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City news
War and remembrance
02.28.2007 16:42

leningrad By Tom Birchenough

Special to The St. Petersburg Times

(the last part of the film aired on Channel One of Russian Television last week)

When the television miniseries “Leningrad: City of the Living” was screened for an advance audience this month, there could hardly have been a more appropriate location than St. Petersburg’s Museum of the Siege and Defense of Leningrad.

Watching the film surrounded by enormously evocative artifacts from the 1941-44 siege, and by many audience members who had lived through it, proved to be a moving experience indeed.

The first episode of the four-part miniseries aired Monday on Channel One, which produced the film. The television premiere marked the culmination of a long, hard and uncertain process that saw shooting stretch out over nearly three years — an uncanny reflection of its subject matter.

“Leningrad” actually ended up in two different versions: a four-hour television miniseries and a two-hour feature film. Although that’s a common practice in the local film industry, in this case the two resulting works could hardly be more different in subject and tone. In an interview in Moscow last week, director Alexander Buravsky said they shared only about 10 percent of their material.

“When I wrote the original script, it was as a feature film,” he said. “When I took it to the producers, their response was: You wrote ‘Schindler’s List,’ now add ‘Indiana Jones.’ So I wrote around the original, and that was pretty difficult.”

Buravsky’s script blends the lives of ordinary Russians caught in the siege with the story of two foreign journalists, the British Kate Davis (played by Oscar-winning Hollywood actress Mira Sorvino) and the American Philip Parker (Gabriel Byrne).

It’s an international mix that reflects Buravsky’s research into the subject. He cited his two main sources as “The Blockade Book,” a 1981 compilation by the Soviet writers Daniil Granin and Ales Adamovich, and “The 900 Days,” an earlier work by British journalist Harrison Salisbury, the Moscow correspondent for The New York Times during much of World War II. A third source was historian Nikita Lomagin’s “The Unknown Blockade” from 2004.

The word “unknown” certainly strikes a chord with Buravsky, who admitted there was much he hadn’t known about the siege before delving into his research. Now, however, he is something of an expert.

“I could be a lecturer on the siege,” he said. “Once you start, you can’t stop. This country needs 100 feature films and maybe 500 documentaries. It’s an endless theme.”

The director remarked that many people today, especially among the younger generation, know little about it — neither general facts, like how long exactly it lasted, nor details, such as the famous metronome, the “heartbeat of life” that played on the radio during broadcasts. “If people stopped hearing it, they’d know it was the end,” Buravsky said.

Part of that historical ignorance was the result of pressure from Stalin, who, the director said, didn’t want people to remember the siege, and from the postwar crackdown in the city instigated by local party boss Andrei Zhdanov (who features prominently in the film). One can find poignant testimony to that forgetfulness in the story of the city’s Siege museum. Set up in the immediate postwar years with an ample collection that included planes and tanks, it was soon reduced to a one-room premises, before expanding again in the 1990s to the more generous space it occupies today.

Buravsky draws a political conclusion from that history. “If Russia wants to find its identity, it needs to be proud of the experience of that time, and remember it,” he said. The director acknowledged that paying close attention to the period can be grueling. Describing his own reactions to reading Granin and Adamovich’s book, he said: “You scream out of desperation. You eat a lot because you read about this hunger. It’s like you’ve swallowed a huge stone.”

On the topic of nutrition, incidentally, Buravsky noted some of the privileges enjoyed by the party elite: Documents reveal that as the general population was having its rations reduced to 150 grams of ersatz bread per day, NKVD officials were in correspondence with Moscow about how much black caviar would arrive for their Nov. 7 holidays.

One of the principal difficulties in making the film — besides funding delays — involved the challenge of working with foreign actors in the lead roles. Buravsky expects that bringing in foreign characters may prove controversial, although the experience of journalists from Allied nations (and how they were treated by the Soviet regime) is fleshed out in such sources such as Salisbury’s war memoir.

The director seemed somewhat apprehensive about how certain parties in today’s Russia would receive the result. “If you listen to the radio reports of those years, there is the sense that Russia was part of the wider European war,” Buravsky said. “Today, that approach is beginning to look different. I may be accused of selling the country’s sacred history, in the same way as some are selling its oil and gas.”

Indeed, it’s a charge that some patriots may level against a figure who certainly counts as a Westernizer on the cultural front. Born in Moscow in 1954, Buravsky became known as a playwright in the late ‘80s. He first worked in film as a co-director, with Sergei Bodrov, on the 1989 film “The Gambler.” From 1990 to 1998, he was based mainly in the United States, although his first solo feature, 1995’s “Sacred Cargo,” had a strong Russian connection.

That was followed by 1999’s “Out of the Cold,” the story of a U.S. tap dancer caught in Estonia on the eve of World War II and later engulfed in Stalin’s gulag. “Leningrad” brings back the same approach. “How will I write about it if I don’t have an outsider involved, an ignorant eye‚ like Kate? … Sometimes I feel I’m stubbornly trying to build bridges between Russia and Europe, or the West,” he said.

That gulf in perceptions is evident in the differences between the television and feature-film versions of “Leningrad.” The feature — which Buravsky insists was made for Russia and not for the international market — evoked more tension in audiences at its initial screenings than the television miniseries. Buravsky described the film as a character-driven work about the interactions between Kate and the Russians who save her, and whom, in turn, she refuses to abandon.

In contrast, the television miniseries is dominated by the “road of life,” the supply route across Lake Ladoga that was the only means of supplying the besieged city. In particular, the miniseries focuses on the critical weeks when ice disrupted boat transport but was not yet strong enough to allow vehicles to cross; that sends city authorities in frantic search of a scientist, previously suppressed by the Soviets and now stuck behind German lines, who is the only source of reliable charts on when and where deeper ice might accumulate.

Vladimir Klimov’s cinematography is equally impressive — although it raises the question, articulated at the St. Petersburg screening, as to whether it’s too glossy. “I wanted to show the color of Leningrad, not to repeat the black and white of ‘Schindler’s List,’” Buravsky said. “You can’t compete with documentary footage.”

Buravsky is ready to admit some historical mistakes. Some airplanes shown in scenes from 1941 are of a type that didn’t appear until two years later. “I couldn’t get another plane, and the important thing was to tell the story,” he said.

In the end, images may speak louder than words. The visual emblem from the titles of “Leningrad” is an icon-like painting by Leonid Chulyatov, an artist who died of hunger during the siege. Scholar Dmitry Likhachyov once called this image the most sincere expression of the spirit of the siege: It shows the Virgin Mary, arms outstretched, looking down with pain on the sufferings of the city.

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