Economic hardship, lengthening food lines, a failed coup attempt and the very dissolution of their country--people here have had quite enough problems recently. But now Stalin and Lenin, those twin pillars of a dark communist era that’s just come to a dramatic close, have once more been strutting around Red Square.
Art and life have been colliding here since the arrival of the cast and crew of “Stalin,” a three-hour, $7.5-million TV film to be aired by Home Box Office later this year. It traces the life of the infamous dictator Josef Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union for 24 years until his death in 1953.
Some of the key scenes being shot here depict Stalin’s rapid ascent in the post-revolutionary government of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, whom he succeeded in 1929. Robert Duvall is in the title role, and Maximilian Schell plays Lenin; both men daily submitted to rigorous sessions in the makeup chair, resulting in uncanny resemblances to the two dictators.
This has led to some odd situations. Schell, in Lenin makeup, strode across Red Square, the object of onlookers’ curiosity, while less than 100 yards away, the real Lenin lies embalmed in a glass sarcophagus--the world’s most visible corpse. “There has been something scary about all this,” Schell says flatly.
Yet with a strong sense of mischief, Schell, still in makeup, also walked into the gloomy GUM department store, and strolled around virtually unnoticed. Shoppers were more interested in joining long, slow-moving lines for whatever scraps of material or low-quality produce might be available on that particular day. “People are so busy with themselves, so anxious to survive, they don’t always notice,” Schell reflected later.
But when Schell-as-Lenin left the Kremlin for his trailer, he passed a soldier on guard duty. The young man should have been keeping his eyes to the front, but they virtually popped out of his head at this vision of an icon. Unseen by Schell, the soldier reflexively saluted.
Duvall has found the Russians less friendly when they see him as Stalin. “I did this scene with a whole lot of extras,” he recalls. “And when they saw me as Stalin, some of them turned away, avoided my gaze. A lot of those guys just couldn’t look at me.”
The script of “Stalin,” by Paul Monash, has gone through a number of rewrites, but history is not being rewritten, as the phrase has been understood here since 1917. Stalin’s tyranny--personal as well as political--is dealt with candidly. He was responsible for the deaths of millions of peasants who opposed his push toward collective farming, and he had countless numbers sent to labor camps. But he also brutalized members of his family and close friends; Monash’s script depicts him driving his second wife, Nadia, to suicide.
Whatever the quality of the finished film, the people who worked on “Stalin” will long remember this production, which coincided with an extraordinary period in Russian history, fromthe abortive August coup to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The day “Stalin” wrapped--Dec. 21--was also the day Soviet communism officially died. In Alma Ata, 11 of the 12 Soviet republics signed a confederation agreement--the end of the empire that Josef Stalin had built. As the signing took place, Stalin’s death scene for film was being shot in the same country house where he had lived for more than 20 years.
Even the film’s wrap party had its symbolism. It was catered by McDonald’s and Big Macs, French fries and Cokes by the score were wheeled in to the dictator’s dining table, where the multinational cast and crew chowed down enthusiastically.
Extraordinary locations were characteristic of the entire production--not only Stalin’s dacha , which has remained closed since his death, but also Lenin’s original office in the Supreme Soviet building, inside the Kremlin’s walls, and actual prisons and courtrooms where Stalin’s victims were interrogated and incarcerated. These locations offer a glimpse of the remains of an era that only a handful of people have been privileged to see.
Much of this access has been due to the persistence and negotiating skills of Mark Carliner, the producer of “Stalin.” Carliner persuaded officials of the then-Soviet Union to open these rarely seen locations to filming, then cajoled HBO executives into shooting in Moscow, where the movie’s major events occurred, rather than in Budapest, an easier but less potent location.
Carliner was fortunate. The former Soviets, still affected by the mood of glasnost and perestroika, are eager to explore and resolve the excesses of their dissolved nation’s recent history. But the unparalleled brutality and mass killing that characterized Stalin’s career remain difficult for them to handle in the context of a film. “As one senior military adviser to (Russian President) Boris Yeltsin told me,” recalls Carliner, ‘Maybe it’s Americans who should be making this movie. Maybe we Russians can’t make it.’ ”
Having finessed his way past the bureaucracy, Carliner saw a team assembled for “Stalin” that included Duvall, a cast consisting mainly of respected British actors, and two East Europeans who would play key roles behind the camera--Czech Ivan Passer as director and Hungarian-born Vilmos Zsigmond as director of photography. But the producer’s problems were just beginning; “Stalin” was to be tossed on the tempestuous tides of real-life Soviet history.
In August, Carliner and Passer visited here on a pre-production reconnaissance mission, staying at the Oktobyrskaya Hotel, which was also a Communist Party hotel. Dining together one Sunday night, they commented on a large group of high-ranking military men and party apparatchiks in animated discussion at the next table.
Next morning, tanks rolled into central Moscow. The coup was under way.
For Passer, the coup recalled the Soviet tanks entering his native Prague in 1968, an invasion that would cause him to flee to America months later. He left the country in a car with his friend and colleague, director Milos Forman.
“I couldn’t look at those tanks in Moscow and not think of the same images in Prague,” he says. On the hotel’s television, CNN was relaying news of the coup; the one channel of Soviet TV was blank, and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” was playing--just as in Prague. “When all you can get on TV is the sound of ‘Swan Lake,’ you know you’re in deep trouble,” says Passer with grim humor.
Another incident gave Passer pause. Conventional wisdom insisted that “Russian boys” in the tanks would never fire on Russian citizens opposing the coup. But in the streets that day, when the roof hatches of the tanks opened, it became clear they were manned not by Russians but by young soldiers from Azerbaijan and such Central Asian republics as Kirghiz and Uzbek.
Passer told Carliner they should retreat to Budapest: “I said, ‘Mark, we could get stuck here.’ I didn’t think they’d really do anything to foreigners, but there was talk among coup leaders that the CIA was plotting to undermine perestroika. They could have said we were enemy agents.”
In Budapest, Carliner, as he tells it, “collapsed in a state of total nervous exhaustion,” his dream of making “Stalin” in Moscow seemingly shattered. But phone calls from his Moscow contacts--senior advisers to Yeltsin among them--urged him to return, predicting that the coup would fail within 10 days. “Yeltsin thinks it’s very important that you make the film, and make it here,” said one aide. (It is almost certain that the film will be shown on television in the commonwealth countries.) As it happened, the coup crumbled within three days--and one month later, Carliner and Passer were back in Moscow, planning production.
But just because the “Stalin” unit overcame these difficulties and gained permission to shoot in Moscow, life did not automatically get easy. For scenes inside Lenin’s office and apartments in the Kremlin--now a museum visited by a select few--the filmmakers had to haggle with KGB officials and with the formidable museum director, Alexander Shefov. It emerged that Shefov is an old-style hard-liner, opposed to many of the recent changes that had occurred in the Soviet Union and wary of the “Stalin” project.
Carliner, anticipating trouble on this day’s shooting, decided against his usual casual clothes. The producer donned instead a businesslike black suit for his dealings with Shefov and the KGB, and kept his self-deprecating humor to a minimum. But seven hours went by before the unit was allowed to enter the Kremlin; each of the 25 cast and crew members (including this reporter) had to be approved individually. The group was also forbidden to use a generator, because it would interfere with “electronic transmissions” emanating from the Kremlin.
The standoff ended abruptly for no apparent reason, just as it had dragged on for no apparent reason. “A taste of the real Russia,” Passer growled.
The following day, Duvall questioned the wisdom of shooting in such prized but difficult locations. He feared that time wasted on negotiations would affect the quality of the production, already on a tight schedule of nine six-day weeks. “Better to build a fake set in Culver City and do it properly than be here and be rushed,” he said. “There’s only so much the ghost and spirit of Lenin and Stalin can help. If you’ve got (HBO) guys breathing down your neck all the time, maybe it’s better to use a studio in Moscow, shoot here (in the Kremlin) for a day so the producer can say we did it, then get out.”
Still, the day’s shoot inside the Kremlin was memorable. One walked through a heavy security door into a long, carpeted corridor, with pictures of Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and medals, awards and mementos of Lenin’s day in wooden cabinets lining the walls. Inside, Schell, made up as Lenin, strolled down a long room with a conference table where the party Politburo met. On the desk in Lenin’s living room was an antique phone, an address book and a curious wood carving of a monkey holding a globe--a gift to Lenin from industrialist Armand Hammer in 1921.
The kitchen, with the original cups and pans in cabinets, was a simple affair, as was Lenin’s apartment. His bedroom was almost Spartan, with just a single bed and a writing desk.
Lenin was multilingual and a voracious reader, and bookcases were prominent in every room. One entire shelf was devoted to the works of British philosopher Bertrand Russell, and elsewhere, such titles as “Women in Industry,” “The Way Forward” and “Japan and the California Problem” nestled alongside works in Russian.
The filmmakers went about their business swiftly, somberly and even a little quietly, as if in a shrine. There was a strong awareness that one floor below, unseen and unheard, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was working on state business.
Duvall, in Stalin makeup, did his best to lighten the mood, entering with a scowl beside the irrepressible British actress Miriam Margolyes, who plays Krupskaya. Seeing a picture of Lenin’s wife and mother-in-law, both gazing bleakly at the camera, he growled: “Which twin has the Toni, huh?” Margolyes giggled--then tried to suppress her laughter, which she worried might have been inappropriate in this setting.
“You are all very lucky to be here,” the veteran Shefov, director of this museum for 25 years, said through a translator. “This is like the Roman Empire. They’re shooting history inside the very building it happened.” Had he read the script? “Yes. It’s only 10% true. The actors who play Stalin and Lenin look good--but many things in this script are not precise.”
But since he did not assume his post until 13 years after Stalin’s death, and never met him, how would he know how things exactly happened? Shefov fixed a stare. “It’s not a matter of whether I met him,” he said icily. “I know much about the truth, the feeling, the atmosphere.”
The day’s work was eventually cut short after a message came from a Gorbachev aide that the building was to be cleared for security considerations.
Logistics problems continued. Two days later, a big scene was shot in an imposing building called the Hall of Columns, where Stalin lay in state after his death. A line of 700 extras filled in as mourners, filing gravely past his expertly reconstructed corpse. But toward the end of a fatiguing, painstaking day, the extras decided they had had enough; they would work no longer without a pay increase. The event became known by the cast and crew as “the peasants’ revolt.”
“You should have heard some of their rhetoric,” said Carliner, rolling his eyes after a meeting with the extras’ representatives. But in the end, the Soviet production company that hired the extras yielded, and paid them a few more rubles per hour. Score one for the proletariat.
Then there were the scenes at a Moscow rail station, doubling for the Finland Station where Lenin made a famous speech in 1917, urging the Bolsheviks to seize power. They called for two steam locomotives to pull trains, but, as Passer recalls, “we had great difficulty in getting the trains to start or stop. We’d signal them to stop, and it would take half a mile before it happened. At first we couldn’t figure out why, then we realized. Both train drivers were drunk. At 8 in the morning.”
Dressed in an army uniform and boots, Duvall wears a thick wig of dark, reddish hair brushed back from his forehead; the makeup around his eyes recalls Stalin’s faintly Asian appearance. On this particular day, in his trailer parked close by Red Square, Duvall is in a somewhat grouchy mood.
“This is TV,” he sighs. “And everybody’s got to be a chief. It’s filmmaking compartmentalized and departmentalized. Everyone’s got to throw their hat in. They didn’t cast people until two or three days before. Give actors a chance! Ivan Passer was my choice, and they fought me. They weren’t used to that, but I sensed he was the right guy and I’m very happy with him. They waited until late to hire him.
“But I’m finding a way. We’ve had some blows against us. We were just thrown in there. There weren’t enough makeup tests and the first week was a disaster, we were fumbling. Tests were promised but those promises were not fulfilled. I didn’t get a final script until two weeks before we started. And we were promised a 12-week shoot, not nine weeks.” (HBO executives on the set said nine weeks was always the schedule.)
Still, Duvall has found playing Stalin an enjoyable challenge. He was slated to portray him a year ago in a film biography by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, but that plan collapsed due to lack of financing. (Konchalovsky turned to a different project, “The Inner Circle,” about a Soviet citizen who became Stalin’s film projectionist. It was released last month.)
“I’m somewhat indebted to Andrei,” Duvall says. “He brought me over here and we did some research. Had he never done so, the door would never have been open confidence-wise or enthusiasm-wise. Three months after his film fell through, the script for this one came along.”
As he talks, Duvall keeps one eye on a small TV screen in his trailer, which is showing black-and-white footage of the man he is portraying. He occasionally interrupts the conversation to exclaim, “Look at him, look at him!” when Stalin makes a particular gesture or facial expression.
“I accept he was evil, yeah,” says Duvall in his Southern accent. “The whole script is so dark that way that you have to find contradictions in him, give him lighter colors.
“But this is a man who had a deep need for enemies. This historian I talked to had a whole Freudian thing worked out that Stalin was so atrocious and awful to others because of self-hatred. He’d wipe out entire generations of people that really knew what he was like when he was young. So I have to find each scene, because there’s a mystery there only he knew. And maybe even he didn’t know.”
Duvall, who starred in the first two “Godfather” movies as the Mafia consigliere Tom Hagen, describes the script of “Stalin” as “an epic family gangster movie.” “If I can find an emotional life, a behavioral life, that’s the most important thing,” Duvall notes. “You have to find a human being. I don’t know how I find him on any given day. Hopefully if Bobby Duvall feels good, then Stalin will fall right in line.”
Stalin’s bed is small and narrow, though surprisingly comfortable. It looks incongruous in the huge 60-foot bedroom at the dacha he lived in for the last 20 years of his life. This is at Kuntsevo, only five miles from Red Square; of all Stalin’s 20-odd residences, this one became known as the blizhnaya (nearby) house. He took turns sleeping in each of the five bedrooms, hoping to avoid being assassinated in his sleep. He also looked beneath his bed each night before retiring--a new twist to the phrase “Reds under the bed.”
The house, which was left exactly as it was when Stalin died, and is almost never seen by outsiders, was another choice location for the “Stalin” filmmakers. Before any scenes were shot here, Duvall spent a few nights at Kuntsevo to absorb the atmosphere; when the actor returned to his Moscow hotel, this reporter stayed there. “Creepy, isn’t it?” Duvall asked.
It is if you think too much about it. This, after all, was the house from which Stalin sent out communiques condemning hundreds and sometimes thousands of Soviets a day to terrible deaths.
One is shown a table covered by a cloth, on which the imprints of his vodka glass remain. Ink stains have seeped through the cloth onto the table below. Was this the ink used to write death warrants? And here is the very spot where he fell to the ground, having suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. No doctor would see him for several hours, because in his paranoia Stalin would accuse doctors who treated him of trying to get rid of him. They would be imprisoned and tortured.
All the rooms are enormous, wood-paneled and gloomy, though warm. They are largely devoid of ornament, though one boasts a Chinese wooden cabinet, a gift from Mao Tse-tung; another an RCA radiogram from Franklin Roosevelt. The dacha itself is painted dark leaf green and stands camouflaged in a forest of thick pine trees, although relatively close to the city. It is surrounded by a 10-foot fence, also colored green, and patrolled by a military guard. But you could pass right by and not know it was there.
Kutuzov Avenue, the road into Moscow, is bumpy and uneven; the tanks used in the August coup damaged the surface. Each time one drives from Stalin’s dacha to Red Square, it is a literally uncomfortable reminder that despite the dictator’s unspeakable tyranny, there are still people here who would like to see him--or someone very like him--back again.
For Ivan Passer and Vilmos Zsigmond, working in Moscow arouses mixed feelings. Both have vivid memories of their native countries being invaded by the Soviets, which led them to flee to the United States. They have long shared a dislike for Russians that “Stalin” is helping resolve.
“I remember in 1956, I was in the square in Budapest when the people tore down Stalin’s statue,” Zsigmond recalls. “When the Russians then came to Hungary, they were victors, not liberators. They were brutal, they raped women, they took everything from our city.”
Now one of the world’s leading cinematographers--his work includes “Deliverance,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” for which he won an Oscar--Zsigmond has fashioned a look for “Stalin” that corresponds to its story. “The picture starts with a lot of colors in 1919, just after the revolution, and it’s very happy and optimistic,” he explains. “There’s a lot of life and light.” But gradually, Zsigmond withdraws color from the film as it progresses, just as Stalin squeezed the lifeblood from the Soviet people. “The last sequence is actually in black and white,” he notes.
Passer admits: “I didn’t want to come to Moscow. I thought it would be depressing. I always avoided coming to Russia, for obvious reasons. The Russians invaded and ruined Czechoslovakia and ruined my parents’ life.”
Passer made a life for himself in the United States, notably as director of the acclaimed “Cutter’s Way,” but admits that visiting Moscow has inspired feelings of forgiveness. “There’s great grief here,” he observes. “Almost every Russian, two out of three anyway, has had some tragedy in their families (because of Stalin’s tyranny). But they suffer with great dignity.
“They’re all extremely interesting people to talk to. It seems to me there are very few silly people in Russia. There’s a sense of experience, a suffering behind them all. Being here, you sense the vastness of this country. It’s like a rock; no matter what happens, it’s always going to be here, and the people know it.”
Even though his research into Stalin proved the dictator even more brutal and murderous than he suspected, Passer insists: “I would like the audience to cry when the film is over. I want them to cry for Stalin, just as Russians did when he died. But the film isn’t necessarily about one man--it’s about what human beings are capable of when the brakes of the civilization process fail to function.”
“Stalin” almost failed to happen. It was originally developed for ABC, and Carliner was asked by Allen Sabinson, who was then in charge of the network’s TV movies, to “nose around” in Moscow to see if he could obtain permission to shoot a film about the dictator’s life.
Sabinson asked Carliner because the producer was already known in the Soviet Union. His 1988 NBC movie “Disaster at Silo 7"--about a potentially catastrophic accident at a nuclear-missile site in the Midwest--had been shown on Soviet TV and was well-received.
“There’s only one channel, so I guess you could say it got a 100 share,” Carliner quips. “Sabinson also said that anyone who could get the USAF to give permission to shoot in a missile silo--a film which makes the Air Force look like a bunch of idiots--is maybe the person to talk to the Russians about doing a film on Stalin.”
When “Disaster at Silo 7" aired, Carliner was invited to the Soviet Union for receptions and speaking engagements, and he came into contact with high-ranking Soviet officials.
For the last three years, Carliner has been trying to get “Stalin” off the ground. A producer with a reliable but hardly spectacular track record (he also produced the agreeable comedy feature “Heaven Help Us,” directed by Michael Dinner), Carliner feels “Stalin” has given him a sense of destiny. In part this is because of his Russian ancestry, but also because of his expertise--he is a Russian history major from Princeton, graduating in 1960 magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa.
But when push came to shove, Sabinson could not get a green light for ABC’s movie; the network was reluctant to undertake expensive, risky projects. “But Allen called Robert Cooper (senior vice president of HBO Pictures) and said, ‘You must look at this script,’ ” recalls Carliner. “He did it the very morning ABC passed on the project. It was a generous thing for him to do.”
HBO, which has a tradition of classy movie projects, said yes, though as Carliner tells it, the other two networks had no interest: “They said, ‘We hear it’s a great script, but Stalin--who cares?’ Although their interest perked up again when the coup attempt happened in August.”
Everyone on the set is affected to some degree by the depressing living conditions in Moscow and by the fact that they are shooting a part of history here--even as more history is being made. “We complain about economic conditions at home and it’s a joke, isn’t it, when you see all this?” says Jim Carter, one of the British acting contingent.
Miriam Margolyes adds: “Conditions here are a real shock. There’s a genuine sadness about being here too, because everything these people have worked for has collapsed and finished. I mean, do you realize that for the first time ever, there was no picture of Lenin on the front of Pravda today? I should say that’s significant, wouldn’t you?”
Indeed, there is evidence that the entire Lenin cult is drawing to a close, and that the father of Russian communism is about to undergo “demystification.” The removal of his body from Red Square will only be the most visible indication. It seems that Shefov’s beloved Lenin Museum is to be dismantled and its exhibits sold off piece by piece.
It all adds up to an odd sense of displacement around the “Stalin” set, a sense in which reality and artifice blur. No one feels it more keenly than director Passer. “It’s surrealistic, bizarre,” he says. “I’m talking to Bobby Duvall, and there’s a moment of lucidity--and it’s not Duvall, it’s Stalin. Or you look up and you see Max as Lenin taking a picture of Stalin in his bier, in the actual place where he’s buried. I’ve walked with Max across Red Square, past the mausoleum where the real Lenin lies. I feel I can handle it but I push it aside in my mind. I can’t deal with it now. I have to be sane but inside I’m laughing hysterically.”
There is a sad side to all this. One day Passer came upon a small, bedraggled group of demonstrators protesting the threats to close down the Lenin Museum. “These were people who clearly hadn’t enough food to eat and they were out on the streets, begging that history should not be rewritten again. Oddly, I felt an urge to join them. Me !”
Passer smiled grimly to himself at the irony of his reflex to save the memory of Lenin, whose creed had caused him pain, grief and an enforced exile from his homeland. Then he went over to the protesters and gave them some money.
Stalin’s Years of Bloodshed
Josef Stalin was born in the Russian Empire province of Georgia in 1879. By the age of 20 he was active in the political underground. He gravitated toward the more militant of the competing wings of the Social Democrats, the Bolsheviks and their leader, V.I. Lenin. Stalin played a key role in the October, 1917 revolution, but at that point was a less prominent figure in Soviet politics than theoretician Leon Trotsky, who had emerged as a personal rival.
After the revolution and the Bolshevik takeover, Stalin rapidly gained power in the new Soviet Union by attaining membership in the Politburo and the position of secretary general of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. By the time Lenin died in 1924, Stalin was well placed to make his final move. Over the next four years he consolidated his power and took over as the Soviet leader in 1928--a position he held until his death in 1953.
Stalinism was harsh. In his push to industrialize the Soviet Union and organize the country’s agriculture into collectives, Stalin brought about some of the bloodiest excesses in the history of the Soviet Union: Mass shootings; deportations of reluctant peasants to the growing gulag of concentration camps; “show trials” of industrial managers who weren’t performing up to expectations and the bloody purges of enemies--many of them imagined--within the Communist party.
His internal “reforms” and isolation were interrupted by World War II. After his non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler was broken by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin allied with the United States and Great Britain--the “Big Three.” After the war was won, Stalin was able to split the spoils and win concessions from the Western powers that led to the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe--an Iron Curtain fell and didn’t come down until 1989.