Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books Ledizioni Di/Segni Reading russia, vol. 3 A “Shady Affair”? Reading the Rus...

Reading russia, vol. 3

 | 
Damiano Rebecchini
, 
Raffaella Vassena

Part III. After the Bolshevik Revolution

A “Shady Affair”? Reading the Russian Classics in Late Soviet Cinema1

Catriona Kelly

Texte intégral

  • 1   The research for this chapter was carried out with the support of the Arts and Humanities Researc (...)

1Filmmakers are among the most influential readers of literary texts. But are they good ones? Are these ‘readings’ like any others, or ones with a particular, perhaps seditious, influence and authority? How precisely does the ‘reading’ process work when a text is relocated from the domain of verbal signs to visual signs? In the “long century” since cinema began, these questions have preoccupied authors, cinematographers, critics, viewers, and more recently, dozens of cultural theorists and historians. While the making of (almost) any film requires a relocation from verbal to visual —from initial creative work in the form of treatments, scripts, budgets and other planning documents, as well as correspondence with regulatory and funding bodies, to the film itself as a sequence of images— this process is placed in plain view and becomes particularly controversial when it relates to a literary text that is generally considered to be a masterpiece. Adaptations of such texts reach audiences of millions and, if successful, may challenge or blur impressions of the written sources on which they are based. The core assumption, whether among literary professionals or ordinary readers, is often that the process inevitably involves a significant shift not only of sign systems, but also of aesthetic status. Films diminish; they distort; they simplify. The very terms ‘original’ and ‘adaptation’ engrain such an interpretation, suggesting an inescapable secondariness in the results of the transformative process.

  • 2   See, for example, B. McFarlane, Novel to Film (Oxford, 1996); C. Della Coletta, When Stories Trav (...)
  • 3   R. Meyer, “Dostoevskii’s ‘White Nights’: The Dreamer Goes Abroad,” in A. Burry, F. H. White (eds. (...)

2For the past 30 or 40 years, however, writers such as Linda Hutcheon, David Bordwell, David Macfarlane, Cristina Della Coletta and many others have energetically challenged this interpretation of how ‘reading’ in film works.2 The new model of relations between literary and cinematic texts emphasises the autonomy of the latter. Rather than a transcendent ‘original’ and a ‘copy’ shaped, to more or less successful aesthetic effect, by direct contact with this, such analyses posit a whole range of ‘hypertexts’ that help to mould a director’s work. For instance, Luchino Visconti’s film version of Dostoevskii’s White Nights made such an enormous impact in the cinema that later movie versions of the story owed at least as much to Visconti as to Dostoevskii himself.3

  • 4   The importance and specific profile of film studios in socialist countries makes it all the more (...)

3Such a view of how film directors work as readers is significantly more sophisticated than the idea that they simply pick up a given book and attempt to impose their own interpretation on it. But all the same, the understanding has limitations. Particularly, it remains circumscribed by an auteurist view of the cinematic process, according to which important decisions are made by the director alone. Yet film is a collective art, its effects depending on large numbers of ‘readings’ by different artists (from camera operators to costume designers, sound engineers to conductors)—not to speak of editors, producers, and studio management. Nowhere was this more true than in the late Soviet film studio, where “film factories” were huge operations, employing staffs of many thousands, and where output was processed by government and Communist Party bureaucracies as well as the administrative hierarchy of the studio itself.4

  • 5   See e.g. V. Fomin (ed.), Polka. Dokumenty. Svidetel’stva. Kommentarii, (Moscow, 1992); J. Woll, R (...)

4The most familiar element of all this is the bureaucratic control that is usually referred to in the West as ‘censorship,’ and which tends to be perceived exclusively as an impediment to the creative process. In analyses of this kind, the editors working in studios and in regulatory bodies such as Goskino (the State Film Committee) are certainly perceived as ‘readers,’ but particularly slow-witted and obstinate ones, committed to imposing their own political, moral, and aesthetic perceptions on long-suffering filmmakers.5

5Such an interpretation undoubtedly captures part of what making films in the socialist state was about. Both private diaries and semi-public materials such as discussions inside Soviet film studios make clear that filmmakers often found the process of regulation (in the term then in use, “control” [kontrol’] or “filtration” [fil’tratsiia]) annoying and deeply frustrating. But they also valued cooperation and advice. And a finished film, whether for worse or (in a significant number of cases) better, bore the traces of commentaries and criticism by editors, colleagues such as other directors and members of the film crew, associates, family, and friends—whether expressed in formal statements or in chats over cups of coffee in the studio café or over a drink in a private apartment. This process of ‘reading’ became still more fluid and unpredictable when the script for the movie was, so to speak, in ‘the public domain’ — a published literary work, and particularly when it was one bearing the lustre of generations of readership.

6A case in point was director Igor Maslennikov’s ‘reading’ of Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades (Pikovaia dama, 1834) in his made-for-TV movie produced at the Leningrad film studio during 1981-1982. Contrary to the usual image of the lone genius struggling to realise his or her artistic vision in the teeth of opposition from obtuse bureaucrats, the history of the film was racked by vehement disputes about how to adapt Pushkin’s text and about the practices of interpretation more broadly. In turn, the comments and interpretations by different kinds of readers and viewers, rather than impeding the creative process, became part of this. It is this urgent, improvised work by many diverse and argumentative readers of Pushkin’s text, and its relation to the status of the cinema and literary classics and of the relationship between these in Soviet culture, which I propose to explore in this chapter. Discussion in the form of a case study allows recourse to a much wider range of documents than is usually employed for the analysis of Soviet film. But as I shall show, while the results of Maslennikov’s adaptation were in some respects unusual, the argument about it illuminates many typical features of reading practices in Lenfil’m, the studio where it was made, and indeed, the late Soviet cinema more generally.

  • 6   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 40, d. 81, l. 133 (record of discussion at the Artistic Council of the T (...)

7“I would like to thank Igor’ Maslennikov and his group for agreeing to get mixed up in this ‘shady affair’ [temnoe delo].” With these words film director Vitalii Mel’nikov, head of the television unit of Lenfil’m studio, introduced, on 22 April 1982, the studio discussion of The Queen of Spades.6 Mel’nikov’s comment had a partly humorous intent. What, after all, could be more respectable than the attempt to film this famous text, already adapted at least a dozen times on celluloid, and also the subject of Chaikovskii’s opera (which, in the late Soviet period, was no less canonical a work than the original novella)? In 1960, indeed, Roman Tikhomirov had made a successful ‘film-opera’ at Lenfil’m, making full use of opulent historical settings, with handsome leads, and received well both in the studio and outside.

Production still from Roman Tikhomirov’s The Queen of Spades, 1960, showing filming on the Winter Canal alongside the Hermitage. Courtesy Lenfil’m Studio.

Production still from Roman Tikhomirov’s The Queen of Spades, 1960, showing filming on the Winter Canal alongside the Hermitage. Courtesy Lenfil’m Studio.

8Yet by the time the discussion took place, Lenfil’m’s Queen of Spades had been repeatedly blighted. Igor’ Maslennikov was in fact the third director officially engaged to transfer Pushkin’s story to the cinema. The first choice, according to archival records, was Mikhail Kozakov (1934-2011), an actor and stage director as well as a film director. Kozakov had worked extensively in 1979-1980 with writer Aleksandr Shlepianov (b. 1933) to produce the original script. But on 13 October 1980 he cabled the studio pulling out “because of my inability to find a successful directorial angle.”

  • 7   See the materials of the script file (stsenarnoe delo], TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 40, d. 37, ll. 1 (...)

9Lenfil’m’s administration at first considered passing the project on to young director Konstantin Lopushanskii (b. 1947), who was just completing work on Solo, his debut film, set during the Leningrad Blockade. However, perhaps because of Lopushanskii’s lack of television experience, the discussion came to nothing, and the next director with whom the studio signed a contract was Taganka actor Anatoly Vasil’ev (b. 1939), who had been pursuing a parallel career as a TV director since 1970. But in May 1981, Vasil’ev’s relations with lead actor Aleksandr Kaidanovskii (1946-1995), cast as Hermann, the story’s protagonist, broke down completely, and production halted again. With evident desperation, Vitalii Provotorov, General Director of Lenfil’m, wrote to the management of Soviet central television describing Maslennikov’s candidacy as “the only possibility” of rescuing the film from ruin.7

  • 8   See for example Woll, Real Images, and the documents collected in V. I. Fomin (ed.), Kinematograf (...)
  • 9   See e.g. S. Allan, “DEFA: An Historical Overview,” in S. Allan, J. Sandford (eds.) DEFA: East Ger (...)
  • 10   During the process of final approval, a film was assigned a quality category on grounds of ideolo (...)

10It would have been much less surprising had difficulties of this kind overcome a movie on a contemporary topic, and particularly one with overtones of social criticism. The fall of Khrushchev in October 1964 precipitated a significant tightening of control over cultural output of all kinds, and cinema —the Soviet art form with the largest audience— came under especially sharp assault.8 Certainly, conditions were slightly easier in the Soviet Union than they were in the German Democratic Republic, where criticism of the state film studio’s output on grounds of “irrelevance” and “nihilism” at the Eleventh Plenum of the Socialist Unity Party was accompanied by removal from screen of almost every film made in 1965.9 But while outright bans might be uncommon, “shelving” (stavit’ na polku) (halting production or refusing to allow release of a given film) became increasingly widespread. More commonly still, a suspect film would simply not be approved for “all-Soviet release,” limiting the audience to members of cine-clubs and other self-defined enthusiasts.10 By the end of the 1960s, many Soviet directors avoided taking on “problem” films (despite Party exhortations to make exactly these), and the situation became worse rather than better over the next decade and a half.

  • 11   Another example of problems with an ‘orthodox’ topic was Andrei German’s war film about a repenta (...)

11One obvious way to escape the sensitivities of representing the present day was to make a feature set in a different era. Exactly this strategy was adopted by Nikita Mikhalkov in one of the most celebrated films of the 1970s, Slave of Love (Raba liubvi, 1975), loosely based on the life of the silent film actress, Vera Kholodnaia. But there were pitfalls here as well. If directors selected canonical subjects from revolutionary history or the Great Patriotic War, then they risked criticism for a presentation that was insufficiently orthodox. If they ignored such topics, they were likely to be accused of distorting history altogether. Cases in point were, on the one hand, Gennadii Poloka’s parody-musical The Intervention (Interventsiia, Lenfil’m, 1968), lambasted as a ‘mockery’ of Civil War history, and shelved till the glasnost era, and on the other, Andrei Tarkovskii’s Andrei Rublev (Mosfil’m, 1966), with its ‘mystical’ focus on the life of an icon-painter, rather than, say, the rise of the Moscow state or the liberation of the Rus from the oppressive domination of the Tatars. Tarkovskii’s film was forcibly shortened, placed on limited release, and finally circulated in the authorial version only in 1987.11

  • 12   I base these statements on detailed reading of Lenfil’m correspondence with authors: see e.g. the (...)

12A further alternative for the Soviet director who wished to make an “important” (masshtabnyi) film, but to avoid excess ideological risk, was to turn to a literary text that was securely ensconced in the Soviet cultural canon. This had also the secondary and significant attraction that the so-called ‘script dearth’ (defitsit stsenariev) was an axiomatic feature of the Soviet filmmaker’s life. To begin making a film, a director required a “literary scenario” that had been approved by the studio’s in-house editors, the artistic council of the “creative unit” to which he or she belonged, and the government regulatory bodies (Goskino, or, if the film was made for TV, Ekran, the commissioning body of Gostelradio, the State Television and Radio Service). The Party authorities inside and outside the studio might also take an interest and impose their own priorities on the selection process. The path to approval was significantly easier if the author of the original “literary scenario” was a person of recognised stature—if not a professional scriptwriter or director, at the very least, an acknowledged major author— or if the “literary scenario” was an adaptation of a text by such a major author. Unknowns who sent their efforts to Soviet studios on spec were unlikely to receive a civil answer, if their work was acknowledged at all. But editors assiduously courted leading scriptwriters and authors, and reported with pride on successful efforts to secure submissions.12

  • 13   A script by Sholokhov was turned down by the cinema regulatory bodies in 1963, while scripts by T (...)
  • 14   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 40, d. 12, ll. 2-2 ob. (contract), ll. 22-33 (arguments with Vampilova).

13Adapting work by a “Russian classic author” (klassik russkoi literatury) had certain specific advantages. Texts written in the Soviet period could become ideologically inconvenient if there was a change in the Party line. During the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, Lenfil’m studio ran into trouble with scripts by Iurii Tendriakov (whose stock fell sharply after Khrushchev’s dismissal from the political scene), Vladimir Maramzin (who went from a writer whom the literary establishment considered particularly promising to a habitué of the literary underground), and even Mikhail Sholokhov.13 Added to this, if authors (or even worse, their literary heirs) were still living, there was a persistent danger of a push to wrest editorial control over the adaptation. In 1979, for example, studio management was sucked into an unpleasant wrangle with the widow of playwright Aleksandr Vampilov, who attempted to block further work on filming her late husband’s play, The Duck Hunt. Ol’ga Vampilova considered that the adaptation by Vitalii Mel’nikov as Summer Holiday in September was excessively free, despite the fact that the original contract had specified the film would be “based on motifs from” Vampilov’s play (po motivam p’esy), rather than a pious replication of its contents.14

  • 15   For instance, a book on children’s cinema published in the 1970s argued that Franco Zeffirelli’s (...)
  • 16   A second consideration was that filmmaking in the 1950s and 1960s was not a free-for-all either: (...)

14Classic authors, on the other hand, were, as one would now say, “creative commons,” from the legal point of view at any rate. And filming a story, novel, or play with canonical status, yet set in a different era, was also a way of legitimating, in the eyes of a notoriously prudish censorship, areas of human experience that would have been off-limits had they been represented in the context of Soviet reality.15 The more film regulation was tightened up in the late 1960s, the more adaptations of literature appealed.16 As Grigorii Kozintsev summed up at a studio discussion in 1971:

Directors are stuck, there are no good scripts on contemporary themes, while classic works of literature have a story, they have strong feelings, they have great parts for actors. So why not make a picture like that? One director even directly stated somewhere or other, “Usually I make films on contemporary themes, but as I’m between projects right now, I’m going to adapt something from Chekhov.

  • 17   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 21, d. 795, ll. 157-8, l. 163.

15Correspondence between Lenfil’m and Goskino from 1972 graphically illustrates the relative ease of pitching for a subject drawn from classic literature. The studio had to devote over a page to arguing the merits of The Cellar (Podval), despite the fact that its author, Leonid Zorin, was a well-known dramatist and established screenwriter. It was able to get away with just one line —“An adaptation of the eponymous story by I. S. Turgenev”— when putting forward Turgenev’s Asya. 17

  • 18   RGALI, f. 2944, op. 1, d. 855, l. 37, l. 71. Cf. ibid., d. 771, l. 39: “Not one film in the 1972 (...)
  • 19   An outstanding example of fuss over a film from contemporary life was Iulii Fait’s A Boy and a Gi (...)

16Certainly, those responsible for managing the Soviet cinema sometimes grumbled about the sheer number of adaptations proposed and realised by studios. In 1972, for instance, Filipp Ermash, the new head of Goskino, commented acidly, “Everything by Chekhov’s been shot down in flames.”18 But government bosses also had a vested interest in encouraging films that would “get through”: in the planned economy, a studio that only managed to release 80 per cent of its agreed output would lay Goskino as well as its own management open to accusations of poor work discipline. And it was highly unlikely that literary adaptations would cause, once released, the sort of rumpus endemic to a supposedly more relevant and worthy type of film, the “movie of contemporary life.” These latter were regularly the targets of outrage from provincial schoolteachers as well as — more dangerously— Party officials, a situation that likewise promised unpleasantness for Goskino.19

  • 20   For a good introductory discussion, see M. Belodubrovskaya, “Sound, Image, Text. The Literary Sce (...)

17All the same, interpreting historical literature was far from straightforward. The entire process of reviewing a Soviet film, after all, consisted in assessing how faithful the director had been to the ‘literary scenario.’20 The more exalted the reputation of a given text, the trickier the process of negotiating with that text became.

  • 21   A detailed post-mortem on the film took place in the closed Party discussion “O prichinakh neudac (...)
  • 22   As the discussion of The Queen of Spades on 22 April 1982 indicates (see below), only the General (...)
  • 23   G. Kozintsev, “Chernoe, likhoe vremya…” Iz rabochikh tetradei, ed. V. Kozintseva (Moscow, 1994), (...)

18Young directors who undertook to film work by well-regarded Soviet authors were already under considerable pressure. In 1966, for example, Iulii Fait (b. 1937) was summarily dismissed from Lenfil’m studio after his film version of Vera Panova’s script, A Boy and a Girl, excited the ire of Panova, the doyenne of Leningrad literary life, of senior figures at the studio, and of the Soviet cultural establishment. He was sacked from Lenfil’m as a result, and his career never fully recovered.21 Certainly, it was possible to expect that not everyone who watched a film during the in-studio approval process would necessarily have read the script with much attention, if at all (even though, strictly speaking, that was supposed to happen). But almost everybody in the studio, from management to porters, would pose as an expert when it came to a film version of a famous book by a leading nineteenth-century writer.22 Obviously, no Soviet studio would agree to release an untried director upon such a book; a leading director could have no automatic expectation of reverence. Even Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, lavishly bankrolled by Mosfil’m studio (the budget, at nearly a million roubles per hour of film, was around three times the norm), had its detractors -- among cinema professionals, at least. Grigorii Kozintsev, noting with disdain that a “Czechoslovak costume jewellery company” was acknowledged in the credits, sniffed that the entire film took its tone from this. Natasha and Andrei’s first dance was “like an Austrian ballet on ice,” with little twinkling coloured lights, “cinematography as paste gems.”23

  • 24   Similarly, discussions in the official Soviet press from the post-Stalin era also adopted the con (...)
  • 25   Interestingly, another case at Lenfil’m where there were difficulties with filming a literary cla (...)

19In the 1920s, Soviet filmmakers, like theatrical professionals, had a preference for “strong” adaptations of literary classics: Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg’s 1926 version of Gogol’s Overcoat (Shinel’) was a striking example. But during the Stalin era, there was a fundamental shift in taste: the actor Aleksei Batalov’s 1959 version of The Overcoat, with Rolan Bykov in the title role, was a remarkably well-acted and neatly made, but cinematically conventional piece of work.24 While theatre directors such as Iurii Liubimov and Georgii Tovstonogov turned literary adaptations (Dostoevskii’s Brothers Karamazov [Brat’ia Karamazovy], Lev Tolstoi’s Strider [Kholstomer]) into artistic sensations, cinema directors stuck to safety in the form of historicised neo-realism. The most imaginative literary films of the late Soviet period (Nikita Mikhalkov’s An Unfinished Piece for a Mechanical Piano [Neokonchennaia p’esa dlia mekhanicheskogo pianino, Mosfil’m, 1977]), say, or the same director’s 1980 movie A Few Days from the Life of I. I. Oblomov (Neskol’ko dnei iz zhizni I. I. Oblomova, Mosfil’m, 1979) were adaptations of texts that, from the point of view of the Soviet canon, were of secondary significance. Pushkin was, in practice, more or less off-limits. If one looks at the list of Queen of Spades film versions, it turns out that the story, as opposed to the opera, had not been filmed in Russia since Iakov Protazanov’s silent version of 1916. There were French, German, Polish, British, and even Hungarian versions, but no Soviet adaptation. Regular tributes to Pushkin as a pioneer of montage, from Eisenstein onwards, had not borne fruit in movies. In this context, it may be less surprising that Lenfil’m’s version ran into trouble than that it got made in the first place.25

  • 26   David Giles and James Cellan Jones’s 26-part adaptation of Galsworthy, first shown in 1967 and re (...)

20The background to the emergence of the project was that the director of a made-for-TV film was in a different position from the director of a film made for the big screen. TV films were quicker and less expensive to make; they counted as less prestigious; and they were ephemeral, usually vanishing from screen into oblivion after a one-off showing. Despite the impressive, and increasing, share of the audience that TV films captured, and the shrinkage of audiences in the cinema, films made for “the blue screen” were, in terms of the Soviet cultural establishment, considered second-rate. State broadcasting in Western countries, particularly the BBC, was starting to make “the classic serial” an anchor of prime-time, but the first Soviet equivalent of The Forsyte Saga was… The Forsyte Saga, bought in from the UK.26

21All the same, within the profession, TV films were beginning to seem like a preferable alternative to features, however prestigious. The plain fact was that process of getting a TV film agreed was much simpler. Regulation was, compared with Goskino, extremely light, as Vitalii Mel’nikov described in 1979:

  • 27   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 31, d. 32, l. 387.

For instance, take the time I brought in for approval [a film based on Vampilov’s play] Duck Hunting [Utinaia okhota, 1967]. What did the comrades at the TV do? They realised it shouldn’t be sent off for to some mediocre editorial office to get the corners chewed off. We just sat down, me and two deputy ministers and the director of Ekran, no-one else at all. We had a thoroughly constructive discussion: no-one said, lose that word there, cut this and the other, they talked in broad-brush terms. They know perfectly well we understood the issues. No-one foisted specific changes on me. I could work out what they wanted and I had a better idea of how to get there. I was left with a real respect for that branch of the cultural adminstration.27

  • 28   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 31, d. 32, l. 386.
  • 29   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 31, d. 32, l. 391.

22What was more, Ekran had countenanced the idea of making Duck Hunting to begin with – at Goskino, officials had laughed in Mel’nikov’s face.28 Il’ia Averbakh had a similar experience: “Goskino told me, no you’re not going to film Dostoevskii, so I told them, well, TV will do it, and that’s exactly what happened. And the same with Chekhov.”29

  • 30   “Zasedanie prezidiuma Khudozhestvennogo soveta studii,” 9 January 1979, TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. (...)

23Averbakh and Mel’nikov were by no means the only leading directors to have recognised the advantages of the upstart medium. At a crisis meeting of Lenfil’m’s studio-wide Artistic Council on 9 January 1979, Iosif Kheifits complained there was now a “total brain drain,” leaving the cinema units with ‘the odd debut feature and no more’. These days, when the First Creative Unit’s senior editor Frizheta Gukasian and he discussed whom to assign some promising script, there would just be “a long pause.” And where had the established directors gone? They were now making films for TV.30

  • 31   For good discussions of the general history of Soviet television at this period, see K. Roth-Ey, (...)

24If directors needed TV in order to make adventurous literary adaptations, for its part, the State Television and Radio Committee needed literary content as part of its push to cultural respectability.31 This can be sensed in the letter of 26 February 1980 sent by Boris M. Khessin to Vitalii Provotorov, General Director of Lenfil’m, in which he requested the studio to include The Queen of Spades in its creative plan for 1981,

bearing in mind the great significance that the State Committee attaches to the task of embodying the Pushkin theme on the TV screen, the traditions of Lenfil’m studio, which has such productive experience of work on the literary classics, and also the fact that the film must be shot in Leningrad [SD 2].

25The particular manifestation of these “traditions” that Khessin no doubt had in mind was Iosif Kheifits’s 1960 version of another classic short story, Chekhov’s Lady with the Dog. Recognised both nationally and internationally as a contemporary masterpiece of literary adaptation drawn from a Russian source, Kheifits’s film had also provided filmmakers with an example of a private, intimate narrative filmed in the small-scale (kamernaia) manner that became Lenfil’m’s hallmark in the 1960s and 1970s.

26But despite Lenfil’m’s pedigree, the process of making The Queen of Spades proved to be a great deal more complicated than anyone at the State Committee or the studio could have expected. Rather than a harmonious and consensual debate on how to realise an acknowledged classic, there was a vigorous and at times bad-tempered discussion about the authoritative interpretation of Pushkin’s story and how it should be translated to the screen.

  • 32   Quotations here come from the online version, Igor’ Maslennikov, Beiker-Strit na Petrogradskoi (S (...)

27In his entertaining book of memoirs, Baker Street on Petrograd Side,32 Igor Maslennikov represented the film’s troubled history as a kind of sinister magic tale. The “secret enmity” that the Queen of Spades is said to symbolise in the story’s epigraph vented itself on successive directors:

Director Mikhail Kozakov had signed a contract for Queen of Spades, but he sent a telegram from Israel in which he announced his decision not to film this “mystical history.”

“I am shattered and destroyed by the grandeur of Pushkin’s prose!” Kozakov wrote, and feeling himself unworthy, declined the opportunity to make the movie.

The next “hero” was Anatolii Vasil’ev —the film director, not the theatre one— and he cast Aleksandr Kaidanovskii as Hermann. They filmed some of the story and… fell out for good and all. In sum, everything ground to a halt. Black magic or what?

28In Maslennikov’s own account, he was saved from “the curse of the Queen of Spades” by his down-to-earth interpretation of the story’s meaning, as captured in a remembered (or perhaps invented!) conversation:

“As a trained literary scholar, I can tell you with complete authority: Pushkin was a remarkably clear-headed person and had no inclination at all to get tangled up with any dark forces. He had no inclination to mysticism at all.”

“So what about the ghost?”

“You just read what Pushkin actually wrote. Hermann got back home totally drunk and his batman had to put him to bed, and the old woman turned up when he was in that condition – the countess, that is, whom he really had pushed into a heart attack.”

29By contrast with previous adaptors, as he saw it, when working with The Queen of Spades, Maslennikov and his team worked scrupulously from the story. “We treated Pushkin’s texts [sic] with the greatest care, making efforts not to leave out a single comma.”

  • 33   It is not clear whether Maslennikov had actually seen Protazanov’s film, which was not re-release (...)

30This claim to unparalleled authenticity was hardly fair to Protazanov’s silent version of Pushkin’s story. Pruning details of dialogue because of the constraints of intertitles, Protazanov paid close attention to the atmospherics and characterisation of Pushkin’s text, as well as its plot. Particularly notable was his eye for gender politics: an extended sequence represented the Countess in her heyday as a spoilt and wilful beauty, while Liza, rather than the agonised victim of operatic tradition, more closely resembled a social go-getter such as Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (1848).33

  • 34   For the text, see above.

31Equally inaccurate (or deliberately mythologised) was Maslennikov’s account of the previous efforts to film Queen of Spades at the Leningrad studio. The text of Kozakov’s telegram was completely different from the version that he cited, and it arrived on an ordinary internal form from Moscow, not “from Israel” [SD 23].34 Kaidanovskii and Vasil’ev did not fall out for curious and occult reasons, but because the former had concrete objections to elements of the shooting script [SD 50-51, 56-59]. Further, the interpretations that Maslennikov criticised for their distance from Pushkin’s original were justified by the directors who had worked on the story earlier by reference to the accuracy of these in terms of the text. As Kozakov put it on 12 April 1980, “On reading the script you might get the impression that we have done nothing to the story at all, but simply typed it out. And thank heavens! In that case, no violence has been done to the thing itself.” [SD 7]. These directors did not believe in a “jinx” any more than Maslennikov himself did, but were caught up, like him, in a series of aesthetic and artistic decisions. The Queen of Spades needed not just to be retyped, copied, or read aloud, but translated to the screen, and that process, as it turned out, was much more uncertain than any of those directly involved were prepared to admit.

32By this I certainly do not mean that the film version of The Queen of Spades was, as it were, “designed by committee.” If inexperienced directors had little leverage during the process of editing scripts and producing films, the opposite was true when it came to big names. They did not have to take on projects, and when they agreed, this expressed genuine commitment. Before he sent his proposal to film Queen of Spades in June 1981, Maslennikov had already established himself as a director working for TV, and specialising in literary adaptations. In 1979, 1980, and 1981 had appeared the first three films in what was eventually to become a five-film series based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. This transformed Maslennikov from a director who had tried his hand with modest success at a variety of genres— school stories, youth movies, film comedies — into one of the leading filmmakers in the Soviet Union. One could say that he was the number one pioneer of “the classic serial” for Soviet TV.

  • 35   Again, Maslennikov’s memoirs contain a small inaccuracy: the proposal sent by Lenfil’m’s TV unit (...)

33Yet Maslennikov remained versatile at heart. His Conan Doyle adaptations were notably idiosyncratic in their emphasis on Watson and their strong sense of humorous irony. The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, was transformed from a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic into social comedy, gently poking fun at stereotypically “English” sangfroid. As Maslennikov recollected in Baker Street on Petrograd Side, when leading script writers Iulii Dunskii and Valerii Frid offered to Lenfil’m their script based on A Study in Scarlet and The Speckled Band,35 it was precisely the playful escapism of the proposal that appealed to him:

I’m not a particular fan of detective fiction and, as a trained literary historian, I don’t think Conan Doyle is up to much as a writer. The fact that I went for that script was strongly connected with the state of things in the country at the time. I wanted to follow the scriptwriters into some far-off place over the rainbow, to occupy myself with something pleasant that was totally unconnected with the contemporary world. And once more, my established desire to “act the Englishman” kicked in.

34If Maslennikov’s method of operating when it came to Conan Doyle might be best described as pastiche —the self-conscious adoption of historical convention to ludic ends (or, to use the slang term current since the late Soviet era, stiob)— his adaptation of Queen of Spades, according to his own declared ambitions, had a very different purpose. It was, one might say, “hyperauthentic.” As he wrote in the original proposal to adopt the story for screen:

It seems to me that the directors who have tried to adapt Queen of Spades for screen have been inspired not by Pushkin’s story, but by the Chaikovskii brothers’ operatic version. Passionate love, mystical visions, the theme of fate, the gloom and mystery of Petersburg. You won’t find any of that in Pushkin. His work’s affinity lies not with the mystical Hoffmann (though he was extremely superstitious himself), but with the ironical Balzac. And the story’s true era is not the eighteenth century, when the opera was set, but the nineteenth – the period Pushkin himself selected.

35The comments on other directors and on Pushkin himself are, to say the least, controversial in an objective sense. But what Maslennikov writes here is an accurate recollection of his motivation at the time when he took on the task of filming The Queen of Spades. The nature of the commission appealed, as he stated in his proposal to the studio, precisely because of the constraints upon it:

If Lenfil’m planned to produce The Queen of Spades as a film for the big screen, then I would have no idea how to direct it, but as a TV film, I’m prepared to have a go. [Emphasis original].

Pushkin’s compressed, laconic, “insolent” prose will be a good foundation for reading aloud by actors. The character of the TV broadcast will allow the classic text to be transferred to the screen comma to comma, from the first letter of the text to the last. Alongside this, the ‘scenic’ character of the story lies in Pushkin’s intuitive capacity to maintain a harmonious and equal proportion between the narrative as such and the live scenes in dialogue form.

Thus, I propose that [two actors], She and He should read The Queen of Spades aloud, epigraphs and translations from the French included, and make way to direct action in scenery and costumes only where the writer himself determines this. The reading should not be declamatory and respectful, but lively and witty, as the prose itself is. The scenes (eleven in all) must be presented with maximum attention to the character of the era. The theme of money is the main one in the story. [emphasis original].

  • 36   Several publications appearing in Literaturnaia gazeta during 1982-1983 suggested that TV adaptat (...)

36This move towards “hyperauthenticity” was, however, in its own way revolutionary, and not just because Maslennikov aggressively assailed the point of view of an audience member who was less a reader of Pushkin’s story than a viewer of Chaikovskii’s opera. The crucial point was that the adaptation would include reading aloud as well as performance. And rather than opt for the time-honoured method of voice-over, Maslennikov had decided to place the readers of the story on-screen.36 This bore the same relation to the dominant neo-realist conventions of the contemporary Soviet cinema as Bert Brecht’s use of slogans and prologues did to conventional romantic and sentimental stage action. There is no evidence that Maslennikov’s training in literary scholarship had actually included Brecht, or that he was otherwise interested in the author. But given the strong impact of Brecht upon the stagings of such influential late-Soviet directors as Iurii Liubimov and Georgii Tovstonogov, at the very least, there was “something in the air.”

  • 37   For the standard view of ecranisation in the late Soviet period, see the comment by Grigorii Kozi (...)
  • 38   Petrunina’s report was much longer and was also more hostile to the cases of historical inauthent (...)

37For its part, Aleksandr Shlepianov’s original script was a freer treatment of Pushkin’s text than Maslennikov’s, but this, paradoxically, made it more conventional.37 All the commentators on the script fully accepted the right of filmmakers to depart from the literary text —indeed, they expected this. Even the literary scholars consulted as part of the process of vetting the script – Nina Petrunina, Vadim Vatsuro, and Sergei Fomichev from the Pushkin House Institute of Russian Literature – paid at least lip service to this idea. “In the main, the scriptwriter follows the text of Pushkin’s story. There are few departures from that text, numerically speaking, and for the most part these are dictated by the specific character of cinema art,” Petrunina wrote [SD 9]. “The core plot of the tale is carefully preserved, as are the dialogues and characterisations,” as Vatsuro and Fomichev observed [SD 34]. The objections raised were at the level of good-natured historical pedantry: some of Shlepianov’s inserts were anachronistic, particularly a scene in which the Countess and her maid were seen visiting a patisserie in St. Petersburg (no aristocrat of the day would have set foot in a shop) (Petrunina), or a scene where sauerkraut was served to accompany champagne, considered an outlandish combination at the time and ever since (Vatsuro and Fomichev).38

  • 39   In the same way, literary historian G. A. Bialyi accepted without question that Kheifits would ne (...)

38The fact that Shlepianov proposed supplying information withheld by the original writer (for instance, about the estate manager’s son, never mentioned before, whom Pushkin suddenly introduces as Liza’s husband in the epilogue) excited no resistance in itself. Vatsuro and Fomichev noted inserts from other texts by Pushkin, but commented that this was “skilfully done.” Even the smoothing out of the narrative order was not, so far as the literary historians were concerned, a significant problem. After all, film had its own logic. As Vatsuro and Fomichev pointed out, the viewer of a TV film, unlike a reader, did not have the opportunity of reviewing the earlier pages in the story if they found themselves confused by the action. Indeed, the main anxieties raised by these professional literary readers related to the fact that Shlepianov’s text might not go far enough to recognise the spirit of Pushkin’s story. Petrunina, for example, argued that the script had made insufficient use of the visual, cinematic effects that the writer himself used [SD 12], while Vatsuro and Fomichev contended that the “fantastical coloration” of the story was missing. “But that, in our view, is the right way to go about things; to lend a kind of irrational, fantastic tone is the job of the director” [SD 35].39

39The reaction of Aleksandr Kaidanovskii to the adaptation, on the other hand, was considerably less indulgent than the reaction of these professional literary historians. Not part of the original casting (the role was at first offered to Andrei Dubrovskii, then 24, and a relatively inexperienced film actor, but considered ideal in terms of his appearance and acting style), Kaidanovskii had been offered the part at a late stage, despite his point-blank refusal to consider screen testing. This capricious and self-assertive stance continued once work on the film had begun. On 28 April 1981, the first batch of rushes was approved by Lenfil’m’s television unit, who noted excellent work by the cast, the “interesting and expressive visual realisation,” and “the subtle sense of the era on the part of the director, camera operator, designer and the entire crew, and their convincing embodiment of this on screen.” But they also noted signs of serious conflict on set:

Against this background, all the more unexpected and unconvincing was the announcement by the actor A. Kaidanovskii of his refusal to take any further part in the filming, as the film was turning out bland [seryi] and uninteresting, and particularly as he entirely failed to produce any convincing arguments, merely referring to his intuition and to the fact that he did not some scenes in the shooting script (which, by the way, have no direct relation to Hermann’s part in the film).
All of this is peculiar at the very least, since as of today A. Kaidanovskii has appeared in a full 545 usable metres of winter location footage (shot between 23 March and 3 April) and has begun work on “Liza’s Room” (from 20 April). On 23 April Kaidanovskii refused to appear on set, referring to the demands mentioned above [SD 48-49].

40Conflicts between director and lead actor were not so rare in themselves, but rarely reached the level of written denunciations, as opposed to stormy scenes on set or violent exits accompanied by slamming doors. However, here the potential for disaffection was unusually great, given that Vasil’ev was himself primarily an actor and relatively inexperienced as a director, while Kaidanovskii, after playing the lead in Andrei Tarkovskii’s Stalker (Mosfil’m, 1980), had a unique profile as an actor, and had started to nurture directorial ambitions.

41Professional rivalry may have fuelled personal dislike of Vasil’ev, or his directing style. At any rate, in a letter of complaint to Provotorov as general director of Lenfil’m dispatched on 5 May 1981, Kaidanovskii referred darkly to “petty blackmail and constant absurd attempts to fudge things” on Vasil’ev’s part [SD 51]. The main thrust of his criticism, both here and in a four-page commentary dispatched along with the letter, however [SD 56-59], was the inadequacy of the shooting script. While welcoming the idea of a film adaptation as a potential ‘new reading’ of Pushkin, Kaidanovskii systematically attacked the version in hand. Affecting “not to depart from Pushkin,” Vasil’ev had in fact not been faithful at all. For some reason he cut from the story of the cards to footage of Hermann walking round St. Petersburg. A full thirty-two scenes not in the original, and often containing dialogue in unconvincing style, had been inserted. Borrowing of motifs from other texts by Pushkin, which Vatsuro and Fomichev had accepted with a knowing smile, excited fury in Kaidanovskii. Altogether, the adaptation was not worthy of a great work of art. Indeed, it was positively shameful.

42The timing and tone of Kaidanovskii’s commentary were at best unfair. The modifications to Pushkin’s story had been set out as such in Aleksandr Shlepianov’s original script, and approved in the studio, by Ekran, and by the studio’s professional advisors. As Vitalii Mel’nikov and Alla Borisova, respectively the director and senior editor of Lenfil’m’s TV unit, pointed out to Provotorov on 28 April 1981, the timing of Kaidanovskii’s objections was also bizarre, given that he had seen the shooting script before agreeing to accept the part [SD 48-49]. The studio’s immediate response was to stand by Vasil’ev, and attempt to replace Kaidanovskii (who by now was refusing even to speak to Vasil’ev) as lead actor (a solution accepted by Ekran on 12 May 1981) [SD 54].

43Two weeks later, however, this outcome was itself vitiated by the departure from Lenfil’m of Vasil’ev, “as a result of the studio’s decision to cease production of the film” [SD 60]. The background to this precipitate disappearance is unclear, but may well lie in the difficulty of finding an alternative Hermann. In failing to cast either of the two actors who had actually agreed to audition, Vasil’ev had put himself in a weak position to negotiate with them, even assuming they were now available.

44All in all, despite the dismissal of Kaidanovskii’s objections by Mel’nikov and Provotorov, the former lead actor’s assault on Vasil’ev’s production had, however indirectly, been successful. And his central point —that the film version of Queen of Spades should stick closer to Pushkin’s story— was now to be tacitly accepted by everyone concerned with the production.

45The ground had thus been thoroughly prepared for Maslennikov’s “hyperauthentic” proposal of June 1981 [SD 61-63], which went through vetting in Lenfil’m and Ekran more smoothly than might otherwise have been the case. One important factor was certainly that Maslennikov’s handling, with acting reserved for a number of key scenes, required only a modest financial outlay. The original budget was now reduced to 144,000 roubles, about a third of what would have been spent on a feature film of around 90 minutes. Added to that, Maslennikov’s readiness to take on The Queen of Spades guaranteed the film a “big name” director, which was some compensation for the loss, last time round, of a “big name” actor in Kaidanovskii. At any rate, on 13 July 1981, B. M. Khessin approved the latest change of director, merely stipulating that the situation should be agreed with Shlepianov [SD 67].

  • 40   For the information about Basilashvili, see Maslennikov, Beiker-Strit na Petrogradskoi.
  • 41   Here and below, I quote from TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 40, d. 37, ll. 133-156.

46Maslennikov’s appointment as director was to survive a number of setbacks that might have unsettled someone of less professional and personal security. First came the non-availability of Oleg Basilashvili as the male narrator— as Maslennikov’s proposal indicates, he originally planned to have the text read by two actors, a woman and a man [SD 61-63]. But in the event, only Alla Demidova was free to undertake the work at the necessary time.40 Then came Shlepianov’s severance of connection with the film (on 2 March 1982, he wrote to Alla Borisova requesting that his name be removed from the credits) [SD 68]. While this was probably a relief for Maslennikov, the rather lukewarm reception of the finished movie at Lenfil’m was certainly less encouraging. At the meeting of the TV unit’s studio council that met to discuss the showing on 22 April 1982, most of the participants expressed tactful bewilderment at Maslennikov’s approach, rather than approbation or enthusiasm.41

47“Well, as a number on a concert programme, evidently, it’s a success,” observed the film director Iskander Khamraev. “But the effect is curious: not one line of The Queen of Spades is missing, indeed, two or three have been added, but as a feature film, this simply doesn’t work. […] Everything has been done to the highest possible standard, but it left me cold.” “Sometimes Demidova appears on screen and sometimes she does a voice-over, but you can’t understand when one thing happens and when the other,” commented sociologist and former director of Leningrad TV, Boris Firsov. “This isn’t a pioneering new interpretation of Pushkin’s story; it’s an artistic mish-mash.” Other participants in the discussion also noted emotional coldness, “too much trust in Pushkin’s text and not enough illustration,” and a lack of logic in the handing of Demidova’s appearance.

48While conceding with respect the sheer innovativeness of Maslennikov’s approach (“we have never had anything like this before – the refusal to construct any kind of a script and to make cinematic transformations of any kind”), Iakov Roshchin, one of the studio’s most experienced editors, also argued that reading aloud had turned out to be inimical to cinematic tradition: “Sometimes you register what she’s saying and sometimes you don’t.” The sketchy way in which Hermann’s story was represented was at once intriguing and frustrating. “Even Liza does not inspire sympathy.” Alla Borisova attempted to defend Maslennikov’s approach, but even she concluded, “We wanted to film The Queen of Spades, but alas, we ended up simply by reading it aloud (nam khotelos’ postavit’ “Pikovuiu damu,” no k sozhaleniiu, udalos’ tol’ko prochitat’). Vasilii Aksenov (by now General Director of the studio) conceded he had read Pushkin for the last time “back in childhood,” but all the same confidently asserted, “I think the result will be fairly tedious. Experiments of this kind interest no-one.”

49Summing up the discussion, Vitalii Mel’nikov recommended “more daring cuts, to make the plot tauter,” and more focus on Demidova’s face. “I call for more courage.” Maslennikov, in his reply, refused to budge, however. Mel’nikov was mistaken in recalling that a scene between Lizaveta Ivanovna and the Countess had vanished from the film: “We simply put some music on the soundtrack,” he pointed out, a change that had made the scene unrecognisable to the careless viewer. He firmly reiterated his original position: “It was because no-one has read The Queen of Spades that I decided this way of doing things was essential.” The story was in no way mystical: “It is directed against mercantile calculation, money, the German attitude to life, and the fact that Pushkin hasn’t a good word to say for Hermann really appealed to me.” He conceded the emotional flatness of the results: “I was bored myself,” he admitted. But the essential point was to stick as closely as possible to the text: “This narrative is an effort to convey as accurately as possible how I see the text, to read Pushkin literally.” The results in cinematographic terms had indeed been peculiar, but “I am not trying to pass this off as a feature film —my task was not to falsify anything. […] If you’re bored, then let Pushkin take the rap. […] For people who love Russian literature, we have done something really good.”

  • 42   From the point when Filipp Ermash became head of Goskino in 1972, more and more attention was pai (...)
  • 43   In similar vein, Smelkov, “Netoroplivyi ekran,” pointed out that TV could use its captive primeti (...)

50Had The Queen of Spades been intended as a film for the big screen, Maslennikov’s words would surely not have carried the day. Sooner or later, someone at a Lenfil’m discussion would have raised the issue of how the movie would be received at 7 Gnezdnikovskii pereulok (the offices of Goskino), and —by this period of Soviet history— whether anyone would actually pay to see it.42 But in fact the participants conceded that the rules of the small screen were different, and that Demidova’s presence, strangely disorienting when the film was viewed in the studio’s movie theatre, would likely have a different effect when The Queen of Spades reached its intended auditorium and public.43

51If Roman Tikhomirov had made an “opera movie” two decades earlier, Maslennikov had contrived to make a “story movie,” one as far as possible removed from filmed Chaikovskii. Where Tikhomirov chose the handsomest actors he could find as Hermann and Liza, Maslennikov selected for character rather than glamour. Indeed, Maslennikov’s entire project was an effort to undermine Tikhomirov: where the latter used actors (Oleg Strizhenov and Ol’ga Krasina) for the visuals, mugging to a sound track recorded by professional singers, Maslennikov employed actors’ real voices, and where Tikhomirov ranged panoramically through the famous centre of St. Petersburg, Maslennikov stuck to small cameo scenes and claustrophobic interiors. Where Tikhomirov’s director of photography, Evgenii Shapiro (1907-1999), employed splendidly saturated monochrome, echoing Lenfil’m’s “golden age” in the 1930s and 1940s, Iurii Veksler’s (1940-1991) grainer, nervy style typified the neorealism of the post-Stalin years.

Above: Ol’ga Krasina in Tikhomirov’s version; below: Irina Dymchenko in Maslennikov’s. Courtesy Lenfil’m Studio.

Above: Ol’ga Krasina in Tikhomirov’s version; below: Irina Dymchenko in Maslennikov’s. Courtesy Lenfil’m Studio.

52Where the musical score was concerned, Maslennikov challenged Chaikovskii’s declarative late Romanticism and elegant echoes of rococo with the reserved neoclassicism of Pushkin’s senior contemporary Dmitrii Bortnianskii. All in all, Maslennikov’s film championed self-conscious reflectiveness, rather than emotional drama. Its “authenticity” was a product of the late-modernist minimalism of its own age.

53And indeed, its echo of contemporary taste proved exact. As a succès d’estime, the film amply justified Maslennikov’s obstinacy and paradoxical bravery. To the director’s lasting pride, the famous poet and intelligentsia hero, Bulat Okudzhava, voiced warm approval of the approach that he had adopted:

  • 44   Quoted from Beiker-Strit na Petrogradke. Maslennikov recalled that these comments were published (...)

I was lucky enough to catch Queen of Spades —a Leningrad-made film led by wonderful Alla Demidova. This straightforward reading of Pushkin is far dearer to me than the sophisticated trickery you get from certain directors. In this Pushkin anniversary year, when there’s quite a rush of materials linked with the great poet, I am delighted that by the appearance of such a pure interpretation as this.44

54But whether Maslennikov’s film version of The Queen of Spades actually was a “pure interpretation” was a less straightforward question than Okudzhava’s assessment, or indeed Maslennikov’s own emphasis on his personal expertise in literary scholarship, might have suggested. If Petrunina (a scholar of the older generation) shared Maslennikov’s view that The Queen of Spades was a psychological study, with the appearance of a ghost testifying to the lead character’s state of morbid disturbance, Vatsuro and Fomichev understood the story very differently: for them, the fantastical was intrinsic to the nature of Pushkin’s narrative, not just to Hermann’s dislocated perspective. In this perspective, Maslennikov’s interpretation actually looked old-fashioned, rather than innovative. In his determination to stick to the text, Maslennikov was actually sticking to the reading of it current when he was a student at university some 30 years earlier.

55Yet at the same time, Maslennikov’s “hyperauthentic” perspective was a compelling extension of the possibilities of cinematic interpretation at the time when his film was made. The film’s intercutting between Demidova, who is in sumptuous but obviously modern, dress (a three-quarter-length fur coat during the outside scenes) and the historical characters makes this much more than a costume drama, carefully researched though the costume designs (by Marina Azizian) certainly were. Base his interpretation though he might on an aggressively realist interpretation of Pushkin’s meaning, Maslennikov was required by his commitment to authenticity to filter meaning through the presence of an intrusive narrator who prevented the viewer from becoming lost in the emotional world of the story. Whether this is “authentic” in Pushkinian terms is a moot point, but it is certainly at the furthest possible distance from Chaikovskii. And this in turn suggests a motive behind adaptation that is perhaps insufficiently recognised in theoretical studies —the effort to hide from view or excise from history an existing adaptation, rather than echo or assimilate this.

56In turn, the way in which Maslennikov interpreted the story points to an often overlooked resemblance between the creative world of late Soviet (more broadly, late socialist) cinema and late modernism. The emphasis on interpretations of literary texts that at once suggest the tangible presence of historical reality and the strangeness of that reality was a characteristic feature of European cinema of the period overall. In its eerily affectless take on this story of a governing obsession, Maslennikov’s film had striking resemblances, aesthetically speaking, to Eric Rohmer’s 1976 version of Heinrich von Kleist’s story, Die Marquise von O, in which the actors were encouraged to copy gestures used in historical portraits. The pressure to realise the cinematic possibilities of Pushkin’s text that was paradoxically asserted by professional literary scholars would certainly have produced a less cinematographically adventurous version. And in that sense, though Aleksandr Kaidanovskii’s assault on Vasil’ev’s adaptation was the product of an amateur, untutored, and in sundry respects unfair response to the work of filming Pushkin, and though he proved quite incapable of evolving positive suggestions for how Pushkin should be reworked for the screen, his vehement critique of Vasil’ev’s shooting script was fundamental to the emergence of a filmic interpretation of Pushkin’s text that was not only “hyperauthentic,” but artistically suggestive.

  • 45   For a discussion of arguments about authenticity in the context of heritage preservation, see C. (...)
  • 46   For an interesting first-hand recollection of this, see I. Smirnov, Deistvuiushchie litsa (St. Pe (...)
  • 47   Aleksandr Orlov’s These Three Trustworthy Cards… (Lithuania Film and Lenfil’m, 1988) takes its to (...)

57This case study of how the Soviet Union’s most securely canonical writer was interpreted in a rare filmed version provides some thought-provoking insights into the act of reading in the last decades of Soviet power. There is, first of all, the contrast between the assumed familiarity of famous literary texts and the extent to which readers actually made contact with these directly. As Maslennikov correctly argued, Chaikovskii’s opera (filmed in Leningrad in 1960) had in many respects obscured Pushkin’s story. To use more technical language, a particularly authoritative ‘hypertext’ (or a multiplicity of these —different productions of the opera, in real theatres and on film) had come to stand in for the “hypertext” of the story itself. Yet the effort to return to the “original” proved quixotic, since the growing preoccupation of Soviet readers and creative artists with historical authenticity also created significant uncertainties about what “authenticity” might constitute.45 After all, Maslennikov’s picture of Pushkin the clear-thinking realist stripped out features of the writer that other readers/viewers valued: his irony and humour (Mel’nikov), his capacity for fantasy (Vatsuro and Fomichev), his meticulous depiction of historical detail (Petrunina). And to many viewers, Maslennikov’s interpretation appeared to add nothing of his own. Indeed, by ambition, the film was not a ‘reading’ in the sense of an interpretation; it was a ‘reading’ in the sense of a performance. As a development, this no doubt reflected not just the emphasis on affectless enactment that was characteristic of international modernism at this period, but also the increasing alienation from emotional and moral discourse that had become a prominent feature of late Soviet reality.46 In Maslennikov’s own recollection, he had seen Sherlock Holmes as a way of escaping from uncongenial contemporaneity. But The Queen of Spades, on the other hand, was less an escape from Soviet reality than a strange echo of the anti-interpretive predicament that was characteristic of late Soviet intellectuals at the time when the film was made. The Pushkin interpretations made in the following years were of a very different order.47 But that is another set of stories.

Notes

1   The research for this chapter was carried out with the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council through a Leadership Award, for which I am very grateful. My thanks go also to the staff of the archives that I have used, TsGALI-SPb. (Tsentral’nyi gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva, Saint Petersburg) and TsGAIPD-SPb. (Tsentral’nyi gosudarstvennyi arkhiv istoriko-politicheskikh dokumentov, Saint Petersburg) and to my project assistant, Marina Samsonova. At Lenfil’m, I would particularly like to thank Aleksandr Pozdniakov and Ol’ga Agrafenina, and the staff of Séance, including Aleksandra Akhmadshina, Konstantin Shavlovskii, and Liubov’ Arkus. An acknowledgement also goes to the many veterans of Lenfil’m who have provided interviews, including directors, camera and sound operators, costume and makeup staff, designers, and members of the administration. A round of applause also to the authors and editors of this collection, and an anonymous reviewer, for their helpful comments on earlier versions.

2   See, for example, B. McFarlane, Novel to Film (Oxford, 1996); C. Della Coletta, When Stories Travel: Cross-Cultural Encounters between Fiction and Film (Baltimore, 2012); L. Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation (London, 2012). There is also a substantial literature in languages other than English, for instance G. Genette, Palimpsestes: la littérature au second degré (Paris, 1982); J.-M. Clerc, M. Carcaud-Macaire, L’Adaptation cinématique et littéraire (Paris, 2004).

3   R. Meyer, “Dostoevskii’s ‘White Nights’: The Dreamer Goes Abroad,” in A. Burry, F. H. White (eds.), Border Crossing: Russian Literature into Film (Edinburgh, 2016), 40-63.

4   The importance and specific profile of film studios in socialist countries makes it all the more odd that so little attention should have been given to their history, with the exception of the East German state studio, DEFA (perhaps because the films this studio made are universally acknowledged to be inferior to those in, say, the Soviet Union, Poland, or Czechoslovakia, encouraging concentration on the context of their production).

5   See e.g. V. Fomin (ed.), Polka. Dokumenty. Svidetel’stva. Kommentarii, (Moscow, 1992); J. Woll, Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw (London, 2000); A. Golutva, L. Arkus (eds.) Noveishaia istoriia otechestvennogo kino, 7 vols. (St. Petersburg, 2001-2004).

6   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 40, d. 81, l. 133 (record of discussion at the Artistic Council of the Television Unit of Lenfil’m), and ibid., d. 37 (script file [stsenarnoe delo]).

7   See the materials of the script file (stsenarnoe delo], TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 40, d. 37, ll. 1-57. Further references to this file in-text by abridged title and list [folio] number, as SD 1 etc..

8   See for example Woll, Real Images, and the documents collected in V. I. Fomin (ed.), Kinematograf ottepeli: Dokumenty i svidetel’stva (Moscow, 1998).

9   See e.g. S. Allan, “DEFA: An Historical Overview,” in S. Allan, J. Sandford (eds.) DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992 (New York, 1999), 11-13.

10   During the process of final approval, a film was assigned a quality category on grounds of ideological soundness and aesthetic merit. A film in Category One would be guaranteed showings in premier cinemas, at film festivals, and so on, and would also be widely advertised and reviewed. A placing in Category Two, while less advantageous, was not a disaster, but Category Three films were subject to significant restrictions in distribution. Vitalii Mel’nikov’s Mother’s Got Married (Mama vyshla zamuzh, 1969) was an example of an adventurous film on a topical issue (the remarriage of a woman with a teenage son) that was well received in the studio, but snubbed by the regulatory bodies with an adverse classification. Since the assignation of a low category was not just a professional slight, but affected the remuneration of the entire film crew as well as the director, there were significant incentives to avoid this outcome.

11   Another example of problems with an ‘orthodox’ topic was Andrei German’s war film about a repentant traitor, Operation ‘New Year’ (Operatsiia “Novyi God”), completed in 1971, but placed on general release as The Checkpoint (Proverka na dorogakh) only in 1985; the same year saw the Soviet release of Elem Klimov’s Death Agony (Agoniia), completed in 1974, and based on the life of Rasputin, a patently “decadent” subject.

12   I base these statements on detailed reading of Lenfil’m correspondence with authors: see e.g. the 1962 file of correspondence between editors at the Second Creative Unit and authors, including Iurii Trifonov, TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 18, d. 291, passim.

13   A script by Sholokhov was turned down by the cinema regulatory bodies in 1963, while scripts by Tendriakov and Maramzin were “spiked” in 1971. See the minutes of the studio-wide Party meeting held on 25 April 1963 in the Central State Archive of Politico-Historical Documents (TsGAIPD-SPb., f. 1369, op. 5, d. 57, l. 9) (Sholokhov), and the order of the Chairman of the State Committee on Cinema, 26 October 1971, “O spisanii zatrat kinostudii ‘Lenfil’m’ po literaturnym stsenariiam, ne imeiushchim proizvodstvennoi perspektivy,” TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 21, d. 443, ll. 103-104 (Maramzin and Tendriakov).

14   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 40, d. 12, ll. 2-2 ob. (contract), ll. 22-33 (arguments with Vampilova).

15   For instance, a book on children’s cinema published in the 1970s argued that Franco Zeffirelli’s film Romeo and Juliet represented physical love (Romeo’s naked back at the side of the bed) as ‘pure and beautiful’ (L. R. Kabo, Kino i deti [Moscow, 1974], 76). A film showing the same scene in the context of contemporary Western (let alone Soviet) life would certainly not have attracted such warm approval. Equally, the adulterous relationship in Iosif Kheifits’ film version of Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog (Dama s sobachkoi, 1960) did not raise eyebrows in the way a contemporary version of the same story would have done. The script file on the film (TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 17, d. 2868, ll. 1-21) indicates that editors and the cinema management, as well as literary historian Grigorii A. Bialyi (1905-1987), uniformly regarded Chekhov’s story as the tale of a love relationship that was a positive and moving response to the constricting small-mindedness of petit-bourgeois morality at the time.

16   A second consideration was that filmmaking in the 1950s and 1960s was not a free-for-all either: at this point, ‘provocative’ films that addressed major social issues were preferred. When Iosif Kheifits proposed The Lady with the Dog, the response from a representative of the Ministry of Culture of the RSFSR (then responsible for regulating film output) was, ‘Why The Lady with the Dog? What’s it about? What’s the point?’ Attempts to explain were hopeless, but in the end he agreed that the Film Board could ‘indulge’ Kheifits. (Comment by A. A. Gol’burt at the Artistic Council of Lenfil’m, 27 January 1960, TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 17, d. 2835, l. 34.)

17   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 21, d. 795, ll. 157-8, l. 163.

18   RGALI, f. 2944, op. 1, d. 855, l. 37, l. 71. Cf. ibid., d. 771, l. 39: “Not one film in the 1972 thematic plan deals with the modern countryside. There are three films for children. Two comedies. And seven literary adaptations” —this in an output of fifteen full-length features overall.

19   An outstanding example of fuss over a film from contemporary life was Iulii Fait’s A Boy and a Girl (Mal’chik i devochka, 1966), which was pulled from the screen before its Moscow premiere after a run of largely negative reviews, and which attracted a substantial postbag from outraged members of the public, including a group of generals, not to speak of adverse comment from Vasilii Tolstikov, First Secretary of the Leningrad Communist Party. I have a chapter on this film in Soviet Art House: Lenfilm Studio under Brezhnev (in preparation).

20   For a good introductory discussion, see M. Belodubrovskaya, “Sound, Image, Text. The Literary Scenario and the Soviet Screenwriting Tradition,” in B. Beumers (ed.), A Companion to Russian Cinema (Chichester, UK, 2016).

21   A detailed post-mortem on the film took place in the closed Party discussion “O prichinakh neudachi fil’ma ‘Mal’chik i devochka’,” TsGAIPD-SPb., f. 1369, op. 5, d. 83, ll. 1-41. Iulii Fait’s next film appeared after more than a decade of silence, in 1977, and from then on he was pigeonholed as a director for children.

22   As the discussion of The Queen of Spades on 22 April 1982 indicates (see below), only the General Director of Lenfil’m, Vitalii Aksenov, had the honesty (or gall, depending on one’s point of view), to admit that his knowledge of Pushkin’s writings was based exclusively on childhood reading.

23   G. Kozintsev, “Chernoe, likhoe vremya…” Iz rabochikh tetradei, ed. V. Kozintseva (Moscow, 1994), 97.

24   Similarly, discussions in the official Soviet press from the post-Stalin era also adopted the conventional position that screen adaptations threatened the literary integrity of texts and should as far as possible aim to remain ‘faithful’ to the original. One obvious constituent of this was that translation of literary classics to a different time and place was off the aesthetic agenda.

25   Interestingly, another case at Lenfil’m where there were difficulties with filming a literary classic also related to a text that was firmly ensconced in the Soviet canon, Chekhov’s “My Life.” Director Viktor Sokolov, with several well-regarded films to his credit, was nevertheless subjected to sharp criticism from Ekran, though here primarily on ideological grounds —the film version allegedly gave too little weight to the social criticism that State TV and Radio’s officials felt was the main purpose of Chekhov’s story. Conflicts with the lead actor (Stanislav Liubshin) and camera operator (Dmitry Dolinin) exacerbated the difficulties, and eventually, Sokolov was replaced as director by Grigory Nikulin. For the long and troubled history, see the script file, TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 21, d. 812, ll. 1-61.

26   David Giles and James Cellan Jones’s 26-part adaptation of Galsworthy, first shown in 1967 and repeated in 1968, was the first British TV serial ever sold to the USSR, and was immensely popular there also, with over 30 million viewers per episode when first shown in summer 1971. Andrei Svetenko, “40 let nazad SSSR ‘podsadili’ na serialy,” <http://radiovesti.ru/episode/show/episode_id/11288> (accessed February 25, 2020).. The serial was, of course, also hugely popular in Britain, both when originally shown and when repeated in 1968 and later.

27   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 31, d. 32, l. 387.

28   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 31, d. 32, l. 386.

29   TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 31, d. 32, l. 391.

30   “Zasedanie prezidiuma Khudozhestvennogo soveta studii,” 9 January 1979, TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 31, d. 312, l. 386.

31   For good discussions of the general history of Soviet television at this period, see K. Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire that Lost the Cultural Cold War (Ithaca, NY, 2011) and C. Evans, Between Truth and Time: A History of Soviet Central Television (New Haven, 2016), though neither of these books devotes substantive attention to literary adaptations.

32   Quotations here come from the online version, Igor’ Maslennikov, Beiker-Strit na Petrogradskoi (St. Petersburg, 2007), http://royallib.com/book/maslennikov_igor/beyker_strit_na_petrogradskoy.html (accessed February 25, 2020).

33   It is not clear whether Maslennikov had actually seen Protazanov’s film, which was not re-released until 1989, though it could be watched at Gosfil’mofond before then. An article published to mark Protazanov’s centenary (I. Vaisfel’d, “Effekt Protazanova,” IK, 8 (1981), 128-34) mainly considered his Soviet-era work, mentioning The Queen of Spades and Father Sergius only as examples of how the director had “believed in the future,” though a more appreciative view emerges in, say, A. Vartanov, “Mezhdu obrazom i illiustratsiei,” IK, 12 (1973), 104-10, or E. Ol’shanskaia, “V poiskakh utrachennykh podrobnostei…,” IK, 12 (1974), 130-5. Whichever way, none of Maslennikov’s comments on his film mention the 1916 version.

34   For the text, see above.

35   Again, Maslennikov’s memoirs contain a small inaccuracy: the proposal sent by Lenfil’m’s TV unit to Ekran on 30 June 1977 proposed five films on groups of stories or single stories by Conan Doyle, mentioning specifically neither A Study in Scarlet nor The Speckled Band, but rather, The Red-Headed League, The Five Orange Pips, The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Dancing Men and The Sign of Four (TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 40, d. 77, l. 81). Of these, only The Sign of Four was ever filmed by Maslennikov, and that only in 1983.

36   Several publications appearing in Literaturnaia gazeta during 1982-1983 suggested that TV adaptations were closer to literature than ones for the big screen—because they were less fixated on visuals, because the intimacy of the small screen was closer to reading as a solitary practice, because the author’s narrative voice could be conveyed more easily, and so on (see V. Sokolov, “Chitaiushchaia kamera,” Literaturnaia gazeta, September 1, 1982, 8; Iu. Smelkov, “Toroplivyi ekran,” ibid., October 20, 1982, 8; B. Khessin, “Proza na golubom ekrane: Perekrestok mnenii,” ibid., January 16, 1983, 8). This non-interventionist stance (paralleled in Boris Galanter’s Pushkin biopic I Am With You Once Again (I s vami snova ia, Ekran, 1981), which consists of readings from letters and memoirs) was fundamentally different from the radical “hyperauthenticity” espoused by Maslennikov.

37   For the standard view of ecranisation in the late Soviet period, see the comment by Grigorii Kozintsev in 1971: ‘‘When I read those discussions of whether literary adaptations are needed, I’m taken aback by the original question. Every film is an adaptation —starting with Chapaev. But when you begin work on a literary text, you should be very clear that you have a cultural treasure in your hands and simply retelling it is totally pointless —it will always be stronger than what’s on screen. The point is to lend it a new life in the new time, while maintaining the huge cultural significance, the vast cultural force, inherent in the author’s entire personality.” (TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 21, d. 464, ll. 31-32.) Cf. the open admiration of Smelkov, “Toroplivyi ekran” and Khessin, “Proza na golubom ekrane” for Akira Kurosawa’s extremely free version of The Idiot (1951).

38   Petrunina’s report was much longer and was also more hostile to the cases of historical inauthenticity, but the fundamental tenor —a film adaptation would necessarily depart from the text in some ways— was similar.

39   In the same way, literary historian G. A. Bialyi accepted without question that Kheifits would need to augment and recast Chekhov’s “Lady with a Dog” for the screen, though taking exception to the introduction of named characters from other stories (TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 17, d. 2868, ll. 9-13). In Chekhov’s story, Gurov is a largely solitary figure, but in Kheifits’s film, he is —albeit sometimes reluctantly —very much part of a social circle that includes not just his wife’s salon guests, but the cronies with whom he drinks wine and discusses extramarital affairs.

40   For the information about Basilashvili, see Maslennikov, Beiker-Strit na Petrogradskoi.

41   Here and below, I quote from TsGALI-SPb., f. 257, op. 40, d. 37, ll. 133-156.

42   From the point when Filipp Ermash became head of Goskino in 1972, more and more attention was paid to viewing figures. An example of the new trend was a detailed review held at Lenfil’m in 1977 that indicated only two films from the early 1980s, Vladimir Vainshtok’s 1973 adaptation of Mayne Reid, The Headless Horseman and Mikhail Ershov’s four-part series, The Siege of Leningrad (1973-1977) had reached 50 million or more (V. P. Ostashevskaia, “Lenfil’m i zritel’,” TsGAIPD-SPb., f. 1369, op. 5, d. 191, ll. 43-79). With its European art-film bias, the studio was beginning to look vulnerable commercially, as well as ideologically.

43   In similar vein, Smelkov, “Netoroplivyi ekran,” pointed out that TV could use its captive primetime audience, waiting for the news to come on, or idling away time on a holiday, to attract viewers’ attention to quality films. When El’dar Riazanov’s The Irony of Fate was first shown on 1 January 1976, he and friends had at first not felt much “hunger for art,” but this “funny, clever, and sad film captured our attention and the attractions of the festive table were somehow set aside till it was over.”

44   Quoted from Beiker-Strit na Petrogradke. Maslennikov recalled that these comments were published in Literaturnaia gazeta, but a search of the paper over 1982 and early 1983 did not turn up Okudzhava’s comments, though LG regularly reviewed film and TV in its ‘Arts’ section. Probably, Maslennikov had misremembered the newspaper.

45   For a discussion of arguments about authenticity in the context of heritage preservation, see C. Kelly, Remembering St Petersburg (Oxford, 2014), chapter 3 (available online on academia.edu).

46   For an interesting first-hand recollection of this, see I. Smirnov, Deistvuiushchie litsa (St. Petersburg, 2008). A. Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The ‘Last’ Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ, 2006) sees the sense of alienation from social engagement and political and moral discourse as diagnostic for the intellectual culture of the period. Though Maslennikov did not belong to Yurchak’s “last Soviet generation,” his stance in the early 1980s was similar.

47   Aleksandr Orlov’s These Three Trustworthy Cards… (Lithuania Film and Lenfil’m, 1988) takes its tone from the supposed citation of Swedenborg that Pushkin uses as a chapter epigraph (“Late last night the lamented Baroness von W*** appeared to me. She was all in white and said, ‘Good evening, Mr Councillor!’”). The film inserts a mystical speech about cards and love from an anonymous gambler (played by Sergei Bekhterev, regularly cast as otherworldly eccentrics); much of it is presented as Hermann’s delusions, or otherworldly intuitions, set to spooky radiophonic surges; and it concludes with Gothic footage of Hermann in a Bedlam of shrieking lunatics. One of the scriptwriters was the very same Aleksandr Shlepianov who parted company with Maslennikov. Despite talented actors (Aleksandr Feklistov as a world-weary Hermann, Vera Glagoleva as a vulnerable Liza, and 83-year-old Stefaniia Staniuta as a frail but commanding Countess), the film is a stagey and melodramatic effort. Still more lurid is Pavel Lungin’s modernisation of The Queen of Spades, La Dame du pique (Dama pik, 20th Century Fox Russia, 2016), which intersperses footage from a performance of the Chaikovskii opera and a frame narrative of how the opera star director (also playing the Countess) seduces the young singer playing Hermann (her niece’s lover, to add a further injection of melodrama). The entanglement of “fiction” and ‘real life’ is all too familiar from, say, Carlos Saura’s powerful flamenco version of Carmen (1983), not to speak of a film that is closer to Lungin in its unabashed trashiness, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010, also taken from a Chaikovskii crowd-pleaser, but this time Swan Lake).

Table des illustrations

Titre Production still from Roman Tikhomirov’s The Queen of Spades, 1960, showing filming on the Winter Canal alongside the Hermitage. Courtesy Lenfil’m Studio.
URL http://books.openedition.org/ledizioni/docannexe/image/13069/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 173k
Titre Above: Ol’ga Krasina in Tikhomirov’s version; below: Irina Dymchenko in Maslennikov’s. Courtesy Lenfil’m Studio.
URL http://books.openedition.org/ledizioni/docannexe/image/13069/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 103k

CC-BY-SA-4.0

Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Acheter

Volume papier

amazon.fr
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search