Saturday, April 04, 2020

Kazaki / The Cossacks (1961)

Kazaki / The Cossacks (1961). Maryana (Zinaida Kirienko). From: Internet Movie Database.

Kazaki / The Cossacks (1961): Maryana (Zinaida Kirienko) and Olenin (Leonid Gubanov). Poster art and design: Mikhail Nakhmanovich Khazanovski; ОАО «Рекламфильм» (издательство, выпустившее киноплакат). From: Russian Wikipedia.

    SU 1961. PC: Mosfilm. P: Aleksandr Ashkinazi.
    D: Vasili Pronin. SC: Viktor Shklovski – based on the long story (povest) (1863) by Leo Tolstoy. Cin: Igor Gelein, Valentin Zakharov – Sovcolor. PD: Mikhail Bogdanov, Gennady Myasnikov. Cost: Mikhail Chikovani. Makeup: N. Antonova, B. Vikentyev. M: Gavriil Popov. Orchestra: Orkestr upravleniya po proizvodstvu filmov. Conductor: Veronika Dudarova. S: Evgeniya Indlina. ED: Yelena Kamagorova.
    C: Leonid Gubanov (Dmitri Olenin), Zinaida Kirienko (Maryana), Boris Andreyev (Eroshka), Eduard Bredun (Lukashka), Boris Novikov (Nazarka), German Kachin (Vanyusha), Vera Yeniutina (Maryana's mother).
    Shot at the studio of Mosfilm.
    2660 m / 97 min.
    Festival premiere: May 1961, Cannes Film Festival – Palme d'Or.
    Soviet premiere: 16 Aug 1961.
    Not released in Finland.
    Free online access: Online-kinoteatr Mosfilma / YouTube.
    Viewed at home with English subtitles on a television screen, 4 April 2020.

Leo Tolstoy wrote The Cossacks in 1863 as a kind of a sequel to his trilogy of youth, Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, soon after getting married, to clear his gambling debts. The Bildungsroman of Olenin, a young nobleman, proceeds in the spirit of Rousseau. Olenin enters Caucasus as a cadet (junker) to fight among its wild peoples in the Caucasian War. The Cossacks is a war story without hate or racism.

Agonizing at the emptiness of his life Olenin suffers from an identity crisis. He starts to wear Cossack dress and falls in love with Maryanka although she has already been promised to his friend Lukashka. He fails in bonding with the peoples of the mountains, and Maryanka turns him down. The foreign peoples remain foreign, but their freedom fight is discussed with respect and dignity.

The young man's inner crisis, "a philosophical adolescence" and the problem of consciousness had already been discussed by Tolstoy in his trilogy so incisively that the philosopher G. H. von Wright has seen in it "in a way a philosophical achievement".

During a hunting trip in the forest Olenin gets lost – and finds himself. He finds a path out of his identity crisis. He has an epiphany and finds an insight into the secret of happiness. Until now he has been gazing inside. Now there is a reversal to the world outside: "Happiness lies in living for others".

This is a profoundly Tolstoyan moment, his first turning-point of such magnitude, decisive in Tolstoy's oeuvre as a writer and also in his own life, first as the father of a large family, and later as a prophet of mankind for whom everybody is equal in value and dignity regardless of wealth, status, class, nationality, education or race.

The film adaptation of The Cossacks (1961) is a rare case of a major Soviet film (a Palme d'Or winner in Cannes) of its period that has never been screened in Finland. I became intrigued having read Valérie Pozner's discussion in the book Tolstoï et le cinéma (2005), and happily it's available in Mosfilm's Online Cinema in YouTube.

The screenwriter of not only this but also a previous film adaptation, The Cossacks (1928), was Viktor Shklovsky, a major Tolstoy expert. Paradoxically, he was also well-known for his conviction that a successful film adaptation of a work of literature is impossible because of the incompatibility of the verbal and the visual.

According to Pozner, both times Shklovsky's screenplay was fundamentally changed in the production process. In the 1928 adaptation the anticolonialistic, anti-imperialistic angle was so heavily emphasized that Olenin's coming of age story turned to its opposite, a tale of corruption. On the plus side, produced by Georgian-Film, the film was shot on location.

In the 1961 version topical new emphases of the party line were observed: the fight for peace and the condemnation of an offensive war. There was a problem of how to discuss an internal war. The doctrine of the brotherhood of peoples made it necessary to tone down the conflicts between Checkens and Cossacks. They are seen as deeply familiar, their disagreements of a provisional nature – a horse theft. Chechens checked the screenplay and their remarks were observed.

Ingushetia had voluntarily joined Imperial Russia in 1810, and in 1859 Chechnya was annexed to Russia during the Caucasian War. In the USSR the Checheno-Ingush autonomous republic was disbanded by Stalin in 1944 after accusations of collaboration with invaders and separatism. The republic had been restored in 1957 by Khrushchev.

The plan had been to shoot The Cossacks on location in the Checheno-Ingush republic in the summer of 1960. A Cossack village had been designed in the neighbourhood of Stavropol but there was no view of the Caucasian mountain tops from there. The planned location was changed to Grozny, but the bureaucracy of licenses took too long. The production was delayed, the original producer became incapable, and the production was executed at the Mosfilm studios instead of on location.

A mediocre director took the helm instead of Boris Barnet who had been the original choice. Vasili Pronin had been an excellent cinematographer in the 1930s but he never seems to have directed an outstanding film. Leonid Gubanov is a decent Olenin: his presence is convincing. But particularly great is Zinaida Kirienko (Quiet Flows the Don, A Poem of the Sea, The Fate of a Man, The Story of the Flaming Years, The Enchanted Desna) in the female leading role as Maryanka. Her proud demeanour is right for the part.

It could have become an engrossing film, but a major directorial voice, somebody like Mark Donskoy, Mikhail Kalatozov or, why not, Sergei Bondarchuk, would have been needed to lift the film from mediocrity. The scene of Tolstoyan epiphany during the hunting trip is included, but it lacks build-up and a devastating conviction.

The force of the revelation should have been of the caliber of Rainer Maria Rilke in "The Archaic Torso of Apollo": you must change your life.

О фильме:
По одноименной повести Л. Н.Толстого. Несмотря на юные годы, богатый московский барин Дмитрий Оленин уже успел наделать немало ошибок, разочаровался в жизни и решил уехать юнкером на Кавказ. Прибыв к месту службы в казачью станицу, Оленин начинает жадно впитывать новые впечатления. Он покорен величественной кавказской природой, его привлекают цельные, сильные характеры казаков, их вольная жизнь. В фильме показан мучительный поиск нравственного идеала через попытку приобщения к простой жизни народа, к природе.

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