From subversive Soviet art films to Hollywood blockbusters, biting satires on postcommunist Russia to a recent 3D fantasy, director Andrei Konchalovsky has produced an extraordinary and diverse body of work. Ian Christie, meanwhile, is an acknowledged authority on world cinema and Professor of Film at Birkbeck University. At openDemocracy’s request, the two met in London. The conversation, which ranged from Konchalovsky himself to the ethics of art, is an absorbing one. Part 1 of 2.
Christie: Soho is quite a nostalgic area for me. I used to work just across the road from here, in the British Film Institute (in Dean Street)
Konchalovsky: Soho has been a home for me too — ever since 1983. I’ve come here every time I’ve needed to do post-production on a film. Such a wonderful place. So vibrant. I was working here when we were still cutting film on a Moviola. Not even a Steenbeck - but a Moviola, with the pedal and the brrrrrr sound!
C: Which some people still believe is the best machine…
K: Well it was the best machine at the time, but now it’s completely different, and much easier. Now the filmmaker is given an enormous opportunity to look at the film from various points of view – to jump back and forward and to have five versions simultaneously. It changes the language of filmmaking. That language, in fact, started to change with Coppola. He had the first editing machine. It was still linear and it had twelve video monitors — extraordinary. I think Apocalypse Now (1979) was the first film made with this language, created from the easy ability to juggle with images.
C: In many ways Coppola has always been a visionary. When he did One from the Heart in 1982, he believed that working entirely in the studio was the future of cinema…
K: … I was fighting with him on this front. It’s not the future of cinema; I told him many times that it was an illusion. He said: “We’re going to make a film with no script. We’re going to build it like Michelangelo built his sculptures or Bramante built his buildings. We’re going to build the film with certain ideas and then we’ll shoot something and look at it, see if it works or if we need to re-shoot."
He was sitting in this beautiful streamlined aluminium box with all these monitors and the microphone. Looking at him sitting in his box, you’d think this director was on Mars! And he was giving people directions from this box and asking for more emotion. But what emotion could he be talking about? He was completely disconnected. So after five minutes, he jumped out of the box and went over to the actors. I thought “Yes! That’s how you make a film”. You connect with the actors. You touch them. You can’t be remote.
I think Coppola was, he is, the most idealistic person in the film industry. And it’s wonderful. Whatever he makes, it’s completely independent and different from everything else. But he is going to be forgotten faster than others…
C: Not if he keeps re-inventing himself as the comeback kid, like his recent film Tetro, which I admired a lot.
K: No, I don’t think so, because he’s not making films for the generation of people who are going to the cinema now. He’s making the films for himself. They’re very personal films. People have short memories. I was flabbergasted when I gave a masterclass in Rome recently to find out that out of 30 film students, only six had seen [Fellini’s] La Strada! It’s very significant. Memories are getting shorter, shorter, shorter.
C: But there’s so much for them to take in. I was at our National Film School recently and I showed some first-year students Fritz Lang’s film M (1931). I asked how many of them had seen it before and I think only about a quarter of them had.
K: That’s not too bad for that movie!
C: Perhaps the more significant point was that the ones who hadn’t seen it before were really bubbling over with excitement after seeing it. They realised that they were coming into contact with a landmark film.
C: I’d like to stay in the present before we talk about the past. I’m very interested in the return of 3D in cinema today, and you’re one of the few established directors who has bravely plunged into this, with The Nutcracker in 3D (2010). What are your feelings about 3D now?
K: I think certain films can be extraordinarily good in 3D — mostly fantasies. I think the best use of 3D is going to be in the live transmission of sport and ballet. The reason I say this is that I don’t think that the language of film is all so conducive to 3D. If you put Slumdog Millionaire into 3D, it’s going to be simply unwatchable. In 3D, every time you cut or change view, you have to re-orient yourself in the space and adjust yourself to it. You never do this in real life. All your subjective experiences are very fluid and don’t have cuts - unless someone knocks you out! So in that sense you don’t have to re-orient yourself all the time. In 3D you have this BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM re-orientation all the time. I think it can be harmful for human health in general. I think we have to wait a year or so to see whether it has any impact on the brain, for example, because it’s potentially very stressful.
When I plunged into 3D, I was doing a fairy tale, a fantasy, the contrast between reality and fantasy. There were a lot of dreamlike sequences, with a lot of visual effects that created a fantastic world. So for me 3D was an additional option to make the film commercial. The film was very expensive to make – the most expensive independent film of all time. I made the mistake of releasing it in America before Russia and Europe, etc., but you know that’s done now. There are certain things you cannot change. But I think 3D in this film was very appropriate and I’m very proud of it. I have no doubt that it was right for this kind of film. I think that some other stories, like Alice in Wonderland or Mary Poppins, for example, could also work in 3D. Grand spectacles would work well – things that don’t involve editing, or things that use a very wide-angle view so you’re not having to re-adjust much. In that sense, Gone with the Wind could work well. And opera.
But the language of 3D is suited to very traditional narrative techniques. The cuts should be minimal and the storytelling linear. It has to be filmed in a more humble, simple, traditional language, with more care taken for the impact on the eyes. In fact, when we were converting the film to 3D, I asked my technicians to make it very, very modest.
C: Shallow, in terms of depth?
K: Mostly shallow. At special moments you can switch on full depth, but mostly not, because this is not art, this is stimulation. If you put a man on a rollercoaster for ten minutes, it’s fun, but if you do it for two hours, it becomes A Clockwork Orange [Stanley’s Kubrick’s 1971 film, in which the hero, Alex, is conditioned to react adversely to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, by its being associated with violent images]. It’s a physical stimulation. It can be used for good, but it can also be used for bad and I’m sure it will be used for bad, just because that’s the history of humankind.
C: It already is being used badly; there’s no doubt about that.
K: So I think 3D is one of those gimmicks that won’t make art. Let me tell you another thing. The most important visual effect is the close-up, the human close-up. And you don’t need the human close-up in 3D; you need to concentrate on simple things like the eyes and the expressions. So you can’t really do intimate things in 3D – it would be stupid. Cinema exists without 3D and will exist without 3D. You know, I realised one thing – that I don’t make films for people who eat popcorn. And this was the first film I made for people who eat popcorn. And I was appalled that people were doing this during my film. But when the movie comes to a particularly emotional point, where it touches people, the people stop chewing!
C: That’s success of a kind then!
K: Yes. In most films you don’t even have to stop chewing. You just chew, slurp Coca Cola and say “Ok, it was good. Let’s go home”. I just wrote an article about this realisation that I don’t make films for people who eat popcorn.
C: It’s interesting that you don’t think 3D is relevant to making art. One way of thinking about 3D that interests me comes from Sergei Eisenstein. He wrote a really long article shortly before he died in 1948, all about stereoscopic cinema, despite the fact that he could only have seen one stereo film, the Soviet version of Robinson Crusoe. He argued that the future of film had to be in 3D - why would you not want to do it? He was very convinced by the idea and traced it back through the history of theatre, saying that artists have always been trying to break down the barriers between the drama and the audience.
K: In theory, yes. But my teacher Mikhail Romm, who was a friend of Eisenstein, always used to say “Theatre is going to die and film will replace it”. This was a big illusion. In 1945-7 we lived in a world which didn’t have the Internet, MTV, postmodernism, the art of marketing, David Beckham. Basically we were living in the nineteenth century. That’s why the illusion of progress was so strong. I’m sure if Eisenstein were writing today, he would be much more cautious about many, many things. In 1945 there was still great confidence that progress would take place in every sphere of life. I think it was right to have that kind of illusion at the time, but now people – including me – are much more cautious about the dichotomy between technical progress and ethics.
There’s another thing. We don’t know what 3D is yet. It could be like radiation and Marie Curie. We don’t know how much exposure is going to be harmful. I definitely think there will need to be regulations for the use of 3D in five years’ time – what is ok and what’s not ok. It could be harmful to our brain. I’m sure about it. I’ve already read one report…
C: Yes, I know there’s a statement by [the editor] Walter Murch going around, that Roger Ebert has circulated, saying that it’s bad for our eyes or even our brain. I’m not sure about that…
K: I’m absolutely positive! It’s overstimulation. And the effort our brains have to make every cut to re-orient to the depth is not normal. You’re going into a non-human environment. But I might be wrong of course. We will see…
C: Well good for you. At least you’ve done it.
K: And I’m not going to do it any more. I mean possibly if something comes my way that requires it, but I doubt it.
C: That brings me on to my next question: What options in filmmaking are open to you at the moment? You have done extraordinary things for a Russian filmmaker. You’ve tackled Hollywood; you’ve made films of very different sizes, in different genres. You made a serious film about modern Russia, House of Fools (2002), which stirred up quite a lot of controversy. But it suffered the fate of many serious films, in not being very widely seen.
K: Exactly. You know, my personal destiny is a strange thing, because almost every project I pursue has at least ten years’ history behind it; now it is more like 20 or 30 years. So I conceived films when the language of film was completely different. Yet I’m still attached to them. It may be an illusion that people still need them — but I need them!
I don’t see how I would be able to convince people to finance films which aren’t blockbusters, but which are just psychological dramas or, for example, about the life of Rachmaninov, which I wrote about 25 or 30 years ago and it’s a kind of saga of a composer, a bit like Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982). As a matter of fact, I was very impressed by Fanny and Alexander and when I was writing the script, I was always referring to Bergman’s film, because it has an overall look over several generations and a serious examination of family and art. And also it has wonderful, magical, kind of fairytale moments. Very unexpected, but logical as well. And that’s how I wanted to make my film, and I still want to make it if I can find the money. All my projects are obsolete, but I’ll try to make them anyway. I’m more interested in working that way. Occasionally things come which I’m able to film immediately, but with House of Fools – again I thought of that ten years before.
So I don’t know what my options are. I guess they also include theatre and television, because I think television gives an opportunity for serious dramatic writing. Literature and dramatic writing is to a large extent moving from cinema to television, certainly in America and also in England. Cinema is more trying to fulfil the demands of investors, which is very complicated and a painful process. I admire British directors like Mike Leigh. He makes his films as he wants and it’s wonderful that he can do that. Wonderful!
C: He’s one of a very small number of people who are able to do that, and the budget has to be very small.
K: Yes, but he squeezes between Scylla and Charybdis! A wonderful director!
C: Can you see yourself making a film completely within Russia again? Could you fit back into Russian film production as it is today, which seems to be split between very high and very low budget?
K: Possibly. My last Russian-language film, Gloss (2007) had a serious budget, the kind that you cannot find in Russia now. I think the Russian film industry faces an abyss today, a dead end. Much more than say the British or French industries, because our system of distribution has become private and has no state regulation. It’s wildcat capitalism. All the companies have been taken over by American companies. I’m not sure if you know, but in 2010 the Russian market made $1billion, and 85 percent of that went to American companies. So it’s a small audience that’s watching Russian films.
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of Hollywood on the psyche of Russian people. I personally think it’s very important for the Russian government to begin regulating the industry to make sure that Russians are viewing Russian films. After all, if there is no Russian audience for Russian films, who needs them? Russia is so receptive to western culture: they want to be Americans in a sense, without understanding what that really means. There’s also such a focus on the commercial aspects that are integral to Hollywood filmmaking — what they cost to make and what they took at the box office — that this has also become what Russians focus on in their attitude to film as well. Putin told people in the Russian film industry “You should compete”. He doesn’t understand. What does this mean? Russia can’t compete. Firstly it doesn’t have the money to compete; secondly it doesn’t have the mentality to compete; and thirdly we cannot imitate American movies with Russian material – because what’s the point? [Fyodor] Bondarchuk tried to compete by creating kind of American-style films, and [Timur] Bekmanbetov too…
C: Well Bekmanbetov is an interesting case: how do you feel about his attempt to create an alternative apocalyptic type of blockbuster – Day Watch (2006) for example?
K: I think it was wonderful to watch and very interesting…
C: To me what was interesting about it was that it felt entirely Russian…
K: Of course it’s Russian, but… it doesn’t have a smell [Laughter]. You know, blockbusters… they never have a smell. It’s like being in shiny, sterile city. It’s like a Russian Ridley Scott, or rather a cross between Ridley Scott and Tony Scott – visually beautiful and very shallow – basically because they’re not interested in looking for any kind of ambiguity. The Russian mentality is generally more about ambiguity, as is the British mentality too. Americans are not ambiguous at all; they hate ambiguity. That’s why some American classics were quite challenging for the American mentality, because they are ambiguous. The Godfather, for example, is a very ambiguous movie. In many ways Bekmanbetov is a brilliant filmmaker, but I don’t think he has any desire to understand what man is…
C: I thought I caught a whiff of Bulgakov at the back of Day Watch. That moment in modernist Russian literature…
K: Maybe a little, but it’s basically just entertainment; there’s no search for understanding. Not because he’s not talented. He’s just not interested in looking for anything else.
I remember Prokofiev came back to Russia from abroad in 1936. And he came back basically because Stravinsky squeezed him out of the West. Stravinsky was very jealous and afraid of Prokofiev, because Prokofiev was far more talented – certainly to my understanding…
C: Well, certainly more talented at least...
K: So he returned to Russia, and the secretary of the Composers’ Union told him uncomfortably: “You know, Sergey Sergeevich, your music is not very popular in Russia. Other composers are much more in demand, like [Dmitri] Prokras”. Prokras was a composer who wrote things like communist marches – ba-BAM, Bam, ba-ba Bam, ba-BAM, Bam, Bam – that were really popular in 1936. And Prokofiev laughed and said “No. We have different professions. Don’t worry!” The point is that not everything that consists of sounds made by instruments can be called music. And with literature, you can have words written on the wall of an elevator or a toilet. These are written, but they’re not literature yet. And with film it’s the same thing.
Several times I’ve tried to balance being popular and being myself – being more sincere – and each time I’ve failed, or not failed, but I never felt really satisfied. I made seven films in America and only two of them received wide distribution. Maria’s Lovers never went into distribution, nor Shy People or Duet for One. And it’s funny – I made Duet for One after Runaway Train, which had made me flavour of the month. And Billy Wilder started to court me. He’d call me and say “Ah, Andrei, it’s Billy Wilder. Come round to my house”. And I kind of became his disciple, driving him around Hollywood. He wanted to make me a pet student, because I was promising. And then I showed him this bloody Duet for One, and I said to him “No one wants to take this film; what should I do?” It was a much starker version that I showed him than the final version and he said “You have to cut this and that and that, Andrei – you can’t tell if it’s a dream or reality”. He was very annoyed and disappointed that I had gone in this direction. And I said [puts on childish, pleading voice] “Billy, isn’t it going to end up being too short?” And he said [declaims dramatically] “My friend, there are only two things that are too short in life – your life and your penis. The rest is too long.” He was right! So in a sense my American experience was successful for myself because I learned a lot, but as a filmmaker I disappointed Hollywood. I didn’t use the opportunities properly and I have to bear this stigma.
C: I’d like to take you back further now. During your career in Russian cinema, before you went abroad, you really did try to do some interesting, experimental things, which got you into different kinds of trouble. I’m thinking for instance of Sibiriada (1979). Everyone was saying that you were the person who was trying to modernise Soviet cinema, making a big-form, popular film that hadn’t been done before in Soviet cinema – an epic.
K: Well, there was War and Peace before me…
C: Yes, but Sibiriada was trying to do something different – not just riding on the coat-tails of a classic. It certainly divided people’s opinions in the west.
K: Nothing was conscious. It was just the human curiosity of an artisan who wanted to try something different, in the same way as I wanted to try something different by making more commercial films in America, and the same as a painter who wants to try a new medium, such as sculpture or architecture or something like that. I would say it’s very light-headed. I would also say I almost never felt myself responsible for what I was doing, and I’ve often thought: “Shit, I’d have done much better if I wasn’t going in this direction”.
The story behind Sibiriada is an interesting one. I was offered the commission to make a film that would be shown at the 24th or 25th Congress of the Communist Party, and at that moment I was trying to make a film of The Cherry Orchard [by Chekhov]. I didn’t want to make the film they were offering me, a film about oil, but when they told me how much money was on offer, I said to myself: “My goodness, I have to do something with this money!” It’s like Michelangelo ... because with big money, you can use it to make something important, not just the film they wanted.
Of course, when the news got out, everyone said, “Konchalovsky is a corrupted man; the Kremlin bought him, and now he’s doing a film about oil workers”. And some of my friends, including [Andrei] Tarkovsky, said “OK, we understand, go. Bye”. An art director said to me: “I’m not going to work with you on some fucking petroleum movie”. I spent seven or eight months working out what this film was going to be about. When we finally did, it turned out that it was going to be quite controversial! [laughs] Because it’s not about oil – oil is just an excuse – and then we start to go back, and then, my goodness, it’s going to be a Russian Novecento [Bertolucci’s epic 1976 film about Italy entering the 20th century].
C: It is that, exactly – an epic about the land and the people.
K: To understand Homo Sovieticus of 1975, we needed to go back three generations. And then it turns out what we were dealing with was both very strange and big. The same thing happened with Andrei Rublev (1966) [which Konchalovsky co-wrote with Andrei Tarkovsky in 1965-6]. When we started to work on that, we didn’t know where it was going. When we saw the final version, I said to Tarkovsky: “We made a great mistake. We should have only done the bell! [the sequence where Rublev witnesses a young boy supervising the casting of a church bell]. We could have put into the bell story all the introspection and it would be very, very linear – a wonderful story, yet completely symbolic! And Rublev wouldn’t speak at all!” Of course this would have been a completely different film, but it could have been as great a film, because Tarkovsky was interested in exploring different aesthetics. I think from a dramatic point of view, Sibiriada is better written than Rublev. I had more experience.
Anyway, coming back to me getting into trouble… First of all, I was never a dissident. I mean everyone in Russia was a dissident – it’s just that not everyone confessed to it. Those who confessed got in trouble; the rest of us didn’t confess. We knew not to speak about it. There were famous maxims about the paradoxes of Soviet life. For example: “Individually everyone’s ‘against’; collectively they’re ‘for’. Or: “There’s nothing available in the shops, but people’s refrigerators are full”. I got into trouble because I made Asya’s Happiness [The Story of Asya Klyachina, Who Loved But Did Not Marry (1966)] on a wave of optimism – after Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had come out [in 1962]. There was a sense of freedom in the air. Andropov – I can’t remember if he was already in the KGB – was preparing reforms.
When I was in America, people used to think I was in the KGB myself, because I would say “The KGB is the only organisation in Russia that is paid to know and tell the truth – the rest of us are lying”. The truth is they knew the level of the coming disaster, already in 1970. And they wanted to make reforms, and they pushed Kosygin to make economic reforms. So I made a film on the wave of this liberalisation that was coming. Reform in Russia was beginning to happen, but there was huge resistance from all the legacy of Stalinism, so it happened very slowly. Then in 1967-8 there was Dubcek and the whole Czech uprising. The Prague Spring was a disaster for Russian reformists because they immediately came under fire from the Stalinists. The Russian tanks in Prague were absolutely horrible and stopped Russian reform there and then. I remember my friend who was in the Central Committee came from a meeting and told me: “Reforms are dead and they’ll be gone for another generation”.
So my film came out when everything had begun to coagulate. If it hadn’t been for the circumstances, no-one would have noticed, people would have simply said “nice movie”. Or not nice, but strange, weird, etc. But because it was banned, it was suddenly “Wow! Incredible movie!” I became a hero immediately, because I became the author of a forbidden movie. There was really nothing new in the film; it was just new for Russia. From the official point of view, the aesthetic was just strange and not understandable. And whatever was not understandable was anti-Soviet. I never felt that I was doing something new, and I didn’t need any courage to do it – I just wanted to put real people on the screen and it was just real joy doing something interesting.
C: But that was quite revolutionary for Russia at that time.
K: You know, Orson Welles said a wonderful thing about Citizen Kane [his first film, made in 1941]: “I made this film just because I didn’t know that you can’t do it this way”. It’s not something conscious. Whereas Gloss, my most recent Russian movie, is much more self-conscious – a conscious slap and spit at the Russian psyche, about glamour and fashion and hookers, and all that shit. But this was conscious. When I was 26, I was just a fool!
C: I’ve spoken to other Russian directors of the same period and that chimes with what they told me about the climate of opportunity. But one difference between you and your contemporaries is that you came from a very privileged family – you must have felt more confident because of your family background?
K: No, no – that’s an absolute illusion. This idea of a privileged family is a false one. The level of corruption in the Soviet Union was not comparable to the level in Russia today. Corruption in the Soviet Union was about power, and involved those who wanted it. My main privilege was that I had my own room – I was alone – and in my room I had a piano. And Tarkovsky could sleep under this piano, because very often he’d stay till 5am, and we had a French man who would make soupe à l’oignon about 4am. But the risk was exactly the same: in front of the Central Committee, there would be no difference whether an anti-Soviet accusation was made against a poor person or the son of a famous writer. It’s an illusion that I felt myself comfortable. In fact it was the opposite: my father was always scared that I was doing things that would get me into trouble. He said “You compromise my life”.
But it wasn’t Stalin’s time – it was a more liberal time. My family was privileged, but not because of my father. He was a talented poet and then he became entangled in politics and became a member of the Communist Party in 1961 or ’62 – very late – because they wanted him to become secretary of the Writers’ Union, and then he said some dirty things about Pasternak. But I think our privilege came from the fact that we happened to be one of the rare families who belonged to the tradition of Russian culture that survived. My great-grandfather was the painter Surikov [Vasily Surikov, 1848-1916, famous for his large scenes from Russian history].
It was very complicated. My grandfather married Surikov’s daughter. He had two brothers – well, he had five – but of these two, one of them was a professor of medicine, who worked in the Kremlin and who, by the way, was the doctor who tried to heal Gorky. The other was a historian, who was expelled by his university and became absolutely anti-Soviet. He went to Minsk to help the Germans, and he said to my grandfather: “I am going to the west because only Germans can save us from the Bolsheviks”. Can you imagine my grandfather’s reaction! When the war started, Stalin was drinking so heavily that no-one could speak to him. And in one of the first speeches he gave during the war, written by someone else, he made his appeal to the Russian people, which started “Brothers and sisters…” – you know, like Gaddafi now. In this speech they included seven names of great Russians – Tchaikovsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Lomonosov – I don’t remember the rest - but they mentioned Surikov!
C: Really – the only visual artist?
K: Yes! They could have chosen someone else, but after that mention, we became untouchables. No-one knows that, but it’s very important to understand. They couldn’t touch my father, or even my grandfather, whose brother had in their eyes already become a collaborator with the Germans. I mean, we lived in terror from ’41 right up till ’53, and my grandfather never had an exhibition, but they didn’t touch us. They put two of my uncles from the other side of my family in prison, but they didn’t touch my mother, father or grandfather. So in this strange way we were ‘privileged’, but in a way that was almost literary. And so my family became monstres sacrés. My father was a very sincere and interesting man. I fought with him all my youth, but I understood him much better after my mother died.