Category: Soviet Cinema

GFF20 #15: Stalker (USSR 1979)

The journey through the Zone begins on a petrol-driven trolley

Glasgow’s retrospective this year was ‘Are We There Yet? A Retrospective of the Future’ and amongst the many Hollywood films selected for this strand, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker stood out as something different. I don’t think I saw Stalker when it arrived in the UK, but I knew something about the film. I was therefore surprised that a 162 minute film which has baffled audiences for 40 years should attract a nearly full house in GFT1 (260 seats taken according to Festival co-director Allan Hunter). Admittedly this was a free show, like all the morning shows in the retrospective, but even so the turnout was impressive.

The starting point for Stalker was a novel, originally titled Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. There are numerous stories about the production of the film but most point towards Tarkovsky’s decision to use the novel only as ‘inspiration’ rather than to adapt it ‘faithfully’, although I think some have argued it is quite close to the novel (which I haven’t read). In addition, reported problems with the filmstock used and a dispute with the original cinematographer meant that Tarkovsky re-shot much of the film and there is a credit part-way through the Curzon DCP which announces ‘Part 2’ and therefore, I think, the new material.

If you haven’t seen the film, the narrative starts from the premise that after some kind of major incident (which in the novel is an alien visitation which the aliens treat ‘like a picnic’) an area of land is cordoned off and access is denied to the public. This is ‘the Zone’. A group of individuals have spent time trying to find ways into the Zone and these people are known as ‘Stalkers’. The narrative opens with a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) leaving his wife and child at home and meeting two men, the ‘Professor’ (Nikolay Grinko) and a ‘Writer’ (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) who will pay him to lead them into the Zone. Why do they want to go there? The local legend is that at the centre of the Zone is a building with a room in which anyone who enters successfully is able to have any wish granted. The Stalker tells them that the Zone is very difficult to navigate and that only he and his few fellows know the pathways and how to find them. He refers to the most famous Stalker who was known as ‘Porcupine’.

The Writer

The film is divided into sections marked by the use of colour filters or distinctive palettes. The opening in the house of the Stalker and the bar where he meets his two customers is presented in a yellowish sepia, many of the scenes indoors/underground in the ‘Zone’ have a palette primarily of greys, contrasting with outdoor sequences in full colour dominated by the greens of vegetation. The final sequences set back near the Stalker’s home are perhaps again yellowish sepia. (I’m confused here since the many stills online don’t always match what I think I saw in Glasgow.) The film is presented in Academy ratio and there are two types of colour stock used as well as black and white according to IMdB.

Stalker has been described in many ways but like all films labelled as ‘science fiction’ it is about ‘now’ rather than anything futuristic. The film seemed to me to be primarily concerned with living in the USSR. This in turn requires entering a number of philosophical debates about how to survive in the society and what it is that keeps people going. We do find out what the Professor and the Writer are seeking but several questions are unanswered by the narrative. The most obvious is why the Stalker hasn’t entered the room and obtained his own wish – which might be for money to support his family or for a cure for the affliction which means his daughter has difficulty walking.

The Writer and the Professor

I should point out that I found the film very heavy going. Partly that might be because I was feeling under the weather anyway with a heavy cold but I think I stayed alert throughout the running time. However, I am now finding it difficult to remember some parts of the narrative. I saw my first three Tarkovsky films on release in UK cinemas, Solaris (1972), Andrei Rublev (1973) and Mirror (1980) and not only did I enjoy them but I found myself moved by them in different ways. When I watched Tarkovsky’s début film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) some years later on video, I was similarly knocked out. Why then did I not respond to Stalker? I don’t know. I was impressed by the camerawork and some of the ‘action sequences’ such as the initial breaking into the Zone, the walk across it and some of the sequences inside the buildings, but for some reason I wasn’t engaged. I wasn’t sure what to make of the opening and closing sequences with the Stalker and his wife and daughter. It may be that I just couldn’t tune into the religious and and more broadly philosophical questions – though these are also present in various ways in some of the earlier films. More likely, is that the narrative itself is much more abstract and though it isn’t difficult to see some of the links to a critique of Soviet society, I tend to enjoy narratives that are more materially, more sociologically grounded (or in the case of Solaris, couched in more specific generic structures).

There are many, many pieces written about Stalker from eminent film critics and scholars to auteur fans. There are also many attempts to explain the narrative. Stalker has become one of those films that are endlessly argued over. You can easily find many of these on YouTube and through simple searches. Perhaps I need to watch it again – or perhaps I should seek out his last two films? I’m pleased Glasgow screened it and I’m glad I saw it in what is now considered a large cinema. Here’s the trailer for a recent restoration of Stalker:

Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) screening

Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening a 35mm print of the 2005 restoration of this Soviet Classic. The screening is supported by the Cinema For All – Yorkshire (Group). This is a rare chance to see the film in its original form rather than just on digital. The screening will enjoy a piano score by Darius Battiwalla, an experienced accompanist who impressed audiences in the now sadly defunct National Media Museum ‘silent with live music’.

The Picture House, recuperated after the floods of 2016, now has a new 35mm projector. The introduction will place the film in the context of the seminal Soviet Montage Movement and, importantly, of the revolutionary society ushered in by The Great October Revolution, which Centenary occurred in the last few weeks.

Check out the cinema: http://www.hebdenbridgepicturehouse.co.uk/live-events/reel-film-battleship-potemkin

Check out the BFI restored print: https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/the-battleship-potemkin-bronenosets-potemkin-2/

King Lear (Korol Lir, USSR (Russian) 1971)

Juri Jarvet as Lear sitting by the fire in his court.

(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)

King Lear is Shakespeare’s tale of an ageing monarch who makes a spectacular error of judgement by dividing his kingdom through a ‘love trial’ of his three daughters, unleashing chaos in the land. There are countless film versions, some of the best known like King of Texas (US TV film, 2002), A Thousand Acres (Iowa, US 1997), Ran (Japan 1985), transplanting the story to radically different soil.  Peter Brook’s monochrome film (1971) is considered by many the definitive screen version of Shakespeare’s original. In his absurdist vision, the key word ‘Nothing’ reverberates throughout – from the black silence of the opening titles to the apocalyptic waste of the ending. Most British stage and screen productions have followed in this tradition of nihilistic despair, recent ones taking the theme of breakdown further by retreating to the small, dark, senseless space of an old man’s dementia-ridden head.

It was refreshing therefore recently to discover Grigori Kozintsev’s gloriously expansive Russian language film Korol Lir. Released the same year as Brook’s film and superficially similar in its monochrome vision of tragic destruction, it deserves to be far better known: Kozintsev offers a more coherent, richer and arguably uplifting reading of Shakespeare. The film is available on DVD but only a cinema re-release could truly do justice to this wide-screen epic. A contemporary of Eisenstein, Kozintsev was an experimental film-maker who learned his craft in the great age of montage, with the creative theatre and film school FEKS; in his later career, he developed into a visually imaginative but more mature artist with a (socialist?) realist style. He was also a Shakespeare scholar with a deep interest in his tragic ‘philosophy’, so it is no surprise that in the 1940s he staged and later filmed his two darkest tragedies Gamlet (1964) and Korol Lir (1971). Kozintsev declared he wanted ‘to create a visual poetry with the same quality as that of Shakespearian verse’ (dialogue with Ronald Hayman, 1973) – so dramatically cut Shakespeare’s lines (the film runs to only 2 hours 11 minutes). Achieving his goal was made easier because of his long and close collaboration with translator Boris Pasternak and composer Dmitri Shostakovich on productions of Shakespeare. Shot on the shores of the Baltic, both films are remarkable for their powerfully symbolic elemental imagery, luminous clarity of vision and epic – often monumental – shot-making. There is no finer example than the breathtaking scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears on the castle battlements.

Much of the rich ambiguity of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films derives from the Soviet context: they share the quality of ‘double-voicing’ (Bakhtin) that characterises much of the art produced in a repressive state. That is to say, they can be read as innocent ‘art’ or allegorically, as political critique of the Soviet system. In turn, audiences were primed to look for encoded meanings – each one potentially a small act of resistance. To the distant pre-Christian English setting of King Lear, Kozintsev added another layer of strangeness, using some foreign actors dubbed into Russian – for example, lead actor Estonian Juri Jarvet. As a truth-hating tyrant whose actions ruin his country (symbolised by his tearing up of an enormous map of the nation), Lear stands for oppressive Soviet leadership, from Stalin to Brezhnev. However, Kozintsev suggests he is doomed from the start: unlike the great bearded patriarch of the silent era Lear (1909) or Patrick Stewart’s heroically masculine ‘King of Texas’, gaunt-faced Juri Jarvet cuts a frail figure. For all the actor’s passionate performance, this Lear is dwarfed by his throne, his outsize royal garments and ridiculously sculpted hair collapsing around him as he hurtles towards his downfall. In presenting the all-powerful leader as almost comically impotent from the start, Kozintsev creates pity for Lear and but also stirs the political hopes of his audience.

Grigori Kozintsev

Like many Russian artists who saw Shakespeare as a radical and their contemporary, Kozintsev understood instinctively the deeply political nature of a tragic vision that links the fate of the individual to the nation. From the opening frames to the great final battle, this feels like a biblical epic. In his re-imagining of the play, Kozintsev presents  the poor multitudes on the move, devotedly following Lear on his journey all the way to Dover – crowds that perhaps represent the peasantry or proletariat, the dispossessed and alienated living in internal exile. Lear has to be reduced to their level, to a state of Nature, to ‘ . . . a bare, forked animal’ before the process of regeneration can begin.  At this climactic point of the narrative, Kozintsev makes Nature his central character. In a series of intensely atmospheric scenes Ionas Gritsius’ savagely beautiful cinematography captures the disorder both in Lear’s mind and kingdom. In the critical storm scene, there is an epic sweep to his camera work, which takes us to vast windswept wastelands where high overhead shots pick out a tiny figure illuminated in the darkness – Lear raging pitifully against the elements.  Such shots are reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Macbeth and Othello, but Welles’ use of chiaroscuro is more noirish. In this scene wild grunting boars, horses, and bears charge restlessly through desert spaces, amid an enhanced soundscape of violently rustling trees and howling winds. The film abounds in such primitive imagery and Kozintsev does not flinch from the darkest side of human nature. After the unimaginable cruelty of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out, he reflects Lear’s verdict that he has spawned sexually rapacious ‘tigers, not daughters’ by cutting to invented  scenes of Goneril and Edmund having sex, followed by the necrophiliac horror of Regan not so much kissing as devouring the face of her dead husband Cornwall.

Despite its darkness, there are other striking features that make this a politically engaged film. Firstly, Kozintsev gives the Fool (Oleg Dahl) a much greater role than usual, exploiting his ambiguous status as state servant but licenced truth-teller to represent him partly as the artist, and partly as the ‘holy fool’ of Russian tradition. He introduces him to the play earlier than does Shakespeare, showing Lear from the start sheltering him under his cloak and patting him on the head, like a surrogate child, a reminder of the loving daughter Cordelia he has unjustly banished. Crouching in dark corners, the Fool is a loyal dog growling out his riddling wisdom to Lear. From the opening titles, Shostakovich uses the motif of jaunty pipe music to signal the Fool’s artistic purity and role as the voice of Shakespeare’s conscience. Even though the playwright has him fade away well before then, Kozintsev keeps him till the final frames, when he is kicked aside like a cur but rises defiantly to play Russian folk tunes that hint of hope to the audience.

Cordelia’s marriage to the King of France with the overt Christian symbolism

Secondly, Kozintsev makes overt use of Christian references in a pagan world that can be taken for the atheist state. Shostakovich begins with highly emotive religious chants, reflecting the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a force of resistance in the later Communist era. His orchestral score then builds to a thundering discordant climax as Lear ascends prophet-like to the top of his castle to address his kneeling subjects, only to spew ugly fire against his daughters. To emphasise that Lear is the false god of the old order, Kozintsev cuts straight to a new order in which the forces of good are aligned with Christian imagery of resurrection: Cordelia’s marriage to France (off-stage in Shakespeare’s play) takes place before a great wooden cross. He underscores this idea through the use of a fabric motif; first seen in the background to the opening and closing titles is a threadbare coarse-weave fabric that symbolises both the ruination of Lear’s land and its salvation. This becomes clear when Gloucester’s innocent banished son Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom the beggar) uses such a fabric to cover his nakedness, but later gives up even this meagre rag to bind his broken staff into a cross marking his father’s grave. Fire that is first foregrounded burning in Lear’s hearth eventually becomes a raging holocaust, evoking perhaps the destruction of two world wars, Hiroshima and Vietnam. But the effect is cathartic and perhaps revolutionary: the whole social order must be razed to the ground for a better one to arise.  After the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, the camera takes us out wide to birds flying over the sea, signifying not death but liberation. Ending on images of sacrifice and redemption might in a western context seem almost reactionary, but here can be read as resistance.

Faced with the everyday threat of personal and nuclear annihilation, for the artists of Brezhnev’s Cold War USSR despair might have seemed a western luxury; on the other hand, engagement was an act of survival. Some might dismiss the film as rather traditional, but for me it is precisely Kozintsev’s commitment to a search for meaning that makes his version of King Lear particularly appealing in our jaded postmodern age. His achievement was to marry poetry and politics using the moving image – the ultimate light illusion – to conjure something from Shakespeare’s ‘Nothing’.

The film is officially available from Lenfilm (with English subs) in HD (but a slightly-squeezed aspect ratio on YouTube:

Written by Shabanah Fazal – see her other posts on this blog

The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, USSR 1927)

This was one of several films commissioned in order to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Great October Revolution. The most famous of these is Sergei Eisenstein’s October Ten Days that Shook the World (1928). Both films include sequences showing the storming of the Winter Place: in fact the filming of these sequences found the two productions ‘stepping on each others’ heels’.

However, Vsevolod Pudovkin, the director, has a different approach to drama and to ‘montage’ from Eisenstein. There are parallels between this film and his earlier adaptation of a Maxim Gorky’s novel, Mother / Mat (1926). This film follows the experiences of a young rural worker who migrates to St Petersburg in search of employment. We follow him in a linear fashion as he experiences the exploitation of the proletariat in Tsarist Russia and he becomes politicised. The film includes very fine sequences showing the advent of war, the experiences of the Russian army and then the series of conflicts that led to the overthrow, first of the Tsarist regime, and then of its bourgeois successor.

Pudovkin, together with his script writer Nathan Zarkhi and the cinematographer Anatoli Golovnya, present the city, the social movements and its representative characters with a strong sense of the world they live in and of the historic events in which they were involved. Whilst Eisenstein’s film ends with the Vladimir Lenin announcing the start of Socialist Construction Pudovkin’s film ends on a quieter note, expressive of the victory but also of the cost it has levied.

Sheffield Showroom have a screening of the film this Sunday, October 15th. The screening uses the Contemporary Films 35mm print. Unfortunately this is copied form a 1969 Soviet re-issue where the film was reframed to accommodate a music track, and there is some cropping in the top of the frame.  However, it will enjoy a specially composed musical score from the Harmonie Band: the score is excellent and works well with style and drama of the film.

This is fine film and a signal celebration as we approach the anniversary of the most important event of the C20th. Hopefully we can look forward to other significant dramas and records of 1917.

Spark – A Festival of Revolutionary Films

This Autumn is the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of London’s independent cinemas are hosting a season of films by Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Shub – plus Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) based on the personal account of the events of the Revolution by John Reed. The Phoenix in East Finchley and the Rio in Dalston have screenings on alternate Sundays mostly starting around lunchtime/early afternoon. If you’ve never seen these Soviet classics, here is a great chance to catch up on an extraordinary period of filmmaking. Download further details here: Spark Programme.

Ten Titles that Shook the World of Film

soviet-directors

Welcome to 2017 in which we celebrate the centenary of the Great October Revolution. One film that both recorded and dramatised that shock was Sergei Eisenstein’s film of the historic event, Oktyabr (Ten Days That Shook the World 1928).

Other key films from the Soviet Montage Movement include

The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon 1929) directed by Grigori Kozintsev and  Leonid Trauberg. A powerful dramatisation of the historic Paris Commune of 1871: a forerunner for the October Revolution.

Mother (Mat 1926)  directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin. Set during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and based on the 1906 novel ‘The Mother’ by Maxim Gorky.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Padenie dinastii Romanovykh 1927) a seminal compilation documentary written and directed by Esfir Shub recording the years from the 300th anniversary of the Romanov imperial reign to its demise in 1917.

The Girl with a Hatbox (Devushka s korobkoy 1927) directed by Boris Barnet and starring Anna Sten. The film satirises the ‘Nepmen’, entrepreneurs who were allowed to conduct commercial business during the New Economic Policy of the 1920s.

Bed and Sofa (Tretya meshchanskaya 1927) directed by Abram Room and finding comedy in the strains experienced as the Socialist Republics were transformed.

Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom 1929) directed by Dziga Vertov and both celebrating and analysing Soviet Construction.

Old and New (Staroye i novoye 1929) directed by Sergei Eisenstein and the transformation of a village under collectivisation.

Earth (Zemlya 1930) directed by Aleksandr Dovzhenko and set during the collectivisation programme with resistance from the rich Kulaks [wealthy peasants].

Enthusiasm (Entuziazm / Simfoniya Donbassa 1931) directed by Dziga Vertov. A film celebrating Socialist Construction in the Don Valley of the Ukraine. Needs to be seen and heard with its original soundtrack rather than with live music.