by Allan Fish
(USSR 1965 189m) DVD0 (Russia only)
Aka. Mne dvadtsat let
Stand up, damned of the earth!
p Viktor Freilich d Marlen Khutsiyev w Gennadi Shpalikov, Marlen Khutsiyev ph Margarita Pilikhina
Valentin Popov (Sergei Zhuravlyov), Nikolai Gubenko (Nikolai Fokin), Stanislav Lyubshin (Slava Kostikov), Marianna Vertinskaya (Anya), Zinaida Zinovyeva (Olga Mikhailovna Zhuravlyova), Svetlana Starikova (Vera Zhuravlyova), Lev Prygunov (2nd Lt. Aleksandr Zhuravlyov), Lev Zolothukin (Anya’s father), Aleksandr Blinov (Kuzmich), T.Bogdanova (Lyusya Kostikova), Gennadi Nekrasov (Vladimir Vasilyevich),
There is no better barometer of the cold winds of change that swept through Soviet Russia in the years 1959-1965 than Marlen Khutsiyev’s I am Twenty. It’s a film that should be remembered with the best of Soviet films of the period, but by the time it was ready for release, a deep freeze had set in. From the mid-late fifties, after the death of Stalin, Russia moved to a less extreme position with regards to the arts under Nikita Khrushchev, allowing such films as Kozintsev’s Don Quixote, Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying, Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier, Bondarchuk’s Destiny of a Man and Heifits’ The Lady With the Little Dog to play successfully at western film festivals. It was in 1959, at the height of this period, that Khutsiyev’s masterpiece entered its gestatory stages.
Sadly, the film’s production rolled on and on, an originally planned 90 minute movie expanded to over three hours, constant delays in production, so that while the majority of filming was completed by early 1962, it wasn’t deemed ready for release until 1965. Worse still, the Bay of Pigs affair had led to a deep frost in relations between the Soviet Union and the west. Khutsiyev’s film could not have emerged at a worse time. It was banned, then given the go-ahead but only with the film butchered, in one of many ironies, down to 90 minutes. It passed by almost unnoticed and wasn’t really heard of until the final Glasnost amnesty of the late eighties when it was released from captivity, like so many other Soviet classics of the 1960s and 70s.
What emerged was one of the greatest Soviet films of its period. It would prove remarkable in many ways, not least in the fact that its artistic debts were so western. The link to the French nouvelle vague was obvious – and would be enhanced even more in the Godardian July Rain made by the director straight after. Yet there were other branches to the ancestry, to Fellini’s I Vitelloni and to the British new wave and the kitchen sink films in particular (a sort of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Comrade!). This can’t be too surprising when one considers the lengthy production, European cinema having been turned on its head since 1959 by Antonioni, Fellini, Resnais, Godard, et al.
Several scenes stand out in the memory. Take the opening sequence which plays out over the credits. Three soldiers come slowly towards the camera to the strains of ‘The Internationale’. They briefly turn their heads back over their shoulders to look at the camera, before walking away. It’s a scene that deliberately evokes the young recruits in All Quiet on the Western Front. Their departure dissolves into another three people coming towards the camera, before a huge sweeping crane shot (worthy of Welles or Ophuls) follows various people up to a higher street in Moscow’s Ilyich’s Gate district. The other is a scene in which a daughter squares up to her father about not wanting to live with her boyfriend in her father’s flat. The father bemoans that “I don’t believe in people who are too witty at such a young age.” It’s a quote that recalls Khrushchev’s own feelings on the film in 1963, “that young people ought to decide for themselves how to live, without asking their elders for counsel.” Now it’s finally available for viewing, don’t be put off by the length, for it’s one of the great films about a young generation trying to avoid a terrible future in a state where they are expected to pay lip-service to their elders but not necessarily betters, going with the flow and wearing out one’s days. Little wonder one of the last shots is of soldiers in Red Square stopping at Lenin’s tomb. The dream of 1917 was dead.