Alexei German Jr. on Dovlatov: “He was a sex symbol, Elvis Presley, a legend”

As his not-quite-biopic of the underground Soviet poet is released on Netflix, we talk to the uncompromising Russian director about the truth in dreams, life under Brezhnev and why he has an aversion to movies that play politics.

Jonathan Romney

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Milan Maric as the titular Dovlatov

Milan Maric as the titular Dovlatov

Alexei German Jr. is not yet a household name among cinephiles although, five features into his career, it’s clear that he’s a filmmaker of striking vision and ambition. He’s not to be confused with his father, the late Alexei German, whose own films – including My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Khroustaliev, My Car! – are still too little known worldwide. But Alexei Jr. shares his father’s predilection for uncompromising style, and indeed his visionary edge. His recent work includes Paper Soldier (2008), a somewhat Antonioni-esque evocation of the Soviet space programme, and a futuristic, dream-like take on Russia’s present, Under Electric Clouds (2015).

He has now made his most visible film to date, Dovlatov, which played in competition in Berlin in February, winning a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution. It can be seen on Netflix from 26 October, while in Russia it was released in March by Disney/Sony, with 300,000 admissions over its initial four-day release.

The film’s prominence there is in no small part to do with its subject – Sergei Dovlatov (1941-90), a writer little known outside Russia, and never published in the Soviet Union in his lifetime, but who became extremely popular with Russian readers after his death, having migrated to the US in 1979.

German’s film isn’t a biopic, but a loosely structured, sometimes dreamlike evocation of the underground of writerly, artistic bohemia in Leningrad in the early 70s, a period when intellectuals, including Dovlatov’s friend and fellow émigré writer Joseph Brodsky, were experiencing the Brezhnev-era reaction to the thaw of the Krushchev years. The film is not so much a portrait of its hero – wittily played though he is by Serbian actor Milan Maric – more a wide-ranging, sometimes impressionistic depiction of (as Michael Pattison put it in his S&S first-look festival review) “a world whose default mode is melancholy”. I talked to Alexei German Jr. in Berlin in Feburary, after his film premiered.

Dovlatov (2018)

Dovlatov isn’t a familiar figure in the West, but a very popular one in Russia. Why is he significant?

In Russia, he became known only after his death. He had a rather better fortune in the States because he was published there, and appeared in the New Yorker, and was praised by Kurt Vonnegut. But then he became one of the most famous Russian writers of the last quarter of the 20th century. He’ll always be less known in the West, because some of the words he uses are barely translatable into English, and the American/Anglo-Saxon way of thinking is not suitable for understanding Dovlatov as we understand him in Russian.

The film gives us a sense of his problems writing and getting published – but we don’t get a sense of what his writing is actually like.

It was a decision to keep that a mystery, because it wouldn’t be possible to explain everything about his writing. There are some cultural layers that will be understandable only to Russians. The film is much more serious, much more tragic than his prose.

Is that why you made film about Dovlatov rather than about someone who might connect more easily with Western viewers, such as Brodsky?

There was already a film about Brodsky [Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s 2009 Room and a Half]. Of course, Brodsky is a poet and a hero, but Dovlatov is a much more complex figure. He’s brave, but at the same time not so brave, he was loved by women but at the same time he loved his family very much, he was just more witty. He doesn’t exactly look Russian, either: he’s half Jewish, half Armenian. He was a sex symbol; he was Elvis Presley, a legend. We don’t have many legends like that. A lot of people have Dovlatov tattoos – on their faces, arms, everywhere.

Dovlatov (2018)

It’s appropriate that Dovlatov ended up in New York. The world you depict – Leningrad in the early 70s – seems very close to New York’s bohemia of ten years earlier, in terms of people’s belief in art and writing.

It was a time of extreme togetherness, a time when people, artists, writers wanted to make real literature. It was a very romantic time. Even though everyone quarrelled with each other, they were extremely united.

The Leningrad of the 70s and 80s is not the same as the Petersburg of the 90s. Back then, there were many more talents, many more people who wanted to make literature and art. The emigration started with Dovlatov and Brodsky, but in the 90s it became very serious – a lot of the intelligentsia left for the States, Israel, Germany, and almost no one came back. And with the gradual decay of culture and education, that huge respect for Russian art, and the love of the avant-garde, started to disappear, the same as the city. Nowadays the city is absolutely different; it’s a city of skyscrapers in the European style.

There are a number of dreams in the film, which feel very characterististic of a Russian literary tradition.

It was important for me to say through Dovlatov’s dreams what I couldn’t say otherwise. For example, I couldn’t say a lot about his time as a prison guard, or his desire to be close to power. I didn’t want to make a biopic, so I just fragmented everything I couldn’t say and put it into the dreams, and compressed it into a few days.

Dovlatov is the centre of the film, but more a recording consciousness than a traditional hero. You give us a lot to see and hear, a very busy world with a lot of people on screen, and he plays our guide to it.

It’s not a film about Dovlatov, it’s about that generation in general. I wanted to capture the real life and the energy of that time.

Dovlatov (2018)

What’s remarkable is that the people in the film don’t have 21st-century faces – they all seem to belong to the Soviet Union of that time.

We were gathering faces from different countries and different cities. We had a whole room with photos of all the people who appear on screen, and we spent four months just mixing the photos, looking to see whether a particular person could be on screen at a given time. We even had someone flying in from Khabarovsk, on the border with China, and they’d say two or three phrases, just to show whether they had the face of that time – and if we didn’t like their face, we wouldn’t have them in the cinema.

You have a very different style from your father, but you do have some things in common – notably the way you work in three dimensions, with complex action, complex camera moves, the way you explore space and sound.

I can’t watch those festival movies were everyone is silent, then they sit around eating for ages, then they suffer because something terrible happens, then they’re silent again, then there’s a rape scene… It’s just boring.

Movies aren’t politics. Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini aren’t about politics, they’re about soul. Now nearly all movies are about politics, they’re always supporting someone, protecting someone, and that’s fine, but cinema’s about more than that. It’s art.

The historical moment you deal with in Dovlatov, and the status of writers in the Soviet Union – is that something that’s still remembered? If you show this film to young people in Russia, can they recognise it?

Dovlatov (2018)

The current generation doesn’t know anything. They’re the generation of stability, of normality – in big cities they all have their mobiles and everything. They don’t understand the Soviet Union, they don’t know when Lenin died or who Trotsky was, and for them the 19th and 20th centuries in Russian culture and history are virtually the same thing. They’d find this film hard to understand, because they don’t understand the era.

Is that amnesia something that the current regime encourages? It’s useful to have people not understand the past because then they won’t understand the present.

I wouldn’t put it that way exactly, but in a way you’re right. There have been two news items about our film every day on the biggest Russian TV channel – yesterday they talked about it as a film about censorship in the Soviet Union. So the film isn’t being silenced. I don’t see a desire to forget this epoch – there are monuments to Dovlatov and Brodsky all over Russia.

Conversely, there are people who don’t like Dovlatov because he emigrated to the US. There were influential people – I won’t say who – who didn’t want the film to be made, because they felt it was not patriotic enough, not positive enough.

But we were supported by [Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir] Medinsky, [head of the Russian Cinematograhers’ Union Nikita] Mikhalkov and [CEO of Channel One Russia Konstantin] Ernst. They are the people with power in Russian culture, and they supported the film – and when I tell people, no one believes me. Maybe it would be more useful if I said that I was suppressed, that I was facing a jail sentence in the near future – but the reality is that we were supported by influential people.

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