Issue 29 (2010)

Aleksandr Rogozhkin: To Live for Another (Svoia chuzhaia zhizn’, 2004)

reviewed by Liudmila Basmakova © 2010

Aleksandr Rogozhkin is one of the most unusual film directors working in St Petersburg today. With a solid track record in filmmaking in the early 1990s, he rose to fame and public acclaim with The Peculiarities of the National Hunt (Osobennosti natsional’noi okhoty, 1995), which became one of the most popular comedies of its time. At the same time, he made true auteur cinema, of which The Cuckoo (Kukushka, 2002) is a fine example. Having successfully worked on television serials before (e.g. several episodes of Cops in 1997) Rogozhkin completed a short television drama To Live for Another. This film parallels the settings of revolutionary Petrograd during February and March 1921 and contemporary St Petersburg in the new millennium.

svoiaWhilst there are at first sight two key fables in the film, there are also four associated fables with each of the storylines, focusing on the survival of the alienated Russian intelligentsia. The film concerns mainly the issue of conscience and the memory of national and personal history. First, there is the story about the attempt of the (fictional) filmmaker Andrei Pavlovich Kalistratov (Leonid Gromov), who is known by the peculiar nickname “Apocalypse,” to make a short television drama, drawing on a novel he had written a while ago. Quite cheerful, and with a pinch of tasteful self-criticism and anecdotes from the real lives of filmmakers, Rogozhkin takes us to the other side of the camera: the dressing rooms, sponsorship issues, schedules and script development—to the world of modern Russian cinematography, where cinema is made “quickly and economically.” Yet as soon as Rogozhkin turns to the second sub-plot about Kalistratov’s private life and family, he exposes the struggle of the modern-day intelligentsia and the tone suddenly takes on a serious note: the elements of comedy from the first sub-plot seem to have disappeared. As Kalistratov tirelessly tries to find out who attacked his son Ivan, leaving him in hospital with a brain injury, we are introduced to the bleak relationship he shares with his ex-wife. His loneliness is emphasized as he exhaustingly endeavors to compensate it with a seemingly endless stream of empty affairs, such as his confusing bond with Katia (Elizaveta Boiarskaia), who he initially believes to be his daughter and who quickly becomes one of the closest persons to him. 

svoiaWith a claustrophobic tendency in terms of exploring space, the film compensates by utilizing time-travel between the stories, or rather Kalistratov’s flights of imagination. The same faces, comparable manners and similar struggles are presented in the third sub-plot, which could be called “The World’s Chaos”—as Kalistratov calls his never-made film about the survival of the intelligentsia in 1921 Petrograd. We see fragments of the city after the Civil War, focusing mainly on the members of the “House of Arts” (Dom iskusstv, known under the abbreviation DISK.[1] Here Rogozhkin shows the radical contrast in life experiences of the early Soviet aristocracy and the poets and writers who did not fully commit to the new Soviet regime. In a novelistic tradition, he introduces the only love story in the film, which develops rather passionlessly between former White Army officer Petr Versilov (Mikhail Eliseev) and the wife of French documentarist Françoise Fabergé (Elizaveta Boiarskaia), who is forced to secretly flee from Soviet Russia. In the same manner, their respective spouses grow fond of each other: Versilov’s fiancée Ol’ga (Viktoriia Evtiukhina) and Étienne Fabergé (Vladimir Koshevoi), who is later murdered by the Cheka. Both couples show little affection on the screen, and their fondness is rather hard to spot. Rogozhkin was criticized for this, but it is hard to imagine an all-consuming love when all four are expecting to be arrested, deported or murdered any time. At last, these three sub-plots are artistically connected when a youth antiquity organisation finds a picture taken by Étienne Fabergé of his wife and their new friends, Versilov and Ol’ga, in 1921, which they then use to find the real Françoise who is still alive in 2000. In doing so, the organisation ties together people, lives, and fates throughout the entire film.

svoiaGiven the amount of material and the fact that To Live for Another is based on a novel, it is not surprising that there are over 50 noteworthy characters in the film, who can be divided into two basic categories: younger and often unfamiliar; older and recognisable. Rogozhkin views Petrograd in 1921 as a dramatic, new and exciting time and place where history was made by courageous people. Therefore he hired mostly young actors for that sequence: Boiarskaia, Eliseev, Evtiukhina and Koshevoi demonstrate their youthful charm taken from a deep understanding of the material. Boiarskaia manages a heavy French accent and proud posture throughout the film, while Eliseev is convincing in his dry, gesture-less acting, unmistakably showing the intensity of his character. Episodic appearances of actors playing revolutionary and literary activists, such as Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev, Osip Mandel’shtam, and Larissa Reisner are a little less engaging due to their meaningless comments and false mannerisms. Nonetheless, together with the main actors, they manage to construct a rather enjoyable jigsaw, enticing us to test our knowledge of Russian literature and historical figures.

svoiaThe other actors are older than their historical counterparts. Even though almost a hundred years separate them, both groups of characters remain connected to each other, largely thanks to conscientious performances and excellent casting. Katia, the daughter of Kalistratov’s ex-girlfriend from university, also plays Françoise; Andrei Noskov plays the cameraman Serezha and also Vsevolod, a member of DISK. This connection is bolstered by the direct communication between different epochs, as is evident in the ball scene at the House of Arts, where Kalistratov and his colleague discuss the mise-en-scène while being filmed at the ball, which took place almost a century ago. Although the modern-day characters are shown a little more pessimistically, Andrei Tashkov’s money-obsessed two-faced producer, who is brilliant in every scene with his mimics, gestures and remarks, seems an altogether different person—depending on the situation. The actor Leonid Gromov’s physical resemblance to Rogozhkin is further emphasized through by his costumes and the monotonous, emotionless manner of speech.

svoiaThe style of the film is reminiscent of Lenfilm’s cinematographic tradition of the 1980s, exploring the subject of “cinema about the cinema.” This cyclical type of story—beginning with the scene with Versilov as a White Army officer in Kalistratov’s never made-film, and ending with the same scene in Rogozhkin’s film where Kalistratov is removed from his post—illustrates the process of filmmaking backwards by slowly exposing each layer through different genres: from historical drama to comedy and parable. Rogozhkin meticulously developed every scene and, with geometrical precision, he divides each scene into extreme and regular close-ups, establishing shots of the city and racking focusing on the characters. By filming death, murder, and gunshots without special effects, he portrays the calculated, inhumane act of revolutionary slayings. Rogozhkin cleverly leaves it to our imagination to fill in what the camera does not show.

svoiaWith multiple close-ups on inanimate objects such as a daguerreotype, an ancient cigarette holder, a half-broken, old fireplace, a bronze chandelier, a tap and a beautifully decorated fan, Rogozhkin convinces us of the reality of the screen action. Yet Rogozhkin’s favorite cinematographic technique is deconstruction and complete disclosure of his filming method, which he takes to a new level in To Live for Another. Hegives every authentic detail its indisputable historical honesty: he makes Kalistratov knock on the chandelier at the restaurant “Vizantiia” to show the viewer that the chandelier is really made of bronze. Sometimes these details are filmed only once, but occasionally they accompany some protagonists throughout the film and slowly become their attributes. For example, Semen’s remarkable habit to write a sum of money on a piece of paper and immediately burn it after showing it to somebody skillfully connects different episodes, chapters and situations in the film. Thus, ironically only a few minutes after Semen Mikhailovich carelessly mentions that he would be ready to advertise pads if that would earn him money, he has to wipe the dirty roadside snow off his face with a panty lining.

svoiaTo Live for Another could be used as an example of Rogozhkin’s methodology of filmmaking, where he shows and explains his cinematographic solutions at the exact moment when they are mentioned in the film. As soon as Kalistratov creates a new story line that may be completely irrelevant, Rogozhkin illustrates it on the screen: “You won’t be able to film this frankly, so it is necessary to do it through the details… the upper lip is getting covered with little drops of sweat,” says Kalistratov as he briefly advises a colleague who is struggling to find an idea for a plot. Rogozhkin immediately shows an extreme close-up of both the upper lip and the sweat developing on it, illustrating the extreme tension of both Kalistratov thinking about the mise-en-scène and the character of the betrayed husband struggling in his imaginary scene. Similarly, when Kalistratov mentions his idea for a film about a couple of ravens called Charles and Charlotta, Rogozhkin allows us a foretaste by showing a reflection of the ravens through a reversed magnifying glass.

svoiaRogozhkin introduces cultural allusions which take us away from the screen into the literary past and the present of our everyday lives. This becomes obvious when looking at the types of humor Rogozhkin deploys. In the House of Arts we hear a joke about diamonds sewed into Vsevolod’s underwear, while in modern St Petersburg we are laughing about Furins’s accident in a Finnish toilet. This similarity of jokes effortlessly unites epochs through indiscreet, but deeply political humor. Presenting a film about the perception of past and present, Rogozhkin carefully chooses the language he employs. He mentioned once that profanity is a system that one either understands or not, and admitted that he does not. He attempts to understand the viewer and therefore replaces vulgar lexis with unique expressions such as: “ne valiai Parferiia Parfericha” (stop being sucha Parferii Parferich), adapted from “ne valiai duraka” (stop being such a fool).

At last, as the sub-plots reach their denouement, Rogozhkin extends the stories by referencing his own cinematographic past and future, briefly mentioning his project on a film about American planes in Transit (Peregon, 2006), the emotionless filming of murder in The Guard (Karaul, 1990) and the simple humor of driving on ice in Cops (Menty) and Peculiarities…. His “cinema about the cinema” device organically develops into “a cinema about the mind,” about the imagination and the past and present. Thus, most critics agree that the drama is a unique experience for the Russian television audience, even though it played during the late summer hours and was shown as a 110-minute film instead of the original sequence of five 45-minute episodes. Hence, it is rather ironic that Kalistratov is removed from his post as a film director at the end of Rogozhkin’s film, whereas his own To Live for Another was cut by a film editor at Rossiia television channel.

Liudmila Basmakova
Cambridge, UK

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1] In 1921 Dom Iskusstv was located on the river Moika in the former Eluseev’s Palace

To Live for Another, Russia 2004
110 minutes (also 5 episodes at 45 minutes)
Director and Scriptwriter: Aleksandr Rogozhkin
Cinematography: Andrei Zhegalov
Music: Dmitrii Pavlov
Production Design: Aleksandr Zagoskin
Costumes: Valentina Kameneva
Producer: Sergei Sel’ianov, CTB
Production: Rossiia Television
Cast: Leonid Gromov, Andrei Tashkov, Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Mikhail Eliseev, Viktoriia Evtiukhina, Vladimir Koshevoi, Larisa Luppian, Margarita Zvonareva, Andrei Noskov

Aleksandr Rogozhkin: To Live for Another (Svoia chuzhaia zhizn’, 2004)

reviewed by Liudmila Basmakova © 2010

Updated: 16 Jul 10