Dziga and His Brothers and One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue
Dziga and His Brothers: A Family on the Cutting Edge
Produced by Sergei Selyanov and Grigory Libergal; directed by Yevgeni Tsymbal; music by Roman Riazantsev; narrated by Nikolai Burov. DVD-R, color and B&W, 51 min., Russian with nonoptional English subtitles, 2002. A Milestone release.
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich
Video footage, narration and editing by Chris Marker; narrated by Alexandra Stewart. Color and B&W, 55 min., English, 1998. Also included on the same disc are In the Dark andThree Songs about Motherland.
In the Dark
Produced by Sergei Dvortsevoy; directed, written and edited by Sergei Dvortsevoy; camera by Alisher Khamidkhodjaev and Anatoly Petriga. Color, 41 min., Russian with nonoptional English subtitles, 2004.
Three Songs about Motherland
Produced by George Herzfeld; directed and filmed by Marina Goldovskaya; written by Marina Goldovskaya and Daniel Levin; edited by Daniel Levin; songs performed by Yelena Kamburova. Color and B&W, 39 min., Russian with nonoptional English subtitles, 2008. An Icarus Films Homevideo release.
Though he continued photographing films for long-time collaborators Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet, Boris Kaufman’s last major artistic achievement was Film (1965, Alan Schneider). Here he attempted to realize screenwriter Samuel Beckett’s idea of a metaphysical or existential camera. Film is set in 1929, the year after its star Buster Keaton’s last masterpiece, The Cameraman (1928, Edward Sedgwick), which marked the end of the silent comedy beloved of Beckett and which was reimagined so thoroughly in his literature. But it was also the year of The Man with the Movie Camera, directed by Dziga Vertov (pseudonym of Denis Kaufman), and photographed by Mikhail Kaufman. These were Boris’s brothers, whose existence he had to deny before winning an Oscar for On the Waterfront (1954, Kazan). Film is the negation of Vertov’s celebrated achievement, a depleted surrender compared to the earlier film’s messianic optimism; the all-seeing Man with the Movie Camera flouts the laws of physics and films Russian life from every conceivable (and inconceivable) vantage point; Film hurries from the threatening outdoors to a shabby room as its antihero tries to block the outside world and the “agony of perceivedness.”The Man with the Movie Camera aimed to create “a truly international absolute language of cinema”; Film is the exhaustion of that and any other language. The Man with the Movie Camera climbs huge industrial stacks, confronts a speeding train, and swings over roaring dams as heroically as any Keaton character; in Film, Keaton is demented and old. The brothers’ centrality to half a century of experimental film supports Yevgeni Tsymbal’s claim that the Vertovs were “perhaps the most talented brothers in the history of the cinema.”
The jaunty tone of his documentary Dziga and His Brothers tries to make the grim facts of the Kaufmans’ lives bearable. Grandsons of a rabbi, they were born in the predominantly Jewish town of Bialystok. David (later to become Denis, then Dziga Vertov, 1896-1954), Moisei (later Mikhail, 1897-1980) and Boris (died 1980) witnessed the 1906 Bialystok Pogrom; their mother would later be murdered in the Holocaust. Vertov, having been admired by Lenin and close to the Constructivist movement (Rodchenko designed posters for his films), was increasingly sidelined under Stalin, his works criticized as excessively formalist, censored, and shelved; by the 1940s he was making short films about Stalin’s favorite song. By the end of that decade, he was unemployed during the anti-Semitic campaign. He retreated into paranoia and reclusion; no photograph of him during his last fourteen years exists. Mikhail’s Italian lover “disappeared” during the purges; their daughter was kidnapped, dying soon after. The once exuberant Mikhail was a broken man; his last major undertaking was to film the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, although he would go on to make educational shorts.
Boris was the only brother to truly prosper—a reactionary might attribute this to his being in the West—but faced long years in the wilderness when Jean Vigo died during the making of L’Atalante (1934) and again when he moved to North America after the Fall of France in 1940, having served as a cavalry officer in the French army. Between 1940 and his triumphant “comeback” with On the Waterfront, work was scarce, and included a brief period with John Grierson at the National Film Board in Canada. Later notable credits include Baby Doll (Kazan, 1956), 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957), The Fugitive Kind (Lumet, 1960), Splendor in the Grass (Kazan, 1961), Long Day’s Journey into Night (Lumet, 1962), and The Pawnbroker (Lumet, 1964).
The self-reflexivity apparent in works such as The Man with the Movie Camera was clearly genetic; Mikhail was the first Kaufman to be given a camera, and he immediately snapped a self-portrait in the mirror. Vertov believed film should surprise viewers, and to that end he and Mikhail created the first Soviet animation (1924), and experimented with film speeds, stills, split screens, matte shots, montage and, later, sound. Mikhail, unhappy with Vertov’s overall esthetic, finally rebelled to make his own films; one of the delights of this documentary are the generous clips from his In Spring (Vesnoy, 1931), which is closer to the lyricism of contemporary German work by Ella Bergmann-Michel and the makers of People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag, 1930, Curt Siodmak et al.). Boris was sent to Paris by his father to avoid the draft. He studied engineering in the Sorbonne, and worked in both the commercial cinema and the French avant-garde, before codirecting À Propos de Nice (1930) with Vigo. The influence of Vertov on that film is explained by the correspondence on cinema technique kept up by the brothers. Vigo and Boris shot L’Atalante using Vertov’s camera after they’d sold their own to make Zero de Conduite(1933).
Tsymbal charts this life using clips from Yiddish movies, newsreels, and the brothers’ work; photographs; quotes from Vertov’s diary, Vertov’s and Mikhail’s letters, Boris’s notes, archival documents, and interviews with Boris’s son and granddaughter, film historians Bernard Eisenschitz and Lev Roshal, and directors Sidney Lumet and Marianna Tavrog. It is essentially a chronological trot through the brothers’ lives, which offers minimal insight into the films they made but leaves a raging desire to see more of them.
An ideal companion to Dziga and His Brothers would be Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik (Le tombeau d’Alexandre, 1992, also available on DVD from Icarus Films), his study of Alexander Medvedkin. Like Vertov, Medvedkin was a loyal Bolshevik sidelined by Stalin, a formal innovator whose filmmaking career was curtailed. Both men began their careers on the agit-trains that crossed the Soviet territories in the 1920s, filming life as they found it (or not), projecting it there and then to their subjects, and generally spreading the Bolshevik message. But the Marker film under review—though featuring footage from an interview with Medvedkin—is One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, part of the exemplary French TV series developed by André S. Labarthe and Janine Bazin, Cinéma, de notre temps.
Despite shared interests in time and memory, writing and photography, and reworking science fiction, it is difficult to conceive of two more temperamentally opposed filmmakers as Andrei Tarkovsky and Chris Marker. Tarkovksy’s is an art of ponderous symbolism, labored epiphanies, and sequence shots so elaborately preprogrammed that even the dog has his mark. Marker prefers surprising juxtapositions, chance revelations, discoveries, and mistakes, often compiling his films from found materials, or striving for a home-movie esthetic. Where Tarkovsky’s oeuvre is claustrophobically subjective and indifferent to an audience, Marker is always engaged by (and politically engagé with) the outside world, people and events, frequently addressing or conversing with the spectator. Tarkovsky wanted to “place cinema on a par with the other arts,” weighing his films down with Leonardo and Bach; Marker could make a thirteen-part TV series about ancient Greek culture (The Owl’s Legacy, 1989) but is also comfortable with comic books, toys, shopping malls, video, and computers. Tarkovsky labored over a small number of films, his last showing little thematic or stylistic development from his first; Marker is the archetypal KinoEye—interviewees often converse directly to his camera—thriving on new styles, technologies, media, and modes of distribution. Tarkovsky is to Marker as a Russian novel is to a French essay, a dog to a cat.
But from Lettre de Sibérie (1957) to The Last Bolshevik, Russia has been a recurring Marker subject. Opposites clearly attract because the pair were so close that Tarkovsky asked Marker, already shooting him on the set of The Sacrifice (1986), to document his dying weeks, including his reunion with the son banned by the Soviet authorities from travel when Tarkovsky went into voluntary exile during the making of Nostalghia (1983) and his postproduction work on The Sacrifice with Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist. This material forms the heart of Marker’s One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, and despite Marker’s best intentions and the assurances of Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman, I find this material intrusive and difficult to watch. But that difficulty, that confrontation, is probably what Tarkovsky wanted; after all he “commissioned” the footage, directs it (“Are you getting all this Chris?”) and later commented on it in his diary. With One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich reworking and recommenting on all this, a mise-en-abyme of Vertov proportions begins to open up.
Marker continually links the life and work—most controversially when the Stalker’s harrowing monolog in the film of that name (1979) is crosscut with an image of the dying, writhing Tarkovsky—and focuses on what he singles out as the Russian’s key themes and motifs—children, the four elements, painting and the meaning of art, mirrors, levitation, the Russian figure of the Innocent or Holy Fool, houses, and characters’ aspirations for “the other shore.” Like his earlier essay about Kurosawa, A.K. (1985), Marker offers a virtual film school; he explains, for instance, why The Sacrifice needs to end on a six-minute-sequence shot rather than being broken up into conventional shots, or the difference between Hollywood and Tarkovsky’s camera angles. But it is blessed with a playfulness unavailable to Tarkovsky; a clip from his student adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killersis overdubbed with dialog from Robert Siodmak’s famous 1946 film noir version; a pair of opera glasses stolen by Marker from Covent Garden fails to recapture Tarkovsky’s unfilmed staging of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. A séance Tarkovsky attended is recounted where Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago, tells the director he will make seven films (which he did). Nevertheless, this is an account of the artist as singular, timeless genius; there is no attempt to place Tarkovsky with his Soviet contemporaries (e.g., Paradjanov) or in any other context.
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich was released on DVD in the U.K. with other documentaries relating to Tarkovsky (The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion, 2007, Artificial Eye), and it is interesting to compare it with, say, Alexander Sokurov’s absurdly hagiographic Moscow Elegy (Moscovskaya Elgiya, 1987). This film is haunted with tacit guilt over Tarkovsky’s lifelong harassment by the Soviet authorities. Its whispered narrator leads the camera through the sites of Tarkovsky’s life, work, and death (lingering shots of his tomb), as if on a pilgrimage to some medieval shrine. The narrator’s last words—“Here is a tree. Andrei Tarkovsky planted it some years ago”—is followed by a burst of Russian chorale, at which point the nondevotee might remember Oscar Wilde’s epigram about the death of a Dickens character (“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”).
Voyage in Time (Tempo di Viaggio, 1983), Tarkovsky’s own “making of” Nostalghia, is arguably his most engaging film. Its self-reflexive framework—he alternates sequences of location scouting and shooting with dialogs with his screenwriter Tonino Guerra—actually creates two Tarkovskys, Tarkovsky the “protagonist” of Voyage in Time, a caricature of the high-minded, pompous director of legend, and the “real” filmmaker, whose silent, visual response to landscape, textures, space, light, and people belie the self-absorbed prattle of the former. But neither has the wit or depth of Marker’s take.
Judging by the back sleeve, this Icarus Films DVD appears to have been curated by Marker himself and is paired with two brilliant, idiosyncratic nonfiction works. Sergei Dvortsevoy’s hilarious and moving In the Dark (V Temnote) is a portrait of the obsolete artist or craftsman; Uncle Vanya (Ivan Nikolaevich Skorobogatov) is a blind widower who patiently makes string bags he can’t give away. The camera patiently records this work, Vanya’s hands and tools, as he negotiates the space of his tiny apartment outside Moscow and time through outside sounds. As with Bread Day (Clebnyy den, 1999) and Dvortsevoy’s celebrated fiction debut Tulpan (2008), the tone and images are sometimes so incongruous you wonder if the film is a shaggy dog story or simply reflects the oddity of everyday life; we are constantly shown apparatus of seeing—mirrors, photographs, cameras—in a film about a man who can’t see. I should say shaggy cat story; the real hero of the film, and I suspect the real source of Marker’s fondness for it, is a white cat who, when it isn’t licking itself and chasing flies, is so disruptive it constantly interrupts Vanya’s work, overturns piles of household objects, steals and plays with balls of string, and even wrecks the illusion of the “objective” documentary process by forcing Dvortsevoy onto the screen to help his uncle clear up, to the irritation of his crew: “Go away Sergei, why are you always in the shot?”
Three Songs about Motherland also features cats, but its main link to Marker (besides director Marina Goldovskaya contributing to The Last Bolshevik) is its central section, which also narrates the death of the director’s close friend, another thorn in the side of the Russian leaders. Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist murdered for repeatedly exposing Russian war crimes and military corruption during the Chechnyan conflict; as with One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, this film’s poignancy derives from the many conversations with the subject filmed by Goldovskaya, as concerned with bad jokes and worse cooking as it is with the dehumanization of post-Soviet Russia. This central section also alludes directly to Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (Tri Prsni o Lenine, 1934), a fervent requiem to a lost leader in a film otherwise charged with Bolshevik optimism. Goldovskaya ranges over today’s Russia where that great dream is dead. Its first section interviews surviving volunteers from the Lenin youth organization Komsomol, who came from Leningrad to the Russian Far East in 1934 to build the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. The admiration for Stalin—“So some people got arrested. No big deal”—expressed by some of the interviewees, and the evasive, forgetful or bullish narrations of life under the Terror (including the lynching and murder of their boss) is frightening. The final section—“The city of hope”—looks at another relic of Russian terror, Siberia, former site of political exile, forced labor and ideological reeducation. The descendents of that graveyard of hope have revitalized the city of Khanty-Mansiysk through privatization, in particular oil and the media. New top-of-the-range skiing centers, schools and hospitals are built; there is only the odd homicide. The horrors of the past are exorcised by shiny tour guides in bright museums. But Komsomolsk began with such optimism; Politkovskaya was killed in part for criticizing privatization; and Marker’s own Lettre de Sibérie is very ambivalent about the construction of new towns.
Dziga and His Brothers is part of a new made-on-demand (MOD) series launched in June by Milestone. The image quality is acceptable (except for the muddy clips, which may be due to the original documentary), but the subtitles are nonoptional and there are no chapters. One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich offers only the English dub with subtitles.
Darragh O’Donoghue works as an archivist in Dublin and has published in The Irish Journal of French Studies and Senses of Cinema.
To buy Dziga and His Brothers: A Film Family on the Cutting Edge click here.
To buy One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich click here.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4