A Portrait of an Era: Ilich’s Gate and I Am Twenty (Marlen Khutsiev, 1962 and 1965)
At a March 1963 meeting with the creative intelligentsia, Nikita Khrushchev addressed the director Marlen Khutsiev, lambasting his new film Zastava Il’icha (IIich’s Gate, 1962): “Do you want us to believe in the truthfulness of this episode? Everyone knows that even animals don’t abandon their young […] How is it possible that a father wouldn’t answer his own son and wouldn’t give him advice about finding the right path in life?”1 Displeased with the entire film, which is about three childhood friends on the brink of adulthood, Khrushchev objected in particular to the scene in which Sergei, one of the protagonists, talks with his dead father. Curiously, he was perturbed not by the dead father’s materialisation on the screen (a figment of the young man’s consciousness? A dream? An old-fashioned ghost?); rather, the Premier’s wrath focused on the content of their conversation. Having perished in World War II, the figure of the parent in a soldier’s uniform emerges from the dark shadows of a Moscow communal apartment in the night. Sergei had just returned from a party where he had had a fight, forcing him to question his life’s decisions. The two have a heart-to-heart. As Sergei appeals to his father’s spectre for guidance about how to live in the present, when things are often ethically muddy and confusing, the soldier refuses to provide it, citing his age: he is two years younger than his son, and thus, possesses less wisdom.
As a result of Khrushchev’s harsh criticism, a protracted, uphill campaign followed to save Ilich’s Gate from “the shelf” and to allow Khutsiev to rework it. This story deserves a separate essay, but suffice it to say, the film had a dedicated and shrewd advocate in the figure of Sergei Gerasimov. The doyen of Soviet cinema had his own skin in the game: he was the head of the First Creative Workshop at Gorky Studio that produced Khutsiev’s picture. He dutifully accepted the criticism and expressed remorse, being well versed in proper backstage tactics. At last, in January 1965, Soviet audiences saw the film. Shortened, re-edited, some scenes rewritten and reshot, it came out as Mne dvadtsat’ let (I Am Twenty).2 Unsurprisingly, a casualty of censorship was the meeting with the dead father, whose role was played by a gaffer from Khutsiev’s film unit. In I Am Twenty, the scene was rewritten, cut by a third, and shot with a professional actor. In this version, the parent-soldier reassures the doubting Sergei rather than “abandoning” him. In an ironic twist of fate, I Am Twenty was released after the removal of Khrushchev from power in October 1964, as the capricious political winds of the Thaw once more reversed their drift.
In Khrushchev’s interpretation, the refusal of a father to give advice to his son, to impart paternal wisdom, pointed to a deep rift between generations. And indeed, this episode illuminates a broken line of authority. As in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose echoes are hardly accidental, here, too, “the time is out of joint.” Generational conflict was a raw subject during the Soviet Thaw, not least because it suggested a differentiation between those who came of age and lived much of their lives under Stalin and those whose biographies were less tainted by the horrors of Stalinism. Another important scene, tellingly set amidst apartment renovations, betrays this anxiety – a conversation between Sergei, his girlfriend Anya, and Anya’s father. The bitter man berates his daughter and Sergei for being restless, for not being satisfied, for taking their time to grow up: “What nonsense fills your head? What do you need?” He desperately seeks a sense of unquestioned continuity where there could be little – between his generation and his daughter’s. “Why” he asks Sergei, “do you separate yourselves from our generation?” In contrast to Sergei’s conversation with his father’s apparition, this paterfamilias is only eager to dispense age-earned wisdom, clinging to his suspect authority: “Life consists not of empty talk but of concrete deeds.” Under the pretence of wanting to get to know his successors, Anya’s father attacks them with platitudes. Neither she, nor Sergei believes his words. As Anya puts it, “All your life you’ve been saying one thing and thinking another.” This is precisely what the youth portrayed in the film refuse to do. In I Am Twenty, this scene, reshot with a new dialogue, has lost its teeth. Both sides end up nearly apologising to each other. If visually it flows more effortlessly, generational friction and a sense of deep anguish about the past have all but vanished.
Yet а thread linking generations and different historical moments is unmistakably embodied in the three military figures that frame both versions of the film. Dressed in the clothes of the revolutionary years, the young comrades patrol Moscow streets in the opening shot, their steps noisily echoing in the dead of the night. At the closing, the trio wears World War II uniforms as they continue to watch over sleeping Soviet citizens. Such visual manifestations of continuity, however, did not satisfy censors. Furthermore, it was not only Khrushchev and cultural authorities who were discomfited by the hint of generational disagreement. When interviewed for the French journal Cinéma 60 and asked whether there was a new wave or an emerging film school in the USSR, some young Soviet filmmakers replied negatively, for they did not rebel against their mentors, as was the case in France. “The issues that concern young directors are equally shared by old masters,” Lev Kulidzhanov, one of the interviewees, explained.3
By the time he embarked on Ilich’s Gate in 1960, thirty-five-year old Khutsiev had made two features. Together with Feliks Mironer he had written and directed Vesna na Zarechnoi ulitse (Spring on Zarechnaya Street, 1956), followed two years later by a solo effort, Dva Fedora (Two Fedors). The original eight-page proposal for a picture about young Muscovites coming to terms with adulthood was developed again with Mironer, and accepted by Gorky Film Studio. However, the pair could not agree on the structure of the script. Mironer pushed for a traditionally built narrative, whereas Khutsiev envisioned a looser form, less reliant on plot.4 They parted ways. Seeking to convey the spirit of contemporary urban youth, Khutsiev found a collaborator in the 23-year old Gennady Shpalikov, a poet and student of screenwriting at the State Film Institute. Ilich’s Gate’s looseness, its breathing rhythm, and somewhat untidy shape, in considerable measure, is a result of Shpalikov’s contribution to the screenplay. Certainly, the language of the young characters – the vernacular liberally peppered with quick witticisms and intellectual sparring – is due to Shpalikov’s pen. The camera, handled by Margarita Pilikhina, provided a corresponding quality of authenticity and spontaneity to the visual register.
The camera moves with the characters along Moscow streets, alleys, and courtyards, on the metro and streetcars. At times, it digresses unceremoniously to gather visual and sonic details on the sidelines, weaving them together into a thick atmosphere. Some parts of this Moscow would soon fall under a wrecking ball. The famous poetry scene, staged by the director at the storied Polytechnic Museum where Vladimir Mayakovsky had performed his poems in the 1920s, in particular conveys a sense of immediacy. Most of the audience consisted of regular Muscovites who had learned about the gathering of poets and thronged to the Museum. The episode could be called “Who’s Who in Contemporary Soviet Poetry.” Author after author – Bella Akhmadulina, Boris Slutsky, Evgeny Evtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, Bulat Okudzhava – took the stage to declaim their verses, or sing to guitar accompaniment in the case of Okudzhava, to the rapt crowd. It took several days, filming eight hours a day, to wrap the scene. Meanwhile, the audience quickly expanded, overflowing into the isles and every inch of free space so that the film crew had difficulty doing its job.5 In the end, the spellbound “extras” ignored the filmmakers because they were afraid to miss a single live word of poetry. The film’s fictional characters, Sergei and Anya, surrender to the palpable exhilaration around them. After most of this material had been removed from the original version on censors’ orders, the poetry evening took on a life of its own in the Soviet popular imagination. The film critic Elena Stishova is not alone in granting it the status of a “great document.”6 Pilikhina’s camerawork has a lot to do with it. At times handheld, the camera anxiously shifts between the audience and the stage, roving, singling out an intent face for several seconds; occasionally, those of the protagonists come into its seemingly erratic path. This hybrid style of film practice, as if equivocating between fiction and nonfiction, would come to typify Soviet cinema aesthetics later in the decade under the name of documentaryness (dokumental‘nost‘). The soundtrack “thaws” together with the image: Khutsiev layers vernacular speech and poetry with Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, and many melodies of the period from both sides of the ocean.
Overall, Khutsiev, Shpalikov, Pilikhina, and their colleagues succeeded in their effort to respond to censors’ demands while trying to preserve the spirit of the original: young friends, in the throes of existential doubt, searching for answers about how to live truthfully, ethically in early 1960s Moscow. They work, fall in love, talk, dance, wander around the city at all hours, trying to figure things out. Or to return to Khrushchev’s critique: “They are shown as not knowing how to live and what to strive for.” 7 As a result of the revisions, Khutsiev’s film arguably gained in visual and especially narrative polish; the newly shot scenes often have better constructed framing and blocking, and the reassembling of the story propels a more fluid unfolding of events. But the confrontational and occasionally desolate tone of dialogue, and the scrappy, earnest, alive quality of images and storytelling of Ilich’s Gate receded, if not disappeared altogether. 1965, the year I Am Twenty came out, saw a changed political mood – less hopeful, less romantic, more muted. A few favourable reviews appeared in the Soviet press. Later that year, the film garnered the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Festival. As for its beleaguered antecedent, Ilich’s Gate finally premiered in January 1988 at Moscow’s House of Cinema and shortly after was broadcast on television. It was among more than 250 “shelved” films that the so-called Conflict Commission of the Union of Filmmakers rehabilitated during perestroika. This restored work was not quite original, but, rather, the director’s cut: Khutsiev took this opportunity to improve on Ilich’s Gate and stitched into it a couple of reshot or redubbed scenes from I Am Twenty that he considered superior.8 Caught in the crosshairs of the vicissitudes of history, the body of Ilich’s Gate bears the marks of political shifts. Banned pre-release, reworked according to censors’ orders, and then, once more, moulded into a creation Khutsiev has called definitive, for many in the intelligentsia who came of age in the 1960s, the film remains an authentic portrait of the era.
- “Zastava Il’icha – urok istorii,” Iskusstvo kino (June 1988): 99. ↩
- Incidentally, today’s viewers abroad are more familiar with I Am Twenty, as it was recently released on DVD by Russian Cinema Council with English subtitles. The restored Ilich’s Gate has, however, played at a number of festivals and retrospectives around the world, most recently in 2016 at MOMA, New York. ↩
- “Materialy o kul’turnom sotrudnichestve v oblasti kino SSSR i Frantsii,” Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Literatury i Iskusstva, f. 2936, op. 1, d. 1468, l. 59. ↩
- T. Khlopliankina, Zastava Il’icha (Moskva: Soyuz kinematografistov SSSR, 1990), p. 25. ↩
- Khlopliankina, p. 36-38. ↩
- Elena Stishova, “Kosmos kak stradanie,” Iskusstvo kino (February 2009): 30. ↩
- “Zastava Il’icha – urok istorii,” Iskusstvo kino (June 1988): 99. ↩
- The 1962 original is almost never screened. Email interview with Peter Bagrov, October 26, 2017. ↩