I discovered the name Marlen Khutsiev two summers ago at the Locarno Film Festival, where Russian critic and programmer Boris Nelepo introduced an increasingly awestruck audience to the small but overwhelming filmography of this Russian filmmaker. Thankfully for American audiences, the Museum of Modern Art has picked up and continued this essential retrospective, which starts October 5 in New York, expanding it in the process, and so here I will gather my thoughts upon encountering this truly stunning work for the first time.
My experience began incongruously with Khutsiev’s last completed feature, 1992's Infinitas, an unexpected choice considering that the film's 206 minute wanderings of a middle-aged man through his life and memories was even to this uninformed viewer clearly autobiographical. After next viewing Khutsiev's 1965 masterpiece variably known as Fortress Il'ichi, Ilych's Gate and I Am Twenty, it was clear that Infinitas is also a continuation or sequel to that semi-autobiographical film, moving from an avatar of his 20-year old self to the passive body of a bearish, middle-aged schlump. Perhaps showing it before all the rest of his movies was a Proustian gesture—one that the MoMA is not repeating.
At once clear-headed and elusive, Infinitas indeed reminded me variously of Proust, Terrence Malick, Tarkovsky's Mirror (a use of Bach calls back directly to Solaris), Vítor Gonçalves' The Invisible Life, and, as Nelepo himself connects in an article for the Notebook, Manoel de Oliveira's Visit, or Memories and Confessions. Yet it is more modest and less mysterious than any of those. Infintas opens with the camera moving away from an open window and billowing curtain and from there creates a kind of free-flowing space of dreams, memories and histories unfolding before us and its “guide,” the sparely defined protagonist. Loose or handheld camerawork evoke not naturalism but the fluidity of time folding, merging and morphing. In a characteristic scene of our dignified but nearly somnolent male protagonist's passivity before this unfurling, in the film's brilliant opening he takes phone call after phone call as in some kind nightmare of domestic comedy. Through the endless calls he inadvertently agrees to sell all his flat's possessions, stripping him of his home and leading him free-wandering across landscapes and towns, meeting what seem to be a mixture of people from his past (including, I think, a version of himself) and, simply, people...from the past.
It's a languid reverie, often dappled with extraordinary lighting, particularly of Russian streets. While for me too many of this wanderer's meetings were vague—who is this person and why is he or she important to him or to us?—the gentleness and extent of the reflection was touching and personal. The final hour delivers if not more context or payoff than certainly more resplendence, journeying past our hero's history into the turn of the century, first to a late 19th century bourgeois parlor party, and later a Czarist military send-off, gorgeous and rich scenes that expand the implication of the journey our nearly silent guide is taking beyond his own person.
The reflective immersion of Infinitas gained a powerful retrospective aura after seeing Ilych's Gate, a tremendous revelation and sublime masterpiece. How to describe this epic of youth? Compared to the languorous, simple conception of Infinitas, this 1965 film—begun in 1959 and encountering such censorship that a drastically cut 90 minute version was released at the time—has such a level of dramatic, social, political and historical density, married to a bravura style combining the French New Wave with 1950s Hollywood social melodramas like those by Elia Kazan, that what begins as an experience of overwhelming energy aggregates into an exhilarated but depleted, introspective exhaustion. (The Museum of Modern Art is showing the 197-minute, 1962 cut under the title Ilych's Gate, as well as the 189-minute, 1965 cut under the title I Am Twenty.)
It opens with a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed blonde youth returning from a peaceful stint of military duty, crashing on his mother's couch, and re-uniting with his childhood friends, each of whom has moved on in their lives with work and family. This opening hour is a giddy roundelay running from apartment to apartment, across and through Moscow city streets, part city symphony, part gleeful portrait of a more free, youthful post-war generation. Channeling the party-hopping energy of everything from Jacques Becker's woefully under-known Rendezvous in July to Fellini's contemporaneous La dolce vita, this section is suffuse with the sense that the world is theirs, the male youth of Soviet Russia. (The women are not the protagonists here, but each are given their own weight and agency, whether the boy's mother, widowed like so many during the Second World War; the unhappy wife of one of his friends lent unexpected and touching recognition by the filmmaker; or the self-possession of the girl the youth courts over many months.) One feels the power of velocities and orbits, different lives each with potential, meeting and flung out again only to be drawn together once more.
The seasons change and the boys don't change so much as realize they are in fact neither 15 any more nor 30 quite yet, and the second part of the film turns the skipping energy of the first on its head, taking an increasingly darkened, more pensive stroll through the questions existential and generational these boys, and particularly the blonde hero, start to ask themselves. The story's expected trajectories—of jobs, of love, of happiness in the city—somehow, subtly, get waylaid and complicated by practical concerns of living, by nuances of generational circumstance (a new phase in Soviet history and a generation being raised without their war-lost fathers), and by deeper, more unverbalized questions. Integrated documentary sequences of a May Day rally—during which an incredible courtship chase is staged—and a kind of Soviet poetry slam—an externalization of the convulsive self-questioning that seems to beset these twenty-somethings—take the film's vérité flourishes to a stunning level of audacity. But it is equally the myriad of scenes shot on trams, shot walking through Moscow's parks, shot while sauntering to jobs or running to a dance that ensure the beautifully staged dramas and parties inside these youths' apartments cannot be separated from real lives teeming on the streets.
This merging of the outside and the inside culminates in the film's most stunning and moving scene, where the young man dreams of asking his dead father, his father of the heroic war generation, for advice on how to live. Yet the boy is already older than his father when he was killed, and after the war everything seems possible—but also in doubt. While the movie belongs to its wayward blonde beauty, the two other friends get enough scenes alone that this 197 minute film suggests an even longer story, a portrait of a generation that could be more expansive, could keep expanding, much in the way Infinitas refuses at its end to keep its questions restricted to its hero. Somehow, a film this full has the openness to suggest even more: it cracks history open wide and allows us to see so much inside and still ask questions.
1966's July Rain confirmed Infinitas and Ilych's Gate as no mere bookending career flukes; this film, too, is a powerful testament to living in the Soviet Union, and not as an young or old man but rather a 30-year-old woman (the tremendous Evgeniya Uralova, who in some scenes seems 20 and in others, 40).
What story there is seems hard to describe. The film is more like a series of incidents among a milieu of intellectuals, students, teachers, and writers, during which the woman quietly evaluates her steadfast and seemingly perfect boyfriend. All the while she is being quietly pressured about marriage by her widowed mother (yet another missing father in Khutsiev), and the somewhat fantastical appearances of phone calls from a young stranger who lent her a jacket during a rainstorm. The opening scenes, tracking shots of busy Moscow sidewalks, pick this woman out of the crowd—we look at her, she finds and returns our glance—and so her no doubt very normal romantic, family and social life comes under our gaze. The tour she gives us through this brief period in her life, and especially during many elaborate group gatherings—a party, a big cafe hang out, a camping trip—practically feel like an anthropology of such people at such a time. These observations—done in the director's first use of widescreen, brilliantly arranging his frames and decoupage with the adroitness of contemporary Japanese cinemascope masters—are anchored by the subtle, moving consideration and self-consideration of the heroine. If the movie lacks the pizzazz of I Am Twenty it is because our heroine is not 20 years old, is no longer turning things over in her mind but really and truly asking herself—and occasionally the men around her—hard questions of adulthood, of living with people, of living in society. Suddenly and provocatively the question of living as an adult in Russia is not a question for men, as it is in Ilych's Gate and thirty years later in Infinitas, but a question for women.
Marlen Khutsiev's first film in color, 1983’s Epilogue (also known as Afterword), is an adaption of a three page magazine story wherein a man's provincial father-in-law visits his Moscow apartment while his wife, the man's daughter, is away. For a director I've now associated through Ilych's Gate, July Rain and Infinitas as having a freely roving vision, it was a bit of surprise to encounter this chamber drama, which has echoes of Ingmar Bergman's more confined, dreamlike films. Yet Khutsiev is more than up to this challenge, turning what could have been something stagey and theatrical (especially as Epilogue feature a well-known theatre actor as the babbling, comically invasive father-in-law) into something with far more expansive implications.
A series of ellipses blur just how long the old man stays with his son-in-law, who receives his wife's father with barely hidden coolness and only increases in impatience and flights of antipathy. The old World War 2 veteran's incessant and warm oversharing meets its match in the disinterest of this male epitome of his daughter's generation, and as days and nights seem to swim by, Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel is suggested in the inability for this new kind of Soviet yuppie to get rid of the kind of man who came before him. Part of the pleasure, of course, is seeing these actors have at it, Rostislav Plyatt's burly, irrepressible (but also indiscriminate) warmth and his comic intrusions make for an expectedly affable character, but such scenes as his remarkable memory of a battle anecdote from the war is breathtaking at the sudden appearance of soulful tremors of history. Andrey Myagkov, who plays the son-in-law, has a character that on paper seems impossible to imagine as tolerable on screen, yet somehow with an infinite variety of expressions of polite disengagement, disdain, irritation and annoyance, is transformed by Myagkov into a subtle play of variations on the emotional and intellectual attitude his generation have for their elders.
In his wife's absence, this man's home becomes a hollow shell of affluence and cultural, worldly sophistication signaled by its elaborate material decorations (more of Khutsiev's stellar precision in terms of the Soviet intellectual milieu). Invaded by a kind of ghost of his parents, the still-living phantom of an era barely a few decades old yet seemingly visiting from a vast distance of time and space, the son is confronted again and again until he cannot ignore the father. In its essence, Epilogue takes the phantasmagoric confrontation of the young man with his deceased soldier father from Ilych's Gate and expands that one scene into an entire drama, at once comic and sorrowful. Finally, crucially, this small, moving tale is narrated as the past from an indeterminate present, a present where Myagkov's intellectual yuppie addresses the camera directly, relating what he calls a life changing occurrence. And while we too live through this intimate yet fantastic confrontation of generations, Khutsiev cagily refrains from giving away the lesson, the “life changing” result: it is up to the audience to understand what could have changed, or indeed if anything even has.
Despite a relatively small body of work, Khutsiev’s films belay expectations. For a filmmaker who so often has included or alluded to the missing father figures of his generation—fathers who fell in combat during the Great Patriotic War—Khutsiev's unusual period film that languishes in the days immediately after the war, It Was the Month of May (1970), does not finally tell the story of the men of this lost generation. It may seem to at first, beginning with a small Soviet squad bivouacked on a German farm, leisurely evoking the meandering, confused and exhausted downtime the army felt immediately upon the cessation of hostilities. But after a day of flirting with the farmer's wife and a night of drunken, song-filled camaraderie, just as some of the soldiers are joyriding around the countryside, Khutsiev interrupts them with his characteristic intercession of documentary footage: they stumble across an abandoned concentration camp.
The men explore this camp not knowing what it is, guessing that the furnaces are boiler rooms and wondering at the showers that we know, but they do not, are meant for extermination. Upon returning to their farm, they find that a few ex-prisoners have shown up, offering shell-shocked hints of the horrors they experienced, including one man who says his wife was burned and her ashes spread across this farm's fields. (In a moving gesture towards the present, one ex-prisoner tries to hush the other, chastising him for denigrating his homeland, despite its crimes.) The movie from here goes nowhere: the soldiers are shocked, the prisoners are nearly dead, and we all hang together in the night, weary and afraid, the scale and scope of these men's war—momentarily thought kaput, as the German farmer puts it—yawning wide and unresolved.
In a terribly moving and unexpected jump, Khutsiev cuts to more documentary footage: Russians in 1970 walking down the street, Russian women of the day, people very much alive and seemingly eons away, then a cut to photos from the camps, then to tourists going through the camps, and ending with a heartbreaking shot of a young Russian boy of 1970 wandering past the camera much in the same way as the Jewish boy in infamous photo from the Warsaw ghetto. This film, believe it or not, was made for Soviet television, and it is an evocation and a challenge to history and to contemporary audiences equal to Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog. It is hard to believe such an exploration of historical limbo could be made, a film where almost nothing happens except for the realization of the survivors that only part of what they experienced was over with the war. And for Khutsiev, the additional sadness that film does not fill in a gap between himself and his father's generation, but rather points to a further gulf, that his father knew nothing of the Holocaust and that those that follow live with that awareness.
Let us end opposite from our beginning: with Marlen Khutsiev’s first feature directed solo, Two Fyodors (1958), a beautiful debut full of sensitivity and promise. It begins with one of the great openings in cinema, a train of veterans from the Great Patriotic War rocketing home to their motherland, beaming and full of music, covered in garlands, waving at all they pass just as those whom they pass cheer and embrace them ecstatically. A soldier named Fyodor returning to a home and ruins and a dead family adopts an orphan boy also named Fyodor along the way, and in Odessa the two orphans work together as father and son, brother and brother, friend and friend, to rebuild their home, their family, and, implicitly, Russia.
While Khutsiev can usually be considered a great modernist, Two Fyodors appears quite classical in form and sentimental in drama. Yet it still contains so much of what there is to love about this director: his ambling stories which barely seem to have a plot, preferring instead to rove around a (real) location to make observations about daily living through quotidian drama (here, mostly, how the two boys eat and sleep, and later how one falls in love and upsets their dynamic duo); his documentary impulse to root his stories in the Russia of that very moment; and the search by his heroes and heroines, unconscious at first but then gradually more aware, of trying to figure out their place in this world. The film's beautiful style, full of fresh visions of contemporary Odessa mixed with grander stylizations of chiaroscuro, mist-clad nights, while definitely coming from a more classical place than the director's following work, all point to Two Fyodors being on the cusp of a modern Soviet art cinema, much in the way Roberto Rossellini and Bergman’s films of the early 50s heralded the entrance of a gauntlet from which would emerge, in the 1960s, what we now think of as international art cinema.
Still to be discovered by this filmmaker and showing at the MoMA series is his first film, co-directed with Feliks Mironer, Springtime on Zarechnaia Street (1956); 1971’s documentary The Scarlet Sail of Paris, another work for television; a 2001 commission looking at the Battle of Moscow, People of 1941; excerpts from an in-progress work begun in 2003; and an unusual example of a student taking over for his master, in ...And Still I Believe, where Khutsiev and Elem Klimov finish the last film of their teacher, the great director Mikhail Romm.