If Mne dvadtsat' let seemed to lack originality on its release, it was because the USSR had changed in the four years since the film's completion. Josephine Woll looks back at the film and the period.
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.
When Khutsiev had first submitted the script for Dva Fedora, the studio welcomed it, only to snatch back the welcome mat by the time the film was done. The film had not changed—the times had. The same fate befell Mne dvadtsat' let a couple of years later. Khutsiev shot Mne dvadtsat' let in the climate of tolerance spawned by Khrushchev's shocking address on the last day of the 22nd Party Congress in October 1961. Khrushchev implicated Stalin in Kirov's assassination and the deaths of "thousands of absolutely innocent people," including high-ranking military officers; he called for the removal of Stalin's body from the Mausoleum and went on to imply—perhaps unintentionally—that a craven political apparatus had abetted in the "excesses" of Stalinist rule. Artists, among them filmmakers, felt liberated by the opportunities promised by the speech, but their excitement lacked the innocence and unalloyed faith in the recuperative power of honesty and emotional sincerity that had followed Khrushchev's first revelatory speech, back in 1956.
Both the excitement and the disenchantment pervade Mne dvadtsat' let. The film follows the maturation of three friends, neighbors in a Moscow courtyard (in the Ilyich's Gate region), after one of them, Sergei, returns from his two-year army service. At first much of life is social and public: an impromptu soccer game, dancing on a street corner to early rock-and-roll, intense park bench conversations. On May Day, climaxing the first half of the film, people throng the streets in joyous celebration of the Soviet utopia, the scene one of stunning harmony between individuals and society.
But the remainder of Mne dvadtsat' let details precisely the opposite: the departure from that utopia. The discrepancy between their lives and their dreams troubles all three heroes; so does the distance between the proclaimed ideals of their society and its reality of hypocrisy and lies, dramatized in a number of confrontations. Sergei's girlfriend accuses her father of "saying one thing" and "doing another;" Sergei himself oscillates between wanting to think for himself and wanting to "accept on faith such sacred cows as the Revolution, war, love."
Keeping it up to date
Khutsiev enhanced the topicality of the film at every turn. He chose to work with a man a dozen years his junior, scriptwriter Gennady Shpalikov, whose language would be authentically up-to-date; in several roles he cast students from the film school VGIK—future directors like Andrei Konchalovsky. Sergei escorts two Ghanaians around his factory, representatives of the first large wave of Africans to work and study in Moscow in the early 1960s. With an uncommon insistence on actuality, Khutsiev sought out real construction and demolition projects for his characters' worksites, to ensure the contemporary look of the film.
Throughout the filming he had support from influential backers, particularly from the Minister of Culture, Ekaterina Furtseva. But by the time Khutsiev brought Zastava Il'icha to the Ministry of Culture for review, the exciting year of occasionally bloody battle between liberals and conservatives was over, and the conservatives were on top. Furtseva tried unsuccessfully to protect Khutsiev; after the first official screening, he was berated for, among other things, the loud footsteps of the Red Guard patrol marching down a cobblestone street at night. "At night," the Chairman of the Ideological Commission complained, "people should be asleep. Footsteps are that loud only in prison."
In March 1963, Khrushchev invited some 600 artists and writers to the Kremlin, for the humiliating equivalent of a public whipping. He singled out several works, among them Khutsiev's film. He had seen Zastava Il'icha, and he didn't like it. He accused Khutsiev of asserting:
ideas and norms of public and private life that are entirely unacceptable and alien to Soviet people. [...] [The characters] are not the sort of people society can rely upon. They are not fighters, not remakers of the world. They are morally sick people [...] The idea is to impress upon the children that their fathers cannot be their teachers in life, and that there is no point in turning to them for advice. The filmmakers think that young people ought to decide for themselves how to live, without asking their elders for counsel and help.
Khrushchev's speech prompted a carefully orchestrated round of negative letters and reviews, beginning with a letter from indignant steelworkers who didn't see the film but endorsed every word of Khrushchev's. Khutsiev, wanting to retain a measure of control over his work, protested his readiness to keep working on the film, and the studio—divided among cautious supporters and often extremely nasty antagonists—compromised by recommending an array of revisions. Khutsiev acceded to some suggestions, declined others, rewrote and reedited. Almost two years later, on 18 January 1965, Mne dvadtsat' let opened. Inevitably, the Soviet Union that watched it was not the same society as the one in which, and for which, Khutsiev had made his film.
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