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Archive for the ‘Russian cinema’ Category

BIFF 2014 #18: Shorts

Posted by Roy Stafford on 8 April 2014

The two brothers in 'Whale Valley'

The two brothers in ‘Whale Valley’

Portrait Without BleedBradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.

I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.

Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.

Posted in Belgian Cinema, Danish Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Icelandic Cinema, Nordic Cinema, Russian cinema, Short films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2014 #9: Brother (Brat, Russia 1997)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 April 2014

Sergey Bodrov as Danila in 'Brother'

Sergey Bodrov as Danila in ‘Brother’

Portrait Without BleedThree films from the Russian director Alexei Balabanov were screened at BIFF last year and they proved very popular with festival regulars. Sadly the director died in May 2013 aged only 54 – as did the star of Brother, Sergey Bodrov, in an accident during a film shoot in 2002. Screening Brother was therefore both a follow-up and a tribute.

Brother was both a big box office hit and a critical success (but also creating controversy with claims that it was fascistic and ‘not Russian’ in its appeal to Western audiences). The film exhibition business was still recovering from almost complete obliteration in Russia in the 1990s so much of that ‘box office’ must have come through video copies, legal or otherwise. It isn’t difficult to imagine younger audiences quickly latching on to Sergey Bodrov as an attractive young man dealing out a form of ‘justice’ on the streets of Leningrad/Saint Petersburg.

Bodrov plays a young man just demobbed by the Russian Army who arrives in his home town, quickly gets into trouble and is packed off to Saint Petersburg to find his older brother who his mother believes is in a respectable job. He isn’t and soon he has recruited his younger brother to help him in a battle with local gangsters. What follows is mostly conventional for the gangster film across all major film industries. What distinguishes this film is the setting – the city still recognisable as the Leningrad of Eisenstein except in colour – and the young hero Danila who makes things happen as quickly as the young Corleone in Godfather 2. Danila repeatedly tells people that he was only a “clerk at HQ” but he is adept at handling weapons, modifying them and using them imaginatively. He kills without compunction but with efficiency, but he has a sense of honour and he keeps his word. He enjoys Russian rock music and he has an eye for women including a tram driver. (The ancient open tram is the star attraction in the mise en scène of the city.) It isn’t difficult to see why Bodrev became popular so quickly.

The charges against the film are not easy to explore. Danila befriends an old man in the vegetable market who turns out to be German but this may be a code for Jewish. Either way, Danila needs a supportive group and he works with them whilst making noises about other groups that suggest ‘learned’ prejudices. There is a reference to gay characters and I don’t feel able to properly discuss the range of representations – Russia is generally presented as a hard-drinking society with social behaviour to match (although Danila also visits a post-hippy party as well). Based on the reputation for extreme violence in the films shown last year (which I didn’t see) Brother seems to keep within the boundaries of mainstream entertainment cinema and on that level I enjoyed it very much.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Russian cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, USSR 1971/1985)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 November 2013

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The Leeds International Film Festival excelled itself with this tribute to director Aleksai German who died earlier this year aged 74. I didn’t do any research before the screening and I was completely blown away by some of the scenes as well as intrigued by the overall ideological discourse of this anti-war film set during the bitter fighting in the Western Soviet Empire in the winter of 1942/3. It was only after the screening that I realised that I did know about German (or Gherman/Guerman to distinguish the hard ‘G’). I’m fairly sure that I saw My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1987 but I remember little about it except that I liked it very much. (The film is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian films.)

German was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet censors and it wasn’t until perestroĭka under Gorbachev that his films began to be seen in Russia or in the West. Trial on the Road was completed in 1971 but not released until 1985 (the date on the 35mm film print screened at the Hyde Park Cinema). The film is based on a story by German’s father Yuri, a legendary writer who wrote films for the director Grigori Kozintsev and acted as a war correspondent during 1940-5. He also wrote short stories and novels, one of which, Operation Happy New Year, became the basis of Trials on the Road. When the younger German began to show an interest in cinema he worked first under his father’s old colleague Kozintsev in the late 1950s. Find out much more about Aleksai German’s films from this interesting blog.

Trial on the Road (there are other English translations such as Checkpoint etc.) is a film about The Great Patriotic War and therefore in the 1970s expected to show the heroism of the Red Army. There is heroism in the film, but it’s complicated and there is realism and humanism to the fore. The ‘Eastern Front’ was the major theatre of the Second World War in Europe (or ‘Eurasia’). Many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states opted to or were forced to fight for the Nazis or the Red Army as they were occupied by one then the other. Others simply became refugees. Many must have changed sides to stay alive. It wasn’t clear to me where exactly this film was set but there are references to Estonia and to the railway line to Pskov – a town in Western Russia close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia.

Lazarev is a former Red Army soldier who defected to the Germans but now wants to change sides again and fight for the partisans behind the German lines. He surrenders to a group of partisans who might just be expected to shoot him as a traitor. (And this has been argued as one of the reasons that the film was not released under Brezhnev – it was seen as counter to the conduct of the war.) Instead the militia leader (or ‘Senior Citizen Lieutenant’ as the subtitles put it) Lokotkov decides that Lazarev could be useful in an audacious plan to steal a food train. Lokotkov also demonstrates a basic humanity. The ‘trial’ of the title refers to the various struggles within the partisan group over Lazarev and the plans for the train. Lazarev proves himself in an attack which captures a German military car. In doing so one of the other partisans is killed and the Red Army Major attached to the partisans tries to blame Lazarev for the death. But Lokotkov (the leading character in the film) gets his way and the plans are brought to fruition. The actor playing Lazarev, Vladimir Zamansky, is said to have been cast because he was not a celebrated actor or a recognisable face. He struck me as an enigmatic but attractive figure, often silent but with a face that could light up – the only flaw in the casting for me was the notion that he had been a taxi driver before the war (I probably have the wrong view of taxi drivers). The main point is that although he does perform ‘heroically’ in redeeming his earlier conduct in going over to the enemy, he can’t be the official ‘hero’ required by the censorship authorities under Brezhnev.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

This is warfare of the most brutal kind carried out in an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of snow-covered plains, ramshackle villages and sparse woods. German shot the film in black and white with three different cinematographers used for his complex tracking shots across the terrain. Two of the set piece scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen. In one German soldiers appear as wraiths out of the fog overwhelming a Russian lookout. I know that’s been done before but the handling of the scene is terrific. I won’t spoil the second example which was just stunning. The ending of the film celebrates the advance of the Red Army into Germany, but again the director avoids the triumphal and the super-heroism decreed by Soviet socialist realism. Instead he hones in on comradeship and a meeting of the principals from the food train hijack.

This is a must see. I discovered that a free download at reasonable quality is on the Internet Archive website (with links to an English subtitle file. None of German’s films is easily available on DVD outside Russia yet his high status as a filmmaker is not in doubt. If anyone else is brave enough to screen this in a cinema near you, drop everything and go.

Posted in Directors, Festivals and Conferences, People, Russian cinema, Soviet Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Faust (Russia 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 12 May 2012

Johannes Zeiler as Faust

Aleksandr Sokurov’s version of the Faust story was released in the UK today but I saw it in the Bradford International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. I have to confess that had it not been in the festival programme at the appropriate time, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to see it as I have a blank spot when it comes to ‘classical literature’ of any kind. I need to be interested in the sociology, the history or the politics of a narrative to really appreciate it. I think I once saw the Richard Burton version of Dr Faustus (UK 1967), but if so I’ve forgotten it completely. I wish I had seen Murnau’s expressionist version (1926) because the glimpses I’ve had of it suggest at least a masterpiece of design.

So, I approached the Sokurov version, with only the knowledge that the film won the major prize at Venice last year. I’m not sure that I can say that I enjoyed the narrative, but I can say that it was a fine spectacle on the big screen and I was never bored. Sokurov and his scriptwriter claim to have kept close to Goethe’s version of the story. The script is in German but most of the actors appear to be Russian except for the Austrian Johannes Zeiler as Faust and Hannah Schygulla, Fassbinder’s leading lady, as the moneylender’s wife. The film was shot on location in Iceland (the caves and mountain tops) and various locations in the Czech Republic with interiors in the Barrandov studios in Prague.

What struck me most was the look of the film. Sokurov chose to present it in Academy ratio (1.33:1) which for me made the link to Murnau very strong. He also employed a colour scheme that both muted the colours and gave them a yellow-green cast. Finally there seemed to be a distorting lens that featured in several shots (and which at various points I wondered whether this was the fault of the digital projection, but I think that it is meant to signify Faust’s state of mind as he is led through events by the Mephistopheles character – here, Muller, the moneylender). Photography is by Bruno Delbonnel, perhaps best known for his work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Amélie and A Very Long Engagement.

I have little idea about what the overall aim of the narrative might be – and it’s comforting in a way that Tony Rayns seems equally baffled in Sight & Sound (June 2012). I agree with Rayns that there is little sense of a moral struggle here. Faust is a scientist, more bothered by his lack of money than by a burning desire to solve a problem or discover something new. He treats his friends, family and assistant rather badly and allows himself to easily led by the grotesque moneylender. I don’t understand why/how Sokurov intends this to be the fourth part of a tetralogy about evil men and power (following his films on Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito). I saw the Hitler film, Moloch (Russia 1999) some time ago and again, all I remember is its formal ‘otherness’ and its depiction of the banalaties of Hitler’s recreation at Berchtesgaden.

I suppose what kept me going through nearly 140 minutes of Faust was a kind of spotting-game. Which other films, filmmaking styles etc. does Faust remind me of? This I found interesting. First the setting. Goethe (whose late 18th century/early 19th century re-working of the original from the 1570s seems to be Sokurov’s starting point) lived and worked all over Germany but is generally associated with Weimar. However, I felt that the film was strongly ‘Central European’ and at one point I thought about Svankmajer (who made his own part-animated film about Faust). I didn’t know at that point where the film had been made or that Faust was played by the Austrian Johannes Zeiler, but this clearly makes sense. On the other hand, Zeiler kept reminding me of Bruno S. as the title character in Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). There probably isn’t much likeness but of course the time period and location are not dissimilar. Faust has a strange approach to costume and set dressing. Reviewers have suggested periods from the 16th to the 18th centuries and some have conjured up ‘medieval’. I think that there is a sense of, if not medieval, certainly a kind of rural backwardness – conceivable in land-locked Central Europe where new technologies like railways haven’t penetrated. On the other hand, some costumes certainly suggest early Victorian times in the 1830s-40s.

Let me throw in some other references. Certain scenes like the village bath-house, in which Muller’s grotesque and physiologically challenged body is exposed, reminded me of Bosch (and Rayns suggests also Brueghel). On the other hand I was also reminded of popular horror films associated with Poe (right period but wrong location) and the later gothic of Transylvania and Dracula. The closing sequence I’m afraid did remind me of both Monty Python and earlier British absurdist dramas in which our hero roams a post apocalyptic wasteland.

Not a lot of intellectual stimulus in the adaptation of the story then, but plenty of fun in watching and listening to the images. I hope this doesn’t sound too much like Transformers! Rayns launches more of an attack on Sokurov and I was disturbed to read that he is chummy with Putin.

Posted in Russian cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Iron Lord (Yaroslav. Tysyachu let nazad, Russia 2010)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 27 July 2011

Yaroslav (Aleksandr Ivashkevich) leads his men into another small settlement in Iron Lord.

This is the second recent pick-up of a Russian historical biopic by the UK distributor Revolver for a DVD release, following Admiral which we reviewed a few weeks ago. Both films were released in Russia by 20th Century Fox. As with Admiral, the film appears to be an ideology-driven film celebrating one of the first leaders to unite the principalities that would eventually become Russia. In some respects therefore the premise for the film recalls that of Zhang Yimou’s Hero about the king who first united China – though the actual narrative is quite different.

Historical outline

1010, the steppes of western Asia/Eastern Europe. The central character is Yaroslav (hence the Russian title of the film) son of Vladimir, ruler of what was in the early eleventh century, Rus’ or Kievan Rus’, with its capital in Kiev. Yaroslav is given the task of ruling the furthest territory controlled by his father, the wild lands of the North East around Rostov. Kievan Rus figures in Russian history as a ‘medieval polity’ that saw a concentration of power amongst the ‘Eastern Slavs’ before the invasion of their lands by the Mongols in 1230. Kiev is the capital of present-day Ukraine and Rostov is a city in modern Russia some 200 km North-East of Moscow. Rostov is a key city in Russian history and this film celebrates the founding of the city of Yaroslavl, now the major city of the region, 1,000 years ago.

Yaroslav has to find ways of gaining the trust of the local tribes (so that they will pay ‘tribute’) and fighting off marauding bandits who take prisoners to sell as slaves after being taken down the Volga River. Yaroslav has a central plan to build a fortress in the new territories. The local tribes are pagan but Yaroslav is a Christian and the fortress will also represent the solidity of Christianity. This narrative focuses specifically on a tribal group who worship a Bear god (veles) – a symbol of later Russia? The control of the area is further complicated by the actions of the Varangian (Viking) mercenaries who act as Yaroslav’s personal guards.

A Russian poster featuring one of the romance interests, Svetlana Chuikina as Raida

Genre

In Hollywood terms, this might be a ‘sword and archery’ type of film or a medieval epic – the time period is similar to that of Robin Hood and the Crusades. The presentation of Yaroslav is not unlike that of the Russell Crowe character in Gladiator, especially with the (rather confusing) references to his family. However, the strategies adopted by Yaroslav are also similar to those of a ‘liberal’ commander of the US Cavalry attempting to establish order in ‘Indian Country’, i.e. an imperial mission. Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema: Russia (ed Birgit Beumers, 2011) suggests that the ‘historical film’ has always been a major genre in Russian Cinema in both Soviet and pre- and post-Soviet periods. A second key genre is the action film which the Directory terms the ‘Red Western’ – an allusion to the way in which popular Russian films have borrowed aspects of Hollywood genres extensively since the 1920s. Iron Lord can be seen as an attempt to use these two genre repertoires as the basis for a conventional biopic about an important historical Russian figure.

Commentary

A handsomely mounted film in CinemaScope, this would make a visual spectacle of the plains and forests on a big cinema screen. The visual quality is diminished on a TV screen. There is certainly plenty of action with up to four sets of combatants at different times fighting with swords, arrows, a variety of ingenious booby traps and even a bear or two – but these are all relatively small-scale skirmishes. I was most interested in the historical references and the construction of Yaroslav as an almost saint-like figure. There is a smidgeon of romance and one or two comic characters for light relief but on the whole the film is a relatively straightforward. The performances are fine and the combat scenes are well-handled. The weakness for me is in the script which I found confusing. Without recourse to Wikipedia and other sources I would have struggled to understand who the characters were and why they were acting in the ways they did – I’m still not sure that I fully understood the narrative. (The subtitles are OK but some Russian intertitles are not translated.)

Re-branding the film Iron Lord strikes me as misleading. Yaroslav is almost the opposite – he is ‘wise’ not brutal in this narrative and he spends much of the time in captivity or negotiation. Of course, few people outside Russia will know who Yaroslav was so the Russian title probably wouldn’t work either. The film was released in Russia on 550 prints and also has had a release in Ukraine and Germany. It lasted only one week in the Russian Top Ten so presumably audiences are too engaged with Hollywood product to lap up this kind of patriotic film. Revolver announce that the film is “from the same studio that brought you Black Death“. I’m not sure what this means – I couldn’t find any link between the two films. On the other hand, there has been a recent cycle of UK/Nordic/German films of this type (the most recent being Ironclad, 2011).

I couldn’t find much about any of the cast and crew. Most seem either to have come from TV or to be new to the industry according to IMDb. What I did find, however, was that a Soviet era version of the story was adapted as a 156 mins film in 1983. I’d like to see that for comparison. I wonder what happened to all those popular genre films made by Soviet era studios?

DVD Release

Revolver release the DVD on August 1 via the usual retailers. There is a website at http://ironlord.co.uk complete with a clip from the film. Or see it on YouTube at:

Posted in Russian cinema | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Admiral (Russia 2008)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 14 June 2011

Admiral Kolchak receives tribute from White Russian forces and proclaims himself 'Supreme Ruler'

Picked up by Metrodome for a UK DVD release, Admiral is an interesting example of the new Russian popular cinema that is now emerging in one of the fastest growing cinema markets in the world. This month Screen International has a feature in which analysts predict that the Russian box office will grow to as many as 300 million admissions by 2015 (from 165 million in 2010). If this happens it will see Russia as the fourth biggest market behind India, US and China. However, most of this growth is due to Hollywood blockbusters and local films still struggle to compete. Admiral has been the second most successful Russian film of recent years (taking $33.7 million in Russia) and it involves some of the same cast and crew as the other two most popular films The Irony of Fate 2 and Day Watch. The other important institutional factor to note is that the film is actually a 2 hour cut from a 10 hour TV mini-series. That’s an extreme form of compression by anyone’s standards.

Outline (spoilers – but this is a biopic!)

The Admiral of the title is Aleksandr Kolchak (1874-1920), an important historical figure in Russian history. Kolchak was first a polar explorer and then a hero of both the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the First World War naval engagements between the Imperial Navies of Russia and Germany in 1916. It is with these engagements that the film’s narrative begins. During celebrations of a naval victory, Kolchak meets and falls in love with the beautiful young wife of his friend and deputy. – much to the dismay of both his friend and his own wife. Following the Tsar’s abdication, Kolchak managed to retain his authority (largely through being sent to America to help the US Navy). He is able to return to the Russian Far East where he seizes control of the White Forces in the Civil War against the newly formed Red Army. Throughout this period his new love Anna attempts to be with him while his wife and son are in exile in Paris. The film narrative is book-ended by a scene set in the Mosfilm Studios during Sergei Bondarchuk’s production of War and Peace in 1964. Anna, who survived the Civil War but was then imprisoned, is now able to appear in public – but is a role in a ‘patriotic film’, even as an extra, appropriate?

Commentary

An expensive production ($20 million according to Wikipedia) Admiral certainly looks the part – although it suffers like most modern ‘spectacular films’ from the problems of CGI battle scenes. Visually, it works best as a costume drama. The major problem is clearly the compression of the narrative which inevitably means that the story leaps about through time and space. I confess that apart from the two leads, I found it difficult to track certain characters through the narrative. Partly this was because of the strange experience of watching naval officers transmuted into army officers. If you don’t know the history of the Russian Civil War, I recommend at least an outline scan of events before watching the film. (The film does not purport to be an exact historical reconstruction.) It’s difficult to work out the extent to which the balance between the war combat/military planning narrative and the romance has been affected by the compression. I suspect that purchasers of the DVD expecting an epic combat film will be disappointed by the way in which the romance comes to the fore. The romance fails for me because Elizaveta Boyarskaya who plays Anna is certainly beautiful but appears to have little else in her performance that represents the passion the character feels for Kolchak. Konstantin Habensky who plays the Admiral is perhaps the most popular contemporary Russian actor and is believable as the central character, although he looks a little young. The obvious films that audiences in the West will use for comparison are Dr Zhivago (1965) and War and Peace (King Vidor 1956). Ms Boyarskaya doesn’t stand much chance up against Julie Christie or Audrey Hepburn.

For me the most interesting aspect of the film is its ideological work. It’s always an odd experience watching a film in which you find yourself being asked to follow the exploits of the enemy when your own side is not being shown. Not that this is impossible since I’ve never really had a problem with supporting Sergeant Steiner and his men in Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron even if they are part of the Wehrmacht fighting the Red Army. But that’s because they are professional soldiers simply trying to survive and ignore the Nazi officer who they distrust. In the case of Admiral, however, we are asked to support a man who became what some commentators have termed a proto-fascist dictator as ‘Supreme Chief of Russian Forces’. His own ideology seems to be church and ‘homeland’, expressed in patrician and aristocratic terms. The film makes no attempt to humanise the Bolsheviks and they are represented as little more than thugs in most cases – apart from some of the guards in the final sequence. I did quite like the ways in which the guards struggled to find different ways to address the Admiral in the new language of the revolution. ‘Mr Kolchak’ was the last one I think (according to the subtitles).

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t give us the whole story as Kolchak’s early life is intriguing. A character with more shades to his personal character might be more interesting. As it is this seems like a crude attempt to valorise a Putin-like figure. Channel One was a major funder of the film and I think this TV channel is still majority owned by the Russian state. Possibly the TV mini-series has more nuances and contradictions but if you want a corrective to this view of the Civil War I recommend Miklós Jancsó‘s The Red and the White (Hungary 1968). One last point – the image at the head of this post shows the British and American flags. There is, I think, little knowledge in the UK of the part played by Churchill in particular in sending British forces and encouraging other allies to support the Whites in 1918-9 and to try to strangle the Russian Soviets at birth.

A Russian trailer (with English subs):

Posted in Romance, Russian cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2011 #19: Goya (East Germany/Russia/Bulgaria/Yugoslavia/Poland 1971)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 7 April 2011

In one of the film's funniest sequences, Goya shuffles the line-up of the Spanish Royal Family for a famous (and satirical) painting.

The biggest treat for me and many others in this year’s festival was a rare chance to see one of the epic productions from Eastern Europe that competed with Hollywood’s international productions in the 1960s and 1970s. We were told that this was probably the first time that the film had been shown in the UK and that the print was probably one prepared for a screening in Paris at its time of release. The fact that it was a 70mm print in good condition was arguably the main attraction for festivalgoers on the Widescreen Weekend. There was only one slight problem. This print had German dialogue and French subtitles. My French and German are both too poor to deal with complex dialogue so I did miss some aspects of the plot – I’ve had to research the life of Francisco Goya in order to try to sort out some scenes. Though I felt slightly frustrated, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film. I hear German slightly better than French, but I found myself blotting out the dialogue and reading the subtitles. I think that this shows how ‘institutionalised’ one can be in reading subtitles. I also noted that because I was reading a language I only dimly remember learning, I often couldn’t decipher the whole subtitle line before it had disappeared. This at least means that I can now appreciate the difficulty slow readers have with subtitles. The film did actually include some dubbing since two language versions (German and Russian) were produced and actors came from several countries.

Goya is a biopic of the Spanish painter (1746-1828) who straddled the final years of the tradition of the old masters and the birth of modern fine art. The full German title of the film is Goya – oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis, which translates as Goya – or the Hard Way to Enlightenment. This full title gives a clue to what marks this film out from the several other Goya biopics (a Spanish film appeared in the same year and the most recent film to feature Goya was Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghost (2006)). Goya as envisioned in Eastern Europe was a figure who had created for himself a position of some importance as a ‘court painter’ to Spain’s ancien régime. But he was also a man of sexual appetite, a believer in the rights of his Spanish compatriots and a supremely talented artist eager to try new ideas and develop new techniques. It was inevitable that he would struggle in a situation in which ‘enlightenment’, embodied in the French philosophes of the late 18th century, would come to Spain, first peacefully but eventually via war and occupation. In the meantime, Goya and other liberal figures faced not only the protocols of court but also the terrible power of the ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Being labelled a heretic could lead to flogging, imprisonment and then exile – even for those who ‘abjured’.

Goya was one of ten films made at the great DEFA studio in Berlin in a 70mm format. The sheer scale and cost of the film required resources from across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia stood in for Spain but a genuine Spanish musical group contributed to the score. The original cut was some 164 mins (with an interval) but this print was 134 mins and we watched it straight through. This is described as the ‘director’s cut’ in the DVD promotional material but there was discussion around this screening as to what actually prompted the decision to cut the film. The popular theory was that because the film was quite complicated in terms of narrative, the cuts were made because there was a danger of audience alienation. This is interesting because in my experience cutting often makes a narrative more, not less, opaque.

The film was introduced by Wolfram Hanneman (see his introduction here) who told us we would find the film ‘difficult’ even without the language issues. I didn’t really take this on board at the time, but when I researched Goya’s life afterwards I realised that the film was non-linear in its presentation of events. Since the juxtaposition of scenes still made sense in terms of revealing Goya’s ‘path to enlightenment’, this didn’t bother me too much. I don’t really have any strong feelings about 70mm (the main interest for much of the audience) and I can’t really comment on the quality of the print, except that it seemed in pretty good nick. The production was indeed epic and there was plenty of visual feasting unencumbered by language difficulties. The remarkable set pieces around the procedures of the Spanish Inquisition work very well and, as Keith remarked afterwards, this is a biopic of an artist that really does seem to say something about creativity and the artistic process. DEFA employed a small army of illustrators and artists to copy Goya’s paintings at different stages of development.

Goya (Donatas Banionis) with The Duchess of Alba (the Yugoslav actress, Olivera Katarina)

The other major interest in the film is Konrad Wolf as director and Donatas Banionis as Goya. The Lithuanian actor Banionis is the cosmonaut in Solaris and I thought he was terrific as Goya (he also played Beethoven in another DEFA biopic). Wolf (1925-1982) is controversial as a German Jew who fled with his communist family to Moscow in the 1930s and was educated and trained in the Soviet Union before returning to Berlin to work at DEFA. Despite his high status within DEFA there must have been some concern that Wolf was pro-Soviet, although others thought that he had liberal tendencies. I found it difficult to discern any authorial thumbprints on the Goya story that might hint at ideological sub-texts. The film was an adaptation of a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger and Wolf shared screenplay credit with the Bulgarian Angel Vargenshtain. This isn’t my field but perhaps someone would like to comment on Wolf’s political views?

A Region 1 DVD of the film with a slightly cropped image is available on Amazon and I’m told some of the extras are interesting. It’ll have to go on my long list of movies to acquire so that I can re-watch it with English subs.

Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, German Cinema, Russian cinema, Soviet Cinema | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

BIFF 2011 #11: How I Ended This Summer (Kak ya provyol etim letom, Russia 2010)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 28 March 2011

Sergey (left) and Pavel outside the weather station

I saw this film at the end of a long tiring day. It think that is why I didn’t have quite the same ecstatic response to it that seems to be the case with so many audiences. It won the ‘Best of Festival’ prize at London last Autumn plus Silver Bears for the two actors at Berlin and it’s easy to see why it might be an arthouse hit in the UK.

Writer-Director Aleksei Popogrebsky has always been fascinated by polar exploration (see the interview in the Press Pack downloadable from UK distributors New Wave). After two previous art film successes (Koktobel, 2003 and Simple Things, 2007) he embarked on this extremely difficult shoot using a tiny crew and two actors transported to remote locations in Chukotka Autonomous Region. In the story these locations are on an island in the Arctic Sea and the two men are operating a polar weather station. The older of the two men is Sergey, a veteran of the service. His younger companion Pavel appears to be spending his first summer on the island and the two men are not entirely comfortable together. Sergey takes Pavel to be lazy and possibly careless. Pavel thinks the older man is too uptight. He plays video games, listens to his MP3 player and is skilled in dealing with computer readings. Sergey’s behaviour is more disciplined and his activity more physical. The boredom and the endless summer daylight are bound to affect both men.They know that they are on their own, that help of any kind can only come by  air or ship – and that bad weather and pack ice could leave them completely isolated.

The narrative turns on two events. First Sergey goes fishing for ‘Arctic Trout’. He is away in a small boat for a couple of days. This isn’t allowed of course, but Sergey knows that fresh fish will supplement their boring diet and that the break in routine will do him good. But while he is away, Pavel receives a radio call with urgent news for Sergey. He has to lie about why Sergey can’t respond himself. The news is shocking and when Sergey returns, Pavel fails to tell him about it. Once the lies begin, the relationship between the two men is doomed and what was a slight discomfort becomes the basis for psychological and then physical conflict.

The film is beautifully shot and edited (the cinematographer and sound recordist each have a background in documentary) and the generic elements of the thriller with two men in an unforgiving wilderness are generally very well-handled. Polar bears, especially in September, are a real hazard in this area – the director had a first-hand experience of one! Why then wasn’t I overwhelmed? I think that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the plotting but possibly more important I was irritated by the younger man. My sympathies were all with Sergey but the narrative seems to push us to if not identify with, then at least follow, Pavel. The director says that he doesn’t consciously build parables into his script, but that when they meet an audience, people may find parables. It did seem to me that Sergey represents the Soviet professional – someone who began working life before the break-up of the Soviet Union – and that Pavel represents the ‘New Russia’.

I’m willing to have another go with the film. I think that it is likely to do very well and it certainly is worth seeing. It might be interesting to compare it with Hollywood thrillers in regard to certain sequences. Shutter Island and Christopher Nolan’s version of Insomnia come to mind.

How I Ended My Summer is released in the UK by New Wave on April 22nd – here is a list of cinemas showing it.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Russian cinema | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

 
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