Culture

Russian director says Soviet-era film highlights lingering tensions

Milan Maric? and Anton Shagin, center, in a scene from Alexey German Jr.'s "Dovlatov," screening in competition at the Berlinale Photo © SAGa Films, courtesy of the Berlinale

BERLIN: Thanks to clashes between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s policies toward Ukraine, the war in Syria and allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, current relations between Russia and the West are often compared with those of the Cold War. Russian director Alexey German Jr., whose biopic “Dovlatov,” about the 20th century writer Sergei Dovlatov, is premiering at Berlin’s film festival, told Reuters his country’s biggest tragedy was that it always seems to be in a pre-war state.

“The more people feel like the war is about to start or has already started, the more they unify with the ruling party or the government and this is what we can see now,” he said, adding it was much the same during the 1970s, when his film is set.

Dovlatov is one of 19 movies at the Berlinale vying for the prestigious Golden and Silver Bears. The winners will be announced at a prize-giving ceremony on Feb. 24.

Recreating a drab grey Leningrad, “Dovlatov” follows the eponymous writer over a depressing six-day period as he struggles to get his work published because it does not conform to the ideals and standards set by the Soviet authorities.

Editors reject his manuscripts and tell him to rewrite his stories – by focusing, for example, on the storyline of a socialist struggle between a hero and anti-hero.

For Dovlatov, thinking independently is heroic. Although he is struggling to make ends meet and desperately wants to buy his daughter a doll, he decides to stay true to himself rather than obey orders to change his style and subject matter.

German Jr. said while his work had never been censored, he had experience of tightly controlled conditions because his father’s 1971 film “Trial on the Road” about World War Two was banned in the Soviet Union for 15 years.

“Of course I have experienced censorship first-hand,” German Jr. told Reuters, “and I’ve seen my father’s friends being censored and of course my father also is a figure in this movie.

“We are not North Korea or Iran,” he said of conditions for artists in Russia, “and of course I have some things that I don’t like in modern Russia but we are far from North Korea.”

Dovlatov’s work was not published in Russia until 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He died in 1990 in New York, where he had emigrated, at the age of 48, before he could witness the extent of his popularity in Russia.

German Jr., 41, had aspired to make a film about Dovlatov ever since his twenties but spent almost 15 years working out how to make a movie that did justice to the illustrious writer.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 19, 2018, on page 16.

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