Post by Anna Fomicheva
As Mosfilm have been kindly putting their collection up online, making it available for free either on their website or on their YouTube channel, it wouldn’t make much sense for me to pass it by – especially when a decent proportion of that collection has been subtitled for English speakers. Thus, as of this post I am starting a new feature on this blog, where I will pick a film out of the available subtitled material, link to it and do a little write-up, inviting everyone to watch it and discuss it. (This feature is categorised on this blog as Mosfilm Collection). It is unlikely that I will go through all of the subtitled films on Mosfilm website, as I don’t think all of them are equally worthy of attention. Nonetheless, if anyone ever feels like they want to see a particular film reviewed and discussed, do not hesitate for a second and request a post on it — I would be delighted to respond, as I’m always only too happy to reconsider my criteria for ‘worthiness’.
And so, to my first pick. Nine Days of One Year (“9 дней одного года”, 1962) was a huge hit when it came out, and was voted ‘Film of the year’ by the readers of ‘Soviet Screen’ magazine (Советский экран – the biggest available medium for Soviet citizens to officially express their cinematic tastes). And it isn’t hard to see why. Today, the film stands as one of the monuments of its time, capturing some of the key moods, ideas and aesthetic values of the Thaw. Everything about it must have looked like the coolest thing out there to its first audiences. And here are the reasons why:
There’s the subject matter, of course. The film tells a story of a group of nuclear phycisists working on the edge of scientific developments. These are almost god-like people, who live – and sometimes die – for science, and ultimately for the good of the common folk who will reap the benefits of their work. Or will they? Will the scientific discoveries be used for warfare and for the destruction of the planet? These of course are huge concerns in the age of ‘the bomb’ and the fact that these god-like scientists debate the moral repercussions of their actions make them seem even more god-like. Importantly, however, the debates they have in this film touch, even if only slightly, on the very basics of moral philosophy and are as relevant today as they ever were.
The central group of characters form a love triangle. But as they are not just ordinary mortals in the final analysis their personal tribulations come second to their scientific work, thus making their attitudes to love and marriage look relatively progressive for the time. It is however a very male film, and the central lady, despite her ability for rigorous self-analysis, is only really there to give weight to the male scientists. Interestingly, because of that, she is the only character with a visible development arc, as in the end she comes to prioritise scientific over personal matters. But this arc is there to underline the all-along consistency of attitudes of the male leads. This is my take on it – see if you agree.
The interpretations of the characters’ motivations and developments, when it comes to personal, ‘human’ matters are rather open, and this is because the film leaves them pretty vague despite giving them a lot of screen time. I would suggest, however, that this is because the film is best approached as a large-scale canvas of mythology-like proportions. It makes big and complex statements about its time, as well as about science, morality and morality of science, and is best appreciated from that angle.
Another perspective it should be appreciated from is the visual, as this is one more reason it must have looked really cool and exciting to its first audiences. One of the notable characteristics of the Thaw period is the ‘return’ of the 1920s. It manifested itself in the generally accepted idea that the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was at its core a good thing, that the post-revolutionary decade contained the seeds of truly progressive society, and it was the unfortunate forces of history that brought Stalin to power. Politically, it meant that Stalin was removed from the pantheon, as Lenin became the sole figure to be worshipped. But this view was also expressed artistically in a variety of ways. And in this sense Nine Days of One Year is a good example of the comeback of the 1920s formalism, which had been represented by the likes of Sergey Eisenstein and Aleksandr Rodchenko and eventually denounced by Stalin. Mikhail Romm, the film’s director and a cinematic legend in his own right, was a 1925 gradute of Highest Artistic-Technical Institute, specialising in sculpture. And as you’ll watch the film all of this will come together. The camera cinematography is unashamedly formalist and is reminiscent of the 1920’s in its use of unusual camera angles. Lighting cinematography is also very visibly thought- through and creates fantastic shapes and moods. Another very 1920s aspect of the film is the love of the machine as the representation of the scientific labs and equipment is almost fetishistic. The film also has wonderful purpose-built sets, so do pay attention to those as well. Overall, visually it is a very cool film, and I would suggest that it is its biggest strength.
The last thing I would like to mention is the main actor, Aleksey Batalov, who plays here a character that I see as a kind of Soviet Jesus. I would like to draw your attention to an interesting fact that this undoubtadly charismatic and lovable actor happened to define a perfect hero of his time in three different decades for three different generations: in Cranes are Flying (“Летят журавли”) in 1957, Nine Days of One Year in 1962 and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (“Москва слезам не верит”) in 1980.
On this note, I am leaving you with two links to the film, on Mosfilm website and on YouTube ( important things about this one: a) you need to be signed in to watch it there and b) click on ‘cc’ button at the bottom of the video and then ‘turn captions off’, otherwise you get two conficting sets of subtitles).