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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Elem Klimov. On the 80th anniversary of his birth.

Eighty years ago today in what was then Stalingrad, the film director Elem Klimov was born. Part of one of the most talented generations of Soviet film-makers, Klimov's contributions to cinema have still not really been fully acknowledged. For, in spite of living to the age of 70, Klimov's career as a film maker was only to last two full decades (from the early sixties to the mid eighties). Elem Klimov was stifled at every step of the way. Stifled by the Soviet film bureaucrats who made his life almost intolerable (and yet it was only during this period he managed to shoot films) and then stifled by his role as head of the Film Makers Union to which he was elected as revolutionary harbinger of perestroika but his role proved to be an almost intolerable burden given the excessive and contradictory demands and responsibilities that film-makers would put on his shoulders. During the final ten to fifteen years of his life lived in a collapsing Soviet and then post-Soviet Russia, he was stifled by a system of commercial dictatorship and his vision proved to have even less chance of being expressed then than it had during the Soviet period.  A vision far too sincere and professional, far too deeply serious for the 1990s which succumbed to the desperate logic of either commercialism or facile and superficial experiments that would rarely stand the test of time. Klimov's path was another one and on that didn't fit in with the feverish post-modern reaction of the 1990s. His work in film was, as his brother German stated in an interview, was to fulfill a mission rather like 19th century writers and that was unimaginable in post-Soviet Russia. Perhaps one of the greatest films never to be filmed was his version of Master and Margherita. The fact that we still can't know how he envisaged this film because of the refusal of the Bulgakov to allow publication of Klimov's screenplay is a further tragedy. Certainly it would have been a Master and Margherita like no other.

What has been published in a fine book entitled Неснятое Кино (Unfilmed Cinema) - and here are included scripts, interviews, articles and reminiscences by others of Elem but far from all that is available or archived about him (he also wrote poetry none of which has, hitherto, seen the light of day)- can only make the reader more wistful.  One would be hard put to find a film-maker more mistreated by his time than Elem Klimov. The years following his death still haven't done much to rectify this either. Apart from some very fine words from Andrey Plakhov on the Seance blog (The Last Idealist) far too few have remembered the real contribution that he made.

Plakhov's concluding words deserve to be cited (my translation):

He was the only film-maker not to receive any dividends from perestroika- neither a film studio, nor a house, nor a position. And he was the only one who genuinely suffered as an artist-not those who were cast down from their pedestals like Bondarchuk and Rostotsky. The latter feeling themselves to be like victims of some kind of Jacobin Terror continued to work. The sacrifice of Klimov who was at the very apex of his career... was completely voluntary, a free choice. Being at the apex of the pyramid during perestroika he was the first to sense the rottenness in its foundation. And he did not wish to take part in its precipitous slide towards consumerism. He remained an idealist who in the reign of pragmatists could do nothing.

What Klimov did manage to create for prosperity is, surely of great importance. His versatility throughout his career of forging a vision almost every time in a completely new genre should also not be forgotten and should be celebrated more often. Of course, his last film Иди и Смотри (Come and See) is the film most well-known internationally. And it certainly is one of the great (anti)war films of all time. No one else was ever able to capture war in quite the same way and no one else was able to describe this as well as Klimov whose late childhood was spent in the inferno that was Stalingrad. That the film was proposed in 1977 and only came to fruition in 1985 is indicative of the many conflicts that Klimov would have throughout his life with film bureaucrats. In an interview, Klimov talked about some of the impetus behind the film:

I thought: the world doesn't know about Khatyn! They know about Katyn about the massacre of the Polish officers there. But they don't know about Belorussia. Even though more than 600 villages were burned there!
And I decided to make a film about this tragedy. I perfectly understood that the film would end up a harsh one. I decided that the central role of the village lad Flyora would not be played by a professional actor, who upon immersion into a difficult role could have protected himself psychologically with his accumulated acting experience, technique and skill. I wanted to find a simple boy fourteen years of age. We had to prepare him for the most difficult experiences, then capture them on film. And at the same time, we had to protect him from the stresses so that he wasn't left in the loony bin after filming was over, but was returned to his mother alive and healthy. Fortunately, with Lyosha Kravchenko, who played Flyora and who later became a good actor, everything went smoothly.
I understood that this would be a very brutal film and that it was unlikely that people would be able to watch it. I told this to my screenplay coauthor, the writer Ales Adamovich. But he replied: "Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace."
Many film critics from outside Russia see this film as the ultimate statement on war and British writer Tim Lott wrote that it was his top film of all time and made Apocalypse Now "look lightweight". Other critics have noted how Klimov merged intense lyricism with expressionist nightmare in a way hitherto impossible. Klimov talks about the film here:

Yet, Klimov did not start off exploring the worst depths of the human character. Instead his most well-known film for many Russians was a diploma film that then went on to become a national favourite - many of the phrases from the film becoming national catchphrases. Entitled Добро пожаловать, или Посторонним вход воспрещён (Welcome, or No Unathorized Entrance) even this film frightened the bureaucrats and in many ways there did lie a biting satire underneath. There was also something of the semi-anarchic view of childhood that this film would share with Jean Vigo's banned film Zéro de conduite. But Klimov was also to recapture something of the anarchic gags of the eccentric comedies of the 1920s whether those of Kuleshov or the FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) school of Kozintsev, Trauberg and Gerasimov.

If this film was saved by Khruschev from the film bureaucrats wrath, then his next film  Похождения зубного врача (Adventures of a Dentist), based on a script by one of the best playwrights of post-war Soviet Union, was to be given only extremely limited release and far less widely known. Klimov moved from comedy to parable highlighting some of the subversive undertones of his first film. His earlier attempt to adapt a Brechtian play (Mr Puntila and his Man Matti) for the screen and his employment of Boris Blank (a man who had designed the sets for a Soviet production of Brecht's Arturo Ui) meant that there was certainly something distinctively Brechtian about some of the artistic choices including irregular choice of songs at certain seemingly 'unjustified' points in the film- a choice which Milos Forman was also to make in his Loves of a Blonde at around the same time.

It is often the case that commentators when discussing Klimov's career forget about the next film (and this was the case of most recent articles linked with Elem Klimov's 80th anniversary including that by Andrei Plakhov). Yet this is perhaps one of the great injustices for Спорт, Спорт,Спорт (Sport,Sport,Sport) which certainly deserves more than a few lines. Elem Klimov may occasionally have been dismissive of this film in interviews yet it is, arguably, one of the great sport films ever made. If also one of the most unusual. Merging documentary and some poetic fantasy scenes it succeeds in giving an overview of sport and describing the world of sport as a whole in a way that no other film quite succeeded. It is a film that the director Alexander Sokurov rates extremely highly. Using documentary footage from such a wide range of sources as well as the extraordinary poetry of Bella Akhmadulina and music of Alfred Schnittke (both specially composed for the film) it has still yet to be fully acknowledged for the masterpiece that it is:

After having been subjected to Depardieu's Rasputin as this year's closing film of the Moscow Film Festival one is left wondering why anyone who had seen Klimov's version personified by Aleksei Petrenko in the film Агония (Agonia) would bother to watch it. Once again a film completed only nine years after it began (Klimov took on the work at the suggestion of Ivan Pyriev) and then long shelved in spite of the acclamation of film-makers like Andrej Wajda and Akira Kurosawa who had managed to see a copy. A film that in some ways kept what Klimov called the "montage-chronical" method of Sport, Sport, Sport and developed this formal experiment which, only later, was to have its adepts. Klimov was here also to develop that movement from comedy (and Klimov, in fact, stated that the first script was a satrical one) to tragic expressionism that would be inherent in his final film.


Much more should be said of his completion of his wife's (Larisa Shepitko's) film Проща́ние (Farewell) who tragically died after the first day of shooting as well as his extraordinary short film portrait of his wife which he stated to be the hardest film he had ever made.

Much, much more remains to be said of this director who united that which could not be united, who could have been the voice of renewal of a great film culture that plunged almost into self-destruct in post perestroika Russia. His silence from this time speaks volumes (just as the silence of Norshtein or the relative silence of German) about the plunge that Russian film and culture took after the end of the Soviet Union.

And yet one of my favourite anecdotes about Elem Klimov highlights us his light-hearted and impish origins in cinema and was told me by his brother German at a meeting earlier this year. Elem Klimov was asked by the General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev to draw up a list of cultural figures to invite to the Kremlin. This being in the very early days of perestroika Klimov knew that Milos Forman had to be on the list (he was still prevented from returning to his native Czeechoslovakia and an invite to the Kremlin would make the prohibition to return to Czechoslovakia untenable). Klimov got his way and finally managed to meet his old friend at the Kremlin reception. Alas, Forman was chased around by every press photographer imaginable at this reception and there was no chance that Klimov and he could have a quiet word. That is until they hit upon the idea of disappearing until the wide Kremlin tables and have their conversation hiding under them quasi incognito a little like the main child hero of Klimov's first film, Kostya Inochkin. They were apparently noticed by a waiter who would periodically lift up the tablecloth and offer them some food and drink.


  1. Thanks for that, Giuliano! I am pretty sure that I read or heard that Klimov used real ammunition for his 'Come and See' (which I have at home, luckily, and shall watch this week again). Great and horrible film. Apocalypse Now is not really lightweight by comparison but seems more fictional, cinematic realism, whilst Klimov's piece possesses a more actual, documentary-like 'realism'.

  2. You're welcome, Florian! I haven't been able to check this fact yet- yes, the comparison with Coppola was just a quote but I think that, of course, Klimov had the experience of living as a young child through this war and this most have influenced his way of portraying war. In fact he said somewhere that he censored a lot of what he actually experienced during the war and could have shown in the film even more terrible scenes. in some ways it's a pity that people only know him through this film - masterpiece though it is. Unlike Tarkovsky the whole range of his work is rather forgotten. Also when you read how Klimov was treated by the film bureaucrats you realize how he was even more of a 'martyr' than Tarkovsky was. And yet he couldn't create outside of those conditions either.