Andrew James Horton looks at four distinctive films by Russian directors at Karlovy Vary.
Humanity amid inhumanity
Kukushka (Cuckoo, 2002)
Karlovy Vary has been kind to Aleksandr Rogozhkin several times before. His hit comedy Osobennosti natsionalnoi okhoti (The Peculiarities of National Hunting, 1995) received a special mention at the 30th edition of the prestigious Czech festival, and his Blokpost (Checkpoint, 1997) picked up the prize for best director three years later. This year, there was no opportunity for bestowing awards, as the international premier of Rogozhkin's latest film, Kukushka (Cuckoo, 2002), was not in the official selection, having already competed at Moscow. But although no official recognition could be given to the film, it received the warmest welcome of any production I saw at the festival.
Kukushka follows two men who have been condemned to death. Both are fighting on opposite sides of the Second World War, and both have been sentenced by their own armies. Veiko is a Finn who despises the Nazi uniform he has to wear. Ivan is Russian. The tense and well-paced opening half of the film documents how the two men escape the fate that awaits them, before meeting each other at the home of a young Lapp widow.
None of the three can speak any language spoken by the others. And if this sounds like the recipe for a raucous comedy, that's exactly what it is. Ivan has no truck with fascists, and Veiko's only concern is to tell the Red Army man that Finland is not a country of Nazis and the pair should be friends. Anni, meanwhile, tries to keep the two men from killing each other.
Tragedy looms, though, and the two men's lack of common language has fatal consequences for Veiko. Rogozhkin quickly flips back to the gripping atmosphere of the opening section, as Anni uses tradiational folklore magic to attempt to bring the Finn back from the brink of death. It's a powerful and magical sequence, and Rogozhkin shows his mastery of film by being able to take an audience in the fits of hysterical laughter and five minutes later have them all sitting rapt in total silence. A final punchline joke makes sure the viewer leaves in a good mood.
This is all old territory for Rogozhkin, who has explored misunderstandings between Russians and Finns in Osobennosti natsionalnoi okhoti and the tragedy of communication breakdown between warring sides in Blokpost. Kukushka borrows its elements of farce from Osobennosti nacionalnoi okhti and the slow tension from (the rather inferior) Blokpost, but the result stands superbly on its own. Thus, when the film failed to win the main prize at the Moscow film festival earlier this year and had to make do with a couple of the festival's Silver St Georges (best actor for Ville Haapasalo and best director for Rogozhkin), many observers were surprised.
Only a few cental and east European films have commercial success internationally. While the steady trickle of cinematic works such as Danis Tanoviæ's No Man's Land (2001) and Jan Høebejk's Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, 2000) might seem a reasonable track record for the region, the fact is that only a tiny proportion of the films made are likely to gain theatrical distribution in an English-speaking territory.
Kukushka, though, is one of the lucky ones, having landed a distribution deal with Sony. It's baudy laughs are likely to sit well with the film-going public, while the arty, atmospheric sequences (and the way they are skilfully sandwiched around the humour) are likely to make even the harshest critics sit up and take note. Moreover, the film's themes are timely, and a defiantly anti-war message is made without cynicism, detachment, despair, gruesome body counts or an overly polemical stance. The film is first and foremost a story about people and only secondly a story showing the inequity of war. This gives the film a humanistic feel that is lacking in some works that have raged against the brutality and senselessness of battle between nations.
Also of interest
Still fearing banality after all these years
(Chekhovian Motifs, 2002)
More than any other national cinema, Russian film is haunted by the presence of literature. Although many films have been straightforward and rather mechanical transfers of literary classics, a good deal have stripped away the plot and rewritten it anew in order to get to the spirit of the written work. Kira Muratova's Chekhovskie motivy (Chekhovian Motifs, 2002) belongs in this second category.
As the title freely admits, the film is primarily based on the themes that Chekhov focussed rather than his works. As it happens, Muratova combines two short stories by the master author and playwright and transposes them to the present day to show that what Chekhov observed is still pertinent today.
Peter is a young student who studies in the big city. His roots are on the farm, and it's here we meet him as he prepares to depart for university. He argues to fiercely with his father over money, whether he should leave the farm at all and then over his father's tyrannical personality. Meanwhile, his mother gets upset over the consternation and his younger siblings look on in innocent lack of comprehension.
After leaving, he hitches a lift from someone on his way to a wedding, which Peter ends up gate-crashing. The focus then switches to the ceremony itself and the bizarre assortment of noveaux riche types in attendence. There is much fidgeting in the long Orthodox ceremony and much gossip as well about the groom's recently departed former wife.
Having witnessed these scenes, Peter decides not to go onwards with his journey but return to the family home and finally resolve the issues that forced him to flee.
This is not the first time that Muratova has blended different stories together. Her glasnost magnum opus Astenicheskii sindrom (The Asthenic Syndrome, 1989) and her feminist thriller Tri istorii (Three Stories, 1997) both have this structural feature. Muratova's intense observation is just as keen as ever, and there are some surprising moments of cinematic gracefulness, such as an oddly magical moment when the family squabbles subside and the camera focuses for some minutes on a ballet performance being shown on the television.
There's no tension between the literary source and the contemporary setting either. Indeed, Chekhov's interest in depicting the fear of banality in the rural bourgeousie works as an effective statement on the urban nouveaux riche on a self-indulgent day trip to the countryside. It's a credit to Chekhov that his observations are so universal as to transcend a gap of more than a century.
Muratova is far from being the first person to have used a Chekhovian style of observation in a post-Soviet setting. However, this is a worthwhile addition to the canon of work inspired by the writer, even if it is unlikely to become a pivotal piece in the director's oeuvre.
In search of faith
Mashina prishla (The Machine is Here, 2001)
The likes of Sokurov and Muratova are likely to find good reviews of their films whatever it is they turn their hands to. In turn, they are also more likely to be able to finance their distinctive projects. But what about younger directors with a sense of vision?
The most promising film from an unknown director was 24-year-old Sergei Potemkin's Mashina prishla (officially translated as The Machine is Here, although "The Truck's Here" would be more accurate, 2001), a 15-minute film based on a short story by Igor Gertsev. The title comes from the daily chant of an old man named Peter on the arrival of the rubbish-removal trucks. Spying this strange activity is Paul, a young materialistic urbanite who becomes intrigued by the simplicity and optimism of this rather loopy pensioner who is convinced that one day soon he will move to a better flat. Paul dismisses this as part of the old man's senility, while Peter is equally baffled by the lifestyle of a young man who doesn't put his rubbish out in the morning when the truck comes.
The film is limited by the predictability of the "unlikely friendship" genre, which in recent years has been well-used. However, in its crisp black-and-white photography and its equating wisdom and spiritual purity with an old and apparently unhinged old man, it has slight overtones of Artur Aristakisian. Potemkin has worked with Krzysztof Zanussi (whose films have increasingly explored issues of faith—particularly in a Catholic context), and for cinephiles who feel that the soul has been absent in modern film will find the direction Potemkin is taking up encouraging.
Mitteleuropa angst goes to Russia
"Russian audiences mostly do not know Kafka," director Valery Fokin says in the press release for Prevrashchenie (Metamorphosis, 2002). Franz Kafka's works were not published until after his death in 1924, by which time a repressive brand of Communism was spreading its tentacles in Russia. Allegorical tales of individuals lost in a dehumanising bureaucracy were distinctly out of fashion with anyone who wanted to stay out of the gulag. Even now, many Russians think that the Prague author is "dismal and brainsick."
Prevrashchenie, presented as a "special event" at Karlovy Vary, is an attempt to reverse this state of affairs by Fokin, whose long career in theatre has included a 1997 production of Metamorphosis (which has also travelled to the Czech Republic). Fokin's film interpretation concentrates heavily on the actor Konstantin Raikin, playing the hapless Gregor Samsa. For the audience's eyes, Samsa never leaves human form, and his dung beetle manifestion is expressed in a series of body movements and gross facial expressions. The pace is languid, with the ennui of the transfigured salesman's life portrayed in languid dream sequences of waiting on train platforms on rainy days in the company of Magritte-like figures in black hats and suits.
For all this, though, Prevrashchenie offers no new surprises to non-Russians, and does little to push back the understanding of Kafka and his work to audiences who are more used to his style.
Andrew James Horton
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