The past is a dream in this bittersweet tale of a writer adrift in Brezhnev’s USSR. An elegiac journey into a luminously hazy Leningrad, Aleksey German Jr’s new film Dovlatov follows the life of the now celebrated writer Sergei Dovlatov over six days in 1971, as he struggles to get published.
The film shows how his sense of irony and of the absurd, in retelling the everyday, meant his hopes for publication were consistently thwarted. By the end of the decade, he had left the Soviet Union and emigrated to the US, where he eventually gained international recognition, and the support of science-fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut. He is now celebrated in Russia as its most popular late twentieth century writer.
My colleague Victoria Naumova and I had tea and a chat with director Aleksey German Jr during LFF2018 in a high-ceilinged hotel foyer close to BFI South Bank. Against the din of chatter around us, in soft-spoken tones, he explained his closeness to his subject. His family knew Dovlatov very well, and had lived nearby in what was then Leningrad. Crucially, the theme of the writer who cannot publish what he wishes to, is one that is also close to the director’s heart. German Jr’s father, whose name he shares, and who has his own distinguished place in Russian cinema for films such as Khrustalyov, My Car! and My Friend Ivan Lapshin, had encountered, too, similar difficulties.
The film is a reminder of a very specific time and place. Publication was strictly controlled and even a humorous description of ordinary life could be subversive. As the camera follows Dovlatov over his six days of walking through the city, meeting other struggling writers or well-meaning but constricted editors, a strong sense of his melancholy humour emerges. I saw Brezhnev in a dream, he tells a friend. He promised to help.
It’s a story that is both grim and gorgeous, and the film is highly evocative, drawing beauty out of drabness. German Jr told us that he had wanted to make an anti-biopic, something that is not in the style of a Hollywood epic. He wanted to recreate in those six days the tragedy of the USSR, its darkness. In this he succeeds – the film is not a hagiography or heritage film – though the camera cannot help but make even darkness beautiful.
It is impossible not to love the main character. German Jr told us the film took a long time to cast, to find faces that fitted the era. Milan Marić, as Dovlatov, is a strong but quiet presence in the story. His performance fits the film’s mood and is in accord with the ensemble of characters around him. It’s a film centred around ensemble playing. The camera is constantly and gently in motion, in step with the protagonist, people coming and going around him. It’s an aspect of the film which is very much in keeping with a certain Russian cinematic tradition and an aesthetic which is kept here understated rather than flamboyant. There is something about Dovlatov that takes one back to the 1965 film I am Twenty (also known in a prior version as Illiych’s Gate) by Marlen Khustiev.
During our conversation, German Jr made an interesting point about current perceptions of Russian cinema. That there is an increasing cultural distance between Russian and Western cinema, because the visuals look familiar but the themes are very different. Yet we might not notice this in the same way we do when watching films from the Far East, where there are visual and thematic clues that point to difference. Perhaps with Russian cinema we labour under the illusion of familiarity, and do not spot the difference.
Dovlatov is a film that looks expensively made, lavish even though tonally subdued. It is in fact a modestly budgeted independent. Time and love were spent on finding authentically dilapidated or worn out locations, and Elena Okopnaya’s finely judged costume design won a Silver Bear at the 2018 Berlinale. The jazz score that underpins the images adds to the film’s melancholy elegance.
German Jr’s next project is a film set during WW2, about Russian pilots – women pilots. Recent insights about the role of women in wartime have met with widespread interest, as shown by the international popularity of Svetlana Alexievich’s recent book, The Unwomanly Face of War. We look forward to this new film – it will be a welcome addition to a rich and varied genre.
Dovlatov is now screening on Netflix UK.
With grateful thanks to Victoria Naumova.
Director: Aleksey German Jr.
Cinematography: Lukasz Zal
With: Milan Marić, Danila Kozlovsky, Helena Sujecka, Eva Herr, Artur Beschastny, Anton Shagin, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Elena Lyadova, Igor Mityushkin, Pyotr Gonsovsky, Tamara Oganesyan, Denis Shlenkov