as much as Norstein," Bossart says. "The two of them are one artist. He couldn't exist without her."

- Peter Finn, The Washington Post

992 (124). V lyudyakh / My Apprenticeship (1939, Mark Donskoi)

Screened December 13 2009 on NYFA VHS (courtesy of the NYU Library) in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #910  IMDb

In the second installment of Mark Donskoi's coming-of-age trilogy, based on Maxim Gorky's childhood memoirs, teenage Maxim emerges from the ashes of his family's destitution, as chronicled in The Childhood of Maxim Gorky. Searching for a trade to apply himself, Gorky is repeatedly sabotaged by petty folk entrenched in each establishment he enters. Whereas Childhood held a quietly romanticized view of the masses suffering under the petty tyranny of pre-Revolutionary feudalism, My Apprenticeship shows the underclass exploiting each other.

These films are saddled with a Socialist Realist agenda that threatens to reduce each scene to a civics parable, denying it of the pulsing lyricism of that other landmark childhood film trilogy, Satyajit Ray's Apu films. But there's a strong humanist countercurrent that takes the film beyond mere didacticism. At its best moments the film resists the easy Soviet stereotyping of characters into desirable and undesirable social types. The most memorable characters engage with Maxim over books and ruminations about their waylaid ambitions; paradoxically, it is in relaxed conversational stasis, not in reform or production, that this Marxist propaganda film envisions a state of human fulfillment. The way Donskoi deploys music to freeze time and saturate a moment with lyrical pathos anticipates what John Ford would start doing around the same period. The ultimate motif is that of the Volga River, upon which the film stages more than a few knockout moments of wordless beauty. Its gentle, constant flow evokes a grace that transcends the turmoils and conflicts, grand or small, inflicted by humans upon each other throughout time.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of My Apprenticeship among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Derek Hill, Sight & Sound (1962) Dwight MacDonald, Sight & Sound (1962) Gilles Jacob, Sight & Sound (2002) Jean Queval, Sight & Sound (1962) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

Donskoi's Gorki Trilogy, completed by My Apprenticeship (1939, 98 min, b/w) and My Universities (1940, 104 min, b/w) is still widely revered as one of the all-time humanist classics, and it's true that the films' expert balance between guileless simplicity and rustic myth-making (seen to best advantage in Childhood) does give them a quality not often found outside the work of John Ford. But it's interesting to note that Donskoi's direction couldn't lie further from the mainstream of Russian film culture. Not only is he not very concerned about montage, but his concern with the lyricism of individual images leads him to neglect continuity of almost any sort: at one level, the films play like an anthology of continuity errors. That said, though, all three films do contain images of great strength in the Dovzhenko tradition. And Donskoi's handling of his actors (always encouraging them to play up to emotion, never shy of excess or sentimentality) certainly has the courage of its convictions.

- Time Out Film Guide

A director with a similar approach to that of Pudovkin, and one who probably owes him a good deal, is Mark Donskoi who, on the strength of the Gorky Trilogy alone, must be rated as one of the world's truly great film-makers. The trilogy consists of The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938), MY APPRENTICESHIP (1939) - also known as Out in the World or Among People - and My Universities (1940). The first two, which were produced at the Children's Film Studio, are in fact one very big film split into two. The third, dealing as it does with Gorky's early manhood, differs in a number of respects from the other two, although the production team (Pyotr Ermolov, camera - I. Stepanov, art direction - Lev Schwartz, music) remains the same throughout. But the whole trilogy is a remarkable achievement in its solving of the problem of putting an autobiography, and a very famous one at that, onto the screen. The great quality of the Trilogy is that it contains no ideological 'types'. Donskoi, with Gorky, shows that it is not only wicked to be wicked: it is also sad.

The first two parts are in fact dominated by Gorky's grand-parents - the man vain, stupid, brutal and hysterical, the woman an image of eternal simplicity, instinctively understanding what life is, and able to describe it as beautiful even in the moment of her greatest suffering. The playing of these two characters, by Mark Troyanovski and Varvara Massalitinova, is a rare privilege to observe. Thanks to the grandfather's frenzied stupidity the family goes into a steady decline; and against this movement towards poverty and destitution the boy Gorky reacts, constantly seeking escape, seeking above all the rescue which can come from education.

It is this conflict between Maxim's ambition and the fatal course of events in which it is so nearly submerged that dominates Donskoi's construction of the films. He takes a series of episodes and treats them in one of two ways, either elaborating them into long and carefully-built sequences (and these form the backbone of the work) or, in contrast, using an extraordinary filmic shorthand which makes a momentary but extremely cogent impact - such as the extreme long shot in which a young apprentice falls and is crushed by the huge Cross he is carrying; in this single shot resides most of the history of Russia.

To all this, and especially in the first two parts, he adds the domination of the 'majestic river', the great Volga, with its constant traffic and its din of ships' sirens which, even more than Lev Schwartz's admirable music, becomes the theme-song. Over and over again Donskoi brings his characters to the banks of the Volga for scenes of great import; and there are too the episodes on the river itself. In one, where the boy Maxim is a dishwasher on a Volga steamer, the cook, an immensely fat and sentimental character, sits entranced as the boy reads Taras Bulba aloud to him while a sneakthief waiter throws the recently washed glasses back into the swill.

In another the desire of man for the simple dignity of a job is superbly shown in a long sequence where the down-and-outs get unexpected employment in unloading sacks of grain from a sinking barge. It is raining in torrents, but as they work on (in a passage remarkable for the rhythm of its cutting) a watery sun breaks through the clouds, and they salute it with the dignity and pride with which mythological heroes of past times might have saluted the Sun God in his chariot.

The immense richness of episode and detail in The Childhood of Maxim Gorky and MY APPRENTICESHIP is saved from chaos by the characters of the grandparents and by the images of the Volga. As MY APPRENTICESHIP ends, all these elements are brought together. Young Gorky is leaving, and as the huge paddlesteamer pulls away from the jetty the grandfather, senile, childish, petulant, turns away; but grandma, with a smile of infinite sweetness, waves gently to the departing Maxim and says, '1 shall never see you again'. Massalitinova here is sublime.

- Basil Wright, The Long View, Secker & Warburg 1974, cited on the Wellington Film Society website

Totalitarianism survives through its ability to insinuate itself into people's consciousness from the earliest age, which is why the 1920s saw so many changes to Soviet school curricula, and why, in the 1930s, the studio earmarked for the production of films for children enjoyed generous funding. Donskoi signalled the propagandistic importance of Gor'kii's trilogy by producing his adaptations in the Souiuzdetfilm studios, whose pedagogical remit readily accommodated tasks such as that of making accessible the achievements of a canonic Soviet writer to a new generation, and of paying tribute to an icon of Stalinist culture...

The acute self-awareness of the adult hero in My Apprenticeship represents a considerable challenge to the Stalinist film-maker... The director cannot ignore the book's central episode: the aborted suicide attempt ensuing from Peshkov's sense of desolation about his inability to engage with his fellow men. Yet the theme of suicide hardly befits a socialist realist legend. Unsurprisingly, Donskoi resorts to the use of intertitles, condensing Gor'kii's drawn-out account of Peshkov's despair at being unable to defend the students into the terse understatement: 'He was seized by a feeling of personal inadequacy', followed by words suggesting that the prime reason for the hero's suicide attempt was political. For this is the voice not of the mature Gor'kii, but of Stalinist ideology in which despair has no place.

- Stephen C. Hutchings, Russian Literary Culture in the Camera Age: The Word as Image. Published by Routledge, 2004. Pages 102, 108


Mark Donskoi may not be as familiar to Western audiences as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, or Dovzhenko; his films are in no way as readily recalled as Battleship Potemkin, Mother, or Earth. Like other Soviet filmmakers, he propagandizes about the glories of the Bolshevik Revolution and highlights the life of Lenin. But Donskoi's great and unique contribution to Russian cinema is his adaption to the screen of Maxim Gorki's autobiographical trilogy: The Childhood of Gorki, My Apprenticeship, and My Universities, all based on the early life of the famed writer and shot during the late 1930s. (Years later, Donskoi adapted two other Gorki works, Mother—the same story filmed by Pudovkin in 1926—and Foma Gordeyev.)

In the trilogy, Donskoi chronicles the life of Gorki from childhood on, focusing on the experiences which alter his view of the world. At their best, these films are original and pleasing: the first presents a comprehensive and richly detailed view of rural life in Russia during the 1870s. While delineating the dreams of nineteenth-century Russian youth, Donskoi lovingly recreates the era. The characters are presented in terms of their conventional ambitions and relationships within the family structure. They are not revolutionaries, but rather farmers and other provincials with plump bodies and commonplace faces. The result is a very special sense of familiarity, of fidelity to a time and place. Of course, villains in Gorki's childhood are not innately evil, but products of a repressive czarist society. They are thus compassionately viewed. Donskoi pictures the Russian countryside with imagination, and sometimes even with grandeur.

Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com



Wikipedia entry

Russian short story writer, novelist, autobiographer and essayist, whose life was deeply interwoven with the tumultuous revolutionary period of his own country. Gorky ended his long career as the preeminent spokesman for culture under the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin. Gorky formulated the central principles of Socialist Realism, which became doctrine in Soviet literature. The rough, socially conscious naturalism of Gorky was described by Chekhov as "a destroyer bound to destroy everything that deserved destruction."

"The long files of dock labourers carrying on their backs hundreds of tons of grain to fill the iron bellies of the ships in order that they themselves might earn a few pounds of this grain to fill their own stomachs, looked so droll that they brought tears to one's eyes. The contrast between these tattered, perspiring men, benumbed with weariness, turmoil and heat, and the mighty machines glistening in the sun, the machines which these men had made, and which, after all is said and done, were set in motion not by steam, but by the blood and sinew of those who had created them - this contrast constituted an entire poem of cruel irony." (from 'Chelkash', 1895, trans. by J. Fineberg) Aleksei Peshkov (Maksim Gorky, also written Maksim Gor'kii) was born in Nizhnii Novgorod, the son of a journeyman upholster. Later the ancient city was named 'Gorky' in his honour, and in Moscow one of the leading thoroughfares was named Gorky Street. Gorky lost his parents at an early age - his father died of cholera and his mother died of tuberculosis. The scene of his mother, wailing and mourning over her dead husband, opens his book of memoir, My Childhood: "All her clothes were torn. Her hair, which was usually neatly combined into place like a large gray hat, was scattered over her bare shoulders, and hung over her face, and some of it, in the form of a large plait, dangled about, touching Father's sleeping face. For all the time I'd been standing in that room, not once did she so much as look at me, but just went on combing Father's hair, choking with tears and howling continually."

Orphaned at the age of 11, he experienced the deprivations of a poverty. The most important person in Gorky's life in those years was his grandmother, whose fondness for literature and compassion for the downtrodden influenced him deeply. Otherwise his relationships to his family members were strained, even violent. Gorky stabbed his stepfather, who regularly beat him. Gorky received little education but he was endowed with an astonishing memory. He left home at the age of 12, and followed from one profession to another. On a Volga steamer, he learned to read. In 1883 he was a worker in a biscuit factory, then a porter, baker's boy, fruit seller, railway employee, clerk to an advocate, and in 1891 an operative in a salt mill. Later Gorky used later material from his wandering years in his books. In 1884 he failed to enter Kazan University, and in the late 1880s he was arrested for revolutionary activities. At the age of 19 he attempted suicide but survived when the bullet missed his heart.

After travels through Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Crimea Tiflis (late Tbilisi), Gorky published his first literary work, 'Makar Chudra' (1892), a short story. 'Chelkash', the story of a harbour thief, gained an immediate success. He started to write for newspapers, and his first book, the 3-volume Sketches and Stories (1898-1899), established his reputation as a writer. Gorky wrote with sympathy and optimism about the gypsies, hobos, and down-and-outs. He also started to analyze more deeply the plight of these people in a broad, social context. In these early stories Gorky skillfully mixed romantic exoticism and realism. Occasionally he glorified the rebels among his outcasts of Russian society. In his early writing career Gorky became friends with Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, and Vladimir Lenin. Encouraged by Chekhov, he composed his most famous play, The Lower Depths (1902), which took much of the material from his short stories. It was performed at the Moscow Art Theater under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. The Lower Depths enjoyed a huge success, and was soon played in Western Europe and the United States.

Gorky was literary editor of Zhizn from 1899 and editor of Znanie publishing house in St. Petersburg from 1900. Foma Gordeyev (1899), his first novel, dealt with the new merchat class in Russia. The short story Dvadsat' shest' i odna (1899, Twenty-Six Men and a Girl) was about lost ideals. "There were twenty-six of us - twenty-six living machines locked in a damp basement where, from dawn to dusk, we kneaded dough for making into biscuits and pretzels. The window of our basement looked out onto a ditch dug in front of them and lined with brick that was green from damp; the windows were covered outside in fine wire netting and sunlight could not reach us through the flour-covered panes. Our boss had put the wire netting there so we could not give hand-outs of his bread to beggars or those comrades of ours who were without work and starving." (from 'Twenty-Six Men and a Girl', 1899) The joy in the lives of the bakers is the 16-year old Tania, who works in the same building. A handsome ex-soldier, one of the master bakers, boasts of his success with women. He is challenged to seduce Tania. When Tania succumbs, she is mocked by the men, who have lost the only bright spot in the darkness. Tania curses them and walks away, and is never again seen in the basement.

Gorky became involved in a secret printing press and was temporarily exiled to Arzamas, central Russia in 1902. In the same year he was elected to the Russian Academy, but election was declared invalid by the government and several members of the Academy resigned in protest. Because of his political activism, Gorky was constantly in trouble with the tsarists authorities. He joined the Social Democratic party's left wing, headed by Lenin. To raise money to Russian revolutionaries, Gorky went to the United States in 1906. However, he was compelled to leave his hotel, not because of his political opinions, but because he traveled with Mlle. Andreieva, with whom he was not legally married. At that time, he had not obtained divorce from his first wife, Ekaterina Pavlovna, with whom he had two children. The American author Mark Twain expressed his support to Gorky at a dinner party, saying, "My sympathies are with the Russian revolution, of course."

In 1906 Gorky settled in Capri. Lenin visited his villa in 1908, he fished there and played chess, becoming childishly angry when he lost a game. Gorky was disgusted by Lenin's smug Marxism and after reading only a few pages from his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism he threw it on the wall. In the controversial novel The Confession (1908), which rapidly fell after the Revolution into relative obscurity, Gorky coined the term "God-building", by which he combined religion with Marxism.

During his ill-fated mission to America to raise funds for the Bolshevik cause, Gorky wrote in the Adirondack Mountains greater part of his classic novel, The Mother, which appeared in 1906-1907. Its heroine, Pelageia Nilovna, adopts the cause of socialism in a religious spirit after her son's arrest as a political activist. Pelageia's husband is a drunkard and her only consolation is her religious faith. Pelageia's husband dies, and her son Pavel changes from a thug to socialist role model and starts to bring his revolutionary friends to the house. Pavel is arrested on May day for carrying a forbidden banner. While continuing to believe in Christ's words, she joins revolutionaries, and is betrayed by a police spy. Gorky based her character on a real person, Anna Zalomova, who had travelled the country distributing revolutionary pamphlets after her son had been arrested during a demonstration. The novel, considered the pioneer of socialist realism, was later dramatized by Bertolt Brecht.

In 1913 Gorky returned to Russia, and helped to found the first Workers' and Peasants' University, the Petrograd Theater, and the World Literature Publishing House. The first part of his acclaimed autobiographical trilogy, My Childhood, appeared in 1913-14. It was followed by In the World (1916), and My Universities (1922), which was written in a different style. In these works the author looked through the observant eyes of Alyosha Peshkov his development and life in a Volga River town. When the war broke out, Gorky ridiculed the enthusiastic atmosphere and broke off all relations with his adopted son, Zinovy Peshkov, who joined the army.

First the author also rejected Lenin's hard-line policy, defending the Petrograd intelligentsia. "Lenin's power arrests and imprisons everyone who does not share his ideas, as the Romanovs' power used to do," he wrote in November of 1917. After Russian revolution Gorky enjoyed protected status, although in 1918 his protests against Bolsheviks dictatorial methods were silenced by Lenin's order. Gorky's memoir of Lev Tolstoy (1919) painted nearly a merciless portrait of the great writer.

When Anna Akhmatova's former husband Nikolai Gumilyov was arrested in 1921, Gorky rushed to Moscow to ask Lenin for a pardon for his old friend. However, Gumilyov had been shot without trial.

Dissatisfaction with the communist regime and its treatment of intellectuals lead to his voluntary exile during the 1920s. "To an old man any place that's warm is homeland," Gorky once wrote. He spent three years at various German and Czech spas, and was editor of Dialogue in Berlin (1923-25). On Capri in the 1920s Gorky wrote his best novel, The Artamov Business (1925), dealing with three generations of a pre-revolutionary merchant family. Gorky's essay 'V.I.Lenin' was written immediately after Lenin's death. The author expressed his great admiration for the Revolution leader and gave a lively account of their discussions in Paris and Capri. "You're an enigma," he once said to me with a chuckle. "You seem to be a good realist in literature, but a romantic where people are concerned. You think everybody is a victim of history, don't you? We know history and we say to the sacrificial victims; 'overthrow the altars, shatter the temples, and drive the gods out!' Yet you would like to convince me that a militant party of the working class is obliged to make the intellectuals comfortable, first and foremost."

In 1924-25 Gorky lived in Sorrento, but persuaded by Stalin, he returned in 1931 to Russia. He founded a number of journals and became head of the Writers' Union - his photograph in the congress hall was nearly as large as Stalin's. Gorky's speech at The First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1935 established the doctrine of socialist realism.

Although Gorky criticized the bureaucracy of the Writers' Union, but nothing changed. All the proposals of the congress were very soon buried when the Great Terror started. Writers were shot and Stalin showed personal interest in the activities of writers. Gorky's actions and statements before and after his return to Russia are controversial. When the poet Anna Akhmatova and many writers asked Gorky to help Nikolai Gumilev, a celebrated poet and Akhmatova's first husband, Gorky apparently did nothing to save him from execution.

Gorky died suddenly of pneumonia in his country home, dacha, near Moscow on June 18, 1936. In some source the cause of death was said to be heart desease. The author was buried in the Red Square and Stalin started earnest his Show Trials. Rumors have lived ever since that he may have been assassinated on Joseph Stalin orders. Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin's secret police chief during the great purges of 1936-38, made a "confession" at his own trial in 1938, that he had ordered Gorky's death. According to another rumor, Gorky had been administered 'heart stimulants in large quantities', and the ultimate culprits were 'Rightists and Trotskyites'. The murder of Gorky's son in 1934 was seen as an attempt to break the father. However, when the KGB literary archives were opened in the 1990s, not much evidence was found to support the wildest theories. Stalin visited the writer twice during his last illness. The most probable conclusion is that Gorky's death was natural.

As an essayist Gorky dealt with wide range of subjects. His underlying theme is a passionate humanistic message and political commitment to bolshevism. In Notes on the Bourgeois Mentality he accuses the bourgeoisie of self-absorption and concern only with its own comfort. On the Russian Peasantry sees peasants as resistant to the new social order. City of the Yellow Devil, written in New York, condemns American capitalism. On the other hand, Gorky early opposed Bolsheviks, criticizing their use of violence against their fellow men. Among Gorky's important essays are biographical sketches of such writers as Tolstoy, Leonid Andreev and Anton Chechov.

- Books and Writers

978 (110). Oci ciornie / Dark Eyes (1987, Nikita Mikhalkov)

Screened July 13 2009 on a DVD burned from a digital file created from a dub of an out-of-print VHS rented from the now defunct Kim's Video, in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #964 IMDb Wiki


Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with a Dog" is arguably my all time favorite short story. It's so many beautiful things at once. Descriptions as light and delicate as snowflakes are combined with a hearty narration that's both impassive yet empathetic. In a half-hour's reading time you marvel in a symphony of moods: melancholy, sarcasm, infatuation, disdain, lust, hope, despair, and finally a sense of love that's as helpless as it's hopeful. Josef Heifetz made a masterful Soviet film adaptation 50 years ago, but I would love to see another version - possibly even set to contemporary times, since Chekhov's brilliant diagnosis of the social circumstances that breed love can be applied practically anyplace and anywhere. I'd certainly welcome such an effort over Nikita Mikhalkov's supersized and superficial international prestige parade, a film so bombastic and unsubtle that it's everything Chekhov isn't.

For one thing, it stitches "The Lady with a Dog" with elements of three other Chekhov stories, forming a gargantuan picaresque whose sprawl undermines the intimacy that's a Chekhov lynchpin. (Compare to what Robert Altman does with Raymond Carver's stories in Short Cuts, which builds its landscape on carefully observed moments and interactions within each scene.)  This romp through 19th century Russia is driven by Marcello Mastroianni in a shamefully hammy performance, leveraging his brand name charisma with broad gestures and slapstick.

Setting the non-Chekhov objection aside, the film could fit within the other Mikhalkov films I've seen (A Slave of Love; Burnt by the Sun) as another runaway dream of what Russia was, is and could be. It easily courts and exploits nostalgia, though not without some  tweaking of those impulses. I can't say I appreciate the stylistic idiom Mikahlkov chooses to explore his ideas, such as his characteristic warm orange hues that seem to swaddle viewers in a giant fuzzy blanket of period splendor. The film struggles to establish its position with Mastroianni: it obviously wants to skewer his Italian playboy's narrow, over-romanticizing regard towards his adopted Russian homeland, but at the same time it obviously wants to capitalize on Mastroianni's charm, playing up his goofy charm, which muddles its critical program. Finally, when the film gyrates through a trifecta of 11th hour ironic whammies, it feels like a cheap, desperate bid for profundity, to whack the viewer into a metaphysical contemplative stupor lest they were having too much fun. Chekhov be having none of that.





The following citations were counted towards the placement of Dark Eyes among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Barbara Schweizerhof, Steadycam (2007) Harlan Jacobson, Steadycam (2007) Ingmar Bergman Paul Lee, PopcornQ (1997) Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005) New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)


Dark Eyes" tells one of those stories where you think you know everything, but you do not, and at the end of the story you know that everyone is very unhappy but you cannot see precisely what they should have done differently. The movie is based on stories by Anton Chekhov and has been directed by a Russian, Nikita Mikhalkov, who is not afraid of large romantic gestures and tragic coincidences. You realize after awhile that it doesn't matter that Mastroianni can do nothing, that his tragedy is in the past; the telling of the story is the whole point, and he travels the world with his sad tale, telling it probably again and again, for the whole importance of his life has been reduced to his great loss.

This is a beautiful film, lavishly shot on location at Italian and Russian spas and in great houses. The 19th century period is important, not simply because it recalls a time before telephones (which could have solved the whole tragedy), but because it recalls a state of mind before telephones (a time when people did not much believe in easy solutions). The movie is intriguing because of its moral complexity. After it's over, you find yourself asking hard questions about who did right and who did wrong, and you're confronted with the ironic possibility that maybe it didn't matter, that maybe everyone was doomed from the start. The ending of this film is a real stunner. If you see "Dark Eyes," ask yourself this question afterward: How would it have felt if the movie had provided what we anticipate will be the last scene, but isn't? Would it have been simply corny? Or too heartbreaking to be endured?

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, November 20, 1987


NIKITA MIKHALKOV'S ''Dark Eyes,'' tonight's convivial opening attraction of the 25th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, is both enchanting and enchanted, a triumph composed of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions.

Though it's about a man with the soul of an artist and the manner of a buffoon, about the man's abandoned aspirations and doomed love affairs, as well as about the heedless follies of the new European bourgeoisie, ''Dark Eyes'' is consistently exhilarating. In the steadfast resolve of a fellow who's an utter failure, it dramatizes a truly Chekhovian concept of comedy.

Mr. Mastroianni's remarkable performance, both heartbreaking and farcical, sets the tone for ''Dark Eyes,'' whose emotional landscape is as broad and rich as its physical terrain. The screenplay, by Alexander Adabachian and Mr. Mikhalkov ''with the collaboration of Suso Cecchi D'Amico,'' makes astonishingly successful and intelligent use of the Chekhov material. Mr. Mikhalkov and his collaborators have folded key elements from ''The Name-Day Party'' into ''The Lady With the Little Dog,'' borrowing from another tale, ''Anna Around the Neck,'' for the substance of Anna's character, and taking inspiration from ''My Wife'' to arrive at their own conclusion.

Occasionally (especially in the spa sequences) Mr. Mikhalkov's vision appears to have been unduly influenced by the style of Federico Fellini, possibly because the orchestrations make Francis Lai's soundtrack score sound uncomfortably like one by Nino Rota. There also are times when the lip-synching of the Italian dialogue is off. These are minor reservations. That the film is the work of a singular, very Russian artist, a man with a profound appreciation for his sources, is apparent throughout, from the indolent luxury of the great party scene until the final, elegant shot of the beloved Anna.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, September 25, 1987


Mikhalkov's adaptation of several of Chekhov's short stories makes for bland viewing indeed. Mastroianni is in fine form as the fickle, philandering and finally irritatingly spineless Romano, a wealthy Italian whose dismay at the imminent bankruptcy of his wife's bank takes him away from family and mistress to the distracting lassitudes of a health spa, where he encounters and seduces the shy, reluctant Anna (Sofonova). When Anna returns to Russia and husband, Romano follows, but will he do the honourable thing and tell his wife (Mangano) the truth? Mikhalkov manages, remarkably, to render the harrowing dilemmas thrown up by problems of adultery, commitment, disillusionment and solitude woefully shallow. Mastroianni apart, the film is a glossy, unprepossessing example of the mainstream art movie.

- Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide

Once upon a time—in 1959, to be precise—Soviet director Josef Heifits filmed a lovely, exquisite, and by now all but forgotten adaptation of Anton Chekhov's story “The Lady With the Dog,” which wisely restricted itself to Chekhovian dimensions, giving the plot and characters their full due but never any more. By grotesque contrast, writer-director Nikita Mikhalkov's elephantine set piece for Marcello Mastroianni (1987)—which came about through Mastroianni's desire to work with the Soviet filmmaker—loosely adapts that Chekhov story along with elements from three others (“My Wife,” “The Birthday Party,” and “Subjugated Anna”) to produce a film so sprawling and ungainly that Chekhov is turned into chopped liver. Atrociously out-of-sync dubbing, shameless mugging and prancing from Mastroianni, and an unearned (and decidedly un-Chekhovian) grandiosity are the main elements on the bill of fare, all working overtime to register life's little ironies; Elena Sofonova, Marthe Keller, Silvana Mangano, and a cute little dog are on hand to teach Mikhalkov and Mastroianni a few lessons in restraint, but alas, to no avail.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

Oci Ciornie

Like so many Soviet moviemakers, Mikhalkov works in a tempo meant for patient, stalwart audiences. He lingers over his ornate sets, photographing the furniture as if he were shooting a House & Garden center spread. And not a rosy landscape goes unswept as the director scans Mother Russia's misty panoramas; the sparse story looks overdressed, like Elizabeth Ashley in Elizabeth Taylor's earrings.

The whole thing is precisely acted, with Marthe Keller pert as a Neapolitan Goldie Hawn in the role of Romano's other mistress, and Larionov immensely likable as the passenger sympathizing with Romano's pitiful autobiography. Skilled as the cast is, however, there's a chilly chemistry, as if the actors had just met at a cocktail party. Even the appearance of a caravan of gypsy dancers can't heat things up.

The screenplay, thoughtful, but skimpy, is written by Mikhalkov, his close colleague Alexander Adabachian, and Suso Cecchi D'Amico, coauthor of such landmark movies as "The Bicycle Thief" and "The Leopard." This trio of wild romantics can't resist a contrived and easy ending. Or dialogue like this: "The boat will rot. The sea dry up. But the good and evil we have done will always exist."

- Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

Add this film to the list — Belle de Jour, Juliet of the Spirits, Last Year at Marienbad — of the dreamiest movies ever made. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, Dark Eyes is loosely based on several short stories by Anton Checkhov and stars Marcello Mastroianni in one of the most masterful performances of his career. As Romano, Mastroianni is a charming man who savors life but inwardly remains a confused little boy who doesn’t know what he wants. Under-appreciated by his rich and domineering wife (Silvana Mangano), he falls in love with Anna (Elena Sofonova), an elegant Russian lady he meets at a health spa. Concocting a business trip to Russia, he hopes to woo Anna away from her husband. Against a backdrop of exquisite landscapes, costumes, and buildings, Dark Eyes has the ambiguity of a dream that gently muses on the different shades of love.

-Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat,  Spirituality and Practice



Mikhalkov offers two perspectives: the view on Italy seen through the eyes of a Russian director (himself) and the view on Russia seen through the Italian visitor. He also introduces two spaces of Russian life: the provincial town and the city, which are facade only, and the countryside, which is genuine. The emphasis on the national 'peculiarities' of drinking, dancing and singing turned Dark Eyes into a cheap 'kitsch' version of Chekhov for Western consumption.

- Stephen C. Hutchings, Anat Vernitski, Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of Literature, 1900-2001. Routledge, 2005. Page 148.


It is worth comparing Mikhalkov's film with an earlier film version of the story, Kheifits's Lady with a Lapdog [Dama s sobachkoi, 1960]. Kheifits's film demonstrates fidelity to the original, which it follows meticulously, and endows the background with the social ills of the time, exposing poverty and offering a critique of Russia in the late nineteenth century that is much in line with socialist values. It is a critical view of Russian society as a redundant world, destined and doomed to be replaced by the new socialist Russia in the twentieth century. Mikhalkov clearly departs from this view, idealising the Russia of the late 1890s as a place of idleness but no social hardship. Even the vagrant life of the gypsies and the stifled life of Anna in the provincial town are glossed over. Mikhalkov creates a myth of the life of provincial Russia in the late nineteenth century, ignoring the encroaching hardship on the middle classes that was perceived in Mechanical Piano (the servan't refusal to obey, the reports of women working in the fields, the bankruptcy of the estate). There is neither critique nor irony in the portrayal of Russia in Dark Eyes, which is therefore mythogogic. The Kheifits film adaptation treats Chekhov in the conventional and conservative Soviet way, seeking to explore the social injustice of imperial Russia.

Dark Eyes has received little critical attention in Russia. A review after the television screening of the film in 1994 comments on this fact, and Pavel Lebeshev remembers the House of Cinema audience leaving even during the screening. The hostility to the film is also illustrated by the relative absence of reviews of the film in the major film journal (iskusstvo kino) and other major newspapers with serious film columns. Instead, Sovetskaia kultura carried several readers' responses and short critical comments. The film was criticized for its profanation of Chekhov and the parody of Soviet bureaucracy, but the main accusation levelled at the film was the attempt to cater for Western audiences by producing a kitsch version of Chekhov. The most outraged responses came from provincial readers (as if they were the most qualified to comment on the portrayal of life in Sysoyev)...

Both Dark Eyes and Tarkovsky's Nostalgia look at Russia from a distance, and both film-makers are dislocated from their homeland at the time of the film's making (and both intending to return at the time of filming). In Nostalgia approaches and conclusions are entirely different from Dark Eyes. In Andrei Tarkovsky's films Russia is rendered through the poetic image of a landscape with a country house (Mirror), or a meadow with a hut by a little pond where past and present merge (Nostalgia). In Nostalgia the wooden house is not only in the past but also in the distance, and it is simultaneously in the present and in Italy, surrounded by ruins. Tarkovsky's Gorchakov harbours values within himself, within his personal memory, that he transfers onto other times and spaces, aware of this in a reflective nostalgia. Tarkovsky transposes his image into the here and now, unifying the space of Italy and Russia while representing through this very same image the dichotomy of his character, split between Russia and Italy, past and present. Romano longs for a country that was never his, trying to build for himself a different past that he feels closer to than the lullaby of his grandmother, a past that has no images. He betrays himself, not only restoring a past but building a past that he never belonged to, either in time or space. Romano falls in love with a woman he cannot understand, with a country that he cannot understand. He fails in the here and now because of his inability to realise that his 'longing' (algia) is based on a misunderstanding of the 'home' (nostos).

The Russia that Mikhalkov presents is a country seen through the eyes of a foreigner, who views superficially (he really is searching for Anna) and fails to look beyond the surface (literally, in the case of the unbreakable glass). On that surface he finds all his prejudices confirmed: petty bureaucrats who cannot or will not make decisions; beautiful facades; vodka-drinking people; young men obsessed with the environment; good-hearted people; and charming and cheerful gypsies. Clearly this view of Russia is cliche-ridden, and represents the impressions of a traveller who wants to have his preconceptions confirmed. As a Russian director Mikhalkov could have taken a different approach. Instead, he confirms to the West its romanticised and idealized view of nineteenth-century Russia. He presents a cheap print (lubok) of his own country as a space that is, as such, neither desirable nor within reach. Only its attributes (Anna's devotion, the gypsy's carefree lifestyle, the beauty of the countryside glorified visually and in the words of the vet) are desirable for Romano. He mistakes the part for the whole, and his illusion makes him a character dishonest with himself, despicable in his conduct, but lovable for the actor who plays him - Marcello Mastroianni. With Dark Eyes Mikhalkov moves the furthest away from the reflective or ironic nostalgia of his earlier films towards a restorative nostalgia that tends towards nationalistic revival.

- Birgit Beumers, Nikita Mikhalkov: Between Nostalgia and Nationalism. I.B. Tauris, 2005. Pages 84, 89, 90



ELENA SOFONOVA DOES IT ALL with her eyes. She suffers with them, smiles with them, searches with them - now for love, now simply for self-respect. Soft and deep-set above the high Slavic cheekbones, they seem by far the strongest of her tools as an actress. For her last two films, first the 1985 Soviet film ''Winter Cherries'' and now the widely admired Italian-Soviet offering, ''Dark Eyes,'' they have given her a way to evoke eloquently and almost silently the emotions of a charming and charmable woman who wants something more out of life than charm.

''I was playing for the people who will watch the film, and I was trying to open for them a part of their own soul, or something they know very well about themselves.''

''It's the dream of any actor to work with Nikita,'' Miss Sofonova said. ''An actor always wants to work for a director who takes care of him and loves him. Nikita is the master of this.

''And Marcello was so simple to deal with. He doesn't have the star attitudes that you'd have to get used to.''

She did, however, find that Mr. Mastroianni was used to a different filming rhythm. ''We are taught to play through a long scene in which there are several transitions from one mood to another. For Marcello this was incomprehensible. He likes to play the various fragments and then splice it together.''

But, as Mr. Mikhalkov was directing, Mr. Mastroianni played it his way.

She knows, she said recently, that some Soviet critics, although they have remained largely silent, dislike the film, which has been seen only at this summer's Moscow Film Festival. (Soviet distribution rights haven't yet been sold by the Italian producers.) Among the criticisms: that it creates a prettified, cliched portrait of Russia designed for foreign consumption and that it lacks Chekhovian depth of character.

Miss Sonfonova argues, however, that the objections really arise from the sometimes unflattering portrayals of Russians - the ''chinovniki,'' or petty bureaucrats who revel in red tape, for instance.

''Russians can see many of their own negative sides in this film, and they don't like it,'' she said.

- Felicity Barringer, The New York Times, October 4 1987



IMDb Wiki

Since the 1950s, Marcello Mastroianni has been Italy's favorite leading man, as well as one of his country's finest actors. Until the emergence of Gérard Depardieu on the international film scene, Mastroianni also was the most famous European actor in America. This renown is symbolized by his earning the astonishing total of three Academy Award nominations (for Divorce, Italian Style, A Special Day, and Dark Eyes), quite an accomplishment for an actor working in non-English-language films.

In his long and prolific career, Mastroianni almost singlehandedly defined the contemporary type of Latin lover, then proceeded to redefine it a dozen times and finally parodied it and played it against type. He remains unsurpassed as one of the most universally popular and beloved of all motion picture personalities.

Elaine Mancini, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

He was worshipped as the ultimate Latin lover. Yet the qualities Marcello Mastroianni most consistently projected in his films were weakness, weariness, sadness, and uncertainty -- all of which suggest an ambivalence well outside the usual stereotypes of male sexuality.

- Chris Fujiwara, The Boston Phoenix



IMDb Wiki

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Possessing an impeccable artistic pedigree, actor-writer-director Nikita Mikhalkov prospered during the Soviet era and survived the collapse of Communism, becoming his country's best-known and successful film director, not to mention a leading candidate to succeed Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia. His father was Sergei Mikhalkov, a poet and author of children's books, who wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem and whose Communist Party ties (he was head of the Soviet Writers Union) helped shield Nikita from the censorship and persecution that forced other filmmakers to curb their careers or compromise shamefully with the government. His mother, Natalya Konchalovskaya, descended from aristocracy, was a poet-essayist and the great-granddaughter of Vasily Surikov, one of Russia's most famous painters, and her father Pyotr Konchalovsky was a major painter of the post-Impressionist school. Older brother Andrei Konchalovsky, also a renowned filmmaker, moved to the West and made a splash with "Runaway Train" (1985), but his subsequent Hollywood films failed to live up to its promise (or that of his epic "Siberiade" 1979). Remaining behind in his Russian homeland, Mikhalkov managed to forge the more acclaimed career.

- Turner Classic Movies


Although he did not come to prominence as a director until the mid-1970s, Nikita Mikhalkov ranks among the most gifted Russian filmmakers of the entire post-World War II era. His films are highly emotional examinations of what it means to be Russian amid the swirl of politics and turmoil that has characterized his homeland during the twentieth century. In fact, he presently finds himself one of the few Russian directors whose career has flourished since the disintegration of the USSR. While Mikhalkov's equally celebrated brother, director Andrei Konchalovsky, decided to leave their homeland in the early 1980s and work in the West, Mikhalkov chose to remain in Russia. From that vantage point he watched his international reputation expand while steadfastly continuing to make films that are uniquely Russian in subject matter and flavor.

Despite his loyalty to Russia, Mikhalkov has not worked exclusively in his homeland. He went to Italy to film Dark Eyes, featuring Marcello Mastroianni in a role he was born to play: Romano, a likably charming but lazy lothario whose soul is sadly hollow, and who cannot comprehend that he has allowed life to pass him by. The scenario is loosely based on several Chekhov short stories. Regarding his affinity for Chekhov's works, Mikhalkov once observed that the writer "feels very close to me because he offers no answers to the questions he poses. Chekhov's characters seek an answer which they never find. I too don't know the answer. I'm not even sure that knowing it would make me any happier. What is important is the search for the truth; that is happiness." This statement relates not just to Chekhov but to the manner in which Mikhalkov has attempted to depict and, ultimately, understand the changing face of Russia.

- Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

970 (112). Moy drug Ivan Lapshin / My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1983, Aleksei German)

Screened May 24 2009 on 35mm at Anthology Film Archives, New York NY TSPDT rank #934  IMDb

My Friend van Lapshin is an attempt to retrieve lost time that itself may be in need of revival. Upon its 1982 release, it garnered equal parts acclaim and controversy for its frank depiction of 1930s small town Soviet life, with comrades threatening to report each other and casual references to drugs, prostitution and secret police backroom brutality.  The film was heralded as the greatest Soviet film of all time, beating out the likes of Tarkovsky and Eisenstein; today it's largely unremarked outside of (and even among) Russian film circles.

The narrative is an extended series of unfiltered incidents of the past strung together in a loosely linear sequence. Despite being mostly shot in black and white and sepia, the film is alive with an unruly, uncentered and unprocessed feel of communal activity. Alexsei German orchestrates this action with masterful long takes and tracking shots.  But unlike the employment of this technique by Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr, German doesn't so much connect images along a meditative stream with his more roughhewn, often handheld camerawork as clash them in an animated clatter of incongruity, something resembling collage art.

Deep staging among multiple characters and a thin discerning between throwaway gestures and primary action within in a scene evoke a society moving in a perpetual fog - not for years will people remember what mattered among so many things that happened. The post-dubbed soundtrack gives the effect of hearing dialogue through waterlogged ears, adding to a vaguely claustrophobic sense of warped perception (an effect taken to an even greater extreme in German's follow-up Khrustaliov, My Car!).

By the end, we’re not even sure what to make of the film’s nominal protagonist, a captain of the local police squad, who’s a seemingly nice guy who mediates squabbles and even a suicide attempt among his five roommates. He also goes practically berserk during a climactic police raid, shooting a man dead rather than taking him in. The ambiguous portrayal of a Stalinist authority figure may have been as edgy as German could have gotten away with in the 80s, though some critics saw it as not overtly critical enough.  The film’s embrace of indeterminacy may on one hand compromise the forcefulness of its political critique; on the other hand it amounts to a critique in itself, of the overdetermined, two-dimensional propaganda that propagated itself through Soviet film history (and that gets lampooned in the film's opening sequence). One feeling the film distinctly leaves us with is a sense of the stories that give form to our lives being as much a bewildering work in progress then as it is now.



The following citations were counted towards the placement of My Friend Ivan Lapshin among They Shoot Pictures, Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:

Peter Rinaldi, The Cinematheque Top 10 Project (2008) Quay Brothers, Time Out (1995) Sergei Bodrov, Sight & Sound (1992) Verina Glaessner, Time Out (1995) ? Empire (Russia), 50 Best Russian Films (2008) ? Rough Guide to Film, Russia & The Soviet Union: 5 Lesser-Known Gems  (2007)

Alexei Guerman's 1984 film, based on short stories by his father Yuri Guerman and scripted by Eduard Volodarsky, is set in a remote and impoverished Russian village in 1937, where as a boy the narrator shared a cramped apartment with five men, including Ivan Lapshin, the head of the local police. The film alternates between black and white, sepia, and a few shots in color, though without any rationale that I could discern. Despite a supple and original camera style, some powerful acting, and a refreshing absence of sentimentality, the loose, episodic structure makes for a certain dullness, at least for spectators with no more than a glancing acquaintance with the Stalinist period that this film meticulously re-creates and addresses. Guerman has expressed some doubts that this film can be properly understood in the West, and it does pose difficulties for spectators who don't know much about the historical context. But anyone with a serious interest in Soviet cinema won't want to pass it up.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

ONE'S sympathies are all with Aleksei German. The Soviet director has had his troubles with his country's authorities; movies that he made 10 and 20 years ago have only recently been released in the West. His fourth and latest effort, ''My Friend Ivan Lapshin,'' which will be shown at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the New Directors/New Films series tonight at 8:30 and tomorrow at 6 P.M., is one of the first proscribed films to benefit from glasnost. Scheduled to open next month at the Cinema Studio, it is evidence that not every movie that has displeased the cultural commissars is a masterpiece.

Mr. German's knack for visual authenticity provides the movie's main interest. Scene after scene, shot for the most part in the sepia of old photographs, catches the poverty and confusion of a hard time - the crowded apartment, the beat-up cars, the dreary town and its shabbily dressed people, the outbursts of desperation and nuttiness. In his treatment of a troupe of actors and some musicians jangling along on a flag-festooned little trolley, the director seems to have picked up some tricks from Fellini, but the spirit is very different. It's mostly complaint and bickering; only the policemen seem in good humor. People quarrel constantly about food and living space; a woman goes into hysterics over the loss of some gasoline.

The scattered reminiscences, unrelated to the boy from whom they ostensibly originate and about whom we learn nothing, keep getting in the way of the rather casual plot, which has Ivan's best friend, a journalist, becoming involved with the actress and the murderer. Mr. German shows more consideration for his father's anecdotes (much is made of little practical jokes, youthful byplay, awkward accidents that add up to nothing) than for his audience's comprehension. You can hardly tell one policeman from another and often can't be sure where they are or what they are doing there.

- Walter Goodman, The New York Times, March 24 1987

Gherman's masterly film (his third) is framed as an autobiographical reminiscence of the 1930s, just before the Stalinist terror began to bite. Through the eyes of a nine-year-old we watch episodes from the life of a small town police chief: his home life in a ludicrously overcrowded apartment, his unsuccessful courtship of a glamorous actress, and his rather more successful campaign to hunt down the criminal fraternity of the Soloviev gang. There is nothing sinister about this Ivan, but the film is crammed with tiny suggestions of the horrors to come, designed to provoke disquieting speculations about the eventual fate of this potentially dangerous man. Gherman's methods are resolutely observational and low key, and his subject is the lull before the storm; the drama emerges as if by accident from a collage of resonant and deeply felt scenes from day-to-day life. Wonderfully vivid performances and amazingly original camerawork (mostly in elegantly faded monochrome) bring a vanished world to life with complete conviction.

- Tony Rayns, Time Out

Alexei German's third film as director is based on stories written by his father, prominent author Yuri German. The mostly black-and-white film begins with a present-day color sequence, then reverts to monochrome and the freezing winter of 1935, when the narrator was nine years old. The boy lived in an apartment with his father and two other men, Police Chief Ivan Lapshin (Andrei Boltnev) and his officious underling (Alexei Zharkov). The story focuses on Lapshin as he tracks down a gang of crooks in his provincial Russian village, helps his recently widowed friend, and enters into a tentative relationship with an actress (Nina Ruslanova). Capable direction by German and a talented ensemble cast make this detailed look at the pre-purge Soviet Union both entertaining and richly rewarding.

- Robert Firsching, Allmovie

Aleksei Gherman’s legendary My Friend, Ivan Lapshin (Moj drug Ivan Lapshin) has been called by Andrei Tarkovsky and many Russian critics, both Soviet and post-Soviet, the greatest Soviet film ever made. Its complex, stormy vision of drab provincial life in Soviet Russia has the visual elan to drug, and the power to sweep away, the viewer. I am sorry to say that the film left me cold. There’s no question that the film is great. There is some question, though, whether anyone needs to see it. It doesn’t strike me as essential, as did, for instance, Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn (1960), which I left the same sick bed to go see at the movies the night before. Dazzlingly brilliant, My Friend nonetheless afforded scarcely a moment of pleasure to justify my years of anticipation of one of cinema’s most heralded accomplishments.

Gherman may be playing with time, but he isn’t playing games with his audience. The confusions are to the point since one of the film’s themes is the psychology of memory. In this instance, memory is hampered not only by the passage of time but also by the persistence of harsh socioeconomic conditions over time, thus eliminating, by implication, the points of normal reference that might better distinguish one time from another. Formally, it’s a sophisticated procedure that Gherman employs, and had I been a tad healthier I might have been fit to meet its challenges. As it is, at times the film’s parallel universes of different times made me hanker for the clarity of the parallel universes in the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix (1999).

Critics are divided as to what this all means about Ivan Lapshin. Is Gherman whitewashing the Soviet police by not showing them going after ordinary citizens, or is he demonstrating by metaphor state police brutality? But more is involved here than metaphor, for the gangsters are, on the one hand, driven to their viciousness by the dire nature of Soviet economic conditions and, on the other, hunted down and murdered by the police for their viciousness. It’s a losing state of affairs.

Still, Gherman hedges his bets formally. The climactic gunfight at the U.S.S.R. Corral includes extraordinary tracking shots; but their effectiveness would have been that much greater had Gherman earlier not overused his tracking camera, thus robbing the shots of their unique character when they finally arrive at a real purpose and point. Gherman, earlier, tracks simply because he can, and his showiness costs him points at the end. Nor am I as impressed as are others by all the times a tracking camera follows the characters just to reiterate a child’s point of view. There’s a lot of formal messiness in the film before Gherman “pulls it all together.”

- Dennis Grunes

The technique of switching between colour and black and white from one scene to the next has always fascinated me. It is such an effective stylistic tool for quickly creating atmosphere and striking a contrast. It’s also a powerful way to jolt the viewer into a dialogue with the film. My Friend Ivan Lapshin begins in colour, with a long handheld tracking shot that examines various objects and people as it searches carefully through a quiet house. This is the only time we will experience such ultra-personal camera work, as the film soon jumps back 50 years to the mid 1930s, now in a mesmerising black and white. Our narrator continues speaking from his present time, reflecting through memory on his experiences as a child living in a small town in Soviet Russia just before the Great Purge. It is essential to keep this time period in mind to fully appreciate the contradictions and ultimate decline that the film explores. The parties, the music and laughter, the joking and pranks, all mislead and clash with the depressing situation that surrounds the town, expressed elegantly through the constant thick fog.

Editing is used sparingly, placing value on the natural progression of time. Long tracking shots quickly become familiar as they fluently create a circling world which is able to encompass expansive outdoor locations as easily as it manages confined indoor spaces. Haphazard jumps between scenes often occur without any causal reasoning, resulting in a level of chaos and confusion that reflects the social and political situation present within the film. For the most part the narrative works as a stream of consciousness, and this allows for dramatic shifts in mood and importance whenever necessary. There is still a plot, and even a few subplots, but these fall secondary to the precise study of life, which is exemplified in a number of near silent moments that watch characters from a distance as they go about routine daily tasks.  Such scenes are contrasted with loud, grandiose street marches, and then again with serious, dramatic instances of desperation. Clever uses of light, snow and night photography create images of exquisite beauty out of ugliness. As the world declines into darkness the use of colour also disappears, leaving us to pessimistically contemplate the bleak future ahead.

- Polar Bear's Film Journal


How long did it take to complete Moi drug Ivan Lapshin?

As for the film Moi drug Ivan Lapshin, it took a year to write the script. Then it took a year to make all the preparations. Because we had to buy the technical means, and then we had to collect all the costumes. We visited many people and tried to find all the costumes we needed. We collected a lot of photographs because we didn't want to use the archives. Because the archives in all the countries are lying. The things put into the newsreels for the archives are all lies. In America, in Germany, in Russia most of all. What am I talking about? I'm talking about those newsreels that were supposed to show the positive things in life. The joy, all the good things. Not just showing a street. So in order to understand what kind of life it was, we had to find things, pictures about, for example, how something was being built.

For example, we watched some short films about building water pipes. Of course, the cameraman was showing all those pipes. At the same time, when he moved his camera from one place to another, to look at the street, to look at the boys, who were probably not always very polite, who didn't have very good manners. Or we saw a woman with quite a few bags. So we could see the real life. We couldn't make the film without all these things. That's why it took so long for every film. If you want to know, Moi drug Ivan Lapshin is really filming. It was introducing something new.

What sorts of "new things" were introduced in Moi drug Ivan Lapshin?

If you want, I can show you in a very short way which technical means we used. Just what kind of film is Moi drug Ivan Lapshin? This is a story about the 1930s. Margarita Aliger wrote about the period that we were young, and there was no war that we couldn't win. And now we are accused of every fault. There is no fault that we are not accused of. So this is said about the 1930s. This is just a phrase.

What was happening back then? A lot of repressions took place. Many peasants were made to leave their residence and their property to the State and go away. The Party was being destroyed. The village, the whole system was being destroyed. The idea of the revolution was being destroyed. And all the moral principles were being destroyed. And all these things happened.

But were there any good people? Yes, there were. Good people with moral principles? Yes, there were. People who tried to live according to the truth. Yes, there were. My parents lived at that time. So we tried to speak about the 1930s, about life in those days. We wanted to show life and some of the things that brought the people to death later. So this is a film presentiment. It shows the people who will die. We don't know about their death yet. And they think they will live. They think about a very good and happy life.

How do you position, or employ, the camera during shooting?

The camera is there in order to capture these particular conversations from this angle of perspective right in the middle of the action. In particular, the camera is to show this or that at this special time, and in this special way. After all, a conversation is supposed to have a certain particular reason or sense to it. For instance, the conversation with the young man is also a conversation about the gulag [prison camp]. Someone says something. And suddenly the question is raised: I'll put you in jail, I'll throw you in prison. Of course, that's a little bit of a joke. But a joke set in these very times. And then if you look at it, someone really did put somebody in prison. In other words, the following sequence does show that somebody was thrown in prison. So along these principles, along the principles of a turntable, that's the way we shot this film.

Is Moi drug Ivan Lapshin primarily about Stalin and the "Great Terror"?

Of course, when you make a film about Ivan Lapshin at this time, you are also including things that refer, of course, to Stalin. And, of course, later also to Beria. But on the whole we simply wanted to show the times. And we wanted to avoid this vulgar way of stating everything so clearly. Such a vulgarity would be a discussion in the film about Stalin, or even a way of behavior. We wanted to avoid all these clichés, and we wanted instead to dive deep into the lives of the people. Of course, they talk about certain things. For example, they talk about the death, the suicide, of Mayakovsky. But this is always in the background of the film.

How did the Russian public respond to Moi drug Ivan Lapshin?

They can be divided into three groups. The first group wrote to me, saying that I was an idiot. They were very furious, especially when it was shown on television. Millions of people who saw it were furious. There was an article in the newspaper before the film was shown. A good article, saying that you should watch the film, really watch it, not just come and go. Then, when the film was shown, some lady made a telephone call, saying that the film should be burned—together with the director. So the Russian newspaper Izvestia responded: why should the film be burned? Just turn to another channel if you don't like it. So a third of the audience was furious and said that the film was worth nothing.

There was another third. It was very interesting that they headed their letters with the words: "A Copy to the Central Committee." Or: "A Copy to the KGB." This third thought they were speaking the truth about the film-maker. These people were from institutions, or scientific establishments. And the citizens of .... collected all their signatures, so that the film-maker would never come to their places of work. I don't know why the editor was like that. Very often, their letters started with "Dear Editor" and ended "With communist regards." All these letters were written by old Bolsheviks. When I saw that they ended "With communist regards," then I knew that a copy of such a letter would be in the KGB files.

I am not being ironic about these letters. It wasn't funny for me at all. I was really hurt. Because these letters said: "Yes, probably all those things in the film are right, but we won't give you the right to show all these things. There were letters with the words: "Solzhenitzyn with his dirty boots and criminal characters is allowed to dance on our future and our past. And now you are allowed to do the same thing, and so on." It was really very trying to get all those letters.

- Excerpted from interview with Aleksei German by Ronald Holloway, published in Kinoeye, Sept 2004


'This is my declaration of love for the people I grew up with as a child’, says a voice at the beginning of Aleksei German’s Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin). There is a pause as the narrator struggles for the right words to express his feelings for the Soviet Union of the thirties; when they come—ob”iasnenie v liubvi—it is with a strained emphasis on ‘love’. The film, released in 1984, is set in 1935 in the fictional provincial town of Unchansk, where a young boy and his father share a communal flat with criminal police investigator Ivan Lapshin and half a dozen others. It weaves together elements from the director’s father Iurii German’s detective stories and novellas of the same period: a troupe of actors arrive to play at the town’s theatre; Lapshin tracks down a gang of criminals trading in human meat; a friend of Lapshin’s, Khanin, becomes unhinged after his wife dies of typhus; the spirited actress Adashova falls in love with Khanin, and Lapshin with Adashova. The authorities are largely absent: it is a film about people ‘building socialism’ on a bleak frozen plain, their town’s one street a long straggle of low wooden buildings beneath a huge white sky, leading from the elegant stucco square by the river’s quayside out into wilderness. There is a single tram, a military band, a plywood ‘victory arch’ of which they are all proud—‘My father’, the narrator recounts, ‘would never take a short cut across the town’: he always went the long way round, under the victory arch.

The film holds hope and suffering in the balance. Adashova proudly boasts about what the 1942 production quotas for champagne will be; Lapshin declares, ‘We shall clean up the earth and plant a garden, and we ourselves will live to walk in it’—just as the hacked-up corpses hidden by the meat-traders are loaded onto a truck. The film is full of such alarming details and ill omens: dubious meat, which retains the headline offprint of the newspaper it was wrapped in (‘WE REJOICE’) even after it’s been cooked; febrile explosions of rage over spilled paraffin; flocks of crows cawing across the sky. There is a mismatch between the optimism of the characters and what we know of subsequent events. ‘I’m going on a course’, Lapshin says towards the end of the film, and his words are left hanging in the air. These are people whose faith in the future remains intact, but whose betrayal is imminent. German has said that his main aim was to convey a sense of the period, to depict as faithfully as possible the material conditions and human preoccupations of SovietRussia on the eve of the Great Purge. It is for this world, for these people that the narrator struggles to declare his love—unconditional, knowing how flawed that world was, and how tainted the future would be. German compared the film to the work of Chekhov, and one can see in it a similar tenderness for the suffering and absurdity of its characters.

Loosely episodic, the film is remarkable in its resistance to linear narrative: dialogue is often drowned out by senseless chatter or the clanging of buckets; our view of important characters is frequently blocked by figures crossing the screen. In its cinematography, Ivan Lapshin consistently refuses to accept established priorities: as though every element of each shot must be allowed its meaning. The camera often enters the room behind characters’ backs, like a guest, or at elbow-level, like a curious child. There is no sense that the scenes are choreographed or pre-arranged, but rather a feeling that the camera, wide-eyed, is capturing what it can of a bewildering world.

Filming on Moi drug Ivan Lapshin finally began in 1979 and finished in 1982. Although the first screening was greeted with a standing ovation, the film was immediately attacked from within German’s own studio, Lenfil’m—an article in the studio’s newspaper called it a ‘gadkaia kartina’, a ‘disgusting film’. An official of Goskino informed him that everyone knew 37 and 38 weren’t good years, but he shouldn’t destroy all people’s illusions—‘leave 1935 alone’. German was then told to re-shoot half of the film, and when he asked which half, the head of Goskino replied: ‘Either. Leave half of your crap and do half as we want you to’. [3] Fortunately, due to lack of finance and the director’s protestations, the re-shoot never took place. After prolonged debates within Goskino, the film was released in 1984, to critical acclaim and even a certain commercial success.

Gorbachev’s accession signalled a turning point in German’s career. The Conflict Commission established in 1986 by the Cinematographers’ Union at last sanctioned the release of Proverka, along with over seventy other ‘shelved’ films, including such masterpieces as Aleksandr Askol’dov’s Komissar (1967) and Tengiz Abuladze’s Monanieba (Repentance, 1984). In 1987, Lapshin was voted the best Soviet film of all time in a national poll of film critics, ahead of anything by Eisenstein, Pudovkin or Vertov. German’s film is in many ways a precursor to the series of films of the glasnost’ period that return obsessively to the era of Stalin—much as one of the characters in Repentance keeps exhuming a small-town tyrant. It encapsulates the issues that were to haunt the Soviet Union until its demise, and continue to resurface in contemporary Russia: how are we to retell our history without disgracing our forefathers, magnifying them out of proportion or simply deleting them from the record? Which memories should we claim as ours?

- Tony Wood, The New Left Review, January-February 2001

My Friend Ivan Lapshin, made in 1983 by Alexei German, was released in 1985 after a two-year skirmish with Goskino. The dispute was due in part to the fact that it dealt with a very sensitive period of Soviet history - the 1930s, 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 unacceptable. To make matters worse, the film was the creation of a very original talent, which automatically made the censors uncomfortable. The ambiguity of the multilayered text and the lack of clear narrative closures looked like an ideological trap to the official scanning eye, a visual quagmire that might harbor insidious meanings.

When the film was broadcast on television in early 1986 it became the subject of heated debate among the public. The film was at once exciting and disturbing. It offered a glimpse of an historical period that had been proscribed until then. But the portrait of that period was very personal, and left many viewers uncertain about the intentions of the director. What was his point of view? Why did he choose a police officer as the hero? What was he really saying about the Stalinist years, besides the fact that life was hard and drab in the provinces? The confusion was reinforced by the subjective camera and the post-modernist montage, virtually new in Soviet cinema. It was too early for the general audience to believe what they were seeing on the big screen, in the open. Later, it became obvious that German's hero, Ivan Lapshin, was presented as a victim of the system - a true believer in the communist ideals, doomed to perish, strangled by the machine that he helped to build. His fate was similar to that of many others - Kirov, for example, whose portrait opens the retrospective core of the film and sheds a mournful shadow on the whole narrative. The year 1935, right after the Leningrad party chief was assassinated, was the last moment before the beginning of the great terror, a moment when it was still possible to nurture the illusion of a future, perfect world. German intended to pay a tribute to a generation that believed in the Stalinist myth and perished with it. He said in an interview: "The story I am 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."

- Anna Lawton, Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in Our Time. Published by CUP Archive, 1992. Pages 146-147, 148

Having heard for weeks that this unusual film would be showing sometime in late January 1985 (Step One), we began rousing ourselves from bed several Saturdays in a row to buy Leisure ( Step Two). Finally, in the last week of January, Leisure printed a one-line announcement that My Friend, Ivan Lapshin would be playing on January 26th in only one Moscow cinema. Thus began the final Step Three. After several days of fruitless telephoning, we went to the cinema the day before the showing and were told that the film would be shown the next day only at 7.00 p.m., that tickets would go on sale that day at 4.00 p.m. and, in the curious logic so common here, at that point there would be no tickets anyway, since they were already all sold out. After an hour's tactful inquiry, rediscovered that there were in fact at least three other unannounced showings there on that same day, to which we were at last permitted to buy tickets. The whole experience was a little like standing in front of a locked door with a ring of skeleton keys, knowing that one of them, if jiggled just right and not too loudly, would let us in.

The film itself has generated enormous interest here. One Soviet acquaintance described it as a devastating critique of the secret police activities in the 1930s. Another acquaintance travelled approximately 600 miles from Riga to Moscow in order to see the film. There are several reasons for this interest. First, the original stories, romanticizing the lives of the secret police, are transformed by the director-son into a depiction of the brutality, lawlessness and hardships of life in a small provincial town: communal apartments, overcrowding, lack of privacy, chronic shortages of food and firewood. The depiction of the seamier aspects of Soviet society - a thieves' den, prostitution, a raid on a hoarder's underground storehouse - are filmed in black-and-white, creating the atmosphere of old, documentary footage that has finally come to light. Other technical features of the film - open-microphone recording, alternating colour footage (though not consistently carried through in the film, the tendency is to record events of the 1980s in colour, of the 1930s in black-and-white), and the accuracy of historical detail (interiors, costumes, village scenes) - are also unusual.

By de-romanticizing the depiction of life in the provinces, the director has not, however, demystified the way in which agents of the secret police are represented. The characterization of the police, and in particular of the police-chief, Ivan Lapshin, is every bit as idealized as in the literature of earlier times; Lapshin and the police are indefatigable, dedicated, honest, fair. They are almost saintly figures, who are trapped in a hellish life. Their occasional callousness is the result of the conditions with which they must deal uncomplainingly; their brutality, that of the avenging angel. German succeeds in having Soviet audiences respect and praise their depiction for two essential reasons. First, the narrative frame of the film is the reminiscences in the presence of an ageing writer, who recalls his childhood awe of Lapshin ("the servant of the people and a father to his men," to paraphrase paradoxically Lermontov's words in the poem "Borodino", about Kutuzov, the saviour of Russia during the war with Napoleon). The camera is the eyes of the child. Like Cherkassov in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, the gaunt and chisel-faced Lapshin towers above everyone else in the film. Second, the case on which Lapshin is working belongs more to the domain of the militia than to the secret police. He is pursuing vicious gangster-murderers, rather than engaged in the activities traditionally associated with the secret police: surveillance and repression of citizens, purging of dissidents from society, searching for counter-revolutionaries and "cosmopolitan" traitors.

As a result, although Soviet audiences react very favourably to the honesty with which the difficulties of life in the 1930s are portrayed in the film, a Western viewer is more attentive to the ways in which the film engages in white-washing the activities and personalities of the secret police agents. From this point of view the film is exciting because it dares to address the existence of the NKVD in the years immediately before the purges, an association that most Soviet citizens also make; but it is disturbing because it refuses to challenge received ideas and official ways of describing the role of the secret police in that period, or even to undermine some of the dominant clichés in Soviet cinema. In Lapshin we still have a positive hero, however tarnished his image has become with time. "Good guys" never die in this film, nor do they die in other Soviet films, war films being the one exception to this general rule. In My Friend, Ivan Lapshin, one eviscerated NKVD member survives a long drive in the back of a truck, bumping over provincial roads. Released from the hospital after a remarkable recovery ( a real testimony to rural emergency medical procedures in the 1930s), he is gruffly reminded by Lapshin, "Don't forget to bind your guts with a towel." Having seen this film, so praised by progressive intellectuals for its verisimilitude and honesty, we find it lacking above all in precisely those two traits. The film, however, continues to play to packed theatres in at least one out-of-the-way cinema in Moscow each week.

- Vladimiar Padunov and Nancy P Condee, Framework 29, 1985

Like much of recent Soviet cinema, the film repeatedly returns to a flashback structure, with a prologue and epilogue, accompanied by the off-screen voice of a witness who was at that time a 9-year-old boy. The flashbacks illustrate the theater of action in the thirties today in 1984 (thus in color, with our new signs of the times). But the current frame doesn't serve to confer any real tenderness to the memory, or to connote it sentimentally, ideologically, or even formally. Nor does it serve to glorify, or even to justify, the present, the "leap forward." It serves, first of all, to give a feeling of truth to the testimony. Not autobiographical, however, in the strict sense of the word (Alexei German was born three years after the year he set the action, 1935). The flashback structure series, if anything, to reconfirm and repropose the theme of the passage of "direct" testimony from generation to generation, from father to son, even if both the boy-witness and the father are secondary figures, silent mediators of a historic moment that towers over them and goes beyond them. Once again the film is based on pages by Yuri German, and only in that sense is it autobiographical.

At the end of the film, after the catharsis and the catastrophes, the "return to the future" from the Stalin-period town, from the poverty and marching bands ("There's an orchestra for every inhabitant"), to the same city fifty years later, isn't the return to a more livable, more comfortable, more judicious contemporaneity. Today the city has asphalt, they say, but no metropolitan symphony follows even the top brass there. Today there are lots of streetcars, buses, trains, modern and efficient means of transport; back then there were only two trams - tram number one and tram number two. With Stalin's face over them. German doesn't try to approach the new city, almost as though he were afraid of having to assume a celebratory tone. He contemplates it from afar. The colors don't get brighter, don't ring out. The voice of memory is tender, but firm.

- Giovanni Buttafava, "Alexei German, or the Form of Courage." From The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema. Edited by Anna M. Lawton. Pages 281-282.



All German’s films focus on moments in which history and myth have become entangled, if not dangerously indistinguishable. He has described his films as ‘antipotochnye’, ‘against the current’: disrupting certainties and undermining convenient truths. [1] The Stalin era, his principal subject, is the period of his own childhood and youth. Born in 1938 in Leningrad—the same generation as Tarkovsky and Mikhalkov—he grew up in a milieu frequented by leading cultural figures of the time: Kozintsev dropped by regularly, the playwright and fabulist Evgenii Shvartz was his ‘uncle Zhenia’, and even Akhmatova was seen on occasion at the Germans’ flat on the Moika. German graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinematography in 1960 as a theatre director; it was not until the mid-sixties that he made the shift to scripting films, during the extraordinary rebirth of Soviet and East European cinematography—influenced in part by Italian neo-realism but also by the French New Wave—that came with the Khrushchev thaw. In career terms, German made the move just too late. By the time he had scripted Trudno byt’ bogom(It’s Hard Being God, 1968), based on the Strugatskii brothers’ science fiction novel, and Ivan Lapshin (1969), Brezhnevite conformism had set in; neither film could be made.

German comes from a generation of filmmakers unable to make their reputations (as Tarkovsky did) before the liberalization of the Khrushchev years evaporated under Brezhnev; witnessing, as students, a burst of cinematic creativity that they were not allowed to carry forward. Tarkovsky’s Stalker apart, the late 1970s are more known for likeable comedies than for films of great import. The comparison with another near-contemporary is instructive: German and Nikita Mikhalkov (The Barber of Siberia, Burnt by the Sun) both come from well-connected families of the Soviet artistic elite—Mikhalkov’s father wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem, German’s breakfasted with Stalin at least twice—yet where German chose to be antipotochnyi, Mikhalkov’s films have been lush and uncontroversial: Western money has flooded in. German’s hardships and professional struggles have been one result, a career caught between the more open, experimental wave of the sixties and the harsh realism of the perestroika years. Paradoxically, German’s films properly belong to this period in which they could not be released: a bridge between two phases of Soviet filmmaking. They both refer to and prefigure a range of stylistic devices and strategies, rarely seen in the work of one director: each frame of Ivan Lapshin is loaded with potential meanings and suggested histories that emerge differently with every viewing; Khrustalev, mashinu! is now gaining a reputation as a misunderstood classic. German’s current project—the adaptation of the Strugatskiis’ Trudno byt’ bogom that he first scripted in 1968—continues his engagement with difficult areas of Russia’s past. Two observers from earth visit a planet similar to their own in mediaeval times, and find themselves constantly tempted to intervene and change the course of events. The book was a talisman of the Soviet thaw of the early sixties; it was the invasion of Czechoslovakia that put an end to its filming then. In returning to it now German has the possibility of commenting not only on the Prague Spring but perhaps also on Russia’s present ‘intervention’ in Chechnya.

But although his films abound with real details and concreta, German does not see himself as documenting or reporting events. When he portrays the past it is always as a morass of anecdotal details and forgotten objects, forcing us to recognize its complexities and confusions. There is a continual denial of certainty in German’s films: definitive explanations of the ‘real’ are undermined in a way that reveals to the viewer the impossibility of ever remembering anything totally—along with the hazards of forgetting even the smallest of incidental details. Indeed, it is often these that speak most powerfully in German’s films: champagne quotas never to be reached, empty plains that are left unplanted, the stray dog in the snow-covered street.

- Tony Wood, The New Left Review, January-February 2001