SUKHORUKOV, THE STAR OF HAPPY DAYS AND OTHER ALEXEI BALABANOV FILMS
ON HIS WORK WITH ALEXEI BALABANOV
He is the most complex type of a natural phenomenon: an explosive mixture
of childishness with cynicism, stubbornness with naiveté, worrying
and indifference. He has a good house and his beautiful kids are running
around. He keeps losing his scarves, hats, gloves, and smashing his
elbows when he falls off his bicycle.
He loves his job and he loves himself doing it. For serving the art
of cinema, he is awarded with loneliness, reclusiveness, unsociability,
emotional scantiness and a noticeable lack of attention to people around
him. He is an egotist. A smile on his face is a rarity. I have never
seen tears in his eyes. He seldom complains about his destiny, but he
is not often happy either and he doesn't share his success even with
those who were involved.
He is not a man of many words. Sometimes he literally shows the right
intonation to actors and on other occasions he shows it by gesturing
like in sign language. He makes me think and work hard to understand
him. It's good training for me, a sort of exercise for the intuition.
If he is dissatisfied with something, he can be on a short fuse. I am
ready for it and take it easy. I forgive him for this, because while
working, he can listen to you. He cannot swear at all. To be exact,
he swears but in a clumsy way. And not too often. He is more likely
to say out loud: "Cut! Filming is over!" and then go round the corner
and say: "Bloody bastard, ruined the shot!"
It's pointless to wait for him to praise you. When he is pleased he
rubs one hand against the other and inclines his head to the left, then
to the right looking at the world diagonally. It's the first sign.
He has his own fantasies and an arsenal of means which he employs to
get the best out of an actor. For example, a provocation. While working
on Happy Days, he made me wear shoes half a size smaller, very tight.
We were filming in winter, in a cemetery - my legs were frost-bitten.
I told him "My legs are freezing". Said he: "It's alright, try to put
up with it." Later it turned out to have been done on purpose - he wanted
my suffering to come out in the expression of my eyes.
Balabanov of Happy Days and Balabanov today are two different people.
He got upset with me for calling him a 'hedgehog' in one of my old interviews.
But he did look like a hedgehog in those days. His eyes were those of
a frightened child. He was modest and kept looking around him nervously.
Now he is different. He's grown long hair though he has lost some on
the crown of his head. Most importantly, he has changed inside. He has
started holding his shoulders back and gained confidence. He says: "I
don't need actors to play, I need them to be present". At first he was
shaving off my theatricality. Then I got used to him and began to feel
what he wants better. When making Of Freaks and Men, I felt there were
not enough emotions, I wanted either to burst into laughter or smack
my lips. Once I was brave enough to tell him: "Let me add a bit of fire
here". He said: "No". He keeps putting the fire out in me, all the time.
Despite all this I am glad I have been an object of his creative work.
Every actor dreams of coming across a director he could call 'mine'.
I know, he will never let me down, make me feel ashamed or do anything
bad to me. He can behave in a strange way and can be complicated or
even pretentious and over-elaborate with me. But he never does anything
Alright, I am just an actor while his films are shown around the world
and were selected for Cannes three times... But he never was arrogant
with me, I just didn't let him. Perhaps, he is a little afraid of me
- I don't know.
... It's hard and interesting for me to work with him; and I trust him.
As long as Balabanov keeps calling me into the world of the art of cinema,
I am ready to answer and work with him. I will live with a hope of success.
And of course, I won't betray him. And should he dig out another 'sukhorukov'
and I, with my bald head, be left behind - I will be upset but not offended.
from Seance, film journal, St. Petersburg
Independent on Sunday
Wally Hammond writes in TIME OUT:
feature from festival discovery Alexei Balabanov could be described
as a purgatorial allegory - whether for man or Russia, it's hard to
say. As idiosyncratic as his later and soon-to-be-released 'Of Freaks
and Men', it takes its inspiration from Samuel Beckett. A character
named Peter, Sergei or even possibly Boris (Viktor Sukhorukov), his
head wrapped in bandages since his release from hospital (this earth?)
roams the decaying flats, cellars and cemeteries bordering St Petersbug's
Winter Palace square, in search of somewhere to stay.
made a faithful version of 'The Castle' in 1994, and that has left a
greater mark: here he conjures up a world of Kafkaesque hostility and
minatory mystery where only a blind man with a donkey and a fallen aristocratic
woman offer the protagonist any amicable communicative signs. Could
these be ironic reminders of the balms of religion or the lost certainties
of the old social order? For sure, if his wanderings through these remains,
relics and ruins are through a modern Russia, it must be some kind of
employs black and white most expressively, whether in exquisite gliding
crane shots swooping you up from decrepit cellar arches to discover
the grand snowy vista of the palace square, or in claustrophobically
framed dark interiors, where the camera will often alight and pause,
affectingly, on an object - a dancing-ballerina jewel box - before moving
on. Similarly, his mood effects are emphasised by canny use of discordant,
non-naturalistic sound and old 78 records. This is an extraordinarily
well realised doom-lover's playground, the oneiric existential gloom
making way only for Svankmajer-like surrealism. Ontology, anyone?
Quirke writes in THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY:
and memorable, the film has lines which are weirdly reminiscent of sketches
from Beyond the Fringe. He: "Give me a potty!" She:
"I don't have a potty. But I have a chair with a hole in it"
on 'HAPPY DAYS' and 'BROTHER' from NIGHT WAVES, BBC3
The film is shot in gritty black and white for all the world like a
low-budget film but the highly stylised soundtrack and a quite remarkable
camera work - one single long take starts at ground level, rises above
roof tops and descends to street level on the other side - give it away
as a film that must have had reasonably serious budget.
who doesn't remember his own name and is given several by other characters
as the film progresses, has suffered a head injury. The film begins
as he is about to be discharged from hospital into a strange, cold and
rather nightmarish city. I could continue with the plot but it might
be more useful to tell you that the film is subtitled 'Inspired by the
works of Samuel Beckett'. So the plot isn't very much help. It's less
of a story line and more of a string of episodes with recurring character,
who include a child who might or might not be the protagonist's son,
a spitting dwarf, a donkey, a prostitute and, why not? - a hedgehog.
Beumers teaches Russian at Bristol University and is an expert on the
work of Alexei Balabanov. Birgit, this is Beckett, if you like without
the humour, is it not? It's a very grim film about futility of life
and the meaninglessness of relationships that appeared just as the Soviet
Union was collapsing. How was it received? Was it read as a political
metaphor in any way?
Beumers: Yes, that's right, it was produced at a time when the Soviet
Union was collapsing and with it also the film industry and the structures
that had supported filmmakers for such a long time and had in fact always
given filmmakers the role of missionaries, of prophets who would inspire
moral and educational values in the population.
film does in retrospect - it gives us a great many clues to the work
of Alexei Balabanov and his contemporary work: the two last films that
he has made. That is Of Freaks and Men and Brother.
As you say he went on to make other films, and particularly Brother,
which became a huge success in Russia and was also very well noticed
and well received in the West: prizes at film festivals and so on. But
it's very different, is it not?
Yes, it is very different and yet again it is very much an echo of the
images, the place and the time that we find in Happy Days. It is striking
to see the similarity of locations such as the cemetery, the empty tram
in a film that is about the meaninglessness of life and that is associated
with the work of Samuel Beckett, and to find these images, these places
again in a film which became a cult film in Russia, to find them in
a film which is set very clearly in contemporary St. Petersburg, in
a film which deals with a life of a killer. I think the connection between
the two films lies in Balabanov's concern with meaninglessness, with
absences, with the emptiness of the life of the hero from Happy Days
as well as the emptiness in the life of a young boy who moves from a
provincial city to St. Petersburg and becomes a killer.
Presenter: Is he unusual in that sense? You mentioned the question of
moral purpose of previous generations of Russian filmmakers. He was
criticised for not taking a more positive / negative stand about the
killer in Brother. Is his generation like that or is he unusual in his
Balabanov is very unusual in that disengagement that he shows with the
themes that he chooses for his films, that he does not only portray
the emptiness, the meaninglessness, but he leaves it at that. He frames
it but he doesn't offer a solution. He frames it very skilfully, but
he always moves the frame slightly so that whatever grid you place over
one film or over a series of films, there is always one thing that doesn't
quite fit in. And I think that is exactly what Balabanov's role in contemporary
Russian filmmaking is. That is that bit which always sticks out, which
doesn't fit in.
Where do you see him in the tradition of the Russian filmmaking?
I would see him as somebody who uses certain traditions and conventions
of cinematography, but world cinematography rather than typically Russian
or Soviet cinematography. I see him as a front runner of some new developments
in contemporary Russian cinema.
And given the collapse of the Russian state, is it possible for a filmmaker
like Balabanov to work in his own country? I noticed that the sequel
to Brother is being made in the United States, which might be a function
of the plot, but might also have something to do with what has happened
to the industry.
That's a very tricky question. The film industry suffered greatly after
the economic crisis in August 1998, but to everybody's great surprise
films are still being made. And the fact that Balabanov is shooting
Brother-2 in a co-production with the United States is very much an
achievement of the producer he is working with and that is Sergei Selyanov.