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A meeting with Andrei Konchalovsky: Part II

Ian_Christie.jpg

Director Andrei Konchalovksy and film critic Professor Ian Christie continue a fascinating conversation. In this second part: censorship, the Communists, corruption and civilisation. Part one can be found here

Prof. Ian Christie
28 June 2011

Jump to: Censorship - Defection and dissidence - Michael Romm - The illusion of progress - Contemporary Russia - Russia between East, West and Africa - A medieval country - European culture

Censorship 

C:  We’re touching on the politics of the culture of Soviet cinema, which was important not only for people inside the Soviet Union, but also outside. It was a very strange process: you had to read the signs to try to work out what direction the Soviet Union was taking. I remember, I went to Russia a lot in the 1980s and I had those strange experiences of sitting in Moscow cinemas to see films like Roman Balayan’s Dreamflights [Flying Asleep and Awake, 1982] with Yankovsky and Gurchenko. And you could have heard a pin drop in the cinema. Because everyone knew what it was talking about. It was one of those films that appeared to be about nothing, but was about everything at that point. 

K: Yes, the audience at that point was still very attentive…and also curious.

asya01.jpg

A monument to realism, Asya's Happiness
(1966) was initially suppressed by Soviet
authorities. It was only released in 1987

C: And they were in dialogue. The filmmakers were talking to the audience and the audience was responding.

K: Yes, it was wonderful. It was perhaps the best time for the Soviet film industry and the Soviet audience, because certain films appeared that were kind of first signals from the sea. But outside of Russia it was slightly different because Russia was behind the Iron Curtain and was a mysterious country in the same way that North Korea is now mysterious. If a North Korean film was produced now and was banned, we would all look at it and be intrigued…

C: But often it was the films that weren’t banned that were the most interesting, those that were just difficult to read on the outside. Like Balayan’s, where people outside Russia said “What’s the big deal?”. Or even a popular film like Eldar Ryazanov’s comedy Station for Two (1982), which meant a lot to Russians because it was ironic humour about the everyday conditions of life. 

Coming back to the question of what was and what wasn’t possible as a filmmaker, you made Asya’s Happiness, which was an un-releasable film at the time, and your brother [Nikita Mikhalkov] had the same experience when he made Rodnya [1981, Family Relations]…

K: That was already fourteen years after I made Asya and it was a different time. By the early ‘80s we had become more informed about what was happening in the West, and we knew more about world film. My brother was much more acquainted with world cinema, things like Italian spaghetti westerns or whatever. Earlier, it was a quest for fire for us! – for people like me and Tarkovsky - because it was so difficult to see films. I remember we had around 60 people squeezed into half of a room when we watched Ashes and Diamonds [1958, Andrzej Wajda]. The print came from the Polish embassy; it was during Gomulka’s time of liberalisation. And we responded to the film like an absolute explosion! It was such a discovery. Because it was very anti-Soviet and very anti-Stalinist. I will never forget when the hero comes across a portrait of Stalin lying on the floor. I couldn’t believe this could even be shot in Poland – someone walking over a picture of Stalin’s face! And it changed my mind, in the same way as Khrushchev’s famous speech at the 20th Congress [in 1956] changed my mind. Because it opened a new view of what film could do. It showed me that film could be much more than entertainment and opened my eyes to the idea that films could be political and dissident. In the Soviet Union we didn’t have this kind of thing. We were just trying to find new aesthetics. 

C: But was clear from the outside that aesthetics could also be political. Which is why Asya’s stark realism was so important. 

K: We had Rublev

C: Well Rublev was read as allegorical, despite its realism, whereas with Asya you were really looking at contemporary life on a collective farm, with a new naturalism. 

K: Both films had completely new aesthetics. We grew up with the 1930s Hollywood aesthetic of plywood and no cracks at all. And I said “Cracks, cracks, we need cracks!” I was obsessed with cracks. 

C: Yes, and in Asya, you had that amazing image of a man with tattoos of Lenin and Stalin on his chest. That seemed pretty blasphemous!  

K: Yes, but Stalin was dead by then...

C: ... which is why it seemed perversely blasphemous, since he’d been airbrushed out of everything else!

Diamonds_Ashes.jpg

Diamonds and Ashes, the Polish film directed by
Andrzej Wajda, shocked Soviet viewers in the late
fities with its openly anti-regime message

K: If I had been in the Gulag, I wouldn’t have done it. If I had been a 45-year-old Russian coming out of the Gulag in the time of liberalisation, I wouldn’t have made it because I would have been afraid. I did it because I was a young idiot! I was a child of de-Stalinisation. The ‘60s was a time when the completely frozen Soviet psyche began to thaw and become a little more flexible and alive.

C: And it developed an almost Romantic side. When David Thompson and I made a little film for the BBC in ’88, we built it around finally getting access to Khutsiyev’s film I Am Twenty [1964]. Because no-one had seen that in the west – it was another banned film. We used some of the scenes of student parties to illustrate that sense of liberation in the 1960s, and it did capture that sense that anything was possible, very influenced by French and Italian models. 

K: Yes, it was an ouverture – an opening. And it was important for me that I went to Venice and Paris and London and became extremely anti-Soviet and decided to defect. But I was afraid. When I was shooting Sibiriada, I decided “I’m going to leave – I can’t live here anymore”. Of course it caused my parents a lot of distress. 

Defection and dissidence

C: Did your defection cause your family problems with the authorities?

K: No. But it caused me problems because they took my name out of everything, including the film encyclopaedia. And they showed my films without showing my name. Then my mother was refused a visa to visit France. But then it turned out all right in the end and didn’t cause them big difficulties, although my father was very scared. 

C: Anyone who’d lived through the period he had would be scared.

K: I was never a political dissident, just as Tarkovsky was never a political dissident. I remember when we were both in Cannes, and he said to me “I don’t think I want to go back”. So I said: “I’ve been asked to tell you that Andropov personally promises that if you go back, he will immediately give you a passport to leave again, as long as you change your diplomatic passport for a normal passport”. The point of this was that the Soviet Union had 50,000 people with diplomatic passports all around the world, and if you let one defect, half the others would follow! But it would be fine as long as he was just a normal person, not a diplomat! So I am told Andropov personally guarantees Tarkovsky a way out as long as he just agrees to replace the passport. And Andrey asked me: “Are you working for the KGB?”. I said, “Are you mad? I’m just telling you what they wanted me to tell you”.  

Konchalovska_Nikita_Andrei_grandchildren.jpg

Natalya Konchalovskaya, Andrei's mother (centre)
with her sons, daughter in law and grandchildren.
The Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky family managed to avoid
trouble following Andrei's departure for the West.

Then I met Volodya Maximov, [Vladimir Maximov, 1930-95, editor of the journal Kontinent and a prominent Soviet dissident] in Cannes. And he said “Right, that’s it. I’m going to take Andrei to Italy and he’s going to make a statement”. I said to him “Volodya, what are you doing? You’re going to kill the guy!” But Tarkovsky made his statement, although he was never political – he was just a schmuck!

Politically, Tarkovsky was an idiot! He didn’t understand anything! He was a saint! I think that killed him, because after that he was afraid that the KGB would kidnap him, and he had a Scotland Yard agent with him when he was directing Boris Godunov [at the Royal Opera House in 1983]. He was paranoid! I remember this moment and I think I was very anti-Soviet, but neither of us was ever a dissident. I never made an anti-Soviet statement. I just wanted to live as I wanted – to see the world. In a sense there was only one political dissident in film – who made a real political movie. That was The Commissar [1967-87, Aleksandr Aksoldov].

Because it took some Jewish problems – anti-Semitism – and some problems in Soviet society, and it was the only film that was really banned badly, and Askoldov couldn’t get another job. Whereas the rest of us all had jobs. My movie was banned, but they came to me and asked me “Do you want to do something now with Turgenev?” And I said “Sure! I’ll do whatever you like if you give me a job!”  

C: So it was either stick with the classics or go to Siberia!

K: It was more or less human if you compare it with conditions under Stalinism. But you have to understand that we lived in an absolutely upside down society. You couldn’t change anything regarding the Communist Party. Everyone knew it and no-one would have been able to stand up in public and say “Comrades, I would just like to question if Communist Party politics and culture are right”. An innocent question like that would lead to you being considered mad and an ungrateful person. People like Brodsky were really considered mad because they didn’t have a sense of self-preservation.

That’s why they became great, because they had courage, and we didn’t have this courage. Neither Tarkovsky nor I had this courage, And I didn’t want it – why the hell should I? I don’t want to get in to trouble; I just want to shoot films! 

Mikhail Romm and the Thaw

C: I was talking to someone else recently who was part of the 1960s film culture, the critic Maya Turovskaya, whose book on Tarkovsky I helped to get published in English.

As you know, she wrote the treatment for Mikhail Romm’s Ordinary Fascism (1965), and a book has just come out in Germany about that film and how it got made. The fact that a film like that could be conceived and widely distributed is another interesting aspect of the Soviet 60s – “let’s talk about fascism, but in a different way”. 

K: The film was full of allusions. Romm basically showed the Nazi regime as very much like Soviet communism. I think he was a tragic figure – as was every Soviet director who had brains – because first of all he made some wonderful films about Lenin and Stalin.

Then he tried to begin being himself with Nine Days in One Year (1961). And the Thaw also got into his mind and he wrote a wonderful book confessing his crimes – well, not crimes, but admitting he’d done things he had to do for his career. I think maybe he realised that in documentary films he could be more convincing and more political. It was wonderful for him to have got into documentary making when he was one of the most prolific film directors in Russia. He was very close friends with my family and my mother. I loved him quite a lot. He was a wonderful creator – a wonderful human being. 

C: You mentioned the tragic situation of someone like Mikhail Romm in the Thaw period, who must have taken great comfort in the fact that he was basically the inspiration for the next generation. He taught you, Tarkovsky, and a whole group of other young filmmakers.

Romm_teaching.jpg

Mikhail Romm, Konchalovsky's teacher, at the VGIK
Moscow Film School. Mikhail Romm's "Ordinary
Fascism", ostensibly a documentary about Nazi
Germany, was full of allusions to the Soviet regime.

K: Including Andrei Smirnov.

Yes, somehow it was an interesting bunch of artists. These guys, if I think about them now, were all younger than me. In the 1960s, what was 1937 for them? It was 20 years ago, just as Gorbachev is for today’s youth. I remember Gorbachev’s time as though it were yesterday. For them, 1937 and the executions, the fear, the torture, mud, blood, screams – that was the distant past. So they were like Argonauts escaping from Scylla and Charybdis. I think there was a lot of complicity between them. Gerasimov, who became a member of the Central Committee, was an official, and Romm was basically a dissident, even though he wasn’t a dissident with a poster…

C: You mean he was more of a mental dissident?

K: Well first and foremost he was a Zionist. He supported poor Jews, and he had wonderful people around him. There were several of them sitting in the canteen [at VGIK, the film school] - Romm, Gerasimov, Bondarchuk, Kozintsev, and people like Hervman who’d just come back from the Gulag. And we just knew that [some of] these people were on the Central Committee. They were officials and they had to speak differently. We knew it and we forgave them. Several of them admitted later that they’d made mistakes. Meanwhile Romm was teaching us about Fellini. I remember he talked to us about La Dolce Vita (1960) for a whole week. We didn’t have a physical print so we’d never seen it, but he talked us through it shot by shot for a whole week! That kind of opening for him maybe pushed him to do something on his own – like making a documentary.

C: To make Ordinary Fascism? 

K: Yes. It was a big allusion – to the Soviet system.

C: Yes, the way it links in with the historic past. I looked at it recently – it’s on YouTube – and it’s extraordinary how the film relates to its own time. It’s a film that starts in the everyday Soviet mid-60s, showing how modern everything is starting to look, and then takes the viewers back. It’s a time-machine film – a very personal film. 

K: And he wanted to make another documentary film, but he died before he could make it.

The illusion of progress

C: When I think of the time you are talking about, I remember my friendship with the director Leonid Trauberg, whom I visited regularly and helped a little on a few of his last projects. One time I was visiting him, he said to me: “My friend [Sergei] Yutkevich wants to show you his film Lenin in Paris (1981). It’s a very bad film, but he’s a very old friend and I’ve promised him you’ll come along and see it”. And so we went off to a ceremonial showing, and it was indeed a terrible film! But it was that sense of loyalty between the directors of that time, the complicity that you mentioned.

K: Looking back at all these guys now, people like Yutkevich, they went through such hard times and such a time warp. All Yutkevich wanted was to go and live in Paris. He didn’t give a shit about Lenin being there. All he wanted was to go and have tea with Picasso and have some pictures of himself there and speak a little French. He was old enough to say to himself “How long am I going to live? I want to see a bit of the world.” And I understand that. If you take a decent artist of the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, they would do the same – pay me a little and sure, I’ll do that for you. I don’t feel that being principled necessarily creates great art. Personally I think that masterpieces can be produced in times of dictatorship. Don Quixote, for example, or Ivan the Terrible, or the other completely communist movies that Eisenstein and Dovzhenko were doing. The question is how we can be sure today what is good and what is bad in terms of ethics. Of course, I don’t like to see dying people on the streets. I read now what Stalin did to the peasants in 1929 and ’30, and this was really a crime against humanity. If we talk about art, I consider myself a jester, nothing more. I don’t mean by that that I just entertain, but I mean that I don’t think my films, or Tarkovsky’s, or even Bergman’s, change the world. 

C: Well maybe they don’t change the world, but they have a huge effect on the way people imagine and see the world. The lasting effect of Tarkovsky’s films on several generations of people, I can tell you, is extraordinary. And they don’t just convey one message – different people take different things from them.

K: Yes, I understand that. They have an effect on certain people, and they change certain people for a certain amount of time. That’s my point. 

C: There’s no such thing as absolute change, I agree.  

K: Otherwise it would be enough to have the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible and the Koran to live in a perfect world. Just these three books are enough to be perfect! The means are different and the process is the same. Fear, death, violence, unevenness, injustice – I don’t see any… Do you know John Gray?

C: I know some of his writings, and I saw you quoted him recently…

K: He’s wonderful! You know he has a wonderful idea that I completely share: that technical progress and knowledge are cumulative things – they accumulate and expand - but ethics does not. Gray says that the achievements of one generation in ethics can be completely ruined by the next generation. And that’s very important, because we tend to think, since Rousseau, that man is getting better and that this is part of progress. Man doesn’t get better, and that is a very interesting idea. [Stephen] Hawking also talks about that: that humans are really able to exterminate each other on this planet. So all warnings are important, but at the same time useless. It’s like Sisyphus. We have to try to make progress, while knowing it’s a useless endeavour!

C: As Camus pointed out in his essay on Sisyphus…

On contemporary Russia

C: I was interested to read your pieces for OpenDemocracy, which are unlike anything I’ve seen by you before. Your “Land of the Mob” struck me as a very strong piece. 

K: I was thinking about making a film about it. If I’m not able to do the life of Rachmaninov, then I was thinking I would like to do a remake – if I can buy the rights to it – of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion [1970, Elio Petri, Italy]. It fits perfectly! It’s about a police officer who becomes an extortionist and a killer, and at the same time is completely indispensable and who gains a promotion. [Laughs] It’s extraordinary! It would be a wonderful parable for today’s Russia. 

C: It would be more than a parable… Surely that would be a hard film to make? 

K: No - why?

indagine-su-un-cittadino-al-di-sopra-di-ogni-sospetto.jpg

The Italian crime drama "A citizen above suspicion"
tells the tale of a police officer who becomes an 
extortionist and killer. Could it be considered an
allegory to contemporary Russia?

C: Well, in the political climate of Russia today.

K: No, I don’t think so. You need a bit of money, but no-one watches what you’re shooting. I mean it may not be released and it could become a scandal if you’re trying to get distribution, but you can shoot whatever you want. I mean there is censorship involved in the films that Putin wants to finance with my brother [Nikita Mikhalkov] and the Russian Cultural Foundation. But films that are shot without this kind of money – films where you find investors yourself – you can make interesting movies.

C: Well it’s a very intriguing idea. What do you feel about the younger Russian filmmakers of today?

K: I think there are several really interesting young directors: Khrzhanovsky, Popogrebsky, the young German, Khlebnikov ... interesting, really interesting people. You know they left the Filmmakers’ Union, and made a new association of their own? And they want me to make a speech there.

C: Are you going to? 

K: Yes, because I’m intrigued by it. I wanted to leave the Union myself, but my brother asked me not to do it. So I stayed there, even though I’m more interested in this new forum... My brother, unfortunately, became too much of a politician and with his ideas it ruins him. A talented man... 

C: A brilliant filmmaker. If only he would stick to film-making ... 

K: I hope it is reparable, but we shall see. 

Russia between East, West and Africa 

C: I’m currently involved in a whole series of programmes of Russian cinema at BFI Southbank, which might eventually bring us right up to the present. Now, we’re just at the beginning with all the early Soviet classics. It’s a strange process: you sit down and say to yourself “I’m going to write a new piece on Battleship Potemkin”. I must have written 20 pieces about it in my life, but you have to keep thinking “Where are we now? What’s interesting to young people today?” So for the first programmes, I’ve gone through all the classics and the unfairly neglected filmmakers: right from Evgeny Bauer before the revolution to Protozanov and Abram Room, who’s a very, very interesting guy, now almost completely ignored, but widely considered one of the most important Russian filmmakers at the end of the 1920s because of his treatment of ‘the woman question’, as they used to call it, in Bed and Sofa [Tretya meschanskaia, 1927]. 

K: When you see these 1920s films now, you see the ecstatic desire of the nation to build a new society. It was very Russian, this ecstatic desire, and very religious, as Berdyaev knew.

Russians don’t have a middle ground – they only know the extremes. Chekhov wrote about this. You see great enthusiasm in these films. This enthusiasm is in a sense exaggerated, but purely Russian. Russians are totalists. I believe we’re very close to Africa in that sense – much closer than were are to Europe. And we have the same complexes as Africa often has. We want to be white.  

C: I’m interested that you bring up Berdyaev, because I often quote him to Russians  – for instance to Alexander Sokurov, with whom I’ve had a long dialogue over several years. He seems to me to be reproducing Berdyaev’s view of the world in his films, but I don’t think he’s comfortable with this suggestion… Do you think people understand Berdyaev these days? Do they read him today? 

K: Well, those who read, read! It’s extraordinary what Herzen knew about the Russian nation, for example.

He was sceptical about Russia’s ability to become a Western society. In that sense one of the biggest delusions of the West has been that Russians are white. If we were black or blue, or dots, the west wouldn’t misunderstand Russians so much. But because we’re white by race, they think we’re the same as Europeans.

C: But you’re really “other” – more like Asians?

K: Yes, we’re Asians – no, not even Asians, because the Muslim world is highly structured and Muslim society is quite rigid, with rules and obligations, ethical codes that hold society together. Western society involves a kind of indoctrination, an internalisation of ethical codes in its citizens. But the ethical code of a Russian is as loose as a pagan. And that’s very important to understand. We are not Europeans; we do not have this indoctrination. We are as loose in our ethics as the Brits were in the thirteenth century, or perhaps in Shakespeare’s time perhaps, when Protestantism was still quite new. We, however, are pagan. Tolstoy wrote about it in his letter to the Synod – it was extraordinary!

C: But surely Russians do have a canon of ethics, which comes out of their great writers of the nineteenth century, who were all preoccupied by ethical questions…

K: No, I disagree with you. Russian ethics came from before Christ. Russian Orthodox Christianity is extremely loose. If you go to church, the priest will absolve you from all your sins. This absolution makes Russians the biggest sinners anywhere. You see bandits and criminals and hoodlums with crosses and they go to church with icons, and they know that they go to church and then they’re absolved. It’s extremely pagan – there are no morals! It’s like the Europe of the twelfth century. I’m trying to convince the world of this. That’s why we’re so corruptible. Emotions are much more important than rationality. No laws exist unless someone is watching over you with a club! You can break any law. So what I mean is that this doesn’t come from the nineteenth century…

C: No, I suppose you’d argue that was an overlay that came later…

Icon_XV_century.jpg

In the Russian Orthodox Church the faithful receive
complete absolution from their sins. Konchalovsky:
"this absolution makes Russians the biggest sinners
anywhere"

K: Yes, it was a European overlay. Peter the Great covered Russia with a very thin layer of European civilisation, but deep down Russians are exactly the same as they’ve always been. And state power and the Russian nation don’t connect to each other. The state is transcendent for the Russian man. He doesn’t understand the state. He lives his micro life and he doesn’t want the state to interfere with this little thing he’s going to steal here, or this thing he’s going to make there, or whatever it is. I think it’s a tragedy for the Kremlin, because they don’t know how to appeal to the masses. How to train – entraîner? – people to become bourgeois, to get them involved in business, the economic process, or any process. They don’t want to go, so you have to drag them by the hair.

C: This connects with what you said earlier about how the Russian mass audience is so susceptible to the appeal of America. 

K: Yes, because it’s easy to grasp and it’s like a dream – it doesn’t have anything to do with your life. I think it’s tragic because we get into the decline of Western philosophy without getting the benefits. We’re straight into Spengler! [Laughs] without getting to the humanistic middle. 

A medieval country 

C: There’s clearly no going back to that period between about 1900 to 1915, which saw the emergence of a version of Russia as a Europeanised country. You can never put the clock back to that, although it was a time of great hope. 

K: Yes, this was a wonderful time – the silver age – for Russian culture. I think it reflected the life within the ‘reservations’, the cities, but it didn’t really affect the swamps and outlands. The difference between the peasant of the nineteenth century and today’s peasant is that the nineteenth-century peasant had dependence and an infatuation with land. Stalin broke this infatuation, and Russian man, having been a peasant by his values, doesn’t have anything to attach this to now. His love of land is completely atrophied. That’s one of the dramas of Russian agricultural production. You know they get the land and they immediately sell it for $200 a hectare. 

C: You know, there’s a film called The Belovs (1993, Viktor Kossakovsky). It’s a documentary about this couple, a sister and brother, who are farming this piece of land. It’s a beautiful documentary. And when I saw it, I immediately thought of Asya – I thought “This is really forty years on and we’re seeing a new statement about the fragile relationship between modern peasants and the land”. In Asya they’re kind of alienated, but still on the land.

K: But now they don’t care about the land. There are just a few individuals who dare to go back. It’s important to realise this because I don’t think it can become massive. To do that we’d have to change our mentality, and to change mentality you have the change the basics, and you have to prove you can become rich and that no-one’s going to come and take half your money or cut your throat. Our society now is twelfth century. We could be located anywhere, because we’re rooted in medieval Christianity. It’s a very interesting theme! I’ve no idea if I’m answering your question but it’s very interesting to talk about it!

C: No it’s an interesting theme – the kind of thing you think about a lot. I guess I’m using cinema and literature as a prism to try to understand the reality. 

K: Any film about the Russian people is a leap out of the reservation into the colonised country.

C: That’s rather like what Naum Kleiman told me about VGIK students in the 1960s making an expedition into the countryside each year and they would take films and show them in the villages - things like Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. It sounded remarkable! Going out from the reservation to la Russie profonde…

K: Yes, you go like a missionary. Some are converted and others are not. Then you go back and they start, as Tolstoy said, to put the sour cream on the idol again! 

C: An interesting figure from that perspective is Vasily Shukshin (1929-74), probably the only true peasant who found his way into Soviet cinema. I’ve long been a rather lonely advocate for Shukshin. I say to people who know and love only Tarkovsky: you need to try Shukshin as well to understand more about Russia and Russianness. In fact you and Tarkovsky and Shukshin were all at VGIK at the same time, weren’t you? 

K: Yeah, Shukshin was not from the reservation but from the colonies. He came from this “jungle” [from Altay] and he said to us “You guys live pretty well here. But it’s not how we live there. We live differently, but we are also humans. And we have our own thoughts – not yours.” He felt a sense of inferiority in front of us and we were arrogant assholes – cultured, knowing who Michelangelo was, whatever, and Shukshin didn’t know this kind of thing and he didn’t want to know. But he was a great artist, at his best as a writer, wonderful as an actor and very interesting as a director. But not so much as a filmmaker. His film language is boring, although his narration of characters is wonderful. And that’s why Shukshin was a cult figure in Russia: because he was speaking for many of them. Tarkovsky never spoke for the Russian mentality. People felt that Shukshin was part of them, in the same way that they felt that Rasputin was part of them – I mean the writer, Valentin Rasputin. 

C: There’s that wonderful film that [Larisa] Shepitko began and then [Elem] Klimov had to finish, Proshchanie [Farewell to Matyora], which was based on Rasputin… But going back to Shukshin, I’m glad you talked about the reservation and the outside, because indeed Shukshin is the person who brings news from outside the reservation. His film language may not be sophisticated in the way that Tarkovsky’s was, or yours is... 

Shukshin_shooting_Pechki.jpg

Vasili Shukshin, Soviet cult writer, actor and film
director. Proud of peasant roots, he avoided the
Moscow elite and was totally uninterested in the
wonders of the Western world.

K: Visually, he was boring…

C: But there are some great moments… especially in his ‘journey’ film, Pechki-Lavochki [Bench by the Stove, 1972], in which he appeared with his wife, Lydia. 

K: But it’s not the film, it’s the texture of his narration. The characters, the relationships between the characters, himself as the main character. He was a wonderful actor. This was the gist of the filmmaking. It’s not cinematography – it’s just directing. You know, you can be very rich as a director but a very poor cinematographer – he was the exact opposite of Tony Scott, who is an extraordinary filmmaker from the cinematic point of view, but…

C: Has nothing to say…

K: Yes. Has nothing to say. And Shushkin was the opposite: no language, but a lot of things to say.

C: In the three episode films - he made two episode films – Your Son and Brother [1965, Vash syn i brat], the old collective farm chairman has a dream. And it’s a film that just lifts off – it’s a magical vision of trying to re-connect the present with the past – several pasts, in fact, including the era of Stenka Razin - on a collective farm …

K: If you want to understand Russia, you’d better see Shushkin: better Shushkin than Tarkovsky. Definitely! He was also very intolerant – he fought terribly with Viktor Nekrasov, almost physically. 

C: Naum told me he used to clump around in his boots in Moscow, playing the peasant, quite ostentatiously.

K: Yes, in a very ostentatious way. He would say, “I am not you”. Shukshin with his outfit was trying to stress that he was not one of us. He once went with us on some kind of Soviet film delegation abroad – to Paris, I think – and he never got out of the bus. Everyone else got out to see Notre Dame, but he was still in the bus with his bottle! He was just waiting to get home. [Both laugh] And he was looking out of the window, as if to say, “What am I doing in the West? Fuck them - I hate them all! Sculptures – I hate them! I want home!” It’s like a wolf at the zoo!

European culture in decline

C: That’s an interesting reminder of the days when foreign travel was severely rationed, and most Soviet filmmakers were avid for all experience. Your recent articles have struck a pessimistic note, but in person you seem less pessimistic, talking about opportunities you see, like that Petri remake, or possibly making a film about the Kushchevskaya murders or something similar. 

K: I don’t feel that I’m pessimistic. I’m only pessimistic about the idea that progress and liberty are going to prevail, and that everyone will be happy and dancing on the streets. In that sense, yes. But I don’t feel I’m generally pessimistic. I’m pragmatic. This is the reality – it’s not the end of the world – and the reality is a dramatic break in culture between the great European tradition of the last two or three thousand years and today. The dramatic schism between the mentality that wants to take everything from tradition and modernism, which broke it so that low and high became all intermingled. Now we don’t have a real understanding of what’s good and what’s bad. 

Robert Hughes, the art critic, made this wonderful film The Mona Lisa Curse (2008). And he says, “I belong to the last generation of people who went to museums without asking how much it cost”. I think that’s very important – if it costs $12m, it’s out for many people. In Gloss, my fashion critic says, “If you can’t sell it, it’s not art”. 

C: You’re absolutely right. There’s a Picasso painting coming to London, which is being shown at the Tate, essentially because it’s the most expensive painting ever to be sold at auction. 

K: Yes, that’s the sense in which I’m pessimistic. Market value has replaced artistic quality - in everything. And you can’t be optimistic about this. You have to accept that it’s the new reality and it’s really difficult to see when we are going to get back to artistic value in the west. In China, India and the Muslim world, they still have their old values, thank God. The Chinese do a wonderful reproduction of Andy Warhol to sell to the West. They don’t give a shit about it because they have in their market a little man who sells a nut with little figures and it costs five yuans. But it has 3,000 years of culture behind it, and artistic value has nothing to do with an item’s price. And he doesn’t have a warped idea of what the price should be. I believe my optimism is focused on the world beyond white civilisation – that’s what I’m saying. The West is trying to forget the past, but the world beyond – China, India, the Muslim world, Latin America – cannot forget the past. 

C: I was very struck when reading your piece about remembering and denying the Holocaust, because you make a very strong point that it’s essential to maintain this in the face of those who say, “Well, six million, compared with our twenty million?” 

K: Yes, but that’s very Russian. The price of life is nothing. Price tag – nothing. But I still believe in humanity – I just don’t believe in European culture…I am sorry to say. [Laughs]

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