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Kira Muratova: a tribute to the dazzling, controversial genius of Soviet and Ukrainian cinema

A giant of eastern European cinema, Kira Muratova passed away last week at the age of 83. Our film writers pay tribute to a true original

Last week saw the death of the filmmaker Kira Muratova at the age of 83. One of the most idiosyncratic and renowned Russian-Ukrainian directors, Muratova’s work straddled the Soviet and post-Soviet periods and has proven hugely influential. Here, four film writers discuss her importance, style and legacy for contemporary cinema.

“One hopes reconsideration of her work will flourish”

Carmen Gray

A man with a condition inducing sudden sleep lies on the floor of a metro station, out cold. The crowd rushes over him as if over an inanimate obstacle, not stopping to check on his well-being. A doctor thrown into existential crisis by the death of her husband wanders the streets, firing a colourful arsenal of curse-words at all around her. They’re both inhabitants of Kira Muratova’s sprawling, madcap The Asthenic Syndrome (1990), which confronts us with an absurd society peppered with catastrophe. Its alienated characters can barely hold themselves together, let alone contribute to any notion of community. Even cinema itself is an unreliable entity in this episodic onslaught of bizarre incident, which is part film-within-a-film; wild digressions abound.

Shot in the Russian language in Odessa, where Muratova forged most of her career, The Asthenic Syndrome is regarded by many as her greatest film. It’s a caustically funny, unsparing vision of the late Soviet era in which it was made, when the way of life dictated by society was breaking down. There is a sense of vertiginous chaos to it, as its motley cast of Gogolian grotesques veer between aggression and passivity, never hitting on appropriate emotional tools to navigate a universe rendered preposterous by death’s inevitability. In other words, it couldn’t be further from a propagandistic vision of a bright utopian future, progress and worthy sacrifice for a greater cause. It’s perhaps not surprising then, that it has the dubious honour of being the only Russian film the state banned during the more open cultural climate of perestroika.

Muratova was a master of absurdism — but the most absurd thing of all about her remarkable work is that it has been so underseen

Muratova was a master of absurdism — but the most absurd thing of all about her remarkable work is that it has been so underseen. Censorship was a big factor. Even though her earlier films were more conventional than her later wild mosaics, they were deemed too much of a departure from the prescribed socialist realism. Her first solo feature Brief Encounters (1967), which was uncompromising in depicting desperate small-town living conditions, was banned for 20 years. The recovery of this very singular and eclectic visionary to a central place in cinema history has been less ardently pursued in the post-Soviet era than some other Eastern bloc innovators such as Věra Chytilová, who as part of the Czech New Wave was perhaps easier to assimilate into the wider narrative of a movement. Nevertheless, Muratova’s influence on other giants of cinema is immense (Sergei Loznitsa, foremost biting satirist of the state of Russia today, screened The Asthenic Syndrome at Karlovy Vary in 2015 as his pick of a beloved film.) With Muratova’s passing on 6 June, one hopes reconsideration of her work will flourish.

“While her contemporaries pursued metaphysical themes, Muratova was incapable of such grandiloquence”

Agata Pyzik

The Asthenic Syndrome (1990) must be one of the most original films to come out of the Soviet Union, made exactly at the moment of its demise and documenting perfectly the impasse and stagnation of late Soviet society. In my research for my book Poor But Sexy I revisited a lot of the “glasnost cinema” made during the Gorbachev era, which was characterised by a depressive outlook and aesthetic known as chernukha. Muratova was especially interesting to me as a female director who was always defiant and different, much like her Czechoslovak contemporary, Věra Chytilová.

While her contemporaries — Andrey Tarkovsky, Elem Klimov, Larisa Shepitko, Alexey German — pursued, in their own ways, metaphysical themes of absolution, human suffering, cruelty and courage, Muratova was incapable of such open grandiloquence. Her incredibly personal and idiosyncratic cinema instead focused on changes within Soviet society, love, sex and how the stagnating post-Khrushchev climate shaped all human relationships.

Throughout her career she was interested in an ironic and polystylistic type of cinema, which I can only compare to the works of the late Alexey German. None of her films is similar to any other; they are all perched at the point between how Soviet society would like to see itself and what it really was. I can safely say that — just like Chytilová’s DaisiesAsthenic Syndrome sent shocks through my spine. The film has a seemingly chaotic, unstructured form, where threads come and go freely. It’s a portrait of a society on the brink of collapse, loosely based around the character of a depressed writer and intellectual, whose tendency to narcolepsy and abusiveness towards the women around him seem like Muratova’s parody of the frustration and political impotence of the entire Russian intelligentsia. We watch him as he sleepwalks aimlessly though a crumbling Moscow, encountering people on the verge of hysteria, paranoia and mental breakdown. A bit like Johnny from Mike Leigh’s Naked, his pointless philosophising is as meaningless as the sexual transgressions and ambient aggressions going on around him. Even a wild art party/porn shoot seems weirdly sexless and lethargic. Everyone we see seems suspended between catatonia, madness and indifference. All relationships — the writer and his mistresses, the fat vice-principal and the young boy who visits her — seem perverted. The actors employ a completely deadpan, emotionless manner, which only increases the impression of eccentricity.

Her incredibly personal and idiosyncratic cinema focused on changes within Soviet society, love, sex and human relationships

But the element that impressed me most is the film’s first section. Shot in the strangest sepia tone, it starts with the funeral of a middle-aged man, posed in his coffin like Stalin, which with hindsight seems like the prodigiously foreseen funeral of the entire Soviet Union. We observe the deceased’s wife, paralysed with grief and anger, who out of her suicidal despair brings a young homeless man home to have sex with him. I have never seen mourning shown in such a moving, abjected, almost biological fashion that nonetheless remains extremely theatrical. And then this whole storyline turns out to have been a movie-within-a-movie, watched by dissatisfied spectators who leave the cinema disappointed. Nothing really mattered in a society as desperate, disillusioned and demoralised as the USSR in the late 1980s. It all had to die, Muratova seems to be saying.

“Her delight in histrionics and artifice masked her violent assault on received wisdoms”

Giuliano Vivaldi

Kira Muratova once declared in a brief comment on the “Grand Cinema” of the past that a filmmaker such as Ingmar Bergman no longer satisfied her because he lacked barbarism. With her radical atheism, her lack of belief in progress and her surgical disdain of sentimentalism, Muratova’s world was far closer to the true mavericks of world cinema, marrying the exuberance of Parajanov with Pasolini’s insistent juxtaposition of the highbrow and the lowbrow. Sharing Fellini’s love of the grotesque, she had no time for redemptive finales.

Muratova’s Odessa (in consonance with Joseph Brodsky’s advice to those living in an Empire to live aloof, provincial and by the seashore) is as evocative as Fellini’s Rimini. The city on the Black Sea was the humus for her unique collection of characters and her inimitable understanding of the human (along with the non-human) world. It is the world of her characters and their absurd, operatic and monomaniac dialogues, along with her endless number of episodic eccentrics who gradually begin to dominate the canvas of her films, constituting the backdrop of an authentically radical view of the human condition.

There are few common themes in her extraordinarily diverse films (scholars have used the concepts of dissonance and polyphony, or even cacophony, to classify them) but her delight in histrionics and artifice masked her violent assault on the received wisdom on characterisation. Out of her characters (who included teachers, bureaucrats, poets, children, clowns, animals, twins, oligarchs, fraudsters, geologists, artists, workers, gastarbeiters, lawyers, dancers, policeman, judges, collective farm workers, piano tuners, marriage con artists, murderers, nurses, doctors, gravediggers, a varied assortment of the insane along with a whole host of eccentric Odessans) emerges a unique world surely meriting the coining of the adjective “Muratovan”.

With her radical atheism, her lack of belief in progress and her surgical disdain of sentimentalism, Muratova was a true maverick

Her special brand of realism could be found in the bold fury of The Asthenic Syndrome (including its overturning of taboos: the scandalous appearance of a male frontal nude and the foul-mouthed woman on the metro who delivers her abusive monologue to the viewer ensured that it was the only film to be censored in the perestroika era) as well as in the much gentler Sentimental Policeman (1992). Muratova’s own special dose of barbarism was present throughout her work — whether in her Three Stories (1997) (three tales of highly unlikely murderers), A Change of Fate (1987) (a perestroika-era re-rendering of a Somerset Maugham tale in an absurd key), or in her Muratovan reappropriation of two secondary tales (on a furious family row and a wedding) from Russia’s greatest playwright in Chekhovian Motifs (2002) and in her treatise on fraudsters and the defrauded, The Piano Tuner (2004). Many of her films, including her final Eternal Homecoming (2012), involved assaulting the viewer’s expectations. Most uncompromisingly, in her Melody for a Barrel Organ (2009) (a searingly beautiful and unbearable anti-fairytale) she manages to chalk a Langian “M” on the back of nearly every character in the film. Looking back on her career one can only marvel at how infinitely populated her remarkable imagination was.

“The image that comes to mind is still the bored 60s Party apparatchik, soliloquising about the washing up”

Samuel Goff

When you come late to a director, the first film of theirs you watch can have a distorting affect on your understanding of their work. Of all the (post-)Soviet auteurs, Kira Muratova was arguably the most variable, a cacophonous and sardonic presence who garnered bewildered shrugs as much as cinephilic devotion in a manner nowadays more associated with schlocky, wildly less talented (male) provocateurs like Lars Von Trier. But for me, the most memorable version of Muratova will always be the fleeting, youthful one captured in her first solo feature film, Brief Encounters (1967).

Soviet cinema’s reaction to the post-Stalin Thaw in social and cultural conditions resulted in one of the finest decades a domestic industry has ever produced. From roughly 1957 to the end of the 60s, a cohort of young directors produced films that tackled with wit, invention and a blend of cynicism and idealism of the new realities of Soviet life, capturing a society left “fatherless” by the ravages of the war and the death of Stalin, where sexual relations and social responsibilities were up for debate. Brief Encounters arrived at the end of this wave, capping Soviet cinema’s greatest run — from the sensitive war dramas of Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957) and Grigory Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Solider (1959) through the intelligent dissection of gender in Larisa Shepitko’s Wings (1966) and Marlen Khutsiev’s New Wave-inspired tributes to youthful bravado and fragility, I Am 20 (1965) and July Rain (1967).

Of all the (post-)Soviet auteurs, Kira Muratova was arguably the most variable, cacophonous and sardonic

Even with all this brilliance to pick from, Brief Encounters remains my favourite “Thaw film”. It’s a melancholy, acerbic, hilarious and quietly experimental minor piece, a domestic drama with a worldly wisdom. It depicts the love triangle between Odessa Party bureaucrat Valentina (played by Muratova herself), naïve young Nadya (Nina Ruslanova) and a roguish geologist — iconic musician and actor Vladimir Vysotsky, basically playing himself. It captures the gentle banality and ennui that makes up most of our lives, while at the same time making surreptitiously sharp jabs at gender and sexual politics and showcasing Muratova’s early forays into radical camerawork.

“To wash or not to wash the dishes…” Valentina ponders to herself as the film opens, an ironic play on Shakesperean grandeur that’s even funnier in Russian. Muratova had no taste for the swooping and spiritual cinema of some of her contemporaries, and in any case she spent most of the Soviet period barracked by censorship; Encounters itself was banned for decades. When she really got going in the 90s, she made films in comparison with which Brief Encounters seems almost parochial, petty even. But even if her name was truly cemented with the madcap likes of The Asthenic Syndrome or The Piano Tuner, when I look back at her career the image that comes to mind is still the bored 60s Party apparatchik, soliloquising about the washing up.