Director: Marlen Khutsiyev
Writers: Marlen Khutsiyev, Gennadi Shpalikov
Stars: Valentin Popov, Nikolai Gubenko,Stanislav Lyubshin
In Soviet culture, Marlen Khutsiev's Mne dvadtsat' let (I Am Twenty) is the cinematic equivalent of Sherlock Holmes' dog that didn't bark. One of the most significant films of 1961, when it was completed under the title Zastava Il'icha (Ilyich's Gate, the name of a Moscow neighborhood), it was not released until 1965, and then in a truncated form. Because of the delay, the film no longer seemed startlingly original: other films with similar themes and aesthetics were already in distribution.
Now, nearly four decades later, Mne dvadtsat' let looks like the very heart of the Soviet Union's cinematic Thaw of the 1960s, poised on the cusp between the hopeful idealism of the early thaw years and the disillusion and cynicism that followed. There is a chance to reassess the film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Rose Cinema, during their Soviet '60s Series, running from 3 to 20 December and including other great Thaw films such as Neotpravlennoe pis'mo (The Letter Never Sent, 1959), Grigory Kozintsev's Gamlet (Hamlet, 1964), and Ilya Averbakh's rarely-screened Monolog (1972).
Khutsiev (b 1925) was the paradigmatic Thaw director. He made his first film before Stalin's death, collaborating with fellow student Felix Mironer on Gradostroiteli (The City Builders, 1950). Released at a time when "even a hint of contemporary life as multi-layered and contradictory was unthinkable," the picture at least suggested the density of reality, and therefore attracted attention to these novice filmmakers. In 1956, the two men worked together for the second time to make Vesna na Zarechnoi ulitse (Spring on Zarechnaya Street), a variant of the standard Soviet "reeducation" film, as pervasive a genre in Soviet cinema as Westerns in Hollywood, in which labor, or its individual representatives, can reform and improve everything, including human beings.
Khutsiev and Mironer manipulated the banal elements of the story with the detachment that came to be the hallmark of Khutsiev's style in all his later films. At a time when the concept of "totally remaking human beings" dominated Soviet life, Khutsiev and Mironer refused to create model protagonists: neither their worker-hero nor their teacher-heroine is right, neither is guilty. Moreover, with its gritty, textured details of muddy streets and crowded rooms, Vesna reflects actual Soviet life far more truthfully than the lacquered, pristine surfaces characteristic of earlier Soviet films.
Except for a few carpers, critics as well as audiences praised Vesna, the last such wholehearted praise vouchsafed to Khutsiev. Two years later, he ran seriously afoul of the authorities with Dva Fedora (Two Fyodors). The charge? Pessismism. Other filmmakers felt the same sting (for instance, Tengiz Abuladze for his first film, Chuzhie deti [Someone Else's Children, 1958]), but Khutsiev exacerbated his offense because he dealt with the immediate post-war period, a moment when—by convention—"festivity reigned, [...] war itself had been conquered."
His unsmiling hero, unsettled by the instability and loneliness of post-war life, gropes for human contact and establishes an alliance with a young orphan, a relationship Khutsiev depicts without the easy sentimentality otherwise so commonplace in Soviet literature and film. At the Kiev Ministry of Culture, discussion verged on ludicrous: "You can't tell what country [the film] is set in. If it's ours then why don't the school children wear red ties? And what sort of hero is this—sullen, taciturn, unsociable? That's not what our people are like." An influential critic, Yakov Varshavsky, castigated Khutsiev for failing to furnish the "moral armaments" needed to conquer the "fronts" of life. ...