Andrei Konchalovsky: ‘I’m very glad I failed in Hollywood’ | Film


It’s night-time in Moscow, and as Andrei Konchalovsky is settling on the sofa in his apartment, an unearthly howling fills the air. Could this be the wailing of some Russian banshee arisen to stalk the earth for all eternity? Actually, it’s the protests of Konchalovsky’s dog, a West Highland terrier, annoyed at not being allowed into the room. As it scurries into view, it turns out its name is Krug – “like the champagne”; evidence that Konchalovsky, at 83, has not lost his taste for the finer things in life.

These days Konchalovsky is looking back at a film-making career that is well into its third act, or possibly its fourth or even fifth. Improbably, after a decade or two of senior-auteur status, where the films he put his name to went little further than the comfort zone of film-festival presentations, he is suddenly looking at major awards action for his most recent film. Dear Comrades! is a biting, bitter study of a long-suppressed episode in Soviet history, the notorious massacre of strikers by the army and KGB in the Cossack city of Novocherkassk in 1962. Though it narrowly missed out on an Oscar nomination for best international film, Dear Comrades! is up for the equivalent award at the Baftas, having already picked up a special jury prize at Venice.

Cleaning the murdered strikers’ blood off the streets after the massacre in Dear Comrades!
Cleaning the murdered strikers’ blood off the streets after the massacre in Dear Comrades! Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Right now, on his Moscow sofa, Konchalovsky is phlegmatic about his sudden return to the international spotlight, some three decades after his glorious interlude in Hollywood, which produced Runaway Train and Homer and Eddie, and culminated in an unceremonious dumping from the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Tango and Cash. “I’m quite amazed that people respond to this film,” he says cheerfully. “I don’t think the world gives a damn about what happened even 10 years ago, let alone 50 years ago. Today life is moving so fast. And, frankly speaking, there’s so much suspicion about whatever comes from Russia. I’m quite realistic about that.” He is also amazed, he says, that anyone – particularly young people raised on the internet – would be interested in anything in black and white. “They think it’s kind of strange, no?

“Of course,” he says, “I realised that it was going to be provocative in Russia. Pro-Soviet people think that it is anti-Soviet film, and liberals think it is pro-Stalinist. A scandal. But it’s not a political film. It’s about psychological violence, not physical violence.”

In truth, Konchalovsky has done a masterly job in both reconstructing and dramatising the Novocherkassk killings, by all accounts a particularly disgraceful episode in Soviet history. At least 26 unarmed demonstrators died at the hands of government forces; an information blackout was imposed that lasted until after the collapse of the Soviet state, and it was only in 1992 that any official investigation was set up. His central character is a fervent party apparatchik, still pining for the Stalin years, who hunts through hospitals, morgues and graveyards after her daughter vanishes in the chaos. Though the film is in black and white, the narrative is much less clear cut: Konchalovsky calls it “ambiguous and ambivalent”. The local communist officials are alternately sinister and buffoonish, the military divided between sympathy and hostility for the strikers, and the KGB operatives come across as both terrifyingly vicious and – in one particular case – actually quite nice.

Although it steps delicately into an ideological minefield, Dear Comrades! has – so far – avoided the kind of official-level censure handed out to Russia’s last major international success, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which was barracked in 2015 by politicians for its apparently negative portrayal of the country’s petty bureaucracy. As with an earlier film, The Inner Circle, about Stalin’s projectionist, Konchalovsky astutely avoids becoming identified on one side or the other of live political issues to do with nationalism, Stalinism or simply nostalgia for communism.

Vladislav Komarov and Julia Vysotskaya in a scene from Dear Comrades!
Vladislav Komarov and Julia Vysotskaya in a scene from Dear Comrades! Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

“Let me tell you,” says Konchalovsky, “I know this society very well, I lived in that society. It was very permeated by fear, a certain fear of political correctness. Communist political correctness. People in Russia criticise me and say I did film for American imperialist. I said, you’re wrong, it’s a Soviet film. I’m a Soviet director. I’m a Soviet. I just put whatever I knew about it into the film.”

Even so, Konchalovsky is nonchalant about government threats to artistic freedom. “If you make some kind of thing that makes a scandal, the ministry of culture will not give you a release licence. But, you know, what is a licence if you don’t care about getting your money back? You can just put movie online.”

Born into artistic aristocracy, Konchalovsky is perhaps fortunate to speak from a position of some privilege. His father was a poet who wrote the words for the Soviet national anthem and his younger brother is the nationalist-leaning film-maker Nikita Mikhailov; Konchalovsky himself (who takes his working name from his mother, also a poet) has a CV stuffed with a string of grand-sounding national cultural awards.

In any case, since returning to Russia from Hollywood at the end of the 80s, Konchalovsky has operated largely independent of commercial considerations, relying on wealthy backers to fund his work. “I know I have luxury,” he says. “I’m not young man. For the last 10 years I can say I’m shooting a film to put it under my bed. And no one else is going to see it. Fuck them all. I would like to make the film under my bed because I’d like to see it. And that gives you absolute freedom.”

His current supporter is the billionaire Alisher Usmanov, best known in the UK perhaps for his contest with Stan Kroenke to take over Arsenal football club, but who is now on to his third film with Konchalovsky. “I speak with a lot of financiers and tell them, you should be ready that you will lose all your money that you invest. They always say: thank you very much, we would like to see this film, but we don’t want to be involved. But Usmanov is a different person. I tell him, you’re not going to get your money back. He froze for a few seconds and then says: the hell with you, let’s go.”

Besides, Konchalovsky has had a brush with the censors, back when he was a bright young talent in the glory years of Soviet cinema. Having co-written scripts for his fellow film school student Andrei Tarkovsky’s first two features (Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev), Konchalovsky’s second film, the documentary-style collective-farm romance Asya’s Happiness, fell foul of the authorities and was abruptly withdrawn from release in 1966. (It finally reemerged in 1987, after a personal intervention from President Gorbachev.)

“Of course, when my film was banned, I became kind of a hero to intellectuals, a dissident. I had a forbidden film and Tarkovsky had one too, Andrei Rublev, and we became kind of celebrities in Moscow. But you know, I burned my fingers, so I decided to make classical, literary films, Chekhov and Turgenev. I didn’t want to get into trouble with censorship.”

The start of the 80s saw him embark on a foreign adventure: first Paris, then Los Angeles. He made his name in America in 1985 with Runaway Train, from a script that Akira Kurosawa had tried, but failed, to get off the ground. But, he says, his time in the US showed him that freedom was not necessarily found there either. “The moment you sell a story, someone is watching how you tell the story. As a director in Hollywood, you start to think how to make story commercial, then you become a censor of your own creation.” He thinks back to his sacking from Tango & Cash in 1989, and his return to Russia a few years later. “I got into the monster of Hollywood system. I was asked by producer, why don’t move your camera. You know, no one asked me that before – I kind of think that it’s important for the director to decide. And I say, because I didn’t feel like moving camera. Then he said you should move camera every shot. That was the beginning of the end.”

His time nearly up, Konchalovsky breaks off briefly to clink cocktail glasses with his wife, Julia Vysotskaya, who it turns out has been sitting just out of sight. They have been married since 1998, and she has acted in five of his films – including, of course, Dear Comrades!, a barnstorming performance in the lead role, her face a fixed mask of terror and panic. It may not be far fetched to suggest that their collaboration has been key to Konchalovsky’s resurgence; he says that seeing her play Antigone in a production of Oedipus at Colonus, which he directed in 2014, gave him the clue to conceptualise Dear Comrades! as a classical tragedy.

Now, as he sits on his sofa in Moscow, Konchalovsky seems content. “I had to come back to Russia, not because I wanted to come back. But I think I’m very glad that I failed in Hollywood.”

Dear Comrades! is available on Curzon Home Cinema.



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