Moscow Believes in Tears: Russians and Their Movies (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Harlow Robinson

Alexander Sokurov's single-take film, Russian Ark

Alexander Sokurov's single-take film, Russian Ark

By Louis Menashe. Washington, D.C.: New Academia Publishing, 2010. 416 pp, illus. Hardcover: $38.00 and Paperback: $28.00.

This entertaining and perceptive collection of reviews, essays, interviews and personal reflections subverts the old Russian proverb—“Moskva slezam ne verit”—that translates literally as “Moscow doesn’t believe in tears” but really means “tears won’t help.” In the pieces he has assembled here, Louis Menashe, who has been viewing and writing about Soviet and Russian cinema for nearly thirty years now, shows us that tears are not only helpful, but also actually mandatory, in trying to understand the rich but frequently tortured history of filmmaking in Russia and the U.S.S.R. since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. His title also refers to Vladimir Menshov’s popular film, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1980. This was just a few years before Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost arrived on the scene and everything—including the film industry—changed forever. The change, Menashe points out somewhat ruefully, has unfortunately not always been for the better.

In few other countries have films meant as much, or brought their creators (and even their audiences) more anguish or tragedy than in Russia. Menashe, a frequent contributor to this publication, puts it this way in his introduction: “When it comes to Soviet cinema, a cigar is never just a cigar: a Soviet film was never just a movie. There were always political nuances that informed the films overtly or beneath the surface, and there were political attitudes held by the audiences that went to see them.” This was as true of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Battleship Potemkin as it is of Alexandra by Alexander Sokurov, a director still working today and one whom Menashe identified prophetically in 1991 as “the most original voice in contemporary Soviet cinema.”Taking into account the special ideological and historical circumstances of his subject, Menashe admits that what he has put together is not “film criticism in the usual sense,” but an attempt to “locate the place and value of Russian cinema in modern times.” Since he was originally trained (like so many others in the field) as a historian, he is particularly well equipped to analyze the complex relationship between the films and their cultural context. Soviet directors were strongly encouraged by the Communist Party to dramatize history, but the ever-shifting ideological sands could make this a treacherous undertaking. “The past is difficult to predict,” goes one of the darkly humorous Soviet political jokes Menashe likes to cite. “In Soviet society,” he writes, “the film-maker, like the poet or novelist, was often a counter-historian as well, someone who offers the public themes and interpretations not sanctioned by official ideology or historiography, often in hidden, ‘Aesopian’ form.”

Moscow Believes in Tears is divided into seven chapters. The first, “I Found It at the Movies,” is a previously unpublished diary of filmgoing from 1991 to 2004, featuring about twenty short reviews, most of films not widely seen outside Russia. Chapter Two, “Close-ups on the Past,” brings together reviews and essays (all but one originally appeared inCineaste) on films treating historical subjects. Chapter Three, “Fragments from the Russian Experience,” contains essays and an interview (with Tilman Büttner, cinematographer of Sokurov’s dreamy single-take Russian Ark) exploring ideas of “Russian-ness” and national identity. The reviews and essays in Chapter Four, “Glasnost Galore: Cinema in the Soviet Twilight,” look at films produced during the tumultuous period between 1985 and 1991, what scholar Archie Brown has called “Seven Years that Changed the World.”In “Transitions,” Chapter Five, Menashe examines the painful and perilous phase immediately following glasnost, when filmmakers confronted a radically transformed economic and artistic climate. “It’s a catastrophe,” one Ukrainian director observed at the time, “but we’re not finished yet.” Chapter Six, “A Concluding Montage Across Time and Borders,” follows (through reviews published in Cineaste) the ragged development of the cinema of Russia and the former Soviet republics (particularly Georgia) in more recent years.

Chapter Seven contains valuable interviews Menashe conducted at different times with prominent filmmakers. These include Alexander Askoldov (director of Commissar, a harrowing tale of the Russian Civil War that was banned for twenty years because of its unflinching portrayal of anti-Semitism), Elem Klimov (who served as head of the powerful Filmmakers Union in the glasnost period), and documentary filmmaker Leonid Gurevich.Because of its loose structure, Moscow Believes in Tears does suffer from a certain amount of repetition. Some films and issues are discussed in several different chapters. Nor is this a volume for neophytes; it is intended for readers who have already developed a taste for Russia and Russian films. It would have been helpful if Menashe had appended a filmmography and basic chronology.But Menashe’s conversational, witty style brings alive the vanished Atlantis-like atmosphere of Soviet cinema better than any other book available in English. It helps, of course, that Menashe came to know many of the major players personally, and that he was travelling regularly to Russia and to festivals where Soviet films were shown both before and after the collapse of communism and the U.S.S.R. on Christmas Day, 1991. What he has given us is a rare insider’s view into a rather hermetic and isolated hothouse world, one in which esthetic values were more cherished and powerful than in Hollywood—despite the often stifling restrictions of party censorship. As Askoldov told Menashe, “…it would be difficult to find greater moral values anywhere in the world than in Russian art and the Russian people.”

That includes Russian movie people. One of the most vivid entries describes the “Transit Zero” film conference in Latvia and Sweden in the summer of 2000. Held jointly at a Latvian seaside resort left in shambles by the departing Russians and on the more prosperous Swedish island of Oland, the conference focused on the contrast between filmmaking in the East and West. Included were films made through the coproductions with foreign studios that rescued Russian film after the financial and organizational meltdown of the 1990s. “The days of ample state funding were gone, and film production had dwindled to a trickle in all of the former Soviet republics, Russia included, and in the former socialist countries.” But these well-intentioned coproductions often yielded so-called “Europuddings,” “with different accents and different sensibilities muddling the product.”Menashe’s essay “Buttons, Buttons, Who’s Got the Workers? A Note on the (Missing) Working Class in Late- and Post-Soviet Russian Cinema” astutely analyzes how working-class characters mysteriously disappeared from Russian films during the “Golden Age of Soviet Cinema” between the 1960s and 1980s. Neither Andrei Tarkovsky nor Nikita Mikhalkov nor Kira Muratova nor Sokurov put workers at the center of their movies, instead preferring intellectuals, artists, and historical figures as heroes.


Natalya Negoda in Little Vera

Even the working-class provincial girls who come to the capital for a better life in Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears leave us with the impression “that the working-class life is something to escape from.” And during glasnost, the most visible films, such as Vasily Pichul’s gritty and nihilistic Little Vera, which enjoyed a succès de scandale in the United States and turned its star Natalya Negoda into a sex symbol, depicting Soviet workers as degraded, violent, and dysfunctional alcoholics. Whether writing about the muckraking glasnost films in the dark style of chernukha or the hallucinatory ruminations of Tarkovsky, Menashe retains an abiding and infectious affection for his subject. He embraces Russian and Soviet reality with all its absurdity, brutality, and arrogance. This volume is truly a labor of love, as well as an essential guidebook for anyone seeking an understanding of one of the world’s most influential and distinguished film traditions.

Harlow Robinson, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History at Northeastern University, is the author of Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians: Biography of an Image.

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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.