Author! Author!: German Jr. Tackles a Week in the Life of a Dissident Writer
While it’s Alexey German Jr.’s (son of the equally idiosyncratic Alexey German) most straightforward title to date, Dovlatov, which relays six days in the life of celebrated Russian writer Sergei Dovlatov in early 1970s Leningrad, it’s also his least daring. Coming off his celebrated Under Electric Clouds (2015) a dense, majestic allegorical achievement, his latest is as equally technically assured (this time thanks to Polish DP Lukasz Zal of Ida and Loving Vincent) but a bit monotonously obsessed with self-reflexivity and Russia’s formidable literary legacy.
Even as it presents a portrait of an artist as a young man, there’s nothing quite exceptional about these particular six days other than capturing a certain period of ambitious and talented young writers attempting to mobilize against the communist party’s censorship dictates and a supply and demand revolving solely around propaganda (although perhaps it’s merely the point of revisiting this period which sets up an automatic comparison to what has or, more likely, has not changed in how creative expression is maligned in modern day Russia).
In November, 1971, struggling author Sergei Dovlatov (Milan Maric) hopes to make it into the Writers Guild, a distinction which has eluded him since he hasn’t been allowed to publish any of his prose or poetry. Instead, like most of his peers, he desperately resorts to writing demeaning pieces of idealistic propaganda demanded by the conservative rule of Brezhnev. As the country gears to celebrate another anniversary of the revolution, cultural and creative progress has slid into stagnation. As he navigates a troubled relationship with his estranged wife (Helena Sujecka) and daughter (Eva Gurr), Dovlatov tries to focus on the disturbing profundities inspiring him to write instead of the superficial banalities he must pen in order to earn money.
Providing a generous overview of Russia’s literary giants, the ghosts of whom are resurrected by a band of actors in one extended sequence where Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc., are acted out for a propaganda film produced by the magazine factory sometimes employing Dovlatov, German’s whirlwind through the canon isn’t terribly unlike Woody Allen’s romp through period figures in his Midnight in Paris (2011), although obviously sans any sense of drollness. Others are name-dropped in various exchanges, from Sholokhov to Yevtushenko (the banned Nabokov provides the basis for an entertaining tangent), while Americans Steinbeck and Faulkner are prominent commodities as well. However, Dovlatov is most assuredly as Russian affair, and German often employs flourishes uses by his father whereby extended tracking shots in crowded, cramped interiors find characters talking over one another or interacting in conversations which have incredibly awkward or even nonsensical transitions.
Zal’s cinematography presents a Russia as one would imagine from a faded yellow paperback epic and is perhaps the most celebratory aspect of the film. Lead actor Milan Maric displays a limited range as the increasingly embittered author, usually pouting about his lack of ability to get published rather than actually writing. German insinuates some pointed commentary on the ridiculous restraints and even more embarrassing assignments these writers struggled to obtain (some subtle innuendo involving a urologist who wants to co-author a sprawling Greek epic with Dovlatov is perhaps the film’s edgiest moment).
The second half of the film highlights his friendship with the noted Joseph Brodsky (Artur Beschastny) and the struggle to stay true to himself or sell out—as a striving actress friend of his so succinctly relays, it’s difficult to keep one’s integrity when you’re a nobody. More a portrait of a period of increasing conservative ideologies than a justifiable biopic of a determined writer (who would emigrate to the US eight years later and only see his work published in a Russia a year before his death at the age of 48 in 1990), Dovlatov proves German Jr.’s ability to present something more digestible and straightforward. However, this also proves to be less exciting or revelatory.
Reviewed on February 17th at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. Competition. 126 Mins.