January 02, 2022

Heroes With a Foreign Accent in Russian Cinema

Heroes With a Foreign Accent in Russian Cinema
The Italian Embassy in Moscow. Wikimedia Commons

This blog post is the third in a series on learning about Russia through its films.

Russians in Hollywood films are strong, unsmiling, and dangerous. Basically some derivative of Ivan Drago from Rocky.

But what about foreign heroes in Russian cinema? It seems that their purpose is not so much to reveal their own story but to emphasize the Russian reality, to allow it to be seen from a foreign perspective for a change. Here are six films, from different times, that portray foreigners in Russian cinema in a noteworthy way.

The Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia (1974)

Title Card for The Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia. Click on title cards to access full-length films.

This comedy by Eldar Ryazonov was released at the height of the Cold War in 1974 and is about a group of temperamental Italians. While they are extremely likable, they can hardly be called model individuals (e.g. their anti-Soviet desire to get rich). 

Nothing reveals the true nature of a person like the search for treasure. In the film, this treasure is hidden within the Soviet Union. To get to it, the main characters, played by Italian actors, must show perseverance, get rid of their compatriot competitors, and find a common understanding with Russian citizens they meet along the way, including lions. 

The lions they encounter in Leningrad are not limited to the stone ones that can be found on every corner, but a living one as well. The treasure is eventually discovered and, as expected, does not make anyone happy. The true treasure that they discover is that only love can make you happy. This metaphorical treasure is found by two of the characters: a Russian intelligence agent and a beautiful Italian woman. For his sake, she remains in the Soviet Union to be with him. The reaction of many Soviet viewers after watching was, "It would have been better the other way around!" At that time, it was almost impossible for citizens to leave the Soviet Union, even for brief periods.

Autumn Marathon (1979)

This is a tragicomedy from 1979, in which two heroes—Russian translator Andrei Buzykin, and his guest, Danish professor Bill Hansen—go for a morning run. Hansen is in Russia working on a translation of Dostoyevsky. And the run is the only thing that does not raise any questions from the guest. 

Hansen tries to translate or find a reasonable explanation for everything else, meaning the words and deeds of everyone he meets. While this is a lot of work, Hansen cannot work set hours, as he does at home. He finds it impossible for to say “no” to any spontaneous detour, sudden feast, or mushroom hunting trip.

Hansen, played by Norbert Kuchinke, has become one of the most memorable and dear foreigners in Russian film. Yet Kuchinke was a West German (capitalist) journalist, not a professional actor. The talented director, Georgiy Daneliya, attained permission for Kuchinke to act in the film, but that approval was conditional on him playing a Dane, not a German. And so, for the first time Russians saw a foreigner who was polite, but not weak, different, but not alien, and funny, but not a jester. In the film, we see the story of the Russian intellectual Andrei through the eyes of his Danish guest. Russians who watched the film were not offended by the foreign perspective of their fellow countrymen. 

Peculiarities of the National Hunt (1995)

Title Card for Peculiarities of the National Hunt

In this 1995 comedy, a young Finn named Raivo is studying the traditions and history of Russian hunting in the nineteenth century, and late in the film he gets the opportunity to take part in a hunt. 
Raivo, who takes everything very literally and often does not understand anything, joins a company of Russians. He dives into the absurdity of Russian life in the mid-1990s, where everyone partakes in drinking and bears make the occasional appearance. Thanks to the talents of the director Alexander Rogozhkin, the film went beyond a simple drunken comedy and became an artistic response to a time in which cows had to fly to survive.

The young Finn accepts Russian reality with a foreign tolerance and with the admiration of a neophyte. His character appeared again in the film’s sequel, where he continues to be surprised at Russians’ larger-than-life way of letting loose. The Finnish actor who played Raivo, Juho Haapasalo, got a foothold in Russian cinema and appeared in several other films.

American Daughter (1995)

A Russian film set in America. American Daughter was made in 1995 by Karen Shakhnazarov and directed by Alexei Balabanov. In the film, the main characters arrive in America to deal with some personal matters, and while there they get to know its inhabitants. In the film, a father finds his daughter, from whom he has been estranged for many years, after the girl’s mother took her and moved away. The daughter does not understand a word of Russian, but instantly feels a deep, familiar bond to her father. Together, they run away from her well-to-do family to the Mexican border, where they find a common language with one another, and, it seems, with everyone else that they meet—except the law.

East/West (1999) 

Title Card for East/West

This 1999 drama was based on Four Thirds of our Life, a memoir about Russian emigre Nina Krivosheina. 

The film begins with a group of Russian emigres returning home from France after the end of the Second World War. Upon their arrival, Doctor Golovin is taken in to be interrogated, his French wife is deprived of her French passport, and, along with their son, they end up in a Soviet communal apartment. 

In the film, the patient and sophisticated French wife, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, not only finds the courage to accept these deplorable new living conditions but finds meaning and love there. Later, she is arrested, and she must then find the strength to survive in the labor camp. Many years later, she gets a one-in-a-million opportunity: the chance to leave the Soviet Union with her son and go back to France. 

The film is subtle, but the line between East and West is quite stark. Words such as "terrible" and "frightening" can be used to describe the eastern USSR, where only rare individuals carry knowledge of the French language and traces of pre-revolutionary Russian culture can still be found. 

Brat II (Brother II) (2000)

Title Card for Brother II

In Alexei Balabanov’s film Brat II, Danila and his brother travel to the United States to collect a Russian hockey star’s honestly-earned money from a greedy, rich American. Along the way, they meet a mixed bag of Americans, some simple, open, and kind-hearted, such as the truck driver Ben, while others are depraved, rich, and criminal. 

In Balabanov’s iconic film, the portrayal of Americans will not only surprise and amuse American viewers, but it may also be seen to be offensive—not so much in the fabrication of stereotypes, but in the one-sided, negative portrayal of the subject. The ability to understand and accept foreigners as you would accept someone who is like you requires a talent that goes beyond a superficial perspective. It is a special, humanistic talent. 

A final note—Over the past 10 years, foreigners have more and more often “visited” Russian films and television shows. In the comedy series How I Became Russian, the main character, an American journalist (played by the Polish actor Mateusz Damiecki), is forced to leave America and settle in Moscow. Over the course of twenty episodes, he learns what it really is like to live in Russia. The series has become extremely popular in China. So much so that in 2018, a full-length film based on the series was created, where the main character is Chinese and finds adventure in Moscow. 

Foreign guests in Russian films will always be welcome, because against their foreign background, our own Russian characters and realities feel especially Russian.

– By Kate Skorodinskaya
With editing by Hannah Halliday

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