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Sunday, 26 August 2012

Marlen Khutsiev and the Unknown New Wave

A recent viewing of Marlen Khutsiev's Застава Ильича (Lenin's Gate) has convinced me once again that the fact that film scholars speak of a French New Wave, a Czech or Polish New Wave, New German Cinema or even of the Yugoslav Black Wave and even that some acknowledgement in recent years has been given to Spain's subversive but operative New Wave under Franco (with a BFI retrospective in London two or three years ago) and yet have still not acknowledged the work of certain Soviet directors in the 1960s and 1970s is a gaping hole. Of course, the Poetic Cinema of Tarkovsky and Paradjanov has justifiably been given a lot of international attention and yet there are still a whole host of directors which have passed many international film critics by. Having to choose the most important names of this other Soviet New Wave I would argue that the names of Marlen Khutsiev, Vasili Shukshin, Elem Klimov and Kira Muratova are paramount. Khutsiev and Shukshin are arguably those who have had least exposure in Western Europe of the four- although at least Shukshin has had some of his literary works translated.

Marlen Khutsiev, a Tbilisi born Soviet (and then Russian) filmmaker, has in many ways been unusually unfortunate in making films in the wrong time and at the wrong place and yet his films are some of the most strikingly original portraits of a generation and Khutsiev also occupied a rather unique position- both intellectually (or ideologically) and cinematographically in the Soviet constellation.

Khutsiev began work with Feliks Mironer first in a diploma film at VGIK in 1950 and then at the Odessa Film Studios with probably what was to be Khutsiev's most popular film Весна на Заречной улице (Spring on Zarechnaya Street, 1956). Khutsiev had worked for some time as an assistant director for a number of directors including the legendary Soviet director Boris Barnet for his ill-fated Лиана (Liana, 1955) alongside another director to become famous in later years - Leonid Gaidai. However, the management at the Odessa Studios still didn't trust Khutsiev to make a film on his own and he had to co-direct with Mironer once again. While the film was subjected to some harsh criticism, it soon became seen as the first real sign of the Khruschevian Thaw. All the same Khutsiev was to remain in Odessa to film his next film Два Фёдора (The Two Fyodors, 1958) which was to introduce to Soviet cinema the acting skills of Vasili Shukshin.

It was Khutsiev's next film Застава Ильича which was to really show Khutsiev's true talents but also to highlight his fundamentally unfortunate and untimely nature. This film which, in many ways, was the film-symbol of the Thaw came at just the wrong moment when Thaw aesthetics and the liberatory potential of the Thaw itself was under attack. Alongside the ill-fated Manezh exhibition of contemporary art and Pasternak's novel 'Doctor Zhivago' this was to be one of the artistic victims of Khruschev's wrath. In fact, Khutsiev and his film had earned a very public lashing in March 1963 with the Communist leader inviting 600 artists and writers to the Kremlin to hear this very denunciation. Khutsiev was accused of promoting : ideas and norms of public and private life that are entirely unacceptable and alien to Soviet people. [...] [The characters] are not the sort of people society can rely upon. They are not fighters, not remakers of the world. They are morally sick people [...] The idea is to impress upon the children that their fathers cannot be their teachers in life, and that there is no point in turning to them for advice. The filmmakers think that young people ought to decide for themselves how to live, without asking their elders for counsel and help.

What seems to have provoked Khruschev's special wrath is the fact that, for the first time, the generation gap is being shown as part of Soviet as well as western bourgeois societies. In some ways a contemporary film viewer would be hard pressed to find some truly radical features of the film and yet this was a film that was, in many ways, truly ahead of many of its western counterparts. It managed to merge one of the most lyrical portraits of Moscow in the Thaw period with something very much more in the spirit of European cinema a la Antonioni. In fact one of the most intelligent (and harshly negative) criticisms of the film was precisely this - its western modernism and the antagonistic relationship between city and alienated protagonist (this was a criticism uttered by Alexander Macheret) captured as Antonioni had captured this in his films like La Notte or L'Eclisse - almost exact contemporaries of the Khutsiev film.

Khutsiev's extraordinarily lyrical film nonetheless posited him in a strange relationship to the Soviet intelligentsia. In many ways Khutsiev's position seems to be similar to the the main protagonist of the film, Sergei. His alienation from the tusovka at the party towards the end of the film marks, it seems, something of Khutsiev's gravitas. Khutsiev was no dissident and never turned into a liberal. He could never quite find an appropriate place in the polarization between mainly liberal intelligentsia and a power elite which increasingly betrayed any socially progressive ethos. His protagonists in Lenin's Gate, remained of proletarian origin and, as even his subsequent Ию́льский дождь (July Rain, 1967) shows, Khutsiev remained a filmmaker rather obsessed with the meaning and the lasting presence of the theme of the Great Patriotic War (or World War Two) in Soviet society. The presence of the ghost of Sergei's father was a scene that particularly grated on Khruschev and yet it was surely what he most clearly misunderstood. The even more Antonionian July Rain further closes with a memorable scene of war veterans meeting up at Victory Day celebrations and this scene is surely key to the film. Khutsiev for all him fixing his gaze on the alienation of the young thaw generation never questioned the fundamental values of Soviet society.

The war and generational question were crucial respectively to two subsequent films of Khutsiev: Был месяц май (It Was in May, 1970) and Послесловие (Postscript, 1983). The discovery by Soviet soldiers who are stationed in Germany at the end of the war in May 1945 of a nearby Nazi concentration camp makes this film quite unique in uncovering this rarely mentioned subject but also in taking Soviet films about the war in a very different direction to which they normally lead. I remember watching this film at Moscow's Dom Kino seven years ago on Victory Day and thinking to myself what a radical choice the programme co-ordinator had made by choosing this film rather than any others that day. Radical because Khutsiev would never shy away from asking harsher questions than others and because he never takes refuge in any type or form of cynicism which those who believed less sincerely found it far easier to do.

Khutsiev's ability to cut through all the rhetoric has hardly ever made him a popular film director (only his debut film made him a household name). Films like 'July Rain' and 'It was in May' and his 1991 film Бесконечность (Infinity) can only too easily be denounced as boring and they often were so denounced even by rather intelligent critics, although years later they appear as some of the most truly authentic filmic documents of their time. They have always, it seems, pointed to hidden truths that few others had the courage to utter at that time. 'July Rain' became the one great document of the transformation from Thaw to Stagnation as 'Lenin's Gate' has since become to be seen as the very best portrait of a generation which lived through the heady times of transformation. Khutsiev's filmography is very limited in quantity and he almost fell silent after the Thaw. He seems to be a once a decade filmmaker. For all this the imprint of the times has rarely been so brilliantly captured and the gravity of message rarely so sincerely uttered as by one of Russian (and Soviet) cinema's most significant figures.

Khutsiev remains unfortunate and even now not a 'timely figure'- the truly shabby treatment he received in recent years at the behest of Mikhalkov and his band of 'national-patriotic' thugs will surely go down in Russian cinematic history as one of the most shameful episodes of recent times. Khutsiev's untimeliness nonetheless will surely make sure that his contribution to Russian cinema will become one of the most long-lasting and his films will remain while others will be forgotten.

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