I have noticed over the years that, unless someone who lives abroad is a serious Cinema student, Russian (and Soviet, especially) films are largely unknown in the West. Films by Andrei Tarkovsky will be known because a few of them were made when Tarkovsky had emigrated, and can be compared to films by the nouvelle vague directors. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson couldn’t remain unnoticed, given the worldwide popularity of the sleuth’s character. Hamlet by Kosintzev is once again a part of the global fascination with Shakerspeare’s tragedy. The Cranes Are Flying by Kalatozov had won a Palm d’Or at Cannes; War and Peace by Sergei Bondarchuk, Moscow Doesn’t Trust Tears by Vladimir Menshov, and Burnt by the Sun by Nikita Mikhalkov, had all won Oscars as Best Foreign Films. Yet a massive number of films made in Russia and Soviet Union remain behind the language barrier.
What may not be known, or fully realised, is that, in spite of the “Iron Curtain” hanging, Soviet directors managed to adapt foreign authors to screen. This was one of the reasons why, during the release of 2006 version of Quiet Flows the Don, I couldn’t understand or agree with the negative attitude to “foreigners” who were playing “Russians”. Russians had played so many foreigners, with good taste, too, that it only made sense to give “aliens” a chance to prove themselves. If not adapting the actual foreign classics, Russian directors were nevertheless attracted to foreign culture, and I’d hope to show, how they managed.
One more undeniably unique trait of Russian cinema of all times is a song. It could be a single, or a series of songs, but on many occasions it was an important component in the film. Clearly understanding the metaphoric, figurative nature of a song, directors and editors used the existing, or commissioned new, songs to highlight a certain idea.
The extract below is from one of the best-loved Soviet comedies, made by Viktor Titov, Hello, I’m Your Aunt! It is a version of a hit farce Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas. The play was a hit in England where it was originally performed, and was subsequently staged and adapted internationally. What you will see in the video, is a complete improvisation, led by Alexander Kalyagin who these days runs his own theatre company, Et Cetera. The music by Vladislav Kazenin was written to the poem by Robert Burns (translated by Samuel Marshak); the original text by Burns is after the video. One thing Samuel Marshak, one of the best Russian translators, was often able to do was to preserve the original metric style of the poem. Therefore, if you want you may try and sing Burns’s original poem to Kazenin’s music.
O poortith cauld, and restless love,
Ye wrack my peace between ye;
Yet poortith a’ I could forgive,
An ’twere na for my Jeanie.
O why should Fate sic pleasure have,
Life’s dearest bands untwining?
Or why sae sweet a flower as love
Depend on Fortune’s shining?
The warld’s wealth, when I think on,
It’s pride and a’ the lave o’t;
O fie on silly coward man,
That he should be the slave o’t!
Her e’en, sae bonie blue, betray
How she repays my passion;
But prudence is her o’erword aye,
She talks o’ rank and fashion.
O wha can prudence think upon,
And sic a lassie by him?
O wha can prudence think upon,
And sae in love as I am?
How blest the simple cotter’s fate!
He woos his artless dearie;
The silly bogles, wealth and state,
Can never make him eerie,