Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50

Sergei Iurskii: Chernov/Chernoff (1990)

reviewed by Nina Tsyrkun© 2015

Place Changes

Sergei Iurskii, the remarkable actor and theater director, author of several books, rarely remembers his directorial debut in cinema with the film Chernov/Chernoff. An extremely exacting artist, he probably does not rank this film among his unconditional successes. In effect, that’s how it is: against the background of Iurskii’s other achievements, from an artistic point of view this picture does not look like a success. It appeared among a number of debuts at the threshold of the 1980s and 1990s when the unspoken rule that only specially trained people could shoot a film was annulled and a number of actors, cinematographers, artists and film critics and simple people from street who managed to raise money rushed to master this trade.

chernoff If we leave aside a few films by outstanding directors, debuts are, as a rule, characterized by one feature: each is the sum of the author’s accumulated life experience. And often, they are stylistically an imprint of the director’s favorite filmmaker. That’s what happened here too. The film’s hero Aleksandr Petrovich Chernov is maybe not an actor like Iurskii (that would be too self-revealing), but he is also a creative man: an architect; and his double Pierre is a conductor. Iurskii gave Chernov his own treasured love for the railway, turning the train into a fetish. Stylistically Chernov/Chernoff reminds us of Mikhail Shveitser’s films, where Iurskii played eccentric roles: David Margulis in Time, forward! (Vremia, vpered!, 1965), Ostap Bender in Golden Calf (Zolotoi telenok, 1968), and the Improvisator in Little Tragedies (Malen’kie tragedii, 1979). And his actors play just like he played in Shveitser’s films: exalted, thickly theatrical, entering and exiting the frame as if it were a stage. If such exaltation is justified by the Mediterranean passions of the conductor with the circus name Arnold Arnold (played by Iurskii himself), then that looks ridiculous, say, for the young Moscow architect Konstantin Shliapin (Sergei Makovetskii), one of ringleaders in the struggle against the inert boss, furiously calling and waving around his arms: “We should fight!.. Kick out his teeth!” By the way, the text was also written in the style of ennobled speech which had little in common with everyday language.

Even the conversation with the son sounds pompous, from both sides. The words decipher situations, like in the theatre, where the facial expressions are not seen by the audience. All this, as well as the participation of many recognized people (including non-professional actors, such as the director Grigorii Gurvich, or Igor’ Ugol’nikov—best known at the time as the author and producer of the comic television program Both-here! (Oba-na!)—is reminiscent of an acting skit.

Nevertheless, if Iurskii’s film did not leave a mark in the history of Russian cinema as an artistic product, it is interesting and representative from another point of view: as graphic evidence of the time.

The story “Chernov” was written by Sergei Iurskii, actor of the Leningrad Bolshoi Drama Theater, between 1972 and 1978, and published in 1989; it was adapted for the screen by the author in 1990. The story was written at a difficult time in Iurskii’s life, when a whole set of problems converged: the conflict with Leningrad’s Party heads, the special attention of the KGB for the complicated relationship with the theater’s artistic director Georgii Tovstonogov, who did not like it when actors strove for directors’ laurels, and Iurskii had just such ambitions. As a result, Iurskii left both the city and the theater, and moved to Moscow.

chernoff The action unfolds on the threshold of the 1970s and 1980s: visually it is marked by a portrait of a party functionary who looks like Andropov (General Secretary from 1982-84), a man with the dead face, whose lifeless eyes peers at what occurs in the architecture bureau where Chernov works. Maybe this nuance was inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, or its film adaptation by Jack Clayton (1974), which Iurskii could have seen. There is a poster with the image of the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg; it is a key motif symbolizing the all-seeing eyes of an omnipresent god. In Iurskii’s film it is the all-seeing eye of a big brother, observing what occurs in this collective.

The film was released under the title Chernov/Chernoff, and this is important. The story about a man of the 1970s, who dreamed of freedom and another life which was embodied in the iron soul of the toy iron railway, has turned into the story of a dream that has come true. The film’s title, like a surname on a business card, intends to provide information about a world to be discovered, a world which can be deciphered, uncovered for the spectator of the perestroika period that real and terribly deep duality which had been hidden and drowned in the story written during a more hopeless time. The unreal dream of abroad is no longer the image of inaccessible freedom. The story was about the death of a soul strangled by a vacuum of time: this was largely a political, ideological statement. The film shifted from an ideological space into the space of objective reality; the suicide of the architect Aleksandr Chernov, who finally got out to his desired Barcelona for an international congress and threw himself out of a window of a comfortable hotel on May Day 1978, is not the desperate gesture of a man who regrets his own, ruined life, but a metaphor for the fatal unattainability of freedom and the eternal hell of solitude.

However, back then, in 1990, this was not felt so clearly, although maybe it could be anticipated. In the euphoria of new opportunities, we pity the poor Chernov who, under the pressure of circumstances committed several small betrayals, and we are annoyed about his weakness: in fact, everything could have been put right, he could have started life from scratch. Ten or fifteen years would pass, and it has become clear that the dream, which has become reality, is only a change of place of the components in a sentence, as a result of which you may gain something, but you have already lost the privilege of dreaming. As with the children’s toy railway: wherever it leaves from, you always return to the point of departure because of the circular setting of the tracks.

Only a year later The Double Life of Veronique (La double vie de Veronique, 1991) by Krzysztof Kieslowski would reach the screens, which surprisingly duplicated Iurskii’s plan. The Polish and French Veronique are the same Aleksandr Chernov and Pierre Ch., only the Polish director, who by the time had become a French director, outlined the French woman in more detail and made her less illusory than the Russian filmmaker, for whom the foreign Pierre is more of a dream than reality, a reflection of the dreams of a Soviet architect.

The critic Gennadii Maslovskii called Iurskii’s film a masterpiece, and to be understood correctly, he deciphered chef d’oeuvre, the work of a master. And indeed, everything is precise, rational and dissected here, as is typical for Iurskii: the symmetry of the composition, the symmetry of fates, the parallel lives converging at one point: Aleksandr Chernov becomes the hostage of a system, Pierre the hostage of terrorists, and the international terrorist Khalaf and the world famous conductor Arnold perish in the explosion of a bomb.

Among other things, the debutant filmmaker and skilled actor Iurskii discovered here the actor in the accomplished filmmaker Andrei Smirnov with his European dispassionateness and Russian lyricism, which he divided between his double-character Aleksandr and Pierre. 

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Comment on this article on Facebook

Chernov/Chernoff, Soviet Union, 1990
Director: Sergei Iurskii
Scriptwriter: Sergei Iurskii, Anatolii Grebnev
DoP: Mikhail Agranovich
Composer: Ekaterina Chemberdzhi
Production Design: Aleksandr Boim, Aleksandr Makarov
Cast: Andrei Smirnov, Elena Iakovleva, Oleg Basilashvili, Mikhail Danilov, Elena Koreneva, Sergei Iurskii, Dmitrii Bul’ba.
Producer: Nikolai Garo
Production: Tovarishch (Mosfilm)

Sergei Iurskii: Chernov/Chernoff (1990)

reviewed by Nina Tsyrkun© 2015

Updated: 11 Oct 15