Out of Ideology: The Post-Soviet Melodrama

By Dmitrii Savel'ev (Moscow)


It is difficult to argue against the assertion that the field of genre cinema in the Soviet Union was narrow and impoverished. Several Western “players” in the game of genre cinema—for example, the horror film or the thriller—did not have the opportunity to enter onto the “playing field” for ideological reasons that are perfectly clear: they were totally incompatible with the existing canons of socialist reality; they lay outside of Soviet life. Even if they dared to stick their noses out, they did so on the sly and as something contraband—for example, the film Vii (1967) by Konstantin Ershov and Georgii Kropachev, based on Nikolai Gogol''s famous novella, which had great success with the viewing public. It was assisted by the protective label of being “a Russian classic.” Hiding behind this label (a kind of ecclesiastical indulgence), the film attracted 32.6 million Soviet viewers in the first year of its release.

Other “players” were decked out in openly “socialistic,” absolutely trustworthy attire, using it to conceal carefully the shameful “essence” of genre cinema that was so alien to us. As a consequence, for example, the detective films that were mostly produced at the Gor'kii Film Studios in Moscow were almost exclusively police procedurals. The appearance of Boris Durov's hit film Pirates of the 20th Century (Piraty XX veka, 1979), with its unusual—for Soviet eyes—elements of eastern hand-to-hand combat, seemed to be an improbable exception to the general rule; the film had unprecedented success for that time—86.7 million viewers. It goes without saying that the Soviet sailors in Pirates , led by the captain's manly senior aide (Nikolai Eremenko), repulsed not domestic but overseas evil-doers and bandits who were attempting to assault our ship, which was loaded with opium being transported for the pharmacological industry. The super success of Pirates , however, was not simply a law-defying comet that accidentally flashed across the sky immediately above the horizon of Soviet film distribution.

This was proven by the release in 1980 of Aleksandr Mitta's Cabin Crew (Ekipazh), which was another box-office phenomenon with 71.1 million viewers. All things considered, both of these decisive projects were indebted to the extravagant willfulness of then Minster of Filmmaking, Filipp Ermash—an extremely interesting and contradictory figure in the Soviet cinema establishment, a man who in all seriousness wanted to graft Hollywood's energetic “wild fruit-bearing plant” onto the trunk of Soviet filmmaking, to perk up the domestic film industry with a Western pill. Cabin Crew introduced the genre of the “disaster film” to the Soviet film industry (although it was unable to take root). Within the parameters of a Soviet-era ”blockbuster,” Mitta's film skillfully and forcefully intertwined the “disaster film” with a genre that had been mastered more successfully—the melodrama—which was executed flawlessly in Cabin Crew. In fact, much of the success of the film lay in the way it leapt from the melodrama into the “disaster-action film.” The melodramatic base for Cabin Crew lacked any special ideological supports or resonances; even the story of the “catastrophe,” involving the saving of the airplane, did not sparkle with any superfluous Soviet bravura—if we put aside the fact that “our guys won again” (this time in a struggle not with an imperialist enemy, but with an elemental one).

moscow does not believeFinally, 1980—a landmark year for Soviet genre cinema—also saw the release Vladimir Men'shov's Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Moskva slezam ne verit; 84.4 million viewers), a melodrama with novelistic scope that would eventually win an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The destiny of the main heroine of the film was charted in a way that took into account the mythologeme of the self-made woman, so important in Western cinema. But the film also introduced a crucial corrective to the fairytale story of Cinderella, inasmuch as the genuinely difficult and bright path taken by a persistent and strong woman—a path that stretches across two decades, from impoverished weaver to director of a large industrial complex—has a huge “empty patch”: at the end of the first part of the film she gets into bed, abandoned and unhappy, and wakes up at the beginning of the second part as the powerful mistress both of her own fate and of the gigantic light industry complex.

The heroine of Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, Katia Tikhomirova (Vera Alentova), was making her career in a typical Soviet way—the action took place against the clearly defined backdrop of the late 1950s in the first part and the late 1970s in the second part. But if we stop and think about it, the central contrast concealed a contradiction, which we can consider a kind of “hidden middle finger.” The filmmakers wanted audiences to take the entire positive spiritual beginnings of this steely lady at face value, while at the same time the audience's experience of Soviet social life suggested—to those who understood it—that the heroine was simply an out-and-out good-for-nothing person, who had advanced by climbing over the heads those less fortunate and by ascending along the most repulsive and slippery career ladder (meetings of the Komsomol, Party Committee, etc.). How else was it possible in those vile 1970s to leap into the director's chair of an industrial complex?

In just this same way in another classic of Soviet melodrama, released a few years earlier, El'dar Riazanov's An Office Romance (Sluzhebnyi roman, 1978; 58.4 million viewers), the not-yet settled heroine, Liudmila Prokof'evna Kalugina (Alisa Freindlikh), who is just this side of 40, is the director of a department of statistics in Moscow and, in her own words, is on good terms with the Minister. Once again, social awareness raises its head in consternation at the contradictory structure of the film: to make a successful career in those years, one had to be not just a “scarecrow” (mymra)—as her subordinates affectionately refer to this youngish woman who doesn't give a damn about her appearance—but a double-dealing and cynical creature. In fact, the creators of An Office Romance correctly placed their hopes on the conventions of the genre, which were called upon to deflect this recognition in the minds of socially critical viewers and to direct the audience's total attention exclusively at the state of the unequal social conditions that were essential for this love story to develop: she is the director, while he—Anatolii Efremovich Novosel'tsev (Andrei Miagkov)—is merely a lowly office worker, her subordinate, who dreams of becoming chief of a section, which will add a dozen rubles to his salary.

I should mention in passing that in deflecting attention from the heroine's rise to power through Party ranks, the creators of An Office Romance nonetheless openly hint at the KGB epaulets concealed under the elegant sports jacket of the film's main negative hero—a careerist and a scoundrel—Iurii Grigor'evich Samokhvalov (Oleg Basiashvili), who is involved in a parallel love story. After spending several years (which in itself is revealing) not just anywhere, but in the West on an extended assignment in Switzerland, he has recently been appointed deputy to the unattractive director (experience of life in the Soviet Union suggests that deputies fulfilled the role, in part, of being ideological “grey cardinals” in such institutions).

It is worth pointing out another ideological sleight-of-hand in the melodrama Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. In the film, the heroine falls in love with Gosha, a metal worker—at least that is how he introduces himself to her during their first meeting on the suburban train ( elektrichka ). Actor Aleksei Batalov's highly intelligent face, however, together with a number of telling details (for example, his circle of friends and their views of him) suggest that the hero's status as a proletarian is simply an appearance. In reality, we are almost certainly watching a classic Soviet refusenik —a person who has filed documents to emigrate, has been refused by the responsible agencies, has been forced to leave his job in some research institute, has lost the prospect of working in his specialty, and—with no other options available to him—has found a menial social job as a chauffeur, a lathe operator, or a metal worker (as in this film).

In this way, melodramas of the late Soviet period did not have the most direct and most obvious relationships to the governing ideology, and it is not always possible to describe these relationships using the formula “a search for ideological supports of genre to assist in achieving personal legitimation or advancement.” Although, there were more than enough films that fulfilled this formula. Pure melodrama—that is, a personal history of the relationship between a man and a woman—was a genuine rarity on the Soviet screen. As a rule, melodrama would enter into partnership with “tested” (that is, approved) genres—for example, the production drama.

Through the efforts, for the most part, of the Leningrad school of the 1970s-1980s, the genre of the “novella film” took root in Soviet cinema. This genre is slippery, defying precise formulas and presupposing a relatively loose form that allowed the inclusion of a number of proto-genres. There was a disrespectful attitude a priori to pure genres at the Lenfilm Studios in the late Soviet years, ceding these to Muscovites (or to directors at the Central Asian studios who were busy preparing eastern fairy tales). In the list of films released by Lenfilm during those years, it is impossible to uncover, for example, any eccentric comedies—with the surprising exception of Vladimir Fetin's The Striped Trip (Polosatyi reis, 1961). The post-Soviet triumph of Aleksandr Rogozhkin's Particularities of National Hunting (Osobennosti natsional'noi okhoty, 1995), which came out of nowhere from Lenfilm and in violation of all rules and practices, announced—among other things—that the juxtaposition between the Leningrad and Moscow views concerning genre filmmaking had come to an end. To be fair, I must point out that before Rogozhkin's film, Maksim Pezhemskii tried to gauge Leningrad cinema's abilities to deal with comedy—initially with his successful short film Comrade Chkalov's Journey Across the North Pole (Perekhod tovarishcha Chkalova cherez Severnyi Polius, 1990), and subsequently with the unsuccessful film Prisoners of Fortune (Plenniki udachi, 1993).

It is no accident that in the list of recent films, represented in this Symposium, made in a more or less melodramatic note, only four, in my view, are full fledged melodramas—and three of them were made not in Moscow, but in St. Petersburg: Aleksei Balabanov's It Doesn't Hurt (Mne ne bol'no, 2006), Dunia Smirnova's Relations (Sviaz', 2006), and Ivan Dykhovichnyi's Inhale-Exhale (Vdokh-vydokh, 2006). Although the ancestry of Dykhovichnyi's film can be traced back to Moscow, its on-screen exterior shots are of St. Petersburg. And the very plot of Relations —about the intertwined relationship between a woman working in a St. Petersburg advertising agency (Anna Mikhalkova) and a Moscow businessman (Mikhail Porechenkov)—suggests symbolically that same erasure of a juxtaposition in filmmaking practices between the two cities.

relationWithout doubt, Relations follows in the footsteps of Autumn (Osen'), which was directed in 1974 by Andrei Smirnov, Dunia Smirnova's father. The script that she wrote was originally—and, we can assume, programmatically—entitled The Seasons (Vremena goda); she cast her own mother, Natal'ia Rudnaia—who played the main role in Autumn —in the supporting role of the heroine's mother. The point, however, is not in these details: Relations follows Autumn conceptually. In its time, Autumn was stunning precisely because of its programmatic focus on private life and its refusal to take social context (within which, following Soviet logic, this private life was inscribed) into account. The straightforwardness and consistency in the realization of the melodrama genre for which Autumn was punished, is fully integrated into Relations , which has been made under the new conditions of “impunity.” It is not that Smirnova avoids social markers; it is that her film barely enters into a relationship with ideology, if one excludes the secondary scene in which the main hero converses with his friends in a bar when one of the guys sharing the bottle curses Mikhail Khodorkovskii, while another (the main hero) rebuffs him. This is more likely a local expression of Smirnova's convictions not as a director, but in her role as a politically engaged person. This episode has absolutely no relationship to the structure of events in the film, to the logic of relations between this man and this woman. The same applies to the red Pioneer scarf that Mikhalkova's heroine puts on as a joke during a love scene. This is not a symbol of a Soviet birthmark, of an absence of freedom so firmly embedded in those who are 40 or older; rather it is a sign of their mutual childhood, infantilism, with which they cannot part. It is simply that their childhood—of these 40-year-olds—coincided with that time. And if they had had a different historical past, it is unlikely that anything would have changed.

mne ne bolnoIn exactly the same way, there is no essential ideological reality underlying the episode of the singing paratroopers in It Doesn't Hurt. The film would not in the least be damaged by the absence of this scene and it was included exclusively because of considerations that are tangential to the subject but evidently important to Balabanov for personal reasons. The melodramatic construction of It Doesn't Hurt —a triangle including a young man (Aleksandr Iatsenko), a girl (Renata Litvinova), and her protector-businessman (Nikita Mikhalkov)—is not very successfully handled and seems to be of secondary importance to the director. The “chemistry of emotions” between the young lovers is rarely felt; Mikhalkov in a curly wig is poorly type cast for the role of suffering. It seems that Balabanov is much more taken in It Doesn't Hurt with experimenting with a different kind of “copulation.” He appears to be telling a story set in these new times, something that is reinforced by all of the on-screen details of life in St. Petersburg, but essentially all these collisions with phony interior designers, social gatherings (prezentatsii), etc. spring entirely from the preceding decade, the 1990s. In general, Balabanov, as “provocateur,” contrasts—behind his melodramatic screen—the domestic life of the 1990s with that of the 2000s, and tries to see what will come of it.

vdox-vydoxIvan Vyrypaev and Ivan Dykhovichnyi, despite all of the dissimilarities in their films Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006) and Inhale-Exhale, have one thing in common, which differentiates them from Smirnova and Balabanov: they reject in principle all socially distinguishing signs. Dykhovichnyi places his lovers' triangle (a kind that is quite extravagant for our cinema, containing a lesbian dimension) into a supremely aestheticized world: picturesque shabby apartments in formerly private houses, exquisite stone embankments along obscured canals, overgrown paths at dachas… Vyrypaev acts even more decisively. Euphoria is interesting and rich in its gestures and intentions. Conceiving of Russian life almost as an ancient tragedy, it extirpates from the black earth the entire developed root system of a psychologism of which Russia has always been proud, and throws it over a neighbor's fence. And it abandons in the heated, burnt-out steppe the beautiful She in a red dress, the inarticulate He in his light-colored shirt, and the threatening Husband with the upraised rifle before the fatal shot. No matter how you look at it, this is a powerful variation. But the empty spaces that formed in the place where Vyrypaev excavated so that he could suck up their energy remain only semi-powerful, consisting only of energy that can easily be grabbed. It seems to me that even if Vyrypaev's had pumped with all his might, there would not have been enough energy. But the gesture, I repeat, is very impressive.

svobodnoe plavanieThe rest of the Russian films from 2006 have a “slippery” relationship with melodrama, tucking it into their own frameworks, in which melodrama is more of a guest than a fully empowered host. The brief, lyrical, elliptical episode in Boris Khlebnikov's Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006) is intriguing—a young guy and girl communicate in interjections, habitually masking their mutual interest in each other with vulgarities. But the film stands out for a different reason: in Khlebnikov, the Russian provinces have found their own “early Jarmusch” and their own “Kaurismäki.” The unruffled humor of the story of a life that can only be edited together from long and sweeping takes is simply excellent. Unlike Vyrypaev or Dykhovichnyi, Khlebnikov does not scorn a social context; he is probably much more focused on it than even Smirnova and Balabanov. For him, all of “this”—unemployment, poverty, alienation—is the essential litter out of which he can construct his “poems.” He is categorically not interested in constructing them in some garden of refined aestheticism. At the same time, however, a direct, publicistic denunciation of the guilty parties for what is happening in the Russian heartland—a denunciation that could lead to a conflictual contact between Free Floating and ideology—is also missing from his artistic arsenal.

zhivoiLike Khlebnikov's film, Aleksandr Veledinskii's Alive (Zhivoi, 2006) avoids marking out a thick lyrical line; it merely sketches out the back story of an already crumbled relationship between the main hero, a discharged and disabled soldier (Andrei Chadov), and his girl (Viktoriia Smirnova). And also like Khlebnikov, Veledinskii does not turn away from the reality that surrounds his hero's life, even though the powerfully fantastic assumptions of the plot—ghosts appear in the film—left him such a possibility. Veledinskii's temperament, however, makes him a filmmaker from the gut, rather than a cerebral director. The entire otherworldly story of the meeting of the discharged soldier, who has been hit by a jeep, with his army buddies, who were killed in battle in Chechnia, breathes and exists as nothing out of the ordinary: the ghosts of the buddies, still dressed in their combat jackets, curse without malice and dream of broads; in death's metaphysical space, they sense no threatening secrets—just the steppe with its rises, where it is cold and they desperately want to smoke. In Veledinskii's preceding film, Russian (Russkoe, 2004), based on Eduard Limonov's prose, the main hero (also played by Andrei Chadov) was a courtyard poet with a quick-tempered faith in his personal destiny and his uniqueness. By contrast, in Alive the actor plays one of the thousands of Russian guys who have faced gunfire in Chechnia. The stages of the short road traveled by such a guy from the provinces are as clear as the lines on your palm: to climb off the back of his impoverished and unfortunate single mother; to go somewhere where he can work for any kind of money (if this village even has any kind of work, unlike in Free Floating); to hurl himself into Chechnia (even if he went off on his own volition as a contract soldier, more questions arise about the country he loves, which knows how to rinse simple-hearted brains in the dirty waters of ideology); to remain in Chechnia after his term of service in order to save up enough money for his wedding to a girl who is no longer waiting for him, who works at a stand selling vodka, groceries, and maybe even herself.

To become accustomed to killing and, then, to be killed oneself. Or to return disabled and totally scorched. Did he return alive or merely living? The line separating the two is not marked by a death certificate with a signature and a government seal. These guys do not think about their uniqueness. But the director does and is convinced of it in his film. And he weeps for each of them—through clenched teeth, as men do. In my view, he weeps in the best Russian film of last year, and his weeping contains a cry of denunciation in a restrained-lyrical note, rather than a melodramatic one.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Dmitrii Savel'ev, Moscow


Dmitrii Savel'ev© 2007

Updated: 16 Jul 07