Josef Stalin died 38 years ago, but his shadow lingers over the people he forced into submission for 31 years. Establishing a link between Stalin, the history of oppression in the former Soviet Union and the problems the people there face as they stumble toward freedom is the focus of “The Inner Circle,” a new film by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky.
Based on an idea that came to Konchalovsky more than 20 years ago when he met a film projectionist who had worked for Stalin, the film is a loosely fictionalized version of the life of Alexander Ganshin, a simple working-class man, played in the film by Tom Hulce, who screened movies for Stalin from 1935 until his death in 1953 and thus became a member of Stalin’s envied and feared inner circle.
Also starring Lolita Davidovich and Bob Hoskins as Beria, Stalin’s chief henchman and the head of the KGB, Konchalovsky’s film is true to the historical facts of the period it covers. However, the director did allow himself one bit of poetic license: Konchalovsky’s Ganshin--transformed into a character named Ivan Sanshin--finally realizes the ugly truth about Stalin’s reign of terror. In fact, the real Alexander Ganshin, now 80, remains an ardent Stalinist to this day.
“What a piece of work,” says Hulce of Ganshin, who was very much a part of the making of the film. “When he speaks of his former employer a light shines in his eyes--he still loves Stalin deeply, as do many people in Russia. It’s truly a cult. I remember Ganshin saying to me, ‘All I need is a bed to sleep in and food to eat. Freedom? Who needs it!’ ”
Ganshin’s declaration may seem shocking to American ears, but in Konchalovsky’s view, it summarizes the feelings of many people--then and now.
“To understand the phenomenon of authoritarian systems we must realize that for people unaccustomed to dealing with freedom and unable to master their own emotions, freedom can be a tremendous burden,” said the 54-year-old director during an interview at the Brentwood home he shares with his second wife. “Freedom is useful only to those who are up to handling it.”
Adds Hulce: “Having spent six months there with this film, I came to understand that bringing freedom to Russia is the equivalent of saying to a 7-year-old child, ‘We have great news--you’re now responsible for your own life.’ This is a terrifying prospect for people who have been absolutely dependent for decades on someone providing for them--however meagerly--and telling them what’s right and wrong. They’ve been prevented from getting any outside information for so long that they have no understanding of what freedom means.”
One of the points the film attempts to make is that monsters like Stalin don’t spring up from external sources and attack a people from the outside; rather, they arise from deep within the hearts of those they dominate and are a dark manifestation of a culture’s collective subconscious.
“Stalin wouldn’t have been possible without people like Ivan because it was millions of Ivans who deified him,” says Konchalovsky, who emigrated to the West in 1979 and presently maintains homes in Paris and Los Angeles. “How can you explain a Hitler or a Peron? It’s not mass hysteria, and the millions who follow these tyrants are not stupid--there’s obviously something else going on.”
In his attempt to dissect the cult around Stalin, Konchalovsky turned the tables and saddled his Everyman protagonist, Ivan, with all the villainous moves in the story, and presented Stalin in an enormously flattering light. Portrayed by Alexandre Zbruev, a Soviet actor whose father was executed by Stalin while his mother was pregnant with him, Stalin comes across as witty, soft-spoken and enormously charming.
“I made Stalin charismatic because I wanted him to be seen as he was through the eyes of his admirers, and because I believe that ultimate evil often dresses in the most attractive dress,” says Konchalovsky.
Of Ivan’s cold-blooded betrayals of his family and friends, Konchalovsky says: “Ivan could only seem villainous to Americans because Americans don’t know what terror is. You had a small taste of it with the blacklisting of the ‘50s, but you’ve never lived in a situation where people have to snitch on each other.
“I love this character Ivan and want the viewer to understand how desperate he was and how terrible it will be for him when he starts to understand the reality of his life. When he starts to wake up, it’s as painful as if he’d had frozen limbs that were beginning to defrost. His soul was frozen and when it begins to thaw he must struggle with the question of why he lives in a society that makes people do such bad things.
“Ivan’s awakening is my way of expressing the hope that Russia will begin to understand that the problem wasn’t simply that Stalin was a bad guy--the problem was that the people created Stalin, just as the Germans created Hitler. Russians are in the habit of blaming others for their misfortunes, but in order to begin healing its terrible past Russia must begin to assume some historical guilt. Until they do, the chances of another Stalin rising up are strong.”
“The Inner Circle” is an unusually analytic historical epic, but it faced the same shooting problems that plague any historical epic, and then some.
The first major motion picture to be made within the Kremlin, the four-month shoot that began in August, 1990, was hampered by food shortages, the nation’s unreliable telephone system and the legendary, Byzantine Soviet bureaucracy.
Konchalovsky wended his way through the red tape, however, and obtained permission to shoot scenes in Red Square (where he restaged Stalin’s funeral), KGB headquarters, Rizskaja Railway Terminal and Frunzie Academy (the Red Army’s college for top officers). Scenes were also shot in an ornate rail car given to Stalin underling M.I. Kalinin by Adolf Hitler, and Mosfilm, the huge state-owned filmmaking center, where Konchalovsky began his directing career in the ‘60s.
“I didn’t feel a sense of hope when I was there--things had already started to decline,” says Konchalovsky, who was in Moscow doing post-production on the film last August when the anti-Gorbachev coup erupted, and was shot at in the street.
“Not long ago, there was great love for Gorbachev, but people soon discovered freedom doesn’t feed you and you can’t wrap it around you when you’re cold. One of Gorbachev’s gravest miscalculations was his liberal conviction that if people were given freedom, everything would start to work. He discovered people don’t want freedom--they prefer to have one sausage, one little room and a TV. For decades people have lived this way--this is Soviet life.”
Says Hulce of the time he spent in Russia: “The hardest part of being there was adjusting to the fact that there’s absolutely no place to go to get problems solved or to get information. If you need someone’s phone number, you have to go to some office and know the person’s birthdate, then maybe they can find it for you. If you want to go to a movie, you have to go to the theater to find out what’s playing.
“But this isn’t the result of inefficiency,” he adds. “This is a system designed to encourage people to stay home by making it very difficult to go out. It’s dangerous when people go out and get together because that’s when they start getting ideas.”
As to the events of the last week, Konchalovsky says, “Anything is better than the Communist system. But it’s unfortunate the Russian people aren’t more appreciative of the role Gorbachev has played in their history. Gorbachev was the first Russia leader who allowed the people to be themselves, but they expected him to deliver sausage, and when he told them they had to get it themselves, they turned against him. But the fact that Gorbachev is out because he lost support rather than because he was ousted is a completely new occurrence in Russia. As to what the immediate future holds, Yeltsin either better deliver--or he better be more authoritarian.”
“The Inner Circle” represents a homecoming of sorts for Konchalovsky, who hasn’t made a movie set in the former Soviet Union since his landmark work of 1979, “Siberiade.”
“That was probably my best film,” says Konchalovsky of the three-hour epic, which chronicles 60 years in the lives of two Russian families, one rich and one poor.
Born in Moscow in 1937, Konchalovsky comes from a prominent and accomplished family. His great-grandfather and grandfather were revered Russian painters, his father was a popular poet who wrote the Soviet national anthem, and his brother, Nikita, is a well-known actor and director. One would think this family of artists would have been persecuted by Stalin, but such was not the case.
“We were left alone for several reasons, the first of them being pure luck,” Konchalovsky recalls. “It also had to do with the fact that my great-grandfather was a famous painter who was considered one of the treasures of Russian culture and that made us sort of untouchable. Then when my father was 24, Stalin read some of his work and said, ‘He’s a talented poet--let’s give him a decoration.’ All of a sudden, purely on Stalin’s whim, my father became this big celebrity--and, needless to say, he became an ardent Stalinist as well. This caused a terrible split in my family. My mother was a deeply religious person, my grandfather was a painter who declined to paint Stalin’s portrait, and my father loved Stalin. I had tremendous conflict with him because although I loved him, I couldn’t agree with anything he said. When I was very young, I felt great about Stalin and believed that in order to prosper one had to be a communist. Then after Stalin died, I discovered how much evil he’d perpetrated.”
For the first 20 years of his life Konchalovsky trained as a pianist, but on deciding he “didn’t feel free” with music, his interest shifted to filmmaking and he earned his diploma at the State Film School in 1964. Around this time he teamed up with Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. They collaborated on scripts for three of Tarkovsky’s films, one of which, “Andrei Rublev,” is widely hailed as his masterpiece.
“Andrei’s films require great intellectual sacrifice--they’re sculpted like beautiful marble,” says Konchalovsky of Tarkovsky, who died in 1986. “He was a marvelous director, but he became so obsessed with his very personal sense of time that I could no longer work with him.”
Konchalovsky released his debut feature film, “The First Teacher,” in 1965. With each of his four subsequent films his reputation grew, and when he earned the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1979 for “Siberiade,” Hollywood began calling and he moved from Moscow to Malibu.
“I left Russia because I got what I call ‘the Che Guevara syndrome,’ ” he says with a laugh. “Che Guevara made a revolution in Cuba but he wanted to make a world revolution so he went to Bolivia. I was a celebrity in Russia, but when I turned 40 I sensed the clock ticking and felt it was time to see the world. So I came to L.A. (with the help of his companion at the time, Shirley MacLaine), and found myself in a world where no one knew me or my work. I spent three years pitching films all over town and getting nowhere. I’d have meetings and say, ‘I’m a Russian director’ and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah? I’ve seen Russian films--'Doctor Zhivago.’ ”
Konchalovsky finally got things rolling in 1984 when he released his first American movie, “Maria’s Lovers.” He has worked steadily ever since, directing such films as “Runaway Train,” “Duet for One” and “Shy People.” In 1989 he made the baffling decision to direct two mainstream Hollywood films, “Homer and Eddie” and “Tango & Cash.” Of that choice, he says: “I made those films because I wanted to learn how to work with big stars within this enormous Hollywood machine.”
So, how did he like it? “I didn’t enjoy parts of it” is all he will say.
Konchalovsky has a deep love of American culture (he cites Emerson, Thoreau, Faulkner and Salinger among his favorite writers), but his American films are peculiarly foreign. His 1988 film “Shy People,” for instance, is set in an American South that seems shaped by extensive reading of Faulkner rather than any first-hand knowledge of the terrain.
Of his dual identity, he says, “I feel American when I’m in Russia, and Russian when I’m here. I still cry openly and interrupt people when they’re speaking--I can’t seem to stop myself and that’s evidence of the Russian in me. In Slavic countries everyone speaks at once.
“The differences in these two cultures are quite distinct,” he adds. “Russians are very philosophical but not terribly pragmatic people and that’s what makes it such a rich yet impoverished culture. Russians are always debating eternal problems and when you drink vodka with them they don’t speak about money or deals, they want to get to the core of things--the existence of God, eternity, and do you love me? A question that inevitably comes up when people get totally drunk is, ‘Do you love me?’ And God is a tremendous presence in Russia. God is where there is a need.
“The foundation of the American mind is you can handle your emotions in every sense. Americans don’t cry and they have tremendous power to suppress their problems. That’s why they need shrinks, and that’s why this is a free country--it’s free because you can handle your emotions here. In another sense, Americans are floating untethered in free space, but I can’t comment on that. Your filmmakers should make films about the problems of freedom and of life in a spiritual orphanage.”
Konchalovsky concedes that the split between the Russian and the American mentality is wide, but he hopes “The Inner Circle” can bridge that gap.
“This film touches on issues of the human soul that concern everyone, but I have no idea how it will do here,” he says. “The timing couldn’t be better in that the interest in Russian history has never been higher and Americans are finally beginning to learn what it really means to be Russian.
“For decades, they thought we were just poor people suppressed by communists, and that once the communists were ousted everything would be great. It turns out that’s not enough, and it’s important that Americans understand why.
“Many Russians think guaranteed misery is better than freedom because at least someone is providing you with something and you know exactly what you’re going to get,” Konchalovsky continues. “There’s a very real danger that on discovering democracy doesn’t immediately work perfectly, they’ll rush back to some authoritarian system that is guaranteed misery. The notion of being responsible for your own life is very new to Russia. And it is this very refusal to be responsible for his own life that is the downfall of Ivan in ‘The Inner Circle.’ He was seduced by the comfortable predictability of being led.”