Tag Archives: B

MEETING GORBACHEV

Producer: Lucki Stipetic and Svetlana Palmer
Director: Werner Herzog and Andre Singer
Writer: Werner Herzog and Andre Singer
Stars: Mikhail Gorbachev, Werner Herzog, Miklos Nemeth, George Shultz, James Baker III, Lech Walesa and Horst Teltschik
Studio: 1091 Films

B

Wim Wenders interviewed an idol of his, Pope Francis, for a feature-length documentary, and now the equally idiosyncratic Werner Herzog does the same for one of his, Mikhail Gorbachev. The result borders on hagiography, but it does offer a decent if one-dimensional biographical sketch of a man who firmly believed in communism, yet inadvertently helped bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Herzog mentions that he and the eighty-seven-year old Gorbachev met three times for interviews over the course of six months, and he splices bits and pieces of those conversations into what is basically a conventional sketch of the ex-Soviet leader’s life, from his childhood through his education and rise in party circles to his assumption of the leadership of the USSR in 1985 after the death of his mentor Yuri Andropov and his short-lived successor Chernenko, the last of the old guard.

Herzog himself narrates the biographical material against a backdrop of archival footage and stills, with Gorbachev occasionally interjecting recollections in response to questions. Gorbachev’s comments become somewhat longer as he discusses his tenure through the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991—an event he still remembers ruefully, thinking that giving greater autonomy to the member republics could have saved the confederation, along with its communist foundation.

But what Herzog really lauds Gorbachev for is his embrace of reform—of perestroika and glasnost, which led him to admit publicly the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986—and his refusal to use force to prop up the communist regimes in eastern Europe that collapsed in the last years of the decade. Poland’s Lech Walesa is shown in an interview dismissing Gorbachev’s view that the communist system could be reformed rather than simply abandoned, but other ex-officials, like former Hungarian minister Miklós Németh, praise his allowing the democratic uprisings to succeed, even withdrawing Soviet troops in response to them. Herzog and German interviewees like Horst Teltschik, who served under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, are especially eloquent in lauding not only Gorbachev’s hands-off policy in East Germany, but his willingness not to object to German reunification, which was accomplished remarkably swiftly and peacefully.

The other aspect of Gorbachev’s international policy that Herzog emphasizes is his effort to reduce, and eventually eliminate, nuclear weapons. As the film notes, he found an unlikely ally in that project in President Ronald Reagan, and clips from interviews with such American officials as George Shultz and James Baker support Gorbachev’s own recollections. (By contrast, Margaret Thatcher, with whom he otherwise enjoyed a cordial relationship, is shown expressing the view that getting rid of nuclear weapons would instigate conventional wars.) The present-day interview segments demonstrate that Gorbachev still holds strong views about eliminating nuclear weapons, observing sadly that his own country has undertaken to modernize its nuclear arsenal rather than destroying it.

The portrait of the elderly Gorbachev that Herzog draws at the close is of a lonely man whose loss of his wife Raisa affected him deeply; his own countrymen, moreover, now show as little respect for him as did the Kremlin enemies who tried to depose him in 1991 in the coup that the intervention of Boris Yeltsin, an erstwhile ally turned rival, reversed. But it was Yeltsin who then demanded the dismantling of the USSR and the end of the communist party, and the pained expression on Gorbachev’s face in official footage as government underlings tried to memorialize his humiliation in signing the documents of dissolution on film is read by the almost fawning Herzog as a final refusal to surrender his dignity even under duress.

Herzog occasionally interjects some mordant humor into the film, as in a montage of the end of the dinosaurs who headed the Politburo before Gorbachev’s ascent in 1985—from the last years of the feeble, forgetful Brezhnev through Andropov and Chernenko, whose almost constant hospitalization was camouflaged by staged “working sessions” with his staff. More characteristic, however, is the sequence in which Herzog presents his subject with a gift—a box of specially-made sugar-free chocolates that the diabetic Gorbachev will be able to eat. It proves a fitting culmination to a gentle, respectful tribute to a man whom Herzog obviously considers among the wisest, most consequential world leaders of the late twentieth century, and one who does not receive the acclaim he deserves.

Whether you agree with that assessment or not, “Meeting Gorbachev” offers the opportunity to see the man explaining himself before the bar of history within the context of an able, if selective, portrait of his career.

THE WHITE CROW

Producer: Gabrielle Tana, Ralph Fiennes, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Andrew Levitas and Francois Ivernel
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Writer: David Hare
Stars: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphaël Peronnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Aleksey Morozov, Sergei Polunin, Anna Urban, Louis Hoffman, Olivier Rabourdin and Maksimilian Grigoriyev
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

B

We’re informed at the start of Ralph Fiennes’s “The White Crow” that the title refers to a Russian phrase identifying an extraordinary person, the equivalent of a rara avis. That certainly applies to famed Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, whose early life—up to his defection to the West in 1961—is the subject of this elegant, cultivated film.

The screenplay, by playwright-filmmaker David Hare, who mined Julie Kavanagh’s biography for details, begins and ends fairly conventionally: it starts with Nureyev’s birth on a train in Siberia in 1938, and closes, except for a postscript, with a dramatic account of his defection at a Paris airport at the close of the first stage of his troupe’s Western tour when he was a rising star at twenty-three. But the story bookended by these segments jumps back and forward in time, creating a shifting narrative mosaic.

In some respects that’s frustrating for a viewer, who has to accommodate himself to the changing chronology. But it also has a positive aspect in that it brings tension to the Fiennes’s telling of the tale, even as he lays out the scenes in a largely deliberate, subdued manner. The result from the perspective of narrative momentum is a mixed bag, with the pluses marginally outweighing the minuses.

Energy, meanwhile, is added to the mix by Oleg Ivenko, the young Ukrainian dancer chosen to play Nureyev as a young man. Ivenko might not exude the degree of personal charisma the real Nureyev did, but despite a lack of acting experience, he boasts a compelling screen presence, and pulls off his big dramatic moments reasonably well. He also has the great virtue of being a thoroughly capable dancer, so that cinematographer Mike Eley and editor Barney Pilling can present the rehearsal and performance sequences showing him in full figure, without the need to use cutaway shots, body doubles, or sudden shifts from torso to moving feet. We’re allowed to watch him without obtrusive—and inevitably unsuccessful—camera tricks, and appreciate the grace, fluidity and excitement of his movements.

As Hare and Fiennes build up the mosaic, they offer glimpses of Nureyev’s childhood as a solitary youth not interested in horseplay with the other village children (Maksimilian Grigoriyev plays him at eight) but fascinated by ballet, and then go on to other biographical episodes: his acceptance at the ballet school of Leningrad’s Mariinsky Ballet, where, dissatisfied with his first teacher, he was accepted into the class of Alexander Puskin (Fiennes, speaking Russian with quiet authority); his move into Pushkin’s home, where the teacher’s wife Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) romanced him under her husband’s eyes (Pushkin stoically accepting what was happening); his resistance to being sent from Leningrad to Ufa, and his rescue by ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya (Anna Urban), who chose him as her partner at the Kirov; and the company’s trip to Paris, where they were under the close watch of their minder Strizhevsky (Aleksey Morozov), who took notice from the start of Nureyev’s tendency to wander off by himself to visit museums and fraternize freely with westerners.

Chief among those are French dancer Pierre Lacotte (Raphaël Personnaz) and his friend Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchpoulos), the fiancée of Vincent Malraux (son of the French Minister of Culture) whom Nureyev befriended after Vincent’s sudden death in a car accident. But though it doesn’t overemphasize it, the film also notes Nureyev’s expansive notions about sexuality, portraying his intimate friendship back home with German dancer Teja Kremke (Louis Hofmann) and his closeness on tour with his roommate Yuri Soloviev (Sergei Polunin).

In Fiennes’s recreation of Nureyev’s defection, Lacotte and Saint play important roles. Nureyev is preparing to depart for London with the troupe when Strizhevsky abruptly informs him that he is being returned to Moscow to appear in a special gala for Premier Khrushchev. Realizing what’s happening, Nureyev objects and asks Lacotte for help; he is, in turn, instrumental in enlisting Saint, who contacts the airport police, headed by Gregory Alexinsky (Olivier Rabourdin), for assistance, which proves decisive when Strizhevsky tries to intervene physically and then issues not-so-veiled threats as Nureyev ponders his ultimate decision.

One intriguing historical point not alluded to in the film, found in Diane Solway’s 1998 biography of Nureyev, is that Alexinsky, a Russian émigré whose family had suffered in the Soviet Union, facilitated the dancer’s defection even more than as depicted by Fiennes. But the staging of the confrontation is certainly in line with today’s general agreement that the defection was not a pre-planned act on Nureyev’s part, but a sudden decision prompted not so much by political considerations and a generalized love of freedom as by his determination to seek an international career without interference.

Whatever misgivings one might harbor about the structural choices Hare and Fiennes made with “The White Crow,” the end result is a film that is mostly successful in conveying the challenges of Nureyev’s early life, his unfettered determination to excel, and his uniqueness as a person and a dancer. The highest compliment one can pay to it is that it leaves one wanting to check out the films of his actual on-stage performances, which remain astonishing records of his consummate artistry.