Èl'dar Riazanov: Andersen, Life without Love (Andersen: Zhizn' bez liubvi, 2006)

reviewed by Arlene Forman© 2007

In his twenty fifth film in a career that spans half a century, Èl'dar Riazanov has created a big-budget, star-studded extravaganza that features musical numbers and special effects. Andersen: Life without Love is a decided departure for a director who for the first time tackles a non-Russian tale. Shot during the international celebration of the bicentennial of Hans Christian Andersen, this film is unquestionably the most lavish (albeit belated) Russian contribution to those activities and offers viewers a portrait of a very melancholy Dane. [1]

This is not the first time that the creator of Soviet cinematic fables has been inspired by the Danish master. As fans of Office Romance (Sluzhebnyi roman, 1977) well recall, Riazanov gracefully transplanted “The Ugly Duckling” into the rather barren soil of the Brezhnev era, preserving both the spirit and charm of the original. In the 1970s, Riazanov and long-time co-author Èmil' Braginskii had also toyed with the notion of a film that would combine Andersen's life with his fiction, but the project was soon shelved. Over twenty years later, Riazanov returned to his concept and (with a little financial help from powerful friends) brought it to fruition. The result, a highly stylized piece containing elements of slapstick, melodrama, fairy tale, musical, biography, and adult feature, Andersen has sparked ardent debate over its meaning and merits.

The range of opinion may be due, in part, to the film's unusual structure. Three actors portray Andersen at various stages of his life: as a young child in Odense; as the youth who leaves home to seek fame and fortune in Copenhagen; and as the older, established writer, well-known in the capital and beyond. Scenes from Andersen's life are not presented in chronological order rather they are stitched together with adaptations of his tales in a non-linear, associative fashion. This is further complicated by the fact that the principals play leading roles in both: veteran actor Sergei Migitsko stars as the elder Andersen, the teacher in “The Shadow,” and the king in “Galoshes of Happiness”; relative newcomer Stanislav Riadinskii plays the young artist, plus the prince in “The Swineherd,” the soldier in “The Tinder-Box,” and the shadow in the eponymous tale. In the same way, Alena Babenko creates the fabulist's long-time confidante Henrietta Wolf and the queen in “Galoshes of Happiness”; and Evgeniia Kriukova plays the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, as well as princesses in “The Shadow” and “The Swineherd.” Not surprisingly, some viewers find it difficult to negotiate this complex, disjointed phantasmagoria.

Examining how the film came to the screen may also help to explain its problematic nature. In honor of his seventy fifth birthday in 2002, Riazanov was invited to tea with Vladimir Putin. Having just finished Key to the Bedroom (Kliuch ot spal'ni, 2003), the director had publicly declared it to be his final film. All this changed when the President asked him about future plans and the director recalled the Andersen project. Putin's interest in the concept and his promise of financial support banished any thoughts of retirement. [2] This auspicious beginning notwithstanding, it would take the director three more years before he could start shooting. Financial backing was difficult to obtain and, as Riazanov searched for investors, he immersed himself in Anderseniana and began to develop the film's underlying structure.[3] At that time he found a co-author for the screenplay in Iraklii Kvirikadze, whose prior work promised to bring an absurdist, madcap element to the endeavor. The completed script was then sent to the President, along with a request for further assistance. Weeks passed, plans stalled, until a gift from Gazprom provided enough funding to cover half the film's budget. Rather than wait any longer, Riazanov decided to film what he could with what he had, hoping that the first piece would attract new backers. This risk, while bold, may have not been fortuitous: not knowing whether Andersen would appear on the big screen or the small, the director wound up shooting footage for two media with disparate aesthetics. [4]

Andersen: Life without Love premiered on the big screen on 1 December 2006, launching the seventy second season of Moscow's Central House of Cinema. Advance publicity helped to create so much public interest that two screenings were scheduled. The evening began in festive anticipation of a jubilee film, long in the making, that would bring together the talents of composer Aleksei Rybnikov and choreographer Vladimir Vasil'ev, as well as a host of stars of stage and screen. At the end of the screenings passions still ran high, albeit in another direction. Some viewers were scandalized, some confused, others just plain angry at the treatment of “Our Andersen.”[5] At the very least, the film provoked very intense reactions. Praised as a daring take on the biopic that captures the spirit of the artist (think Milos Forman's Amadeus [1984] or Ken Russell's Lisztomania [1975] and The Music Lovers [1970] ), it was also dismissed as a tasteless dinosaur with the aesthetics and ideology of a perestroika film.[6]

Curiously, the film may be both. From the start Riazanov obliterates the traditional conceit of separating fact and fiction: in the first scene the child Hans visits his grandfather in a mental institution and receives a blessing from a “good man with a halo.” Perhaps this is another inmate, perhaps a truly heavenly figure, but when the face under the halo belongs to Viacheslav Tikhonov, viewers cannot help but ponder the implications of Shtirlits as God.[7] This questioning continues as the director pulls out other big guns, figuratively (Oleg Tabakov in the role of Andersen's teacher and state censor) and literally (the Copenhagen home of Admiral Wolf is constructed like a ship, complete with a crew and working cannon). Given the film's high level of quotation (the sailors and the canon hyperconsciously reference Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin [1925]), the viewer is bombarded with potentially portentous moments within the fictive biography and the consciously defamiliarized tales.

In his most provocative revision, “The Swineherd,” Riazanov explodes the latent adult content in a manner that verges on soft porn, while at the same time invoking images from Soviet children's films made in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. The style of the fanciful settings and colorful (albeit skimpy) costumes owe much to Nadezhda Kosheverova's musical fantasy A Very Old Story (Staraia, staraia, skazka, 1968). [8] Her film featured the young actor Oleg Dal' (1941-1981), who portrayed Andersen (the Puppeteer) and one of his characters (the Soldier of “The Tinder-Box”) as embodiments of Thaw ideals?competent, strong, handsome, independent, able to challenge authority, withstanding misfortune but persevering. Exploiting Riadinskii's physical resemblance to Dal', Riazanov distorts and contorts his young artist, displacing the once beautiful swan with a very ugly duckling. Allusions to this and other celluloid Andersens of that period surely resonate (for better or worse) with those adults who cherished these films in their youth.[9] Now stripped of their humor, optimism, and charm, as travesties of past illusions they add another layer of artifice to a gloomy tale of artistic compromise and moral corruption. Seen in this light, “The Swineherd” reveals more than scantily clad women; its vulgarity embodies the film's theme of degradation. The young innocent child of the first scene, who grows into a naïve boy with the voice of an angel, will eventually find fame and renown, but only at great personal cost.

Time and again the camera returns to an image that reminds the viewer of Andersen's complicity in his fall from grace: the bright blue door his father had painted before sacrificing himself for his family. His father's spiritual legacy depicts a lion seated between an elephant and a rhinoceros in a composition that suggests a miniature of Peaceable Kingdom. When we first view the door, the youth Riadinskii crouches by its side. His on-screen placement suggests the image of the child in Edward Hick's early canvases and by analogy his potential to bring personal and societal liberation to himself and others. Though the son will keep this peaceful image of fatherly love and devotion throughout his life, he will move ever farther from its message. On screen the older Andersen will contemplate the picture seated in a comfortable chair, often with his back to it. Once his talisman, it has become a constant reproach to a son who has betrayed his mother and sister. The loveless life proclaimed in the title springs from Andersen's inability to love others. [10] Riazanov created a second version of the film for the small screen, removing some of the most carnal images and adding additional material. Since its television debut in 2007, more viewers have made positive comments. Some have noted the work of art director Liudmila Kusakova, who virtually brought Denmark to Russia, recreating numerous Odense and Copenhagen settings in various locales around Moscow and Petersburg. [11] The production designer of Karen Shakhnazarov's Rider named Death (Vsadnik po imeni smert', 2004) and assistant art director for Nikolai Lebedev's Wolfhound (Volkodav, 2007), Kusakova brought her considerable talent, creativity, and attention to detail to the project and it earned her the 2007 NIKA for best art direction. Natal'ia Ivanova also received the 2007 NIKA for costume design, an award that recognized her impressive designs and execution, as well as the sheer number and wide range of costumes involved. [12]

It should come as no surprise that little remains of Riazanov's and Braginskii's initial impulse: the artist was to overcome physical deprivation and social rejection to triumph through the creative act. What has been preserved is the scene they could not have shot in the 1970s. This episode, “The Galoshes of Happiness,” presents the more contemporary Danish legend of King Christian X. The scene opens with the Nazi entrance into Copenhagen. Shot in black-and-white, the only color we see is the red regalia of the advancing forces. King Christian slowly enters on horseback. As he turns to begin his ride around the city, a yellow Star of David, alarming in its brightness comes into view. The citizens are quick to follow their sovereign's lead and soon all in Copenhagen are wearing blazing yellow stars to convey their support and respect for all Danes. Cinematically derivative of Eisenstein, Aleksandr Askol'dov, as well as Steven Spielberg, this final tale provides the emotional climax to the earlier scenes of anti-Semitism presented in Andersen's biography. Even those who have found Riazanov's humanitarian plea overly sentimental must admit the sad truth that the need for racial tolerance is no less relevant today.

Arlene Forman
Oberlin College

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Images from the film's official web site.


1] The “Year of Andersen” officially began on 2 April 2005 (the anniversary of the author's birth) and concluded in December. Andersen, published in Russia since 1857, has long inspired Russian artists and celebrations there began earlier, with the January opening of an Andersen Center in Rzhevsk. Throughout the year Moscow offered new theatrical productions of Andersen tales, exhibitions featuring Russian illustrations to the tales, a children's festival, and groundbreaking in Marino for a statue of Andersen. On 28 March, Princess Alexandra of Denmark came to Moscow and from the stage of the Malyi Theater appointed twelve “Russian Envoys” to attend the April Gala in Copenhagen . Envoy Riazanov arrived with a cameraman and small crew who filmed preliminary landscapes at that time.

2] This meeting and subsequent events are detailed in the Afterword (“Posleslovie, ili kak snimalsia fil'm ‘Andersen. Zhizn' bez liubvi'”) to the screenplay (kinoroman) Riazanov published in 2007: Andersen. Zhizn' bez liubvi, Moscow: ÈKSMO (218-253). Subtitled “Fantasies on a Theme,” the published text is more linear than either of the filmed versions.

3] Anatolii Chubais was the first contributor, providing funds from RAO UES. Mikhail Shmakov, Chair of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, was next. The Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema provided enough money to begin casting, though it would take Riazanov until 2005 to raise enough funds to begin preliminary shooting. Financial problems would lead to a long hiatus, in which some members of the crew found other employment. Considering the fits and starts in the production, it is a tribute to Riazanov that he was able to see the film to completion.

4] Given the sheer number of scenes filmed, it could be argued that the director was more inclined towards a televised version.

5] See Alena Solntseva, “Skazki dlia novogo vremeni: Èl'dar Riazanov snial fil'm pro Khansa Kristiana Andersena,” Vremia (4 December 2006).

6] The praise comes from Valerii Kichin in “Skazochnik so spichkami: Èl'dar Riazanov snial fil'm ‘Andersen. Zhizn' bez liubvi',” Rossiiskaia gazeta (8 December 2006). See also his article “Ves' etot skaz: Èl'dar pokazhet strane skazochnoe zakulis'e,” Film.Ru (13 December 2006). The pan is from Marina Gavrilova,“Rebiata, luchshe porno, chem nikogda,” Kinokadr (24 December 2006).

7] “Shtirlits stal Bogom”. An entry posted on the Komsomolskaia Pravda blog on 16 January 2006, describes the marketing campaign that loudly touted the actor's return to the big screen. Viewers expecting to see Tikhonov in a major role were confounded by the actor's extremely limited appearance.

8] I wish to thank Elena Monstireva-Ansdell for pointing me in this direction. Kosheverova's next film, The Shadow (Ten', 1971), featured Dal' as the teacher and shadow from Evgenii Shvarts' 1940 story. Riazanov's retelling echoes Shvarts insofar as both of the teachers survive. In Shvarts, the young hero rejects social privilege and power for a more humble setting in which he finds love. In Riazanov, the much older, less virile figure receives neither.

9]The computer graphics in Andersen generate decidedly unspecial effects that have the look and feel of an earlier era, much like the animation and color shifts seen in Gennadii Kazanskii's Snow Queen (Snezhnaia koroleva, 1966).

10] A film that actively promotes the heterosexual agenda, in its final scene “the good man with a halo” will equate the virtues of procreation with those of artistic creation. For a director of late accused of being out of step with the times, this exhortation to be fruitful and multiply surely captures the spirit of Putin's recent demographic initiatives.

11] In one case the recreation was literal: she re-purposed the set of pre-revolutionary Moscow that she had made for Shakhnazarov and transformed it into Andersen's Copenhagen.

12] One set and some costumes can be found on the film's official web site.


Andersen: Life without Love, Russia, 2006
Color, 137 minutes (big screen version), 172 minutes (TV version)
Director: Èl'dar Riazanov
Scriptwriters: Èl'dar Riazanov, Irakli Kvirikadze
Cinematography: Evgenii Guslinskii, Vadim Alisov
Art Director: Liudmila Kusakova
Music: Aleksei Rybnikov
Cast: Sergei Migitsko, Stanislav Riadinskii, Oleg Tabakov, Alena Babenko, Evgeniia Kriukova, Viacheslav Tikhonov, Valerii Garkalin, Liudmila Arinina, Oksana Mysina, Vladimir Simonov, Andrei Tolubeev, Galina Tiunina, Natal'ia Shchukina
Producer: Èl'dar Riazanov
Production: Gulliver Film Company, with support from Gazprom and the Federal Agency for Cinema and Culture

Èl'dar Riazanov: Andersen, Life without Love (Andersen: Zhizn' bez liubvi, 2006)

reviewed by Arlene Forman© 2007

Updated: 02 Oct 07