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“Everything is real,” Andrei Konchalovsky exclaims. “The people are real. The postman is real. The funeral is real. I didn’t know the old lady was going to die! It was to be our first scene with her and someone comes to me to say: ‘She’s dead’. So we film the funeral. We put in that scene.”
And it’s a strange, spooky, touching scene, colourful with bucolic heraldry, big with the unspoken feelings of a community.
You never know what to expect next from world cinema. You certainly don’t know what to expect next from a 77-year-old Russian filmmaker whose previous collaborators have included Andrei Tarkovsky and Sylvester Stallone. Add to that: his grandfather was a distinguished painter, his father wrote the Russian national anthem and his filmmaker brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, won the Venice Golden Lion in 1991 (Urga, or Close to Eden). Konchalovsky claimed his own first Venice gong last weekend with a Best Director prize.
The Postman’s White Nights, his victorious film, is a marvel: a low-budget digital video “docudrama” about real folk on Lake Kenozero, in northern Russia. Konchalovsky chose this log-house fishing community, scenically separated from the mainland by an expanse of blue water, because it was home to his non-professional lead actor, Alexei Tryapitsin. The ruddy-faced, blond-thatched, born-to-it star had been picked from 60 shortlisted nationwide postmen.
“I had a ‘script’ only to get money, then I shot whatever I wanted. Out of the 50 people Alexei delivered to, we chose the five most interesting. It’s not a drama, it’s not a documentary; it’s a film and today a film is anything. You can shoot a movie with an iPhone. You don’t need cameras, lights, clapperboards, shouts of ‘action!’ and ‘cut!’. Fifteen years ago, a surgeon had to open you in half to operate, now it’s endoscopic. So with cinema today. You can have an endoscopic entrance into life and find extraordinary things.”
He himself is a powerful presence: a bronzed, shaven-pated, voluble, rasping-voiced man whom I first interviewed nearly 30 years ago in a Los Angeles hotel. Back then, after starting in Russia as a director (Siberiade, 1979) and scenarist to the great (Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966)), he was launching his Hollywood career with a Jon Voight-starring action thriller about an express train.
“I wanted to find my international feet. For three years I couldn’t get a job in America. Then came this script by Akira Kurosawa: Runaway Train, which Francis Coppola was to direct. He couldn’t, so he rang me and I thought” – he enacts an excited intake of breath – “‘Oh! This is my survival!’ Menahem Golan [founder of Cannon Films] gave me carte blanche. I could write my cheque, though for limited money. When I started working with the majors, it became different.”
And it didn’t last long. The irresistible force of the Russian eagle met the immovable object of the Californian ego. “Sylvester Stallone is a very clever man,” says Konchalovsky. “He knew how he wanted to be shot. On the first day’s filming” – of the 1989 Columbia cop thriller Tango and Cash – “he came to the set and said, ‘Where’s the camera?’ I said, ‘Here.’ He said, ‘Put it down low and over there.’ I said, ‘Why, Sly?’ He said, because I’m not tall and the camera should always be lower than me. Plus, my face is paralysed on one side, I need to be filmed from the other.’
“Very clever man! Once, though, he lost his head, you know. He wanted to play Puccini. He wrote a script. He looks a little like Puccini. But thank God, Hollywood stopped him.”
Hollywood also stopped Konchalovsky. He was withdrawn from Tango and Cash before the end of production. He didn’t direct in America again.
From the ridiculous if pop-mythical we turn to the sublime if titanically flawed. Andrei Tarkovsky. What can it have been like for Konchalovsky to be a young bellows-minder to the flame of 1960s Soviet cinema?
“Tarkovsky was not easy, but who is? Well, I am,” he says in an aside. “But he wasn’t. He started to shoot Andrei Rublev at three times the length it was scripted for. He calls me up. ‘What shall we do?’ I say, ‘You’re crazy. It’ll be a 12-hour film.’ So we went at it with scissors. He got carried away. It was his flaw. But later the flaw became a quality. He started to crystallise his style.”
The glory days of Tarkovsky were followed by the glory days of glasnost and the New Russia. Now we have – what exactly? The old Russia back again? The bear in the geopolitical garden? Konchalovsky’s last film (unseen by me) was called Battle for Ukraine (2012), a prescient-sounding documentary on a region/nation’s conflicted history. So. Which side is he now on? Putin or Nato? I get what may be the most mandarin answer in the history of film-festival interviewing.
“First of all, I don’t mix in politics.” (The internet is choc-a-bloc with essays and interviews in which he mixes in politics.) “Secondly, I don’t think what’s happening in Ukraine is unpredictable or a surprise. It’s a very old confrontation. It’s that between Byzantium and the Vatican. Between the Greek Dionysian and the Latin Apollonian ... ” I sense the scrim of ancient myth and history being drawn across the nakedness of modern conflict “ ... between orthodox mentality and Latin expansionism ... ”
He invokes a couple of political philosophers I have never heard of. Then: “‘Democracy leads to prosperity’ is the biggest illusion. Democratic elections in some countries lead to chaos and dictatorship. In rich countries, democracy brings prosperity. But because of the illusion of universal values it’s very uncomfortable to accept that not everything is equal.
“Marxism is a wonderful thought if you are sitting by the pipe with a fire. But Marxist ideals in Cambodia give you ten million chopped heads.”
Marxist ideals in interbellum Russia, I resist saying, didn’t give people a picnic either. I let it go and return to The Postman’s White Nights, which I love. It has a wonderfully sly, funny shot near the end, involving a rocket launch, that might be interpreted as a rude aside about expansionism – territorial or cosmic – in Konchalovsky’s own nation.
“I won’t tell you what the scene means,” he says. “Metaphor is important when it has multiple dimensions. Interpretation is not my role, it’s that of the perceiver. I’m just the postman bringing the post.” He gives a smile.
I am starting to like Konchalovsky. His evasiveness is baroque, bordering on outrageous. But he comes from a long, experienced line of survivors. His father wrote the lyrics to the Russian national anthem in 1943, only to be ordered to incorporate Stalin’s own changes. When friends later said to him, “What are you doing? You’re just being a prostitute,” Konchalovsky’s father said, “Maybe. But you should learn it by heart anyway.”
The touché of realpolitik. That commodity is alive and well, it’s clear, and can even dwell in the minds and strategies of modern Russian film directors. Meanwhile in their art, they can post us, first-class and if necessary under plain cover, the truth.
Photograph: Giacomo Cosua