The Lost Movies

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Awakened by Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for more openness (glasnost), in the wake of Chernobyl, workers in the arts stormed the bastion of censorship in the spring of 1986, led by the cinema. In May the Cinema Workers Union elected filmmaker Elem Klimov its new first secretary. Klimov, director of Agony (1975), a controversial film about Rasputin), and the recently released COME AND SEE, replaced Central Committee member Kudzhanov, marking the first turnover in union leadership for twenty years, and a displacement in the relationship of art to state power. In January 1987 Fillip Ermash, the politically conservative chairman of Goskino, was replaced by Aleksandr Kudzhanov. Goskino was the state agency supervising the financing, production and censorship of all films, and help responsibility for script approval. Using this tremendous power, and working with the union, Goskino set about revamping Soviet cinema. Innovative script and production plans that had recently been subject to rejection were given rapid approval; and censorship was lightened or eliminated for issues ranging from the political to the sexual. Artists shared equal power with the bureaucrats, a shift signaled by the creation of a new Conflict Commission, charged with compiling a list of movies that had been shelved for banned in the difficult years between 1966 to 1980, the so-called Stagnation Period.Ermash as chairman had patronized films that appealed to mass taste, avoiding political controversy and the complexity of everyday life. What this meant was that the censor’s shelves held many films distinguished by taste, intelligence and integrity, including Kira Muratova’s 1971 THE LONG GOODBYE, Gleb Panfilov’s 1979 THEME. Three of the recovered films released in 1986 caused a particular surge of interest, and illustrated the taboos overturned. Two of the films, Aleksandr Askoldov’s Commissar (filmed 1967), and Aleksei German’s Trial on the Road (filmed 1971), looked at seminal moments in Soviet history with gritty realism and moral ambiguity. Commissar chronicles the story of a Red Army commissar during the Civil War. Pregnant from a now-dead fellow officer, and unable to continue the hard life of the campaign she is billeted with a Jewish family until the child is born. She finds the life of shtetl Jews as alien as they find her, finds common humanity with them only as the wife and mother of the family initiates her into the mysteries of motherhood. The film closes with her facing a choice: retreat with the Reds, abandoning the child she loves, or stay with the child and her adopted family, endangering herself. Illuminating a foundation event in Soviet with amorality of war and political struggle, and the ambivalence of personal allegiance, was suspect enough to warrant shelving the film for twenty years. Even more challenging to Soviet mores was German’s Trial on the Road, which raised similar questions about the Great Patriotic War (World War II), an event allowing for no ambiguities. Based on a story written by his father, German’s film tells of a captured German soldier who tries to prove he was originally a Russian captured and forced into serving the Nazis. After a sympathetic officer prevents his being shot on the spot, the protagonist proves himself a hero on the battlefield, despite the constant attempts of another officer to undermine him. Filmed in black and white, as was Commissar, the movie proved the stereotypes of classic Soviet war films untenable.In many ways, the stringent censorship forced on directors an indirect honesty that had positive aesthetic results. Long after the surge of publicity that greeted the release of their films, Askoldov and German satisfy demanding viewers. Askoldov never made another film; German has since proven himself one of the great directors of the last thirty years. The final film discussed here, Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, took a very different strategy. Although it was the most celebrated on its release, Repentance suffered most in the years since. In allegorical terms, the film faces the legacy of Stalin through a small Georgian village, where the dictatorial mayor has just died. The aftermath is seen through the eyes of the mayor’s son, played by the same actor as the mayor. The deceased is eulogized at his funeral as a great man, and buried with due honor; but the next morning finds the body unearthed. Returned to its grave, the body reappears the next morning. The comic absurdity of the situation is compounded when the innocent corpse is arrested, released only when the real culprit, and middle-aged local woman, is arrested. Her trial allows her to indict the mayor and his underlings for destroying the life of her father and mother, and for his many other brutal repressions. Her accusations stand as well as an indictment of a whole period of Soviet history.

The release of lost films signaled the opening of a new era of artistic expression, and the shuttering of state censorship forever. Other artists responded; the Eight USSR Writers’ Union Congress that took place in October featured a similar attack on censorship. As a consequence, long suppressed works of literature were published, including Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Evgenii Zamiatin distopian novel WE, and Vasilii Grossman’s LIFE AND FATE.

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