THE annual film calendar is marked by national film festivals, so-called – French, Italian, German, Lebanese, Arabic, Israeli; sometimes, if we’re lucky, a Palestinian program. These events are promotional, held to remind us that these industries are alive and functioning; mostly the lists consist of the current year’s new features, with a few gems and more than a few mediocrities. The current Russian event is called Russian Resurrection, so that you wonder what dimly remembered crucifixions are being farewelled: Eisenstein, Vertov, Tarkovsky? There is always the implication that liberal, creative film culture flourishes despite politics, despite whatever you may hear of the present oppressive autocracy, of protests against it, of rebellious youth and disappeared journalists. So as we salute Elena, Silent Souls and How I Ended This Summer, and take in the profound sadness in each of them, we can see a double-edged excellence; cinematic craft, emerging from long inherited traditions, working to communicate something close to despair for a broken, corrupted society.
But this time as others, the Russians offer their special kinds of escapism, with slapstick comedy as well as costume drama, and at the time of writing there is much more to be seen; it’s running through September in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth. I don’t know why Adelaide misses out, nor why Canberra, unlike other centres, doesn’t get a screening of Sergei Bondarchuk’s monumental 1967 version of War and Peace. You can get it on Amazon, a three-disc set, but it’s better seen in the middle of a spellbound audience. The marathon runs for close on seven hours, with three breaks for tea, coffee and sandwiches; it’s still to come in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, and in those towns, do find the time if you can. In Sydney the queues were long, the Chauvel close to full. It’s worth every minute, and there are forty taken up by the battle of Borodino; that involved a cast of 120,000, with 800 horses – and in 1967 nobody had heard of computer-generated imagery. The Russian cultural foundation’s notes tell us that it cost $560 million, in today’s money; and why, we must ask, was it worth it for the post-Stalinist but still totalitarian Soviet Union? The short answer may be that in the 1960s, with Europe changing fast, identity and inheritance required new affirmation.
No CGI, but Bondarchuk does great things with back-projection, and we emerge with a properly Tolstoyan sense of vast landscapes in tumult, counterposed ironically with the forced sedateness in women’s domestic lives, and the jewelled formalities of ballrooms. Vision is matched by performance; as Natasha, the swan-necked Lyudmila Savelyeva does remarkable things in her way of communicating moral and emotional conflict, not simply in silence but with it. As Prince Andrei, Vyacheslav Tikhonov is handsome, conflicted, driven; but Bondarchuk’s own Pierre, the tormented looker-on, is the film’s central performance. Like the huge novel, the film offers fiction as a path into history (and it’s not bad to do without Tolstoy’s philosophic meanderings). In the end the personal story is swallowed in the burning of Moscow, the pointless executions of the innocent, the long, miserable retreat of the French; and we remember from distant schoolbooks that nobody actually won those Napoleonic wars. If the audience is palpably tiring by then, so was Europe. It’s the greatest possible war film, and by that token one of the greatest anti-war films as well.
ONE possible path into twentieth-century Russian cinema goes via France and one of Chris Marker’s great film essays, The Last Bolshevik, aka Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (1993). There he tracks the work of the Soviet-era director Aleksandr Medvedkin (1900–89), whose films, notably Happiness (1934) made Stalin laugh and managed not to offend his successors; he survived far too many regimes to be counted a cinematic saint or hero. But he became a friend of Marker, who fashioned The Last Bolshevik around four posthumous, questioning letters to Medvedkin, the director who once took a ciné train around the Russian countryside, filmed ordinary people and their problems, processed and edited the films on the train, and screened them to the subjects. In a 1971 interview with Le Monde, Marker saluted Medvedkin’s inventiveness, his gifts for elegant composition, bold montage and ellipsis, and wild, full-on comedy. He also found something like cultural tragedy in the way his friend had strained and stretched his stories to keep up affirmative views of the Soviet system; Medvedkin wanted to keep on believing in the utopian dreams of the 1917 revolution, the dreams played out in May Day parades. Tracking his life, Marker picks up images from the Soviet past, rewinds, reverses them so that the dreamers are remembered benignly, while nobody can forget how little their dreams were worth, nor how cruel the outcomes. Like much else in Marker’s sixty years of film-making, The Last Bolshevik is complex, multi-layered, witty, orchestrated in the run of voices over archival imagery. He tells us how Medvedkin said, when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, that he wanted to live five more years, just to see how things turned out. As his camera moves to look at Medvedkin’s grave, Marker delivers one of the funniest lines in modern cinema: this, he says, was the only five-year plan that ever worked out.
Marker – born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve on 29 July 1921 in Paris – died six weeks ago, close to his ninety-first birthday. He was filming, photographing, recording, arranging and rearranging images into his later eighties. During the second world war he worked in the Resistance; he published a novel, poems, critical journalism; then, turning to film, he collaborated with industrial workers to film their daily lives, their struggles and strikes. Often, into the later 1960s, his work was anonymous, absorbed within that of activist collectives like SLON (Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles). He began working on 16mm film and super-8mm from the early 1950s, on video and CD-ROM as soon as they came to hand, for cinema, TV and gallery installations. Travelling incessantly, he made films on Cuba, Siberia, on Israel in the years of its establishment, and on Japan (The Koumiko Mystery, 1965). In Level Five (1997), he returned to a near-forgotten history which obsessed him, the massacre of the islanders at the 1945 battle of Okinawa, and the memories of the survivors. The best-known of his films in wide circulation are La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983); these can be found on Amazon and in certain enterprising stores. You can look for the wonderful, late Remembrance of Things to Come (co-directed with Yannick Bellon, 2002), and the interactive CD-ROM Immemoire (1998). With luck, you’ll find The Last Bolshevik and the long essay on the decline of the European Left, Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge (1977) – rendered in English, with a salute to Alice through the Looking-Glass, as A Grin without a Cat.
Marker was rarely interviewed, and almost never photographed; he made films about other artists – his friends Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, and Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky; for himself, he preferred to be known only by his work. His films are prowled and haunted by animals, wolves, owls, and especially by cats; if asked for a photograph, he’d usually send an image of his cat. A great and inimitable master of cinema, he was also a devastating cure for the inflated cult of authorship. •
Sylvia Lawson’s latest book, Demanding the Impossible: Essays on Resistance, is published by Melbourne University Publishing.