Issue 62 (2018)

Aleksei German Jr: Dovlatov (2018)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2018

dovlatovAlthough he did not live to receive full recognition in his fatherland, today Sergei Dovlatov (1941-1990) ranks as one of Russia’s most significant and most beloved prose writers of the post-war period. More accessible and “down-to-earth” than fellow emigrants Joseph Brodsky and Vasilii Aksenov, and without the overt didacticism that distinguishes the work of that other famous exile, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dovlatov has often been compared to Anton Chekhov for the deceiving simplicity and astonishing effectiveness of his stories. To complete the analogy with Chekhov: Dovlatov never wrote a proper novel and he, too, died relatively young.

Whether Dovlatov’s posthumous canonization has attained the character of a real cult, and whether that cult exceeds the literary quality of his oeuvre, has been the subject of some debate since the early 2000s (Kudrin 2014), but if film adaptations and biopics are indicative of a writer’s consolidated fame, then in Dovlatov’s case, things look quite hopeful. 2015 saw the release of Stanislav Govorukhin’s The End of a Great Era, which was loosely based on The Compromise (1983), a collection of stories in which Dovlatov described his tribulations when working as a journalist in Tallinn in the mid-1970s. With Dovlatov, Aleksei German Jr offers a take on the man himself, particularly on his checkered family life and his fruitless attempts to get his work published in the Soviet Union.

DovlatovWith the possible exception of Under Electrical Clouds (Pod elektricheskimi oblakami, 2015), which was set in the not too distant future (but partly also in 1991), German’s films can all be grouped under the generic label “historical” in that they usually depict an important juncture in Russian history, but without showing the real movers and shakers behind the historic events. Whenever a historical person makes an appearance (Aleksandr Blok in Garpastum, Iurii Gagarin in Paper Soldier), the camera hardly registers it, reflecting the main character’s necessarily limited perspective as opposed to the viewer’s surplus of historical knowledge. In this respect, Dovlatov is arguably more straightforward with the physically impressive title character, literally taking center stage, and a voiceover providing basic information on the stagnation era and Dovlatov’s biography. And yet, the film is not a traditional biopic that highlights the most dramatic or decisive moments of someone’s life. Instead, German shows seven consecutive (and pretty average) days in November 1971 using the dreary preparations for the 54th anniversary of the October Revolution as a backdrop against which this “week in the life of Sergei Dovlatov” unfolds.

DovlatovAlthough he consulted with Dovlatov’s widow on the communal apartment where the family used to lived, German did not strive for historical accuracy in depicting the circles in which Dovlatov moved (Chalandziia 2018). His conversations with Joseph Brodsky on the subject of emigration аre not based on any historical record, nor are we supposed to believe that Dovlatov and non-official artist Sholom Shvarts were really as close as the film suggests. Acknowledging that he “really love[s] that time” and “those people” (the underground movement of Leningrad), German is fully aware that he is creating his own “myth” or “fairy tale,” while remaining cautious not to prettify Leningrad and turn the film into a shallow “attraktsion” (Nemzer et al. 2018). As a result, the city looks cold, bleak, even deserted as though nobody dares to go out in the streets. Early snowfall and night frost add to the overriding impression of inhospitality, an obvious reference to Leningrad’s grim political climate under the tenure of local party boss Grigorii Romanov (1970-1983). “A fine city, but dark,” a Finnish woman says politely when asked about her impressions and then immediately attends to her more immediate concern of delivering a stack of jeans to a fartsovshchik (trader on the black market). Except for one outdoor scene in which we see Dovlatov having a drink with his friends, it is mainly people in some official capacity who dominate the city view: marching soldiers, workers assembling scenery for the parade on 7 November, and even Dovlatov himself as a journalist interviewing a spokeswoman of a shipyard and extracting from her only the most gruesome clichés of Soviet parlance.

DovlatovIn contrast to the chilliness of the “official” world outside, the indoor scenes, especially when they take place in Dovlatov’s communal apartment or in the studios of his underground friends, ooze conviviality and cheerful anarchy. Here we see the intelligentsia indulging in what it does best:  arguing, drinking, reading poetry, and listening to American jazz. This slightly nostalgic view of Leningrad’s underground movement is offset by scenes that show the humiliating routine of hanging about in crammed editorial offices and having one’s work repeatedly refused for publication. Juxtaposing the official and non-official culture of the stagnation period in this manner, German seeks to balance his personal attachment to a time he is too young to remember and his respect for the broken lives and careers of those who actually inhabited the 1970s.

DovlatovDespite the brevity and seeming randomness of the selected timeframe, on closer inspection, German offers more than simply a slice of life condensing in those seven days the full dilemma of Dovlatov’s position. Desperate to see at least one of his stories in print, Dovlatov seems initially prepared to cut a deal with the authorities by agreeing to write a poem in honor of Soviet oil workers (in return for which the editors will “seriously” consider his prose for publication) and buttering up a high official whose intercession can help him join the Writers Union. A third opportunity to gain the editors’ favor presents itself when he is commissioned to interview a model worker-cum-poet who, in reality, finds it increasingly difficult to live up to the proletarian role model he is supposed to represent. Dovlatov’s assignment is further complicated by the fact that this character has turned to writing religious poetry and now finds it difficult to get his work published. Recognizing the familiarity of the situation in which the poet finds himself, Dovlatov cannot bring himself to  capitalize on any of the opportunities to show his loyalty to the system and thus save his chances of ever getting published. By the end of the week, the gap between Dovlatov and the Soviet establishment has ultimately become unbridgeable.

DovlatovIndicative of the stifling atmosphere of the 1970s, the many absurdities of Soviet life also provide comic relief, for example, when a black marketer offers a clandestine copy of Nabokov’s Lolita (“a novel about an American pionerka”) and Dovlatov reacts by pretending to be a KGB officer in civilian clothes (caught red-handed, the illegal book seller immediately changes tactics by sharing incriminating information on his own clientele). A snappy encounter between Dovlatov and a Finnish socialist writer ends in a session of binge drinking and poetry reading in the proverbial Soviet kitchen; they are joined by the proletarian poet who wakes up in a drunk tank the next morning. Finally, Dovlatov’s quandary about how to preserve his artistic integrity also receives a more playful treatment in a recurring dream in which a still vital Leonid Brezhnev kindly suggests he co-author the novel that Dovlatov is writing. Together with the standard ingredients we know so well from previous German films (off-screen dialogues, conversations petering out before they have even started, “Chekhovian” forms of miscommunication), these witty episodes prevent the film from turning the main character into a literary martyr, an image that Dovlatov himself was careful to avoid when creating his fictional alter ego (cf. the mocking treatment of the martyr image in Pushkin Hills [Zapovednik]). Without being a screen adaptation in the proper sense of the word, the film thus largely succeeds in recreating the casual quality that permeates most of Dovlatov’s stories.

DovlatovWhile some reviewers have reacted indignantly to the addition of a voiceover as something superfluous and incompatible with German’s impressionistic style (Genis 2018), the fact that the makers did resort to a narrator and made him identical with Dovlatov, lends a peculiar weight to his seemingly banal words on the “end of the 1960s with its relative freedom” and the “beginning of the frosty 1970s.” Are they really only intended to furnish younger and foreign viewers with historical information or could they have a different function? The suggestion that Dovlatov is not simply a tribute to its title character or the time in which he lived, but also posits a historical analogy between the early 1970s and the present situation in Russia, in particular the post-Medvedev period, has been neither affirmed nor rejected by the director. Yet, when interviewed on TV Rain, he acknowledged that “of course, there was a certain feeling of chilliness back then, as there is now […] and therefore we keep coming back to the question of whether one should leave (Russia) or not.” To leave or not to leave is also a topic that Dovlatov and Brodsky keep coming back to in the film, with both men insisting that they would rather stay, just like German in the interview on TV Rain, “but,” he added, “we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

DovlatovAn Aesopian reading of Dovlatov may seem something of an anachronism (although in a way strangely befitting its subject matter), in particular if we consider that the stakes aren’t as high as in the 1970s; high culture is simply no longer a matter of life and death. Moreover, a  subversive reading  certainly wouldn’t do full justice to the richness of this visually breathtaking film in which Serbian actor Milan Marić, physically imposing and gentile at the same time, stars as the eponymous hero. Finally, there is no reason to speculate that the film’s limited release in Russia (initially only four days of showing) was the result of anything other than a conscious distribution strategy designed to stimulate the viewers’ appetite. Dovlatov, then, is above all, a paean to Leningrad’s counter culture of the stagnant years, the loss of which German wistfully acknowledges. Even so, interviews with liberal media such as TV Rain show that to look for historical parallels and then ask questions about the present is an almost common reflex giving in to which both viewers and the director can hardly avoid. If anything, this potential for a “political” interpretation along historical lines only adds to the artistic profoundness of what is yet another masterpiece by Aleksei German Jr.

Otto Boele
University of Leiden

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Works Cited

Chalandziia, Eteriia. 2018. “Iz liudei, kotorye predaiut svoi dar, nichego ne vyidet.” Interview with German Jr., Izvestiia 19 March.

Genis, Aleksandr. 2018. “V okresnostiakh Dovlatova,” Radio Svoboda, 31 March. 

Kudrin, Oleg. 2014. “Dovlatov kak kul’t,” Novyi mir 1.

Nemzer, Anna, Denis Kataev and Anton Zhelnov. 2018. “Hard Day’s Night.” Interview with German Jr. TV Rain 27 February.

Dovlatov, Russia, Serbia, Poland 2018
Color, 126 minutes
Director: Aleksei German Jr.
Scriptwriter: Aleksei German Jr., Iuliia Tupikina
Cinematography: Lukasz Zal
Editors: Sergei Ivanov, Dar’ia Gladysheva
Cast: Milan Marić, Danila Kozlovskii, Helena Sujecka, Eva Gerr, Artur Beschastnyi, Anton Shagin, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Yelena Liadova, Igor' Mitiushkin, Piotr Gonsovskii, Tamara Oganesian, Anna Yekaterininskaia, Sergei Tolstov, Hanna Śleszyńska, Maria Järvinhelmi
Producers: Artem Vasil’ev, Andrei Savel’ev, Konstantin Ernst
Production: Saga (Russia), Apple Film, ART&POPCORN

Aleksei German Jr: Dovlatov (2018)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2018

Updated: 2018