‘Cinema: A Public Affair’: Berlin Review

Cinema: A Public Affair
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A modern Russian hero in a doc of special interest to film lovers

A stirring account of the tribulations of the Moscow Film Museum and its legendary director Naum Kleiman

In Cinema: A Public Affair, Russian documentarist Tatiana Brandrup chronicles the rise and fall of the Moscow Film Museum, one of the gems of the perestroika reform movement, as she paints a vibrant portrait of its legendary director Naum Kleiman. Using on-camera testimony by former museum staff and loyal film-goers like Leviathan director Andrey Zvyagintsev, interviews with Kleiman and excerpts from the film collection, this is an openly partisan account of the political decision to curb the museum’s activities. Far from investigative journalism (in fact the real reasons behind the museum’s woes are never clear), it is a celebration of a modest, inspiring cultural figure whose conviction that cinema can be used to construct a free civil society is a more contagious idea than a TED talk. This is not just a doc about an unfortunate change of staff, but a ringing alarm bell warning of the return of totalitarianism in Russia.

It is appropriate that it is bowing in the independent Forum section of the Berlin Film Festival. The historic founders of the Forum, Ulrich and Erika Gregor, first met Kleiman at a youth rally in Moscow where they discovered how similar their tastes in film were. They are still friends.

The film was produced by the Berlin-based company Filmkantine.   

These are the facts: in 1989, as the Soviet Union was collapsing and the winds of perestroika blew over the country, Kleiman opened the Moscow State Central Cinema Museum, including a cinematheque which eventually included some 150,000  titles in its electronic catalog. It became a haven for artistic and intellectual discussion. But in 2005, for spurious reasons, the building housing the museum was sold, the museum closed and all its belongings were essentially dumped on the street. Homeless and fighting for survival, the museum was forced to put its collection in storage and the cinematheque to screen its films in venues around town. Then last July, acting on the recommendation of the influential head of the Filmmakers’ Union Nikita Mikhalkov, the culture ministry appointed Larisa Solonitsyna to replace Kleiman, who was given a figurehead role as museum president. The honeymoon didn’t last long. In October, all 19 staff members at the museum handed in their resignations in protest over what they called Solonitsyna’s professional incompetence. Kleiman himself resigned in November, bringing an era in Russia’s cultural life to a close.

This would be just another sad and depressing story were it not for the 77-year-old Kleiman’s irrepressible spirit that sheds a glow of mild-mannered intelligence every time he comes on screen. One of the world’s greatest scholars of Sergei Eisenstein (affectionately called “Eysen” in the film), he remains the director of the Eisenstein Center, which used to be run out of his home. Among the dozens of well-used audio and film clips that Brandrup inserts with feeling and intuition are many shots from Eisenstein’s revolutionary milestones like Strike and The Battleship Potemkin, but especially the second part of Ivan the Terrible. Stalin banned it over its depiction of his hero Ivan as a cruel dictator surrounded by boyar flunkies and ordered the material already shot on the third part destroyed. It is an apt comment on what is happening in today's Moscow. The parallel is there for those who wish to see it.

Several interviewees point a finger at Mikhalkov as the villain of the piece, but his only appearance is at a press conference, spouting indignation that anyone could consider him an enemy of the Film Museum. Clearly the antagonism continues higher up in the Russian political hierarchy. Naum Kleiman, who is receiving the Berlinale Camera award this year, maintains a dignified stance above the sordid politics swirling around him and concludes by quoting Albert Einstein on the importance of never being afraid.

Production company: Filmkantine
Director, Screenwriter: Tatiana Brandrup
Producer: Katrin Springer
Directors of photography: Martin Farkas, Tatiana Brandrup
Editors: Tatiana Brandrup, Arsen Yagdjyan
Music: Jonathan Bar Giora
No rating, 100 minutes