Tag Archives: USSR

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

Even in 2017 there still remains a relative void of criticism surrounding latter day Soviet Cinema available in English. For the most part critical discussions of Russian cinema during the late Soviet period tend to center upon the Gosinko’s repressive policies or the election of Elem Klimov to the position of First Secretary of the Filmmaker’s Union in May 1986 (roughly corresponding with the Glasnost). In auteurist terms, the discourse surrounding Soviet cinema during this period is predominantly concerned with two filmmakers; Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov. This limited view of Soviet cinema hampers the discourse of either subject since a concise and detailed context remains elusive.


It is these conditions that prevent me from going in depth with tracing the production history of Emil Loteanu’s lyrical 1975 film Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven. I can however provide a minimum of context by simplifying some aesthetic trends in the Soviet Cinema. Auteurist discourse and the capitalist machine that has come to be an intrinsic part of it would stipulate that Soviet cinema could be divided into three separate schools (by “schools” I mean spheres and/or origins of influence). There is the Dziga Vertov school, the Alexander Dovzhenko school, and of course the Sergei Eisenstein school of filmmaking. By looking at the heritage of Soviet cinema in such broad strokes, categorization of a film becomes relatively simple. If Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven has any relation at all to these three “schools” then it is surely to that of Dovzhenko. Like Dovzhenko, and later Parajanov, Loteanu’s cinema is preoccupied with insular cultures trapped within the USSR. All three filmmakers employ expressionistic camera angles and moves to convey a mysticism that while always remaining ambiguous never loses its inherent familiarity, like reiterations of motifs from almost forgotten fairytales. Loteanu is not as gifted an image maker as Dovzhenko though, nor is he an avant gardist innovator like Parajanov. Emil Loteanu opts to negate controversy and to derive much of the power of his films from his long collaboration with the composer Eugen Doga.

Those familiar with Loteanu’s much more popular international co-production Anna Pavlova (1983) may be surprised that most of the filmmaker’s career was as defined by his literary adaptations as by their music. Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven is a musical; produced during the height of Loteanu’s collaboration with Eugen Doga. In adapting Maxim Gorky’s short stories Makar Chudra and Old Izergil for the screen, Loteanu conjures images of gypsies that look shockingly like those images we have come to associate with European Westerns. This is not entirely surprising when one considers the social and political parallels between outlaws, bandits and gypsies within the two seemingly disparate cultures. Gypsies serve many of the same functions in Russian folklore as Westerns do in American and Western European traditions in terms of providing a romantic depiction of a societal “outsider” and the moral code that both isolates the “outsider” while also drawing the “outsider” into the fabric of our shared moral understandings which, at times, differ from the laws of our society.

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

The romantic depictions of gypsy outlaws and their Robin Hood existence are all designed so that within a sequence a musical climax is reached, erupting from fable to musical ecstasy and flamboyance. The economy of images in Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven privileges wide shots that ground characters either within the context of a mass (the gypsy communities) or of a location (urban versus pastoral). Balancing this aesthetic program is Loteanu’s use of POV close-ups. The close-ups in Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven are sensual and emotional, using a shallow depth of field to isolate subjects in the center of frame, confrontationally communicating emotion in a manner that is almost direct address. The spatial discrepancies between wide shots and POV close ups make up a rhythm that coincides with the rising and falling of Doga’s music in the soundtrack. Often the film will, as a scene progresses, speed up the rate of cutting in anticipation of the music and then, once the song has begun, cut to the beat of the music. This dialogue between the auditory and the visual in the film, its ebb and flow, is well suited to the gypsy folk style of music, imbuing the film with an overall sense of folkloric fantasy and the sort of revelry one associates with such spectacles.

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven finds its most entrancing and memorable images in the scenes between the ill fated lovers Rada (Svetlana Toma) and Zobar (Grigore Grigoriu). The scene where Rada appears almost like a phantom out of a thicket to tend Zobar’s wounds contains the most expressionistic of shots in the film. As Rada approaches Zobar with her hand out, the camera takes a position twenty degrees to her right, with a shallow focus that is sharp only on her hand. This eerie emergence gives way to their sensual exchange as Rada tends Zobar’s wounds, conveying to us, in visual terms, that it is Rada who is seducing Zobar (an interesting role reversal).

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

One of the reasons that Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven is not better known in the West today may in fact be due largely to its relative “low-brow” stature and wide commercial appeal. The year Loteanu made Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven also saw the release of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975). Though Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven may hold the record for the widest release of a Russian film in all of time (and made an international star out of Svetlana Toma), it doesn’t have the intellectual merits of a film by Tarkovsky, which is to say that it can never find its stride with a contemporary Western audience whose motive in seeing most foreign films is predicated by the notion that a foreign film should affirm one’s intelligence and cultural literacy.

-Robert Curry


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The Last Bolshevik

            Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik (1992) presents itself as a film about Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin (best known for the feature film Happiness), but if one goes beyond its promotional materials and synopses The Last Bolshevik is, in reality, a cine-essay concerned not just with a single film director but the political environment that dictated the construction and composition of that director’s, as well as his peers’, images.  Chris Marker’s career was dedicated to the investigation of images, their circumstance, context, politics, content, composition, poetry, etc.  And what better subject is there to quell Marker’s appetite than a film dealing with the career of one of the most obscure yet iconoclastic filmmakers working in Stalinist Russia?


            Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is right in pointing out in his book Movies As Politics that Marker’s relationship and understanding of Medyedkin’s career is dependent on Marker’s radical left-bank activities in Paris during the summer of 1968 when the two filmmakers first met.  As evidenced by William Klein’s film Mr. Freedom (1969), the radicals of the left bank were obsessive in their investigation and perverted appropriation of communist slogans and other forms of propaganda.  But the desired ends for the revolutions of October and May were not entirely the same, other than a similarly idealistic hope for positive reform.  Yet, if one assumes a perspective subjective to that of Chris Marker and his film’s subject one is immediately struck by just how close the two ideologies are to becoming identical.  Both Marker and Alexander Medvedkin believe in Utopia and, through their affected approach to montage, launch investigations as to why Utopia has not yet been achieved.  From this standpoint The Last Bolshevik must be read as a personal inquisition on Marker’s part as to what mechanisms, both political and uniquely filmic, allow for revolution to become so quickly derailed by the revolutionaries themselves.  Of course there is no answer to Marker’s inquisition, only the refining of his questions and an achieved understanding that, given it is afforded only through second hand testimony, is not totally reliable but absolutely as subjective as it is illustrative.

The majority of The Last Bolshevik is composed of the testimonials of persons who either knew or studied Alexander Medvedkin.  The subjects who have only academic experience with Medvedkin are as dependent on the testimony of the persons who knew Medvedkin as Marker is, and their remembrances can be, at times, as contradictory as the testimonials in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981).  For Chris Marker these inconsistencies and minor continuity errors in memory are of little importance because he is able to supplement their errors with images.

            Upon watching The Last Bolshevik one is immediately struck by how long Marker must have sifted through the many archives that survive in Russia to assemble his footage.  Then one is struck again by how carefully he has observed it, at one time freezing on a frame of an aerial view of a reenactment of the storming of The Winter Palace and citing that a photograph exists from standard eye level that is often passed-off as being contemporary to the real event being re-made for the camera in the air.  The obsessive approach Marker has taken is further evidence of his aesthetic link to the Soviet directors of the twenties and thirties.  In one instance, during The Last Bolshevik, Marker quotes Alexander Medvedkin’s retelling of how he wept the first time he cut two images together for one of his newsreels, that he (Alexander Medvedkin) was overwhelmed by the power those two images possessed when coupled together.  This exemplifies the connection between Marker and his subject while at the same time revealing how far more dependent The Last Bolshevik is on its images rather than the remembrances that play on its soundtrack.

            It is therefore important to contextualize The Last Bolshevik within the moment of its production in 1992 (five years after Alexander Medvedkin’s death at the age of 89).  Documentary film and historical cine-essays had adopted the Errol Morris aesthetic popularized by his film The Thin Blue Line (1988) where the content of the film would not exist without the soundtrack of testimonials and remembrances.  The Last Bolshevik, and arguably Peter Watkins’ The Freethinker of the same year, calls for a return to an image based communication in non-fiction filmmaking.


            However, unlike most non-fiction films, The Last Bolshevik is as determined to display and investigate the relationship between juxtaposed images as it is to bringing factual information to its audience.  With elaborate montages Chris Marker shows his audience as much about Alexander Medvedkin and his socio-political environment as his subjects tell the audience.  This strategy, even if it had failed, would have at the very least demonstrated the aesthetic theory behind the works of Soviet Cinema that the film is all about.

-Robert Curry

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Shot between 1973 and 1975, and released in 1982, Elem Klimov’s film of the life of Grigori Rasputin, titled Agony, is one of the watershed films with regard to the decline of Soviet Censorship.  Like the films of Sergei Paradjanov, Klimov intended his film to be an expressionistic recreation of a particular chapter in Russian history.  However, Klimov’s film would differ considerably, utilizing filmic techniques derivative of documentary filmmaking and a contemporary approach to psychological profiling.  It was Klimov’s interest in illusory realism that prevented Agony from being released in the seventies.

agoniyaThe principle reason why Agony was not allowed distribution in 1975 was because of Klimov’s portrayal of Tsar Nicholas II (Anatoli Romashin).  Klimov does not depict Russia’s final Tsar as a tyrant not as a buffoon.  Instead, Klimov favors a portrayal that is far more naturalistic.  The problems facing the Imperial family are not solely the fault of Nicholas II in Klimov’s film.  Klimov attributes the conflicts and difficulties facing the Imperial Cabinet to corruption throughout, and to the Tsar’s distracted behavior that is often the result of his son’s illness.

The distribution of guilt and its humanizing effect is reinforced by Klimov’s employment of title cards that bear the name of a character when said character first appears.  This is an approach more closely associated with documentary filmmaking, though in this instance appears almost Brechtian.  Klimov adopts the mechanism to give his film the illusion of being a legitimate account of history.  The tactic is only an illusion in Agony designed to convince the audience to accept Klimov’s narrative as recreated fact, that on close inspection is undermined by the films own expressionistic visual tendencies.

The naturalism of the actor’s performances in Agony and its fusion of narrative realism and documentary filmmaking is given a counter point in a number of more fantastic sequences that either occur within a character’s dream or in a location of surreal design.  All of Agony’s more expressionist sequences coincide with the character of Rasputin (Aleksey Petrenko).  Rasputin was a mystic and Holy healer, and these fantasy images work as illustrative interpretations of the popular Russian idea of Rasputin as well as psychological manifestations of Rasputin’s own madness.  For instance, there is one horrific dream sequence in which Rasputin appears among pine trees, illuminated by flashing lights with small gold coins placed over his eyes.  The soundtrack that accompanies this sequence is equally aggressive and coincides with the images to create a decontextualized sequence designed to emote the prophetic nature of Rasputin’s teachings.

agonyOddly enough, Rasputin is no more villainized in Agony than Nicholas II.  Klimov’s depiction of Rasputin is almost objective, and never once plays into the clichés of the character that have been propagated in Western Cinema.  If one compares the Rasputin of Agony to Lionel Barrymore’s Rasputin in Rasputin & The Empress (1932), one is inevitably struck by how sympathetic Klimov’s Rasputincan be one moment and not the next.  That Aleksey Petrenko was able to negate the two dimensionality of Barrymore’s Rasputin is one of the film’s greatest blessings.

The sum of the parts of Agony is what makes the film the landmark in Soviet Cinema that it is.  Unlike the works of Tarkovsky or Paradjanov, Klimov’s Agony is not entirely invested in fantasy or neo-expressionism as a means of filmic story telling.  Nor is Agony exclusively tied to the quiet socialist realism that marks the trend in the films of Larisa Shepitko (Klimov’s wife).  Klimov fuses both styles together, aligning every sequence to utilize the power of either style to its full potential without ever isolating the audience in the process.

-Robert Curry

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