Sunday, 19 February 2012

Russia and 'Russitania'

I've just seen for the first time two old films, both set in 'old' Russia, both beautifully made B&W features, both very much of their times (the Forties and Fifties). Each looks back however to depict a particular vision of Russia during an earlier historical period: they cover the pre-Revolutionary era and WW2, embracing both melodrama and drama, kitsch and tragedy – courtesy of Moscow and Hollywood. Two inevitably different views of course – poles apart, fantastical or neoRealist – of Russia and what one might label 'Russitania'.

I'd highly recommend Summer Storm (d. Douglas Sirk, 1944), taken from Chekhov's only novel The Shooting Party, itself a little known yet fascinating piece of early crime fiction. Sirk was a wonderful director, another of those talented European emigrĂ©s to Hollywood, and he assembled an odd but splendid trio of leads: George Sanders, Edward Everett Horton, Linda Darnell – and even Sig Ruman as the latter's drunken dad! The lovely and planturous Linda D. plays a splendid femme fatale, not at all a fairhaired Chekovian belle paysanne, but superb and statuesque nonetheless. In his film review of July 1944, the great James Agee wrote of "Linda Darnell, flashing her eyes and teeth and flexing her glands at both men", adding wistfully, "since, in general appearance she is a kind of person I can imagine going on all fours for, especially if I were a provincial judge, I thought her not entirely ill cast." Sanders is Sanders, witty, worldweary and irreplaceable. He was actually closer to Chekhov than the other thesps (born, after all, in St Petersburg); indeed, David Thomson has remarked on the unique Sanders style of "ostentatious and articulate disdain", brilliantly comparing him to "an amused, intelligent and playful Nabokov narrator". Many incidental pleasures too, in this studio-bound but highly entertaining Russitanian flick – another fine dvd reissue.

As for Mikhail Kalatovov's 1958 Cannes prizewinner, The Cranes Are Flying, it's moving and gruelling, a big international breakthrough for post-war Soviet cinema, and a truly gripping anti-militarist piece. What's more, there's another, very different and equally gorgeous female lead, the beautiful and redoubtable Tatiana Samoilova, the great-niece of Stanislavski, no less! Film historian and distinguished documentarist Basil Wright has noted (1974) that here "we at last find a heroine of character, indeed of a certain elegance, very much unlike the puddingy future hausfrauen of the cliche-ridden Stalinist cinema." Apart from what Wright calls its "technical exuberance" the film is a salutary reminder of the sacrifices made by ordinary Russians during WW2 (their losses – around forty million dead – were on a scale scarcely imaginable to us today). Samoilova is deeply affecting while everyone, given the tragic nature of the story, seems to 'exist' on the screen, rather than 'act': this was very much a picture of the real world, rather than a skilfully contrived studio fantasy. But both these films, so expertly made, in their quite different ways provide unforgettable images and performances which, once seen, will surely linger in the minds of anyone who loves what Lenin called 'The Tenth Muse'.

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