The past has always been a rich source for Russian films. Andrew James Horton looks at two that hark back to recent history.
The star that didn't shine
Zvezda (The Star, 2002)
The war film is a well-worn genre in Russian cinematography. The huge losses Russia sustained in the Second World War ensured that it would become iconic of the Manichean battle between good and evil in which Communism proved its political validity by triumphing in battle. Whilst these films are fascinating lessons in their use of political symbolism, they are neither historically accurate or particularly good cinema.
Here steps in director Nikolai Lebedev, who seeks with Zvezda (The Star, 2002) to salvage the Russian war film from its rather unglamorous past and present a lesser known side to the war—the world of intelligence officers working behind enemy lines.
The film has a solid literary background, being based on Emmanuil G Kazakavich's most famous short story, also called "Zvezda," written in 1947 and based on his own experiences in the Red Army. While war literature was glorified in the post-war years in much the same way war films were, Kazakavich never fitted in. His stories, quite simply, told the war as it was, rather than as an allegory of Soviet supremacy.
Zvezda follows a group of scouts as they assemble for a reconaissance mission to spy on the regrouping Germans. One of the new faces in the camp is a fresh-faced young wireless operator, who instantly falls head over heels for the commander of the scout team. As they push into enemy territory, every radio message sends her into near orgasmic rapture. The scouts themselves meanwhile have to contend with dodging detection by the Germans—no mean feat as the body count continues to rise. The team uncovers the preparations for a massive German offensive, but only after losing their radio. A desperate search ensues for a means to get the vital information about the coming attack back to base as the German army close in on them.
Despite its rhetoric of being a new kind of war film, Zvezda is remarkably clichéd. Eddie Cockrell, writing for Variety, lists where Lebedev has borrowed cinematic tricks from Spielberg and Scorsese, but the most telling similarities are the ones with the films it seeks to be different from.
Stalin-era films made after the war all had weak female figures who were dependent on their heroic masculine protectors, and Zvezda in this respect is more extreme in its disempowering of its female character. The depiction of the men is no less Stalinist in its outlook, and they all are devoted to the cause they fight for and models of heroism. Lebedev tries to distinguish his men as much as possible in terms of size, shape and ethnic background (soldiers from the Asian Soviet republics also fought in the role and frequently had bit parts in 1950s Russian war films to show the multiethnic character of the USSR). However, for all this, their personalities are largely the same, so difficult is it to make such heroic and flawless people distinct. There's none of the colour of, say, Andrei Tarkovsky's even more youthful scout in Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan's Childhood, 1962).
True, the ending is tragic, but theirs a glorious death, even a beautiful one. This form of tragedy was absent from 1950s Russian war films and separated lovers were always reunited, but tragedy and a lack of resolution of personal love affairs (as opposed to loving the state) were mainstays while the war was still going on. The subtext was that while the war still raged, film had to show that there could be no "happy end" until the Germans had been defeated.
As one critic said to me at Karlovy Vary, the film looks like a pastiche but with none of the irony or playfulness a pastiche would imply. Lebedev genuinely thinks he is doing this for the first time.
The film, though, has been popular in Russia, where it has managed to get a theatrical release (not easy for a home-grown film these days) and over a million admissions. It's easy to see why it went down well domestically. As Lebedev said at a press conference at the festival (with shades of Nikita Mikhalkov's comments about his Sibirskii tsiriulnik / Barber of Siberia, 1998), he made the film to show that "we are not only drunkards or hired guns—we also have a past to be proud of." But for anyone who has the basic intelligence to have realised beforehand that such sweeping generalisations about the Russian people are not true, Zvezda is a remarkably empty film.
Mills and Boon for Stalinists?
Ekhali dva shofera
(Two Drivers, 2001)
There's something about the past that makes a love story just that bit more sentimental. Nostalgia and romance have long had a steady relationship together. In Russia, this is slightly problematic as the past has so many negative connotations as well that undercut the aims of anyone wanting to make a sentimental romance. (Tragic romances, such as Nikita Mikhalkov's Utomlennye solntsem / Burnt by the Sun, 1994, are, of course, much easier to pull off.)
Kott tackles this problem head on in his Ekhali dva shofera (Two Drivers, 2001) and tries to create a heart-warming vision of love in the post-war Stalinist era. Like Jan Svěrák's Obecná skola (Elementary School, 1991), Ekhali dva shofera ignores the political iconography and terror of the time to create an idealised landscape of young romance between two young truck drivers in an era of post-war optimism. It's classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back stuff.
It's hard to know what to make of Kott's political sweeping-under-the-carpet. On the one hand, the director is clearly seeking to tell a universal story and reclaim the Stalinist period from the constant political analysis to which it is subjected. After all, young people did fall in love, and their romances are no less valid than those that took place anywhere else in the world. Moreover, the film is largely honest about the poverty of the time. On the other hand, the sacharine treatment of a dark and brutal era has a horrible smack of passive revisionism—the denial and negation of the ugly truths of the period by ignoring them.
The approach of Kott and Svěrák is certainly worth debating. Sadly, though, Ekhali dva shofera itself has little in it to make it appeal beyond Mills and Boon fanatics and perhaps any unreformed Stalinists still kicking around.
Andrew James Horton
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