MOSCOW — Curious schoolchildren are passing through the deserted cobblestone streets of a late 19th century quarter in the middle of the city when they stop, transfixed by a menacing-looking Nazi tank sitting round the corner as if in ambush.
Unlike their moms, dads and grandparents who couldn’t even dream of it, the young visitors are privileged to tread the grounds of what used to be the dream factory of the U.S.S.R., the gem of its foray into the motion picture, which the founder of the vanished empire, Vladimir Lenin, once called the most important of all arts for its immense propaganda potential.
The guide explains to the kids on a tour of the historic Mosfilm Studios that the tank they are now climbing all over is the main character in the movie entered by Russia this year in the Oscar foreign language category, “White Tiger.”
A mile away in one of the studio’s renovated pavilions, director Karen Shakhnazarov, who shot most of his 15 films including “White Tiger” at Mosfilm, recalls with a shudder the time in 1998 he was named to head the decayed and all but dead studio, conceived in 1923 and Russia’s biggest.
“I have made all my films here, but even I didn’t expect to see the scope of catastrophe which opened before my eyes when I looked at the studios for the first time as a manager,” says Shakhnazarov, sitting at a top-notch Harrison motion picture console with hundreds of mixing channels in one of the renovated recording units. “Roofs in most buildings were leaking, asphalt outside gaping with deep holes and the most current movie camera was dated 1980, the time of the Moscow Olympic Games.”
It took Shakhnazarov a decade and more than $50 million to bring back to life the still state-owned studio where such masterpieces as “The Cranes Are Flying,” “Andrei Rublev” and “War and Peace” were shot. The Kremlin didn’t give him a penny.
Its hundreds of highly qualified employees were quitting as its numerous pavilions, which used to be bursting with life, were used for industrial storage. Add to that an all-permeating stench, says cinema historian Sergei Lavrentyev.
“Of course, that dashing Soviet replica of Hollywood, which produced dozens of films annually, couldn’t get back all its imperial splendor,” says Lavrentyev. Shakhnazarov “might have sacrificed part of himself as a talented filmmaker in the process, but his selfless effort to save Mosfilm will go down in history.”
For Academy Award-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov (“Burnt by the Sun”), Mosfilm is like a family home. “I inhaled my first smell of actor’s makeup here, I was shot in my first role as an actor here, here I learned the ABCs of this art,” Mikhalkov says. “We will always be grateful to Karen [Shakhnazarov] for saving Mosfilm from the imminent death we all saw coming and for keeping it alive.”
At the turn of the century, Mosfilm could hardly produce a movie a year. Shakhnazarov started with a plan of renting the studio’s collection of more than 2,500 old movies to Russian and foreign television to raise capital.
“It was a very hard time of tough choices when some shady people would come in with demands and even veiled threats that I should make the company private and sell off sizable chunks of our land in downtown Moscow to build a casino, a club, an apartment house,” recalls Shakhnazarov, 60, squinting pensively behind sunglasses. “It was tempting, but I knew should I yield to the pressure, the company would soon perish and I myself might end up killed one day.”
Mosfilm’s old competitor, a movie-copying factory across the road, succumbed to similar pressure and soon went out of business, a huge, ugly skyscraper looming over Mosfilm’s walls in its place.
The renovated Mosfilm, which employs more than 600 people, still produces one or two movies of its own a year but earns income by providing premises and services for hundreds of TV shows and series annually. To record a symphonic orchestra score for the Kremlin 2012 New Year show the culture authorities came here for what Shakhnazarov says is now the best recording equipment in the world; even some Hollywood composers record their music tracks here via the Internet to save money.
Like many Hollywood studios, Mosfilm has recently opened its doors to daily tours. Visitors can see a reenactment of the first Soviet horror film (“Viy”), a ZIS limo from Leonid Brezhnev’s garage and the 1940s Buick that supposedly belonged to China’s last emperor, Henry Pu Yi.
Unlike many of his colleagues, the Mosfilm director doesn’t bemoan the aggressive expansion of U.S. movies on Russia’s fast-growing cinema market, which pulls in more than $1 billion a year. Hollywood captures about three-quarters of the Russian box office and domestic films just 15%.
“On the contrary, Mosfilm survives in part thanks to Hollywood, because we print copies of their movies for our movie theaters, we dub and remix them too for Russian audiences, and up to 40% of our earnings come from this cooperation,” the director says.
According to Shakhnazarov, the real problems for Russian filmmakers lie in the absence of the electronic ticket and the onslaught of Internet and video piracy, which the state has done little to police. “We never know the real box-office figures as owners of movie theaters sabotage the introduction of electronic tickets,” he says. “How can you speak of any profitability of moviemaking in Russia when as soon as you finish producing a movie, the next day it appears on the Internet?
“Today the party and the government don’t care a thing about our industry, and although free from censorship and pressure from above we are being destroyed by things like Internet piracy, a curse far more lethal than censorship,” he adds.
With the production costs being many times lower than in Hollywood, Russian filmmakers still manage to produce decent works comparatively cheaply.
To capture the story of the apocalyptic expansion of the machinery civilization in “White Tiger” (based on the novel “The Tankman” by Ilya Boyashov), Shakhnazarov used 40 real tanks in battle scenes largely devoid of computer graphics. Yet the production cost a mere $6 million, the director said; it has grossed more than $10 million in Russia. And he’s eager to invite Americans to shoot here to drastically cut costs.
He compared the plot of the film, which hasn’t found a U.S. distributor, to “Moby Dick,” with the soulless pile of armor, a WWII Nazi tank, symbolizing universal evil. A Russian tankman burns to death in a tank destroyed by the White Tiger but mystically comes back to life with no memory of his past life except the skill to operate a tank and the desire to seek and destroy his and humanity’s archenemy.
Shakhnazarov, on his fourth quest to make the final Oscars cut, is philosophical, saying: “Given the tough competition we now have here in Russia, I should feel content with the fact that the film was chosen to be an entry for Oscar at all.”