The cover of the October 2019 issue of FIAF’s Journal of Film Preservation sees Erlendur Sveinsson of the National Film Archive of Iceland standing over a long path of film evenly distributed over newspaper sheets in the archive’s main space. It’s a print that fishermen off the coast of Iceland sifted up in a haul, partially preserved by the hydrogen sulphide composition of the water the island country emerges from. In film preservation mythology, such a find would hopefully be a lost or incomplete film; a kind of holy grail. Instead, it proved to be an insignificant copy of Дepeвeнский дeтeктив / Derevensky detektiv (1969), a regularly played, populist Soviet film starring Mikhail Zharov, the first person to sing in a Russian language sound picture.
For Bill Morrison, no stranger to the beauty of decayed and damaged filmic artefacts, the sunken print becomes an avenue for exploring how Zharov’s presence in over 70 motion pictures can help us to understand the machinations of Soviet cinema. The Village Detective: a song cycle explores how Zharov’s various performances share a folk-like familiarity that intertwined with a malleable political identity, taking cues from Derevensky detekti’s central storyline featuring the search for a stolen accordion – an object that connects to Zharov’s dual identity as a folk performer.
The sunken print itself is played back in lengthy sequences where David Lang’s accordion-performed score evokes both the film’s storyline and the quality of taking in the film’s deep reticulation and water damage. Rifts in the emulsion frame the water damaged image, and regular patterns reflect the film’s coiling underwater. The backbone of The Village Detective: a song cycle, the print becomes anything but insignificant, sitting alongside other unusual scraps of history such as the decayed and incomplete print of The Fall of the Romanovs (1917), where figures melt into the emulsion – a familiar nitrate-induced image from Morrison’s filmography. In many ways, the film captures the sense of going down the rabbit hole that we often engage in as cinephiles, carving a history through Soviet cinema built up around one actor opposed to the familiar figures of Soviet mythology. Morrison discussed the film following several screenings in Europe, including at the International Film Festival Rotterdam as part of the Cinema Regained strand.
It’s been suggested that this print likely came from a cruise ship. What were those original stages of hypothesis like?
Well, firstly there were no kind of subtitles on the print at all, so it was definitely for a Russian audience. There are a fair number of Russian expats living in Iceland, and those who watch films mostly congregate in a small community organised around Soviet propaganda films. They checked their records and this print had never been shown in Iceland before.
One of the many remarkable things about it that you see towards the end of my film is that that it’s actually a Cinemascope film – shot in widescreen. But you only see it in 4:3 before that. So, this was obviously a reduction print or a pan and scan, possibly to be shown on a single, compiled reel on a smaller projector as would befit a cruise ship, rather than having two projectors set up for widescreen.
And you also see some frame slippage on one of the reels. It could have been that during optical printing the frame slipped and thereby rendered reel 5 or whatever useless, and therefore the whole film was useless. It’s possible that, after some viewings, they realised they had a faulty print and dumped it overboard.
The other idea is that they had a limited number of prints onboard and after watching Derevensky detektiv too many times somebody got frustrated with it and threw it into the sea!
There’s the clip early on where Erlandur Sveinsson is watching the print, and he’s exclaiming “what’s this?” That was such an interesting moment of discovery to watch…
Yeah, the National Film Archive of Iceland shot some video off of the Steenbeck and posted that on Facebook, and a Russian expat very quickly responded and said “well that’s Derevensky detektiv – that shows every year on television, I used to watch it with my grandmother.” So, it’s a film that’s well known to a Russian person of a certain age. And that was sort of the end of it in terms of the Icelandic archive – they had solved their mystery.
Erlendur made his own documentary about the print which I excerpted from a little bit, but he wasn’t interested in Mikhail Zharov at all – this was something that I came to the project with once I found out what the title was, after looking him up on IMDb. I understood that he could be a dividing rod through Soviet cinema. I don’t read Cyrillic and neither does Erlendur. I had some sort of translation app looking for what that Zharov’s name would look like in the head credits. So, the discovery stage was two non-Russian speakers trying to read Russian together. But he had seen it when he cleaned it up, so he had lived with it for a year before I got there. He very generously shipped the print to me in the States where I could get a 4K scan of it, which is what we see in the film.
Other decayed examples like The Fall of the Romanovs (1917) appear in your film too. These documents work in such an interesting way, and that’s long been a pre-occupation of your work. How does the seemingly insignificant, surplus print of Derevensky detektiv skewer that kind of engagement for you?
Well, I guess it’s easy enough to say that that’s what a lot of my work is based on: something that has been recovered and I’ve built a film around. And in most cases those things are precious scraps of originals that we don’t have duplicates of. The difference with Derevensky detektiv, as [former Gosfilmofund curator] Peter Bagrov says, is that we have the pristine camera negative in the archive at Gosfilmofund and the film is shown on television almost every day. So, this print that we are talking about actually works in the opposite way. It’s exhuming a treasure and comparing that to our own memory of the Soviet Union as opposed to saying “here’s a lost thing that we have no other copy of,” you know?
And as you mentioned before, there’s an excerpt from the official restoration of Derevensky detektiv that appears later, which looks very different to the sunken print. Was it difficult navigating the dual licences there?
Yeah, it was a challenge because they didn’t quite understand what I wanted to do and why I was interested in this particular print. They didn’t necessarily feel authorised to license it in this way, because that wouldn’t be the way the film would be shown with an official licence. It was after I had licensed a lot of other material from them that they began to understand what the project was, and I eventually said “OK, I know that you don’t legally feel like you can license this footage, but why don’t we arrive at a lumpsum for the official clip I’m showing and all the clips from the other films?” Once we could establish that then it passed through the Gosfilmofund archive.
The film has several sequences where you allow the viewer to really focus on the found print. Within that you’re subtitling the film and allowing its story to complement everything else. Was that difficult to balance?
There was the problem of how to communicate the story: this hunt for an accordion, which for me was representative of this hunt for some kind of folk truth. A truth that was true for the people – regardless of who the government in power was. You see the print at the beginning when it’s run at 24 frames per second and its quite chaotic with all of the water damage. I added the clean soundtrack from the film itself, so that you don’t hear what the soundtrack from the bottom of the sea would sound like. To let that footage roll like it was could be somewhat annoying after a while, so it’s only by slowing it down that we start to see the beauty in the reticulation and the damage that’s happened to it.
And I told David Lang, the composer, that I wanted to use solo accordion, multitracked on top of itself, so that we had sort of a quartet of accordions. He wrote something for me on MIDI and then I slowed that whole sequence down, including the film’s soundtrack, and I sent that back to him and said “OK, now if you could rewrite this so that it’s three times slower and the pitch is also lower, and we’ll ask the accordionist to play it like that.” And then there was also the problem of, now that it is slowed down, how do you communicate what they are saying, because of course they’re going to be talking very slowly now, inaudible even to a Russian speaker.
But this movie [The Village Detective: a song cycle] is for everyone not just for Russians – it was going to have English subtitles embedded in it, so this became a way of combining the dialogue and the plot of Derevensky detektiv with the beauty and the physicality of the print that had sunk in the sea. And then I set the text to David’s music so it’s almost like a song – and that’s why “a song cycle” is in the title.
Do you know if accordion was used much in Russia as film accompaniment early on?
I don’t know, possibly. I imagine it was easier to get an accordion into a music house than it was a piano!
That possibility speaks to there being a localisation of film history in a way. And perhaps, British and American audiences won’t know Mikhail Zharov as a presence at all, but Russian people will. What was it like figuring out the reach of his oeuvre?
Well, most crucial was finding that piece of footage of Zharov from 1915, which predated the Soviet Union, when he was playing a soldier in the Tsar’s army in Ivan the Terrible (1915). In the piece of footage that I used – I believe it’s an outtake – we were able to find him in the frame and could zoom in and see that it was him. So that was a crucial moment in time for me.
He was in something like 70 titles, so everything before 1949 is basically in the public domain because it was owned by the Soviet Union which doesn’t exist anymore. So, we were really able to load up on his early filmography, which was when he was taken most seriously; mid-century when he was working with Eisenstein. Certainly, in the ‘30s he was a huge star, working on a film every day. Everybody in the country knew who he was then.
I was showing Dawson City: Frozen Time at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow in 2017 – coincidentally about 100 years after the October Revolution – and I described the project to some young film curators there and none of them had heard of Mikhail Zharov – these were younger people in their ‘30s. But when I got back to the States, the FedEx delivery guy rang my bell and I noticed that he had a Russian accent. He seemed about my age so I tested it out; “have you ever heard of Mikhail Zharov?” and he replied “Mikhail Zharov! Of course – he is our great actor!” So, there’s some kind of line between generations there. The FedEx guy knows who he is without question, but the younger film programmers at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow had never heard of him. Zharov was part of a populist cinema – one for the masses at the time.
With Zharov you have the pre-Soviet Union appearances, the core of his career and his later period. Was it difficult piecing together the history and finding the through-line with the sunken print in tandem? That’s a broad scope of history to cover…
Yeah, it was extremely hard, especially as a non-Russian speaker. My knowledge of Soviet history was sketchy at best, and it remains sketchy. What I tried to find were shots where he was addressing the camera, and shots that I felt like could be emblematic of an era, of a decade or of a time during the century. So, I was particularly interested when he identifies as a Bolshevik and another moment where he says to a German soldier “I hate the Bolsheviks more than I hate you.” It was these kinds of political turns that I was drawn towards.
But identifying what he was saying when was a big research job, and luckily all that stuff is on YouTube, and I worked very closely with my Producer Maria Vinogradova who translated tons of stuff for me, but I had to give her the clips that I thought the jewels were already in before she could translate them. I wasn’t asking her to take on entire features, though she did help translate Derevensky detektiv so I could understand what the film was about. But, to answer your question – it was extremely laborious!
One thing I got from the film was a different way of thinking about the Soviet Union – seeing it through one figure; an actor opposed to a politician. One thing I really gravitated towards was the moments you picked where he’s playing songs. I love the clip where he’s playing the guitar in the bar in Putyovka v zhizn (Road to Life; Nikolai Ekk, 1931). Those clips really accentuate the story of the accordion that runs through Derevensky detektiv…
Yeah, there’s that quote at the beginning – the first clip from Derevensky detektiv after the head titles where they’re talking about how cinema has the widest reach, but music has the capacity to motivate people politically as well as aesthetically. I took that as a cue going through. Zharov was closely associated with song and with music, even though he did not have a beautiful voice and he wasn’t a particularly talented musician. He became famous in Road to Life when he picks up the guitar and he’s singing that song about the two burglars, because it was the first Russian sound film. It became a huge hit and it’s a song that’s still played by accordionists and guitarists – it’s a folk anthem. Using any clip where he was playing the accordion was of course something that I wanted to include. I wasn’t even able to include all the clips where he’s singing or playing the guitar – there’s so many of them and that’s really what he became known for.