In Cinemas

How I Ended This Summer – an introduction

Here’s the text of a talk I gave on the ace, award-winning Russian psycho-dramedy How I Ended This Summer at Derby QUAD on 3rd May 2011.

Introduction to How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Pobogrebsky 2010)

Russian cinema has a reputation for being cold, depressing, austere and very serious. Think of the Soviet propaganda of Sergei Eisenstein, with cruel Tzarist authorities massacring victimised masses in Strike or Battleship Potemkin. Or the bleak, enigmatic films of Andrei Tarkovsky, like Solaris, Stalker or Andrei Rublev. Or, more recently, there’s been the equally slow, meditative work of Alexander Sokurov, most famous for Russian Ark, a film that wanders about a museum for an hour and a half in a single camera shot.

But there have been attempts in recent years to break the mould, with mainstream Russian cinema delivering comic-book action to rival Hollywood thanks to the Deathwatch movies – which are, in themselves, a reminder that Eisenstein’s frenetically edited set-pieces more or less invented the modern blockbuster.

Tonight’s film, How I Ended This Summer, lies somewhere in between. It won’t entirely shake off those preconceptions that Russian movies are cold and austere, but it’s also, sort of, a gripping Arctic action movie – with boats, guns and polar bears. As such, it straddles the divisions in Russian movies between art-house tradition and the contemporary need to find an audience, which is apt because one of its subjects is the changing Russia since the fall of Communism.

Alexei Popogrebsky’s film zeroes in on two men working in a remote meteorological station on a barely accessible Arctic island. The elder man, Sergei, is the latest member of a family who have delivered weather reports since the 1930s: he’s an old-school Soviet relic who is taciturn, professional to the point of monomania and full of pent-up rage.

But he’s got a new recruit: Pavel, a twentysomething slacker who appears to be on a student assignment, for whom the Arctic is a playground and Sergei is a joke. He’s a symbol of the new Russia of Roman Abramovich and Deathwatch, a kid for whom Communism is ancient history and whose life of iPod and video games is no different from anyone his age in Britain.

Something’s got to give, and so it does, via a message that Pavel receives from the mainland. He’s supposed to deliver it to Sergei, but for various reasons – some understandable, some less so – he fails to pass on the news. As Pavel digs himself further into a hole, he soon realises that the inhospitable Polar landscape probably isn’t the best place to go it alone.

What’s remarkable about How I Ended This Summer is its surprising lightness of touch. Inevitably, there is a lot of existential soul-searching here, but its allegory of a divided Russia is never pretentious, because Popogrebsky treats the film as one-half taut thriller and one-half black comedy, as Pavel’s efforts get more misguided. The film is a cosmic joke about the precariousness of Pavel’s position in a wilderness where one wrong step might cause injury or death – and the landscape itself becomes pretty much a third character in the film, the bizarrest of bizarre love triangles.

“Stars Sergei Puskepalis and Grigoriy Dobrygin shared the Berlin Film Festival’s Best Actor prize, but Pavel Kostomarov’s cinematography also won a special award…”

It’s worth noting that, at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, the film’s actors – Sergei Puskepalis and Grigoriy Dobrygin – shared the Best Actor prize, but Pavel Kostomarov’s cinematography also won a special award. Throughout, the film’s eerily beautiful visuals place you in this open yet utterly claustrophobic world – and, amazingly, it was all shot on digital video. Here’s a movie to remind you how far that format has come in replicating the texture of celluloid.

Popogrebsky’s direction pushes the actors into bed with their landscape in ways that go beyond the call of duty. The location is actually a working weather station, five hours’ journey from the nearest town by caterpillar transporter across the treacherous tundra; and the actors bunked up with the station’s actual crew for the duration of the shoot. Popgrebsky kept things real by using genuine surrounding buildings like an abandoned military radar base, and the decrepit Fog Station that Pavel discovers in the opening scene, hanging forlornly on the edge of a cliff – a place so inaccessible the crew only reach it by boat. The only cheat was the addition of a prop radioactive beacon – but it was only pesky Health and Safety regulations that prevented them from using the real ones in the area.

Popogrebsky also discovered during pre-production that Puskepalis, an actor he cast as Sergei because they’d worked together before, had actually lived in the region as a youngster, providing an unfakeable verisimilitude in Sergei’s easy communion with the landscape. For everyone else, especially Dobrygin, a first-time film actor only just out of the Russian Theatre Academy, it was a battle against the elements, shot during a gruelling three-month performance in near-continual Polar sunlight. And, apparently, the threat of wildlife spilled over into real life when the director had to fend off an overly inquisitive polar bear.

The result is gripping, funny but still incredibly Russian. It’s the kind of one-off that appeals to both art-house and mainstream audiences, and is a genuine crossover triumph – notably, it won the Best Film at the London Film Festival over the likes of The King’s Speech, Black Swan and Submarine, and I think it’s in the same class as those films. Here, then, is Alexei Popgrebsky’s How I Ended This Summer.

Many thanks to Derby QUAD for kind permission to publish the talk, and to New Wave Films for getting a screener to me!

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