Playback: Perm Festival Review

Playback Still Antoine Cattin - H 2012

Playback Still Antoine Cattin - H 2012

An outsider's multi-layered portrait of filmmaker Alexei German works as rich metaphor for Russia today.

Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov's account of maverick filmmaker Alexei German's failure to complete a sci-fi movie resonates as metaphor for today's Russia.

Both a successful documentary about the filmmaking process and a resonant metaphor for the state of Russia today, its murky past and uncertain future, Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov's Playback chronicles the failure of eminent director Alexei German to bring to term a long-cherished film project. It is also a personal statement by the Swiss-born Cattin, a long-term resident in Saint Petersburg, of his ambivalent feelings towards his adopted second homeland. Full of striking images and serio-comic asides, it has built-in appeal for film students and festival audiences.

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German, a maverick filmmaker with just five films in 30 years to his credit, had several of them banned in the Soviet era. In 1998 he decided to return to a project he'd first taken up in 1968 and then been forced to drop, an adaptation of the science-fiction novel Hard to Be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who are the authors of the source material for Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker and are alleged by some to have inspired James Cameron's Avatar (though firmly denied by Cameron.)

The story involves a time-traveler sent to another planet with a mission to observe but not intervene. The planet turns out to resemble Earth in the 13th century and German is clearing making parallels between the barbarism and chaos of that period and the situation in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.

Some early scenes were shot in the Czech Republic before problems set in, many of them traceable to German's stormy relations with his working partners. Cattin, who had moved to Russia in 2002, took an interest and obtained permission to film the proceedings. Some of the footage of Playback is taken from the monitor linked to German's camera, used as a playback device for the director and now enabling Cattin and Kostomarov to recover shots of the actors and crew in unguarded moments.

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The result is a richly multi-layered portrait of a great filmmaker and his project, his country and its relation to the past, and of the outsider who has come to observe but not intervene. For Cattin, as he explains in a series of voice-over commentaries, Russia too is another planet, and his role is analogous to that of the Strugatsky brothers' space-explorer, as he passively watches the overbearing German bickering with his wife and co-writer Svetlana Karmalita and banishing his lead actor Leonid Yarmolnik from the set.

The film is intensely visual, with long, meandering takes around the cluttered set where peacocks, turkeys, geese, chickens, pigeons and an owl roam. It also offers a gallery of portraits of actors in repose, either snoozing or waiting their turn, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings.

German's film remains uncompleted and, since in the filmmakers' view he is the author of his own woes, is likely to remain so, in which case the fragments which appear in Playback are all the public is likely to see of it.  His gloomy view of Russia's future and his stark warning of the dangers of fascism echo Cattin's mournful commentary. Yet Cattin ends on an upbeat note, deciding in view of this year's anti-Kremlin protests that there is reason after all to remain a while longer on planet Russia.

Venue: Perm, Russia, Flahertiana International Documentary Film Festival, October 12, 2012

Production companies: Les Films Hors-champ, RTS (Switzerland), Studio Sever (Russia)

Directors: Antoine Cattin, Pavel Kostomarov

Screenwriter: Antoine Cattin

Producer: Elena Hill

Directors of photography: Antoine Cattin, Pavel Kostomarov

Editor: Antoine Cattin

International sales: Les Films Hors-champ (Switzerland)

No rating, 67 minutes