Marlen the Magician

Nick Pinkerton on Marlen Khutsiev at MoMA

Marlen Khutsiev, Mne dvadsat let (I Am Twenty), 1965, 35 mm, black-and-white, 189 minutes.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER. At ninety-one, filmmaker Marlen Khutsiev will be paying a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, presenting a program of his life’s work in cinema, largely unknown to audiences outside of the former Soviet Bloc, though the movies were dropping jaws when they played at last year’s Locarno Film Festival. (The next stop on the tour is the Harvard Film Archive.) They are films never timid in ambition, though external factors often conspired to thwart that ambition, keeping them away from an original intended audience that was very far away from Fifty-Third Street.

Marlen Khutsiev, née Khutsishvili, was born in 1925 in Tiflis, Georgia—today Tblisi, the capital, then still-recently absorbed by the young USSR into the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. One imagines that this development was welcomed by his father, Martyn Levanovich Khutsishvili, a prerevolutionary Communist, but the bloom was not long on the Red rose, and in 1937 Khutsishvili was thrown in the clink for counterrevolutionary crimes. Marlen from a young age was smitten with communist fervor and movies, then inextricable from one another—he staged his own version of Battleship Pomtemkin as a child, and has cited 1934’s Chapayev, a heroic biopic of Red Army commander Vasily Chapayev, as an early favorite—and in 1945 he enrolled in the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, or VGIK, in Moscow.

Khutsiev’s first gig out of school was at the Odessa film studio in Ukraine, once the playground of Alexander Dovzhenko, and it was here that he completed his debut feature, Springtime on Zarechnaya Street, co-directed with Feliks Mironer. The film begins as an urbane young woman, Tatyana (Nina Ivanova), arrives in an unnamed industrial settlement and catches a ride into town, where she is shortly to begin teaching Russian literature at a night school for workers, shrinking in distaste as she passes the city’s ugly industrial fringes. Tatyana sticks around despite her driver’s prediction that she will quickly defect like her predecessors, and is caught up in an uneasy mutual attraction with one of her students, a rough-edged steelworker (Nikolai Rybnikov)—a situation which, through the course of a year and the passing of seasons, lyrically used to express interior emotions, teeters between hopelessness at their impossibly different backgrounds and final surrender.

Released in November 1956, Springtime proved a massive box-office draw, and has frequently been cited as one of the best of the Thaw pictures, named for the so-called Khrushchev Thaw: the period in the USSR following the 1953 death of Joseph Stalin during which, under the leadership of new Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, censorship was eased up, Stalinist holdovers were retired from the Kremlin, and undesirables were liberated en masse from the Gulags—those who’d survived, anyways. The cinema of the Thaw is said to be defined by a new emphasis on individual desire as opposed to pure obeisance to the demands of the social group—an idea of life as consisting of different, not always complementary pressures, as opposed to a single, unified striving toward the Proletarian Paradise—though when Tatyana visits her swain at his mill and we are treated to rhapsodic, romantic images of molten steel, the old specter of Socialist Realism doesn’t seem so very far away. It ought to be added that Khutsiev doesn’t greatly gussy up his depiction of daily life, and his interiors are really not so far from what you might find in one of Hollywood’s dystopian versions of “Russia”—Howard Hughes/Josef von Sternberg’s Jet Pilot (1957), let’s say.

The uneasy tug-of-war between private feeling and public life, personal longing and obligation to the commonweal, culture and society, is woven into the very fabric of Khutsiev’s next film, a sort of modernist heroic poem whose troubled release history was compelling evidence that the brief Thaw was freezing over again. First called Ilych’s Gate, it was initially completed in a 197-minute version then, after attracting the public censure of Khrushchev, reedited and eventually given a proper release three years later as I Am Twenty—MoMA will play both versions. The film begins by literally singling out a face in the crowd—a technique that also opens Khutsiev’s July Rain (1967)—picking a protagonist from the groups coming and going on rain-slick early morning Moscow streets after casually seizing and dropping several potential candidates, finally landing on Sergei (Valentin Popov), a young man in uniform returning home from his military service. It freely moves between the conversation of its principles—Sergei and his two young friends who’ve grown up as neighbors sharing the same courtyard, now all on the cusp of adulthood and sharing the same attendant anxieties—their interior monologues, and ambient snatches of poetry, which seems to be in the very atmosphere. The defining note of the film is an itchy restlessness evident in both performance and inventive, unfettered camerawork—it was shot at least with the full cooperation of the government, and the unbounded use of Moscow as a stage is thrilling. Much of its action takes place by night, during insomniac strolls or in the interludes which Sergei spends with a young woman whom he begins courting after a pickup at the May Day parade, one of multiple instances of Khutsiev’s integration of documentary-style location shooting. Khutsiev also goes to great lengths to populate the film with nonprofessionals, including a cadre of noteworthy young poets who are heard reading at the Moscow Polytechnic Institute, in a scene that was cut from I Am Twenty.

Marlen Khutsiev, Iyulskiy dozhd (July Rain), 1967, 35 mm, black-and-white, 107 minutes.

Ilych’s Gate depicts a generation of men without male role models, their fathers either sacrifices to the war or, like Sergei’s girlfriend’s dad, rank, cynical hypocrites, dulled by the then-newfangled television, here a ubiquitous presence. Sergei and his friends, in contrast, struggle to keep their true believer ideals alive—in one scene near the film’s conclusion Sergei, slightly in his cups at a party whose guests include a young Andrei Tarkovsky, brings the frivolity to a dead stop with his statement of purpose: “I take seriously the Revolution, the ‘Internationale’ anthem, the year of 1937, the war, the soldiers, the fact that almost all of us have no fathers…” Fun guy.

For a contemporary viewer, by which I mean myself, it is difficult to see what all the fuss could have been about a film that extols such unimpeachable patriotic virtues, notwithstanding the occasional crack about “ideologically correct” movie adaptations of the classics and the presence of a wormy informer co-worker character, but exception was taken all the same. The young people listened to too much western music, it was said. The Chairman of the Ideological Commission was upset by all the scenes of loitering: “At night, people should be asleep.” In March of 1963, Khutsiev was invited to the Kremlin along with hundreds of other artists, in front of whom he received a public dressing down. When Ilych’s Gate finally saw light of day, techniques that would have been considerable innovations three years earlier now only placed it in the thick of various international New Waves, so-called, though it would still win a Special Jury Prize at Venice, and the admiration of such seemingly disparate figures as Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini, who may have seen some affinity with his I Vitelloni (1953) and its images of aimless youth.

Khutsiev’s official disfavor didn’t last forever, and he has continued to work sporadically until the present day. (He is currently preparing a new feature about the meeting of Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, a follow-up to his 1991 Infinitas.) In 1986 he was named People’s Artist of the USSR, and in 2006 President Vladimir Putin pinned him with the badge of the Order “For Merit of the Fatherland.” It is the reputation of his work through July Rain on which Khutsiev’s legacy is still largely built, though I have not personally seen his films from the 1970s and beyond, none of which are readily found with English subtitles. MoMA’s series will allow for a much fuller view of Khutsiev, comprising eleven titles in all, per the press release “many of them in new 35-mm prints”—good news from an organization who often fail to prioritize making projection format information readily available to the public.

To see Khutsiev’s films in their original format rather than on 480p YouTubes—a sad journalistic necessity in an era when press screenings are a rarity at rep venues—I will in a sense be seeing them for the first time, and hope to be thusly convinced of the crucial need for a revival. Even seen in less-than-optimal circumstances, the choreographic grace of Khutsiev’s work with cinematographer Margarita Pilikhina on Ilych’s Gate/I Am Twenty is often flabbergasting, but for all the liberated camerawork in the films of his first decade, the inevitable “reiteration of revolutionary principles” scenes bring things down to earth, and have the unmistakable tang of old wine in a new bottle. Khutsiev’s characters may have escaped the one-dimensionality of pre-Thaw Soviet cinema, but the binaries that they offer in its stead are not a great deal richer. (As counterpoint there are the literally and figuratively murkier films of Alexei German, who would shortly join Khutsiev at Mosfilm.) What I’ve seen offers undeniable evidence of a great talent, but it’s a buffaloing greatness—Alejandro González Iñárritu, who probably owes more to the midcentury Russians than any mainstream figure working today, has the same quality. It’s a greatness I haven’t yet learned to appreciate, though its day before a broader public is long overdue.

A retrospective of the films of Marlen Khutsiev runs October 5 through 16 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.