Nikita Mikhalkov, by Birgit Beumers

Kira Muratova, by Jane Taubman

Although both come as part of the same series of books for film-makers, scholars and fans alike, these two titles present the work of two very different directors, the Russian, Moscow-based Nikita Mikhalkov and the Romanian-born, Odessa-based Kira Muratova. Both titles adhere to a didactic, reference book structure, although the style of each author varies enormously.

Birgit Beumers presents the work and life of Mikhalkov, which she claims to be ‘one of the best known Russian film-makers.’ Now, perhaps I need to brush-up on my knowledge of Russian cinema outside the Eisenstein/Vertov/Tarkovsky triumvirate, but I had never heard of Mikhalkov, who was born in 1945 and won a Best-Foreign film Oscar for his Burnt by the Sun (1995). He must be famous, then, it’s only that Beumers seems to be in awe of him and goes about writing her book like a tacky press-release full of aggrandising statements such as ‘Mikhalkov comes from a prestigious Soviet-Russian family’, ‘he’s a very talented actor’ etc. We also find out that he’s not a critic’s favourite in his country, especially from the 1990s onwards, when his work started to be dubbed as ‘commercial kitsch.’

Mikhalkov started his career as an actor in a film called The Sun Shines for All (1959). He achieved popular success a few years later when he appeared in I Walk Around Moscow (1963). He went on to make a number of films during the 1960s and he first took to directing in 1967. His debut picture was called Thing and was made as part of his film course work. He directed his first feature in 1974, At Home With Strangers, exploring the events of the civil war in the genre of an adventure film, which was popular at the time. Beumers says his career started when the cultural and political scenario in Russia had stagnated. Sensing that, Mikhalkov realised it would be a good idea to pander to a nostalgic idealisation of the ideals of the revolution, with a strong dose of popular appeal. It must then that the seeds of his commercial kitsch were sown.

We learn other things about the great director: of his love for the nature of his country, of his status as a Hello magazine-style celebrity and that he made the most expensive Russian film ever. The Barber of Siberia (1998), starring Julia Ormond and Richard Harris, cost US$45 million, became a hit in his native Russia but failed to cut it elsewhere.

It’s only possible here to make a vague analysis of the place Mikhalov occupies in Russia’s film pantheon, but the impression received is that he belongs in a more conservative, traditionalist vein of film-making. In other words, he comes across as an industry player.

Conversely, Jane Taubman paints a very different picture of the Odessa-based Kira Muratova, whose work is more akin to Jean-Luc Godard than Steven Spielberg. Muratova’s output stretches back to the 1960s, but during that and the following two decades, she was stymied by financial difficulties. She went from cult figure to ‘official’ filmmaker in the late 1980s with films like A Change of Fate (1987) and Aesthenic Syndrome (1989) which won a Silver Bear in Berlin in 1990.

Taubman’s writing style is more fluid and insightful than Beumer’s pompous homage to Mikhalov, whose work is less appealing to lovers of realistic, independent and experimental cinema than Muratova’s. Although I have never had the chance to see any of her films, I got the impression that Aesthenic Syndrome is obligatory viewing because of its apocalyptic depiction of the end of the Soviet Union.

Speak again of impressions, the one I had from this book is that here we have a truly independent woman film-maker whose films are open to endless debate and interpretation. In other words, she comes across as an auteur.