Archive for the 'Soviet Union' Category

Short Animated World

I’ve just discovered the Short Animated World blog, dedicated to chronicling all 100 entries on the recent Annecy Film Festival/Studio Magazine/Variety poll of thirty animation historians to establish the best animated films of all time. There’s no original critical material, but each entry offers links and - in most cases - a streaming copy of the actual film.

Unsurprisingly, central and eastern Europe animators loom large in the poll, notching up the following entries:

  • 3. Dimensions of Dialogue (Možnosti dialogu, d. Jan Švankmajer, 1982, Czechoslovakia)
  • 6. Tale of Tales (Сказка сказок, d. Yuri Norstein, 1979, USSR)
  • 18. Tango (d. Zbigniew Rybczyński, 1980, Poland)
  • 25. The Hand (Ruka, d. Jiří Trnka, 1965, Czechoslovakia) - Kinoblog review here
  • 31. The Cameraman’s Revenge (Месть кинематографического оператора, d. Władysław Starewicz, 1911, Russia)
  • 33. Hunger (La faim, d. Peter Földes, 1974, Canada)
  • 35. Satiemania (d. Zdenko Gašparović, 1978, Yugoslavia)
  • 44. Franz Kafka (d. Piotr Dumała, 1991, Poland)
  • 47. The Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood (Серый волк энд Красная шапочка, d. Garry Bardin, 1990, USSR)
  • 49. Hedgehog in the Fog (Ежик в тумане, d. Yuri Norstein, 1975, USSR)
  • 65. Monsieur Tête (L’horrible, bizarre et incroyable histoire de Monsieur Tête, d. Jan Lenica/Henri Gruel, 1959, France)
  • 68. Repete (d. Michaela Pavlátová, 1995, Czech Republic)
  • 69. Hen, His Wife (Его жена курица, d. Igor Kovaliyov, 1989, USSR)
  • 83. The Lion and the Song (Lev a písnička, d. Břetislav Pojar, 1959, Czechoslovakia)
  • 85. The Roll-Call (Apel, d. Ryszard Cekala, 1970, Poland)
  • 86. A (d. Jan Lenica, 1964, West Germany)
  • 88. Tuning the Instruments (Strojenie instrumentów, d. Jerzy Kucia, 2000, Poland)
  • 89. Le Pas (d. Piotr Kamler, 1974, France)
  • 95. Le Concert de M. et Mme. Kabal (d. Walerian Borowczyk, 1962, France)
  • 97. Hotel E (d. Priit Pärn, 1992, Estonia)
  • 98. Film Film Film (Фильм, фильм, фильм, d. Fyodor Khitruk, 1968, USSR)
  • 99. Les Jeux des Anges (d. Walerian Borowczyk, 1964, France)

Posted on 26th October 2008
Under: Animation, Jiří Trnka, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union, Russia, Jan Švankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk, Jan Lenica, Czech Republic, Władysław Starewicz, Yugoslavia, Estonia, Priit Pärn, Piotr Kamler, Piotr Dumała, Jerzy Kucia, Ryszard Cekala, Břetislav Pojar, Igor Kovaliyov, Michaela Pavlátová, Yuri Norstein, Garry Bardin, Zdenko Gašparović, Peter Földes, Zbigniew Rybczyński | 2 Comments »

The Red and the White

Csillagosok, katonák
Hungary/USSR, 1967, black and white, 90 mins

  • Director: Miklós Jancsó
  • Producers: Jenő Götz, András Németh, Kirill Sirjajev
  • Screenplay: Gyula Hernádi, Miklós Jancsó, Luca Karall, Valeri Karen, Giorgi Mdivani
  • Photography: Tamás Somló
  • Production Design: Anatoli Burdo, Boris Chebotaryov, Ferenc Kopp
  • Costume Design: Maya Abar-Baranovskaya, Gyula Várdai
  • Editor: Zoltán Farkas
  • Sound: Zoltán Toldy
  • Cast: József Madaras (Hungarian Commander); Tibor Molnár (András); András Kozák (Lászlo); Jácint Juhász (István); Anatoli Yabbarov (Captain Chelpanov); Sergei Nikonenko (Cossack Officer); Mikhail Kozakov (Nestor); Bolot Bejshenaliyev (Chingiz); Tatyana Konyukhova (Yelizaveta the Matron); Krystyna Mikolajewska (Olga); Viktor Avdyushko (Sailor); Gleb Strizhenov (Colonel); Nikita Mikhalkov (White Officer); Vladimir Prokofyev; Valentin Bryleyev; Vera Bykova; Ye. Yermolayeva; Vitali Konyayev; Valeri Glebov; Yevgeni Karelskikh; Pyotr Savin; Nikolai Sergeyev; Sándor Szili; Roman Khomyatov; Károly Eisler; Mika Ardova; Valentina Berezutskaya; Gabi Daniel; Yelena Kozelkova; Nikolai Parfyonov; Nina Shorina; Natalya Zheromskaya


Superficially, it’s easy to see why the Soviet Union thought that Miklós Jancsó would be the man to direct a Hungarian-Soviet co-production commemorating the October Revolution’s 50th anniversary. With My Way Home, made just eight years after the 1956 uprising, he’d portrayed a friendship between a Russian and a Hungarian. With The Round-Up he not only proved himself more than capable of handling large-scale set-pieces, but had also established himself as the most internationally reputable Hungarian director. And his proposed subject, the Hungarian revolutionaries who voluntarily backed the Bolsheviks, must have seemed like an ideal opportunity to commemorate Hungarian-Soviet relations.

In the event, though, the film’s Soviet co-producers were so disappointed with the end result that they banned its distribution in the USSR - and it’s not hard to see why. Firstly, Jancsó set the action in 1919, not 1917, a period of civil war and widespread confusion. Secondly, despite the film’s English title suggesting a clear delineation between Red (Bolshevik) and White (Tsarist) forces, in practice it is virtually impossible to distinguish between them. This was clearly intentional on Jancsó’s part, but it’s hardly the glorious endorsement of the Red side of the equation that his backers must have expected.

In fact, The Red and the White (whose Hungarian title translates literally as ‘Starry Soldiers’, or more colloquially as ‘Stars on their Caps’) is an entirely logical follow-up to The Round-Up in that it too offers a detached, clear-eyed presentation of the mechanics of oppressive power as applied in practice. The opening scenes echo those of both The Round-Up and My Way Home in that we see large numbers of people being repeatedly rounded up, stripped and summarily executed. The impression of anarchic chaos is established from the start by a map of eastern Europe with a bewildering profusion of arrows that presumably indicate troop movements. But with no context-setting or clarification other than the suggestion that Moscow is at the heart of events, it’s as mystifying as any of the film’s later battle scenes.

In a series of successive scenes, Hungarian supporters of the Red Army are rounded up by the Whites, interrogated and freed with the admonishment “This is our war”. Russians, by contrast, are summarily shot, often after being forced to run, the better to provide moving target practice. Groups of horsemen ride into the countryside, shooting at each other while rounding up partisans and innocent bystanders. The men are stripped of their weapons, while the women are stripped of their clothes and probably raped. All this is carried out so matter-of-factly that it’s almost as though the rural population has been collectively conditioned to have the same fatalistic reaction. Listen to the soundtrack divorced from the images, and all you’ll hear is birdsong (a characteristic Jancsó aural tic), barked Russian commands and occasional shots - but no cries or protests from the victims. Everyone seems to be going through the motions, with only occasional exceptions, such as the startling moment when a bare-chested Hungarian on foot successfully overpowers a White officer on horseback.

We eventually encounter another distinct group besides Red and White fighters when one of the Red escapees stumbles upon a field hospital and opportunistically lying on the ground amidst a group of bodies after having spotted that not all of them are dead. Shortly afterwards, the hospital’s nurses are rounded up by the Whites - but instead of the usual and expected humiliation and slaughter, they’re whisked off to a classically Russian silver-birch wood for an impromptu recreation of a ballroom dance, complete with live musicians playing a mournful waltz. This echoes the equally surprising appearance of the military band towards the end of The Round-Up, but the effect here is even more incongruously surreal: it’s as though the Whites (i.e. the more aristocratic side of the conflict) felt a deep-seated psychological need to try to recreate a more civilised (i.e. Tsarist) past with whatever paltry materials they had at their disposal. It also marks the point where Jancsó makes it clear that anyone in search of a conventional bit of revolutionary propaganda is wasting their time - was this the point where his Soviet backers shifted uneasily in their seats, or had they written the film off already?

And then it’s back to the war, with men and horses running for their lives as they’re buzzed by planes, though as soon as they leave, it’s business as usual: more rounding-up, singling-out and summary execution. Although people are frequently shot on camera at point-blank range, there is no blood: they merely fall down as though the rifles contained compressed air. This approach was near-universal in the days of the classic John Ford westerns that Jancsó acknowledges as one of his lifelong inspirations, but by 1967 it’s become stylised enough to be just as surreal as the “ballroom” scene. If I remember rightly, just one soldier seems to display any pain when he dies in close-up towards the end, though any emotional response is limited by the fact that we have little idea who he is - it seems purely coincidental that he happened to die right in front of the camera.

The psychological warfare, while not as chillingly sophisticated as in the more hermetic The Round-Up, is nonetheless ever-present. A huge crowd of white-shirted prisoners is herded into a square lined with arched colonnades, the Russians separated and freed, the Hungarians ordered to strip to the waist and given fifteen minutes to flee - straight into a dead end that was clearly created artificially for precisely this purpose. Having failed this blatantly rigged test, they are lined up and shot. Later, after a line of men has been vetting for courage under fire (by firing a gun into the air directly behind their heads to see if they flinch), a nurse is asked to pick the man she’d prefer to be shot by. People of both sexes are frequently ordered to remove their clothes - there’s considerably more nudity on display than there was in Jancsó’s earlier work, but it’s generally seen from a distance that’s not so much discreet as deliberately dehumanising.

Whereas The Round-Up threaded personal stories through the long-distance overview of intricate troop movements and military operations, this time round there’s very little to latch on to. Seasoned Jancsó viewers will doubtless recognise András Kozák (the Hungarian lead in My Way Home, a key supporting player in The Round-Up) as a Red who makes regular appearances throughout the film, including a final-shot close-up - but he’s just as archetypal as his anonymous colleagues. A romance between a soldier and a nurse is perfunctory enough to suggest that Jancsó is merely tossing his audience a generic bone, one of many pieces of evidence cited by Matt Johnson, in by far the most comprehensive analysis of the film that I’ve found online, in support of his thesis that The Red and the White can be read as a great anti-war satire that rivals Dr Strangelove in its skewed adoption and subversion of traditional war-movie clichés.

In terms of mise-en-scène, The Red and the White is as virtuosic as The Round-Up, with many set-pieces astounding in their scale and accomplishment - all the more so for coming across so casually, as though Jancsó had visited an actual ongoing conflict and merely decided to film the bits that best served his thesis about the confusion and pointlessness of war. Towards the end of the film, with minuscule stick figures being mown down in droves by even more minuscule opponents (almost certainly as near-invisible on the big screen as they are on a DVD), Jancsó seems to be anticipating the passionless mass slaughter of hi-tech modern warfare and computer games, the difference here being that no-one is bothering to keep score.


DVD Distribution: The Red and the White is available from Second Run (UK, PAL), Clavis (France, PAL) and Kino (US, NTSC) - I don’t think any releases are region coded, and all have English subtitles. This review is of the Second Run edition.

Picture: Comfortably the most disappointing of Second Run’s Jancsó releases, the anamorphic enhancement and correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio is scant compensation for a very soft image and interlaced transfer. The condition of the source print is similar to that of Second Run’s other Jancsós (i.e. very acceptable), so it’s hard to say if the problems derive from that or the transfer - though I get the impression that the other editions aren’t any better, suggesting a common source.

Sound: By contrast, the soundtrack is fine, and I’m quite happy to believe that it’s a perfect reflection of the 1967 mono original. Very faint hiss can be discerned if you turn the volume right up, but this has to be to uncomfortable levels to notice anything.

Subtitles: Typically for this label, the subtitles are white and optional, translating Hungarian and Russian dialogue alike. They’re less comprehensive than usual, but passages where prisoners are being herded by their captors are easy enough to work out from the context.

Extras: There are two extras, the first being the ‘Budapest’ episode of Jancsó’s 1994 television series Message of Stones (other episodes can be found on Second Run’s My Way Home and Clavis’ Red Psalm discs), the second being a booklet containing a long interview with Jancsó by Andrew James Horton that’s also available online - see links below.


Links

Posted on 17th March 2008
Under: Reviews, Hungary, Soviet Union, Miklós Jancsó | 1 Comment »

Derek Malcolm’s Century of Cinema

While researching something else (as is always the way), I stumbled upon former Guardian critic Derek Malcolm’s A Century of Films - a survey of his personal Top 100, with a robust defence of each film’s inclusion.

And on glancing down the list again for the first time since 2001, I notice that nine of his choices came from central and eastern Europe (or, in the case of Blanche, from a Polish filmmaker adapting a Polish play). This is perhaps unsurprising for a critic who came of age in the 1960s when Jancsó, Tarkovsky and the Czech New Wave dominated cinematic proceedings, but it’s gratifying nonetheless.

So here’s a direct link to his individual reviews:

Posted on 17th February 2008
Under: Poland, Andrzej Wajda, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union, Walerian Borowczyk, Jiří Menzel, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Sergei Eisenstein, Yugoslavia, Miklós Jancsó, Andrei Tarkovsky, Károly Makk | No Comments »

Iván Darvas RIP

I was out of the country at the time, so I initially missed this Guardian obituary of the Hungarian actor Iván Darvas (1925-2007) when it was published on 5 September - and even that was nearly two months late, as he actually died on 3 June, before this blog was even launched.

I only knew Darvas from his lead roles in the two Károly Makk films that were released on DVD in Britain by Second Run - Love (Szerelem, 1970) and A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda (Egy hét Pesten és Budán, 2003), both very highly recommended (especially Love, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest Hungarian films). And now that I know rather more about his past as an active participant in the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the level of conviction he brought to both of those performances (where his characters have an unspecified political past) is all too explicable.

Rather less missed will be the late Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007), the subject of a splendidly splenetic obituary by Russian music expert Gerald McBurney in today’s Guardian. Khrennikov’s contribution to Soviet cinema was relatively minimal (though Alexander Ptushko’s 1972 Ruslan and Ludmila/Руслан и Людмила is out on DVD), but his influence on Soviet music was vast and mostly malign, his behind-the-scenes support of individual composers notwithstanding.

Posted on 19th September 2007
Under: Hungary, Soviet Union, Obituaries | No Comments »

Old Khottabych

Старик Хоттабыч
Lenfilm, USSR, 1956, colour, 86 mins

  • Director: Gennady Kazansky
  • Writers: Lazar Lagin (based on his novel)
  • Camera: Muzakir Shurukov
  • Design: Isaak Kaplan, Berta Manevich
  • Music: Nadezhda Simonyan
  • Cast: Nikolai Volkov (Hassan Abdurrahman ibn Khottab), Alexei Litvinov (Volka), Gennadi Khudyakov (Zhenya), Lev Kovalchuk (Gogha, aka ‘Pill’), Vera Romanova (Gogha’s Mother), Maya Blinova (Volka’s mother), Olga Cherkasova (Varvara Stepanovna), Yefim Kopelyan (Jafar Ali Mukhammedov), Alexander Larikov (doctor)

Though the poster implies a never-never-land extravaganza along the lines of the films of Alexanders Ptushko and Row, an impression reinforced by a cursory glance at the synopsis, with its references to genies, magic, flying carpets and exotic locations, the bulk of Old Khottabych is actually set in the time and place where it was made: Moscow circa 1956. As a result, it has an immediate historical fascination that its more fantastical cousins lack, not least thanks to a script that’s determined to ram blatant Soviet propaganda down its audience’s throat at every opportunity.

The film initially introduces us to young Volka (Alexei Litvinov), whose Young Pioneers garb (essentially the Soviet equivalent of the Boy Scouts) immediately labels him the embodiment of wide-eyed idealism, an impression that he does nothing to counter later on. While out swimming, he finds and retrieves an ancient bottle. Uncorking it at home, a startled Volka finds that it contains a nearly four thousand-year-old genie, ‘Old Khottabych’ (Nikolai Volkov), who in gratitude promises Volka a seemingly unlimited array of granted wishes.

So far so generic, but the film’s most inspired twist follows shortly afterwards - which is the revelation that Khottabych, far from being master of all he surveys, is in fact a doddering dullard whose views on science, technology and geography are hopelessly outdated, and his would-be generous attempt at offering Volka wealth beyond his wildest dreams is met with a curt “We’re not tsars, or capitalists, and I’d rather die than become a speculator”. In other words, he has as much to learn from Volka (and the various archetypal Soviet workers he encounters along the way) as the other way round - if not considerably more.

There is little place for magic in the thrusting technocracy of Khrushchev’s USSR, only a year away from kick-starting the space race via the launch of Sputnik. A threadbare magic carpet, initially seen flying over assorted monuments to Soviet architecture, industry and town planning, is no match for an Aeroflot plane (”How swift and convenient is this air chariot!”), and the 20th-century equivalent of the sultans of Khottabych’s youth (or first three thousand years, at any rate) turn out to be scientists, miners and engineers, whose innovations create ‘magic’ whose principles Khottabych can’t begin to grasp - an evocative shot sees him switching a small electric table lamp on and off, mystified as to how it works. Small wonder he eventually realises that his natural home is a circus.

There’s plenty of unintentional humour, not least thanks to much of Volka’s dialogue, which could have been lifted word for word from a Young Pioneers handbook. How many actual schoolboys, even from that particular society, would insist on the supremacy of the state educational and food distribution bodies over the prospect of individual gratification? Or speculate on the scientific importance of ancient gemstones over their monetary value? Or turn down the chance of surreptitiously passing an exam with a priggish “We Young Pioneers are against cheating: we fight in an organized manner”? That said, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that there’s also some genuine wit on display.

The oral geography exam where Volka is fed “facts” by Khottabych that turn out to be outdated flat-earth drivel is very funny on top of delivering its sledgehammer moral about cheating (the unsubtlety of the latter arguably adds to the entertainment value), and the football match where one team is granted an unusually co-operative goalmouth is a riot in every sense, recalling the similarly unhinged climax of the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932). The special effects, typically for a Soviet film of this vintage, are primitive, rarely rising above basic matte work and dissolves, but they serve their purpose - and of course add to the film’s already considerable kitsch quotient.

Old Khottabych has, of course, dated horribly, but that’s a major part of its charm, much like that of the explicitly socialist musicals Volga-Volga (1938), Tractor Drivers (1939) and Cossacks of the Kuban River (1946), with their scenes of synchronized wheat harvesting and songs about the joys of attaining farm production quotas. Few if any of these films were distributed on the other side of the Iron Curtain at the time of their original release and most film historians regard them with embarrassment bordering on derision - but, half a century on, films like Old Khottabych have become historical documents, not just in showing how children and families lived in the early Khrushchev era but also the kind of propaganda they were expected to swallow in the form of mass entertainment. Director Gennady Kazansky would go on to make the sci-fi romance Amphibian Man (1961), a rather more winning attempt at blending the fantastic and the didactic.

The DVD

Old Khottabych is available on DVD from the Russian Cinema Council in a package that includes a short documentary alongside the usual filmographies, stills and trailers. Spoken language options are Russian dialogue with optional English, French and Arabic voiceovers, and subtitles in thirteen languages including English. It’s available in either PAL or NTSC versions (the original encoding is PAL), and is not region-coded.
Links

Posted on 14th June 2007
Under: Soviet Union, Russia | 1 Comment »

The Cold Summer of 1953

Холодное лето пятьдесят третьего
Mosfilm, USSR, 1988, colour, 100 mins

  • Director: Alexander Proshkin
  • Writer: Edgar Dubrovsky
  • Camera: Boris Brozhovsky
  • Editing: Yelena Mikhailova
  • Design: Valery Filippov
  • Music: Vladimir Martynov
  • Cast: Valery Priyomykhov (Sergei Basargin, ‘Chaff’), Anatoly Papanov (Nikolai Starobogatov, ‘Spade’), Victor Stepanov (Mankov), Nina Usatova (Lydia), Zoya Buryak (Shura), Yuri Kuznetsov (Sotov), Vladimir Kashpur (Fadeyich), Boris Plotnikov (Starobogatov, Spade’s son), Vladimir Golovin (Baron)

A huge hit on its original release, voted best film of 1988 by the journal Sovetskii Ekran and second only to Vassily Pichul’s raunchy phenomenon Little Vera (Маленькая Вера) at the box office, The Cold Summer of 1953 simultaneously depicts two pivotal periods of Soviet history. Set in the months immediately following Stalin’s death and produced and released in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s late 1980s reforms, it implicitly criticises the Soviet system to a degree that must have been unimaginable even a few months before it went into production in June 1987.

Indeed, director Alexander Proshkin acknowledged that if the film had been shot not that much earlier, it would probably have ended up as the unexceptional thriller approved by state film body Goskino on the basis of a script called The Dance of the Ephemera. Those ignorant of or uninterested in the underlying politics should still find the film perfectly watchable as a smaller-scale Russian version of Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven, as assorted misfits band together to save their remote village from marauding bandits - it’s nowhere near the class of those two, but it delivers enough generic thrills to hold the attention.

But it’s the elements added during production that gave the film its considerable lasting value. The summer of the title saw Stalin’s rivals jockeying for power in the wake of his death the previous March. An amnesty engineered by his right-hand man Lavrenti Beria gave prison governors a heaven-sent opportunity to get rid of their worst troublemakers, though the amnesty didn’t affect exiled “enemies of the people”. Proshkin and his scriptwriter Edgar Dubrovsky had a great many discussions with lawyers and criminologists while preparing the film, as they wanted to make sure its primary message came through loud and clear - which is that the term ‘criminal’ has multiple meanings depending on who’s applying it, and in a totalitarian situation it can often become so distorted as to be essentially meaningless - much like the phrase ‘enemy of the people’, which is uttered at least three times in different contexts.

Chaff (Valery Priyomykhov) and Spade (Anatoly Papanov) have spent years in Stalin’s gulags on trumped-up charges (Spade’s ‘crime’ was to have travelled abroad, Chaff’s was to have been captured by the Nazis during the war), the prime of their lives irretrievably lost: when the film opens they still live under huge restrictions, forced to live in a remote northern village as they’re banned from travelling. They’re still serving their sentence, while the violent marauders who invade the village have a clean record. And all these events are set in train by the actions of people at the highest levels who are later denounced as criminals - Beria is the one repeatedly named, but the clear implication is that he’s just one of many rotten apples.

This theme is explored further through the village’s three authority figures: the slavishly lickspittle Fadeyich (Vladimir Kashpur), unquestioningly accepting everything state-sanctioned and rejecting all ‘unofficial’ suggestions, the increasingly embittered Mankov (Victor Stepanov), too intelligent and observant not to realise what’s really going on, and the weaselly opportunistic Sotov (Yuri Kuznetsov), who’s even prepared to throw his lot in with the bandits, not least as he’s worried about an ongoing investigation digging up aspects of what seems to be a dubious past. With all due respect to the actors, this trio is not depicted with any especial subtlety, and it’s safe to assume that even the most slow-witted audience member would have drawn numerous parallels with events and people in their own lives.

Even less subtle is the depiction of Lydia (Nina Usatova) as a literally mute slave of whichever master happens to be a part of her life at the time (past lovers, present bandits): she’s as much a prisoner of events as any of the others, and the sequence where she wordlessly gestures with increasing desperation at a boat filled with dancing revellers clearly represents the plight of the ordinary Soviet citizen, powerless to attract any kind of attention other than one entailing brutal exploitation. In turn, she takes her frustration out on her daughter Shura (Zoya Buryak), cutting short a potentially romantic conversation between her and Chaff by pouring cold water over them. Shura has dreams of studying in Moscow: had she achieved them, what would have been the chances of her ever returning? And how many people watching her in the cinema had similar ambitions?

What runs throughout the film is a sense of futility, a lament for wasted years and lives and not so much anger as resigned fatalism towards a system that not only permits such things to occur but also actively encourages and exacerbates them. Chaff pointedly refuses to do any more than the bare minimum of work, arguing that he owes nothing to anybody any more, while Spade still holds out hope that he’ll rejoin his family after his exile is over (though they took his advice to forget him, not so much to preserve their safety as their sanity). And the final shot, where Chaff briefly makes eye contact with a white-bearded professorial type, hints that former exiles come from all walks of life, and are so numerous that it’s all too easy just to bump into one.

Though the film was primarily intended hold the past up as a mirror to the then present, it also turned out to offer a grimly accurate portent of the future. No less an authority than the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko made a point of screening it in courses that he taught at American universities in the 1990s, as for him the film symbolised the agonising decision that Russians faced throughout their history: either submit to brutal totalitarian rule or allow crime to flourish unfettered. And by positing the latter as the logical consequence of removing the former, The Cold Summer of 1953 turned out to prophesy the period following the collapse of the USSR just three years after its release. As a thriller, it’s watchable but pretty standard-issue, but as a historical document it’s fascinating.

The DVD

The Cold Summer of 1953 is available on region-free DVD from the Russian Cinema Council in either PAL or NTSC video formats (though the NTSC version is almost certainly a conversion from the PAL original). The package includes a twenty-minute interview with Alexander Proshkin, short documentaries about Beria’s trial, Stalin’s funeral and Anatoly Papanov’s career, filmographies, a stills gallery, soundtracks in Russian, English and French and subtitles in those languages.

Links

Posted on 7th June 2007
Under: Soviet Union, Russia, Alexander Proshkin, 100 Classics | No Comments »

Vassilisa the Beautiful

Василиса Прекрасная
Soyuzdetfilm, USSR, 1939, black and white, 72 mins

  • Director: Alexander Row
  • Writers: Galina Vladychina, O Nechayeva, Vladimir Shveitser
  • Camera: Ivan Gorchilin
  • Editing: Xenia Blinova
  • Design: Vladimir Yegorov
  • Music: Leonid Polovinkin
  • Cast: Georgy Millyar (Father/Baba Yaga), Sergei Stolyarov (Ivan), Lev Potyomkin (Agafon), Nikita Kondratyev (Anton), Valentina Sorogozhskaya (Vassilisa), Irina Zarubina (Malanya), Lydia Sukharevskaya (Belyandrasa)

The second film by director Alexander Row (1906-1973), who throughout his four-decade career specialised almost exclusively in fairytale fantasies (long after they were dismissed as the second-class citizens of Soviet cinema), Vassilisa the Beautiful is based on a famous Russian folk tale about a young maiden cursed by an evil serpent after she spurns his advances, and who is finally freed from its clutches by the love of an honest man.

Viewed today, it comes across pretty standard children’s fare (though entertaining enough), but back in 1939 it must have seemed much newer, traditional Russian folk tales not having provided much source material for films in the past. The first seems to have been the Pushkin adaptation Ruslan and Ludmila (Руслан и Людмиа) from 1938, also starring Sergei Stolyarov). And since the film was shot when Stalin’s Terror was at its height and released the year of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, it’s tempting to read various coded messages into this, not least because the film’s relentlessly Manichean championing of good versus evil, light versus darkness and beauty versus ugliness seems to reflect a yearning for a better, simpler world than the one that produced it. There’s no explicit sign that it was influenced by the previous year’s Eisenstein epic, Alexander Nevsky (Александр Невский), but it’s certainly suffused with the same spirit.

Lead actor Sergei Stolyarov (1911-1969) had in fact spent the early part of his career playing explicitly ideologised blond proletarian “heroes of the people” in such films as Alexander Dovzhenko’s Aerograd (Аэроград, 1935) and Grigori Alexandrov’s The Circus (Цирк, 1936), a musical paean to racial tolerance released at a point when other kinds of tolerance were in all too scarce supply. But he was peripherally caught up in the Terror, when a friend and colleague (cameraman Vladimir Nilsen) was denounced and shot, and although Stolyarov survived, his attempt to defend Nilsen’s reputation caused him to be blacklisted as far as a continuation of his earlier work was concerned: he was no longer an “approved social hero”.

So he turned to fairy tales, drawing on his own rural roots to recast his previous characters as heroic fantasy figures clad in shining armour, sword in hand to do battle with all manner of exotic adversaries in such films as the this one, Khaschei the Immortal (Кащей Бессмертный, 1944), Sadko (Садко, 1952), Ilya Muromets (Илья Муромец, 1956) and many others, becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most popular actors all over again. There’s not much to say about his part here, given that the script provides no real depth or shading, though greater complexity would arguably have worked against the material.

Playing the title role, Valentina Sorogozhskaya (1912-1988) has little to do but live up to its accompanying adjective, which she does pleasantly enough: given that she wasn’t a professional actress and only made one other film, it seems churlish to quibble. Irina Zarubina and Lydia Sukharevskaya are much more entertaining as the ugly (would-be) sister-in-law duo, but their prospective husbands Lev Potyomkin and Nikita Kondratyev contribute little apart from pratfalls and gurning. The real acting honours go to Georgy Millyar (1903-1993), rarely offscreen thanks to the dual role of the brothers’ father and (uncredited) the legendary witch Baba Yaga, a part he incarnated so effectively that he would repeat it in many later films.

Vassilisa the Beautiful was shot near Moscow, in Sergiev Posad, a landscape chosen because it seemed to embody an essential ‘Russianness’, festooned as it was with birch trees, mountainous landscapes and villages that had an authentically pagan air about them. Aside from one impressive sequence involving the ground Ivanushka is standing on suddenly crumbling into a shockingly deep ravine, the production values are cheerfully primitive, more reminiscent of the mechanical effects of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen some fifteen years earlier than the achievements of King Kong or The Wizard of Oz in Hollywood - the spider and three-headed serpent Gorynych are particularly clunky (even on the DVD under review, the latter’s strings are all too visible), and the three bears are much more convincing when they’re on screen by themselves (when they’re clearly real) instead of sharing it with human characters (where they’re obviously men in bear suits).

But Row and his designers counterbalance these defects with some inventive touches, such as a wooden chicken carving reacting angrily to being hit by an arrow or Ivan literally shattering the darkness with his newly-acquired sword, and there’s plenty of incidental wit, such as Belyandrasa Petrovna’s threateningly pointy hat, or the torpid bellringer being energised by the prospect of bridal fisticuffs and responding accordingly.

Some of the set-pieces are genuinely exciting, even if there’s a distinct lack of sustained peril: Ivan’s triumphs often seem merely to be a matter of hitting a stationary target at the right angle, and he’s given plenty of second chances, notably in the scene where he has to guess the answer to the spider’s riddle (it seemingly doesn’t matter if he gets it wrong first time provided he gets it right at some point in the ascent to the arachnid mandibles - which means he can offer a cute answer to the question “what is the dearest thing in the world” in the form of his beloved’s name before having a stab at the correct one: life).

Sergey Stolyarov’s son Kirill claimed that Vassilisa the Beautiful was hugely successful internationally (he also claimed it directly influenced the following year’s British fantasy epic The Thief of Bagdad), but this is not supported by my own research: I trawled in vain through a decade’s worth of back issues of the Monthly Film Bulletin and Variety to find any indication of it being released in Britain or America, and it’s not mentioned in any of my reference books - even those with a generous coverage of Russian and Soviet cinema. But it’s certainly one of the earliest examples of its genre that’s easily available to the likes of us, and makes fascinating comparison with both the other Soviet films of the late 1930s and Row and Stolyarov’s later work - as well as providing an insight into what the children of the Stalin era were expected to enjoy.

The DVD

Vassilisa the Beautiful is available on region-free DVD from the Russian Cinema Council in either PAL or NTSC video formats, though the NTSC is reputedly a poor-quality conversion of the PAL original. The package includes two interviews with Kirill Stolyarov on his father’s career and Russian fairytales, short biographies and filmographies of key cast and crew members, a stills gallery and trailers for other Russian fairytales. The only spoken language option is Russian, but there are subtitles in twelve other languages including English.

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Posted on 5th June 2007
Under: Reviews, Soviet Union, Russia, Alexander Row | No Comments »

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