‘Whom were almost 90% of the films made for? Nobody could answer this question’
Director Andrey Smirnov about banned films and not completely exposed Stalinism
The Memory and Mourning Day was on 22 June, while parades in honour of the 75th Anniversary of the Victory took place in many cities of the country on 24 June. Russian cinematography, including masters who came to cinematography in the 60s, has helped save the memory of the war for many years. Realnoe Vremya talked with film director Andrey Smirnov about how to save the memory of the war, the attitude to communism of different “generations” in the 60s and banned films.
“I don’t think that Mr Shukshin believed in communism”
Mr Smirnov, if we have a look at the films of the 60s, it feels like many youngsters didn’t stop believing in communism anyway. Is this true?
No, it is a misbelief. The youth in culture didn’t believe in any communism, they realised the price of that regime. When we studied in Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, it was already rumoured about the film directed by Marlen Khutsiyev (I Am Twenty, or Lenin’s Guard), and the rumours were amazed. Marlen was an opponent in our diploma defence — we were grateful to him, we esteemed him, and when his film wasn’t ready yet, before the scandal with Khruschyov’s criticism of this film, Khutsiyev had shown this material to us. It had some 70% of what was included to the film, but when I, a 19-year-old lad, saw a workers’ patrol crossing the Red Square, I exchanged views with my mate — this film cut everything. We understood that if the final ends with the Soviet ideology, it was a soap bubble.
Those lads who studied with me weren’t keen on Marx anymore but critics of Marxism and Communism — Roger Garaudy who was hardly translated in the USSR, Milovan Đilas who was not published in the USSR at all. Some people among us who managed to cross the threshold of the church with Soviet education.
But Khutsiyev unlikely made up something illustrating young people who believe in Communism in Lenin’s Guard, as well as perhaps scriptwriter Gennady Shpalikov.
Those who were 5-6 years older than we talked about faith in communism. While my friends and I didn’t anymore.
Did, for instance, Shukshin believe in communism during those years?
I don’t think that Mr Shukshin believed in communism. He had a tough childhood, he knew first-hand what a Soviet village was like, moreover, his father was shot to kill, his family was boycotted, and I don’t think he could come to become a loyal communist. We were friends, but it is hard for me to speak about Shukshin’s ideology.
One can have any belief, of course, but there is life itself, and it completely contradicted what newspapers, radio and television voiced. If you aren’t stupid, you will draw a conclusion yourself, without any guidance. You go to a grocery store, and there is an eternal deficit there, an eternal queue, earnings don’t comply with a person’s normal needs, as a rule, they were low, pensioners went begging.
Those who were 5-6 years older than we talked about faith in communism. While my friends and I didn’t anymore
“We saw no difference between Khruschyov and Brezhnev — the revolution in Hungary was suppressed under Khruschyov, the revolution in Czechoslovakia was under Brezhnev”
Mr Smirnov, but young people were proud of Gagarin’s flight, fearlessly participated in big construction projects, Khruschyov rescued people from the fear of Stalinism, neither did Brezhnev return to Stalin’s practice.
Of course, Gagarin’s flight was a red-letter day, moreover, we all weren’t strange to patriotism, we weren’t. The word “patriot” became offensive only today, while at that moment we all wanted to live in Russia. But many, even those who believed in communism, wanted to see it different, not the way it was for us. And we saw no difference between Khruschyov and Brezhnev — the revolution in Hungary was suppressed under Khruschyov, the revolution in 1986 in Czechoslovakia was under Brezhnev, then Afghanistan broke out under him. We didn’t need any campaign, we needed only eyes and the brain.
All right, you saw and knew more than most youth did. What a model of the country did you friends considered correct?
All colleagues and friends were different in this respect, we didn’t have parties, and there were various concepts about the correct model. One thing was in common — the feeling that this ideology was fake, the gloominess of the reality. Many young people, except for inveterate careerists, had it. We knew what the Central Committee, KGB were, each of us faced them sooner or later, that’s it took colossal efforts to make young people believe in communism, and it was impossible to do.
At 22, I already was an absolutely conscious anti-communist, I absolutely believed this regime would collapse sooner or later. But I thought it would collapse outside my worldly life and that my children would live in a more or less normal regime.
Did you see this regime in the USA, Britain, France?
Well... Any of the countries you have enumerated has two things — a liberal economy and parliamentary democracy. And I was sure that Russia’s future could be only such. But even now all this remains a dream of our future, but anyway...
I thought after watching the film Frenchman, you could consider the French model was the optimal political model for our country. Isn’t this true?
The thing is that I first visited France when I was 16. I studied in a French special school, and in the ninth grade, in 1957 (when the beginning of my last film begins), we, nine blockheads, were sent to this country for a month. We spent two weeks in Paris, another two — in a place like our pioneer camps. It was called a holiday camp and placed in the south of France, in the Pyrenees.
I got some idea of France, but it never seemed to me a worldly paradise. Moreover, some of my French friends didn’t like what’s happening in their country like we didn’t like the Soviet reality. But we were afraid to open our mouths, while our French mates felt absolutely free.
At 22, I already was an absolutely conscious anti-communist, I absolutely believed this regime would collapse sooner or later. But I thought it would collapse outside my worldly life and that my children would live in a more or less normal regime
“The story often ended with a Political Bureau member’s mother-in-law watching the film. This could determine its fate”
In the film Frenchman, the main character looks for his father who saw service in the White Army. It is known that your first film, banned Angel, was about the Civil War where the Whites were one of the main characters. Was it your idea to find such a theme?
No. I received a proposal from Chukhray’s experimental studio, it was based on Yury Oleshi’s amazing story Angel. And the scene where the commissar was laid on the anvil and killed saying: “Here is your sickle and hammer!” was enough to be interested in this proposal. And when we working on the script, preparing for the shooting, the formula was simple: we show the Civil War not as an entertaining victory of the Reds over the Whites but as a national tragedy of all Russians.
But our formula was considered as boldness. I was claimed the film was an ideological diversion, slander against the Russian people. And the character of a kind of lumpenproletariat that was amazingly performed by Nikolay Gubenko made the functionaries especially angry. Moreover, a lot of violent scenes were cut from the first version — so that the film would be approved, we tried to meet censorship halfway and got rid of the scene I feel pity for now.
Did not they remain in the archives?
No, everything was destroyed. And the vice minister said after a discussion: “We will help you to change the job!” And I couldn’t find a job for several years. Though I did something on television, wrote scripts for slide films, but everything I offered Mosfilm was rejected.
By the way, as for banned films. Do you think that Brezhnev’s functionaries and party big wigs have bigger merit in banning films? Because we know that many banned films were shot to “Dear Lenin”, while few will remember the films banned from showing by Khruschyov...
What are you talking about? Shveitser’s film Sasha Goes Out wasn’t allowed under Khruschyov. In general when I chaired the USSR Union of Cinematographers from 1987 as acting first board secretary of the union, the so-called conflict commission led by critic Andrey Plakhov began to operate. The commission began to rake the cellar of the State Film Fund and whole cinematography was banned — more than 280 films. They included documentaries, popular science films, fiction films and even cartoons. It was the works shot and banned from the first steps of the Soviet power in the 20s, 30s, 40s and throughout the Soviet power. Brezhnev had never dreamed about innovation.
Some facts say that the secretary general who watched a film at dacha decided the fate of the film. But some films were banned, while others, which were badly received first, anyway were given the green light — Chairman, Silence, Lenin’s Guard, Andrey Rublyov. Why?
The head of the country isn’t the case here. Of course, the director general of Mosfilm sent a new film to Political Bureau members first, but Brezhnev or Khruschov weren’t necessarily the main spectators but Suslov, Grishin were. The story often ended with only a Political Bureau member’s mother-in-law watching the film, and this already could determine its fate.
When we working on the script, preparing for the shooting, the formula was simple: we show the Civil War not as an entertaining victory of the Reds over the Whites but as a national tragedy of all Russians
Didn’t Angel get to the dacha of the party’s top?
No, of course, everything limited to the State Cinema Committee.
What did your father, writer Sergey Smirnov think of such a situation?
He didn’t like the film. Everything in it seemed violent, naturalistic to him. My father simply had different tastes.
Did he think its ban logical?
We didn’t talk about this topic, if it was logical or not. It was a fact we had to accept.
“1,500 films were shot in 10 years, but more than ten films were rarely successful during the year”
Some film experts say that the best films in our cinematography were shot precisely in the 60s. Do you agree?
This seems to me funny. 150 feature films were already made in the country in the 60s — some 40 films at Mosfilm, fewer at Lenfilm, in Kyiv and in provincial studios. When I worked in the Union of Cinematographers, we set a goal to objectively evaluate cinematography we worked in and created two commissions for it. One committee was in our union, the other was though created under the State Film Committee included cinematographers too, not only functionaries. We decided to evaluate a “neutral” decade — from 1970 to 1980 and asked the commissions to analyse all films from a perspective of box office sales, critics’ opinions.
We saw that Boris Durov’s film 21st-Century Pirates broke all records of all Mexican and Brazilian films that were shown in the USSR during that year, and though the film was bad according to my colleagues, it was a record, and we considered it. We analysed how many films were successful, how many serious auteur films there were, and the result astonished us: 1,500 films were shot in 10 years, but more than ten films were rarely successful during the year. This happened only when Gaidai’s comedy, Ryazanov’s comedy, some adventure film were released during the year, while there were mainly seven or as maximum eight films of this kind.
As for auteur films, few of them were successful. It was considered a great success if Tarkovsky, Ioseliani and something like this was shown during the year — three or four. It turned out that only 15% of all films made during the year were successful. Whom were almost 90% of the films made for? Nobody could answer this question. This happened year after year. Of course, our cinema had amazing artists, there was a coincidence of circumstances when a film managed to be released — like the same film My Friend Ivan Lapshin by German.
If we simply enumerate humane, kind films, many will remember films of the 60s — When the Trees Were Tall, The Girls, There Is Such a Lad, Father of a Soldier, Alyosha’s Love, Queen of the Gas Station and many others.
But such films of the 60s were a drop in the ocean of bad films in fact. And the 70s aren’t worse compared to them — there were exceptions too.
Studio directors, film vice ministers, a film minister himself who decided the fate of a film weren’t very cultured and educated people, they had only ideological complaints, but actually the films that were banned were banned, first of all, because of artistic means they were made with
If we go back to banned films, were they all successful?
You know, when the expert board watched the material that was shot in the studio, it could see the director couldn’t deal with the material, and the film was under control. They could change the director or appoint an art director to him because the film had to be on the screen to justify public money spent on it. The studio simply couldn’t accept that a sum of 2-3 million could be thrown to the litter bin and put effort to save the film and deliver it to the State Film Committee, release it.
This is why you won’t find bad films among these banned films! (Laughing). A film was banned on ideological grounds. The case is that studio directors, film vice ministers, a film minister himself who decided the fate of a film weren’t very cultured and educated people (Vice Minister Vladimir Baskakov was an exception), they had only ideological complaints, but actually the films that were banned were banned, first of all, because of artistic means they were made with. What ideological complaints could there be about Trial on the Road? Functionaries were simply shocked at the language of such films — German’s film seemed to be harsh and bold. What is the film Commissar? In fact, it is a childish illustration of the communist ideology, but the administration didn’t like the artistic means this film was made with.
“The country didn’t deal with Stalin properly — Stalinism hasn’t been exposed”
Film masters could back the fate of films. Whose opinion was authoritative for the CPSU CC? Was it Bondarchuk, Gerasimov?
I don’t know such cases. Romm did his best defending his students — for Shukshin, Tarkovsky, me and Yashin. And Belarusian Station was released mainly because Romm backed the film, while it was closed four times! Yes, Romm protected films, but I don’t know other examples.
Mr Smirnov, several days after the Mourning Day, the country hosted Victory parades. Do you agree with the authorities that the memory of the Great Patriotic War must be the foundation of our country?
No, I don’t. The Victory Day became a militarist holiday: suffice it to mention the formula “We Can Repeat It!” Do they agree to kill 40 million? It is disgusting and tasteless.
I think that the Victory holiday, first of all, should be celebrated in cemeteries, near graves of those who fell for the Victory, celebrate it in churches, not in the Red Square.
Fine, let’s imagine that once the Victory Day won’t be celebrated pompously. But how to save the memory of the war? Knowledge of new generations of it is terrible compared to it. What should we do if parades and ribbons don’t suit?
The book on school history must be real for this purpose. It must be written not by contemporary “patriots” but a real historian so that any village will study this book. And, of course, a lot turns on television programmes — current military programmes by the so-called “patriots” cause in my nothing disgust.
One should know the astronomic price Russia, all the USSR paid for the Victory, know how shameful the year 1941 and a part of 1942 were for us, know about the unpreparedness of the army, incredible victims in the pots of 1941-1942 — because this is still ignored and isn’t realised fully
How should these programmes be made?
Making such programmes, one should know the astronomic price Russia, all the USSR paid for the Victory, know how shameful the year 1941 and a part of 1942 were for us, know about the unpreparedness of the army, incredible victims in the pots of 1941-1942 — because this is still ignored and isn’t realised fully. However, we are now started to be said about Stalin as the architect of the Victory — then we should say what Stalin did both in 1941 in 1942 removed the officer corp before the war. The country didn’t deal with Stalin properly — Stalinism hasn’t been exposed.