Thursday, 1 December 2016

‘If these young people are our future we are doomed’: Marlen Khutsiev’s I Am Twenty and Andrzej Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers.

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013)

I want to look today at two films, both subject to censorship and official disapproval but which were also both, in Andrzej Wajda’s phrase, ‘authored by the spirit of the time’ – Marlen Khutsiev’s I Am Twenty (1961) and Andrzej Wajda’s own Innocent Sorcerers (1960).

I am Twenty – made in 1961, censored on completion, delayed, denounced by Khruschev and only released in a heavily cut form in 1965 – is a key Russian film from the era of the Khrushchev thaw, which allowed a certain freedom of expression in areas that were previously off-limits. In parts it is dreamlike, in others fresh and vibrant, while scenes of Antonionian ennui and even a supernatural interlude mingle into its overall portrait of unfocussed youth. It is a surprising film, wholly tied to its time but resonant still with its searching questions. It opens with three young soldiers walking between tram tracks in a damp grey Moscow dawn, pausing only to look into the camera as they pass – the meaning of which becomes clear at the end.

In essence the film is simple enough: Seryoga returns from his military service and hooks up once more with his childhood friends Kolia and Slavka, and together they negotiate the excitement, frustration and even boredom of growing up. They hang around, hang out, grow apart as romance and fatherhood come into their lives, grow distant, then realise they have been heading in the same direction all along. It sounds like a universally applicable storyline, but what’s remarkable is how it has been translated to the screen here. It’s pleasurable to see the film’s twists on commonplace tropes. I think of Seryoga, waking in the middle of the night. He walks outside, lights a cigarette and begins to walk. A muscular man in a tight white T-shirt walking his loneliness through rain-slicked streets under a thick white sky, while a crossing light flashes steadily at an empty intersection – sounds solid American, 1950s, but the sequence is lit in such a way as to make it more ethereal, and the piano notes of the score clash with the city’s low, resonant bells; then, to cap it all, as Seryoga walks, his voice intones fragments of Mayakovsky’s poem, ‘Past One O’Clock’, as they weave through his thoughts.

Another surprise – dancing appears regularly throughout the film; informal dances to a record player in the shadow of a tower block or in someone’s apartment, or to musicians on the street the day of exam results, the couples always tentative, a little stiff, as if not quite accustomed to the moves and unsure of what is allowed – a suitable symbol for the state of the country as a whole at the time perhaps. And throughout the film too, disillusionment dances with possibilities for expression and fulfilment. There’s a freewheeling exuberance to early scenes; meeting a friend, Seryoga flings himself down stairways, out into the street and into the rough and tumble of football on a patch of waste ground. The same feeling fills the clashing cacophony of the May Day parade, or a gutter–bashing day of snowmelt in spring, but these are interspersed with periods of deflation and uncertainty. There are unexpected dashes of humour too. As Seryoga drinks to disarmament and peaceful, constructive work with Kolia and Slavka in Slavka’s apartment, which he shares with his wife and baby, they tease the new father that he is ‘getting into the swing of consumerism’. ‘I am’, he replies, to which Kolia adds that he has ‘bought a bra and a floor lamp. You can’t stop him now.’

Unforced family life, humour, purposelessness, youth hanging around and filling in time – these are not things one really expects to see from a 1961 Russian film, and its extraordinary nature can be slow to dawn on the viewer used to seeing these everyday happenings in other film contexts. ‘Science nurtures youths, but not enough,’ says Seryoga to his mother before bed one evening as he smokes and reads late from a text book. His feeling of emptiness and need for guidance, need to lay down his trust in something worthwhile, is palpable, joining with the pervasive sense of characters in the film requiring something meaningful to live by as they try out various routes – fatherhood, romance, art, poetry, the ideals of the revolution.

The film enraged Khruschev, who singled it out for attack at a speech in 1963, denouncing the director and his collaborators, saying that ‘the characters are not the sort of people society can rely upon. They are not fighters, not remakers of the world. They are morally sick people. The idea of the film is to impress upon the children that their fathers cannot be their teachers in life, and that there is no point in turning to them for advice. The filmmakers think that young people ought to decide for themselves how to live, without asking their elders for counsel and help.’ It’s a distorted reading of a film which is notable for the honesty with which it broaches the subject of who the young should learn from, what they should learn, who they should respect and why, and what ideals they should live by. The ideas are perhaps commonplace, but all the more remarkable for being voiced in such a direct fashion at the time.

‘I already know everything you can tell me,’ says Anya to her father when he tries to dissuade her from leaving home to set up a flat with Seryoga – an attitude that would surely have fed into Khruschev’s  denuncuiation, as would the man’s words to Seryoga: ‘you can rely on no–one, no–one will help you, not a single person. People don’t give a damn about each other, however regrettable that may be.’ His words do, however, harden Seryoga’s desire to find meaning and direction in his life. Things come to a head at a party held by friends of the woman he has been seeing. ‘What shall we take seriously?’ he asks, after proposing a toast to potatoes; potatoes brought in to the room to eat but which had been worn as a necklace and then trampled underfoot by dancers, potatoes that – as he had just heard before he left the house that evening – had kept his mother and his baby self alive for a month after she mislaid her bread coupons in the war. The party recalls Antonioni in its continual dissipation of focus, its momentary fascinations as easily let go as found, its desire to fill the moment with whatever entertainment is to hand. Seryoga walks out.

In one of the final scenes, Seryoga is at home in the night, troubled by his thoughts. He announces to himself and an ashtray of burning paper on a table that today is the turning point. ‘I don’t just want to wear out the days’ he says, and then, in a truly moving scene, his dead father appears to sit across the table from him. They greet, and talk through the veil of one’s death, the other’s life. ‘What’s for me?’ asks Seryoga, ‘living,’ responds his father. ‘But how? How?’ ‘How old are you?’ asks his father. ‘I’m 23,’ says his son, ‘and I’m 21,’ he replies. Seryoga’s gaze falls as the realisation of adulthood dawns and his father leaves with two comrades to resume his spiritual guarding of the Moscow streets, like the soldiers we see in the very first shot, looking at us out of the camera. The baton is passed, the responsibility is with the new generation. As Khutsiev said, the subject of I am Twenty is the maturing of man at that particular moment in history.

The problem with Andrzej Wajda’s 1960 film Innocent Sorcerers, as seen through the eyes of the powers that be at the time, was not the maturing of man but quite the opposite, the dissipation of youthful energy into frivolity and ephemeral fascinations.

Wajda says of his film that it was about a new generation of children who grew up in postwar Poland, a generation whose rebellion was against everything, against sameness and stagnation in language and dress and ambition, a generation who relished the clandestine sounds of jazz and devoured the occasional sightings of American films and their promises of unlikely freedom. Innocent Sorcerers is a film of that rebellion, or at the very least a film of young people looking for something that will make their life bearable.

Its central characters are the sports doctor and jazz drumming Lothario Andrzej and a gamine Clara Bow lookalike, who calls herself Pelagia. They meet thanks to the luckless machinations of a friend who originally wanted the girl, and head back to the man’s flat after she has intentionally missed her last train. There, in a wonderful 35 minute central scene that is erotic, tense, humorous and teasing and whose characters are amused, abashed, defiant, coquettish, competitive and companionable by turns, they pen an agreement about their meeting and the first steps of their apparent romance. They have gone past ‘boy meets girl’ and ‘first kiss’ (which they still haven’t shared) and have reached ‘illusions and bright conversation’. ‘Right,’ she says, adopting a mock serious voice, ‘before lying down we need to discuss the dilemmas of our time.’ ‘Really?’ says he. ‘What’s next?’ ‘It’s time to go to bed if you don’t mind,’ she responds, ‘sofa bed’ says he, ‘all modifications are possible,’ says she. And so they continue, playing out their measured game of not–quite romance, not knowing whether they are serious or not, their moves and conversation all the more charged for the promise of the assumed intimacy which they may or may not take up. It is as if they have already seduced each other, know each other’s moves and how to outwit them.

‘Older people say that we, young people, only see and listen to ourselves. It’s possible. But how could we be any different? Our generation has no illusions,’ says Pelagia (in the part of their game that requires serious talk). ‘It’s obvious to us that we know nothing of the world we live in,’ she says, and removes her necklace. ‘It’s the reason for our anxiety,’ she continues, ‘we know we’re lost and lonely’. She asks Andrzej what he cares about. ‘Comfortable shoes, good cigarettes, good socks,’ he replies.

Unsurprisingly, the film did not go down well. Reaction from the Party was, as Wajda tells it, along the lines of, ‘if these young people are our future then we are doomed’; while the church took a look at the film, considered a response and declared that, ‘if these young people are our future, then we are doomed’, deploring the ‘depraved values of an immoral generation’ who seemingly had no checks upon their impulsive capriciousness.

Wajda tells an amusing story about how far the feelers of censorship crawled across his film. In the opening scene, Andrzej turns on the tape player on the floor of his flat with his big toe. ‘It’s a disgrace,’ cried the censor, ‘it shows both contempt towards technology and to the labour of the worker who created it.’ That scene somehow stayed in, but everything else whose removal was requested had to go – including the original ending more’s the pity. After his film sat on the shelf for a year, Wajda was asked by the Minister of Cinematography – and if ever an official title gives us pause it should be that – to give his film a happy ending, in which Pelagia goes back to the flat to presumably wake a sleeping Andrzej. It doesn’t take too much imagination to strip that away and give it the real ending, the required one too, in which Pelagia skips down the stairs and out into the Warsaw morning, leaving the man she has left asleep, the two of them marked in some way by the encounter, perhaps to wonder in years to come what happened to the other; still sure of the strength of their armour but also feeling it a little closer to the skin than it was before their night together.

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