Elem Klimov, 71; Film Director Helped Release Banned Movies Under Mikhail S. Gorbachev

Times Staff Writer

Elem Klimov, the internationally acclaimed Russian film director who helped win release of banned motion pictures under the liberalized rule of former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, has died. He was 71.

Klimov died Oct. 26 in a Moscow hospital. He had been in failing health for several years, but the cause of death was not announced.

The filmmaker earned worldwide respect for his own work, particularly after the release of his graphic war movie "Come and See," which won the main prize at the 1985 Moscow Film Festival.

But Klimov perhaps will be better remembered for bringing glasnost to the censorship-prone Soviet cinema when he was elected in 1986 as first secretary of the Soviet Filmmakers Union.

Because Klimov had struggled throughout his career to work with the Soviet movie establishment, his election came as something of a surprise in the tumultuous ouster of the union's old guard.

With Gorbachev's encouragement, young filmmakers hoped to end the Communist practices of banning movies critical of the government and favoring those glorifying the Soviet regime.

"Perhaps they have respect for me and my work, for my behavior and stature during difficult times. I always tried not to compromise and betray my principles -- which was not easy -- and people knew that. I never filmed what I did not want to do," Klimov told movie writer Judy Stone in her 1997 book "Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers."

Problems with censorship of screenplays and concepts, he added, had been partly responsible for the relatively small size of his own career output -- a half-dozen major films.

After his election, Klimov worked diligently for the release of about 300 movies previously banned by the State Committee of Motion Pictures, known as Goskino. Significant among them was "Repentance," a 1984 film that depicted the suffering of millions of Soviet citizens under the repressive regime of Josef Stalin.

"We managed to get rid of censorship," Klimov told The Times in 1991 when he was featured in the Discovery Channel/BBC six-part series "The Second Russian Revolution."

As head of the union, Klimov visited Hollywood and other filmmaking centers around the world to promote newly released Soviet movies. Gorbachev had supported the film revolutionaries, the director said, because movies could achieve the Kremlin leader's reform goals by provoking widespread discussion of the failings of Soviet society and rekindling social involvement.

"We realize what a weapon films can be. There are no other media that can damage the soul as well and heal it the way film can," Klimov told The Times in 1986 when he was in Los Angeles to introduce a series of Soviet movies at UCLA. "But that is reason enough to let many voices be heard -- to spread the power around."

Klimov's own films, though he was a member of the Communist Party for most of his adult life, were "shelved" for varying periods.

"Agony," his 1974 movie about Grigory Rasputin and the monk's destructive influence on the czarist court before the 1917 Russian Revolution, was exhibited at foreign film festivals and won the Fipresci award at Venice, but was banned from release in the Soviet Union for almost a decade.

Censors considered it pointless, Klimov said, and overly kind to Czar Nicholas II because it depicted him as a real person, rather than as a despised caricature.

Klimov's masterwork, "Come and See," was even more startling in Soviet filmmaking because of its harrowing, starkly realistic portrait of war. The movie depicts a 13-year-old boy witnessing the savage Nazi invasion of the Soviet Republic of Byelorussia in 1943.

Born in Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Klimov had searing childhood memories of evacuation by river under fire during World War II, which influenced his strong sense of patriotism and realistic filmmaking.

Klimov graduated from the Moscow Aircraft Institute in engineering, and later took a degree from the State Film Institute where he met his wife, director Larissa Shepitko.

His first movies were comedy satires aimed at the Soviet state: "Welcome, No Trespassing," about the Young Pioneer camps that taught youngsters how to be good Communists, and "The Dentist's Adventures," about the government's effect on individual talent. Later he made such docudramas as "Sport, Sport, Sport." After his wife's death in a 1979 car crash, he completed her film "Farewell," based on a Valentin Rasputin novel.

In 1980, Klimov also made a documentary in memory of his wife, titled "Larissa."

After his success with "Come and See," Klimov tried in the early 1990s to work with Hollywood on an epic movie adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita." But it failed to materialize, and Klimov abandoned filmmaking, a saddened man.

Survivors include a brother and a son.

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