Sergei Dovlatov is a classic example of the struggling writer. Unpublished in the Soviet Union (as he was not a part of the Writer’s Union), he languished for many years before finally leaving for the USA. There he wrote essays for the New Yorker, and his longer works were eventually published in Russia after his death. Now they stand as emblematic of the cultural freeze of the 70s, and he is considered one of the country’s best writers — not that he ever lived long enough to find out.
The film is set during a week in 1971, after Kruschchev’s death and the closing of the cultural thaw. Now writers must write uplifting, patriotic prose if they want to be published. Choosing seven seemingly regular days in the life of the subject was a smart move on behalf of the filmmakers, and it shows the daily struggle brilliant novelists and poets went through in attempting to speak their truth. In a brilliant turn of irony, we see Dovlatov cover a film about the opening of a new ship, with amateur actors playing writers such as Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, forced to roll out trite phrases about the value of such an endeavour. The rest of the week sees him fighting with his ex-wife (and many other women), trying to convince union members to sign him up, and attending secret literature parties. Taking on the role of the writer is Serbian actor Milan Maric (in his first Russian film — a remarkable feat considering he didn’t even speak Russian before he took on the role). He does a very good job here, skilfully deploying irony as a shield for his frustration against the world.
Dovlatov is filmed and framed in Aleksey German Jr.’s regular style, favouring moody tracking shots over regular cutting. The camera simply flows, with many incidents gently packed all into one scene. Seemingly inspired by both his own father and Tarkovsky, the frame is constantly filled with textures such as fog and snow to give it added visual interest. Building upon the success of Under Electric Clouds and his own contributions to his father’s masterpiece Hard to Be a God, German Jr.’s contemplative style is as assured and confident as ever. With this kind of narrative approach, there was a worry that the film could come off as pretentious and middling; instead, it remains engaging from beginning to end. There are dramatic scenes — including suicide, drunken singing, and partying — but German Jr. downplays them, making Dovlatov a type of tragic character, moving between all the action, but not allowing it to touch him deep down. Focused neither on good nor evil, but merely the interiority of people’s lives, he becomes a type of everyman, weighed down by a system that simply has no time for what he has to say.
It is a morbidly funny film, albeit with the enjoyment of some jokes depending on a certain knowledge of Russian literature and 20th Century Soviet writers. As part of one of the richest literary cultures in the world, those who used samizdat (the passing of underground literature) to get their works read felt that they may be the last generation to carry the flame of genuine Russian literature. It is both an indictment of a terrible, bureaucratic system — at one point Dovlatov introduces himself as Kafka — and a tribute to their spirit in fighting against it.
Dovlatov’s prose is crisp and humorous, condensing large, philosophical ideas into smallish, easy-to-read works. The movie itself, being an Aleksey German Jr. film, doesn’t stay true to this ethic, and is far more ponderous and slow-moving. This approach, although perhaps not in the spirit of Dovlatov’s own writings, works because it acts as a necessary correlative to the stagnation many writers must have felt at the time. This specificity may irk some viewers, but it nonetheless contains a more universal message regarding the indomitable human spirit, and to never give up even if the odds are stacked against you.
Despite being beloved in Russia, Sergei Dovlatov is relatively unknown in the West. As a man enamoured with writers such as Steinbeck and Hemingway, his style easily translates and is very accessible to Western audiences. The greatest gift the film will give the world is in putting a spotlight on the writer, hopefully opening up wonderful works like Pushkin Hills and The Suitcase to an international audience.
The 68th annual Berlin International Film Festival is scheduled to take place from 15 to 25 February 2018.