The Rotterdam Dispatch, Part 1:
Radical Melodies

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
Savouring the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s focus on the great—and scandalously overlooked—Soviet filmmaker Kira Muratova.

Kira Muratova is one of the most underrated directors in film history. Arguably her biggest successes came during the ’80s and ’90s, when anti-Soviet films made from within the Soviet Union were no longer in vogue and therefore didn’t acquire the cachet that earlier repressed Soviet films did. Glasnost and the end of the Cold War led to some critics drawing a line over the era, to the extent that her more universally applicable works from the period got left behind. Furthermore, Muratova’s style is so idiosyncratic and fierce that she’s always been so difficult to place: at times nihilistic and misanthropic, at other times deeply humanistic or pained. She shares the same formal brilliance of her Eastern European contemporaries, only strengthening the argument that Cold War Eastern Europe is one of the best places for discovering great cinema. Her formal experimentation via collage, polyphonic rhythms, self-reflexivity, other artistic forms, and narrative digressions marry perfectly with the use of absurdist, Dadaist, satirical, and slapstick traditions. She was doing it before The Simpsons, yet languishes in complete obscurity. Via its ‘Signals’ programme, this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam has gone some way to correcting the imbalance with a special retrospective of her work, itself designed to lead into her new film, Eternal Homecoming.

Sadly, I missed the earliest Muratova works—the “provincial melodramas” and “small films” (both of these descriptions are deliberate understatements)—that helped make her reputation. The earliest film I saw was Change of Fortune (1987), an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter. Maria (Natalya Leble) is on trial for murder of her lover, only the film isn’t particularly interested in the trial. It’s more concerned with the way she twists and takes advantage of those around her. It’s a character study, aided by Leble’s camp performance. It’s also frequently dark and funny, but overall, is a bit too messy, and lacks the energy and focus of her later work. This wasn’t helped by difficulties projecting what was obviously a hard-to-source print. One interesting aspect of the film is its criticism of Russian racial bigotry towards the ‘Other’ within the Soviet Union (in this specific case, Tajiks), a hint at Muratova’s frequent championing of the underdog. Also prominent are Muratova’s frequent cutaways, to what others would deem unnecessary or superfluous—although Muratova creates a far more interesting world around her characters than most ‘restrained’ or ‘well-edited’ filmmakers. Ultimately though, Change of Fortune isn’t one to recommend to those looking for an entrée to her body of work.

The promise of Change of Fortune didn’t give much of a hint towards the power of her next film, The Asthenic Syndrome (1989). This, to be blunt, is one of the greatest films ever made. One of the most caustic pieces of filmmaking I’ve witnessed, the film has (wrongly) been held, rather simplistically, to symbolise the Soviet glasnost era. While it (presumably—I was never Soviet) captures the zeitgeist, it is much more than that. It still feels incredibly relevant. The Asthenic Syndrome initially focuses on Natasha, a doctor and widow, who has just buried her husband. Her husband, coincidentally or not, looks suspiciously like Stalin. Her reaction to his death is to rage against everything. At first it feels cathartic. She rants against silly things: the fact people must exit from certain doors on a bus, the fact that some people don’t deviate when you’re walking towards them, the fact that sometimes you just want to break stuff (ugh, apologies for quoting Fred Durst). Then, as the film progresses, it starts to get uncomfortable. Although Natasha is raging, Muratova highlights the futility of her actions. She achieves nothing. Her anger leads to an opposite reaction by the audience—a desire for ambivalence or acceptance of the status quo—and Muratova tries to channel our discomfort into wishing her to do nothing. Muratova, incidentally, films this in classic Soviet montage style. Socialist realism used not as a call to action as intended by Dziga Vertov or Sergei Eisenstein, but into an indifferent acceptance of the world as it is. With all of its faults.

Suddenly, a third of the way into the film, Muratova shifts the goalposts. Natasha’s film is shown to be a “film” made by Muratova. The film then switches to colour and ‘real-life’. An audience is filmed walking out of the first film, unimpressed. One complains that he only wants to see films that make him happy. Because ordinary life is so tough, why do we want to see life on the big screen? Muratova then spends the rest of the film making sure we don’t become complacent. It’s provocative and powerful, but necessarily so. The (new) plot ostensibly focuses on a failed novelist/teacher. (He’s a complete failure in both; usually scriptwriters are kind enough to allow a character to be at least vaguely competent in one of those roles.) He’s a narcoleptic, so falls asleep without warning and frequently in inopportune moments. Unlike Natasha, he’s someone who, while acknowledging he’s a failure, refuses to do anything about it. He wants to be a writer but complains when conditions aren’t perfect enough to write. It’s a stab at the artistic classes who have failed to comment on society or on the world, and who simply accept the world as it is. As a teacher, he gets into physical fights with his students and barely manages to teach a thing. His indifference proves deadening.

Muratova herself doesn’t fall into that trap. She throws everything into making sure we don’t simply accept the world. Profanity and male frontal nudity (both of which caused problems with the Soviet authorities, leading to it being the only Soviet film banned during the glasnost era) are used with Situationist wit. Most brutally, she cuts to dogs abandoned in the pound, a devastating sequence to drag audiences awake in case they had tuned out. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “To complain that certain sequences are excessive is about as relevant as calling the Pacific Ocean wet.”

Meanwhile, while this is all going on, Muratova delivers all sorts of comedy through secondary characters, absurd situations, and withering satire. This is a fully developed world; the teacher doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and there is so much wrong with the world that focusing on one character simply cannot capture it all. Sure, it’s challenging, but as Muratova asks, isn’t that the purpose of art? The fact that it still resonates—the characters could easily be living in contemporary society—suggests that our general reactions to things going wrong (the War on Terror and acceptance of the GFC for starters) is the reason why things remain so bad. It’s a marvelous piece of art, and one that deserves to be regarded much higher than a mere curiosity piece of its time.

Her next film, The Sentimental Policeman (1992), was a complete flop in the West. So much so, it basically has barely been seen outside of the newly independent Ukraine. For some critics, it was too optimistic, especially after the scream that was The Asthenic Syndrome. But it works as a counterpoint to critics of her that claimed she was too misanthropic, and the film is full of her trademark off-kilter humour and steely view of human relations. In it, a good-natured policeman (Nikolai Shatokhin) finds a baby in a cabbage patch. At first he gives her to the authorities, but he and his wife then decide to adopt her. Muratova presents Shatokhin as skirting fine line between banal acceptance of the world and “raging against it.” Madness vs. civilization. In the end, the policeman submits to civilization—and it’s arbitrary and cruel. Despite this, it’s also one of Muratova’s most hopeful films. The husband-wife relationship is remarkably sweet and naked (literally, and figuratively). Despite the travails they go through, Muratova suggests that basic love and kindness is the key to things progressing in the newly independent Ukraine. As her later films showed, her hopefulness was perhaps a one-off.

2004’s The Tuner is another masterpiece that has barely been seen outside of the Russian-speaking world. It’s a cruel film. A tenuous couple decide to steal money from some elderly women. Muratova doesn’t use this set-up to moralise or provide turning points in the characters’ behaviours—after all, the elderly women are naïve and too trusting (perhaps a product of a pre-free market world)—but they’re also racist and insular in their thinking. The couple are quick thinking and charming, but also reprehensible and lacking in conscience. With great lead performances (including Muratova’s brilliant muse, Renata Litvinova), the film slowly but surely winds itself up. The fact that the money in question is small, and the morality present disturbingly lax, tells us that Muratova views the whole thing as quixotic and smalltime—or a Balzacian human comedy. But in such a way, The Tuner is remarkably vicious in its depiction of contemporary Ukraine, where people are fighting over scraps. The film is shot in crisp black and white, adding a layer of realism and grime to a small but perfectly formed morality tale.

While The Tuner is good, it’s nothing compared to the brilliance of Melody for a Street Organ (2009). This film forms a wonderful companion piece to The Asthenic Syndrome. If we can say the latter film is the definitive word on Soviet Russia, the former is almost the definitive word on post-Soviet Ukraine. A half-brother and half-sister search for their respective fathers after the death of their mother. It’s near Christmas time and the streets are covered in snow. It’s yet another remarkably cruel film, as the children wander through a Rabelaisian landscape. It says something about the anger of the film when its opening scene, featuring a comedic use of the Slaughter of the Innocents, doesn’t feel gratuitous. Middle-class mothers steal from the siblings. Bureaucracy doesn’t care about them, unless they’re flouting the rules. Orphan and dogs don’t offer any support. Adults simply cannot be trusted. Amazingly, Muratova manages to avoid any hint of mawkishness or audience manipulation, whilst also making strong critiques of free market thinking and capitalist social relations. While it’s certainly downbeat, it’s also incredibly funny and absurd. Muratova shows her genius in mixing humour and social commentary, and the end result is a sledgehammer. Adding to its feel, Muratova utilises gloriously evocative imagery and purposefully exaggerated performances from her actors. Melody for a Street Organ is yet another remarkable work, and one of the finest films of recent years.

Her latest film, Eternal Homecoming, is considerably more low-key. A stock-standard scene is repeated over and over again. Each time, however (rondo style), it’s performed with slight variations, and frequently by different actors. Sameness becomes different. It captures many of the concerns that have been present throughout her career: repetition, absurdist situations, recontextualising audience expectations, and the distortion of the nature of ‘truth’. If we cannot trust what the scene itself is, how can we trust the actors or the script in anything? How can we trust Muratova’s previous work to represent anything? The film concludes that it’s all remarkably arbitrary. To confuse matters, Muratova uses actors from throughout her career to play the roles—repetition over time and space. It’s playful and fun, and while it wouldn’t necessarily be recommended as the starting point to her formidable oeuvre, it’s a nice summation of some of her key concerns.

Muratova’s films were a treat in Rotterdam. While film festivals can frequently be hit and miss with their choices, the ability to rely on the strength of Muratova’s work proved to be remarkably comforting and challenging away from the contemporary programming. In a way, it was the perfect retrospective for a serious film festival. By the end, Muratova’s legacy of repetitions and digressions had built on top of each other to create a marvelously compelling view of late 20th century, and equally importantly, early 21st century life.

The Lumière Reader’s Brannavan Gnanalingam and Tim Wong attended the 42nd International Film Festival Rotterdam in January. More of their coverage from the film festival to follow.