- Moscow Believes in Tears: Russians and Their Movies
The last quarter century of Russian cinema was an exceptionally exciting one. It marked the end of Brezhnev’s “era of stagnation,” which saw the production of a number of important films—but many of these had troubled production histories and were either released to limited distribution (Larissa Shepitko’s The Ascent [Voskhozhdenie 1976]) or were banned outright (Alexander Askoldov’s The Commissar [Komissar, 1967, released [End Page 55] 1988]).The glasnost era in cinema was particularly tumultuous, as the Union of Cinematographers was restructured and assumed a leadership role in Gorbachev’s publicity campaign.
Banned films came “off the shelf,” and filmmakers challenged old norms with a newfound abandon (often, but not always, to the detriment of art). The most famous example was Vasily Pichul’s Little Vera (Malenkaia Vera, 1988). The documentary came to the forefront, as filmmakers sought to expose many of their society’s most pressing ills and, especially, Russia’s painful, largely hidden past (Semyon Aranovich, I Was Stalin’s Bodyguard [Ia sluzhil vokhrane Stalina, 1990]).
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russian cinema faced the greatest challenges in its 83-year history, as state funding dried up and private investment, domestic or foreign, was essentially unavailable due to the precipitous decline of the economy. Few films were produced, and foreign films, mainly third-rate American pictures, flooded the market. Most Soviet films made were dross, with the notable exception of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem, 1994), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture in 1995. By the turn of the millennium, however, state funding was restored and a few private studios had formed, sparking a renaissance in Russia cinema. Alexander Sokurov’s The Russian Ark (Russkii kochveg, 2002) is the example best known in the West.
Moscow Believes in Tears is a compendium of Louis Menashe’s writings on film over the last 25 years, primarily for the journal Cineaste, for which he is an associate editor. The title is a riff on Vladimir Menshov’s phenomenally successful 1979 film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears [Moskva slezam ne verit]. It consists of a film journal, film reviews (both short and long), book reviews, review essays, and interviews with filmmakers that taken together provide a remarkable overview of the Soviet and now Russian film industry over three tumultuous decades. But it’s not only a film history; it’s also a tour of Russian cultural history, led by an experienced, perceptive, and passionate guide, written in sparkling, decidedly non-academic prose. The book is organized thematically, rather than chronologically by film, although the order works out to be generally chronological: “I Found It at the Movies: Kino Journal, 1991–2004,” “Close-ups on the Past” (“On Stalin and Stalinism” and “On Russian Battlefields”), “Fragments from the Russian Experience,” “Glasnost Galore: Cinema in the Soviet Twilight,” “Transitions,” “A Concluding Montage across Time and Borders,” and “Soundtracks: Interviewing the Filmmakers.”
Moscow Believes in Tears is scholarly—Menashe is Professor Emeritus of History at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University—but not objective. Menashe is not only an unabashed cinephile; he is also a Russophile who brings the devotee’s passion to everything he discusses. Through this anthology, with all its back alleys and diversions, Menashe seeks not to write a traditional history, but rather “to help us locate the place and value of Russian [End Page 56] cinema in modern times” (xxi). He does this by offering fresh readings of many of the most important Russian (and Georgian and Armenian) movies from the mid-1980s on, pictures ranging from Tengiz Abuladze’s glasnost blockbuster Repentance (Pokaianie/Monanieba, 1984) to Sergei Loznitsa’s cerebral documentary on the siege of Leningrad, The Blockade (Blokada, 2006). Menashe also reviews films that are Russian-themed, like the French director Régis Wargnier’s East-West (Est-ouest, 1999) and the Czech director Jan Sverák’s Kolya (1999).
The book is more than a collection of reviews, including most notably among the...