isIt’s nighttime in Moscow, and as Andrei Konchalovsky settles down on the sofa in his apartment, an unearthly howl fills the air. Could it be the moan of a Russian banshee who rose to stalk the earth for all eternity? In fact, these are the protests of Konchalovsky’s dog, a West Highland terrier, annoyed at not being allowed into the room. As he rushes into the sight, it turns out his name is Krug – “like champagne”; proof that Konchalovsky, at 83, has not lost a taste for the finer things in life.
These days, Konchalovsky looks back on a film career that is well into its third act, if not its fourth or even fifth. Improbably, after a decade or two of senior author status, where the films he has put his name on have gone a little further than the comfort zone of film festival presentations, he is suddenly leaning on major awards. for his latest film. Dear friends! is a biting and bitter study of a long suppressed episode in Soviet history, the notorious massacre of strikers by the army and the KGB in the Cossack town of Novocherkassk in 1962. Although he narrowly missed a nomination for the Oscars for Best International Film, Dear Comrades! is in the running for the equivalent prize at the Baftas, having already won a special jury prize in Venice.
Right now, on his Moscow sofa, Konchalovsky is phlegmatic about his sudden return to international spotlight, some three decades after his glorious Hollywood interlude, which produced Runaway Train and Homer and Eddie, and resulted in a spill. unceremoniously from the Sylvester Stallone vehicle. Tango and cash. “I’m pretty amazed that people are reacting to this movie,” he says happily. “I don’t think the world cares what happened just 10 years ago, let alone 50 years ago. Today, life is moving so fast. And, frankly, there is so much suspicion about anything coming from Russia. I’m pretty realistic about this. He’s also amazed, he says, that anyone – especially young people raised on the Internet – is interested in anything black and white. “They think it’s a little strange, right?”
“Of course,” he said, “I realized this was going to be provocative in Russia. The pro-Soviets think it’s an anti-Soviet movie, and the Liberals think it’s pro-Stalinist. Scandal. But this is not a political film. This is psychological violence, not physical violence. “
In truth, Konchalovsky did a masterful job of both reconstructing and dramatizing the Novocherkassk murders, a particularly shameful episode in Soviet history. At least 26 unarmed protesters died at the hands of government forces; an information blackout was imposed which lasted until after the collapse of the Soviet state, and it was not until 1992 that an official investigation was opened. Its central character is a fervent party apparatchik, still in the grip of the Stalinist years, who hunts in hospitals, morgues and cemeteries after his daughter vanishes into chaos. Although the film is in black and white, the narrative is much less clear: Konchalovsky describes it as “ambiguous and ambivalent”. Local Communist officials are by turns sinister and buffoons, the military divided between sympathy and hostility towards the strikers, and the KGB agents appear both terribly vicious and – in one particular case – quite nice.
Although he delicately enters an ideological minefield, dear comrades! has – so far – avoided the kind of official censorship inflicted on Russia’s latest big international hit, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, who was bared in 2015 by politicians for his seemingly negative portrayal of the country’s small bureaucracy . As with a previous film, The Inner Circle, about Stalin’s projectionist, Konchalovsky cleverly avoids identifying on one side or the other with living political issues related to nationalism, Stalinism, or simply nostalgia for communism. .
“Let me tell you,” Konchalovsky said, “I know this company very well, I have lived in this company. It was very fearful, a certain fear of political correctness. Communist political correctness. People in Russia criticize me and say I shot for US imperialism. I said, you’re wrong, it’s a Soviet film. I am a Soviet director. I am Soviet. I just put everything I knew about it in the movie.
Even so, Konchalovsky is nonchalant in the face of government threats to artistic freedom. “If you do something scandalous, the Ministry of Culture will not give you a release license. But, you know, what is a license if you don’t care about getting your money back? You can simply upload the film. “
Born into the artistic aristocracy, Konchalovsky may be fortunate enough to speak from a privileged position. His father was a poet who wrote the lyrics for the Soviet national anthem and his younger brother is the nationalist-inclined filmmaker Nikita Mikhailov; Konchalovsky himself (who takes his working name from his mother, also a poet) has a CV filled with a series of grandiose national cultural awards.
In any case, since returning to Russia from Hollywood in the late 1980s, Konchalovsky has operated largely independently of commercial considerations, relying on wealthy donors to fund his work. “I know I have luxury,” he says. “I am not a young man. For 10 years, I can say that I have made a film to put it under my bed. And no one else will see it. Fuck them all. I would like to do the movie under my bed because I would like to see it. And that gives you absolute freedom.
His current supporter is billionaire Alisher Usmanov, best known in the UK perhaps for his contest with Stan Kroenke to take over Arsenal football club, but who is now in his third film with Konchalovsky. “I talk to a lot of financiers and tell them, you should be prepared to lose all of your money that you invest. They always say: thank you very much, we would love to see this movie, but we don’t want to be involved. But Usmanov is a different person. I tell him you’re not going to get your money back. He froze for a few seconds then said, damn it with you, let’s go.
In addition, Konchalovsky had contact with the censors, back when he was a bright young talent in the heyday of Soviet cinema. Having co-written the scripts for his comrade Andrei Tarkovsky’s first two feature films (The Childhood of Ivan and Andrei Rublev), Konchalovsky’s second film, the documentary-style collective farm romance Asya’s Happiness, fell for it. authorities and was abruptly pulled from the exit. in 1966. (It finally reappeared in 1987, after a personal intervention by President Gorbachev.)
“Of course, when my film was banned, I became a sort of hero to intellectuals, a dissident. I had a banned movie and Tarkovsky had one too, Andrei Rublev, and we kind of became a celebrity in Moscow. But you know, I burned my fingers, so I decided to make classic, literary, Chekhov and Turgenev films. I didn’t want to have any problems with the censorship. ”
The early 1980s saw him embark on an adventure abroad: first in Paris, then Los Angeles. He made a name for himself in America in 1985 with Runaway Train, from a script Akira Kurosawa had attempted, but failed, to take off. But, he says, his time in the United States has shown him that freedom isn’t necessarily there either. “The moment you sell a story, someone is watching how you tell it. As a director in Hollywood, you start thinking about how to make the story commercial, and then you become a censor of your own creation. He thinks back to his dismissal from Tango & Cash in 1989, and his return to Russia a few years later. “I entered the Hollywood monster system. The producer asked me why not move your camera. You know, no one has asked me that before – I think it’s important for the director to decide. And I say, because I didn’t feel like moving the camera. Then he said you should move the camera around every time you take a shot. It was the beginning of the end.
His time is almost up, Konchalovsky pauses briefly to clink cocktail glasses with his wife, Julia Vysotskaya, who happens to be sitting just out of sight. They’ve been married since 1998 and she’s starred in five of his films – including, of course, Dear Comrades !, a barn performance in the lead role, her face a fixed mask of terror and panic. It is perhaps no exaggeration to suggest that their collaboration was the key to Konchalovsky’s resurgence; he says that seeing her play Antigone in a production of Oedipus in Colonus, which he directed in 2014, allowed him to conceptualize Dear Comrades! like a classic tragedy.
Now, sitting on his sofa in Moscow, Konchalovsky seems satisfied. “I had to come back to Russia, not because I wanted to come back. But I think I’m very happy that I failed Hollywood.