Issue 23 (2009)

Arkadii Kordon: The House on the Embankment (Dom na naberezhnoi, 2007)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2009

Arkadii Kordon and Arkadii Filatov, the creators of the four-part miniseries House on the Embankment, set the tone of their adaptation of Iurii Trifonov's arguably best novella by starting it with an epigraph: “Dedicated to the Victims of Communist Repressions.” One wonders what the author's reaction to such a dedication would have been. After all, the fascination of his oeuvre emanates from a constant inner struggle with historical and moral ambiguity: not only were the victims of Communist repressions in many cases former perpetrators themselves; the repressions also succeeded because of countless bystanders, lukewarm people (“liudi, kotorye nikakie,” in Trifononv's terms). Early novellas such as the passionate “Fireglow” (Otblesk kostra, 1966) and later novels such as The Disappearance (Ischeznovenie, publ. 1987) reveal a tormenting process of coming to terms with the Communist legacy and those who allegedly corrupted it. Trifonov's position today would likely be close to that of Roy Medvedev, i.e. an enlightened statism with elements of social-democratic standards and Communist promises built into it—and a large dosage of skepticism toward the neo-capitalist turn that the country took since the demise of the Soviet Union. “Communist Repressions” would probably not be part of his terminology.

Kordon, who made a name for himself with quiet, non-commercial features such as Listen, Is It Not Raining? (Poslushai, ne idet li dozhd'?, 1999), has a penchant for psychological and social dilemmas— in the latter film, he delivered a sensitive portrait of writer Iurii Kazakov, an utterly torn personality superbly portrayed by Aleksei Petrenko, one of the director's mainstays. Recreating the Stalin era in a television miniseries is new territory for the filmmaker, and the achievements of his predecessors in that venture did not bode well for his own project. Children of the Arbat (Deti Arbata, 2004) and Moscow Saga (Moskovskaia saga, 2004) yielded contradictory results at best, evoking simplistic, romanticized images of youthful Communist aspirations or intelligentsia splendor as foils for the gruesome repressions in the name of an ideology and its idols. Unlike Anatolii Rybakov's and Vasilii Aksenov's rather conventional, straightforward historical epics, the characteristic vibrations of Trifonov's prose originate from ongoing frictions between time levels in his protagonists' minds, in which past and present are not clearly separable. The director faced this challenge head on, by contrasting brief episodes taking place in 2005 Moscow with scenes from the Soviet capital in 1939 and subsequent years, creating two parallel narrative strings and constantly meandering between them. He went even further by cutting from present to past and back within episodes, directly visualizing the close connections between temporal levels, an associative method that makes sense but also renders the viewing exhausting at times. Overall it seems fair to say that Kordon avoided some of the pitfalls of earlier miniseries dealing with the Stalin years, but, alas, got trapped by others.

The producers provided almost four hours of screen time for this story, a wide enough framework to allow for genuine, differentiated characterizations. To save the flavor of Trifonov's prose, the director uses a narrator-in-the-first-person (the main character, Vadim Glebov) over lengthy periods, including quotes from the original text. Moreover, by limiting period music to the absolute minimum, he escapes the obsessively nostalgic atmosphere that had haunted so many post-Soviet films ever since Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem, 1995). While this approach is certainly laudable, the score of House on the Embankment, written by one of the most accomplished Russian film composers, Isaak Shvarts, tends to overemphasize the ominous. On the other hand, one of the indubitable strengths of Kordon's film is the authenticity of everyday details, from interior decorations to clothes and technical devices of the period.

A rather tricky problem was how to make plausible the time distance which had increased considerably since Trifonov's book appeared. It made perfect sense for a man in 1976 to encounter friends from his youth whom he had not seen for thirty-five years. But a time gap of sixty-five to seventy years? Yet, Kordon and his coauthor came up with a clever solution to lend believability to Vadim Glebov's sudden immersion into his half-forgotten past: the old man gets a phone call regarding the legendary House on the Embankment that the current Moscow authorities want to erase. An acquaintance asks Glebov, now an influential official, to speak out against this all too common act of cultural barbarism on a TV show. That phone call sets in motion a process of remembering and pondering, bringing back some of the unresolved and repressed problems of the Stalin years, but also increasingly alienating Glebov from his current environment.

Kordon's Vadim Glebov is not the cautious, lukewarm opportunist of Trifonov's novella, but a frail old man who still holds a high position in the Russian Academy of Sciences and in the Public Chamber; he lives in a spacious dacha with his wife and children whose marital quarrels he witnesses, and shares his doubts with his personal chauffeur who remembers yesteryear just as vividly as he does. Herein lies one of the missed chances of this film: While Trifonov proved the disturbing intrinsic connections between the opportunistic mentality of the Stalin era and the hypocritical consumerism of the Brezhnev years, Kordon leaves the Russian present largely untouched. Updating Trifonov's diagnosis, exposing how the ills of Soviet society safely made it into its post-Soviet successor state would have been intriguing indeed, giving the series as a whole a sharper edge. Alas, contemporary Moscow comes along with external attributes such as fashionable clothes and modern cars, but without its specific, painful moral choices. Glebov is shown as an isolated octogenarian whose memories are of no concern to his family or colleagues. Other than that, the current Russian society is one of smooth homogeneity, notwithstanding comparatively minor conflicts such as the potential destruction of an architectural monument.

Unfortunately, parts of Trifonov's astute analysis have been eradicated from the 1930s-1940s episodes as well. The group of youngsters struggling to find orientation amidst major societal shifts is depicted as mostly loving and supportive of each other, while the violent plebeian “bychki” gang appears as an aberration, not as the social stratum from which GULAG camp guards were recruited. Characters such as Dina “Abazhur” whose overweight physique is a returning motif in Trifonov's text (she initiates Vadim erotically) have lost all physical distinctiveness, and her and Glebov's first kiss is a fleeting, forgettable public (!) event, not the feverish, traumatic experience in the dark that Trifonov describes. Of a more serious nature are violations of historical believability. For example, the “ogogo” game that the youngsters secretly play to test a new classmate, in the film takes place in the middle of the classroom, with “golden boy” Lev Shulepnikov firing his pistol into the ceiling (in Trifonov's story, it is not a pistol but an early version of a taser). Glebov, interrogated by Shulepnikov's powerful father, gives away the name of the instigator of that game, causing the boy's family's eviction from the house. In Kordon's film, Glebov admits his shameful act to the group—and the youngsters and even the victim accept it! To knowingly tolerate a stukach in a closely knit group of Soviet teenagers is just as unlikely as founding a secret “Society for the Exploration of Moscow Tunnels” which, sure enough, stumbles upon a pile of corpses—victims of the repressions—in one of the city's eerie basements. I am not a purist in regards to literary adaptations, but such “additions” to the original distort historical truth beyond recognition. Consulting with a reputable historian would have easily helped omit such grave errors.

A key character in the novella is professor Ganchuk, a famous literary scholar and former Bolshevik hero. Aleksei Petrenko delivers a solid performance as a headstrong albeit naive “new intellectual” who does not even realize how much his values are rooted in the 19th century, a Communist aristocrat holding court in a huge apartment and fearlessly criticizing the new opportunists within the Communist establishment. The relative simplicity of this character could have been deepened by including some features typical of his generation: their former RAPP allegiance and militantly dogmatic attitudes, the lack of erudition compared to the generation of scholars that was driven into exile in 1918 and 1921 (in the novella, Trifonov leaves no doubt about Ganchuk's intellectual limitations), and their moral blindness in the 1930s. Instead, Ganchuk comes across as an erudite, grumpy father figure ruling over his cozy, old-style Moscow intellectual home filled with Collected Works, exquisite furniture (antikvariat), piano music, and plenty of fine food.

Ganchuk's daughter Sonia, whom Glebov courts as long as this seems gainful for his career, is one of the truly tragic characters in both the novella and the film; her admission to an insane asylum and eventual death, motivated in part by Glebov's chronic spinelessness when facing moral challenge, represent the gloomiest collateral consequences of Ganchuk's fall from grace, symbolizing the end of an era, including its wishful thinking. While this catastrophe has been motivated and visualized quite powerfully, the degeneration of Lev Shulepnikov (“Shulepa”), Glebov's friend and competitor who embodies the new Soviet elite—clever, vulgar, viciously protective of their nomenklatura privileges—is never really explained. The actor cast in this role (Sergei Potapov) is so good at what he does and proves such a scene-stealer, that the moral repugnancy of his character never becomes fully obvious. This Shulepa is a simpatiaga through and through, a terrific guy and reliable buddy who survives all political cataclysms, always staying on top—until the Thaw breaks his neck. While for Trifonov, Shulepnikov was an exemplary and often frightening character, standing for an important segment of the Soviet ruling class, in the film, his final downfall and resentment are merely personal problems, such as the alcoholism from which he suffers.

To be perfectly clear: by common television standards, this is a serious, in many ways interesting, and in several respects successful adaptation of one of the masterpieces of 20th-century Russian prose. The acting is solid, in some cases more so (the young performers are almost all superb), in others less (for example, Ol'ga Iakovleva, who portrays the old Dina, makes for an embarrassingly faux émigré). Generally, positive emotions such as compassion and friendship are conveyed more convincingly, while betrayal and two-facedness have been captured with less poignancy. Trifonov's anti-petit-bourgeois fury, his overt and covert deliberations about the Communist past and its legacy have been largely reduced to an old man's lonely reflections of bygone years, with little relevance for his—and our—present. Indeed, the very accentuation of the most significant, revelatory moments in the literary original has sometimes been replaced by other, less subversive elements. Trifonov's grandiose drama of opportunism, trust, and betrayal has become a drama of memory and the isolation that it causes. This inconsequence is a regrettable shortcoming in an otherwise noteworthy attempt.

Peter Rollberg
George Washington University

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The House on the Embankment. 2007
Four parts. First shown 6 and 7 November 2007, NTV.
Director: Arkadii Kordon.
Screenplay: Arkadii Kordon and Arkadii Filatov.
Producers: Pavel Gol’dman, Anatolii Tolstykh, Konstantin Smirnov.
Cast: Valerii Ivchenko (Vadim Glebov as an old man); Ivan Stebunov (Vadim as a young man); Sergei Potapov (Lev Shulepnikov); Aleksei Petrenko (Professor Ganchuk); Irina Kupchenko (his wife); Viktoriia Romanenko (Sonia Ganchuk); Ol’ga Iakovleva (Dina Abazhur as an old lady).
Production: Telekompaniia “TON” in cooperation with Mosfil’m.

Arkadii Kordon: The House on the Embankment (Dom na naberezhnoi, 2007)

reviewed by Peter Rollberg © 2009

Updated: 07 Jan 09