The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!
They’ll be settling in for most of January and February at The Screen to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov with a series of his compatriots’ film adaptations of his works.
Chekhov was born Jan. 29, 1860, in the small seaport town of Taganrog. His grandfather was a former serf who had bought his freedom. His father was a religious fanatic who owned a small grocery store but eventually went bankrupt and fled to Moscow. Chekhov worked to pay for his own education and studied medicine in Moscow, becoming a doctor. It was while he was pursuing his medical studies that he began to make a name for himself and a living for his family by publishing short stories and satirical sketches about Russian life. By the time of his death from tuberculosis at the age of 44, Chekhov had become acknowledged as one of the greatest short-story writers and playwrights of the modern era.
Celebrating Chekhov is a program of seven Russian films made over the past 50 years. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said The Screen’s director, Brent Kliewer. “It’s an opportunity to showcase one of the most adapted writers in the world. Even though he never wrote for film per se, Chekhov kind of came of age during the infancy of the medium, so it’s interesting to think how he would have approached it.”
The films treat a selection of the master’s stories and plays with varying degrees of fidelity. In the lineup are beautiful 1970 film adaptations of two of the great Chekhov plays: Yuli Karasik’s The Seagull and Andrei Konchalovsky’s superb Uncle Vanya, which Vincent Canby hailed as “an exceedingly graceful, beautifully acted production that manages to respect Chekhov as a man of his own time, as well as what I would assume to be the Soviet view of Chekhov as Russia’s saddest, gentlest, funniest and most compassionate revolutionary playwright.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Karen Shakhnazarov and Aleksandr Gornovsky’s 2009 update of the 1892 short story Ward No. 6, set in a provincial mental hospital. Shakhnazarov has relocated the story to the present day, interspersed interviews with real inmates of an asylum into the action, and framed it as a documentary, with a camera crew being shown through the premises by the hospital’s director, Dr. Khobotov (Yevgeni Stychkin). After the off-camera interviewer asks to meet Khobotov’s predecessor as director, Dr. Ragin (Vladimir Ilyin), who is now an inmate, the picture goes on to show us how things turned out that way. As Khobotov observes, the line between sanity and madness is often pretty flimsy. Although Ward No. 6 is on the bleak side, there’s a vein of human comedy that runs through much of Chekhov, and it is here that Kliewer finds the particular insight of Russian interpreters of his work.
“When you look at adaptations of Chekhov worldwide, although we’ve seen some good ones, there’s always something missing compared to adaptations that are specifically Russian, something that doesn’t hit the intangible in Chekhov,” Kliewer said. “And while there’s this very humane quality to him, and the sadness, and the longing— people caught up in their self-made prisons or class restrictions— I think what so many people miss outside of Russia is the humor. The humor that emanates out of despair. In Uncle Vanya, there are these people trying to maintain this illusion of a bygone era, and then by the end they’re crawling around on the floor. There’s something kind of funny about their desperation, and that’s what I think the Russians understand. It’s the ability to pinpoint that despair at the moment of utmost desperation that is where the humanity reveals itself.”
Not all Russian directors have been in sympathy with the underlying impulse of comedy beneath Chekhov’s plays. Constantin Stanislavsky, the co-founder and impresario of the Moscow Art Theatre, who staged Chekhov’s plays and established his reputation as a dramatist, wrangled with the playwright over their tone and intent. When Chekhov was finishing Three Sisters, he wrote to Stanislavsky’s wife, “It hasn’t turned out a drama, but as a comedy, in places even a farce.” The great director begged to differ: “This is not a comedy, nor a farce as you have written, this is a tragedy, whatever escape toward a better life you open up in the last act. ... I wept like a woman, I wanted to control myself but I couldn’t. I hear what you say: ‘ Look you must realize this is a farce’ ... no, for simple men this is a tragedy. I feel a special tenderness and love for this play.”
Their argument continued. After The Cherry Orchard opened, Chekhov was beside himself. “Stanislavsky has ruined my play,” he fumed. “Why do they so obstinately call my play a ‘ drama’ in play-bills and newspaper advertisements? What Nemirovich [theater director/producer Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko] and Stanislavsky see in my play definitely isn’t what I wrote and I’m ready to swear by anything you like that neither of them has read through my play carefully even once. I’m sorry to say so, but I assure you I’m right.” In his memoirs, Stanislavsky commented, “What shocked him most of all and what he could not reconcile himself to was that his Three Sisters and, later, The Cherry Orchard were perceived as heavy dramas about Russian life. He was sincerely convinced that he wrote cheerful comedy, almost vaudeville.”
A hundred and fifty years later, the Chekhov-Stanislavsky squabble is still going on, played out in the profusion of stage and screen presentations and adaptations of Chekhov’s work around the world. In this lineup of Russian films, Santa Fe audiences will have a chance to see a range of Soviet and post-Soviet interpretations, from Iosif Kheifits’ 1960 gem The Lady With the Dog, a poignant romance that begins in Yalta and ends in heartbreak, to Ward No. 6, Russia’s official submission for consideration in the Foreign Language Film category of this year’s Academy Awards. The program has been assembled by Seagull Films, an outfit formed in 1999 to improve distribution of Russian cinema to North America. Santa Fe is one of only five cities in the U.S. playing host to this series. So see the films and laugh with Chekhov, or weep with Stanislavsky.
Aleksey Vertkov, left, and Vladimir Ilyin in
Ward No. 6 (2009)
Alla Demidova in