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October 9 – November 27, 2016

Marlen Khutsiev, Unsung Master of the Modern Cinema

Recent nonagenarian Marlen Martynovich Khutsiev remains one of Soviet cinema's most acclaimed, beloved and unique directors. Once well known both in his native land and abroad, he, like many other Soviet filmmakers, found himself woefully ill equipped for the unfamiliar capitalist environment post-USSR. The resulting confusion may be responsible for the erratic trajectory his later career followed: Khutsiev's latest, Infinitas, was released in 1991, whereas its follow-up Not Yet Evening, the story of Anton Chekhov meeting Leo Tolstoy, has been in development for over ten years now. In the meantime, a new generation of cinephiles may now discover this master of cinema.  

Born in 1925 in Tbilisi, then Tiflis, Marlen Khutsiev spent his childhood staging amateur shows with local children in the cast (one show was even based on his self-penned play, Battleship Potemkin). After WWII, he moved to Moscow to begin his studies at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), in a workshop run by famous Soviet filmmaker Igor Savchenko. It was under his mentor's tutelage that Khutsiev co-directed, with fellow student Feliks Mironer, his final project––the short subject City Planners (1950). Young Marlen's other teacher was Boris Barnet, whom he assisted on Lyana (1955). In 1956, Khutsiev debuted his Spring on Zarechnaya Street (once again, co-directed with Mironer), which drew over 30 million cinema-starved viewers in the USSR. In 1958, in Odessa, he completed his first solo outing, The Two Fedors, starring the incredible actor and soon-to-be director Vasily Shukshin in his first major role.

The Two Fedors was followed by Ilyich's Gate and July Rain, both emblematic of the Khrushchev Thaw and representative of a kind of Soviet New Wave. Though in synchrony with the latest cinematic movements, these two masterpieces, unfortunately, were met with ostracism. Ilyich's Gate even incurred Khrushchev’s personal wrath and therefore came out in a censored version under the title I Am Twenty, tying for the Jury Prize at the 1965 Venice Film Festival with Bunuel's Simón of the Desert. The original director’s cut did not premiere until 1988.

The Khrushchev Thaw soon gave way to the Brezhnev Stagnation. Russian film critic Miron Chernenko calls July Rain "a requiem for the era," in which the characters from Ilyich's Gate had grown, not just three years, but "a historical cataclysm older." In 1970, Khutsiev made for TV It Was the Month of May, his only film that deals with the Second World War, dubbed in Russia “The Great Patriotic War,” explicitly showing the very first days after the ceasefire. Khutsiev himself tried to enlist, but was turned down due to poor health. He then started touring military hospitals with his theatrical plays. As he himself put it, by being deemed unfit for service, he "took on a lifelong debt." As a result, echoes of WWII reverberate throughout his oeuvre: the veterans’ reunion in July Rain, the postwar everyday life in The Two Fedors, the father’s photo in Ilyich's Gate. The filmmaker's thirteen-year hiatus that followed It Was the Month of May was briefly interrupted in 1974 when Khutsiev finished Mikhail Romm’s testament And Still I Believe and started teaching at VGIK, where he has since mentored filmmakers Abderrahmane Sissako, Vasili Pichul and Bakur Bakuradze.

Though composed of utterly disparate elements, Khutsiev's body of work is startlingly coherent. He is a filmmaker who always had a knack for reinventing himself and his style: from the realist (perhaps neo-, as the Soviets would have it) Spring on Zarechnaya Street and The Two Fedors to the modernist July Rain and Ilyich's Gate, and then all the way over to Epilogue, an altogether different beast. Khutsiev is celebrated for his collaborations with lesser-known actors and his revolutionary skill with location shooting. However, Epilogue is a chamber drama for two of the most bankable performers of their time, Rostislav Plyatt and Andrey Myagkov. Next came another curveball, Infinitas, Khutsiev’s latest to date, not just his magnum opus but also a sort of retrospective of his previous work brimming with allusions (for example, he replicates the dance-floor scene from The Two Fedors). Perhaps matched only by Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and Sokurov's Russian Ark, Khutsiev's most labyrinthine accomplishment reflects on the nature of time and succession of generations.

Khutsiev has had a lot of ideas that, alas, weren't meant to come to fruition, such as adaptations of Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three and Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, or biopics of Michelangelo, Beethoven and Pushkin (the latter he fretted over for decades, even refashioning its script into a radio play). There was also a passion project called Generation, a group portrait of the director's coevals that was scrapped too, but this is not so tragic after all, because this unmade film seems to have sprung the seven features Marlen Khutsiev has generously given to the world. – Boris Nelepo, film critic and curator

The HFA is thrilled to welcome Marlen Khutsiev here for two evenings of conversation about his extraordinary work and profound legacy.

Special thanks: Nikolai Borodachev, Peter Bagrov—Gosfilmofund of Russia; and Boris Nelepo.

Film descriptions by Boris Nelepo unless otherwise noted.

Marlen Khutsiev visit cancelled
Sunday October 9 at 4pm

Ilyich’s Gate (Zastava Il’icha)

Directed by Marlen Khutsiev. With Valentin Popov, Nikolai Gubenko, Stanislav Lyubshin
Soviet Union 1962, 35mm, b/w, 197 min. Russian with English subtitles

Moscow, early 1960s. Three friends wonder about their future and the meaning of life, and try to find their place in society. “This is, of course, a deeply personal picture,” Khutsiev notes. “I even used to say that the three main characters were all me. One of them stood for my inner turmoil and doubts; the second one, for my family situation at the time; and finally, the third one was the person I aspired to be.”

Arguably the most seminal Soviet film of the 60s, Ilyich's Gate is an encyclopedia of life in Moscow during the era: a meticulous inventory of hopes, illusions and disappointments. One generation older than his characters, Khutsiev co-wrote the script with twenty-two-year-old VGIK student Gennady Shpalikov in order to authentically craft an indispensable time capsule with iconic scenes such as the party with Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky among the guests, the Labor Day demonstration, and the poetry reading at a museum featuring the most famed writers of the time (the latter sequence fell prey to censorship when a re-cut version came out under the title I Am Twenty). And yet, the most memorable scene ever filmed by Khutsiev is the autobiographical finale—the meeting with the dead father killed in combat. Having lost his father in 1937 to Stalinist purges, Khutsiev would continually return to this search for the lost father, a motif that spoke to both generations orphaned by war.

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Marlen Khutsiev visit cancelled
Monday October 10 at 7pm

July Rain (Iyulskiy dozhd)

Directed by Marlen Khutsiev. With Evgeniya Uralova, Aleksandr Belyavskiy, Yuriy Vizbor
Soviet Union 1966, 35mm, b/w, 107 min. Russian with English subtitles

A formidable opening: from left to right, and with just a few movements forward, the camera covers the diverse movement through the streets on a summer day in the old Soviet Union; some even take a glance directly at the camera as they walk by. The prodigious music clashes with the film’s pedestrian, documentary tone. And then, as if she were just another citizen walking in the crowd, we see a young, beautiful woman; she is Lena, the main character. At that point, fiction intrudes and this intelligent dialectic remains throughout a film that uses that poetic game as the basis for its remarkable power, a documentary exterior and a fictional interior to portray a mentality—the aftermath of Stalinism. – Roger Koza

Khutsiev has never come closer to his perfect vision of cinema than in the final scenes of July Rain, where the world, indeed, exists simultaneously on a number of levels, a number of temporal planes, crisscrossed in a complex audiovisual weave, colliding and drifting apart again in the most unexpected configurations and polygons... Of this, precisely––of the world's unexpected ambiguities, of the inexhaustibility of history––speak the strained, wary and standoffish looks exchanged between the veterans who cry, for the first time after twenty years of historical oblivion, in public, right in front of the Bolshoy Theater, and the youth, already weathered by school and family, already on their way out into the 1970s.... To each of them Khutsiev lends, for a moment, his unblinking, unromantic, unsentimental eye, free from illusions, and each of them discovers his own other; an epoch, a history, a future... – Miron Chernenko

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Saturday October 15 at 7pm

Infinitas (Beskonechnost)

Directed by Marlen Khutsiev. With Anna Tchernakova, Marina Khazova, Aleksei Zelenov
Russia 1992, 35mm, color & b/w, 206 min. Russian with English subtitles

Infinitas is one of those pictures in which the logic of the tale reproduces the flow of consciousness. What we see could be a dream, the memories of a dead man who examines his life in order to leave it behind forever, or the conscious work of a man who re-examines his own trajectory: these are movements of the spirit, detached from any schedule or calendar. Except for the amusing opening scene, in which Vladimir sells practically all his possessions and abandons the city to take a train and go back to his native land, the rest of the tale is filled with masterfully presented crossing memories, which are staged in such a way that they have gravitas enough to anchor the film’s hazy plot.

It must also be mentioned that a version of a twenty-year-old Vladimir appears in the frame every now and then as a shadow of himself that goes in and out without following a predictable pattern. Either together or “separated,” they visit many places, they go to parties and to the doctor, they see the marching Russian Army. The end of their trip is, undoubtedly, one of the most glorious moments in the history of cinema. However, until now we have only talked about the poetics of its narrative; it would also be necessary to devote a whole different analysis to the general aural concept and the delicate score, which plays a spiritual function rather than dramatic one. After this, is it necessary to say Infinitas is a masterpiece? – Roger Koza

Print courtesy Gosfilmofund.

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Sunday October 16 at 5pm

The Two Fedors (Dva Fyodora)

Directed by Marlen Khutsiev. With Vasily Shukshin, Tamara Syomina, Nikolai Chursin
Russia 1958, 35mm, b/w, 88 min. Russian with English subtitles

The war is over. A train is chugging across the country, bearing a single inscription: Victory. From a throng of soldiers singing and sharing loaves of bread, we soon distinguish Fedor, who then picks up an orphan boy, also named Fedor, at a whistle-stop. They decide to live together.

Thus begins Khutsiev's first solo effort after parting ways with Feliks Mironer, citing creative differences: the latter favored more rigorously structured scripts while the former sought an atmosphere free from the constraints of classical narratives. Nevertheless, The Two Fedors still ranks among the director's most stringent offerings. Exceptionally simple on the formal level—evoking the wise simplicity of Boris Barnet or Yasujiro Ozu's The Only Son (1936)—Khutsiev introduces melodramatic conflict into the Fedors’ idyll in the form of a woman, yet focuses less on the love story than the workaday toils of reshaping a civilization. Shot on location in Odessa, his realistic film meticulously captures the long and hard transition from war to peace––a peace, in fact, not nearly as picture-perfect as the two orphaned strangers imagined when they met on a train. Pyotr Todorovsky operated the camera and Vasily Shukshin as Fedor Sr.—not just a new folk hero, but an outstanding filmmaker and actor—announced himself to the world, and a new Soviet cinema was born.

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Saturday October 22 at 7pm

I Am Twenty (Mne dvadstat’let)

Directed by Marlen Khutsiev. With Valentin Popov, Nikolai Gubenko, Stanislav Lyubshin
Soviet Union 1962, 35mm, b/w, 180 min. Russian with English subtitles

See description for Ilyich’s Gate screening on October 9 at 6pm.

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Monday October 24 at 7pm

Epilogue (Poslesloviye)

Directed by Marlen Khutsiev. With Andrey Myagkov, Rostislav Plyatt
Soviet Union 1983, 35mm, color, 97 min. Russian with English subtitles

Based on the short story "Father-in-Law Arrived" by little known writer Yuri Pakhomov, Epilogue marks Marlen Khutsiev’s return to filmmaking—after a long, forced hiatus—in a different era and in a barely recognizable Moscow. The unexpected guest—in the great Rostislav Plyatt's last appearance on screen—cannot recognize the city, either. And Moscow is hardly even present from the confines of the apartment where the absent daughter’s husband has been left stranded with her father. In an uncharacteristically conventional mode, Khutsiev willfully forgoes the medium-altering formulas he single-handedly invented back in the 60s and tricks his audience into thinking he is somehow different too. Don't fall for the trick: it is the same Khutsiev purposefully revisiting his pet themes and motifs and eventually rupturing the fabric of the otherwise classicist narrative in a mysterious and spellbinding scene of photos being developed after the photographer is gone, the past revealing its symbolic imprint in the landscape of today. In the words of Miron Chernenko, "Khutsiev's picture was an afterword with no quotation marks, an epitaph to the epoch of Ilyich’s Gate and July Rain, filmed from a sufficient temporal distance, with few emotions left, yet with all the wisdom and sorrow of a man who tallies up both his involvement in a bygone era and his fate in the 60s and 70s." Print courtesy Gosfilmofund.

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Sunday October 30 at 5pm

Spring on Zarechnaya Street (Vesna na Zarechnoy ulitse)

Directed by Marlen Khutsiev. With Nina Ivanova, Nikolai Rybnikov, Vladimir Gulyaev
Soviet Union 1956, 35mm, b/w, 96 min. Russian with English subtitles

One of three Soviet movies released in 1956 with the word "spring" in the title, Khutsiev’s debutwas an early melodrama of the Khrushchev Thaw period. The film describes the tale of Tanya, a young teacher who comes to a provincial industrial town to work at a night school for the working class. There she meets Sasha the stoker. The film was released three years after Stalin's death, when the demand for new cinema was so overwhelming that thirty million people flocked to theaters to see it. In the cities of Zaporozhye and Odessa eponymous streets appeared, and the film’s theme song "When Springtime Comes" became a folk staple.

Miron Chernenko describes its impact: “[T]his is what initially struck critics and audiences alike: the sight of a run-down industrial town, still somehow pre-war-looking, on the cusp of the 50s real-estate ‘revolution,’ dotted with squalid hovels, fences, embankments and sidewalks, dirty buses and beer stands, populated by passers-by who dress poorly and monochromatically, and whom you have to peer at closely to discern something of an individuality, something of their own... the coastline of the social continent discovered by Khutsiev. As painstakingly and as keenly, his camera surveys the sordid, bare, scantily furnished interiors. And then, the camera takes a good hard look at the human faces, gestures, expressions, as though committing to memory this sloppily shaved and ill-bred workers' settlement: the queues, the ficus, the stagnant everydayness. No wonder that this kind of filmmaking––the storytelling first and the direction that followed dutifully––was at once interpreted as the first successful attempt at depicting the real, authentic people under the real authentic circumstances." Print courtesy Gosfilmofund.

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Sunday October 30 at 7pm

It Was the Month of May
(Byl mesjaz mai)

Directed by Marlen Khutsiev. With Pyotr Todorovsky, Sergey Shakurov, Alexander Arzhilovsky
Soviet Union 1970, DCP, b/w, 115 min. Russian with English subtitles

A preamble of horror: airplanes fly over cities dropping bombs, soldiers shoot from windows of ruined buildings or run with guns through debris-filled streets, explosions pulverize the public space. After the ominous introduction comes its opposite. A group of Red Army soldiers take a break and relax at a German farm. War is over and the soldiers laugh, relieved and cheerful. However, one night the whole platoon goes out patrolling and they find the architectonic aftermath of fear. A concentration camp stands empty, abandoned. A few country dwellers appear who still hope to find their arrested relatives.

The lucid and solidary dialectic established between archival material and fiction reinforces the gravitas of each image, dismissing indifference and equanimity. War films, when they are good, reject any trace of satisfaction in relation to the war enterprise; they do not worship militarism. One of the greatest films within the war genre, It Was the Month of May warns—in a surprising ending in which stock material is used, once more, to alarming effect—about the relation between war and the economic system, and states the greatest risk for historical memory: to transform hideousness into a museum piece. – Roger Koza

Print courtesy Gosfilmofund.

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Sunday November 6 at 4pm

And Still I Believe
(I vsyo-taki ya veryu)

Directed by Marlen Khutsiev, Mikhail Romm and Elem Klimov
Soviet Union 1974, 35mm, b/w, 120 min. Russian with English subtitles

Legendary Soviet director Mikhail Romm (1901–1971), one of the greatest teachers in the USSR of luminaries such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Vasily Shukshin and Andrei Konchalovsky, devoted the last decade of his life to documentary filmmaking, starting with the 1965 Ordinary Fascism, an enduring anti-Nazi statement, and ending with a documentary originally called World '68, later retitled The World of Today. Romm’s film was conceived as an impassioned, large-scale essay on the origins of the 20th century and the subsequent reality the disappointed director felt slipping away from him. The film itself slipped away from him and was left unfinished at the time of his death. His younger colleagues, Marlen Khutsiev, Elem Klimov and German Lavrov, completed the film from the elements he left behind in addition to segments from Ordinary Fascism, closing the film with Romm’s ultimately optimistic outlook: "And still I believe that man is sensible..." Print courtesy Gosfilmofund.

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Sunday November 27 at 4pm

Khutsiev. Action Starts!
(Khutsiev. Moto idjot!)

Directed by Peter Shepotinnik
Russia 2015, digital video, color & b/w, 84 min. Russian with English subtitles

In October 2015, Marlen Khutsiev turned ninety. With no intention of retiring, he has been working on Not Yet Evening—about the relationship between Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov—on and off for over ten years due to lack of funding. Allowing the documentary crew exclusive access to his shooting process over this extended period, Khutsiev also candidly reflects on his filmmaking and the nature of creative work with Peter Shepotinnik, film critic, Kulturträger, longtime programmer for the Moscow International Film Festival and author of the TV show Kinescope. As an accomplished documentarian, Shepotinnik enjoys a close relationship with Khutsiev, whose sets are otherwise inaccessible.

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Sunday November 27 at 7pm

The Scarlet Sail of Paris (Alyi parus Parizha)

Directed by Marlen Khutsiev
France 1971, DCP color, 81 min. Russian with English subtitles

Khutsiev's first foray into non-fiction, a made-for-TV documentary commemorating the 100th anniversary of The Paris Commune, has been all but relegated to obscurity—perhaps not even screened once in the last twenty years. Something of an oddity in the director's body of work, The Scarlet Sail still addresses his major thematic preoccupations as it contemplates the present through the prism of the past, and relives, quite viscerally, the tragedy of WWII, peering intently into the faces of young people. In climbing up Monmartre, the "hill of fighters and heroes" that birthed the Commune, to meet such famed French communists as Jacques Duclos, Georges Soria and Auguste Gillot, the film functions, simultaneously, as historical essay, alternative city guide, and, at least partially, exercise in propaganda. What I find most riveting is Khutsiev's view of Paris, his inquisitive and unabashedly admiring gaze that remains, in essence, bookish and eager for utopian vision. Never before has the French capital looked so much like the capital of socialism.

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