Working first in comedy and then tragedy, Klimov was always in trouble with the regime for his films—so much so, his fellow directors trusted him to restructure the industry when the USSR's demise seemed imminent. Josephine Woll charts the director's journey from film-maker to administrator.
Elem Klimov, who died on 26 October 2003, had two careers: one as a director of films during the last two decades of the Soviet state, the other as a leader in the effort to refashion Russian cinema as and after the Soviet Union disintegrated. In both capacities, Klimov demonstrated dexterity and professionalism in handling the tools of film-making—the camera, the cast, the cash and the bureaucrats who so often tried to control all three. Although he took on administrative roles in the film industry after 1986, Klimov never became a bureaucrat himself: even when he traded in his director's chair for a desk model, he retained a film-maker's eye and a film-maker's passion.
Western audiences know Klimov-the-director chiefly from his later films, especially Agoniia (Rasputin, 1975, released 1984) and Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985). Both are historical films, the first a sensationalist but serious portrait of the improbably sensationalist "advisor" to Nicholas II, Grigory Rasputin, the second a harrowing account of Nazi brutality in Belarus in 1943.
But Klimov launched his career with comedy. Klimov studied at VGIK, the premier Soviet film school, in the turbulent, exciting late 1950s and early 1960s, along with a raft of talented young men—Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Konchalovsky, Vasily Shukshin—and at least one talented young woman, Larisa Shepitko, whom he married. After graduating in 1964, Klimov made his debut with Dobro pozhlovat', ili postoronnim vkhod vospreshchen (Welcome or No Trespassing, 1964).
Based on a witty script by two accomplished writers, Semyon Lungin and Ilia Nusinov, Dobro pozhlovat' depicts a Young Pioneer summer camp under the heavy hand of its hide-bound director, Dynin, played with wonderful panache by Evgeny Evstigneev. Obsequious toward authority, resistant to innovation, hostile to any idea smacking of independence, however trivial, Dynin was a familiar type on Soviet screens. But Klimov made of the material a fresh, witty satire that pokes fun at a variety of Soviet pieties, contrasting whimsical fantasy and precisely-observed and photographed reality. "We shot everything head-on," Klimov explained, "like posters or portraits. [...] If the picture has any originality, it lies in the eclectic style, the mixture of theater-poster and documentary."
Dynin's nemesis, 11-year-old Kostia Inochkin, breaks the rules once too often by swimming across the river to an island where the local kids congregate. His punishment is draconian: expulsion from camp, and on the next milk truck! Unwilling to face the effect of his expulsion on his granny—effects he imagines with hilarious precision—Kostia sneaks back in. The other kids hide him, with help from the townies, their pig and camp staff accomplices. The conspiracy to protect Kostia unravels, of course, but Dobro pozhlovat' ends happily, with a final surprising tweak of fantasy.
Throughout its history, Soviet cinema tiptoed around comedy as a genre, though audiences hungered for it. All kinds of comedy posed dangers: "pure" entertainment because it avoided—hence implicitly challenged—ideology; comic irony, so often expressing or accompanying unbelief and doubt; slapstick and farce, because they edged toward subversive deviance. Thus authorities scrutinized comedy with special care, sniffing out all potential pitfalls and snares.
In the case of Dobro pozhlovat' , another layer of censorship joined the usual complement: since the Komsomol (Young Communist League) ran Pioneer Camps, the Komsomol had to vet the script, and miraculously approved it. Still, Mosfilm Studio remained apprehensive, and Klimov knew he was on notice. "Every morning," he later commented, "I would ask the accountant in charge of our money how much we had spent, and would then try to spend more, because the more we had spent, the less likely they were to close us down." Shooting on location at the Black Sea, Klimov received a telegram instructing him to stop all work and return to Moscow. By then, fortunately, most of the footage was already in the can. Klimov quickly shot the rest, sending one of his writers, Semyon Lungin, back to Moscow to provide a smokescreen by "rewriting" the script.
The script as filmed mocks the truisms and bombast of official Sovietese. As Kostia slinks past a line of status to hide in the camp, for instance, a voice-over pompously intones, "Thus Kostia Inochkin placed himself outside the law." During the rehearsal for Parents' Day, Dynin reads aloud from a script that has been used for so long it is barely legible. He mechanically recites everything he reads: "Spectators applaud. Applause ends." When one pretty young counselor objects, wanting to inject some novelty into the tired routines, Dynin retorts that while the instructions may be old, no one has revoked them.
The highlight of Parents' Day is the crowning of "Queen Corn," empress of the fields, itself a burlesque of Nikita Khrushchev's disastrous agricultural policy. The husk falls away to reveal Kostia as the Queen instead of the little girl chosen by Dynin because her uncle is a Party big-shot—and much to Dynin's dismay, "spectators applaud."
If what they had read worried studio bureaucrats, what they saw on screen scared the hell out of them. "Under no circumstances," warned one participant, "should the film be completed hastily." "We need balance," another said. "For me there are not enough appealing, upstanding adults. I would like to see them alongside the fine boys and girls. Not in order to balance the scales," he continued, confusingly, "but to give a picture of our actual, living world." One discussion closed with a reference to the "anxiety" Dobro pozhlovat' had evoked from "a whole variety of organizations."
Soviet audiences enjoyed Dobro pozhlovat', attacks in the press notwithstanding. (One critic objected to the lack of "discipline" in the camp: "A person is sitting under the platform [Kostia's hiding place] and no one notices!") Khrushchev personally intervened: according to Klimov, Nikita Sergeevich saw it, liked it—despite a poster of Kostia's round-faced granny bearing an uncanny resemblance to Khrushchev's own moon face—and asked why it wasn't being shown in theaters. Perhaps comedy proved treacherous indeed: twelve days after the film's release, Khrushchev was booted out of office.
A bridge too far...
Klimov followed Dobro pozhlovat' with a second comedy, Pokhozhdeniia zubnogo vracha (Adventures of a Dentist, 1965), but this time he was less lucky. The climate was already shifting, and not in favor of fresh, inventive comedy—nor, for that matter, in favor of any films touching on sensitive subjects, historical or contemporary. Pokhozhdeniia zubnogo vracha challenged and deflated a number of sacred Soviet cows, such as the wisdom of the collective and the beneficence of the leaders.
Klimov's hero, a novice dentist called Chesnokov ("garlic"), discovers a remarkable talent: he can pull teeth painlessly, instantaneously, with a flick of his drill and a soft "ding!" Initially, Chesnokov's colleagues admire him. When their patients abandon them for the miracle-worker, however, they turn on him, as do the patients themselves when Chesnokov's magic falters.
As in Dobro pozhlovat', Klimov sharpened the parodic elements of Alexander Volodin's script both visually and verbally. When Chesnokov's parents visit him, hoping to raise his spirits, Klimov shoots them frontally. They become Soviet equivalents of Grant Wood's American Gothics, staring straight ahead and preaching about "manliness" and courage. In another scene, Chesnokov is so unnerved by the intimidating presence of a supervisory commission that he cannot work at all. The parallel to the paralyzing effect of controls on film-makers (indeed, on all artists) was not hard to infer—even for the authorities.
"The story of a man who reveals an extraordinary talent, and whom everyone tramples in the most friendly Soviet way, could hardly inspire any special joy," Klimov later recalled, especially among functionaries uncertain of the prevailing winds after Khrushchev's departure. Editors, appalled by the film's final implication—that society inevitably ostracizes those who are gifted—told Klimov to change it. He refused. The consequence: a "category three" classification, relegating the film to a handful of prints, 25 according to one version of what happened, 78 according to another. Either way, hardly anyone got to see the film.
Intensity and unrealised plans
Censorship continued to plague Klimov. He completed his rich, racy version of Rasputin and the last years of Romanov rule in 1975—several years, and several rewrites, after he began it—but Russian distribution came only in 1984, obstructed partly because of its orgy-scenes, partly because of its (relatively) nuanced portrait of Nicholas II. After his wife died in a car crash in 1979, while at work on a screen adaptation of Valentin Rasputin's story Farewell to Matyora, Klimov finished the film (Proshchanie [Farewell]) in 1981, but it was initially shelved because of its "desperate ecological warning." (Together with Marlen Khutsiev, Klimov also completed the film his teacher, Mikhail Romm, was working on when he died, I vse-taki ia veriu... [And Still I Believe, 1976].)
The projects he worked on between the mid-1980s and 2000—an adaptation of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, another of Dostoevsky's The Possessed, a film on Stalin—foundered, partly because of the difficult financial circumstances in which Russian cinema found itself, partly because of Klimov's involvement in the transformation of the industry as First Secretary of the Union of Film-makers in 1986 and partly because of his own loss of interest in making films.
The last film that Klimov directed, Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985), shocked audiences both at home and abroad. Based on a story by Ales Adamovich, and set in wartime Belarus (now independent, then a republic of the USSR), Idi i smotri depicts the horrifying experiences of a 16-year-old, Florian (Alexei Kravchenko), whose family and village the Nazis destroy. (The Nazis destroyed over 600 Belarusian villages.) After stealing a rifle—the price of admission, as it were—Flor joins up with a partisan unit (they give him little choice), but is left behind in the forest camp when they go off on a raid.
He and Glasha, a girl he encounters in the forest, manage a few moments of innocent happiness before reality returns with a vengeance: German aerial bombardment, rape, horrifying scenes of slaughter. Dehumanized by war, the partisans consider burning alive their Nazi captives, before the commander orders them to be shot instead. The film ends with Flor, his face prematurely aged, firing his gun repeatedly at a picture of Hitler.
Wagner's music accompanies newsreels of the rise of the Nazis and Hitler's life, in reverse chronology, as if Flor can reverse the history that has led to this moment. But though he doesn't hesitate to shoot the tyrant responsible for his own and his people's agony, he puts down his gun at the image of the baby Hitler in his mother's arms. To the sound of Mozart's Requiem, the camera tilts up to the sky, leaving the viewer to ponder whether Flor was right not to kill the baby who grew up to become Adolf Hitler.
Idi i smotri's intensity is relentless, in part because of Alfred Schnittke's score, in part because Klimov forces the viewer to see with Flor's eyes, hear with his ears, go deaf when he temporarily ceases to hear. As a result, our discomfort increases with each frame. The film's Nazis may be—indeed, are—"ghoulish, cartoonish caricatures," its partisans at best "jaded and amoral," at worst close to a lynch mob. Nevertheless, because of our identification with Flor, enforced by the camera and by the music, we cannot help but share his terror and his trauma. The tragedy of Idi i smotri extends beyond the particular guilt of the Germans: in Klimov's apocalyptic vision, "all humanity has degenerated."
Klimov traded his camera for a gavel in 1986, when his colleagues, eager to exploit the opportunities promised by glasnost, chose him as First Secretary of the new, revamped Film-maker's Union. The majority of delegates perceived him "as a strong figure capable of leading the film industry out of a debilitating state of stagnation. Many also identified with his longtime struggle [...] for the right to freedom of artistic expression."
During his two-year tenure he oversaw the release of nearly a hundred banned films, and the reinstatement of several film-makers who had fallen afoul of the authorities. In 1988, Klimov passed the secretaryship on to Andrei Smirnov. He wanted to make films again, he said. But the films didn't materialize, and Klimov's insistence on cinema's responsibility to edify as well as engage the viewer came to seem anachronistic over the next decade.
As an industry administrator, Klimov may end up as a historical footnote, his legacy relatively inconsequential. As a director, however, his films stand out for their individuality and their moral purpose. Whether in the early comedies or the later tragedies, Klimov made films that mattered on subjects he cared about, and he brought to each of them his own eye, his own mind and his own heart. In the end, not an inconsequential achievement at all.
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