FILMS OF THE THAW.

In my long march through Russian history and literature, I’ve reached the early ’60s, and in the last few days I’ve watched a few of the most famous movies from the period of liberalization after Stalin’s death (named for Ehrenburg‘s novel The Thaw, which I don’t feel the need to read, since it’s not considered very good—though I did read Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone, also not very good but an interesting picture of life in the late ’40s and early ’50s). Two of them I’d already seen, many years ago, and it was interesting to revisit them with greater maturity and understanding of context. I enjoyed Ballad of a Soldier, but was more impatient with its longueurs and amateur lead actors than I had been as a beardless youth who identified with the thwarted lovers. This time around I found the opening and closing scenes with the soldier’s mother magnificent and the segment with the bitter cripple Vasya (played by Yevgeni Urbansky, dead at thirty-three a few years later) powerful and well written, but I rolled my eyes at the endless shots of rolling wheels and yearning puppy-love eyes. I guess I’m getting old and cynical. The Cranes Are Flying, however, holds up well; it still feels like a masterpiece on both the human and the purely cinematic levels. From the opening scenes of careless prewar joy to the devastating final sequence, it never lets up, and deserved the prizes it won.
The revelation for me was Seryozha (also known as Splendid Days and A Summer to Remember). Movies about children are usually dumb, drippy, disposable, or all three; there are very few that focus on the children themselves rather than their effects on the adults around them, take their problems and worldview utterly seriously, and are made with the kind of artistry that enables them to withstand comparison to [insert your top-ten movie list here]. For me, the gold standard has been Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home?; I can now add Seryozha to the list. Unfortunately, while Ballad of a Soldier and The Cranes are Flying are available in excellent Criterion editions with good subtitles (linked to their titles), Seryozha doesn’t seem to be available on DVD at all; if you know Russian, you can watch it online here (YouTube, 76 min.). The end got me all choked up, and I’m not really much of a sentimental fool.

Comments

  1. Thanks for mentioning that the film version of Seryozha is available online: I thoroughly enjoyed the novella when I read it a couple years ago. Based on your recommendation, I’ll have to watch the film!

  2. I have a better quality DVD-rip file of Seryozha, let me know if you’d like me to make it available foryou. It is the debut movie of Georgiy Danelia (Георгий Данелия), in my opinion the best post-war Soviet movie director, I would venture to say that all his movies are worth seeing, especially Осенний Марафон and Мимино. he also has wonderful memoirs: http://lib.aldebaran.ru/author/daneliya_georgii/daneliya_georgii_tostuemyi_pet_do_dna/

  3. Thanks for the recommendations; I’ll watch the movies and read the memoirs!

  4. Thanks for that, Steven! I would also recommend Осенний марафон, which I enjoyed years ago: it was one of the first Russian/Soviet films I watched. Somehow, I never seem to get around to Мимино, which a friend lent to me ages ago…

  5. Forgive my hijacking the comment thread, but since we are discussing classic Russian films — when I was too little to remember much, my parents dragged me to a B&W movie (pre-WW2?) about two Russian orphan boys. It must have been about czarist Russia, because at the very close they are given a home by an man whom I recall as an Orthodox priest or monk. Some images from it remain, and I would love to find it again if I could.

  6. I second Lisa’s thanks. One of my favourite child-centred films ever is Tarkovsky’s Иваново детство (although not my gold standard, a distinction that falls to Ray’s Pather Panchali), and it’ll be good to add another Russian take on the subject.

  7. Yes, Pather Panchali is one of mine as well; I love Иваново детство, but it’s a little too grim for me to think of it as of my favorite child-centered films.

  8. I second Seryozha, both the film and Vera Panova’s novella. She was probably the first to restore in Russian literature the subtle realistic portrayal of intimate movements in human soul, a feature that had practically disappeared in the 30s-50s period.
    Second Danelia’s later work too, The Autumn Marathon and Mimino, absolute greats. The Marathon made Dostoyevsky’s word ‘oblizyana’ popular again.
    From the early 60s I’d recommend Marlen Khutsiev’s ‘I Am Twenty’(“Мне двадцать лет” or “Застава Ильича”) with cameo roles by Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky and a long sequence of the poetic reading in Polytechnical museum with Akhmadulina, Yevtushenko, Voznesensky and others. It’s on YouTube.
    And another one with the young Nikita Mikhalkov – ‘I Step Through Moscow’(“Я шагаю по Москве”), also on YouTube. It is another of Danelia’s early films with a catchy song, still popular today. The camera is by Tarkovsky’s famous collaborator Vadim Yusov.

  9. there are very few that focus on the children themselves rather than their effects on the adults around them, take their problems and worldview utterly seriously, and are made with the kind of artistry that enables them to withstand comparison to [insert your top-ten movie list here].
    No one mentioned Spirit of the Beehive yet? (Sorry, bit late with this comment).

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