Карнавальная Ночь Karnavalnaya noch (Carnival Night, 1956)

Obviously this Soviet comedy-musical from the 1950s is not about Christmas, because Christianity wasn’t exactly a state-sanctioned religion at the time. However, it’s set around the same time of year and deals instead with a New Year’s party. Still it feels somehow Christmassy, and was presented somewhat as such at a screening introduced by the Guardian‘s film critic Peter Bradshaw, so I’m including it here.


A delightful Soviet musical comedy about a bunch of plucky kids putting on a fun New Year’s party being constantly criticised and belittled by a pompous apparatchik bureaucrat (Igor Ilyinsky) determined to stamp out all the joy and replace it with long disquisitions on topics of pedagogical improvement: he intends a number of lectures, including from himself; he wants old men to play serious music rather than a young band of jazz neophytes; he wants a sad song from the librarian and a fable from the accountant; he completely reworks a bawdy clown routine in every element; the list goes on. So the entire film is just the kids finding ways to thwart this dull and lifeless man, who nevertheless manages to steal the show with his immaculate comic timing and ridiculously puffed-up self-importance. It manages to both satirise some of the humourless tendencies of the Soviet leadership, while also being genuinely rather fun.

Carnival Night film posterCREDITS
Director Eldar Ryazanov Эльда́р Ряза́нов; Writers Boris Laskin Борис Ласкин and Vladimir Polyakov Влади́мир Поляко́в; Cinematographer Arkadi Koltsaty Аркадий Кольца́тый; Starring Igor Ilyinsky И́горь Ильи́нский, Lyudmila Gurchenko Людми́ла Гу́рченко, Yuri Belov Юрий Белов; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 December 2018.

Облако-рай Oblako-ray (Cloud-Paradise, 1990)

A rather delightful late-Soviet comedy about a small town, where Kolya (Andrei Zhigalov, doing a holy fool type character) bumbles around, annoying people with his insipid questions about the weather, before hitting on the notion that he’s going to move away to the East to get a job, a ploy to prove to them that he’s not the good-for-nothing they think. Thus a film that opens with the camera gliding down from the heavens to the ground of this grim apartment block to confront a sea of deadpan faces — Kaurismäki-style stares into the abyss of hopelessness and entropy — immediately does an about-turn as everyone Kolya knows becomes excited by his sudden news, and quickly enough he finds he can’t back out of the lie. There are a succession of these little set-piece scenes of celebration, and at times it feels like it could burst into musical numbers (the few songs that pepper the film were sadly untranslated, but had more of a solemn setting to them). It’s a film that metaphorically suggests the Soviet Union in a period of transition, desperate for any (even made-up) hope for change.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Nikolai Dostal Николай Досталь; Writer Georgi Nikolayev Георгий Николаев; Cinematographers Yuri Nevsky Юрий Невский and Pyotr Serebryakov Пётр Серебряков; Starring Andrei Zhigalov Андрей Жигалов, Sergey Batalov Сергей Баталов, Irina Rozanova Ири́на Роза́нова; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Tuesday 25 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 148: Баллада о солдате Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, 1959)

It seems to me that if you’re going to do an “anti-war” film, this is the best kind of template. Without any speechifying or overt statements, Ballad of a Soldier makes its position clear about how wrenching and difficult war can be, by the simple expedient of its unadorned story. A simple country lad (Vladimir Ivashov), thrust into a pan-European conflict, travels back home just to hug his mother for one last time. It’s sweet without being sentimental, and affecting without being bleak or angry.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Grigori Chukhrai Григо́рий Чухра́й; Writers Valentin Yezhov Валентин Ежов and Chukhrai; Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev Владимир Николаев and Era Savelyeva Эра Савельева; Starring Vladimir Ivashov Влади́мир Ивашо́в, Zhanna Prokhorenko Жанна Прохоренко; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 April 2017.

Criterion Sunday 146: Летят журавли Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957)

It’s worrying to recall that I’ve put off seeing this film for so long (a couple of decades since I studied film and first learned about it) because I just thought it looked a bit dull and earnest, in a typically propagandistic Soviet sort of way. Anyone who’s seen it will know this is totally the wrong idea to take of such a glorious work of almost pure cinema. Indeed, it far more presages the French New Wave in its lyrical flights of fancy, its crisp editing and remarkable monochrome cinematography. It’s a love story set against the backdrop of World War II — familiar enough — but it fights shy of any too obvious symbolism, and though you can somewhat predict how things will go, it also confounds some of those expectations. It really is a masterpiece.

Criterion Extras: Simply nothing, except an essay in the booklet. I’ve been critical of these bare-bones releases in the past (the sort of thing one imagines they started the Eclipse imprint to do), but it’s such a startling and beautiful film it almost needs nothing aside from a clean transfer of the print — which it has.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikhail Kalatozov Михаи́л Калато́зов; Writer Viktor Rozov Виктор Розов (based on his play); Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky Серге́й Урусевский; Starring Tatiana Samoilova Татья́на Само́йлова, Aleksey Batalov Алексе́й Бата́лов; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 February 2017.

Criterion Sunday 109: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II Екатери́на Алексе́евна); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001).

Criterion Sunday 88: Иван Грозный Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible, 1944/1958)

Eisenstein’s final film (he’d planned a third part but died after starting to film it) follows the now very much de rigueur pattern of splitting its story into two separate films, though one would assume given its Soviet origins this wasn’t done for commercial reasons. Indeed, the second part was shelved for 12 years following its completion because apparently Stalin was disconcerted with the portrayal of his great hero Ivan. Knowing this obviously lends some compelling subtext to Nikolai Cherkasov’s portrayal of the increasingly paranoid and despotic ruler, though the first film has him posing far more innocently, adopting all those heroic poses he’d already mastered in Alexander Nevsky (1938). There’s a huge amount of beauty to Eisenstein’s framing, all glowering black-and-white close-ups of the principal characters — a huge amount of the drama is conveyed not through dialogue but by the movement of the actors’ eyes, and the frenetic mien of their expressionistic faces. In many ways, it’s like a modern soap opera, as bitter rivals grimace at one another, or go for hugs while revealing their true feelings to the camera over the other character’s shoulder. Much of the film takes place indoors, in cavernous chambers and long hallways, which means the lighting design and use of shadows is at times spectacular. The second part gets progressively darker, until, in a moment of surprise, there’s almost a dance sequence in (slightly reddishly-degraded) colour, before things lapse back to the previous stark monochrome. With a lot of the thematic development done via acting and staging, it’s the kind of film which would surely repay repeat viewings, but the central thrust of its thesis is nevertheless as evident to us as it must have been to Stalin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Эйзенштейн; Cinematographer Andrei Moskvin Андрей Москвин and Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов; Length 187 minutes (split into two parts of 99 and 88 minutes respectively).

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 2 May 2016.

Criterion Sunday 87: Алекса́ндр Не́вский Alexander Nevsky (1938)

By 1938, Sergei Eisenstein was already a celebrated filmmaker (not least for his masterful 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin), but one increasingly held at arm’s length by the Soviet authorities. His previous film, Bezhin Meadow (1937, see extras below), was suppressed, so on the grand patriotic canvas of Alexander Nevsky, he was assigned a co-director (Dmitri Vasilyev) and a co-screenwriter to keep him in check. They needn’t have worried because he turns in a very watchable epic about the resistance mounted against the invading Teutons by the reassuringly ordinary Prince Alexander of the title (Nikolai Cherkasov). Of course, given the historical context, one can’t help but draw the parallels between the noble suffering Soviet people and the threat posed by Hitler’s Nazis (and Roman Catholics, besides) invading from the West. Nevsky is introduced as an ordinary man, fishing in a lake among the people, though as soon as the Mongols ride up to address him, he’s all arms akimbo against the sky, the heroic everyman who shines as a beacon of hope and strength. Indeed, the presentation of Nevsky is consistently as heroic as one can imagine, almost to the point of self-mocking campness, and perhaps this is Eisenstein’s point. In any case, the film moves ahead with a fairly straightforward narrative, and culminates with a frenzied battle scored to Prokofiev’s music, with a little romantic subplot along the way involving Nevsky’s compatriots Vasili (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrei Abrikosov).

Criterion Extras: There’s a significant section on Eisenstein’s lost previous film, with a reconstruction of it from what materials remain (the first and last frames of each shot), which can’t help but be a shadowy approximation of the original but does at least prove it had some gloriously beautiful images.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Эйзенштейн and Dmitri Vasilyev Дмитрий Васильев; Writers Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko Пётр Павле́нко; Cinematographer Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов, Nikolai Okhlopkov Никола́й Охло́пков, Valentina Ivashova Валентина Ивашёва [as “Vera Ivashova”]; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 3 April 2016).

Criterion Sunday 34: Андрей Рублёв Andrei Rublev (aka The Passion According to Andrei, 1966)

Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly no stranger to grand portentous overlong films that seem to hold within their allegorical narratives some statement about society and the world, and in many ways this 1966 film (not released until 1969 due to problems with the Soviet censors) is the first of those to break through to an international audience. It did so in a series of increasingly shorter cuts of around 2.5 to 3 hours in length, but the full 205 minutes is restored here by Criterion and, assuming you’re already in for meandering stories about wandering monks in 14th century Russia, then it won’t disappoint. Although Rublev was a famous painter of icons in Russian Orthodox churches, there’s relatively little of that actually in the film (possibly the creation of art isn’t quite as compelling). However, it enacts a narrative of divine inspiration challenged by atheist philistines, and one can already sense why perhaps the atheist Communist Party of 1960s USSR might not have taken too kindly to Tarkovsky’s themes. The film is split into eight chapters, set in chronological order and dealing (if sometimes tangentially) with episodes from Rublev’s life — encountering a sarcastic jester, discussing art with his mentor Theophanes, enacting Christ’s passion, dealings with pagans and Tatars, et al. It’s probably best to think of these as each illustrating some allegorical lesson about Russia, but they are also quite often handsomely mounted and beautifully shot in sinuous long takes. The final section is perhaps the most impressive, wherein a young boy, the son of a bellfounder, is called on to forge an enormous bell for the Grand Prince, and does so by submitting blindly to faith, while Rublev watches from a distance in silence, having at this point given up on his art. Its message of the importance of artistic creation even under oppressive regimes is a valorous one, and though it may take some time to sink in, the film is a grand achievement.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андре́й Тарко́вский; Writer Andrei Konchalovsky Андре́й Михалко́в-Кончало́вский and Tarkovsky; Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вадим Юсов; Starring Anatoly Solonitsyn Анатолий Солоницын; Length 205 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997, and at the university library, Wellington, September 2000).

Левиафан Leviafan (Leviathan, 2014)

Back when I was first learning about the cinema of Russia and the Soviet Union, watching those early great films by pioneers like Eisenstein and Kuleshov at university, there was a term that came up occasionally known as the “Russian ending”, generally contrasted to the “Hollywood ending”. Well, this new film, which has won a fair few prizes at various film festivals (including London last month), is Russian. It could, of course, be set in any society where bureaucratic corruption festers, but it mines quite a rich seam of humour at the expense of its vodka-drinking local functionaries, while hardly covering modern Russian society in any particular glory. The humour is bleak, though, and the grand movement of the film is to slowly reveal the extent of the societal cogs (government, bureaucracy, religious orthodoxy) which are turning to crush its hero Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), who has a younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and a son from an earlier marriage, and who is being helped by a handsome Moscow lawyer (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to pursue a case against the local mayor involving his isolated family home.

I’d stop short of calling it bleak, though it certainly isn’t bereft of such detail: the title recalls the foundational work of Western political governance by Thomas Hobbes, even as one suspects the film isn’t quite as enamoured of the role of government in lifting humanity from its “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” natural state. There’s also the remains of a literal leviathan in the film, which looms along this windswept coastline like the grand metaphor it is, tantalisingly introduced after a primal transgression pushes Kolya’s son to his limits. But the film finds more ground with its Biblical antecedents, such as the Book of Job, quoted at a drunken, enraged Kolya by a local priest. For all this, I’ve never viewed the so-called “Russian ending” as a necessarily bleak one. In a sense it brings things to the kind of conclusion grounded in comedy — in other words, one that finally levels its protagonists, like the punchline at the end of Barry Lyndon: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” It’s just that while the film is running, some characters are more equal than others, and you can be sad, or angry, or just laugh. This film lets you do all those things.

Leviathan film posterCREDITS
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev Андре́й Звя́гинцев; Writer Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin Олег Негин; Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman Михаи́л Кри́чман; Starring Aleksei Serebryakov Алексе́й Серебряко́в, Elena Lyadova Еле́на Ля́дова, Vladimir Vdovichenkov Влади́мир Вдовиче́нков; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 November 2014.

Тру́дно быть бо́гом Trudno byt’ bogom (Hard to Be a God, 2013)

This last film by Russian director Aleksei German (or Guerman, or Gherman), best known for his 1984 film Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin), was completed and released posthumously by his wife (and co-screenwriter) Svetlana Karmalita. German is a director with few credits over his long career, and this film too was made over a long period, starting as far back as 2000. It’s an adaptation of a science-fiction novel and indeed shares some elements with it, but the overwhelming sense of period setting is rather more mediæval — the film is set in an alternate universe which is stuck in something more akin to our own so-called ‘Dark Ages’. The stark monochromatic visual world of the film is dominated by mud. There’s mud, blood, faecal matter, sweat and piss everywhere, permeating every shot, utterly inescapable. So dense are these textures that it is in fact very difficult to even follow what the supposed plot is, such that reading the plot summary on Wikipedia made me realise I’d taken almost none of this in. This should probably be a damning excoriation, then, except that the film is such an effective evocation of a thoroughgoing worldview, one of fleshy corporeality in all its excesses. The shots are often carefully choreographed, in what seems like a parade of squalor, as a series of mud-caked faces pass by the camera, often in close-up and frequently breaking the fourth wall, like the camera is moving across a vast Bosch-like canvas, revealing yet further depredations of humanity in extremis. This does mean that what plot there is can be rather hard to decipher, save that the central character is one Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), a nobleman who even amongst all the filth often manages to keep his white silk shirt spotless, who witnesses and comments on all the squalor he sees, as he searches for a mysterious character called Budakh. Beyond that, I really couldn’t say much, save that it is at its heart a spectacular visual work.

Hard to Be a God film posterCREDITS
Director Aleksei German Алексе́й Ге́рман; Writers German and Svetlana Karmalita Светлана Кармалита (based on the novel by Arkady Strugatsky Арка́дий Ната́нович and Boris Strugatsky Бори́с Ната́нович); Cinematographers Vladimir Ilin Влади́мир Ильи́н and Yuriy Klimenko Ю́рий Климе́нко; Starring Leonid Yarmolnik Леони́д Ярмо́льник; Length 170 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 9 October 2014.