Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 4
 Issue 4 
13 Sept
2004

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RUSSIA
A stubborn
quest for historical truth

Aleksei German interviewed

Although active in the film industry for over 40 years, German has shot just six features. His slender output, though, is matched by an obsessive interest in finding the soul in the eras he portrays, and Moi drug Ivan Lapshin was once voted the best Soviet film of all time. Kinoeye presents a classic interview by Ronald Holloway, conducted with the controversial director in 1988.


Introduction

Aleksei German, born on 2 July 1938 in Leningrad (today's St Petersburg), is the son of author-dramatist-war reporter Yury German.[1] He studied stage direction under the renowned Georgy Tovstonogov,[2] managing director of the Gorky Bolshoi Drama Theatre, and film direction under Grigory Kozintsev,[3] co-founder in 1921 of the Factory of Eccentric Actors with Leonid Trauberg and others and later internationally famous for his film adaptations of Shakespeare. In 1960, he graduated from the Leningrad State Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinema, and in 1964 he joined Lenfilm Studios as assistant director and production assistant.

His first film, Sedmoi sputnik (The Seventh Companion, 1967), codirected with Grigory Aronov,[4] was based on a novel with the same title by Boris Lavrenyov[5] and is set in the decisive historical years of 1918-19. German is reluctant to number this film among his directorial achievements.

His first solo-directed film, Proverka na dorogakh (Trial on the Road / Road Check, 1971, released 1986), prompted one of the greatest scandals in Soviet film history. A war film about the Red Army and a partisan unit fighting for their homeland against the German invaders, it's based on a true incident recorded by Yury German, and features such "antiheroics" as a deserter-collaborator who tries to make amends and thus clear his conscience, a partisan commander who refuses to blow up a bridge if it means killing Russian POWs in the process, and a Stalinist commissar who rants and raves over the weaknesses of the deserter and the commander, even though both are capable of courageous action when called upon.

Proverka na dorogakh caused a furor at the State Committee for Cinematography (Goskino). At the final hearing held on whether the film should be released or shelved, it was defended only by Konstantin Simonov, an awarded war-novelist and frontline-friend of Yury German. All was not lost, however, as Simonov offered German a novel of his own to film: Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny (Twenty Days Without War, 1976, released 1977), a dreary but poignantly humane portrait of wartime suffering released only in the Soviet Union.

Aleksei German's Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin,1982, released 1985)His third solo film, Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin,1982, released 1985), based on his father's story Lapshin (published 1937), was two years in the making and three years on the shelf before it was granted release, due to the Conflict Committee established by the Union of Soviet Film-makers at the outset of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika period. Set in the early 1930s in provincial Russia near Leningrad, the narrative centers on the exploits of an idealistic police investigator intent on wiping out a band of criminals at all costs. Russian critics, noting that it took the pulse of the country by focusing on the spreading Stalinist doctrine of timely liquidation, voted Moi drug Ivan Lapshin among the "Ten Best Soviet Films of All Time."

His fourth solo film, Khrustalev, mashinu! (Khrustalev, My Car!, 1998), a Russian-French coproduction, was seven years in the making and premiered at the 1998 Cannes film festival. The project was interrupted several times due to unforeseen factors such as ruble inflation, altercations with the French coproducers, and professional obligations at a new studio for young film-makers established under his direction at Lenfilm.The title is a quote, a phrase spoken in the film by secret police chief Lavrenty Beria at Stalin's deathbed in March of 1953 and which first appeared in Twenty Letters to a Friend (published 1967), an autobiographical account of the Stalin years by his daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva.[7]

Just as Moi drug Ivan Lapshin sketched the origins of the Great Terror under Stalin in the early 1930s, Khrustalev, mashinu! defines the dead end into which it had catapulted itself a quarter-century later in the mid-1950s: intrigue and betrayal, night arrests and labor camps, all the preconditions for today's mafia violence, political corruption and poverty among the masses.

One scene will surely go down as unique in Russian film history: the banality of Stalin's death. When the military doctor is recalled from the gulag in a last-minute effort to save the dictator's life, Beria's advice is simply "Make him fart!" A press on the stomach, Stalin bubbles and foams at the mouth in the throes of death, and the light is extinguished on the Great Terror of 20 million dead. In a final moment of irony, Beria calls for his car.

Currently, Aleksei German is working on Trudno byt' bogom (Hard to Be a God), a modern adaptation of a science-fiction novelpublished in 1964 by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.[8] In the Strugatsky Brothers original, an earth expedition to another planet witnesses a religious coup d'état that brings to power a medieval-like nationalist society resembling the Stalin dictatorship.

The major portion of this interview with Aleksei German took place in Berlin on the 10 December 1988 before a running camera. Only the segment about the making of Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny is taken from a separate interview without a camera present.

The reader will note that the zigzag elements in the interview—the occasional repetitions, the underscoring of certain facts, the emotional expression of beliefs—stem from a personal intellectual anger, for German's quest for historical truth in Soviet cinema was never accepted by the authorities. Nearly all of his films were banned or shelved for a period of time. And when finally released, they were generally misunderstood by both public and critics, so much so that the director has had to fight an uphill battle to defend their integrity as unequivocal statements on the Great Terror ("a different way of looking at the past"), the Great Fatherland War ("the truth of the trench"), and other issues of a highly sensitive political nature. Meanwhile, as more than one Russian film historian has pointed out, far too much of postwar Soviet war film has been notorious for its glut of lies, exaggerations, and assaults on the historical record.

Biographical notes are inserted into the interview to throw more light on names and places, while at the same time allowing for the free flow of dialogue and thought. It should be added that Aleksei German is not only a walking encyclopedia of facts and theories, but also a guardian of history as it was lived and handed on to generations to follow. At our first meeting, I was astonished to learn that he has read all the seminal writings on the Stalinist period, including the Western authors (eg Robert Conquest's The Great Terror, published in 1968), some of which had been illegally smuggled into the Soviet Union.

I discovered, too, that before he began shooting a new film, he would spend months researching archives for factual details. He would search for relevant photos in family albums. He would study contemporary newsreels and documentaries. He would spend hours talking to eyewitnesses who had lived through the times. Also, to underscore his penchant for authenticity, he would shoot all his films in black-and-white. These measures had but one purpose in mind: to guarantee a higher production value.

True, this quest for historical truth may seem onerous to some in the West. But in the Soviet Union, where traces of the past have been effectively rubbed out by certain privileged sycophantic writers and artists, Aleksei German towers above the crowd as a film-maker who has, indeed, taken the pulse of a nation and continues to fight for his right to do so.

Yury German

Aleksei German, you wear many hats—actor, screenwriter, theatre director, film-maker, historian, theorist, mentor to a new wave of Russian directors. Just which one of these professions fits you best?

Who am I? By profession, I am a theatre director.[9] I graduated from a theatre in Irkutsk. I didn't want to become a director. I wanted to be a doctor. My father talked me into becoming a director. My father, Yury German was a famous Soviet writer. I think he was a good writer. He didn't develop or show his talent completely. There are writers who can develop their talent by 50 percent, or 90 percent, or 100 percent, or 200 percent, or 900 percent, or 1000 percent—like Sergei Mikhalkov,[10] who wrote four fables and is now like a founding father. That's just nonsense. My father didn't develop his talent much.

He wrote a very good story about Lapshin in which, for the first time in the 1930s, a solitary individual was discussed. Konstantin Simonov told me about this after he had already died. He said that when he had read it, he thought that it was written by an old man. But it was written by a young man, 25 years old. Some of his works were staged by Meyerhold[11] when he was 22 or 23. He wrote a number of wonderful books. But he really suffered during his life.

In which way did he suffer?

First of all, he was the son of an officer. All his predecessors were of the wrong origin. His father was a general. His grandfather was a general. Of course, they were generals of the tsar. And it means that his life was really very difficult. And I must say that he was absolutely Soviet. He was completely devoted to the Soviet Power. And he thought that nothing better had been invented. And he was interested in Stalin for a certain period of time. So we don't want to hide that.

After the war, he lost his faith very quickly. And at the end, in 1948, he hated Stalin. And I remember as a boy, when I rushed into the room to say that Stalin was dead, my father was undressed at that moment. He repeated several times that Stalin was dead, and that it won't be any worse. Because the whole country was weeping at the same time. So I remember this impression from my childhood very well.

How good a writer was your father?

I think that my father destroyed his talent. Because he was a writer with a broad range, even more than Trifonov,[12] whom I really like. He wasn't very strong in life. He wanted to live better than he lived. His family. His ideas. He was really interested in the 20th Congress [of the Communist Party]. And after that he even joined the Party after the 20th Congress in 1956. He was interested in Khrushchev's ideas.[13] And he thought it was important to spread all these ideas among a great number of people. And for that it was necessary to publish things and to release them on television. And he forgot about the quality. He wrote things for just one day. He took good stories, and then he destroyed them. He made them worse. It was a big tragedy of an intelligent and good person. At least, I think so. And he wrote screenplays for many films, too.

Which were the important screenplays penned by your father?

For example, the famous film Semero smelyk (The Brave Seven).[14] Also, Doctor Kalyuzhny[15] and Pirogov.[16] He worked with Heifitz.[17] After my father's death, my understanding of his importance for the cinema grew, and it keeps growing. There are so many small details and other things to take into consideration. My wife Svetlana and I began reading his prose very carefully. To some extent, Svetlana and I helped some films—for example, Torpedonostsy (Torpedo Bombers)[18]—to be born out of the prose of my father. Five films in all. And four of them became very famous in the Soviet Union.

How many of your father's films were awarded?

My father set box office records. You asked about prizes. Well, those were records. No one else had anything like this. So in three years, four state prizes were given to the films made from the basis of my father's prose. I don't think Simonov, or Mikhalkov, or anyone else, achieved the same—in three years, four state prizes. And our part was that we helped to bring this prose to the cinema. This is about my father.

Did your father ever meet Stalin?

My father knew Gorky[19] personally, and Gorky wrote an article about him. My father knew Stalin. He had dinner with him two times. But he didn't visit Stalin in his house. He visited Gorky, and at the same time Stalin was visiting Gorky, too. My father was really very famous before the war. He received a big award, the Stalin Prize, for his Pirogov screenplay. So, you see, the whole story is very complicated.

Now I want to repeat that my grandfather was an officer under the tsar, and my grandmother was a nurse in the army. She was at the front. And on my mother's side I have some relatives who were merchants. They were Jewish. I'm Russian by nationality, but with a lot of Jewish blood. And I must say that I am proud to be of Jewish blood, although that may sound stupid. And I'm proud of my Russian blood, because I love Russia and Russians. But I am glad that I have some connection with an ancient, powerful people—the Jews.

Tovstonogov and Kozintsev

Before you became a film director, you worked in the theatre with Georgy Tovstonogov…

We had staged a play by Evgeny Schwarz.[20] Georgy Tovstonogov watched it, and he invited everyone who had participated on the production to work in his theatre. Later he changed his mind, but two people continued to work for him: Sergei Yursky [21], and me. My job wasn't very interesting with him. But I was a director, so I did certain things for him. It was a good school for me because of the great respect for literature. I was a very progressive director at times, and I was very thankful. He taught me many things.

At a certain period in my life I understood that I shouldn't work with him. Because I could guess what he wanted from me. So I learned how to suggest something that would be accepted. And I think that means death for a director.

Many other things happened, too. For example, here's a funny story that helped me to understand the situation. One day, I met a girl, her name was Natasha, she had blue eyes. And I told her that I worked for the Bolshoi Drama Theatre as a director, and she was really surprised. She said, "You are Tovstonogov." Then I understood that I should leave. Because to work for Tovstonogov, and to work in the theatre, and to want to be a Tovstonogov—it just was not possible. So I left the theatre…

…to study film direction under Grigory Kozintsev.

Kozintsev offered to take me as one of his students in the Higher Directors Courses at Lenfilm. One day, I went to talk to Kozintsev about this because now, I really wanted him to take me in his classes. At the same time, however, I didn't want to leave Tovstonogov, because at that time I was already a director and I had some popularity. Kozintsev said that he would take me, but we decided it should be a great secret before I would start attending the classes.

Then something happened in a quite traditional way. A list was printed on a board at the studio with the names of all the people who would become film students, and my name was among them. Tovstonogov learned about that. He was a very jealous man by nature, so I had to leave him. But then Kozintsev didn't start his classes. They were postponed until one year later. And so I had to work as a second director at Lenfilm.

Why didn't you enroll in the Moscow Film School (VGIK)?

I can't even tell you if one should be a student of VGIK or not. I can suggest something different. For example, a student chooses a director. Then at the entrance examination, a conclusion is reached that this person has a gift. He is talented, and in addition, you can teach him many things. After that, a person can continue his education for a year, get to know something about several subjects, watch films. It's not that he's really taught something about the films. He just watches films. And after that, he may choose a director and work with him to make a film or two.

First, he can be an assistant director, then a second director, and then he can make films himself. I don't know what you can teach for four years. I know that students are taught Marxism, political economy, and so on. I know that there are many directors who are VGIK graduates. But the percentage of talented people is not very high. And at the same time they all lose the chance to practice an intermediate profession, such as working as an assistant director, or second director. This is important, too. I was offered to start classes in VGIK. But I was afraid because I didn't feel I needed a film school.

What was your first job in the cinema?

I was an assistant director to Vladimir Vengerov.[22] He was a good director and did many good things, but now he's forgotten.

Sedmoi Sputnik (The Seventh Companion, 1968)

What was your first film as a director?

Grischa Aronov sent for me, and we began the film Sedmoi Sputnik.[23] Sedmoi Sputnik was a catastrophe because two different people were making a film from two points of view. At a certain moment, I had to submit to him. Otherwise, we wouldn't have anything at all. I understood that I had to be patient. I felt like an old, unliked husband.

I thought it was important to be patient at this time. Also, this kind of freedom meant a new life. Grisha Aronov was an experienced man, and he did a lot for me. But we worked absolutely differently. One more thing: he planted inside of me a fear of my profession. I thought in a film that the most important thing was who was looking where. So that then all the pieces could be put together. Sedmoi Sputnik was made from a script by Yury Klepikov[24] and Edgar Dubrovsky,[25] and they are very interesting screenwriters. And the film shows the problem of hostages during the revolution. It wasn't something new.

What was the theme of Sedmoi Sputnik?

It was a film about hostages. It was a film about the beginning of some of our problems. We wanted to do it like this: we wanted to prove that the beginning of many troubles of our life did not begin in 1935, as many people think, but in 1919. Many big, painful problems started right then. So the film showed how hostages were taken from different classes, including generals of the Tsar's army. And they were sitting and waiting. They were not guilty of anything. Their guilt was that they belonged to a certain class. From time to time, some of them were chosen and then just killed.

In short, we wanted to say in the film Sedmoi Sputnik that the beginning of many processes of our life—such as breaking the law, and other things, and many other serious problems—began long, long ago. They all started in 1919. Then we had the Red Terror. And the main conclusion is that the absence of moral principles cannot be the foundation of anything.

This is what we wanted to say. But it was done with very weak means, and the film was not accepted by the public and critics when it was released. Given other circumstances, it might have had a quite different life, one more meaningful. But at that time Gleb Panfilov had made a very good film on the same theme, V ogne broda net (No Ford in the Fire, 1968). In the competition between the two films, Panfilov's film won hands-down.[26]

Why do you feel that Sedmoi Sputnik was a failure?

It was not a very successful film because it was directed by two directors. But the problems that were discussed there were very serious. When my wife Svetlana and I reflect on that film, we want to remake it because the problems that are discussed there are very interesting. It's the problem of hostages during the revolution. It's set in 1919. So people from every class group are taken to be prostitutes. And they must be killed if there is an attempt...

Proverka na dorogakh (Trial on the Road / Road Check, 1971/86)

For your first independently directed film, you chose a war theme about POWs, a rather dangerous subject under the circumstances …

The next film I made was Proverka na dorogakh. It was denied release. Why was it banned? Because the film was about Stalin's methods of managing the people, of Stalin's methods of treating the people. The film was about morals. And about immorality. And about captured prisoners-of-war, who had spent 10 or 25 years in prison only because they had put on a German uniform.

They did that because they probably wanted a chance to live. They wanted later to come back. You see, every person has a chance to live. You see, those people didn't even do any bad things. But automatically they received 25 years imprisonment. So we want to tell the public something about that. We thought that the arts couldn't be silent about this, so we offered this film. The film was shot in 1971, and the film was released 15 years later. Of course, many things that we did in the film had aged [in the mean time]..

What inspired you to make Proverka na dorogakh?

Before Proverka na dorogakh I wanted to make Moi drug Ivan Lapshin. The story about Proverka na dorogakh is very weak, but it gave me a chance to work on problems, characters and so on. So they started together with my father. But, in fact, my father didn't write any interesting things in the story.

But with his writing talent he found a man. His surname was Nikiforov, and he was a spy who really felt with the film. So Nikiforov started to go to the spy schools, where he met betrayers, and he started to talk these people into returning to the Soviet side. He talked to people like that. And he promised them forgiveness. And in such a way he brought many people with him. He was a very brave man. He went to school with immigrants from Germany, so he could speak German very well. He was very handsome, too. And he was a hero of the Soviet Union. It was our highest award.

After the war, when he had brought all those people back to the Soviet side, they were sent to prison. Their wives came to him, and he felt a responsibility for their lives. So he went to Zhdanov[27] to discuss the situation. Zhdanov, one of our Soviet leaders, received him and listened to him. And he promised to find a way out of the situation. Then Nikiforov was arrested—right in one of the corridors of Smolny[28]—and he was sentenced to 10 or 25 years in prison. By the time we were making the film, he had come back from prison, and he told us a lot of stories. All of them were true. For example, in the film Proverka na dorogakh, a soldier from the detachment of General Vlasov[29] comes to the road, and a gun of a Soviet soldier is aimed at his back, then a gun of a German soldier is aimed at his chest.

And the last thing about Nikiforov: he was arrested after being received by Zhdanov in Smolny. He spent many years in prison, so he was a good narrator who knew many stories. Many of them became part of the film later. One day, I entered my father's room. He was writing at his desk. He had a terrible stomachache. I didn't know that this was the beginning of the end. After a while, my father died, and this theme was taken by another director. He made a script of it, but the script was bad, so he didn't make a film.

Is it true that Vitaly Akseyanov, the head of the Lenfilm Studios, lost his job because of Proverka na dorogakh?

There was a scandal over my film Proverka na dorogakh. The head of the Lenfilm Studio found himself in a very difficult situation. He liked the film, and he wanted to help it. And he felt that there was some support behind the film director. He thought that the officials in Russia didn't have any principles. On the other hand, the film director was being supported by many good people. The situation was a kind of example, the example of a battlefield, or a small village where the battle was happening. Heifitz, Tovstonogov and Kozintsev were for the film director. And many writers, too, among them Margarita Aliger.[30] Also, generals of the war. There was General Soburov, the famous leader of the guerrillas during the war, and many other people like that.

At the same time, there were many Party leaders who supported me as well. But that wasn't taken into consideration. It was like a slap in the face. The head of the studio paid with his career for that film. He was given another job, another position as the head of a theatre. So it was a big price to pay. Because two or three hundred people work in the theatre, but a thousand people work at the film studio.

With so many important people supporting you and your film, why didn't it help in the end?

The film was released. And many people did support it: film directors, people like Tovstonogov. There was also a letter addressed to the government, saying that this film should be supported. The film was supported by generals like Karizky and Soburov. Also, the film was supported by some Party leaders. There was a lady called Zinaida Kruglova, the head of the Leningrad Territory Party Committee. [who supported it]. So I was supported by all these people. I was also supported by Alexander Karaganov, the Secretary of the Union of Soviet Cinematographers. There were others, too—for example, Sergei Gerasimov. In the end, these people didn't allow the film to be destroyed. So I was supported.

The head of the film studio wanted to participate in the battle, too. He wanted to have a good film. Everything was developing rapidly. A big political fight took place. For example, the former film minister, Romanov, said that this film had been placed under his chair like a bomb. So he didn't even participate in the whole process. He said he was against the film. All the same, he was accused of participating in the film. A kind of political show was made out of all this.

As a result, a member of the Politburo, Mazurov, viewed the film and asked whether or not there was any political control at all in the State Committee for Cinematography. There was a report by Dermichev at a well-attended ideological meeting. The report said that the war was not against the fascists, but in the trenches. And the film was done in such a way as to oppose Osvobozhdenie (Liberation, dir Yury Ozerov, 1968-71), a famous [five-part epic television] film about the war.[31] There were many accusations against the authors of the film, and their conclusion was like this: "You haven't seen the film, and you will never see it again."

Were you asked to cut anything out of Proverka na dorogakh to save it from being banned or even destroyed?

At a very high level the film was prohibited, forbidden. And the head of the film studio was given another position as the head of a theatre. Later, he had to retire. He said that it had been suggested to cut out certain footage in Proverka na dorogakh: for example, the suicide of Lazerev and the cross-examination of Erofeyich. The bridge, too, because it showed an insulting number of the captured prisoners. I think that was a stupid opinion. Also, Maya Bulgakova, who curses the people and then follows them.

Do these cuts, and the film wouldn't be the normal length because too many pieces would have been cut out. Even if I thought of doing something like that, I heard only shouts of protest. Konstantin Simonov said: "Let me be the editor." This battle lasted for a year. It was so difficult for me that I was ready to agree to put the film on the shelf. But Simonov said "No, it's very important for us to win."

What happened when Proverka na dorogakh was officially released in 1986?

I had never thought about such a terrible life for a film. But the financing comes only when the film is officially released. In 1986, it was given the First Category [designating the highest level of promotion and distribution by the state]. But then a letter came saying all the members of the film group would be fined 20 percent because the state didn't receive any money for the film. In other words, we were fined 20 percent for the refusal make the changes in the film.

So I went to the State Committee for Cinematography, and I told them this was absurd. They had released the film. They had given it the First Category. And now they want to fine the film director 20 percent for his refusal to make all the changes—back 15 years ago. It was because of my refusal to be cooperative. But if I hadn't stuck to my principles in the very beginning, then nothing would be released now. And nothing would get the First Category. And then I tried to name all the changes that I had been offered. And the new boss, [Armin] Medveyev by name, he understood the situation. He even apologized.

Then another letter came, saying that I should be fined 5 percent, because they just couldn't forget about the refusal to be cooperative and all those other things. It wasn't a big joke. It was a desire to use all means possible to punish us. Of course, later, the fine was paid back. This was just a farce. So you see, like Pushkin said, "You cannot sell inspiration, but you can sell the paper."

Did anyone in the film profession ever see Proverka na dorogakh while it was banned and on the shelf in the archives?

When the film was confined to the archives, the following thing happened. First of all, we had stolen the film. I mean, we had stolen a print. It was kept under the bed in Moscow for 15 years. Whenever we had the chance, we showed the film to friends and colleagues to prove that we were not just would-be artists from the streets. We secretly showed the film. There was another different name put on the film boxes, so that the projectionist couldn't report on us. We went somewhere off the beaten path. We had quite a few friends. Some ten or twelve people would gathered, who, of course, were all trustworthy. And we showed the film secretly.

What happened to this "secret print"? And how is it possible to project a print of a banned film from the archive?

When the film was finally officially released, we triumphantly gave this stolen copy to the propaganda bureau. We had such a bureau under socialism. It was an organization that opposed the ministry, so we just gave them the copy. If you wanted to show an archive print of a banned film, you had to go to the head of the film studio to get special permission to show it. And then the chief dispatcher came to the hall to see who was watching. And if there was someone who was not on the list, then he had to leave.

Once I showed the film to my American aunt. She's Russian, and she doesn't look like an American at all. She came and watched the film with some very big bosses. I invited my aunt to see it. She was sitting somewhere in the corner very quietly. Many people wanted to see the film. For example, [the dissident writer Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn. But we were afraid. We didn't want any international quarrel. We thought we could find a way out with our local bosses. We thought we would be able to talk them into finding a way because we thought that other forces who supported us may not like it. But nothing helped. Later, I regretted that I hadn't show it at least to Solzhenitsyn.

How did American audiences react to Proverka na dorogakh?

It's interesting to note the reaction of Americans to this film. Because many American directors came up to me and said the film is OK. They said it was a good film. But they were not interested in what was said there. Which words were used. What kind of problems were being discussed. They liked some of the pictures. For example, a gun that falls into the snow and makes some noise. They liked things like that. So they asked me if I had made this picture myself. So that meant that out of 10,000 interesting tricks that exist in Hollywood, I invented 10,001. This is how I can explain their interest.

Was it a tragedy for you to see how the film had grown "old" over the years while Proverka na dorogakh was on the shelf?

I think it was a great tragedy. Because we had invented many things that no one else had invented before us. For example, a look into the camera in the episode with the captured prisoners. Everyone is looking into the camera. Also, the prologue was something new. We had introduced new technical things that other film-makers arrived at years later. Of course, all these things get older. Of course, it's a tragedy. The cinema is a constantly developing kind of art form. It gets old very quickly.

Proverka na dorogakh is often compared with Larisa Shepitko's Voskhozhdeniye (The Ascent, 1976), based on Vasily Bykov's novel Sotnikov (published in 1972).

I didn't notice any resemblance. But Konstantin Simonov told me that he saw many things in common. Of course, I didn't see her film at the time, as Shepitko's film was released several years later. So probably we came to the same conclusions separately. Or probably Larisa saw my film. It sometimes happens that a "quotation" gets into a person's head. It doesn't mean that someone has stolen something from someone else. No, the cinema is developing in this direction.

How were you able to introduce these innovations into the script of a Soviet war theme that followed certain stylistic norms?

We didn't get any permission to make the film the way we did. We were lucky that the previous film, Sedmoi Sputnik, was not very successful. So we were not really controlled from the artistic point of view. It was easier in that situation because no one expected us to produce such an artistic explosion. You see, things like that sometimes just happen. You probably know some of our problems. We had a level, a standard, for everything. Certain opinions to follow. For example, in agriculture there was a man named Lysenko. In the theatre it was Stanislavsky. In literature it was Maxim Gorky. It was important to follow certain examples.

So there was a standard, too, in depicting the war. It mustn't be very pleasing. Because that's naturalism. It mustn't look like something very small. Rather, it should be depicted as an important tragedy. In our case, we were seeking what's called "the truth of the trench." There were many rules for depicting the war.

Do you mean that "the truth of the trench" was not one of those rules or standards for depicting the war?

What is "the truth of the trench"? What kind of "truth" can there be? What's important is the truth of the generals, the real truth. It was strange that the bureaucracy, the state, was trying to get into everything. For example, their insistence on "quality." Who cares what kind of village is shown, what kind of costume? But it was supposed that everything must be "common." The "average type." And it was terrible when something just stood out of the row.

One of the accusations against Proverka na dorogakh was that it showed a "mad quality." What does that mean? You see, we showed exactly what existed. And if I showed something that was not so common, then I was accused of such terms as "naturalism," or "hyper-realism." What kind of "hyper-realism" was it? It was just an effort to tell more truth about the war. And some of the terms were like that. That the war was won by shaved, young, and handsome people. But where could the people shave if they were in the trenches if they were not somewhere at headquarters? That wasn't quite understandable. Or, as an deputy minister once told me: when a journalist came to the front and wanted to take a picture of the soldiers, he even tried to hide a hole on the soldier's uniform. How can you show "shabby, dirty soldiers"? That's not possible!

So, in a sense, you were wrestling with the hallowed theme of the "Great Fatherland War"?

We were thinking and thinking. Then we found a way out. We took the conversation with the deputy minister and inserted it into the film. So it's part of some negative character's speech. So these were the impressions of the war. If you want to make a film about the war, then take all these things into consideration. Generally speaking, when Proverka na dorogakh was made, one of the problems was this.

And the same problem was with the film Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny (Twenty Days Without War). There were some clichés in depicting the war, and all these clichés flowed from "good films" like [Vladimir Vengerov's] The Baltic Sky (1961). Or If Your House Is Dear to You. Or Alive and Dead—that was a "good film." And all these clichés were flowing in the direction of such bad films—like Osvobozhdenie by Ozerov—so that this substance was to be taken as the war. That generals were happy in films like that. A kind of aesthetics was developing along the lines of films like this. That's the first thing. Now let's go further.

Was Proverka na dorogakh the only one of your films that was forbidden?

Practically all of my films have been forbidden to the public. For a while, they would be allowed. Then they were shelved again.

But when they were later shown abroad, they were sometimes awarded prizes.

I don't even know what kind of awards I had received for which films. I was told that all the prizes were small, that I had received some certificates. A critics' prize from FIPRESCI, for instance. I received some diplomas in Locarno. I received something in this country, too: two state prizes: one from the USSR, the other from the Russian Federation. That was the maximum. I don't know the meaning of these prizes because the film festivals were small. I have no idea of any big prizes. And if I had been awarded a Grand Prix, what I got was bronze. A Grand Prix must be golden. But life is life, and you can't change it.

The prizes from my country were, in a sense, the highest awards for the film. I don't know about other prizes, or what kind of prizes they were. For example, in England, it was awarded the "Prize for Outstanding Film of the Year." But whether this is really a big prize, or just a consolation prize, I don't know. There is a saying: "You can despise their awards, but it's better to despise them when you have them." On the other hand, I would like to have big prizes. But if I wasn't given any big prizes, that's all right, too. Right now, there are some very good films by [Aleksandr] Sokurov, and recently one of them was given a consolation prize, too. And I think it is a very good film. So all these prizes and awards are just a fuss.

How long did it take to complete Proverka na dorogakh?

As for Proverka na dorogakh, it was like this. It took a year to write a script. It took a year or even more to shoot it. It took a year to prohibit it. So, you see, it was three and a half years. And then it was prohibited forever. This was the story.

Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny (Twenty Days Without War, 1976/77)

How long did it take to complete your next film, Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny?

We make problems for ourselves. We think and think. Then it takes a long time to get the script right. And the film is being shot for a very long time. From the point of view of people who live in the West, it's not even understandable how you can make a film over two years. So it took me two years to make a film. So we were working. Then we stopped. Then some actors left, and new people came. Then we started again. And we continued. Then we were short of money. Then someone got ill. It lasted for two years. We had to go through that. Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny was in the process of shooting for two years. Before that, it took a year, or a year and a half, to make the script. After that, it was prohibited for a year. So, you see, overall it took five years. And I'm speaking about a more or less successful film, Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny.

After the scandal of Proverka na dorogakh, how could you even receive official permission to direct again?

I owe a profound thanks to Konstantin Simonov. One day, he phoned and said he wanted to work with a younger film-maker, particularly since collaboration with veteran directors was becoming rather difficult. He had seen my first film, the shelved Proverka na dorogakh, based on the war stories by my father, whom he knew from the war years, and it had impressed him very much. So he offered to write something for me. Our first thought was a theme about the Spanish Civil War—a film about Mate Zalka [pseudonym for Hungarian General Paul Lukacs of the International Brigade, who was killed by an artillery shell in June of 1937 while inspecting the Republican lines]. But then we realized that it would have to be a Hungarian coproduction, so after giving the idea some thought, we eventually decided to drop it.

Then Simonov gave me a copy of his Lopatkin's Notes to read. [When published, Lopatkin's Notes included three stories: Four Steps, Twenty Days Without War, and We Won't Meet Again.] It was still in the galley

stage before publication. What I liked in particular was the story of the aviator. There was the squeaking train car, the motif of a train criss-crossing Russia, the candles in the aisle, and things like that. I felt I could build everything else around this motif. So I sent Simonov a telegram: "I want to film it." I trusted him, and he trusted me. After all, he had published in Isvestiya a complimentary review about my debut film right when I had lost all hope.

When I went to see him, he told me he had stripped the aviation story out of Lopatkin's Notes. I didn't understand why. He said that this particular story wasn't exactly true, even if everything else had really happened as described in his notes—in other words, he had written the story "right off the bat." Whenever he returned from the front, he would dictate his notes to a stenographer on that very night. But he also made sure to hold onto all these notes.

What impressed you most about Lopatkin's Notes?

Do you mean Lopatkin's Notes or Simonov's Notes? Simonov pulled out of his archive notes a story that dealt with an actor. It was much more interesting than the one about the aviator, who had accompanied Simonov, who had prepared his meals and shaved him. Simonov told me that, one day, he burst out with the request: "Please write a letter for me!" Then he told him the details of his broken marriage, about how his wife was unfaithful, about why he was leaving her. This story contained more than enough engrossing details, but Simonov tossed it away because he had already penned the poem Zhdi menya (Wait for Me, 1941), written on behalf of the aviator. If Simonov had been the run-of-the-mill army major, then the aviator would hardly have confided in him on such an intimate matter.

Anyway, I was dumbfounded. I wanted to pursue the matter, but then Simonov said that in the story of the aviator, it all depends on which state of despair a man finds himself in. Should he only be unhappy that his wife has left him, then he would confide in hardly anyone. But if the pain has left a bleeding wound, then he has to let everything out. Even the strongest men in such a situation could suffer a mental breakdown. Simonov accepted that.

If the aviator story was out, what was in?

Konstantin Simonov gave us—to me and my wife Svetlana, my scriptwriter—his archival notes on the war. We were allowed to use whatever material suited us to make a film. So Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny is not really based on "Lopatkin's Notes"—as you will find in the screen credits—but on Simonov's own war notes.

Just what kind of film material in the Notes were you looking for?

First, material that would deal with human feelings. Then, how people would react to the situation of war. In this regard, I tend to draw upon my own childhood experiences, on my own recollections of the war.

So, in general, it's about describing a condition of the soul?

Exactly right. While we were digging through the material, suddenly we hit upon the problem of an old man, a love story. Ivan Bunin [1870-1953, Nobel Prize for Literature, 1933] had written a story during his emigration in Paris about a White Guard General who fell in love with a middle-aged woman, a servant woman. I talked about this story with Simonov, and he said he too liked this story very much. So I read it again, and it gave me an inspirational impulse.

I'm convinced that the love of a mature man is a strong experience. The love of young people is never very interesting for me because, as my father once said, it's a time of getting to know yourself. The love of an older, more mature man is something else entirely—more precious, more genuine. This deliberation was very important for me. It led me to choose the right actor for the lead role of Lopatkin…

…Yury Nikulin, a well-known clown…

I needed a non-military person for this role. Also, Simonov shows in Lopatkin's Notes that his hero goes through a certain evolution, independently of how one grows old during a war. In the beginning, he characterizes him as someone who acts like a wool trader from Mongolia—moody, awkward, shortsighted. He wears squeaking boots and grins with an anguished smile. Then he remembers an ensign from the First World War, then later he becomes manlier and even picks up a gun. This process was for me very interesting, and it influenced my work with the actor Nikulin. It was conditioned by the rhythm in which the theme of the war is integrated into the film.

The milieu of a film is very important to you. How did you integrate the studio design, the art direction, the costumes, the props, and so on, into the acting performances?

Production design and milieu are not ends in themselves. Take, for example, the shot of the torn stocking worn by Nina Nikolayeva, played by Lyudmila Gurchenko. She is standing in the aisle of the train car and crying. And Lopatkin—after all, he is a man—he looks down at her legs and sees the shabby stocking…

Later, the love scene is handled quite tactfully…

I had a problem in this regard. The dilemma of how to depict their love scene. Do I have to undress them? That would be distasteful. I decided to shoot their love like a recollection of an infirmity—silence, the making of the bed, the starched linen…

Or I used a shot that showed them through a window. They are sitting at a table, eating, talking. For a long time I didn't like this shot, until suddenly a wonderful event took place. Do you know what the two were doing? They were scolding each other, they were trying to outdo each other with barbs. Before, that shot threatened to be too sentimental.

We all remember the special atmosphere of the war. And so I tried to reconstruct the loudness, the rumors, the speech of the war so as to build something like a polyphony, to hear an echo of the voices of war.

How do you mean by a "polyphony" of the war?

I deliberated along these lines: people live in a certain milieu, one that is circumscribed by love and the life of the protagonists. They are marked in a certain way by this milieu. So I had a special sound recording prepared in which certain arbitrarily chosen fragments of sentences by other people are louder than those of the protagonists. The pair is speaking about their emotional problems at the same time as other people are passing by in an exchange of words of this or that.

For the sake of veracity, I looked for people who had been blinded during the war and therefore could still remember the sounds of the war. I found a man who could recite poetry and sing songs as they were heard during the war. You should know that recordings of radio broadcasts do not exist any more. This man and his wife helped us very much. Both had been blinded during a bomb attack, so the acoustical side of the war years was well preserved in their memories.

Did you find any material—costumes, props, etc.—that you could use to reconstruct on the scene the war period?

We found a "preserved" hospital car that had been left on a side track—perhaps with the idea that it might prove useful again. When we stepped into the operating car, there were still scalpels, scissors, pinchers on the table. On the floor were dark stains, possible blood stains. It all seemed quite eerie.

It sounds like you were making a fiction-documentary …

One guideline was particularly helpful. I identified this film more with poetry than prose. Although I do not possess any particular poetic talents, I would write down some impressions in free-flowing verse and then communicate these to the cameraman…

Can you give me an example?

For example, the episode of the female orchestra. How did this come about? I was sure that there had been such an orchestra during the war and that the tradition was continued up to the present day. And sure enough, I found one in Leningrad. Of course, I had to be sure that the scenes corresponded to the times and that the costumes matched the period, too. I didn't want to burden actors with this requirement.

So I hit upon a scene in which a bunch of young officers were being ceremoniously sent off to the front at a train station. It was then only a question of choosing the right types, of picking the right faces of men and women, of knowing how the spectators should be dressed, of being sure that the young recruits had the same kind of haircut—all the elements of a composition before the scene was shot. Before shooting, we rehearsed that scene. The dress and makeup of the women in the orchestra were important for veracity. At that time I had no intention of including this segment in the film, but the results of the rehearsal were very emotional.

So the female orchestra played an important role in the making of Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny...

Shortly thereafter, I went to Tashkent to shoot the meeting in the factory. I discovered a decrepit old workshop. The extras were dressed to match the period, but the meeting seemed somewhat colorless despite the proper ambiance and the photos we used of children standing at the machines. I went to the production manager and pleaded: "Please bring me the female orchestra from Leningrad. Without them I am lost!" The comrades in the Uzbekistan Central Committee offered their support as well. The orchestra came. I asked the women to play in the empty workshop, and it moved me to tears. I knew then that the scene of the meeting was salvaged.

You have to imagine that I had to find a way to keep all 5,000 bystanders standing there silently without making a move. No bunch of extras anywhere in the world could do that on the spot. And I needed a long camera pan across faces of people drawn within themselves. So I asked them to remember the war, to pay respect to those who sacrificed their lives—all in vain. Then the orchestra played the melody "Rise Up, Great Land"—and crowd literally froze into a defiant stance. We panned the crowd several times and ended up with some wonderful shots of an atmosphere of pride, of dignity, of enduring belief in a good cause.

Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1982/85)

How long did it take to complete Moi drug Ivan Lapshin?

As for the film Moi drug Ivan Lapshin, it took a year to write the script. Then it took a year to make all the preparations. Because we had to buy the technical means, and then we had to collect all the costumes. We visited many people and tried to find all the costumes we needed. We collected a lot of photographs because we didn't want to use the archives. Because the archives in all the countries are lying. The things put into the newsreels for the archives are all lies. In America, in Germany, in Russia most of all. What am I talking about? I'm talking about those newsreels that were supposed to show the positive things in life. The joy, all the good things. Not just showing a street. So in order to understand what kind of life it was, we had to find things, pictures about, for example, how something was being built.

For example, we watched some short films about building water pipes. Of course, the cameraman was showing all those pipes. At the same time, when he moved his camera from one place to another, to look at the street, to look at the boys, who were probably not always very polite, who didn't have very good manners. Or we saw a woman with quite a few bags. So we could see the real life. We couldn't make the film without all these things. That's why it took so long for every film. If you want to know, Moi drug Ivan Lapshin is really filming. It was introducing something new.

What sorts of "new things" were introduced in Moi drug Ivan Lapshin?

If you want, I can show you in a very short way which technical means we used. Just what kind of film is Moi drug Ivan Lapshin? This is a story about the 1930s. Margarita Aliger wrote about the period that we were young, and there was no war that we couldn't win. And now we are accused of every fault. There is no fault that we are not accused of. So this is said about the 1930s. This is just a phrase.

What was happening back then? A lot of repressions took place. Many peasants were made to leave their residence and their property to the State and go away. The Party was being destroyed. The village, the whole system was being destroyed. The idea of the revolution was being destroyed. And all the moral principles were being destroyed. And all these things happened.

But were there any good people? Yes, there were. Good people with moral principles? Yes, there were. People who tried to live according to the truth. Yes, there were. My parents lived at that time. So we tried to speak about the 1930s, about life in those days. We wanted to show life and some of the things that brought the people to death later. So this is a film presentiment. It shows the people who will die. We don't know about their death yet. And they think they will live. They think about a very good and happy life.

So, as a film, Moi drug Ivan Lapshin exists on many different levels?

The film exists on two levels. The first is life. And the second is our knowledge about life. So the film can belong only to our intelligentsia. Because this is a film for the people who know what will happen with the people in a certain period of time. And our position in the film was like a position of God towards the people. When we shot the film later, we showed my flat in the film, the flat where I spent my childhood. We brought many things from our home. I hung portraits of my father and my mother to show that time mustn't be hostile. It must be good.

Yesterday I was sitting here, and we began to speak about the 1960s. And we said many warm words. We smiled, speaking about that time, although it wasn't a very good time either. But back in the 1930s, it was something much more complicated. But maybe later, when we look back on the 1960s, they will also seem somewhat more complicated than now. So Moi drug Ivan Lapshin is a film that has a relationship to the 1930s from the perspective of someone who's living in the 1980s. Probably in the year 2000 the film will again seem something quite different, like a film stemming from the 1980s. At least, that's my impression.

Besides your father's story, were there other inspirations that influenced the making of Moi drug Ivan Lapshin?

This film was inspired by, or leaned quite a bit on, the poetry of [Boris] Pasternak. There's a great deal in this film taken from Pasternak. For instance, the "snow against the window." Or the "boy who goes through the flat on skis." Or even the streetcar. I don't want to list all the details from the film, but in general this film embodies the spirit of Pasternak.

Anyway, over the years we speak a great deal about these times and about these people, although they are not here any more. But the film does demand a different way of looking at the past, at those years. One shouldn't go about filming in this way that says I have shown this, I have shown that. I have shown you, I have shown me, I have shown him. And I have shown you once more. And I have shown myself once again. Then you've got something like a stereotype. And so you've got a very nice film. You've shot a lot of footage. There's no question about that.

What does that mean, "a different way of looking at the past"? And how does that affect your method of shooting a film?

We have completely stood away from the average shooting principle. We kept our distance from this kind of film-making. We wanted to show the interior, the spirit, of these times, of these people. So we thought it over, and we decided to make a film that appeared like a turntable. So the people see each other. They speak with each other about this or that. And we're sitting right there in the middle of this story. And you can tell right away, you can notice, that sometimes this is said, sometimes that is said. It almost looks in general as though things are being improvised on the spot. But in reality we worked very hard on exactly what is being said in the film. On this or that word. Because really we needed this sentence for sure. And that sentence too.

How do you position, or employ, the camera during shooting?

The camera is there in order to capture these particular conversations from this angle of perspective right in the middle of the action. In particular, the camera is to show this or that at this special time, and in this special way. After all, a conversation is supposed to have a certain particular reason or sense to it. For instance, the conversation with the young man is also a conversation about the gulag [prison camp]. Someone says something. And suddenly the question is raised: I'll put you in jail, I'll throw you in prison. Of course, that's a little bit of a joke. But a joke set in these very times. And then if you look at it, someone really did put somebody in prison. In other words, the following sequence does show that somebody was thrown in prison. So along these principles, along the principles of a turntable, that's the way we shot this film.

Are you saying that all the pieces in your film have a precise meaning within the context of the whole?

What does that mean? It means that if you take away a part of the film, if you leave out a certain sequence, then the whole film could easily fall apart. Thus, if you shorten the film, you destroy it. In the first part of the film, this particular scene dictated a lot that was to take place, that was to happen.

What kind of person is Ivan Lapshin?

Aleksei German's Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin,1982, released 1985)So who is this person, Lapshin? In a certain way, he is a normal person. In a certain way, he is a communist. And in a certain way, he is a very nice man, a kind person. You see that he's a conformist, you see that he's is a very good man. And there you see them all marching in step. Left, left, left—just like you would find in Wilhelm Busch. And then you see them standing behind the youth, the boys and the young girls. And Lapshin recognizes for the first time exactly what he is doing and where he is at. Otherwise, they're marching straight into communism. Also, the feeling is shown that there is a certain limitation.

Is Ivan Lapshin aware of the future, of the coming trials, of the gulag?

This takes place in certain conversations. For instance, when he talks to a prostitute, he does know that there are such things as a concentration camp. But when he something about the possibility of a concentration camp, he doesn't say that this is a reality. He says that this is a kind of important thing. It's like this: when he sees that there's evidence of a concentration camp, he sort of says that it's there, it really happened, but it's also important. So he's a man who actually comes out of this time, out of this regime. And this regime in the end will destroy him, too. He's a good man, and I love him. Does he know about Stalin? Does he belong in a sense to the Stalinist times? Yes, he does. Because that's why you see this picture, this photo, of Stalin at the end of the film.

Which scene or scenes give indication of what is to come?

There's a picture of [Sergei] Kirov [from 1924, head of the Leningrad Communist Party and the second most powerful man in Russia] at the beginning of the film. But that portrait is not the key scene. Although it is in a sense the key scene, but from a different viewpoint: in that it introduces the beginning of the reign of terror. In 1934, the assassination of Kirov in St. Petersburg did, in fact, free the hands of Stalin to begin the reign of terror. And this reign of terror will in the end destroy all the principle people in this film. So in a sense, then, the film exists as a kind of indication of what is to come.

Look how the film begins. It begins with a panorama. Then it goes to a portrait of Kirov. There on this portrait, on this picture of Kirov, you see the white band, the white ribbon, of death. The three knocks that take place at this point also say something. In other words, the three knocks could represent three shots: bam…bam …bam! Or they could be simply three knocks on a door. That was a very nice special effect worked out for this particular scene in the film. Also, if you look closely at the film, you will see that Kirov actually appears three times.

Is Moi drug Ivan Lapshin primarily about Stalin and the "Great Terror"?

Of course, when you make a film about Ivan Lapshin at this time, you are also including things that refer, of course, to Stalin. And, of course, later also to Beria. But on the whole we simply wanted to show the times. And we wanted to avoid this vulgar way of stating everything so clearly. Such a vulgarity would be a discussion in the film about Stalin, or even a way of behavior. We wanted to avoid all these clichés, and we wanted instead to dive deep into the lives of the people. Of course, they talk about certain things. For example, they talk about the death, the suicide, of Mayakovsky. But this is always in the background of the film.

Does Moi drug Ivan Lapshin offer the viewer any hope for the future?

They also talk about how things will look in 1937. Although it's quite clear that these people are not going to see the year 1937. And they say they are going to plant a garden, too. And the answer to that is someone who says: what are you talking about? You know that you are not able to plant a garden. It will not succeed. And the reference there is quite clear as well. In other words, the garden is never brought to fruition, although they wanted it to be brought to fruition. So in a way they have accused the forces that have made it impossible to reach these goals. So I don't take blame for the failures. We simply show that the failures did happen.

After three years on the shelf, Moi drug Ivan Lapshin was officially released in 1985. How many countries did you tour with the film?

I traveled a lot. I went to probably two dozen countries. But it didn't last very long. It happened because of the situation in our country. And it lasted approximately two years and two months. Because of that, I had to be sure of myself wherever I went. I had to be clear in my head.

Did you visit the United States with the film?

I've been to New York and to San Francisco. It was a kind of shock because I had expected to see something grander. But since so much was spoken about it, it was more or less like that when I saw it.

Was Moi drug Ivan Lapshin understood in America?

I met many people who had once lived in Moscow. But they had lived quite a different life. They had spent some years in Israel. Then they came back to America. So they had quite a different life. I saw very few people connected with the cinema. And the films that I brought were successful only with the immigrants. In America I felt that Moi drug Ivan Lapshin was not understood.

How was Moi drug Ivan Lapshin received at international film festivals?

My colleagues from Switzerland told me that when they saw the film in Locarno, one person came forward and said that she liked everything, that it was wonderful. Then she said: now please explain what it all meant. I replied: when a foreigner is watching a film like Moi drug Ivan Lapshin, I have the impression that it is the same thing as when an African is being explained why a...wool cap...is worn by Russians. And you have to explain why there is cold weather, otherwise he won't be able to understand. I don't think that a foreigner who has never been in our country can understand everything. He can probably feel some expression, or ..., but no more than that.

How was Moi drug Ivan Lapshin received in France?

In France Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny had been highly evaluated. The press used such words as "a lesson for the people." So it was interesting to note how Moi drug Ivan Lapshin would be received ten years later. The first time it was shown, it was shown only in pieces. Two reels were lost. But it was given a small prize named after Georges Sadoul. This debut prize was given to my third film, instead of to my first one. But the first two films had been forbidden, so they gave the prize to the third one. I was very thankful for that.

Ten years ago, I learned quite by chance that Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny had been shown in France. It happened quite by chance because our child was watching a news program on television, and the film director [Sergei] Bondarchuk was being interviewed. He was speaking about his plans for the future. But in the background there was a big poster of the film Dvadtsat dnei bez voiny. This is how I knew that the film had been shown there. And the press was very good. Then came Moi drug Ivan Lapshin—and the press was good again. As for the French people, however, I don't think that they could understand anything. Also, the New York Times didn't like the film. I don't agree with the view of that critic. But what can I do?

The Russian critics voted Moi drug Ivan Lapshin very high on the list of Ten Best Soviet Films of All Time …

Yes, the Russian critics voted Moi drug Ivan Lapshin among the Ten Best Soviet Films of All Time in a poll taken on the occasion of 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union. What happened? The critics had named different films of Andrei Tarkovsky, such as Zerkalo (Mirror, 1974) and Andrei Rublev (1966, released 1971). He could have been declared the winner of the poll, but he was present on the list with different films. So Moi drug Ivan Lapshin was voted first place. Personally, I don't consider this film to be better than Zerkalo or Andrei Rublev, but I can say that it wasn't unpleasant for me. And you can imagine how many false friends I received after that.

How did the Russian public respond to Moi drug Ivan Lapshin?

They can be divided into three groups. The first group wrote to me, saying that I was an idiot. They were very furious, especially when it was shown on television. Millions of people who saw it were furious. There was an article in the newspaper before the film was shown. A good article, saying that you should watch the film, really watch it, not just come and go. Then, when the film was shown, some lady made a telephone call, saying that the film should be burned—together with the director. So the Russian newspaper Izvestia responded: why should the film be burned? Just turn to another channel if you don't like it. So a third of the audience was furious and said that the film was worth nothing.

There was another third. It was very interesting that they headed their letters with the words: "A Copy to the Central Committee." Or: "A Copy to the KGB." This third thought they were speaking the truth about the film-maker. These people were from institutions, or scientific establishments. And the citizens of .... collected all their signatures, so that the film-maker would never come to their places of work. I don't know why the editor was like that. Very often, their letters started with "Dear Editor" and ended "With communist regards." All these letters were written by old Bolsheviks. When I saw that they ended "With communist regards," then I knew that a copy of such a letter would be in the KGB files.

I am not being ironic about these letters. It wasn't funny for me at all. I was really hurt. Because these letters said: "Yes, probably all those things in the film are right, but we won't give you the right to show all these things. There were letters with the words: "Solzhenitzyn with his dirty boots and criminal characters is allowed to dance on our future and our past. And now you are allowed to do the same thing, and so on." It was really very trying to get all those letters.

All the same, Moi drug Ivan Lapshin was awarded a State Prize and several international awards.

Yes, the film was awarded with the State Prize of the Russian Federation. But I must say that Moi drug Ivan Lapshin still has its enemies. And very bad ones. Even now, when I have to deal with bureaucrats, with high-level ones, I am being told that I distorted, that I insulted, that I neglected many things. There was an instance of this not very long ago. Often the attacks happened in embassies.

Are you apprehensive of the current rise of Russian nationalism?

I think that one thing that can wipe out perestroika, that can wipe out all the good things that are happening today, is this wave of nationalism that is sweeping across the country right now. I'm very much for that the Estonians speak Estonian, that the Estonians participate of their own culture. I'm also for Estonians having the Estonian language as the official state language. And that in Lithuania the official state language there is Lithuanian. I understand that they should have their own culture. I also understand that not too many Russians should be living in those places.

But I'm also against the fact that in certain zones the blame is put on what the reality shows. That Russians are accused of all the bad things in certain places. When you point your finger at, maybe, the Russians, when you point your finger at the Armenians for the troubles that happened, in many cases it's not the Russians who are guilty. There shouldn't be pushed to have what we call national zones. Or that nationalism should be the rallying cry for several people in one place. And that the national call for hate is a result of that.

That was always in our country. There were always nationalistic movements of this sort. This rejection of other people, or other cultures, leads then, of course, to outbreaks. Then they are put down again. And now through glasnost, through openness and democracy, it all comes to the surface. Not only that, it is allowed. And you can also see that this type of hate, or this kind of national feeling, is supported in the voice of the people by politicians, the people in power. It's supported by bureaucrats, and bureaucratic functionaries support this kind of thing. Also, anti-Semitism is being supported, too, in a certain form.

Ronald Holloway

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About the author

Ronald Holloway is a film critic based in Berlin and has writen for, among others, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Moving Pictures International, The Financial Times and Herald Tribune. He is the author of a number of books on cinema, and in 1979 he founded the journal Kino.


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Footnotes

1. Yury Pavlovich German (born 1910 in Riga, died 1967 in Leningrad) was a prolific writer, dramatist and screenwriter. He is best known abroad for his stories Lapshin (1937) and Aleksei Zhmakin (Alexei the Gangster, 1938), both about virtuous OGPU (Unified State Political Administration) agents tracking down criminals. In 1947, he was awarded the Stalin Prize for his screenplay for Pirogov, directed by Grigory Kozintsev.return to text

2. Georgy Tovstonogov (1915-89): His interpretations of the classics were rivaled only by Yury Lubimov at the Taganka Theatre Moscow and Anatoly Efros at the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre in Moscow.return to text

3. Grigory Kozintsev (1905-73): As well as being an accomplished director, he was an author, dramatist, art theoretician and lecturer at the Moscow Film School (VGIK) and the Leningrad Studios. His internationally famous Shakespearean film adaptations were Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1970). He also directed Yury German’s Stalin Prize-winning screenplay for Pirogov (1947) .return to text

4. Grigory (Grischa) Aronov (1923-84) was a screenwriter and director. He specialized in telefeatures and TV series.return to text

5. Boris Lavrenyov (aka Lavrenev) (1891-1959) was a poet, author and advocate of the ego-futurist moment in pre-Revolution days. He is best known for his books Sorok-Pervii (The Forty-First, 1924) and Sedmoi Sputnik (The Seventh Companion, 1927), both of which were filmed twice.return to text

6. Konstantin Simonov (1915-79) was a writer, poet, dramatist, publicist, war correspondent and close friend of Yury German. He was famous for his war dispatches, his novel Dni i nochi (Days and Nights, 1944), about the Battle of Stalingrad, and his patriotic poems, particularly Zhdi menya (Wait for Me, 1941). He won six Stalin Prizes, a Lenin Prize (1974) and was a Hero of Socialist Labor (1977) and a member of the Central Committee of Communist Party (1952-56). In addition, he was Secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers (1946-50, again 1967-79), Editor-in-Chief of Novy Mir literary magazine (1946-50) and Literaturnaya Gazeta newspaper (1950-53). When he backed the publication in Novy Mir of Vladimir Dudintsev’s Ne chlebom edinym (Not By Bread Alone,1956), the story of an inventor who struggles against bureaucracy, he was forced to recant his support when the novel was attacked by Nikita Khrushchev himself. In his memoirs, Glazami cheloveka moevo pokeleniya (Through the Eyes of My Generation, published posthumously in 1988), Simonov describes how Stalin had closely supervised the content of one of his plays.return to text

7. Svetlana Alliluyeva was born 1926 as Svetlana Josifovna Stalina. She was a writer, youngest child and only daughter of Joseph Stalin and a naturalized American citizen. Upon the death of her father, she adopted the maiden name of her mother, Nadesha Alliluyeva (1902-32), Stalin’s second wife, who committed suicide. Her Twenty Letters to a Friend, written in 1963 and published in 1967 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution, prompted an uproar in the Soviet Union. Other publications include Only One Year (1969), Faraway Music (1985) and Alien Ink (1992).return to text

8. The Strugatsky Brothers, Arkady (born 1925) and Boris (born 1933), are popular science-fiction writers, best known for Trudno byt bogon (Hard to Be a God, 1964), a tale of life in a fascist state on another planet with recognizable similarities to the Soviet dictatorship. Of the seven screen adaptations of their science-fiction novels, three were critical successes: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), Konstantin Lopushansky’s Prisma nyortvoga cheloveka (Letters of a Dead Man, 1987), and Alexander Sokurov’s Dni zatmeniia (Days of the Eclipse, 1989). A previous version of their Trudno byt bogon was filmed by German director Peter Fleischmann under the title Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein (It’s Difficult to Be a God, 1989), a German-Russian-French coproduction scripted by Jean-Claude Carrière.return to text

9. No doubt, Aleksei German values his theatre experience as the buttress of his film-making career. He spent his formative years under stage-and-film director Grigory Kozintsev at the Institute of Theatre, Music and Film in Leningrad (1955-60), graduated from the Drama Theatre in Irkutsk (1960-61), and worked as an assistant director to Georgy Tovstonogov at the Gorky Bolshoi Drama Theatre (BDT) in Leningrad (1961-64).return to text

10. Sergei Mikhalkov (born 1913) is a poet, dramatist and author of children’s stories. He penned the lyrics for the Soviet National Anthem for Stalin and the Russian National Anthem for Putin. He won a Stalin Prize for play Ilya Golovin (1949). As powerful functionary in the Union of Soviet Writers, he led the attack on Alexander Solzhenitzen. He is the father of film director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky (born 1937 in Moscow) and actor-director Nikita Mikhalkov (born 1945 in Moscow).return to text

11. Vsevolod Meyerhold (real name Karl Theodor Kasimir Meyerhold) (1874-40) was a stage director, actor, theorist and avant-garde filmmaker. He collaborated with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Arts Theatre, 1898-1902. After 1917, he formed the Theatre October and organized mass performances in factories and public places, influencing future film directors Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein. Attacked on the grounds of "formalism," his Meyerhold Theatre was closed in 1938 on the charge of its being "alien to Soviet art," and he was arrested in 1939. Although details of his death are unknown, Meyerhold was apparently executed in Moscow shortly after his arrest.return to text

12. Yury Trifonov (1925-81): Although his parents were Communist Revolutionaries, they were arrested in 1937-38 and not rehabilitated until 1955. As the son of an enemy of the people, Trifonov was denied access to higher education and worked in an aviation factory until he could gain admission to the Gorky Institute of Literature, graduating in 1949. Famous for his "city novels," he achieved international fame with the publication of Don na naberezhnoi (The House on the Embankment, 1976), a chronicle of four decades set in a famous Moscow apartment house inhabited by the Soviet elite. His novel Ischeznovaniye (Disappearance, published posthumously in 1987) focuses on events in 1937 at the height of the Great Terror, when innocent people like his parents were arrested on trumped-up charges.return to text

13. As a former war correspondent, Yury German must have been heartened by the release in 1953, shortly after Stalin’s death, of a previously shelved Lenfilm production: Alexander Ivanov’s Zvezda (The Star, 1949/53), based on a short story by Emmanuil Kazakevich. A realistic war film with a tragic ending, it depicts the heroics of a group of army reconnaissance soldiers behind the German lines who keep their radio transmitter operating for four days before being silenced by the enemy. A popular success with the public, the film inspired a wave of meaningful war stories and film productions throughout the period of the "thaw" (1956-64). A half-century later, a remake was produced at the Mosfilm Studios: Nikolai Lebedev’s Zvezda (The Star, 2002). Just prior to Stalin’s death, only five feature films had been released in the Soviet Union in 1952.return to text

14. Sergei Gerasimov (1906-85) was an actor, director, teacher and author. An actor in the Factory of the Eccentric Actors (FEKS) in Leningrad, he directed his first film in 1930. Semero smelyk (The Brave Seven, 1936), dedicated to Soviet youth born and raised in the new socialist society, is exemplary of Gerasimov’s lyrical directorial style. Set at an icy Polar station, six Komsomol youths are unexpectedly joined by a seventh member, who has made his way to the frozen north on an impulse of adventure and discovery. The theme of man and nature was to run through Gerasimov’s oeuvre over three decades from Semero smelyk to U ozera (At the Lake, 1972), the latter a plea for man’s interrelation with nature that didn’t sit well with the Soviet censors.return to text

15. Doctor Kalyuzhny (1939), directed by Meyerhold Theatre actor Erast Garin, who had been cast by Sergei Eisenstein in his aborted Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow, 1935/36), together with his wife Khesia Lokshina, who had assisted Grigory Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg on their Yunost Maksima (The Youth of Maxim, 1935). Doctor Kalyuzhny is the screen version of Yury German’s play of socialist awareness, Syn naroda (Son of the People). The Garin-Lokshina team were adept at filming popular stage productions.return to text

16. Pirogov (1947), directed by Grigory Kozintsev. The story of a 19th-century Russian surgeon, the screenplay by Yury German was awarded the Stalin Prize. This was the first film Kozintsev directed by himself after he had separated from Leonid Trauberg when their Prostiye Lyudi (Plain People, 1945) was condemned by the authorities for its too-realistic portrayal of the evacuation of Leningrad during the war.return to text

17. Josif Heifitz (1905-95) adapted for the screen Yury German’s novel Dorogoi moi chelovek (My Dear Man, 1958), a story about a man’s commitment to duty and his refusal to compromise.return to text

18. Torpedonostsy (Torpedo Bombers, 1983), directed by Semyon Aranovich, is widely considered to be one of the best Soviet war films made. It can be compared to John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945) for its persuasive blend of newsreels and documentary elements into the fiction story based on real-life experiences. Torpedonostsy, with its scenes of low-key realism, depicts the bravery of bomber pilots during their dangerous missions, while at the same time focusing on the sacrifices of those at home who shared their fate.return to text

19. Maxim Gorky (pen-name of Aleksei Maximovich Peshkov) was born in 1868 in Nizhny Novgorod (later renamed Gorky in his honor) and died in 1936 in Moscow. He was a writer, poet, dramatist, revolutionary, the profits from his literary works helping to fund the Bolshevik movement. Gorky’s second play, Na Dne (The Lower Depths, 1902), brought him international fame. His anti-tsarist proclamations and active role in the 1905 Revolution led to arrest and brief imprisonment. From 1906 to 1913, Gorky lived and worked in exile, returning to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to write for Bolshevik publications and participate in the 1917 Revolution. After a second trip abroad in 1921, for treatment of a chronic tuberculosis ailment, he returned to Moscow in 1928 to great public acclaim. As the head of the newly founded Union of Soviet Writers (1934), he championed the cause of socialist realism in literary circles. His mysterious death in 1938, while undergoing a medical examination, has prompted speculation that Stalin had ordered his death.return to text

20. Yevgeny Schwarz (Evgeny Shvarts) (1896-58) was a writer, dramatist and screenwriter, famous for his modern fairy tales and 25 satirical stage comedies – e.g., Klad (The Treasure, 1933), Golyi korol (The Naked King , 1934), Drakon (The Dragon, 1944), Obyknovennoe chudo (An Ordinary Miracle, 1956).return to text

21. Sergei Yursky (born 1935) was an actor and stage director. He graduated from the Leningrad Ostrovsky Theatre Institute (1959), since 1957 a close acting collaborator with Georgy Tovstonogov at Gorky Bolshoi Drama Theatre (BDT) in Leningrad (St. Petersburg).return to text

22. Vladimir Vengerov (1920-97) was a film director at Lenfilm. A pupil of Mikhail Schweizer (Moisei Shvejcer), with whom he collaborated on film projects. Vengerov’s screen adaption of Viktor Nekrasov’s "new prose" novel, V rodnom gorode (In His Home Town, 1965), was banned. It’s the story of a soldier who returns from the front to Kiev and finds it in ruins after the war. His wife, who had not heard from him for more than two years, is now living with another man. Vengerov also directed a screen version of Tolstoy’s Zhivoy trup (Living Corpse, 1969).return to text

23. Published in 1927, Boris Lavrenyov’s Sedmoi Sputnik (The Seventh Companion aka The Seventh Satellite) is the story of an old White General, who was arrested in 1918 in a roundup of bourgeois elements, then released by the Cheka. Forced to find work to make a living, his sympathies change, and he joins the Red Army. Captured by the Whites, he is shot.return to text

24. Yury Klepikov (born 1935) was a screenwriter. Famous for scripting Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s Istoriya Asi Klyachinoy, kotoraya lyubila, da ne vyshla zamuzh (The Story of Asia Klyachina, Who Loved a Man But Did Not Marry Him, 1966, released 1987), also known as Asino schastye (Asia’s Happiness). The poignant story of a lame woman on a collective farm, the film was shelved for 21 years before premiering to critical success at the 1987 Berlinale. One of the major figures in New Russian Cinema, he also scripted Mikhail Bogin’s award-winning O lyubvi (About Love, 1971) and Larisa Shepitko’s Voshozhdenie (The Ascent, 1976), awarded the Golden Bear at the 1976 Berlinale.return to text

25. Edgar Dubrovsky was a screenwriter best known for scripting Alexander Proshkin’s popular hit, Kholodnoye leto ’53 (The Cold Summer of 1953, 1988), the story of an exiled dissident freed from a Siberian labor camp, whose troubles are only beginning because hardened criminals have also been released at the same time.return to text

26. Gleb Panfilov (born 1934): V ogne broda net (No Ford in the Fire, 1968), his first feature film, was awarded the Golden Leopard at the 1969 Locarno film festival. Scripted by Evgeny Gabrilovich, and set during the Civil War, it’s about a young nurse (played by Inna Churikova, Panfilov’s wife) on a medical train whose naive approach to the beauty of life is set against the troubled events around her. The film’s tragic ending was a subject of much discussion by the authorities before a slightly modified version was accepted for release.return to text

27. Andrei Zhdanov (1896-1948) was head of the Leningrad Party organization (1934-44) and a member of the Politburo from 1939 until his death, he was thought to be heir apparent to Stalin when he died of a heart attack. In charge of ideological affairs, he championed Socialist Realism in the cinema and campaigned against "formalism" and Western influences in the arts.return to text

28. Smolny is an elaborate Russian baroque-style monastery in St. Petersburg. It was begun in 1749 and completed in 1808. Shortly after the 1917 Revolution, its premises were occupied by Lenin and the Petrograd Council of Workers and Soldiers.return to text

29. General Andrei Vlasov was a Red Army General. Commander of the 99th Division of the Red Army, he had survived Stalin’s purge of the Soviet military. Captured by the German Army in 1942, he convinced the German command to allow him to form an "Army of Liberation" of some 50,000 anti-Stalin Russians. Recent archival research reveals that he was more concerned with the overthrow of Stalin and the founding of a democratic Russia than he was in sympathy with the Nazi cause.return to text

30. Margarita Aliger (born 1915) was a poet and writer, winning the Stalin Prize for Zoya (1942).return to text

31. Osvobozhdeniye (Liberation, 1968-71), directed by Yury Ozerov, was a plodding, mammoth, five-part Mosfilm production that eulogized the Red Army in the Great Fatherland War. It was the Soviet answer to The Longest Day (1962), the American version of Victory in Europe that had purposely omitted reference to the sacrifices made by the Russian people to defeat the Germans.return to text

  Copyright © Kinoeye 2001-2014

RUSSIAN & SOVIET FILM IN KINOEYE

Aelita
Iakov Protazanov

Blokpost
Aleksandr Rogozhkin

Brat
Aleksei Balabanov

Brat 2
Aleksei Balabanov

Chapayev
Georgi & Sergei Vasiliev

Chekhovskie motivy
Kira Muratova

Cvety kalenduly
Sergei Sniezhkin

Dni zatmeniia
Aleksdandr Sokurov

Elegiia dorogi
Aleksandr Sokurov

Iady, ili Vsemirnaia istoriia otravlenii
Karen Shakhnazarov

Kukushka
Aleksandr Rogozhkin

Liubov i drugiie koshmary
Andrei Nekrasov

Mesto na zemlie
Artur Aristakisian

Mne dvadtsat' let
Marlen Khutsiev

Molokh
Aleksandr Sokurov

Moskva
Aleksandr Zeldovich

Offret and Nostalghia
Andrei Tarkovsky

Okraina
Peter Lutsik

Povinnost'
Aleksandr Sokurov

Prikhodi na menia posmotret'
Oleg Yankovsky

Pro urodov i liudei
Aleksei Balabanov

Russkii kovcheg
Aleksandr Sokurov

Sestry
Sergei Bodrov Jr

S dniem rozhdenia
Larisa Sadilova

Samostoia-
tel'naia zhizn'

Vitaly Kanevsky

Shchastlive dni
Aleksei Balabanov

Sibirskii tsiriulnik
Nikita Mikhalkov

Telets
Aleksandr Sokurov

Tini zabutykh predkiv
Sergei Paradzhanov

Velikii uteshitel'
Lev Kuleshov