Berlin: Russian Director Aleksey German Says "Film Should Be Free From Political Pressure" (Q&A)

Aleksey German

He discusses his Berlinale competition entry 'Under Electric Clouds,' the challenges facing Russia today and emerging from the shadow of his director father.

Alesky German grew up the son of one of the Soviet Union’s most notable directors, Aleksey Sr., who died in 2013. In 2004, Aleksey Jr. was anointed Discovery of the Year by Russia’s national film awards, Nika, for his first film, The Last Train. A black-and-white study of futility and death set on the Eastern Front during World War II, the film sparked controversy by focusing on a “good German” — a conscripted doctor and officer who comforts a dying Russian girl in her last moments. German’s latest feature, Under Electric Clouds, in competition at the Berlinale this year, is an episodic, surreal drama that examines the paradoxes of living in contemporary Russia.

The married 38-year-old director, who splits his time between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, spoke to THR about how he has evolved as a filmmaker and how he yearns for a cinema that lives up to the standards of Russian literature.

What artistic developments do you feel you’ve undergone in the decade since your first feature, The Last Train, was released?
In many ways I’ve changed my approach to cinematic language — to image and drama — and radically changed image structure in terms of composition and color. I’m trying to find a balance between an organic approach for Russian audiences and something accessible for viewers from other countries; something that does not look like a caricature for Russians, but that is not too disorientating for foreigners. It is not always easy to strike that balance. I’m seeking the approach so brilliantly achieved by Russian literature in the 20th century.

This is the first time you’ve had a film in competition in Berlin, though other international festivals, including Venice and Tallinn, have featured your work. What does the Berlinale premiere mean to you?
It has been a long and difficult road. Almost six years; there were many obstacles. I can hardly believe we’re done. The Berlin premiere shows that, apparently, we have passed that part of the difficult journey.

To what extent does Under Electric Clouds carry forward ideas explored in your earlier works?
For me it has always been important to talk about a person in their time. About individuals during their era; about shifting tides, premonitions, the inertia of history that distorts people’s fate. Our new film is about a new time — actually, it is about the future — but all the same the focus is on the coexistence of man and time. Nothing has changed in my attitude to the core issues of the Russian intelligentsia, which have persisted over centuries: the relationship between freedom and the lack of it and, in the widest sense of the word, the value of it as it confronts the consciousness of our intelligentsia and middle class, in what is now called the consumer society. And, of course, the question of choosing a way of life for our country.

How did growing up the son of a famous director affect your own creative path?
My father, as a creative man, was a model of professional integrity and set the standard  for seeking cinematic truth. For my father, conditions never mattered; he always tried to talk about what was important to him at the time. And he was never afraid that someone would not like it. I think this approach is correct. Creatively, of course, he influenced me.

Russian films are headline news now: Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan won a Golden Globe and is nominated for a foreign-language Oscar. Is post-Soviet Russian film coming of age?
There is still a long way to go. So far, the most successful contemporary Russian films largely focus on deep provincial life. Leviathan is a very good movie. But Russia is a country of big cities; of incredible contrasts; of huge new neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean there are no problems. There are. But I believe that the future of Russian cinema can be found in an attempt to address the country in all its complexity, just as, for example, Tolstoy, once did. His heroes are people with completely different lives. The more Russian cinema returns to the traditions of our literature, the better.

Under Electric Clouds is a Russian-Ukrainian-Polish co-production with money from both Russian and Ukrainian state film agencies. Given the current political tensions between Moscow and Kiev, were you under any conflicting pressures from those sources while making the film?
Our position is that film should be completely free from political pressure and intrigue, territorial issues and human relations. Of course, shooting this film cooperatively, at a time of war, is uncomfortable for many. There are people on both sides who will manically seek to accuse directors of treachery. Unfortunately, nothing can be done about that. So far, there has been no direct pressure. We’ll see. The film has not yet been released.

What’s your next project? And what themes do you wish to explore?
We would love to shoot a movie about the great Russian writer Sergey Dovlatov, who lived in Leningrad until the late 1970s, when he was forced to emigrate. The film would also be about his friends, for example, the poet and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky, about their youth, trying to become writers in the USSR during deeply unhappy times. About Leningrad at that time. About Soviet art of the ’70s. And about the joy of being young, which endures despite all other difficulties.