This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Last year, not far from the Kremlin and the old headquarters of the NKVD on Ostozhenka Street, a restaurant opened called NKVD, featuring reverent Soviet imagery on its walls and on its menus. It was doubly insensitive in that four victims of Soviet terror had lived at the address where the restaurant was located.
Earlier this year, a Moscow kebab shop called Stal’in Doner was closed by state officials after only a week. Its staff had worn NKVD uniforms, greeted customers with the period slogan “Life has become better, life has become happier”, and served up Stalinskaya kebabs that were double the size of the standard fare.
Such outbreaks of Stalin-era chic have become increasingly acceptable since Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, came to power in Russia in 2000. Soviet Russia’s great patriotic victory in 1945 is celebrated as a powerful unifying myth, whereas Stalin’s record of terror, persecution, and mass murder is subtly airbrushed from collective memory.
Konchalovsky’s thriller Runaway Train, from an original screenplay by Japanese master Akira Kurasowa, is one of my favourite films from the 1980s
And Mr Jones, the 2019 film from Polish director Agnieska Holland about Welsh reporter Gareth Jones, who exposed the Ukrainian “Holodomor”, Stalin’s systematic starvation of Ukrainian peasants opposed to collectivisation, although well received in Ukraine and around the world, has not been sold to Russia.
So this year’s choice of film by Russia as its entry in the Oscars category for Best International Feature Film is of particular piquancy. Dear Comrades! is directed by Soviet-era veteran Andrei Konchalovsky and tells the story of a 1962 massacre of 26 striking workers in the western Russian city of Novocherkassk.
Konchalovsky is descended from Russian aristocrats, but his father, children’s author Serghey Mikhalkov, was a loyal son of the Revolution who wrote the lyrics for the Soviet national anthem introduced by Stalin in 1944 and even wrote a new version at Putin’s request in 2000. Konchalovsky’s brother, the film director Nikita Mikhalkov, won the Best International Feature Film Oscar for Burnt by the Sun in 1985. Both brothers have been festooned with state honours and awards as well as international prizes.
Konchalovsky has one of the strangest careers in world cinema. He co-wrote Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) before directing his own debut feature, The First Teacher (1964), co-wrote Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), saw his second feature Asya’s Happiness (1967) banned for 20 years, and directed adaptations of Turgenev and Chekhov as well as the four-part epic Siberiade (1979) before moving to the United States in 1980.
Konchalovsky’s thriller Runaway Train, from an original screenplay by Japanese master Akira Kurasowa, is one of my favourite films from the 1980s. Jon Voight and Eric Roberts play convicts who escape a maximum-security prison in Alaska and stow away on board a train consisting of four locomotives, which becomes a runaway when its engineer suffers a fatal stroke. The ensuing plot contains several implausible elements, but the film has a spectacular energy. Voight won a Golden Globe, and Voight and Roberts were both nominated for Oscars, as was editor Henry Richardson.
Konchalovsky’s other foray into Hollywood was a bizarre buddy action comedy with a homo-erotic subtext, Tango & Cash (1989), in which Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell play a pair of cops who go up against a crazed arch-criminal with a penchant for sniffing mice, played by dependable villain Jack Palance.
It aspired to the commercial success of the Lethal Weapon movies, but instead the best that may be said for it is that it came close to camp classic status. Asked if he is trying to emulate Rambo, Stallone’s character (rich cop Ray Tango, who dresses in Armani, plays the stock market, and drives convertibles) gets to utter the self-referential line: “Rambo’s a pussy.”
Konchalovsky directed the NBC miniseries of The Odyssey (1997), a 2003 version of The Lion in Winter for Showtime, and The Nutcracker in 3-D (2010), a satirical reworking of Tchaikovsky’s ballet — with lyrics by Tim Rice! The latter, a UK-Hungarian co-production, is estimated to have cost $90 million and grossed a mere $17 million worldwide.
His 2016 Holocaust drama Paradise was Russia’s submission for the Best International Feature Film Oscar in 2017. Sin (2019), an Italian-language film about Michelangelo, starring Alberto Testone and inspired by Konchalovsky’s reading of the Renaissance sculptor’s poetry, was not released here and is not easy to find on DVD (with English subtitles), although there are some used copies out there.
The truth about the Novocherkassk massacre did not emerge until 30 years later, in 1992, as the Soviet Union collapsed. Konchalovsky read about it at that time but took another 30 years to make his film on the subject. He was never imprisoned and has an ambivalent attitude towards the Russian state. “Deep down I am a very Soviet man,” he has said. “Soviet life is dear to me — and absolutely hateful.”
Shot in black and white, in the squareish Academy ratio that was the standard format in Hollywood movies until the advent of widescreen alternatives in the 1950s, Dear Comrades! is an outraged ironic historical lesson in which a new layer of asphalt covers the bloodstains in the street and witnesses are made to sign denials of the truth before being despatched themselves. Heaven knows what Putin must think about its depiction of his beloved KGB.
It stars the director’s fifth wife Yuliya Vysotskaya, 36 years his junior, who has appeared in six of his films, as a middle-aged Communist Party official, Lyuda, whose daughter Svetka goes missing after the massacre at the Electromotive factory. Lyuda believes the Soviet Union has gone to rack and ruin under Khrushchev. “If Stalin were alive, we’d be living under communism already,” she exclaims, by which she means a utopia in which the state has withered away. Despite her daughter’s fate, she is too far gone even to be disillusioned. “What am I supposed to believe in, if not communism?” she asks towards the end of the film.
Tango & Cash is available on Prime Video, Runaway Train is best watched on Blu-ray, and Dear Comrades! can be seen on Curzon Home Cinema. Konchalovsky’s next project sounds equally intriguing: an historical TV drama series with the working title Heroes and Bastards of the Revolution.
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