Perhaps best known in America for his brutal masterpiece on the era of Stalin, Burnt by the Sun, Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov here discusses, in frank and confrontational terms, filmmaking and Russia in the age of Putin.
You seem to have vanished lately, at least creatively.
Well, I finished working on Twelve a little while ago. And presently I am finishing up the editing on Burnt By the Sun II, a multi-hour epic; the general who was arrested by the Stalinists at the end of the first film is now searching for his daughter in the middle of the Second World War. It has been four years in the making; I am in less of a hurry than I used to be.
More and more the world seems to resemble Woody Allen’s great line: “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”
And it is true that all you need to do is click on a link and you can go read Anna Karenina summarized in five lines. It is becoming truly idiotic. I spend hours looking at the canvases of one of my favorite painters ever: Isaac Levitan. I immerse myself in them, allow them to take me over. Artists need to ‘waste their time’ in order to find themselves.
Your take on Russia in Twelve is very harsh: a place consumed by anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism.
I have always denounced these aspects of the country, whether it was in Five Evenings or in Family Relations. I am very harsh on my own country because I love it.
My countrymen can sense that. In the movie I myself play the role of one of the twelve. But really I am each one of them: the liberal, the Jew, the doctor…and I do not look down on any of them.
Your beloved Russia has changed very much…
It has undergone a terrible crisis. Though it is now beginning to emerge from it. I have traveled far and deeply in this country, unlike a lot of Russian officials who think they know it because they travel between Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
The Russian elite, or what goes by that name, is nothing more than a little theater of marionettes. I cannot stand them anymore, all these supposed intellectuals who spend their time discussing the problems of their own little sphere. The Russian people are calling out to them: “Hey, we’re here! Listen to us for a minute!” But nobody is listening…
Plenty of people around the world ask “How should we live?” and they are right. But the only question Russians ask is “Why bother living?” and that explains all of the misunderstandings between us and the West.
In that light, what is your reaction to the European Union’s attitude toward the difficulties your country has been going through?
Europe was very happy with Perestroika. But then it was seized by fear: what were these savage Russians going to come up with now that they are free? Dear Europe gets panicked easily. And it has a tendency toward delusions about itself: it believes that somehow twenty-seven very old men will be capable, by a miracle, of transforming into one single vigorous and healthy teenager. It is only now maybe starting to realize that things are not actually going to turn out that way…
After fifteen years now, do you think Europe and Russia are finally going to meet up with each other?
Yes, exactly. Europe should have already welcomed in that Russia, that lost soul, struggling deeply with the excesses of a barbaric capitalism. Europe should have offered a smile and a helping hand. But you preferred to remain faithful to other friendships. It’s not so clear that you made the right choice, though: you’re going to see how Obama treats Europe, a little further down the road…
Do you feel betrayed?
When we saw you react the way you did, relaunching NATO, for example, we asked ourselves, “Why?” Then came the period of resentment, “Why should we go on liking these people who don’t give a damn about us?” And finally now we find ourselves asking ourselves, “These people who don’t like us, how can we make use of them for ourselves?”
What I am going to say here is going to make me very unpopular, I know but here it is. The truth is that you Europeans are a bunch of old people, sitting on your fat asses on couches that are far too soft, and you are lecturing the rest of us. Let’s take the cynical view all the way and put it like this: what do we have to gain from you? Land? No! Oil? Not a drop! Gas? It’s we who’ve got it, not you! What have you got left, over there in France? Your excellent cuisine. Your magnificent culture: Orsay, the Louvre…Europe is a museum. Well, it should remain a museum. Today the energy is all coming from India, from China. Tomorrow it will come from Africa. And it is with them that Russia will be dealing from now on.
But isn’t it always the same rant? Russia has an inferiority complex with a Europe that supposedly holds it in contempt. And it transforms into a superiority complex: you present yourselves as the saviors of a lost Europe.
But your contempt is real! You are not entirely responsible for it: we have done everything we can, with our ignorance, our lack of culture, to develop it. And you’re not wrong: maybe we will come and save you again. A few years back one of your singers, Michel Sardou, said something about how if it weren’t for the Americans, you’d all be in Germany now. Well, let me remind you that a few centuries back, if it weren’t for the Russians stopping the invasion, you’d all be in Mongolia now.
By pushing Russia out the way it did, Europe has shoved Russia into the arms of China, who, unlike us, doesn’t actually give a damn about European values: in fact it has its own values it would like to impose.
Are you a friend of Putin?
Is he an autocrat?
In your eyes, certainly. Not for us!
But he is an autocrat!
It is amazing how certain you all are, that you know better than everyone else what is good for them!
Putin, whom you despise so much, has given Russians back their lost pride. If you cannot understand that, you do not understand anything at all about Russia. I saw how Europe dismissed him back in 2007, during the Munich security policy conference, when he put the Americans on notice that their policy in the Balkans and Albania could start a new cold war. It was crazy: like something out of Barry Levinson’s movie Wag the Dog, where everything was just for show. Fake. I watched the participants and saw how even those who agreed with what Putin was saying were ready to demolish him, so as not to anger the Americans, who for their part generally knew nothing about the Balkans and didn’t even know where Albania was. But there you go: everything was already scripted in advance.
So Putin is perfect then!
No, but he has given Russia something essential to its survival: continuity. What actually changes, over in America, when one US President succeeds another, Democrat or Republican? Just the photograph of the wife on the desk! Because America is less of a country than a project. A grand, magnificent, terrifying commercial project.
Russia, on the other hand, is a nation. Vast and complicated. Difficult to unify. Without political stability, it is destined for chaos and horror. From time to time, some guy would tell me, thinking it would make me happy, “Ah, Russia is on the brink of great changes!” And I always respond “Anything but that! A change, in Russia, equals a catastrophe!”
What you are saying is terrible!
How is it terrible? Think about it: everything you love about Russia: literature, painting, music, philosophy, all of it is born out of this continuity that you pretend to detest. Without stability, Russia would never have had a Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Rachmaninoff, Chekov…
But in the end, we evolve, we change…
Sure, but why? Why should we?
To improve ourselves, and to improve the lives of others?
Fine! But once again, who is to say that your way of life is better than that of…the Afghans? Or the Arabs?
It’s not about that, we are talking about democracy. You know, that strange notion of Churchill’s, when he said that it was the worst form of government, except for all of the others…
Democracy is easier to apply when everyone is in the same time zone. In France it is 1pm whether you are in Paris, Lyon or Marseille. In Russia, when it is 9 pm in Moscow, it’s noon in Kamchatka.
That’s kind of glib…
Fine, then. Let’s talk about a problem that seems to trouble you French a lot: the “burqa,” as you like to call it. Your argument for banning it, unless it is about women forced to wear it against their will, is about equality: “With the burqa, women are no longer our equals.” Great! And then you add “to be our equals, they must cast it off immediately.” Not exactly a democratic attitude there! You are going to see what an autocratic reputation you build about yourselves in certain parts of the world when you pass laws like that…
So everybody is autocratic toward somebody, that’s kind of your idea?
I just want to make you admit that, in all your goodwill and naivety, you are still trying to force everyone to be just like yourselves. With the Russians, that will never work. We are just not equivalent. In France, your god is the law. For you, liberty is knowing what the law permits and what it forbids. A Russian has never really known the law. For him, liberty is permitting everything. The only law that a Russian knows is God. That is why atheism and materialism, promoted under communism, have plunged Russia into disaster. Modernizing Russia by forcing it to look like nations that it has nothing in common with, is an absurdity. Russia is another continent: it is Eurasia.
Your films are very well received by those in power. Putin has even described them as “patriotic.” What makes a film, exactly, ‘patriotic?’
Perhaps a film that tells the truth, without going easy on anybody.
Doesn’t this support from those in power bother you?
But does that change anything about my films? Does it make me into somebody else? Is Twelve a dishonest film? Does it celebrate Putin? Did I declare in it, for example, that the Chechen War was fine and good? No, I show that it was conducted by overexcited and undereducated generals attacking a people for whom dignity was more important than their lives! I say all of that! I show both the good and the bad that struggle inside of us, or live together inside us. I film what I believe is true. And as for the reactions of the world’s powerful, I don’t give a damn.
Isn’t it dangerous for a filmmaker to brush up too close to power?
But what power are you talking about? If I had wanted to, I could have been the Minister of Culture, or a parliamentary deputy, or a senator, or even the president of the Duma [parliament]! And I am nothing more than the president-and a rather embattled one at that-of the Filmmakers’ Union. I have never been a member of any political party, and undoubtedly -this will probably sound like the vanity some have accused me of- undoubtedly I am a party of one, by myself. Those in power-I use them more than they use me. I am Russian, and Orthodox. I feel myself Russian and Orthodox wherever I am; that is my reality. I am a patriot-which does not necessarily mean a nationalist. […]I am ready to accept any opinion and any culture as long as it isn’t imposed on me. But if somebody tries to impose their ways on me, I’ll tell them to fuck off.
Pierre Murat Translated from French by International Boulevard
29 Jul 2015