Oct 132009


I still haven’t worked up enough nerve to finish watching Voditel dlya Very. Instead I took in something easy and watched parts of Ironya Sudba.

I’ve watched it a few times already, but this time something caught my eye just a few seconds from the end of Part One.

In most of the Eldar Ryazanov films I’ve seen, he works something about western communication technology into the film. In Vokzal dlya Voikh (1982) it was a VCR player. In Sluzhebnyy roman it was a built-in 8-track player in a car. In these two films, the items were shown as if some new technology was being introduced to the viewers. In Beregis Avtomobilya the bad guy helped obtain a western tape player (if I remember correctly) on the black market, because the customer said a Soviet one wouldn’t do.

Ryazanov has made a lot more films than that, most of which I have not seen. So I don’t know if this is a theme that recurs throughout. Until I saw the above screenshot in Ironya Sudba, I thought it might be an exception. But the close-up of the phonograph turntable shows the English words “Party-Time.”

Why an American (or English) phonograph in a film in which Barbara Brylska had her voice dubbed because it wasn’t Russian enough? I presume that in 1971 there were Russian phonographs, too. Is Ryazanov playing a little game with us?

Google hasn’t helped me learn much about Party-Time phonographs, btw. I’ve found a few that are sold as collectors items, but they look cheaper than the one shown in the film. It’s not a brand name that I recall ever paying attention to.

Mar 212009


The film Railway Station for Two begins and ends with a scene in a Siberian gulag. The above screenshot is from the opening scene. Excellent gulag photography in this film, btw. I love the above scene — not as a place to be, of course, but as an excellent portrayal of a northern winter in such a setting.

In Anna Lawton’s 1992 book, “Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in our Time”, she says this about the movie:

Because of a car accident caused by his wife — a materialistic woman representative of the nouveau riche mentality — he is serving time in a labor camp, and is in fact hurrying back to prison after a brief leave.”

That’s not quite the way I understood it. I hesitate to say so, because Lawton speaks Russian and I don’t — certainly not enough to understand the parts of the movie where this is explained. But I can see what’s told in pictures.

My understanding is that most of the movie is a flashback. There are occasional flash-forward scenes to the gulag, but at the railway station, the character played by Oleg Basilashvili had not yet begun to serve his three year sentence. You can tell just from the haircut. At the railway station he still has the full head of hair appropriate to a concert pianist. In the prison it’s cut very short — there seems to be a standard-issue haircut for all Russian movie prisoners. It helps to make the point of how people in prison are dehumanized. (Though I think in some of the scenes they cheated a little and let him have a little more hair than most movie prisoners get.)

Feb 182009


The van driver in this 1979 movie is angry at Buzykin, the character played by Oleg Basilashvili, who was preoccupied with problems caused by the competing attentions needed by his wife and his girlfriend. Buzykin wasn’t watching where he was going, and got nicked by the van. The subtitle is of angry words from the driver.

It’s interesting in that three years later, Basilashvili was in another movie in which this same standard of justice was the premise. In “Vokzal dlya dvoikh,” his wife hit a pedestrian in the dark. Since the pedestrian wasn’t drunk, the driver was assumed to be at fault. Basilashvili’s character took the rap for his wife, which meant three years in a Siberian gulag.

It seems to represent a little different standard than we have in the U.S. Bicyclists here are constantly reporting cases of drivers who get off way too easy after hitting a bicyclist, and it would be pretty much the same for hitting a pedestrian, too. Most likely a case between a driver and a careless pedestrian who wandered into traffic would not be decided in favor of the pedestrian unless the driver was drunk or speeding, and even then it’s sometimes difficult to get a conviction of the driver — especially if the driver has good connections.

But judging from these two Russian movies ca 1980, the driver is almost presumed guilty unless proven innocent. I don’t know if that’s the way it worked in real life, and if so, whether it still works that way. Also, I would expect the case of the politically- or economically- well connected driver to work pretty much the same as here. But I don’t think you’d ever have a U.S. movie in which the driver would bawl out a careless pedestrian the way this one did. It just wouldn’t relate to anything in real life. The driver might be concerned with the emotional trauma of having to live with the knowledge that he killed someone, but a sober driver obeying the traffic laws wouldn’t be be particularly fearful of being sent to prison.

Jul 252008

I haven’t found any good obituaries in U.S. newspapers for Nonna Mordukova, who died earlier this month. The one in the Washington Post pointed out that she appeared in some government propaganda films: “Throughout a career that spanned half a century, Ms. Mordyukova appeared in dozens of films, including some textbook examples of Soviet propaganda.”

Well, everyone knows that there were a lot of Soviet propaganda films. But what was surprising to me when I started watching Russian movies was the parts that were subversive of Soviet propaganda, including three roles I can think of that were played by Nonna Mordyukova. If the Post wanted to talk about the political aspects of her work, it should have made that point. These are in three films that are readily available to U.S. viewers via Netflix.

In Vokzal dlya Dvoikh she played the part of an “uncle” who gave an entertaining little lecture on the virtues of private property and free enterprise. I’ve never seen anything like that in a popular U.S. film. In Brilliantovaya Ruka she played the part of a meddlesome building superintendent — in a way that provided social commentary which I suspect was not comforting to all the authorities. And the biggest role was of course as the Commissar in Komissar — a film that was suppressed for 20 years and which even under glasnost was released with extreme reluctance, seeing the light of day only thanks to outside pressure. In an interview, the director Alexandr Askoldov pointed out that even today it is rarely seen in Russia. Nonna Mordukova was one of the actors who interceded on his behalf at the time when the film was suppressed, when Askoldev was facing the possibility of a fate worse than that of being kicked out of the Party and of being prohibited from directing more films (which is what did happen to him).

It’s not that Mordyukova was a political dissident. As far as I know she wasn’t anything of the kind. She even seems to have preferred that Askoldov give in to the censors on the parts of the film that he refused to edit out. (You can see this on the Komissar DVD that contains “extra” material.) But she played a role in conflicts that we would do well to know about.

Here is a page about Mordyukova that gives better information about her work:

Komissar is an interesting case. Most web pages that talk about her work mention her big role in Komissar. But I have found Russian sites that tell about her career without mentioning that film. Same for Rolan Bykov, who played the male lead (see clip below). There are Russian web sites that tell all about his work, except for their silence about that movie.

And now I’ve learned that Komissar is still censored, even at Netflix. The clip below includes several minutes that were not on the one we got from Netflix. I am suspicious of why they were removed, because it seems they are important in leading up to the famous Holocaust scene that got Askoldov in such big trouble. Maybe the producers didn’t want to touch the Turkey-Armenia genocide issue, which is mentioned in this clip. But there are also parts that seem important in developing the character played by Mordyukova — in which she explains some of her views on war service and the political aspects of the wars.

25-Jul Slight edits to remove awarkdness, I hope

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.

Jan 192008

We’ve been watching the 1979 movie Siberiade, this week. We just started the 2nd DVD of it last night.

Unfortunately, this is one Russian movie that doesn’t have much winter. There is a winter scene at the very beginning, I suppose to set the stage in Siberia, but that’s been all so far. None of the casual, pointless, everyday snow scenes that I’ve enjoyed in so many other Russian movies.

So far I’m irritated by actor Nikita Mikhalkov’s arrival in the 1960s segment. I was really enjoying the movie until now. Mikhalkov is supposed to be this great Russian actor, but all I see is a one-trick pony. He’s playing the same character he did in Vokzal dlya Dvoikh. It was good there, in a minor part. But as the male lead? I expected more. All those same mannerisms don’t make for a fully-developed character. Well, we’ll see how it plays out. We have a ways to go before reaching the end.

He played the same role in the first part of Burnt by the Sun, too. He played Nikita Mikhalkov instead of playing the part of an old-school Russian colonel. He got better toward the end of that one, but there was a bad beginning.

The two young actors who played the young boy who became the adult Alexis did great in Siberiade — anticipating his adult mannerisms somewhat. The youngest of the two did especially well. But it was a letdown to see the adult version finally appear.

I’ve liked Mikhalkov’s work as a director in Oblamov and Unfinished Piece for Player Piano. I’ve liked the documentaries I’ve seen. But seeing him as an actor is getting wearisome. (It doesn’t help that he turned into a Putin supporter, but his biography told us that’s what would happen.)

I was looking forward to seeing Lyudmila Gurchenko again after seeing her role as a female lead in Vokzal dlya Dvoikh. The jury is still out on that one, now that she made her appearance at the same time as Mikhalkov.

Dec 242007

Several months ago I was asking about bicycle touring in Russia. Someone on the phred bicycle touring list said drivers there tend to be careful because nobody has insurance.

It’s an interesting idea. Here’s another one along those lines, posted over at Cafe Hayek:

My George Mason University colleague Gordon Tullock famously remarked that the best way for government to reduce the number of traffic fatalities is for it to mandate that a sharp steel dagger be mounted on the steering column of each vehicle and pointed directly at each driver’s heart. Forget about all other regulations and mandates; that dagger will ensure safe driving.

I don’t know if the Russian example is true, though. There are plenty of Russian traffic accident videos on youtube, and I see traffic accident coverage when I watch the news on RTR Planeta. And then there is the 1982 movie, Vokzal dlya Dvoikh, in which we learn that the penalty for accidentally running over a pedestrian on a dark night was three years in a nice Siberian gulag. It doesn’t make it sound like traffic accidents are unheard of.

Still, I think the main danger would be getting Putinized. I’d still very much like to go touring there, though.

Aug 312007

Maybe I didn’t give Brilliantovaya ruka quite enough credit. I only gave it a Netflix rating of 3, but there is an interesting part played by Nonna Modryukova.

It took me a while to remember where I had seen her before. She was the Komissar in the movie Komissar, and did a great job in that film. Some googling informed me that she had also been in the film Vokzal dlya Dvoikh. Of course. Now I remember. She was the “Uncle” who gave that subversive little talk about the virtues of private property and private enterprise.

In this film she plays a “house manager”, where she is a busybody pest who minds other peoples’ business, looks out for residents who are living beyond their means, and puts up public denunciations of people who don’t live properly (in the form of signs posted in front of the buildings where they live). Is she a parody of a type of character who was extant in Russia in 1968? I don’t know, but wish I understood more of how that worked.

I previously said the movie managed to show the police and other authorities as noble, virtuous people — very competent at what they were doing, and almost omniscient. It’s kind of hard to make a comedy/James Bond-type movie if you have to play the cops that way. But if this house manager was an authority figure, then we can say that not all authority figures were portrayed sympathetically. (Her response to the statement that a dog is a man’s best friend. “Man’s best friend is the superintendent.” I presume that’s another term for her character’s job.)

Was this part of the movie a bit subversive for 1968? I don’t know. But it’s fun trying to learn about things like that. I do know that I’ve enjoyed watching Nonna Mordyukova every time I’ve seen her so far.

I’m not sure if she is still alive or not. I saw one news item from a couple of years ago that suggested she was in bad health then.

Jul 212007

We watched part of Railway Station for Two again tonight. It’s my 3rd or 4th time. My major excuse is that it’s a good one for learning the language, which it is indeed. But I continue to be amazed. That had to have been a subversive film in pre-Gorbachev Russia. It would be a subversive film even in the U.S., at least in the vicinity of our major universities, for its portrayal of the values of private property and free markets.

I only hope that Madame Hillary’s prison camps will be as gentle as the Siberian gulag shown in that film.

And I continue to enjoy that Russian actors know how to act like they’re really cold when it’s supposed to be cold out, though it may have helped that the Siberian winter segments were filmed on site in winter. Hollywood has no clue how to portray winter realistically, but these people do. One thing not even the Russians can do is show how emaciated a person looks when deprived of food. This one has a charming way of making the point, though, in passing.

Too bad Netflix has very few of Eldar Ryazanov’s films. This one makes me want to see more. But I just now moved “The Irony of Fate, or ‘Enjoy your bath'” to the top of my Netflix queue. (Well, not quite the top. I’ve promised to get “Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage” next, and I’m looking forward to another viewing of that one, too.)