Issue 26 (2009)

Anton Barshchevskii: Heavy Sand (Tiazhelyi pesok, 2008)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2009

pesokThe publication of Anatolii Rybakov’s Heavy Sand in 1979 was both a literary sensation and an event of political relevance, debated in the context of the “third wave” of emigration and underlying anti-Semitic tendencies in the USSR. The novel, one of the few works of non-samizdat literature to thematize the Holocaust, became a national and international bestseller and proved eye-opening for younger generations of Soviet readers who were unaware of Boris Gorbatov’s The Undefeated (1943), who had not seen Mark Donskoi’s 1945 cinematic masterpiece based on that novel, nor heard of Evgenii Evtushenko’s poetic outcry “Babii Iar” (1961). Rybakov, who had built a reputation as a respectable middle-brow author of youth tales and industrial novels, enhanced his trademark blend of historical facts and heroic romance with a note of personal pain und rare narrative consistency that lifted Heavy Sand to a new level of artistry.

Thirty years later, debuting director Anton Barshchevskii decided to provide his large-scale adaptation of Heavy Sand (funded by the Russian government and the Moscow city administration) with a new contemporary framework: Ol’ga L’vovna Rakhlenko, the last surviving leaf of the once blossoming Ivanovskii-Rakhlenko family tree, is asked to give her consent to the TV adaptation of her life story. A resident of the idyllic city of Basel in Switzerland, Ol’ga accompanies the viewer through all of the film’s sixteen parts as the first-person narrator, commenting in irregular intervals on the events and their aftermath. The rather neutral, distanced framework was apparently meant to authenticate the story and establish a bridge to our days; it is the first of many changes to Rybakov’s novel, profoundly altering the tone of the original which is narrated by an old shoemaker—the son of the main protagonists—whose wise yet distinctly non-intellectual narration remains skaz-like throughout, harsh yet compassionate, candid and poignant.

pesokThe film’s first seven parts mainly focus on the love story between Rakhil’ Rakhlenko, a teenage beauty in the Ukrainian provincial town of Snovsk, and Swiss medical student Jacob (Iakov) Ivanovskii, whose Jewish father hails from the area and who takes his son on a fateful sentimental journey into the past. Jacob/Iakov is so struck by Rakhil’ that he decides to marry her, regardless of the consequences. His protestant Swiss mother and converted father are shocked but ultimately acquiesce. Rakhil’ moves to Switzerland and later returns with Iakov to Ukraine. The first major catastrophe coming their way, World War I, causes a temporary separation between the Eastern and Western family branches, until the ensuing Bolshevik revolution renders the divide permanent. 

pesokAnton Barshchevskii and his team—largely the same that adapted the late Vasilii Aksenov’s Moscow Saga into a 22-part miniseries in 2004—made visible efforts to recreate the atmosphere of a mestechko at the beginning of the 20th century. Entire streets with houses and barns were erected and filled with countless pieces of period furniture and utensils. (The characters’ manners and speech, however, are quite modern, which needs to be mentioned because Rybakov’s novel devotes considerable space to the description of traditional attitudes and behavior and the transformations they subsequently underwent). Regarding historical details, the depiction of the 1920s and 1930s appears less precise than that of the 1910s; thus, in part 8 the “House of Culture” where a concert takes place, displays neither a Stalin nor a Lenin portrait—something unthinkable for the 1930s. The overall loving, albeit at times idealizing reconstruction of the past lays the foundation for the emotional trauma when this world of communal trust and support is crushed in 1941, with the German military entering Snovsk (part 12). In the preceding parts, the filmmakers created a gallery of “types,” secondary personae ranging from a gentlemanly hairdresser whose shop serves as the daily meeting place to exchange news and gossip, to a rambling retired sergeant, a romantic hotel owner, and countless others. When these men and women in the last four parts are humiliated, tortured, and killed by the Nazis, the viewer associates their names and faces with personalities and individual stories that form the most lasting impression of this film.   

pesokRussian critics were not particularly kind to Barshchevskii’s adaptation, specifically pointing out the liberties taken with plotlines and newly invented episodes. Such criticism neglects the fact that in certain respects, this miniseries reinstated historical truths and depicted elements of the story that no censor in the 1970s would have permitted. For example, the role of religion had to be deemphasized by Rybakov but is given its due weight in the film. In a number of interviews, the director pointed out that television has its own dramatic rules which differ from those of literature. However, motivational logic and dramatic plausibility do belong to miniseries’ rules as well, and in a number of cases Barshchevskii and his coauthors are in violation of both. For example, there was no need to invent a long-winded episode in part 3 about Iakov consulting an Austrian psychoanalyst, “Dr. Greid” (i.e. Freud), who analyzes him at his father’s request (!) and diagnoses the obvious—the young man is madly in love. This pseudo-Freud—who, by the way, stunningly resembles the Viennese original—even promises to talk some sense into Iakov Ivanovskii’s parents!

pesokJust like Moscow Saga, Heavy Sand was a “family project”—the director’s mother, Natal’ia Violina, wrote the script, his sister Dar’ia served as creative producer, and his father, Dmitrii Barshchevskii, as producer (although this time father and son switched roles: the older Barschevskii had directed Moscow Saga, while Anton produced it). For a directorial debut, the end result is certainly presentable. The film contains unique visual moments captured by Krasimir Kostov’s solid camera work; indeed, some sequences are of a touching poetic beauty. Several episodes, almost serving as counterweights to the many superfluous lengths and digressions, manage to achieve considerable emotional effects. Still, quite a few opportunities were wasted, and not just in comparison to the novel whose richness and psychological differentiation has often been reduced to simplistic solutions. In several of its 16 parts, the film loses momentum and almost disintegrates, indicating a lack of pacing that is not even tolerable in the slower genre of television miniseries.  It seems that such an enormous, complex project should have been entrusted to a sure-footed director—or at least co-director—who could have challenged the entire cast to more accomplished performances.

pesokFor, the most problematic aspect of Barshchevskii’s film is the uneven quality of acting. The difficulties begin with Iurii Tsurilo as the family patriarch Avraam Rakhlenko. Although on the surface he does convey the required gravitas and authority, the actor remains static and bland, without the larger-than-life temper and passion emphasized by Rybakov. Irina Lachina, who portrays Avraam’s daughter Rakhil’ from teenage beauty to martyred silver-haired grandmother, is unable to express the youthful sweetness and purity for which her character is famed; instead, when Iakov courts her, she comes across as an experienced, self-assured woman. (Still, Lachina’s acting, whose theater pedigree is hard to overlook, becomes more convincing in the later parts when she portrays the concerned matriarch). Aleksandr Arsent’ev gives Iakov Ivanovskii dignity and decency but little else. This precarious colorlessness of the three main characters is, to a certain degree, compensated for by a much stronger array of supporting roles. Mikhail Efremov as the alcoholic lawyer Tereshchenko is a scene stealer, contributing one of the film’s truly masterful character portrayals; Emmanuil Vitorgan as Iakov’s father, Dr. Ivanovskii, believably embodies a cultured expatriate torn between loyalty to his origins and to his wife; Vladimir Iumatov is chilling as Nazi commander Shtabel’—to name but three outstanding supporting performances. Other episodic characters are far less impressive, though. One reason for their underwhelming acting, apart from the excessive length of several episodes, may be the verbose, cliché-ridden dialogues; indeed, even experienced actors and actresses encounter awkward moments trying to breathe life into them. Aleksandr Zhurbin’s music helps to repair the damage somewhat and is really effective during the opening and closing credits. Especially in a miniseries, however, a more distinct leitmotif cluster would have been vital and could have helped Heavy Sand overcome some of its structural shortcomings.

The many critical points notwithstanding, this screen version of Heavy Sand has preserved a sufficient degree of the novel’s pathos and humanity, allowing the viewer to witness the violent transformation and annihilation of an entire community and its milieu, embedding a great love story and unimaginable tragedy. When the crew, in the film’s concluding part, lays flowers at a monument to the victims of the German occupation—a monument that was erected at their own initiative—the fictitious story blends with reality, generating an emotionally intense conclusion.

Peter Rollberg
George Washington University

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Heavy Sand. Russia, 2008
16 parts, 800 minutes.
Director: Anton Barshchevskii
Screenplay: Natal’ia Violina and Leonid Zorin, based on Anatolii Rybakov’s novel
DoP: Krasimir Kostov
Composer: Aleksandr Zhurbin
Cast: Avraam Rakhlenko (Iurii Tsurilo); Rakhil’ Rakhlenko (Irina Lachina); Iakov Ivanovskii (Aleksandr Arsent’ev); Leon Ivanovskii (Emmanuil Vitorgan); Shtabel’ (Vladimir Iumatov); Anton Karlovich (Andrei Smirnov); Le-Kurt (Aleksandr Lazarev); Dol’skii (Iurii Solomin); Polish hotel owner (Larisa Udovichenko); pilot (Dmitrii Kharat’ian); Olga Budina; Vladimir Vdovichenkov; Aleksandr Baluev and many others.
General Producer: Dmitrii Barshchevskii
Creative Producer: Dar’ia Violina

Anton Barshchevskii: Heavy Sand (Tiazhelyi pesok, 2008)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2009

Updated: 01 Oct 09