|Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy as Joseph Brodsky in Room and a Half|
“Of course, we all shared one toilet, one bathroom, and one kitchen. But the kitchen was fairly spacious, the toilet very decent and cozy. As for the bathroom, Russian hygienic habits are such that eleven people would seldom overlap when either taking a bath or doing their basic laundry. The latter hung in the two corridors that connected the rooms to the kitchen, and one knew the underwear of one's neighbors by heart…”
– Joseph Brodsky, ‘In a Room and a Half’
Before it exiled him in 1964 for ‘social parasitism’ (Judge: “Who recognises you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?”), the Soviet state lodged Joseph Brodsky and his parents for the first 24 years of his life in the confines of a single room of a sub-divided, once-prestigious Leningrad apartment block.
As the future American poet laureate and Nobel prize-winner later described in his thumbnail memoir ‘In a Room and a Half’ (published in his 1986 collection of essays Less Than One), he attempted to privatise his corner of the family abode with a makeshift barricade of bookshelves and teetering suitcases, behind which “the gamin felt safe, and a Marianne could bare more than just her breast.”
Brodsky’s father was a photographer, and ‘In a Room and a Half’ is structured as a series of 45 written ‘photographs’ by which Brodsky attempts to rebuild that nest from half a world’s and half a lifetime’s remove. (The Soviet bureaucracy never let Brodsky’s parents travel to see him.) Children, the essay reflects, are always in a desperate hurry to leave their nest. “And one day a man realises that the nest is gone. The people who gave him life are dead. He realises that the only real thing in his life was that nest.”
Now – in the hands of Brodsky’s peer Andrey Khrzhanovsky, the great Russian animator – the photographic nest has become an animated journey back in time. Structured as a sort of fantasised sequel to Brodsky’s essay and life, Room and a Half puts the aged writer in reverential mood on a boat back to St Petersburg to revisit his youthful memories and haunts.
Much of the film takes the form of Fellini-esque live-action recreations of Brodsky’s old life: two young actors play Brodsky as he weathers the siege of Leningrad, dishonours Stalin at school, squires a succession of girls in his curtained half-room and eulogises the freedoms inherent in imported Tarzan movies at the height of the Khrushchev Thaw. But just as the film elides poetry, fantasy and reality, Khrzhanovsky throws in all manner of animated flights of fancy, from shadow-theatre Bolsheviks to a moving recipe book, Magritte-esque levitating musical instruments, ice-skating crows, flying Pegasuses and sundry Brodsky-surrogate cats. (The film’s animal motifs and folkloric treatment of memory bring to mind Yuri Norstein’s masterpiece Tale of Tales.)
Khrzhanovsky also mixes up the film stocks, including faux-documentary 16mm footage and real clips of Brodsky, for evocative effect, and jots a record of modern-day St Petersburg almost in passing. It’s an animated movie in the fullest sense, and as generous and entrancing a portrait of the artist’s soul as you could get. Even the Soviet judge might recognise the answers to his questions in it.
NB: What was your kinship with Brodsky?
AK: When I read ‘In a Room and a Half’ I realised that it was about me and for me. We lived at the same time in the same country in the same environment. We shared this understanding of a communal flat, this ‘room and a half’. We were both the only sons of parents who were no longer so young. We had the same friends, the same interests. Unfortunately I never quite managed to meet him personally. There was a time when he invited me to his house via some friends, but I didn’t take the opportunity, alas.
But I was in love with his poetry and his paintings, his drawings. He was a great painter, just as Pushkin was. And of course I loved his literature – it’s clear that he was the first and best poet of his era. I read a lot of his poetry, even before they began to print it in Russia – which they only did after the USSR collapsed. People used to copy and distribute his poems by hand; I recently found some copies in my own handwriting from half a century ago. ...