INTERVIEW: Famed Russian director Konchalovsky brings little-known dark chapter of Soviet history to the big screen



New Europe sat down with Russian movie director Andrei Konchalovsky – one of the most renowned and among the last surviving luminaries from the golden era of Soviet cinema, following the release of his latest feature, Dear Comrades!. The film was presented in competition at the 77th Venice Film Festival and landed the special jury prize.

A member of one of Russia’s artistic and aristocratic dynasties, Konchalovsky counts Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Bondarchuk, William Wilder, and Shirley McClaine as his friends and former colleagues. Over the years, Konchalovsky was built one of the most varied filmographies of any director in the history of cinema, one that includes Hollywood blockbusters starring Sylvester Stallone and inward-looking ruminations about a 15th-century Russian Orthodox monk.

The true story is set in the Soviet Union in 1962, in the southern Russian city of Novocherkassk. The main character is a woman named Lyudmila, who is a fanatical member of the local Communist Party. She is a true believer in the Marxist-Leninist ideals of the Soviet government and despises any form of dissent.

During a labor strike at the local electric locomotive factory, she witnesses the shooting of protesters by the Soviet Army after they were sent by Moscow to put down the strike. The massacre that she witnesses changes her vision of the world forever. The city is torn apart by riots, arrests, hasty convictions and a KGB-enforced curfew. Many people are killed and injured, others are disappeared.

Lyudmila’s daughter disappears into thin air, which prompts her to start an anguished, dangerous and relentless search through a locked-down city and a cover-up by the authorities.

An official investigation of the Novocherkassk massacre was launched in the then-newly established Russian Federation in 1992. During those far more open and transparent days than now, investigators found that the KGB secretly buried the victims in graves under fake names so they could never be found and that all of the main perpetrators, including Soviet General-Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, Council of Ministers Chair Anastas Mikoyan, and Second Party Secretary Frol Kozlov, were long dead by that time.

Contribution by Fajaryanto Suhardi

New Europe (NE): Is your latest film a nostalgic attempt to relive the glory days of the Soviet past?

Andrei Konchalovsky (AK): No, I don’t shoot like it was something from the 1960s. I shoot what I want and the truth is I don’t know what I want in the sense that every film has its own smell, every period has its own color. No, I’m not talking about black-and-white, but I’m talking about the particular smell and faces that bring back memories. Whichever film I’ve made in my life, in most of them I was trying, in a vigorous way, to create the atmosphere of the period. The faces change, the fashion changes, beauty standards change – how humans look today is completely different from that time. Today’s models are androgynous. In the 19th-century, women were women, etc. It was the same in the 1960s, of course.

NE: What is your close personal feeling about the history of Soviet cinema?

AK: Soviet cinema in the 1960s was great. Actually, it was the greatest period for Soviet. Our cinema was very much on an upward trajectory. There were wonderful directors such as (Andrei) Tarkovsky, (Grigory) Chukhray, (Sergei) Bondarchuk. It was a renaissance era. Soviet cinema was very attractive to the Western public because, at that time, the Communist ideology of the Soviet Union was a great attraction for countries in Western Europe as there was a very strong Communist sentiment then. For some Italians, French, the pro-Communist feelings were very, very strong amongst the youth. It was not like today where there is an attitude of demonizing the whole period of the Soviet Union. There was a lot of work that was done to dismantle the Euro-Communist movement altogether. In Italy, they (the Marxist terrorist group Brigate Rosse) succeeded in ruin the Communist movement with the kidnapping of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. It was a very interesting period because the Soviet Union was a powerful ideology. We can say whatever we want now, but it was an example of a very powerful global ideological movement, based on Socialism, even in the United States. Then, many things happened. Bernardo Bertolucci, the director, once told me a very interesting story of how the tradition and value of Italian cinema died. Italian cinema had a very Socialist element. Director Elio Petri and screenwriter Ugo Pirro, were, in fact, always highly influenced by Communist ideology. This was creating a strong interest among Italian people. It’s a long lecture about how it was full of wealth and greatness the cinema in the 60s.

NE: Tell me about the film’s theme of a mother’s tragic search for the truth?

AK: You know, when you’re talking about themes like ‘searching for the truth’, it becomes very ambivalent because what is ‘the truth’? And what else?…we live in a world we don’t fully understand. What is the truth? In English-language films, I found that the core of human existence exists between hope and despair, between conviction and absolute abysmal. It is like believing in Communism more than God or maybe a false belief at the same time in God and Communism. Who knows? The most interesting thing for me is the notion that enables us to try to see both sides. In my film, there are no bad people. There are some mediating figures, but they are not absolutely bad. I like the idea that my film is well-regarded by those who have completely anti-Soviet views and, on the other side, by the Communists. Now, there can be questions, in the sense that truth is ambivalent and that’s what I think is not very easy to detect. But you know, I always remember Dostoyevsky. He said, through the character) Rodion Raskolnikov, in his novel Crime and Punishment: “It’s very easy to accuse, but it’s very difficult to understand.” I learned to understand, and the best way to do it, is by incorporating part of my experience and the source I heard it from.

Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky and his wife arrive for the 77th annual Venice International Film Festival. The event was the first major in-person film festival to be held in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. EPA-EFE//ETTORE FERRARI

NE: How did you choose the film’s end sequence?

AK: The screenplay comes from a reflection about life. Life always has perspectives and they often speak to us, perceptively. So, life is inexplicable but logical. I’m very glad that what everyone expects is that because, otherwise, they’d see the film from the roof (i.e. from a birdseye view), and there would be no film. I think how you do it is what matters in life and in art. Her (actress Yulia Vysotskaya’s) character in the film is unhappy, but she deserves it. And you know, even if it isn’t true, people believe what they want to believe and expect. It’s that simple.

NE: What was your motivation to recount one of the darkest periods of Soviet history through your latest film?

AK: I hope to shed some light on a tragic part of my life. And I found Vysotskaya, she was a great artist before we worked together. She had a sense of integrity and I decided to write this important character that is, I would say, a fanatical Communist. And this period, this particular event, can introduce the proper environment and proper background for the tragic atmosphere.


*Fajaryanto Suhardi also contributed to this article


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