May/June 2018 Current Moscow Time: 22:02:22
22 June 2018


  The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.


Tuesday, June 06, 2017

7 Banned Films from the 1960s

by Oleg Koronny and Leonid Marantidi
Translation by Nora Favorov

Wellspring for the Thirsting («Родник для жаждущих,1965)

Director: Yury Ilyenko

Starring: Dmitry Milyutenko, Larisa Kadochnikova, Feodosiya Litvinenko, Nina Alisova, Jemma Firsova

An old man living alone in the countryside – his children have all moved away, his wife has died – looks back on his life as he builds himself a coffin out of the table where his family once feasted together. He sends a telegram to his relatives informing them of his death, which he eagerly awaits. This almost wordless allegorical tale is constructed out of laconic poetic symbols and seamlessly connected images of life and death.

Yuri Ilyenko’s first film was also his last. This is hardly surprising: it is difficult to imagine a more “un-Soviet” film in terms of its aesthetic, to say nothing of what would have been referred to back then as its “ideological-moral content.”

Ilyenko was given the opportunity to make the film in the first place because of his work as cameraman on Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. However, as legend has it, Parajanov himself wound up dooming Wellspring by raising a toast to it and its director at a Communist Party dinner gathering, proclaiming: “A tremendous victory for cinema! A masterpiece! And what difference does it make if it’s anti-Soviet?” Ilyenko’s film was scrutinized at the highest echelons of the Soviet government and pronounced ideologically harmful. An order was issued to erase the sole copy, a common practice in Soviet efforts to combat formalism. The director did, in the end, manage to salvage a copy, but even without Parajanov’s damning toast, Wellspring did not stand a chance in a country where “poetic cinema” was a dirty word.


A Disgraceful Affair («Скверный анекдот», 1966)

Directors: Alexander Alov and Vladimir Naumov

Starring: Yevgeny Yevstigneyev, Viktor Sergachyov, Gleb Strizhenov, Zoya Fedorova, Maya Bulgakova

In the 1960s, the very plot of Dostoyevsky’s story, A Disgraceful Affair, seemed seditious: General Pralinsky drops in on a wedding taking place in the home of his subordinate, Pseldonimov, who holds the lowest rank in the Table of Ranks – collegiate registrar. Pralinsky is motivated by a desire to demonstrate his humaneness, liberalism, and other broad views (and thereby indulge his vanity). This coming together of power and the people results in a drunken bacchanalia that leaves both the exalted and the lowly appalled and ashamed.

Instead of smoothing some of the original’s sharp edges, Alov and Naumov take every opportunity to test the limits of propriety. The voiceover narration draws on a number of Dostoyevsky’s works to make this classical satire acutely relevant to its time. “His Excellency” (Pralinsky) not only “liked to strike parliamentary poses,” but would on occasion fantasize that monuments to him would one day be built. In his mind’s eye he imagines himself welcoming guests with a gesture that would have looked to the film’s audience very much like a Communist Party leader waving to the throngs from atop Lenin’s Mausoleum.  

The film’s primary message is no less insulting. It turns out that a high-and-mighty progressive condescending to hobnob with the simple folk never imagines the cesspool into which he is descending – and never knows how the experience will transform him. All the better, therefore, the “tight control, tight control” the film seemingly calls for in its finale. Indeed the makers of this and many other films experienced that “tight control” first hand. The narrator concludes with the prophetic words: “And it became sturdy, ladies and gentlemen, immovable.” This, of course, is not found in Dostoyevsky.


Diptych: The Beginning of an Unknown Century  («Начало неведомого века», 1967)

Directors: Andrei Smirnov and Larisa Shepitko

Starring: Leonid Kulagin, Georgy Burkov, Nikolai Gubenko, Viktor Kosykh, Sergei Gorbatyuk, Yevgeny Goryunov

Among the films produced in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution but never released were Angel, based on a story by Yuri Olesha, and The Motherland of Electricity, based on a story by Andrei Platonov. By 1967, the mantle of disgrace had mostly, but not fully, been posthumously removed from both of these writers. The two short films, presented together as a diptych, were directed, respectively, by Andrei Smirnov and Larisa Shepitko.

The Motherland of Electricity remains the most successful of a small number of attempts to bring to the screen, if not Platonov’s language, at least the logic of his world. A young  electrical engineer is trying to give the gift of light to an impoverished rural population that speaks and lives “in the way of the Gospel, because they don’t yet know the Marxist-Leninist way.” But this worldly task proves impossible to carry out. The people are benighted: they live as they are accustomed to living, pointlessly cross themselves, and have yet to read all the progressive books. Smirnov’s archaic, obsolete world is even gloomier, taking the form of a gang led by a maniac with the sobriquet Angel whose prisoner, a Red Army commissar, submissively goes to his death. The depiction of the troubles that followed the Revolution’s difficult birth is so vivid and unvarnished, clashed so flagrantly with the celebratory façade created by officialdom, that these two young directors’ experiments were immediately relegated to oblivion.


The Story of Asya Klyachina, Who Loved but Didn’t Get Married («История Аси Клячиной, которая любила, да не вышла замуж,  1967)

Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Starring: Iya Savvina, Gennady Yegorychev, Alexander Surin, Lyubov Sokolova

A woman with a limp who works in a rural canteen is pregnant by a muddleheaded driver, Stepan, who has no intention of marrying her. On the other hand, a tattooed fellow from town named Chirgunov wants to marry her, but Asya’s not interested.

Konchalovsky’s second film is a highly realistic portrayal of rural life (using mostly non-professionals as actors). It is 1967. Everyday village life (icons, festive gatherings, the harvest, violence, songs, funerals, and okanye – the tendency to stress the letter o common in the countryside) is overlaid with Soviet reality – mainly in the form of joyous songs. Secondary characters tell their stories – about labor camps, the war – but the rhythm and tenor of life seem little affected by the march of time, even if the occasional airplane does fly through the frame as a monologue is being delivered. This film’s aesthetic and hyper-realism put it at odds with both the canon of socialist realism and the cheerful optimism (as in Walking the Streets of Moscow) that pervaded Soviet cinema in the 1960s. The powers that be did not care for the film’s pessimism, the squalor of the kolkhoz, and the trouble the films’ protagonists have fitting in, and Konchalovsky was ordered to make changes, cutting scenes of drunkenness, sexual harassment, and one old man’s monologue about camp life. The son of the well-known poet Sergei Mikhalkov, Konchalovsky obeyed, but even the watered-down version could not make it past the censors. The director offered the following explanation for the film’s ban:

My subconscious desire to use Asya Klyachina to zero in on the truth of human existence, as I now understand, was an absolute challenge to a society that had long since become accustomed to lies. Truth has completely fallen out of use in art, even in documentary films. This is why Smoktunovsky, at a premiere at the Leningrad House of Cinema, got down on his knees before me right there on the stage. This is why Shklovsky had a heart attack at a screening during the scene of the grandfather’s funeral. And this is why the picture was banned.

It would be 1987 before audiences got to see the film.


Intervention («Интервенция», 1968)

Director: Gennady Poloka
Starring: Vladimir Vysotsky, Yuliya Burygina, Yuri Tolubeyev, Yefim Kopelyan, Sergei Yursky, Olga Aroseva, Valery Zolotukhin

Lev Slavin’s ideologically vetted play Intervention was given a second life in 1957, when theaters, together with the entire country, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. For the previous 20 years, nobody had wanted to touch it, partly because some of its prototypical heroes had been purged under Stalin and partly because heroes of the revolution were forced to share the stage with too many jokes, songs, and Odessa bandits. The Thaw gave Intervention one last hurrah.

In 1967, to coincide with the revolution’s 50th anniversary, the task of directing a film version of the play was given to Gennady Poloka, who had earned this privilege with his 1966 film, The Republic of ShKID.  Poloka took the eccentricities of the original Intervention to a new extreme, setting the action against a backdrop inspired by Meyerhold’s revolutionary theater, using expressionist montage, and giving the leading role to the rising star of the Soviet underground (albeit, by now, not in the revolutionary sense of the word), Vladimir Vysotsky. In so doing, Poloka created Soviet cinema’s first example of slapstick – its only venture into the territory of bourgeois humor, a territory where French soldiers in bright green barracks can make risqué jokes with a female member of the proletariat. Fulfilling a requirement of farce, Sergei Yursky plays four roles, including as a woman. A whole slew of Soviet actors, from Valentin Gaft to Yefim Kopelyan, engage in the best traditions of American comedy. Observant viewers will catch glimpses of Marlen Khutsiev and Yevgeny Shiffers. Shiffers directed Pervorossiyanye, which Intervention easily outdoes in terms of visual outlandishness. Despite the tragic ending, for which Vysotsky specially wrote his famous “Song about Wooden Clothing,” it’s hard to watch this film without getting the impression that the revolution was first and foremost a costume farce. But what today might be called an original directorial approach, back then was officially pronounced an artistic failure with serious ideological flaws, and the film was slated for physical annihilation. Only a miracle saved it from this fate.


Pervorossiyanye (1967)

Directors: Yevgeny Shiffers and Alexander Ivanov
Starring: Vladimr Zamansky, Larisa Danilina, Gennady Nilov, Ivan Krasko, and Inna Kondratyeva

The year 1967, the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, gave rise to a whole series of banned films about early Soviet history. At first, the screen version of Olga Berggolts’s novel in verse about the heroic feats of the first communards did appear doomed to condemnation: the screenplay for this epic was entrusted to Alexander Ivanov, a USSR People’s Artist and director of the films If a Comrade Calls  and Virgin Soil Upturned. But the aging master was assigned a helper, the young Leningrader Yevgeny Shiffers, who had been fired from every theater he worked at for formalism. As a result, while the 70-year-old Ivanov spent his time on the set writing his memoirs, Shiffers,  shielded by his boss’s good name,  filmed one of the most amazing films in the history of Soviet cinema. This poetic tale of seven brave souls given Lenin’s blessing to build communism where they were once sent as political exiles takes the breath away with its inventiveness: the laws of physics are replaced with the dictates of art, and every chapter is given its own portion of the color spectrum, forcing the film’s art director to repaint whole mountains to give visual expression to the phrase “the world was burning underfoot.” The result is a film that has less to do with the October Revolution than the power of faith. Apparently, the director, who later immersed himself in religious asceticism, told his actors not to read Berggolts’s poem, since “the film has nothing to do with it.” He also changed the title from Pervorossiysk to Pervorossiyane – a compound word suggesting “people of the first Russia,” although the heroes come out looking more like early Christians. Furthermore, the protagonists’ faces are painted to resemble the saints of Orthodox icons. As an anniversary gift, the film was a failure: the director was kicked out of filmmaking, a bronze Lenin was added to the ending, and the picture itself was put on a shelf, where it gathered dust until 2009.

Commissar  («Комиссар», 1967)

Director: Alexander Askoldov
Starring: Nonna Mordyukova, Rolan Bykov, Raisa Nedashkovskaya, Vasily Shukshin

Comrade Vavilova, a Red Army commissar played by Nonna Mordyukova, is expecting a baby at the worst possible time – the height of the Civil War. The pregnant commissar is assigned to live with a large Jewish family in a town that has only just been taken from the Whites.

Commissar is another film made in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, another film venturing into the treacherous terrain of the mythology surrounding the Soviet Union’s origin. The screenplay is based on a story by Vasily Grossman, who was out of favor at the time. Furthermore, many of the main characters are Jews taken straight out of the Bible, the score was written by the Jewish composer Alfred Shnitke, and the symbolism and stunning cinematography is the work of Valery Ginzburg (younger brother of the bard Alexander Galich). Commissar is about as anti-Soviet as you can get: a dark film, featuring sadistic children and eerie dances by Rolan Bykov. Askoldov was asked to replace the Jews with Tatars and to keep Shnitke’s name out of the credits. He refused, and the film was ordered destroyed. The director was then expelled from the party and fired by the studio as “profneprigoden” (professionally unfit). Commissar was not shown until 1987 (it was the renowned filmmaker and actor Sergei Gerasimov who purportedly salvaged a copy). Ultimately, Commissar earned numerous awards and has been ranked among some of history’s greatest and most important films. It is the only feature-length film directed by Askoldov, whose subsequent career was limited to directing documentaries about the Kama Automobile Plant and performances by the singer Alla Pugacheva.


Arzamas and Russian Life

Translation of this article into English and its publication here and on the Arzamas Academy site is part of a collaboration between Russian Life magazine and Arzamas Academy. To read the original article in Russian, jump over here.