Russian gloom — I’m enjoying, if that’s the word, Adam Curtis’ Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone, on the BBC iPlayer, his doc series culled from hundreds of hours of BBC footage of the Soviet Union’s decline. I can remember some of these scenes from their original broadcast. Cinephiles may note the name of Pawel Pawlikowski, one of the original documentary shooters who captured the distressing scenes.

Above left, Boris Yeltsin becomes an effigy (never a good sign) and on the right, Hitler does the same in COME AND SEE, which I screened for students — a Soviet film from the beginning of Curtis’ period of study.

The screening went well — I tried to warn students about what they were in for, including the death of a cow onscreen, but then a few arrived late so were plunged into hell with no warning.

I was particularly struck this time by how the film LOOKS YOU IN THE EYE — so many characters embarrass us with their frank, and horrified stares, direct into the lens, a technique allied perhaps to the way the film has its hero (the remarkable Aleksei Kravchenko) co-opted into a group photograph at the start and finish, once with Russian comrades, and then with Nazi captors.

With its immersive Steadicam shots and alarming, deafening sound design, this is one of the most traumatic films I know, but along with horror there’s a kind of awe which, for me anyway, makes it not depressing but strangely wondrous, if not uplifting. My students seemed impressed, one thanked me personally for showing it, and said she really appreciated the use of Mozart’s Requiem Mass at the end — which can perhaps be looked upon as Klimov’s aftercare for his gobsmacked audience.


5 Responses to “Effigies”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I remember reading an article on Russian films, might be Ian Christie or an anthology he edited. It was in the context of the movie COMMISAR by Aksoldov. The passage mentioned that in the USSR, war movies often received a lot of leeway from censors in terms of presenting violence and psychology unvarnished because too many people were alive in the USSR to know first hand experience of war to be peddled any kind of sentiment of the kind you see elsewhere.

    So that might explain why Klimov was able to go so far with Come and See.

  2. Klimov fought for eight years to make Come and See, originally under the title Kill Hitler, so the censor wasn’t entirely willing to allow free expression even in a WWII film. By 1985 restrictions were loosening I think. But The Ascent is a strikingly strong film, made earlier (by Klimov’s wife, Larissa Shepitko, of course).

    The daintiness Boris Strugatsky complained of, where the censors wanted everything to be NICE, was perhaps less enforced in war pics.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    There’s also Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” where the battle scenes are quite strong, and Aleksei German’s first film: “Trial on the Road”. And Yulia Solntseva’s films like Chronicle of the Flaming Years.

    The weird thing about USSR movie industry is that the directors would get to realize their vision without cuts or oversight of the shooting and even the original editing, but then the censors would make a call to exhibit the final cut or not. So paradoxically USSR film-makers had more freedom to realize their film during production than Hollywood (where the movie interference began on the script/budget/shoot and that continues today) but less safety to have those films distributed and exhibited to its original audience.

  4. There was also Soviet pre-censorship, Sudarshan Ramani: a film had to be presented to the producers as if it was the kind of film that would be approved of afterwards.
    An astonishing aspect of Come and See is the Nazi commander’s marmoset, presented as a kind of demon/familiar crawling over him. Deliberately nonrealistic but even more chilling for that.

  5. Klimov reports that the film’s realism caused antipathy from the censors, but the surrealism seems to have gone over their heads.

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