Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Russian war film set to open amid controversy over accuracy of events - Panfilov’s 28

Directors: Kim Druzhinin, Andrey Shalopa
Writer: Andrey Shalopa
Stars: Aleksandr Ustyugov, Aleksey Morozov, Amadu Mamadakov

A still from Panfilov’s 28

Every Soviet schoolchild was taught about the heroic feats of the last 28 members of Ivan Panfilov’s division, which in late 1941 fought to the death to stop a Nazi tank assault on Moscow in one of the best known episodes of the Soviet war effort.

“Russia is vast, but there is nowhere to retreat – Moscow is behind us,” one of the Red Army soldiers, armed at the end with just Molotov cocktails and grenades, said as the attack was halted.

But as a film about the events, Panfilov’s 28, opens in Russia this week, controversy rumbles on over the fact that many of the details of that last stand – both in the film and versions pre-dating it – appear to have been invented.

Arguments over the upcoming film and the mythology around the episode in general began last spring, when Sergei Mironenko, the director of Russia’s state archive, gave an interview stating that while there had indeed been a bloody battle outside Moscow, not was all as many had understood it.

His words provoked such outrage that over the summer the archive posted online a 1948 internal Soviet military report into the events, which came to the conclusion that a journalist from the Red Army’s newspaper had made up the particulars of the story, inventing quotes and ignoring the fact that some of the soldiers had survived and one was believed to have surrendered to the Germans.

The legend was cooked up to fit in with the Soviet demand that soldiers should fight to the death rather than surrender.

Vladimir Medinsky, the culture minister, reacted furiously to the intervention, saying it was not the job of archivists to make historical evaluations, and if Mironenko wanted to change professions, he should do so. Shortly after, Mironenko was fired.

The nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky said in recent weeks that he had called at a government meeting for Mironenko to be fired. He claimed his uncle had fought in Panfilov’s division and said those griping about the exact numbers were missing the point. “It’s unacceptable for someone from the archives to start telling the whole country that there were no Panfilov heroes,” he said.

Medinsky later went further in his defence of the film and his disgust for those who questioned the story.

“It’s my deep conviction that even if this story was invented from the start to the finish, even if Panfilov never existed, even if there was nothing at all, it’s a sacred legend which it’s simply impossible to besmirch. And people who try to do that are total scumbags.”

Medinsky said he would like to send such people, who “poked their dirty, greasy fingers into the history of 1941” back to the war period in a time machine and leave them in a trench to face Nazi tanks armed with just a hand grenade.

Panfilov’s division included many central Asians, and last month Putin and Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev watched the film together.

Under Putin, victory in the second world war has become the main building block of modern Russian identity, and criticism of the Red Army or mentions of the darker sides of the war effort are unwelcome.

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Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sergey Snezhkin: Maringolds in Flower / Cvety kalenduly - Цветы календулы (1998)

movie poster

Director: Sergey Sniezhkin 
Cast:Era Ziganshina, Marina Solopchenko, Kseniya Rappoport,

Of all the national cinemas in the world, that of Russia has the most fruitful relationship with literature. This extends beyond the dull and plodding genre of the literary adaptation or the more general "book of the film" treatment to any novel whose widespread success uninspired directors want to cash in on. Russians filmmakers have managed to be inspired by literature in the artistic and spiritual sense rather than just finding a plot idea which will bring in the punters.

As such, literature is a point of departure for many Russian filmmakers and not something whose content merely can be replicated in another medium. This has produced a number of adaptations which seem to merit consideration independently of the text on which they were based, including Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg's Shinel' (The Overcoat, 1927), Andrei Tarkovsky's Soliaris (1969-72), Alexei German's Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1983) and much of Alexandr Sokurov's oeuvre.

However, the influence of literature extends far beyond using books as a direct source. Sergei Sniezhkin's Cvety kalenduly (Marigolds in Flower, 1998) is a film which takes its inspiration from the great Russian dramatist and short-story writer Anton Chekhov without its plot being directly based on any of his published works.

The action takes place in a dacha just outside St Petersburg some time shortly after the collapse of Communism. The removal of the tyrannical regime has done nothing to relieve the ills of the Protazovs and it has if anything made them worse. Georgia Protazov was a poet who collaborated heavily with the Party and in return was feted as a national hero. However, with the coming of perestroika his reputation was re-evaluated and murky truths dug up from his past. What is more, the MTV generation now has little interest in poetry and literature, least of all Protazov.

This humiliating fall from grace is too much for Protazov's widow, Seraphima, who had her heart set on a place in posterity, rather than infamy, for her husband. If that wasn't bad enough, she has to battle with her family over what to do with the inherited dacha. She wants to create a museum to her late husband, while her three bitchy granddaughters would rather sell up and move to the city for a more adventurous life.

In the midst of this set of mutually antagonistic personalities, arrive two men who offer more money to spend the night in the spare room than can possibly be refused, even if it is the night of carnival-style family celebrations for Seraphima's birthday. However, they have more in mind than just staying the night in the dacha.

Sniezhkin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mikhail Konvalchuk, certainly has the keen eye for the minutiae of human behaviour necessary to pull this kind of film off. With the action rarely extending beyond the walls of the dacha, Sniezhkin has to rope in all the attention to the details of character he can without going overboard and making his characters overly stylised. This he manages to achieve with only occasional lapses of judgement.

Not only that, Konvalchuk and Sniezhkin have attempted a brave plot which tackles both specific issues of the post-perestroika period and more timeless observations. As the production notes rightly say: "A century has passed [since Chekhov's time] and Russia hasn't changed much, despite revolutions and wars."

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Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Tatyana Lukashevich: The Foundling - Подкидыш (1939)

Foundling stills

Director: Tatyana Lukashevich
Cast: Veronika Lebedeva, Faina Ranevskaya, Pyotr Repnin

Кадр из фильма Подкидыш, 1939 год.jpg

Little Natasha went out and got lost in a big city. Her fate was attended by all whom she met in her fascinating, full of cheerful adventure travel. Everything, of course, ended well. And while Natasha was wandering around town, she made a lot of friends, among both adults and children.

Monday, 31 October 2016

World’s oldest actor Vladimir Zeldin dies aged 101

Died Vladimir Zeldin

Vladimir Zeldin, believed to be the world’s oldest working actor, has died aged 101, after spending 71 years at the same Moscow theatre.

The Russian actor appeared on stage as recently as last month, using a walking stick due to a broken hip, to appear in the play The Dance Teacher by the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega.

He had appeared in the play more than 1,000 times, Tass reported. The theatre had planned for him to appear again next February, to mark his 102nd birthday.

According to colleagues, Zeldin had been ill and spent the last three weeks in hospital. He died in the early hours of Monday morning. 

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Nikolay Khomeriki: Icebreaker - Ледокол (2016)

Director: Nikolay Khomeriki
Cast: Pyotr Fyodorov, Sergey Puskepalis, Aleksandr Pal

The film is based on real-life events of 1985 when the icebreaker “Mikhail Somov” was caught in the Antarctic ice and drifted for 133 days in ominous silence and extreme cold. The captain had no right to make a mistake. Any wrong maneuver could bring death upon the crew and the heavy ice could squash the ship.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Roman Artemyev: The man from the future - Человек из будущего (2016)

The man from the future stills

Director:Roman Artemyev
Aleksandr Chislov, Seseg Khapsasova, Mariya Skornitskaya, Dmitry Blokhin, Ivan Dobronravov, Aleksandr Bashirov

The Man from the Future was written and directed by Roman Artem’ev, a 2003 graduate of the Film Institute VGIK, who is best known for his work as an actor in such films as Children of the Arbat (Deti Arbata, 2004) and Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Groznyi, 2009). This sci-fi comedy tells the story of a middle-aged science teacher named Merkur’ev who saves the planet from a fallen piece of the sun by building a “sun diverter.” According to Merkur’ev’s calculations the proper functioning of the invention depends on the successful impregnation of a cashier named Gulia with the “savior of mankind.” The full-length feature is an expanded version of a fifteen-minute short film called The Savior (Spasitel’, 2013), which claimed the grand prize at the Russian short-film festival “Shorter” (Koroche).

The illogical plot works well within the context of a fifteen-minute comedy of errors: Merkur’ev (Aleksandr Chislov) approaches the wrong Gulia (Seseg Khapasova) and only realizes his mistake after they “immaculately consummate.” He runs off naked into the night, presumably to earnestly summon and seduce the proper Gulia with the same absurd explanation. At the end of the film Merkur’ev gleefully returns to his first Gulia, announcing that she was the right one all along. The short version was an effective joke with good pacing and a well-timed punch line, but the same joke fails to amuse in the 75-minute version. The short film was funny because the question of Merkur’ev’s authenticity and his true intentions remained unanswered. Was he really a scientist? Was he really from the future? Was he simply a madman taking advantage of apocalyptic circumstances to live out a sexual fantasy? In the full-length film the director ruins the absurdist sketch with futile attempts to make sense of a far-fetched premise. It’s like watching one of Daniil Kharms’ “Incidents” be turned into a crime drama: Why exactly did the old women fall out of a window?

In The Man from the Future Merkur’ev is not really from the future, but tells this white lie to convince both Gulias to go along with his strange plan. After Merkur’ev gains national fame for his heroic deed his fib is exposed and the public assumes that he is a fraud. Merkuriev, too, remains unsure whether it was really his actions that re-directed the falling piece of the sun. The connection between his earth-saving invention (the sun diverter) and the need to impregnate a cashier named Gulia is not made clear. Despite the high production quality, the film has a B-movie feel. The plot makes little sense and the characters lack both dramatic depth and comedic charm. The film’s true virtue lies in the director’s parodic play with American and Soviet cinematic repertoire. With artful diligence, Artem’ev demonstrates an arsenal of eclectic cinematic knowledge.

The film is set in modern-day Moscow, but makes visual allusions to popular American sci-fi comedies. The opening scene of the film depicts a nearly empty supermarket. Eerie music plays as flickering overhead fluorescent lamps illuminate empty aisles. Gulia (who we later find out is from Bishkek and therefore is “the wrong Gulia” because according to Merkur’ev’s calculations the mother of the savior must be from Tashkent) is a cashier closing up the store on the day the world ends. Her last customers buy vodka with comical nonchalance and invite Gulia to join them. She quietly responds that she prefers to remain in the store’s basement, where she has already “prepared everything.” The ominous tone is tinged with cartoonish farce. The two men preparing for a last bender and the young cashier preparing to hide out seem resigned to their fate, unbothered by the impending doom. Apocalyptic themes and apathy are regular features of post-Soviet cinema, but Western-style optimism and the righting of wrongs outshine the few dark moments in The Man from the Future.

After the two men leave Gulia begins to close up the store. Suddenly a nude Merkuriev mysteriously appears. Startled by a noise, Gulia fearfully looks around as an empty shopping cart rolls down the aisle. This recalls the opening library scene from the American film Ghostbusters (1984). The appearance of a nude man “from the future” also recalls the first Terminator (1984). Two hapless government agents with skinny black ties in pursuit of Merkur’ev evoke similar figures from American cinema, primarily Men in Black (1997).

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Monday, 19 September 2016

Andrei Konchalovsky: Paradise - Рай (2016)

Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Cast: Julia Vysotskaya, Christian Clauß, Philippe Duquesne, Vera Voronkova, Jakob Diehl, Peter Kurth, Victor Sukhorukov, Pyotr Mikhalkov,

Paradise Rai Venice

Rarely has the word “Paradise” been superimposed across a gloomier image than in the opening credits of Andrei Konchalovsky’s new film, as the screams of a Russian woman recently arrested by Nazis echo through a dim, dank prison corridor — shot in soberest monochrome. Konchalovsky’s robust, absorbing Holocaust drama is built on such unlikely junctures of grace and despair. Centered principally on the sometimes tense, sometimes tender relationship between an aristocratic concentration camp inmate and the SS officer with whom she shares a fleeting romantic history, the film’s tone and outlook is changeable throughout — down to a striking, only semi-successful framing device of docu-style testimonies that hover deliberately between worlds. An uneasy sit cushioned by lustrous, period-evoking B&W lensing and the outstanding performances of Julia Vysotskaya and Christian Clauß, “Paradise’s” enduringly resonant historical focus should secure it the international distribution that largely eluded its veteran helmer’s previous, Venice-garlanded feature “The Postman’s White Nights.”

After “Son of Saul’s” immersive first-person camera gave viewers a visceral new point of view on the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, the bar for innovation in depicting what is already a comprehensively filmed passage of history was further raised. With its self-consciously classical aesthetic — down to the imposition of artificial wear and tear on the image, creating the impression of a long-buried print — “Paradise” looks emphatically back rather than forward, but its perspective is an unusual one, alternating even-handedly between the raddled, subjective accounts of Nazi oppressor and victim, until they meet ambiguously somewhere in the middle. Among other, less earthly implications, the “paradise” of the title refers to the Aryan idyll that the former repeatedly cites as a motivating dream. Yet the longer he talks — in the bare studio environment, without clear location or era, that Konchalovsky has devised for the film’s “interview” sequences — the less clear it becomes whether or not he believes his own rhetoric.

The film opens in 1942, as refined Russian immigrant Olga (Vysotskaya), a Vogue fashion editor also serving the French Resistance in Paris, is arrested by the Gestapo for harboring two Jewish children in her apartment. Her case is assigned to French-Nazi collaborating officer Jules (Philippe Duquesne), a lecherous family man who seems willing to cut Olga a deal in return for sexual favors. When he abruptly drops out of proceedings, however, she is shipped off to an unspecified, maximum-brutality concentration camp, where she is reunited with her two young wards, but otherwise given every reason to fear the worst.

Philippe is one of only three talking heads in the film’s parallel stream of direct-to-camera statements, and his unexpectedly curtailed arc — after a generous, deliberate window into his home and work lives — initially seems a curious red herring in a film that, at 131 minutes, is confidently unhurried in reaching its narrative heart. It proves the critical key, however, to unlock the relevance and resonance of those enigmatic, after-the-fact interviews, which thereafter alternate the views of a shorn-headed Olga and Helmut (Clauß), the handsome, high-ranking SS golden boy who is assigned by Heinrich Himmler himself (Victor Sukhorukov, in an eccentric caricature) to a senior commanding position in Olga’s camp.

Olga and Helmut immediately recognize each other from a playful, several-summers-ago flirtation — itself detailed in recurring, gleamingly sunlit holiday-film footage that is excerpted in the most nostalgically bittersweet of the film’s rotating registers. As their rekindled but still anxious relationship comes to the fore in the film’s second half, “Paradise” faces an array of potentially redemptive denouements befitting its 1940s wartime-melodrama styling. None of those are exactly promised by the characters’ more detached, rueful interviews — on which the film leans perhaps a little too heavily for emotional clarity in its latter stages. Helmut’s remembrances ricochet between cynical, even critical appraisals of the Nazi ideals and deluded pride in them (“I don’t have to justify my actions; I’ve become an Übermensch”), while Olga dispassionately describes her own suffering while growing more agitated on his behalf: “He knows and appreciates Brahms and Tolstoy. Who did this to him?”

Both actors — blessed with endlessly gaze-worthy faces, in which cinematographer Alexander Simonov’s meticulous lighting keeps finding new expressive accents — are remarkable, their performances entirely complementary in their silences and guarded surges of emotion. There’s a livewire supporting turn, too, from Jakob Diehl as Helmut’s more nakedly skeptical friend and fellow officer Dietrich, restless with self-disgust and homoerotic feeling. Other performances can err on the side of shrill, while matters are not helped by the film’s distracting, frankly clumsy dubbing of actors at certain points — a retrograde detail that is unwelcome in the film’s otherwise careful evocation of golden-age cinema. 

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