X Close

SLOVO Journal

Home

The blog of the postgraduate journal at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies

Menu

Archive for the 'Film' Category

The Irony of Fate (or Enjoy Your Bath!) – The Quintessential Soviet New Year Film

serian.carlyle.1431 December 2020

On this strange New Year’s Eve, the Slovo team invite you to read this review of the quintessential Soviet New Year’s Eve film, a film that remains a staple for many Russian households on the 31st. In her review, Lara Olszowska explores the role of architecture as an ideological signifier in the film. If you’ve seen the film, we’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #SlovoSuggestions. Until then, Happy New Year!

Film, 184 min

Directed by Eldar Ryazanov

Written by Emil Braginsky, Eldar Ryazanov

Produced by Evgeny Golynsky

Soviet Union, 1976

Language: Russian

“Совершенно нетипичная история, которая могла произойти только и исключительно в новогоднюю ночь”

“A completely atypical story that could happen only and exclusively on New Year’s Eve”

–Eldar Ryazanov, Irony of Fate

On New Year’s Day 1976, Eldar Ryazanov’s Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath! was first broadcast to television audiences across the Soviet Union. The epigraph attributes the ludicrous events that unfold to the date on which they occur, whilst the second title highlights the initiator of the action as the bathhouse. It later becomes apparent that the true driving force behind the plot is something far less magical than New Year’s Eve and even more ordinary than a festive drinking session at a bathhouse with friends. It is the typical setting in which this “atypical story” is told: a standardized Soviet apartment in an archetypal mikroraion, or suburb. This review posits the role of architecture as an ideological signifier in the film.

Zhenya Lukashin lives in apartment 12, 25 Third Builder’s Street, Moscow. So does Nadia Sheveluova, but in Leningrad. Once Zhenya enjoys his bath and too much vodka, he mistakenly flies to Leningrad, gives his address to a taxi driver, lets himself into Nadia’s flat using his key, and falls asleep in her bed. After she stirs him from his stupor, the pair spend a farcical evening together and eventually fall in love. The irony of their fate is that their chance romance is a result of Soviet residential planning; a dreary housing block can become the locus of a New Year’s Eve miracle. One of the final lines in the film is Zhenya’s: “Fate brought me to Leningrad and in Leningrad there is a certain street, with exactly the same housing block and apartment, without which I would never be happy”. In other words, he thanks the city for Nadia, not New Year’s Eve for his newfound happiness. Ironically, his destiny as a Soviet man to live in an unremarkable mikroraion with any wife (he manages to substitute his fiancée for Nadia almost seamlessly) remains unchanged no matter how much of an “adventure seeker” Ippolit (Nadia’s fiancé) considers him to be. The conventional fairytale ending neatly upholds traditional Soviet values of domesticity and glosses over the deeper levels of conflict within soviet housing.

The cartoon that preludes Irony of Fate makes a visual mockery of Soviet architecture and marks the film’s raison d’être: two matching flats in identical housing blocks, both with identical addresses, both in identical mikroraiony and each inhabited by the two lead protagonists. The animated architect seeks approval for his imperial-style buildings from bureaucrats, who reject the designs until every decorative feature has disappeared from the façade leaving the prototypical Soviet housing block behind. The newly approved rectangular block shown in the cartoon has nothing “new” about it. As viewers were aware, the only choice for architects was to build according to the model that aligned with the regime. By the 1970s Khrushchev’s prefabricated housing had been reproduced so many times with so little innovation, it demonstrated the absurdity of Soviet planning and the inescapable influence of socialist ideology. The character’s inability to escape the army of apartment blocks that chase him in this opening sequence shows his personal resistance to the regime, personified by a marching mikroraion. The need to present the mikroraion as such a caricature reveals how the ubiquitous ideological signs of the Soviet period were and how desensitised citizens had become to them.

In his light-hearted deprecation of soviet planning, Ryazanov alludes to a heavier criticism of socialist byt, or living. The undisputed aim of socialism was to build a new society from scratch. Housing to induce socialist byt was therefore ideology materialised. The new Soviet person would live in and be conditioned by the new socialist city and form a collective of like-minded individuals, their individuality suppressed by the state. As the voiceover sarcastically narrates: “a person can come to an unknown city and feel at home there” because they are all familiar and all the same. In the film, the uniformity of the suburbs do not generate social harmony as intended, but instead cause chaos for the protagonists. The verisimilitudinous Soviet architecture in the film held a mirror to the Soviet viewer on that New Year’s Day in 1976, likely watching from the comfort of their prefabricated home, reminding them of the ideological project their houses were constructed to complete and how that project remained unfulfilled. There lies the true irony beneath the surface of the lovers’ luck: the irony of socialism.

Review by Lara Olszowska, Masters Student at UCL SSEES

INTERVIEW: The Sun Sets in the East

Borimir S Totev14 August 2017

Authors of the film “The Sun Sets in the East”, Agne Dovydaityte (left) and Alexander Belinski (right).


Agne Dovydaityte (A.D.) and Alexander Belinski (A.B.) in conversation with the Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal, Borimir Totev, about the passion for cinema, the Lithuanian country side, an old diary, and their first documentary film project entitled “The Sun Sets in the East”.


How did you end up on the path towards documentary film making? Did you encounter a turning point or a moment of clarity?

A.D.:

I came to London in 2014 to study Journalism, while working as a bartender in one of Angela Hartnett’s restaurants on the side. I wanted to be a journalist since I was five years old, and I’ve always envisioned myself to be involved in print or online media, with a focus on Eastern European culture and politics. However, as someone who has high expectations, I found Journalism studies rather boring and disappointing. I met Alex at university and consequently was introduced to avant-garde cinema, cinematography, and film production. I also began practising Russian with him. Initially we collaborated on video projects for university, then for the hospitality industry, also filming some events and conferences. We felt rather comfortable working with each other – him as a camera person and editor, and me as a producer.

A.B.:

I was born in Ukraine and lived in Germany for a short while, before moving to the United Kingdom. After finishing secondary school, uncertain as to whether I was more interested in politics or communication, I decided to study Journalism at university, where I met Agne. I have been interested in film for a long time. What started out as regular watching of films gradually turned into a passion, perhaps even an obsession with what cinema as a concept had to offer. Inevitably I found myself at a point where things I watched rarely satisfied me anymore, and I therefore developed a desire to create, based on all that I had learned along the way. I didn’t necessarily pick documentary cinema as the format to pursue, and I am very much open to narrative cinema as well, however this is what I’m currently doing. Having said that, I believe the highest form of cinema is a kind of hybrid of documentary and narrative formats.

 On one of your trips back to Lithuania you stumbled across an exciting discovery. Tell us more about what inspired “The Sun Sets in the East”? 

A.D.:

When I discovered my grandfather’s diary and mentioned it to Alex, we came to a natural realisation that it was a valuable document, telling of moral values and a pastoral lifestyle that is all but forgotten in the ‘developed’ world. We also realised that it would make for an interesting documentary. The diary of my grandfather described the slow and simple life of a peasant in 1984 Soviet Lithuania, in a very delicate and touching manner. Contrary to what some might expect, it is not an emotional diary, he wasn’t a person who experienced loads of suffering, he wasn’t deported, he did not get lost in the stream of history. It is a diary of the everyday life of a peasant, who wakes up in the morning and goes to weed furrows or cut trees in the park. Politics barely reaches him, and he allows himself to seek God, also in a very non-emotional way – simply living by the rules, following church orders, and being a good person. My grandfather, Jonas, writes in a very natural way, non-professionally, rather objectively, makes many mistakes, and uses old Lithuanian, sometimes Russian slang too. He was a very religious person, and went to church a few times a week, noted how many people attended the service, as well as how many pupils and teachers showed up. In Soviet Lithuania, teachers and state workers were not allowed to attend mass. At one point Jonas writes: “Kurtimaitis, a school teacher was buried with the Church, therefore none of the school staff attended. The priest said that other believers have to fill up this gap and pray to God for everyone.” Modern day Lithuania has unfortunately become the leading European country in suicide rates, especially within rural communities. Life there is slow and not everyone can handle this sort of pace. For this reason we believe that now is an appropriate time for a film like ours. Although the diary itself appears to be of a very religious nature, this does not necessarily set the tone for the film.

 

Where exactly are you in the process of making the film right now and what can we expect to see as a finished product? 

A.B.:

At the moment we are alternating between pre-production and principal photography. The film is as planned out as can be for a haphazard project of this nature. It is partially funded, and we hope to close the gap soon with a crowdfunding campaign. Recently, we were in Lithuania for a week, in order to shoot the summer segment of the diary, with the help of friends and relatives acting as chauffeurs and guides. This segment is now being edited, so in a way we are also stepping a little into post-production territory too.

A.D.:

I am mostly responsible for the organisational part of the film – PR, social media, human resources, timing, and planning. We both have a clear vision of how the film is going to look, and we’ve already started shooting it. The visuals mostly show countryside Lithuania, lone villages and houses, fields of barley and hay, with industrial buildings and constructions disturbing this peaceful scenery. Where before there used to be allotments, now there are factories, the landscape is divided by electricity pylons and giant industrial chimneys. These visuals are combined with a voiceover of the diary. Without spoiling too much, we can say that this film will be straightforward, and non-judgemental, with a focus on aesthetics. It simply showcases how the life of a regular Lithuanian peasant looked like, and the landscape in which it unfolded. This is not a film about Lithuania. This is a film about a man at a certain period of history where nothing was certain, apart from one’s faith and nature. Most of what is told by him and shown by us is applicable everywhere and always.

Where would you position documentary film within wider society, how much power does the medium of film generally posses, is it a means to an end?

A.B.:

Documentary film occupies a kind of middle ground between regular mainstream cinema, and more esoteric ‘art house’ cinema. Documentary cinema is not without its own mainstream entrapments, and the ratio of truly unique and challenging documentaries is probably around the same as regular narrative cinema and ‘art house’ cinema. In what I would consider to be the upper echelons of cinema as an art form, there is a great deal of overlap between documentary and narrative cinema, to the extent that one may become indistinguishable from the other. Film is a tremendously powerful medium, both politically and financially. Precisely this power is what has hampered the progress of cinema as an art form. Almost immediately after its inception, cinema was exploited around the world – for financial gain in the West, and for propaganda in the East. Eventually the two systems collided, and much of world cinema became an ugly amalgamation of both models. It’s notorious effectiveness is an unfortunate testament of its ability to have an effect on people. In that regard, in a cynical manner, it is indeed a means to an end. But it shouldn’t be. ‘Real’ cinema, that is, as an art form, is a means unto itself. However, whether that stage will ever be reached universally – I cannot say.


Those interested in the “The Sun Sets in the East”, willing to give advice, financial support, or ask further questions can stay updated via the film’s official Instagram account @eastern.sunset 

lvxlva