Category: Russian cinema

BIFF 2014 #18: Shorts

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Faust (Russia 2011)

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.