Issue 59 (2018)

Ivan Bolotnikov: Kharms (Lithuania, Macedonia, Russia, 2017)

reviewed by James Norton© 2018

KharmsThe literary biopic is a wretched genre, struggling with the demands of a visual medium for the illuminating representation of an interior creative process and with the difficulty of dramatizing an activity that is sedentary and uneventful. Some writers are unlucky enough to suffer distractions exciting enough to keep a stimulating motion picture going: Daniil Kharms would seem to fit the bill—a gregarious eccentric who lived though the tragic upheavals and intellectual ferment of the first decades of the Soviet Union and perished in one of its darkest hours.

Kharms, born Iuvachov in St Petersburg in 1905, is best known for his absurdist prose and dramatic fragments (see Kharms 1993), largely unpublished until the late Soviet period, but performed by the avant-garde OBERIU (Ob’’edinenie real’mogo iskusstva) group that he founded with the poet Aleksandr Vvedenskii, nicknamed “Shura”, who is Kharms’ sidekick throughout the film. After a brief sensational flowering in the late 1920s, OBERIU was driven underground by the Stalinist regime. Kharms continued to write innocuously for children’s publishers, but he was arrested in 1931 and exiled for a year to Kursk. In August 1941 he was arrested again, and perished in the prison hospital Kresty during the Leningrad Siege in 1942.

The film opens in this monochrome wartime winter as Kharms’ friend Iakov Druskin (Darius Gumauskas) retrieves the writer’s manuscripts from his ruined apartment, saving them for posterity. On the Neva embankment, a couple of strangers trade comic quips and the random cartoon violence that were Kharms’ trademarks, concluding with the mock piety that ends his greatest short story “The Old Woman.” Cut back to Kharms (Wojciech Urbanski), a shaven prisoner on his deathbed observed by guards, before the film flashes back in color to the writer in the tweedy English dandy garb that he favored: Sherlock Holmes was said to be the source of his pseudonym.

KharmsThis prologue establishes the microcosm of the film as a whole. Loosely linked episodes in Kharms’ domestic and professional life are embellished by appropriately fragmentary skits from his work, but reduced to their superficial basics, such as the recurring motif of old women falling from windows, the hapless workman on whose head bricks repeatedly fall, and a clock with no hands. However, what on the page marks Kharms as an original and in context highly audacious talent, offering a parodic response to his time, drawing on commedia dell’arte surrealism echoing colossal state violence, and deploying an insane and subversive narrative algebra—all this is in the film merely slapstick punctuation.

Kharms larks about with the OBERIUty, is rejected by his publishers, and as a charmer pursues his romantic entanglements in pastoral scenes of riverside seduction; but what must have been an eccentric life of feverish industry and confused passion is here rendered as languid and repetitive whimsy. Anna Akhmatova (Tat’iana Shapovalova) has a literal walk-on part, strolling across Palace Square. All is suffused with an idyllic summer glow that denies Kharms’ idiom its harsh and arbitrary comic menace, thanks to luminous cinematography by Sandor Berkesi, whose work impressed in Boris Khlebnikov and Aleksei Popogrebskii’s Road to Koktebel (Koktebel, 2003) and whose black-and-white wartime scenes are more apposite. 

KharmsAny film, even a biopic, should be judged on its own merits and not on fidelity to its ostensible subject, but this Fellini-like entertainment depicting an island of threatened charm feels unsatisfactory as a work in itself and insufficient to the darker frame, relying for its allusive effect on prior knowledge of the writer’s work and associates. The film does rise to the occasion in its moving final scenes of the melancholy search for Kharms by his wife and friends, the revelation of his fate, which is spelled out in detail in the final titles, a darkly spinning clock and contrasting valedictory images of the writer in close up on his deathbed and strolling the sunny Neva embankment in the present day.

These scenes of poetic montage indicate the more substantial, creative ambition that could have brought the project to life. There are other such touches earlier in the film, such as the deliberate anachronisms (at least one assumes they are such) of modern traffic in the background of vistas of St Petersburg, and the powerful use of sinister archive footage of Stalinist processions matted and edited into Kharms’ domestic scenes. But those end titles are the only indication of the oppressive circumstances in which Kharms lived and in which he, Vvedenskii, and his first wife Esther Rusakova went to their deaths.

KharmsThe film’s low budget is evident in its modest, although technically accomplished succession of chamber scenes with a couple of wider shots establishing the grandeur of the city. Kharms is Ivan Bolotnikov’s debut film, and won the Best Cinematography and Screenplay awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2017, the latter no doubt aided by Kharms’ source material and a couple of magnificent poems recited by Vvedenskii (Grigorii Chaban); the film was recently given a free screening at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development during Russian Film Week in London.

While shot in St Petersburg, Kharms is a Russian, Lithuanian and Macedonian co-production. The mostly Russian cast is formed of likable scamps, although little more, led by the Polish actor Urbanski in the title role and the Lithuanian actress Aistė Diržiūtė as his second wife Marina Malich. A lively brass racket of the kind that often accompanies cabaret and absurd drama is performed by a group of musicians from the St Petersburg bands Auktsyon, NOM and Kolibri, together with a score by the Macedonian-Australian composer Soni Petrovski.

KharmsThe film proudly claims to be the first Russian feature film on Daniil Kharms—perhaps unsurprisingly, given the relative obscurity of its subject. But it was in fact preceded in 1987 by another biopic, The Harms Case (Slučaj Harms), directed by the Serbian Slobodan Pešić in the febrile claustrophobia of Belgrade as Milošević rose to power. Kharms labeled some of his texts “cases,” and his spirit is more at home in this atmosphere, as the film, which also mixes art and life, monochrome and color, is a disturbing expressionist masterpiece, beginning with a prologue in which a scientist lectures the viewer beneath a portrait of Stalin before advancing into a grotesque shadow world. Equally successful was a stage adaptation of Kharms’ work, Out of a House Walked a Man… created by Theatre de Complicité in London in 1994 under the direction of that disciple of Soviet experimental theatre, Simon McBurney.

Revisiting a similar milieu, Aleksandr Shein’s VMaiakovskii (forthcoming 2018) deals with the eponymous poet through the messy conceit of a theatre troupe preparing a play about his life. The literary biopic soldiers on, scheming new ways to solve its inherent problems.

James Norton

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Kharms, Lithuania, Macedonia, Russia, 2017
Color and B/W; 95 minutes
Director: Ivan Bolotnikov
Script: Ivan Bolotnikov, Sergei Solov’ev
Cinematography: Sándor Berkesi
Production Design: Marina Nikolaeva, Vladimir Svetozarov
Costume: Larisa Konnikova 
Music: Soni Petrovski
Sound: Mikhail Nikolaev
Editing: Tat’iana Kuzmicheva
Cast: Wojciech Urbanski, Aistė Diržiūtė, Darius Gumauskas, Artem Semakin, Tat’iana Shapovalova, Grigorii Chaban, Aleksandr Bashirov, Nikita Kukushkin
Producers: Andrei Sigle, Eva Norviliene, Sasho Pavlovsky
Production: Manufaktura Production, Proline Film, Tremora

Ivan Bolotnikov: Kharms (Lithuania, Macedonia, Russia, 2017)

reviewed by James Norton© 2018

Updated: 2018