The Limits of Expression

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Two films released in 1968 helped define the boundaries of cultural expression for the next generation. Kira Muratova’s Brief Encounters, filmed in the Odessa Film Studio, was shelved by censors for “moral” objections. Although the censor did not state the objections explicitly, the film would not be seen for twenty years. Perhaps it greatest sin was its mood of ambiguity. The film chronicles the efforts of Nadya, played by Nina Ruslanova, to attract the attention of a famous geologist, Maksim. Played by a young Vladimir Vysotskii in one of his first great roles, he is a shiftless but compelling man, made attractive by a love for freedom and open space that also renders him incapable of permanent attachment. The two women competing for his attentions, one tough and vibrant, the other submissive and less confident of her charms, find some comfort in their own growing relationship. Muratova herself played the role of a local bureaucrat who gets to the geologist first. The absence of any point of political controversy led most to assume that the film was shelved for the same psychological richness and ambiguity that made it so powerful.

The uncontested hit of the 1968 was Galdai’s delightful comedy, Diamond Arm. The plot is light and silly, but moves along briskly with a touch of parody and the acting gifts of two audience favorites, Iurii Nikulin and Andrei Mironov. Nikulin plays a bumbler, an average Soviet citizen who goes on an overseas cruise (in itself an unusual opportunity). Onboard he is mistaken for a smuggler by the villains, who use the cast on his arm to stash illegal diamonds. A series of comic misadventures ensues, culminating when the good guy Nikulin goes to the police, who use him and his broken arm as bait for the criminals intent on recovering their contraband. Still watched by Russian audiences with delight, the movie was as apolitical as Brief Encounters, but challenged audiences with none of the ambiguity. Wise directors would take this path for the next twenty years.

It was often difficult to know why a particular film was banned by the state censors. Complex treatment of subjects that official propaganda had rendered one-dimensional was often a cause. This was the case of another two films banned that would disappear for twenty years, Aleksei German’s Trial on the Road and Aleksandr Askoldov’s Commissar. Trial dealt with the question of collaborators during the Second World War, and the heroine of Commissar is female commissar during the Civil War who gives illegitimate birth while harbored by a Jewish family. Censors had broad powers to regulate the cinema, needing to provide only the simplest explanation for their decisions. Artists were forced to avoid any possible intervention by censors. Many learned simply not to raise controversy of any sort, bringing on a period of cultural “stagnation” that ended only with the policy of glasnost.

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