The Sad Comedies of Soviet Socialism

Georgii Daneliya was one of the Soviet film directors genuinely beloved by Soviet audiences. His gentle comedies depict the USSR as neither dystopia nor utopia, but as most people actually lived it.

As we enter the fourth post-Soviet decade, the ranks of artistic survivors of the old regime grow thin. The last few years have seen the deaths of numerous luminaries of Soviet cinema: Aleksei German, Kira Muratova, Marlen Khutsiev, Aleksandr Askoldov. Within Russia, though, one loss was felt particularly keenly. This August sees what would have been the 90th anniversary of director Georgii Daneliya, who died in April 2019 — a passing that frayed the few remaining threads holding Soviet film history together.

Daneliya’s collaborators were a gallery of the Soviet film establishment. He was the most famous of the Georgian artists who vivified Russian-language cinema. His career trajectory charted the post-war descent from the relative licentiousness of the Thaw into late-socialist Stagnation. He was probably the greatest screen comedian of the sound film era. Perhaps because of this, he is one of the Soviet directors that people remember with greatest affection, part of the furniture in Russia — the domestic everyday being his most consistent source of inspiration. Inasmuch as the reasons for his popularity within Russia have contributed to his obscurity abroad, they can also serve as a corrective to a received notion of Soviet (film) history that remains selective in the extreme.

Through his mother, a déclassée Georgian aristocrat, Daneliya had early access to elevated circles. His aunt was a famous actress married to Mikheil Chiaureli, one of Georgia’s first great directors, who gave Daneliya walk-on roles in some of his post-war films and whose daughter Sofiko would also go on to be a celebrated actor, appearing in Daneliya’s own Don’t Grieve (1969). His teacher at Mosfilm was Mikhail Kalatozov, director of the Thaw classic The Cranes Are Flying. Daneliya himself was a filmmaker with greater range than he is usually given credit for. His 1964 collaboration with screenwriter Gennady Shpalikov, Walking the Streets of Moscow, is a footloose, French New Wave-style paean to youthful carelessness; 1965’s Thirty-Three was an attempt at outright satire; in the ‘80s he worked in fantasy (Tears Were Falling) and bizarre-sci-fi allegory (Kin-dza-dza!).

After the censors got the better of Thirty-Three, though, Daneliya settled on the gently melancholic comedy style of his ‘70s greatest hits. Along with other household names like Leonid Gaidai (The Diamond Arm, 1969; The Twelve Chairs, 1971) and Eldar Ryazanov (The Irony of Fate, 1975; Office Romance, 1977), Daneliya was part of the directorial cohort that dominated popular consciousness in Brezhnev-era culture. His influence extended beyond his own filmography: he wrote and served as directorial assistant on perhaps the most beloved Soviet comedy, Aleksandr Sery’s 1971 Gentlemen of Fortune, where the lead role was taken by Evgeny Leonov — Daneliya’s ‘lucky charm’, who appeared in almost every film he made.

Daneliya made films that were grounded but lyrical, and fundamentally sad. The critic Dmitry Savelyev wrote that, in a game of word association, ‘Russians would respond to “poet” with “Pushkin”, to “fruit” with “apple”, and to “famous Soviet comedian” with the name of the most melancholic director in national cinema history. For Daneliya, life was so preposterous and grievous that it was funny.’ In the late ‘70s, Daneliya made a trio of films in which he perfected this personal brand: Afonya (1975), about the transgressions of an alcoholic plumber; Mimino (1977), about a Georgian pilot who learns the value of simple home life after travelling the world; and Autumn Marathon (1979), the story of a hangdog literary translator who can’t bring himself to leave either his wife or his mistress. Unsure how to classify Autumn Marathon, studio officials asked the director what genre to file it under, and his tongue-in-cheek response — ‘it’s a sad comedy’ — was inserted into the credits ‘so that audiences would know what they were watching,’ providing Daneliya with his own semi-serious trademark.

Screenwriter Aleksandr Volodin’s original title for the movie, The Woeful Tale of a Bastard, would have been more self-explanatory — but it would also have been too on the nose. Daneliya’s films avoid moralism. The protagonist of Autumn Marathon, Buzykin (Oleg Basilashvili), he is not intentionally ‘bad’, and his excuses for his many misdeeds are often genuine, but his lack of conviction makes him an agent of cruelty. Buzykin’s pathological aversion to open contestation transforms his life into an edifice he can only keep in place through inertia; which, without putting too fine a point on it, wouldn’t be the worst way of describing the state of official Soviet ideology under Stagnation.

It’s worth dwelling on Daneliya’s particular film historical legacy. When it comes to Soviet cinema, the Anglophone left has tended (with good reason) to lionise the stridency of the 1920s avant-gardists like Eisenstein and Vertov, cornerstones of film studies courses everywhere. Those in the know may also make room for the New Wave directors of the Thaw, with their lyrical takes on post-Stalinist trauma — Mikhail Kalatozov, Larisa Shepitko, Marlen Khutsiev — or the gritty revisionism of perestroika-era cult classics from Aleksei German and Sergei Solovyov. In the middle of this, the late 1960s and ‘70s remain a blind spot. The Thaw had jazz; perestroika had punk. Daneliya’s wistful comedies are soundtracked by easy listening ditties. It’s no coincidence that the most internationally-renowned Soviet director of the 1970s was Andrei Tarkovsky — the secular saint of art-house liberalism, a determinedly non-Soviet individualist. (That Sergei Parajanov spent much of the decade in prison probably didn’t help.)

That there is a general incuriosity about Brezhnev-era culture outside of the former Soviet Union is, in a sense, understandable. Leftists probably don’t want to scrutinise the period which they presume most conforms to tawdry reactionary stereotypes about ‘actually existing socialism’: the era of grey monotony and ascendant cynicism, economic slowdown and ideological retreat, ushered in by the assault on the Prague Spring in ‘68.

Within Russia and a number of other former Soviet republics, though, the 1970s are actually comparatively fondly remembered now, if opinion polls are to be believed. For many Soviet citizens, especially in urban areas, they were a period of reduced inequality and increased material comfort. A kind of mass consumer culture had been established after the economic advances of the Khrushchev era: in Afonya, a running joke is made of the fact that our protagonist doesn’t own a TV, to the bemusement and disdain of everyone he meets.

Daneliya’s ‘70s films were about banal but ‘relatable’ issues and their humour was textural rather than outrightly satirical (rebuking the conservative notion that any comedy produced under socialism would necessarily be a satire on that ideology’s hypocrisy and corruption). In them, carefully orchestrated plainness becomes a style in itself, through unfussy camerawork, unobtrusive blocking, and endearingly naff jokes told with a rueful grin. These films might not make bold ideological claims or teach us about the radical potentialities of the medium, but they capture the cynicism of Stagnation from within in a non-judgemental way. Shockingly, gripes persist after the revolution: work is a bore, romance is painful, lofty ideals are muddied by petty squabbles. In the long term, Daneliya shows, the revolution will not be an Eisensteinian affair. It will have to become textural, a matter of compassionate interpersonal relationships. As a concerned neighbour tells the titular Afonya: ‘It’s not traitors and murderers that you should fear, but indifferent people and their silent connivances.’

Daneliya owed his domestic popularity at the time to this sense of lived-in security, and now to the warm fuzz of over-familiarity. It’s worth noting here that ‘everyday life’ has rarely been neutral territory in Russia, where a long and influential tradition of thought (first Christian, then Communist) has posited the world of quotidian material ‘stuff’ as the root of all spiritual/ideological corruption and hence the basic substrate of revolutionary social transformation. Soviet cinema of the ’20s and ’30s was replete with assaults on the Bastille of the banal, from Vertov’s radical non-fiction, to Boris Barnet’s silent comedies of manners and Abram Room’s proto-Stalinist morality plays; after the trauma of the war, the Khrushchev years had economic growth, new crazes in culture and design, tentative sexual revolution. The 1970s represented the first period since October itself that the Soviet everyday had been allowed to just settle down for a bit in front of the telly. No more boom, and a bust too gradual to get worked up about.

This was Daneliya’s playground, and if nothing else his career is instructive in tracing the meandering slump from post-war excitement into Stagnant melancholy. In both Walking the Streets of Moscow and Autumn Marathon, our protagonists ride the metro. In the former, Kolya is a sardonic kid criss-crossing the capital on a series of escapades; in the latter, Buzykin is shuttled, bleary-eyed, between the frustrations office, home, and mistress. Neither character is really going anywhere, but there is a world of difference between Kolya singing a ditty to himself as he dances up the escalator into another summer day and Buzykin’s purgatorial October commute in Marathon’s opening credits.

Stagnation’s other illusion, of course, is inconclusiveness. As the title of anthropologist Alexei Yurchak’s study of late Soviet culture puts it, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. Daneliya mastered this indeterminacy, but he would have abhorred the idea that he was providing some kind of commentary on late Soviet ideological malaise; he once admitted that, in editing, he would purposefully cut a major scene from near the end of every film in order to avoid stridency. In the words of critic Sergei Dobrotvorsky, he was ‘a fabulist, moralist, and satirist whose best works avoid all exaggeration, allegory, and derision.’ Daneliya’s quiet socialist humanism steers us from abstraction, and reminds us that to the individuals involved, political crisis tends to register as personal tragi-comedy.