Russia’s famous film director Nikita Mikhalkov celebrates his 70th birthday
by Olivia Kroth
On the 21st of October 2015, the famous actor, film director and producer Nikita Sergeyevich Mikhalkov celebrated his 70th birthday. He was born in an aristocratic family of writers and artists, on the 21st of October 1945. His father, the writer and poet Sergey Vladimirovich Mikhalkov, wrote children’s books, theatre plays and the lyrics for the Soviet as well as the Russian national anthem. His mother Natalya Konchalovskaya also wrote poetry. Her father was the painter Pyotr Konchalovsky. Her grandfather, the painter Vasily Surikov, stemmed from a Cossack family in Siberia. Nikita Mikhalkov started out as an actor in Soviet movies and theatre plays. Later he began to direct and produce films, which brought him international success. In 1993, he was elected president of Russia’s Culture Fund. Since 2000, he is head of the Russian Cinematographers’ Union, and since 2000, of the International Film Festival in Moscow.
Nikita Mikhalkow studied acting at the Shchukin School of the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow, which laid the base for his immensely successful acting career. Altogether, he played in more than 40 films. Later, he entered the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (Всероссийский государственный институт кинематографии имени С.А.Герасимова, ВГИК) in Moscow, where he studied directing. This institute is also known as VGIK. It is the oldest film school of the world, founded in 1919. It was named after the film director and actor Sergey Gerasimov, in 1986. The institute became a university, in 2008.
Towards the end of the 1960s, Nikita Mikhalkov began to direct his own films, often choosing literary material, for example the novel «Oblomov» (Обломов), written by Ivan Goncharov (1812-1852). Nikita Mikhalkov’s film «Twelve days in Ilya Oblomov’s life» (1980) shows a young and lazy Russian aristocrat who refuses to leave his bed.
At the International Film Festival in Moscow Nikita Mikhalkov received the FIPRESCI prize for his film «Without Witnesses», in 1983. One year later he was awarded the title «People’s Artist of the Russian SFSR» (Народный артист РСФСР). International fame came with his work «Dark Eyes», filmed after Anton Chekhov’s tale «The Lady with the Dog» (Дама с собачкой), written in autumn 1899. It tells about an adulterous affair between a Russian banker and a young lady he meets while vacationing in Yalta. In 1987, Nikita Mikhalkov filmed «Dark Eyes» (Очи чёрные) in Saint Petersburg, Kostroma and abroad. His lady with a dog is portrayed by the Russian actress Yelena Safonova. Alexander Adabashyan wrote the script and organized the filmsets.
The international press was enthusiastic in its praise for «Dark Eyes». The German weekly magazine SPIEGEL wrote: «Mikhalkov’s film ‘Dark Eyes’ – great parts of it filmed in Russia with Russian stars – is an intelligent, inventive and lightfooted homage to Anton Chekhov’s world. Mikhalkov succeeds in keeping the balance between sentiment and satire» (SPIEGEL, 08.02.1988). The German magazine FILMDIENST described the movie as a «tragic comedy with melancholy and humorous components». Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat reviewed Nikita Mikhalkov’s «Dark Eyes» in the English magazine SPIRITUALITY AND PRACTICE: «Against a backdrop of exquisite landscapes, costumes and buildings, Dark Eyes has the ambiguity of a dream that gently muses on the different shades of love.»
Film scene in Nikita Mikhalkov’s «Dark Eyes»:
Nikita Mikhalkov’s next famous film followed in 1991. He received the State Prize of the Russian Federation for “Urga” (Урга — территория любви), in 1993. It is set in the little-known world of the Mongols and depicts two different kinds of life, that of a Mongolian family and that of a Russian truck driver. Gombo, a Mongolian shepherd, lives in a yurt in inner Mongolia with his wife Padma, three children and mother. One day he meets Sergey, a Russian truck driver, in the Mongolian taiga and invites him home for dinner. Nikita Mikhalkov’s film shows the beauty of Mongolia’s landscape, its soft, alluring power. The title «Urga» refers to the Mongolian shepherds’ stick with a lasso on the end, used to capture animals. The English film version had the title «Close to Eden».
«Urga» was filmed in the Russian and Mongolian language. Rustam Ibragimbekov from Azerbaijan wrote the script and Edward Artemyev composed the music. Pagma and Gombo were played by the Mongol actors Badema and Bayaertu. Vladimir Gostyukhin had the role of the Russian truck driver Sergey. The movie received positive reviews in Russia as well as abroad. Chicago film critic Roger Ebert wrote, «The place is beautiful, endlessly rolling wheat fields near the border between Russia and China. The film is as slight as a breeze. It shows a way of life we can barely imagine; surely Eden, had it been like this, would have needed no apples.» An enthusiastic English-speaking viewer wrote as comment on a film blog, «One of the best films I know: beautiful, pensive, playful, realistic, poetic, humane, up-lifting, one of the few films that makes me believe in humanity. It is very open and truthful.»
Film scene in Nikita Mikhalkov’s «Urga»:
In 1994, Nikita Mikhalkov filmed «Burnt by the Sun» (Утомлённые солнцем). The Azerbaijani screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov was again responsible for the script and Edward Artemyov for the music. The film depicts the story of a senior Red Army officer and his family, in the late 1930s, in the Soviet Union ruled by Josef Stalin. The senior officer, Sergey Kotov, is played by Nikita Mikhalkov himself. Because Kotov once betrayed his close friend, this man later takes his revenge and betrays him. At the end of the movie Kotov is shot. The director’s daughter Nadya, who was six years old when the film was made, had the role of Kotov’s little daughter.
The way Nikita Mikhalkov deals with Stalin’s rule was interesting to western spectators. Chicago film critic Roger Ebert wrote, «The movie does have an interesting moral and political ambiguity. It can be read as a parable about the approaching change in Soviet direction as the war begins, or about the treachery of friendship, or about the dangers of complacency.» Caryn James reviewed the film this way, «Nikita Mikhalkov is a director of the first rank, whose films go far deeper than their seductive visual beauty. So it makes sense that his exquisite, lyrical and tough-minded ‘Burnt by the Sun’ combines surface charm with trenchant realism. Mr. Mikhalkov himself plays a retired army officer. The romantic aura evokes the traditional past of Chekhov. In the country house, sheer white curtains frame views of lavish woods, and loyal family servants provide comic relief. Mr. Mikhalkov uses lyricism well, recognizing its power to seduce (his audience as well as the film’s characters) and its ability to delude and disguise. The film’s leisurely pace and lush photography recreate the false security of Kotov’s life» (NEW YORK TIMES, 21.04.1995).
In 1995, Nikita Mikhalkov received another State Prize of the Russian Federation for this movie. He was furthermore awarded the Order for Merit to the Fatherland («За заслуги перед Отечеством») , 3rd class, because of his «excellent contributions to the development of Russian cinematography and many years of creative as well as social activities».
Nikita Mikhalkov’s «Barber of Siberia» (Сибирский цирюльник) came out in 1998. This movie tells a love story during the prerevolutionary time of Alexander III. The film maker played the tsar himself. He interpreted him as an excellent statesman who made Russia’s economy and military strong. Rustam Ibragimbekov wrote the script, while Alexander Artemyov composed the music again. The film premiere took place in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Vladivostok. When it reached Moscow, 5.000 guests were invited to watch the «Barber of Siberia» in the Congress Hall of the Kremlin. They applauded Nikita Mikhalkov’s masterwork with standing ovations, the festive presentation ended with fireworks. Actor Vladimir Ilyin was awarded a prize by the Russian Film Guild and Nikita Mikhalkov received the State Prize of the Russian Federation for a third time, in 1999.
Julian Graffy reviewed the film in SIGHT AND SOUND: «For two decades Nikita Mikhalkov, born into a family of the Soviet cultural elite, has been the most famous of Russian film directors both in his own country and abroad. Mikhalkov’s celebrity status – consolidated in December 1997 when he became chairman of the Russian Union of Film-makers – has turned the release of his recent films into major media events in Russia, none more so than The Barber of Siberia. By the time of its premiere in the Kremlin Palace of Congress, in February 1999, the film had already generated acres of newsprint. In Russia the film attracted huge and satisfied audiences. The film hero is given a famous Russian name, Tolstoy. The plot has a number of grandly staged set pieces, including a ball, Russian Shrovetide celebrations, and a parade before Tsar Alexander III (played by the director himself).»
Gerard D. Launey wrote for AMAZON: «It seems that Russian novels and (sometimes) Russian films make some of the best epics in history. This movie recreates the grand sweep of Romanov Russia in a story of love, honour, duty, and deception. The plot surrounds a young cavalry officer’s infatuation for the daughter of an American inventor; but the father has other plans for her. Oleg Menshikov – the young officer Tolstoy – is a dream; he is one of the most handsome heroes in cinema. The film is long but with the gorgeous cinematography, you won’t notice it. A very unusual treat.»
Film scene in Nikita Mikhalkov’s «Barber of Siberia»:
The Order for Merit to the Fatherland («За заслуги перед Отечеством»), 2nd class, followed in 2005, and 1st class, in 2015. This year was especially fruitful for Nikita Mikhalkov. Many prizes were waiting for him: in June 2005, the prize of the Kinotawr Festival; in July 2005, the «Golden Abricot» in Yerevan, Armenia, as well as the Great Prize of the Russian Academy for Commerce and Economy. In September 2005, Nikita Mikhalkov was named «Man of the Year» by the Russian film industry at the Kinoexpo.
In 2007, he tried another genre. «12» is a crime film, but again with a historical background: Russia’s Chechen War from 1994 to 1996, shown in flashbacks. The present plays in Moscow, the past in Chechnya. A Chechen boy, whose parents lost their lives during the war, errs through the rubble of bombed houses. His uncle finds the boy in a basement between dead soldiers and takes him to Moscow. Years later, the uncle is found stabbed to death. Neighbours think that his nephew is the murderer, killing the uncle for revenge. At the trial 12 men have to decide over his fate. After long discussions the Chechen boy is finally acquitted. At the end, these 12 men have learned a lot about prejudices, about each other and about themselves.
In 2007, the film received two Nika Awards. Eduard Artemyev was honoured for his music and Sergey Garmash as best actor in a leading role. The Nika Award is the main annual national film award in Russia, presented by the Russian Academy of Cinema Arts and Science. It was established in Moscow, in 1997. The award takes its name from Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of victory. Accordingly, the prize is modelled after the sculpture of the Winged Nike of Samothrace. Since 1990, a special academy of 500 academicians has been distributing the Nike Award for outstanding achievements in Russian cinema.
Nikita Mikhalkov’s film «12» was very successful in Russia. During the month of September 2007, it was shown in more than 80 cinemas of Moscow, for example in the centrally located cinema «Oktyabr» on Noviy Arbat (metro station Smolenskaya), «Pushkinsky» on Strastnoy Boulevard (metro station Pushkinskaya) and «Pyat Zvyozd» on Bolshoi Ovchinnikovsky Pereulok (metro station Novokuznetskaya).
Film scene from «12»:
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat reviewed «12» for English-speaking readers in SPIRITUALITY AND PRACTICE: «A young Chechen man, played by Apti Magamaev, has been accused of stabbing to death his uncle, a Russian military officer. A jury of twelve men selects a foreman, impersonated by Nikita Mikhalkov himself. Sergey Garmash, Valentin Gaft, Alexey Petrenko, Sergey Gazarov, Yuri Stoyanov, Mikhail Efremov and five other actors add their own contributions to the ongoing dialogue about the case. Director Mikhalkov has created a multidimensional and very theatrical film about the poignancies and flaws in human nature when it comes to judging others, especially those who are viewed as strangers or outsiders. The flashbacks in the drama depict the battles between the Russians and the Chechens as a source of mutual hatred.»
The Chicaco film critic Roger Ebert wrote: «One by one, every member of the jury tells a story or reveals a secret. There is not a weak member in the cast, and it’s a tribute to the power of the actors that the 2½-hour running time doesn’t seem labored. Their stories are performed so skillfully that in our minds, we envision many settings; they’re like radio plays. Mikhalkov, with a large open space to work with, uses camera placement and movement, circling the makeshift jury table and following jurors as they wander the room. A sparrow flies in through a window, and its fluttering and chirping is a reminder that the jurors, too, feel imprisoned.»
Seventeen years after «Burnt by the Sun», the film maker added two more parts, thus forming a trilogy. Part II and III were called «Exodus» (2010) and «Citadel» (2011). Nikita Mikhalkov showed the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) in impressive mass scenes. The horrible slaughter committed by monstrous Nazis was shocking to see. Joseph Stalin is celebrated as hero who brought victory for the Soviet Union, and Nikita Mikhalkov’s war epos received a positive echo. Many Russians are very patriotic, due to the immense hardship their families had to bear while fighting to survive. Their patriotism is mirrored in Nikika Mikhalkov’s trilogy.
Film scene in Nikita Mikhalkov’s «Exodus»:
Nikita Mikhalkov’s latest film appeared in 2014, «Sunstroke» (солнечный удар). The movie is based on a story written by the Nobel Prize winning Russian author Ivan Bunin. It is set on the Russian peninsula of Crimea, where many officers of the White Army found a new home, after the Red Revolution of 191è. The script was written by Alexander Adabashyan, the music composed by Edward Artemyev. Nikita Mikhalkov said that the topic had haunted him for a long time, before he finally was able to take it up: «I went a long way. After 30 years, I somehow came back to the idea of a film based on Ivan Bunin’s ‘Sunstroke.’ It is not just a mundane love story. There is providence, magic, something intangible and elusive. At some point I realized that I wanted to show the story in a different way from Bunin, as a contrast – known and completely unknown.»
The movie was filmed in Pavlovsk-on-Oka, Gorokhovets and Odessa. Some of the pavilion scenes were shot at the Mosfilm studio in Moscow. Nikita Mikhalkov especially liked Gorokhovets in the Vladimir region, because there he was able to recreated a unique atmosphere of life in a Russian district town of the early 20th century. He also gave his opinion about Odessa: ‘‘Only two years ago, we were filming in Odessa, a beautiful, warm southern city with a wonderful atmosphere. Odessa is now like another planet and everybody knows what has happened. About 100 people were burned alive, just like that. Of course, we didn’t know what was about to happen at the time, but sometimes artistic creation can be premonitory” (EURONEWS, 06.10.2014).
The world premiere of «Sunstroke» (2014) took place in Belgrade, Serbia. In Russia the movie was first shown on the TV channel Russia 1. At a press conference Nikita Mikhalkov explained why he chose Belgrade: «The premiere is the birthday of a film, and birthdays are celebrated with friends. That is why we have come here» (VOICE OF SERBIA, 03.10.2014). At the world premiere, the Sava Centre’s Grand Hall in Belgrade was filled to capacity. 3.000 guests had come to see the film, especially their Serbian star, actor Milos Bikuvic. Once Nikita Mikhalkov entered the hall, he was greeted with standing ovations. The premiere was attended by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic among other prominent figures (IN SERBIA, 04.10.2014).
Due to his cinematographic achievements Nikita Mikhalkov was made honorary citizen of Belgrade, in April 2015. The title of honorary citizen was introduced in 1954, but this was the first time that an artist received the recognition. The mayor of Belgrade stressed that Mikhalkov’s opus was indebted not only to Belgrade, but also to the whole world: «He managed to present the Slavic spirit in a very special way in its uniqueness. The art of film has a great power of awakening, moving and motivating people to turn to good values». When receiving the charter of honorary citizen, the Russian filmmaker said that he had deep feelings for the Serbian people. He believed that the Slavic kin should hold together, «because we may not rely on anyone else but ourselves. The truth is with us and behind us,” Nikita Mikhalkov stressed (VOICE OF SERBIA, 17.04.2015).
Nikita Mikhalkov loves Serbia:
The film maker is known for his staunch pro-Russian attitude and is not shy to share his views with the world. He wholeheartedly believes that Russia is sacred, great and unique. “First and foremost we have to start believing in our Russia, strengthen the spirit of our nation and recreate the positive image of our country around the world. We are convinced that only a fair combination of freedom and power based on the unity of truth and law can provide for a normal human life – without revolutions and counter-revolutions. This is a philosophy of growth, stability and consolidation, of bringing together mature and responsible social forces and creative energies. The electoral base of Russian conservatives embraces all healthy elements of our society. Its heart is Russia’s budding middle class. That is the good-willed and responsible, law-abiding, entrepreneurial, though not necessarily wealthy citizens. We need to love God and people, to honor ancestors and care for descendants and to protect the environment as if it were a living being», he wrote in an open letter to Vladimir Putin, together with other artists (RUSSIA TODAY, 31.10.2010).
In his eyes, Vladimir Putin is the man who brought back dignity and self-respect to the Russian nation and shares his patriotic views. The film maker supports the Russian President, who is his good friend. «Vladimir Putin was sent to us by God», he emphasized. Nikita Mikhalkov is glad that Crimea joined the Motherland, in 2014. When his film «Sunstroke» was shown in theatres of Sevastopol and Simferopol, he was present to speak at the red-carpet events. Because of his unwavering support of President Vladimir Putin and of Greater Russia Nikita Mikhalkov has become a Russian national treasure, loved by Russians for his artistic and patriotic films as well as his outspoken attitude.
The busy producer does not rest. His next movie has already been announced. He wants to produce a documentary drama about the Russian writer Alexander Griboyedov’s life, who was murdered on diplomatic mission in Persia, in 1829. The film will be made in Azerbaijan. In October 2015, the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev awarded Nikita Mikhalkov the Order of Friendship for special merits in the development of cultural relations between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation. The Order of Friendship is one of the highest awards of the Republic of Azerbaijan. In the congratulatory message President Ilham Aliyev said: «Your bright talent as well as your extraordinary vision of the events of today and of the past allowed you to develop your own style, so beloved and recognizable by millions of your fans. – I hope that your fruitful dialogue with the young filmmakers of Azerbaijan, which began in the spring of this year, will contribute to the education of new talent and the further development of Azerbaijani-Russian cultural ties» (ALL-RUSSIA PEOPLE’S FRONT, 20.10.2015).
During the past forty years, Nikita Mikhalkov has emerged as a dominant figure of Russian cinema – first as an actor, later as director and producer. Like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin he looks young and leads a dynamic life. May God give him many more creative years full of happiness and health. Congratulations to Nikita Mikhalkov on his 70th birthday.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.