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Late Soviet and Post-Soviet cinema

15.01.2011

The Soviet power structure, along with its attendant censorship on all foreign and domestic films, was firmly in place through the end of the 1980s. Despite this interference, a number of interesting filmmakers began creating work in the 1970s and 1980s; films included Elem Klimov’s brutal war drama Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985), Grigori Chukhrai’s Russian-Italian spy thriller Zhizn prekrasna (Life Is Wonderful, 1979), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction allegory Stalker (1979). Tarkovsky is perhaps the most important director of this era of Soviet cinema, but state censorship drove him from the country into self-imposed exile for two years, until Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness) arrived in the Soviet Union.

Tarkovsky had a long and distinguished career in Russian filmmaking from the late 1950s onward; his early film Ivanovo detstvo (Ivans Childhood, 1962) tracked the adventures of a twelve-year-old Russian spy during World War II as he slips across German lines to collect information for his country.

The film was begun by director Eduard Abalov, who was abruptly fired; Tarkovsky was brought in to finish, though initially he received no screen credit. The movie is a somewhat sentimental drama, firmly in step with Soviet Cold War policy. But Andrey Rublyov (Andrei Rublev, 1969), a violent historical drama about fifteenth-century Russian religious life and warfare, centering on a particularly ascetic monk, was so stark in its depiction of medieval hardship that, though made in 1966, it was held from release by the authorities until 1969 and then shown only in a severely edited version (the cuts have since been restored).

Solyaris (Solaris), a mystical science fiction film, followed in 1972; it was remade by Steven Soderbergh in the United States in 2002. Tarkovsky further tweaked authority with his radically structured semi-autobiographical film Zerkalo (The Mirror, 1975), and after completing Stalker (1979), he shot the dreamlike Nostalghia (Nostalgia, 1983) during a sojourn to Italy. After his defection from the USSR in 1984, Tarkovsky made one final film before his death, the Swiss/French production Offret(The Sacrifice, 1986), in which Alexander, an aging journalist (beautifully played by Erland Josephson), confronts his lack of faith on the eve of World War III.

Tarkovsky s death, and the many prizes his films had won in international festivals, ironically accelerated the rebirth of filmmaking in Russia.

In addition, films that had been suppressed for years finally received a belated release. Aleksandr Askoldov’s gently critical film about the Russian Revolution, Komissar (The Commissar), for example, which had been sitting on the shelf since its production in 1967, was finally released in 1988. A greater frankness about sex and drugs was apparent in Vasili Pichul’s Malenkaya Vera (Little Vera, 1988), while Pavel Lungin’s Taksi-Blyuz (Taxi Blues, 1990) presented contemporary Moscow as a neon wilderness of alcohol and poverty, albeit with a darkly humorous tone. Pavel Chukraj’s Vor(The Thief, 1998) was even more provocative, telling the tale of a Soviet mother and child who are held in thrall by a charismatic con man in the Stalin-era 1950s. In 2002, Alexander Sokurov’s Russkiy kovcheg (Russian Ark) marked a turning point in the cinema: a digital movie shot in one continuous take, recorded directly onto a digital hard drive imbedded in the camera. For ninety minutes, Sokurov’s camera prowls through the Hermitage, the great Russian art museum in St. Petersburg, as a fabulous gallery of historical personages drift in and out of the film in one spectacularly extended traveling shot.

Sokurov got the film on the second take, despite the freezing weather, and thus on 23 December 2001 a new era in the movies was born. In Poland, the documentary and feature filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi’s Struktura krysztalu (The Structure of Crystal, 1969) and Iluminacja (Illumination, 1973) were bold cinematic experiments, while Andrzej Wajda contributed to the birth of the Solidarity Movement with the production of increasingly political films, particularly Czlowiek z zelaza (Man of Iron, 1981). Despite a military crackdown in the last days of 1981 in opposition to the Solidarity labor movement, Wajda, Zanussi, and Krzysztof Kieslowski continued to work in Poland, creating movies of originality and beauty. Kieslowski’s last great work, his epic Trzy kolory (Three Colors) trilogy, Blue (1993), White (1994), and Red (1994), was shot in Poland and France and dealt with the pressures of life in materialistic modern French society.

One of the most enigmatic and influential figures of the Polish cinema is Agnieszka Holland, whose career began in Poland; later she moved in succession to Germany, France, and finally the United States. Born in Warsaw in 1948, Holland experienced firsthand the horrors of anti-Semitism, as her entire family on her father’s side was murdered under the Nazi regime in World War II. Educated in Czechoslovakia, she graduated in 1971 from the Prague Film School and made her first films for Czechoslovakian television. As a screenwriter, Holland became closely associated with Andrzej Wajda beginning in 1977 and co-wrote the screenplays of many of his films, including Bez znieczulenia (Without Anesthesia, 1978) and Danton (1983).

In 1979, Holland directed and co-wrote the feature Aktorzy prowincjon-alni (Provincial Actors), which won the Critics’ Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Provincial Actors displays an early use of Holland’s poetic realism in a political tract loosely allegorized in the play-within-a-film form. The company of players in the film put on the Polish play Liberation, yet Holland shows the stifling atmosphere of conformity and yearning for freedom that the players experience. Abused by a tyrannical director who obviously represents a figurehead of the colonizing forces ruling over Poland, one actor experiences a breakdown; as a result, his relationship with his wife becomes unbearable. Holland’s next feature film, Goraczka (Fever, 1981), was banned by the Polish government. Based on a story by Polish writer Andrzej Strug, Fever tells of the political struggle at the turn of the twentieth century when Poland fought for independence. Released right after the imposition of martial law in Poland, the film was almost immediately banned because of its brutally realistic portrayal of the occupying Soviet forces. Holland’s next film, Kobieta samotna (A Woman Alone, 1981), was the last film she directed in Poland, chronicling the plight of an unmarried mother employed as a letter carrier who embezzles the money of old-age pensioners to make ends meet when unexpected expenses arise.

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