Issue 52 (2016)

Stanislav Govorukhin: The End of a Great Era (Konets prekrasnoi epokhi, 2015)

reviewed by Tim Harte© 2016

end of great eraStanislav Govorukhin’s The End of a Great Era opens with a retrospective flourish. Harkening back to the Soviet sixties, this opening overture features documentary and newsreel footage from the period, whereby Govorukhin offers fleeting glimpses of some of the era’s biggest stars and cultural luminaries: Yuri Gagarin, Tatiana Samoilova, Federico Fellini, Yves Montand, Elizabeth Taylor, and Van Cliburn, among others, all flash by in a glamorous whirl. The film’s eye-catching, nostalgic start also includes documentary material used some fifty years earlier by Marlen Khutsiev in the late Thaw-era film Ilich’s Gate (Zastava Il’icha, 1963). Shots from Ilich’s Gate of Soviet bard Bulat Okudzhava singing and Bela Akhmadulina reciting her poetry provide Govorukhin with a convenient cinematic bridge back to a bygone time.  And continuing in the Khutsiev vein, Govorukhin intercuts familiar scenes of Vladimir Vysotskii on stage with various shots of the crowd, where a contemplative young man—who will soon emerge as Govorukhin’s main protagonist—sits listening (in Ilich’s Gate, central characters are similarly filmed attending public performances). Yet the heady spirit of cultural openness and Western-leaning cosmopolitanism will suddenly evaporate on screen, as Govorukhin cuts to famous footage of Nikita Khrushchev attending the 1962 “Manezh” exhibit in Moscow, where the Soviet leader expressed his distaste for non-conformist art. This Manezh event and subsequent opprobrium from Khrushchev would mark the unofficial end of the post-Stalinist Thaw, as a return to stricter censorship quickly dampened the nation’s artistic mood.

end of great eraIt is into the post-Thaw era of the late 1960s that Govorukhin places the subsequent narrative of The End of a Great Era. A filmmaker who got his start in the 1960s (co-directing, most notably, Vysotskii in the 1967 The Vertical [Vertikal]), Govorukhin has returned to his roots with a measured fondness for the social milieu and cultural trends of the late sixties, where even amidst the era’s authoritarian warts and all, art somehow prevailed. An adaptation of Sergei Dovlatov’s The Compromise (Kompromiss, 1983), a series of stories based on Dovlatov’s experience working as a journalist in Tallinn, Estonia in the early 1970s, The End of a Great Era probes one writer’s experience on the relatively liberal edge of the Soviet Empire. The title of the film, taken from a Joseph Brodsky poem (and a collection of verse of the same name), provides yet another indication of the filmmaker’s unabashed nostalgia for the period and its artistic paragons. And Govorukhin does indeed find ironic Dovlatov-esque compromise in the “great era” of the late 1960s. Shot in black and white, the film celebrates the gray areas of Soviet culture, where the hypocrisy and repressive tactics of the state fail to repress the creative spirit of the day.

Although Dovlatov’s Compromise transpires in the early 1970s, Govorukhin has taken some fictional liberties by beginning his narrative in 1965, when his protagonist Andrei Lentulov (Ivan Kolesnikov) is persuaded over drinks and zakuski at a Leningrad watering hole (a classic riumochnaia) to make a sudden professional move to Tallinn. Lentulov barely has time to meet his new colleagues at the newspaper Soviet Estonia (Sovetskaia Estoniia) and catch a glimpse of one attractive female co-worker (Svetlana Khodchenkova) before Govorukhin jumps ahead to 1969, whereupon Andrei sports a respectable tie and exudes a healthy confidence in his journalistic abilities, even as they continue to cause him trouble with his caustic editor (Boris Kamorzin).

end of great eraWhile Govorukhin, who also wrote the screenplay for The End of a Great Era, tinkers considerably with Dovlatov’s Compromise, he does manage to include in the film a number of the anecdotal “compromises” comprising Dovlatov’s collection, and in certain scenes he transposes Dovlatov to screen word for respectful word.  Included in the film, for instance, are a series of brief episodes in which Lentulov encounters various forms of Soviet censorship and bureaucratic rigidity. Reprimanded for not listing the names of various countries in their proper “ideological” order (from Dovlatov’s first “compromise”) or for writing about a tailor who, he is subsequently informed, collaborated with the Nazis and works in a theater run by a homosexual (Dovlatov’s seventh “compromise”), Lentulov must maintain a detached, ironic perspective on the professional pressure and ideological myopia he continually encounters in Tallinn.  An aggressively curious police chief will confiscate his Chekhov volume (which conceals a copy of the Russian émigré journal Facets [Grani], an off-limits periodical that published Dovlatov’s work), his unsanctioned manuscript (Dovlatov’s The Zone [Zona]) will be seized from the apartment of a dissenting acquaintance, and he will have to endure an official grilling from all of his colleagues at Soviet Estonia for his ideological waywardness.

Several of Dovlatov’s more humorous “compromises” receive extended treatment in The End of a Great Era. One instance is Lentulov’s assignment of finding an appropriate newborn to designate as the 400,000th citizen of Tallinn for a Soviet Estonia piece commemorating liberation day in the Estonian capital. Consulting with a maternity hospital’s head doctor (one of the many memorable minor characters in the film), Lentulov initially assumes that a child born to an Estonian woman and Ethiopian man will suit the ideological aims of the newspaper, yet racial concerns quickly get in the way, just as Lentulov’s next choice for the honor, the newborn son of a Jewish colleague at the newspaper, also fails to suffice. Only the son of a Russian-Estonian working class couple appeases Lentulov’s editor, who hopes Lentulov can convince the parents to give the child the rare Estonian name Lembit. Alcohol-filled negotiations between Lentulov and the father ensue, and the escapade concludes, in fine Dovlatovian fashion, at the police station.

end of great eraAnother detailed “compromise” that finds its way into The End of a Great Era occurs in the Estonian countryside, where Lentulov and an intemperate photo-journalist (Fyodor Dobronravov) travel to do a report on an Estonian collective farm worker, Linda Peips, who has broken cow-milking records. The newspaper intends to produce this report as a missive on Peips’s behalf to Leonid Brezhnev, who will respond in kind with effusive praise for such an impressive agricultural accomplishment. Andrei and his photographer, meanwhile, find themselves in a well-stocked rural resort with two young women, one of whom seduces a slightly befuddled Andrei by telling him he looks like Gregory Peck (in Compromise, it is Omar Sharif, not Peck, but the point remains that this very young Estonian woman in the countryside has a better grasp of Western culture than the Soviet cosmopolitan Dovlatov/Lebedev). Before Andrei and his colleague can complete the Peips piece, however, they have already received a congratulatory response from Brezhnev. Such was Soviet efficiency in the era of stagnation.

Dovlatov’s unique sense of humor, it must be said, resonates more on page than on screen, but the crisp cinematography of The End of a Great Era and the tender atmosphere that Govorukhin consistently evokes in the film compensate for what is lost when adapting Dovlatov to celluloid. As Lentulov/Dovlatov, the telegenic young actor Ivan Kolesnikov does not quite suit the sixties milieu in which he lands in The End of a Great Era, and he does not always convince as a Dovlatov-esque, alcohol-infused journalist (and he is indeed more Peck than Sharif), but the actor’s contemporary looks do help establish an important link to the present day.  Hence, the question inevitably arises as to what relevance The End of a Great Era has for today’s Russia under Vladimir Putin? It remains difficult to say, especially given Govorukhin’s checkered political past (having been sharply critical of Putin in the early 2000s, the filmmaker created controversy in 2011 by aligning himself with Putin and the United Russia party).  But one cannot help seeing a bit of Putin in the Khrushchev footage at the start of the film, and one also wonders whether Govorukhin has chosen to adapt Dovlatov’s Compromise to screen as a way of alluding to his own ethical compromises during the Putin era. Nevertheless, just as Dovlatov went to Estonia to find relative refuge in a quiet Western-leaning republic of the Soviet Union, Govorukhin seems to have escaped to the late 1960s as a way of extracting himself from the political vagaries of contemporary Russia under Putin. The results are not always appropriately great, but the artistic spirit of the bygone Soviet era perseveres.

Tim Harte
Bryn Mawr College

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The End of a Great Era, 2015
Black and White, 98 min.
Director: Stanislav Govorukhin
Scriptwriter: Stanislav Govorukhin
Cinematography: Gennadii Kariuk
Music: Artem Vasil’ev
Cast: Ivan Kolesnikov, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Fedor Dobronravov, Boris Kamorzin, Dmitrii Astrakhan, Lembit Ul’fsak, and Sergei Garmash
Producer: Stanislav Govorukhin and Ekaterina Maskina
Production: Mosfilm

Stanislav Govorukhin: The End of a Great Era (Konets prekrasnoi epokhi, 2015)

reviewed by Tim Harte© 2016