The blissful political incorrectness of Soviet comedies
Soviet cinema reveals to the West that life in the USSR was not all grey, unsmiling misery; instead, the Soviets were just like us
Mention Russian cinema to most people and they will, if anything, think of the sturm und drang of Eisenstein or the burdensome beauty of late Tarkovsky. Russian cinema, for most people, is a bit like going to church: heavy, demanding, and often as long as a Russian Orthodox service but probably just as good for the soul. Yet in the last few years Mosfilm – the Moscow film studios set up in 1920 just after the Revolution – have been releasing Soviet comedies on YouTube, many with English subtitles. They are witty, full of life and a huge slab of terra incognita for lovers of World Cinema. And they’re as unlike Tarkovsky as anything you could imagine.
Any visitor to Russia in 2021 will find a world they recognise
A good one to kick off with is Georgiy Daneliya’s Afonya (1975) starring the swashbuckling Leonid Kuravlyov (a kind of Russian David Essex) as the title character. It’s the tale of a ne’er-do-well Soviet plumber set in the cheery stagnation of Brezhnev’s USSR. Afonya (short for Afanasy) drinks, womanises and takes bribes, but his life is catching up with him. His photograph appears on the Public Board of Censure (a classic Soviet caution) and Party meetings are convened to shame and penalise him. As women enter his life and leave it, Afonya has two mainstays – an innocent young girl semi-stalking him with doglike (possibly interesting) devotion, and new-found drinking partner Kolya, kicked out by his wife and come to sleep in Afonya’s bath. When Kolya’s not cooking macaroni for Afonya – a kind of surrogate wife to him – he stares up at the cosmos and philosophises about the shortcomings of the human race.
What’s interesting about Afonya is its picture of Soviet life at a time when we were told all was grey, unsmiling misery there. Instead it’s a world with palpable similarities to the West: pop music, glamour photos, consumerism and (undeniably) a class-system. Yet the backdrop of the film has a Soviet otherness too: identikit mass-housing, neon signs, interiors of public buildings once so futuristic and now such period pieces. There are Party Meetings presided over by old fossils with shiny suits and combovers, attended by people who yawn their way through – just as we would – desperate to get away and watch TV.
Any visitor to Russia in 2021 will find a world they recognise too. Afonya eats in a stolovaya (public canteen) serving up the same rissoles and prune juice they do today and climbs the same dusty public stairwells. Tarkovsky and Zyagintsev, with their secular monks and martyrs, may take you to the heart of the Slavic soul and the mysteries therein. What they don’t do is this: show you the textures of Russian life as it was, and often still is, on a daily basis.
The film’s also an introduction to one of the key actors of the post-war USSR: Yevgeny Leonov, who plays Afonya’s move-in drinking partner. Short, fat, ugly as a gargoyle but essentially sweet-natured, Leonov had been the voice of Winnie the Pooh in the Soviet cartoon-adaptation a few years previously, and without much make up could have played the part in the flesh too. Leonov became director Daneliya’s lucky mascot, appearing in nearly all his films, and you can see why. Never has a “little man” been more accurately or soulfully portrayed. From the moment he arrives onscreen you wait for his comedy to go broad and strike archaic, witless notes but it never does. Leonov was so famous for his naturalism that many Russian actors hated appearing alongside him, worrying they’d seem hammy by comparison. He’s one of those actors whose mere name still makes Russians smile and say they “can’t produce such actors anymore”. When Leonov died in 1994 before a theatre performance, the audience, hearing the news, simply decamped to the local church where they formed snaking queues to light candles of grief. A very Soviet actor, a very Russian story.
Leonov also appears in Daneliya’s Autumn Marathon (1979), a winner at the Venice Film Festival. If Afonya is essentially Daneliya’s blue-collar caper, Autumn Marathon, a “sad comedy”, is his portrait of the intelligentsia, in Brezhnev-era crisis. Here our antihero is literary specialist Andrey Pavlovich Buzykin, played by Oleg Basilashvili, another star of Russian cinema. Open-faced, charismatic, slick and sleek, a Russo-Georgian Michael Douglas with a bit of Bob Monkhouse thrown in, Basilashvili gives us here the flawed Soviet male with the cracks just starting to show.
On the face of it, Bezikov’s life is enviable. He lives in a modern St. Petersburg apartment, is a respected translator and lecturer, has a wife and a mistress and a Danish colleague with whom he goes jogging each morning. But Bezikov is in meltdown – his daughter has almost abandoned him, his wife stews in loneliness and his mistress is starting to harry him for a child. Under these combined pressures Bezikov’s instinct for politics – both marital and departmental – is beginning to desert him. Things are fractious enough when Leonov suddenly makes a memorable appearance as his neighbour Kharitonov. Aggressively demanding Bezikov, like a good Russian, drink vodka with him, Kharitonov strongarms him into a mushroom-picking trip as well, at which points things start to implode. This is the Soviet Union 1979 – the downward pull, the fatalism, the inability to decide which way to jump before your craft hits the inevitable rocks.
But, being Russia, it does it with lyrical panache, and set in St. Petersburg (Leningrad as was) does it in exquisitely plaintive surroundings too. Leningrad isn’t quite the star of the film but the city – eerily empty pre-Glasnost – makes a bewitching backdrop, with its dilapidated buildings, its mournful canals, its pigeons and rain showers. Russians will tell you St. Petersburg is its cultural capital, the place where residents take things more slowly. Only watching the self-destruction in this film – which despite its subject matter’s always friendly and accessible – do you realise what a price Soviets had to pay when their momentum stalled.
One can only imagine what a modern HR-manager would make of Office Romance
Thankfully there’s momentum and then some in Eldar Ryazanov’s Office Romance, the USSR’s white-collar romcom parexcellence. It’s a work reminiscent of Billie Wilder’s The Apartment, but made in glorious colour, with the look of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or even an Avengers episode. If Autumn Marathon was Daneliya’s bittersweet threnody for Leningrad, this is Ryazanov’s full-blown love-letter to the other big city: a human anthill, chaotic, careering, more frantic but also warmer than its Baltic sister. Moscow is centre stage in Office Romance: lingering shots of its skylines, of the jammed roads near the Kremlin, its barrages of morning commuters and touching scenes of Muscovites under colourful umbrellas in the rain. Moscow, a character tells us, is “all crowds and queues. But I love my city all the same. It’s a wonderful city.” And Ryazanov, over two and a half hours, convinces us that it is.
Part of this is down to the acting. The film’s leading male is one Anatoly Yefremovich Novoseltsev (Andrey Myagkov, who died recently), a weedy, bedraggled, bespectacled functionary straight out of Gogol. Novolseltsev is a divorced father struggling to bring up two boys (“I have a son. And another son”) and to make an impact on his surroundings, a task he’s less fitted for. “A quiet, soft and harmless person”, is how one colleague describes him. “An uninteresting worker with no initiative, like many others”, is how his boss puts it. She is quite wrong, as it will turn out, and therein hangs the comedy.
Said boss is Ludmila Prokofieva Kalugina, “the old witch” or “hag” to her underlings. Kalugina is cold, forbidding and frumpy, played by Alisa Freindlich, the abandoned wife from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (it’s fun seeing Freindlich let her hair down, in a variety of senses, in Ryazanov’s film). Novoseltsev, a Beta-male angling half-reluctantly for promotion, is egged on by the office Alpha (another performance by Basilashvili, wafting in from Geneva with Marlboro cigarettes and a host of Swiss souvenirs) to court Kalugina and thaw her out. “Treat her like a woman,” he urges. “Woo her.”
It’s in Novoseltsev’s cack-handed attempts to do so, and the crackling back-and-forth dialogue that ensues between them, that the comedy lies. Kalugina is soon seeking fashion and deportment tips from her secretary (seamless comic work from Liya Akhedzhakova, a Ryazanov regular), and Novoseltsev spies a possible new mother for his sons. Naturally, in this modern Much Ado About Nothing, obstacles start to multiply, arising naturally or put in place by resentful onlookers. Yet as a picture of Soviet society – one obsessed with flirtation, status symbols, fashion, interior design, brands – it could not be more surprising or prophetic.
Watching these films and others like them, you feel some of the riddle of Russia is solved
Nor could it be much less politically correct. One can only imagine what a modern HR-manager would make of Office Romance, of its “power-imbalances”, “problematic” attitudes and “inappropriate” behaviour. That said, the same HR-manager should at least pause to wonder what, in doing all we can to make such relationships shameful and unfeasible, we’re also doing to ourselves. A timely subplot in Office Romance, where a character is assailed with letters from a lovesick colleague, shows him outing her and her billet-doux to “the collective”. For doing so, he’s deemed a shameful, heartless “jerk” and widely ridiculed. Underlying the film’s an assumption that, in a big city, our workplace may be the only real community we have. It can be a hospitable village – chatty, sometimes catty, inevitably prone to human errors that can with good will usually be righted – or a sterile, suspicious, unforgiving one.
Having grown up in the seventies and eighties, I’m sometimes asked by Russian friends what images we Westerners had of them throughout this time. I tell them about Drago in Rocky IV, Brezhnev’s monolithic face on May Day, or the sparrow-like genius of gymnast Olga Korbut. Always, as with the mysticism of Tarkovsky, there’s some element of otherworldliness, of strangeness, and this suited our leaders and their military-industrial complexes just fine. Better all-round if we carried on dreaming of what they were like on the other side of that impenetrable wall.
Churchill famously called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Watching these films and others like them, you feel some of the riddle solved. In their private lives – what the Soviets relished, laughed over, played at, longed for and drew the deepest satisfaction from – they were that most unimaginable thing of all. They were just like us.
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