Issue 42 (2013)

Karen Shakhnazarov: Love in the USSR (Liubov’ v SSSR, 2013)

reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2013

liubov v sssrFor the past twenty years, Russian directors have been hard at work to imagine and re-imagine the Soviet past. They began by wrestling with the darkest of Soviet periods, garnering international attention by addressing Stalinism in productions such as Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem, 1994) and Pavel Chukhrai’s The Thief (Vor, 1997). In the past decade, the Thaw years have also received publicity at home and abroad with Pavel Chukhrai’s movie A Driver for Vera (Voditel’ dlia Very, 2004) and especially with Valerii Todorovskii’s musical Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008). It seems that the Russian movie industry is now moving up the chronological ladder to recapture the not-too-distant Brezhnev-era years of “Stagnation.” However different in genre and tone, all these period dramas and musicals aim to find either a heroic or romantic undertone in the times gone by. Regardless of whether these productions focus on the vibrancy of a rebellious civil society (as in Stiliagi), heroic daredevils (as in Burnt by the Sun), or the regime’s spiritual deadness (as in Driver for Vera), these celluloid recreations of Soviet history have increasingly denoted an almost triumphalist tone. These movies either entirely sidestep the question of personal and collective responsibility by celebrating those who resisted the regime, or they ignore larger political/ideological issues by fetishizing the material culture of a bygone era. Despite the crimes, corruption, and misery of days past, Russian filmmakers excavate and emphasize human dignity of the Stalinist past while accentuating the blissful innocence of the post-Stalinist era; although much of the Soviet past is dark, the Russian film industry often reimagines the Russian dimensions so as to be worthy of mourning. While this cinema of nostalgia certainly does not wish to resurrect the Soviet past, it colors aspects of it (especially the Russian ones) in pink hues, self-consciously searching for a silver lining. The easiest way to find the bright spot is to separate the political and the personal with surgical precision, pretending as if much of the populace lived far removed from official ideology and rhetoric. The two most recent examples of this trend, Hipsters and Driver for Vera, seem to be bent more on recreating the era’s material world than presenting a thoughtful framework for conceptualizing the period’s dynamics. The film under review here—Karen Shakhnazarov’s Love in the USSR (Liubov’ v SSSR)—unfortunately deepens this trend.

shakhnazarovLove in the USSR is a redacted and re-titled version of Shakhnazarov’s own production Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaia imperiia, 2008). Several of the scenes were deleted, the remaining ones rearranged, and new music was added. Judging from the interview Shakhnazarov gave about the redaction process, the musical score motivated and drove the reformulation of the film. He stated: “I’m not quite sure how the idea came up. Kostia (Konstantin Shevelev, the movie’s musical director [M.D.]) wrote an excellent melody which did not receive adequate play in Vanished Empire. It seemed to me that since we developed the music score, it also made sense to come up with a new film version.” According to Shakhnazarov, the music informed the tighter focus on the protagonists’ love triangle. The coming-of-age story involving three young Moscow university students in 1974 does, at moments, resound with lyrical tones. At the same time, the nostalgia for the period, expressed as it is exclusively through the fetishization of the Soviet byt—anything from fashion to interior design—still reads as more of a eulogy for the Soviet way of life than a romantic drama. If, as the new title suggests, Shakhnazarov wanted to identify the specificities of love in the Soviet Union, he misses the mark because he holds on so firmly to entrenching his protagonists in the material world of the 1970s. It is evident that Shakhnazarov did not aim to use the external world as a secondhand for the characters’ inner lives (as did the Italian Neorealists as well as the French and British New Wavers during the 1950s and 1960s). What remains is a trite and somewhat contrived narrative of a love triangle that plays second fiddle to the scenery. In other words, Shakhnazarov’s compulsion to detail the antiquarian specificities of Soviet life, ironically, prevent this vanished past from coming to life.

liubov v sssrAs Lilya Kaganovsky points out in her KinoKultura review of Vanished Empire, this film waxes nostalgic about a time gone by, or, more specifically, mourns those who, unawares, watched the empire vanish without noticing its slow demise. Vanished Empire, more than its redacted version, openly evokes a nationalistic tone as it suggests that the mythic West that Soviet citizens emulated and desired was nothing but a toxic mirage. The nationalistic framework is less palpable in Love in the USSR. The opaqueness of the ideological message, however, makes the redacted version more insidious because the viewer is left with a deceptively reassuring sensation that perhaps the 1970s in the USSR were a simpler, gentler, and more innocent time.
 
It is a tricky proposition to deal with a history which is not yet past; recent documentaries—such as Jessica Gorter’s 900 Days and Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika—make this point abundantly clear. At the same time, German and Romanian filmmakers in particular have found inventive ways of self-consciously dealing with the emotional baggage of nostalgia. Most famously, Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 tragicomedy Goodbye, Lenin! and Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days address the communist past in distinct ways but, in effect, ask tough questions about how to remember what was a complex and troublesome time. By contrast, Love in the USSR is a testimony to little else but the director’s overwrought nostalgia. Although the redacted Vanished Empire presents an interesting point of departure for thinking about the collapse of the USSR, it certainly neglects to offer any thought-provoking answers about the past or how to go on remembering it.


Marko Dumančić
Western Kentucky University

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Love in the USSR, Russia, 2012
Color, 89 minutes
Director and producer: Karen Shakhnazarov
Scriptwriters: Sergei Rokotov and Evgenii Nikishov
Director of Photography: Shandor Berkeshi
Music: Konstantin Shevelev
Production Design: Liudmila Kusakova
Cast:  Aleksander Liapin, Lidiia Miliuzina, Ivan Kupreienko, Egor Baranovskii, Ianina Kalganova, Armen Dzhigarkhanian
Production: Mosfilm

Karen Shakhnazarov: Love in the USSR (Liubov’ v SSSR, 2013)

reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2013

Updated: 29 Sep 13