Oct 172008

During the late 1950s and early 60s, while other kids learned to fear nuclear holocaust, I learned to fear the midnight knock on the door. Not that I had to fear it personally, but my mother and grandfather made me aware that such things happened to other people in other parts of the world and there was no reason it couldn’t happen in our country someday, too. There were some bad dreams about it, though nothing vivid enough to remember now.

I did learn about the threat of nuclear weapons, too, at school. I remember “On the Beach,” which was frightening enough, but I’ve always thought the midnight knock on the door would be even worse. And I’ve long had a morbid fascination with the prison-camp genre of literature. I always read this stuff looking for pointers that might be helpful when it comes to our country.

I say all this by way of introduction to “Tomorrow Was The War”. I’ve watched 3 of the 9 parts so far. I had thought I was inured to this kind of story by now. Some months ago I watched an interview with Aleksandr Askoldov (director of Komissar) where he described how as a five-year-old, the police came for his mother, whom he never saw again. They would have come for him, too, had he not run away. Extremely fascinating, but I’m afraid it was no longer terrifying. And there are Russian movies that try to convey the effect of the fear of the police during the worst of Stalin’s days.

But Parts 1 through 3 of “Tomorrow Was The War” had a way of making it terrifying like it has never been before. I can’t say for sure how director Yuri Kara did it. It has something to do with how we first get to know the young adolescents who see it happening, but that sounds too trite.

I’m watching this film slowly on YouTube, savoring every segment before going on to the next. Maybe I’ll eventually get some clues as to how it is done. (I don’t know that I’ll listen to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” ever again without seeing this movie in my mind.)

I see that Yuri Kara was also the director of “The Master and Margarita.” In a way I don’t like that series. I read somewhere about an Old Believer who smashed a monument to author Mikhail Bulgakov, or some such thing, because of the blasphemy contained in this work. I say the vandal was justified in doing so. He had a legitimate point. But I also have to say that the movie is one of the greatest productions ever.

There is no English language Wikipedia page for Yuri Kara, but I’ve got to find out what else he has done.

Hmmm. While googling for information, I came across this book:

Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in Our Time, by Anna Lawton (1992). I’ll have to read that. Here is the description on Google Books:

In this pioneering study, Anna Lawton examines the fascinating world of Soviet cinema under Glasnost and Perestroi-ka. She shows how the reforms that shook the foundations of the Bolshevik state and profoundly affected economic and social structures have been reflected by changes that revolutionized the film industry and in the films the industry produced. Lawton discusses the restructuring of the main institutions governing the industry; the abolition of censorship; the emergence of independent production and distribution systems; the problems connected with the dismantling of the old bureaucratic structure and the implementation of new initiatives. She also surveys the films that remained unscreened for decades for political reasons, films of the new wave that look at the past to search out the truth, and those that record current social ills or conjure up a disquieting image of the future. Together they portray a society in search of its roots and of new directions.

Now the question. Should I go out and get that book to read now, or should I first watch more of these films without someone else putting ideas about them in my head? It’s interesting to have a whole new world open to me one piece at a time as I get into this stuff. I kind of hate to give up my naivete just yet.

Mar 212008

I knew I had seen that guy who plays the NKVD chief before. He appeared tonight while I was watching Part 4 of Master i Margarita. The NKVD is finally involved — trying to figure out this Professor Woland character (who is Satan) — Who is he, really, and how did he get to Moscow? The NKVD guy gives orders to arrest anyone on the slightest suspicion.

Finally I remembered. It’s the same person who played Lavrentiy Beria in “Balthazar’s Feasts, or Night with Stalin.” Well, I guess he has found a role. His name is Valentin Gaft.

I have mentioned before how movies from the Soviet era always portray the police as virtuous and almost omniscient. It’s difficult to have much of a plot when one party already knows everything and can do no wrong. How do you make a movie under those conditions? Answer: You do slapstick where an innocent person has to get involved with the crooks as an informer in order to obtain the final unknown detail — as in Brilliantovaya Ruka (Diamond Arm) or Gentlemen of Fortune. There can be some entertainment value in that — I understand that those two movies were very popular in Russia.

Master i Margarita is of course a post-Soviet movie. And in this one, the almost-omniscient characters are Satan and their sidekick, who know how to use their knowledge to destroy people.

Omniscience in the wrong hands is not a good thing.

Mar 202008

I’ve been watching Master i Margarita on Youtube. It’s a long series, and it will take me a while to get through it. It’s set in 1930s Moscow and 30AD Jerusalem. While watching Professor Woland, the Satan character, it took me a while to realize I had seen this actor before. He is Oleg Basilashvili, who played one of the lead roles in one of my favorite Russian movies, Vokzal dlya Dvoikh (Railway Station for Two).

He’s twenty years or so older in Master i Margarita, so that’s one reason I didn’t recognize him. But another is that he has a much greater range of acting ability than I had realized from watching that first movie.

I’m still reading Gulag, too. Anne Applebaum gives a lot of examples of how prison camp could completely transform a person, often in ways that weren’t very nice. Vokzal dlya Dvoikh had a way of showing it, too. At the beginning of the movie, Basilashvili’s character is a fussy eater, not willing to eat the mediocre food put out for customers at the railway station restaurant. That’s what gets him into trouble and then romance. Well, more trouble. He was already in trouble because of a car accident, and was going to have to spend three years in prison for it. He was a concert pianist, and now is going to be a prison flunky. After a couple years in prison, he has a completely different approach to food. His instinctive reaction on seeing any that’s unattended is to make sure nobody is watching and then furtively slip some into his pockets. He doesn’t have the emaciated look that a real prisoner in that state would have — I suppose it would be asking a lot of an actor to do that — but one can’t miss the point.