“The Zionists have lost all sense of decency, and Golda Meir is a war hawk.” The tall and darkly handsome writer riding the bus turns slightly toward the stony-faced man, whose observation was clearly directed to him. The writer decides to ignore his comment, until the other man repeats it, more loudly than before. The writer can no longer avoid the provocation. To the other passenger’s bewilderment, he asks him who else has lost all sense of decency: “What about the humanists? The impressionists? The abstractionists? The decadents?”
That is one of the funniest retorts in Alexey German Jr.’s “Dovlatov.” German Jr.’s film is a series of vignettes based on motifs from the writings of Sergei Dovlatov, the Russian Jewish writer whose vivid depictions of the everyday absurdities of life behind the Iron Curtain have made him one of the most popular Russian writers of the late 20th century. The director, himself the son of a noted filmmaker whose career suffered as a result of Soviet anti-Semitism, strings together these episodes to form a picaresque account of six fairly ordinary days in the writer’s life.
It is late 1971, and Dovlatov is about to leave Leningrad for Tallinn, the first station on an exile that will eventually bring him, in 1979, to New York, where he wrote the majority of his books and died 11 years later, at the age of 48.
We follow him on various newspaper assignments, where he consistently rejects his editors’ demands that he write something in praise of Soviet Man. He also listens to jazz and gets drunk with artists, including the poet Joseph Brodsky, his better-known friend who made his way to the States with the help of W.H. Auden, among others, six years before Dovlatov did.
The “writer picture” is a curious genre, insofar as writing is an inherently nondramatic and solitary activity. As far as writer biopics go, “Dovlatov” is far closer to a work like Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” than to, say, “Capote,” in that its main interest is exploring the intersection between the artist and his fiction, rather than dramatizing the “incredible true story” behind a work like “In Cold Blood.” But unlike “Barton Fink” or “Adaptation” — to name two of best and most unique films about writing — “Dovlatov” has little need for incursions into surrealism and the fantastical. The strangeness of Leningrad in the early 70s, the triumph of institutional mediocrity (all the writers and editors who succeed in getting published at all are official hacks and panderers) and the cultural hostility toward artists who longed for the freedoms of Khrushchev’s recently ended “Thaw” provide German Jr. enough fodder for a historically detailed yet absurdist depiction of the epoch.
One of the film’s biggest challenges, the director told me, was casting the title role: “Dovlatov was as handsome as a movie star, but he also harbored an incredibly complex inner world,” he said. “Our team came to the decision that the physical resemblance should be extremely important for our story, as Dovlatov, with his Jewish and Armenian roots, had a very distinctive appearance.”
As portrayed by Serbian actor Milan Marić, Dovlatov is an agitated, deeply cynical and uncompromising figure, more charming than outright lovable. He’s clearly a popular chap, but he never seems to give people his attention, except to mock or belittle them. At one point he introduces himself as Franz Kafka. At another he tells a group of uneducated shipbuilders to name their new vessel after Osip Mandelstam. In a park he meets a smuggler dealing in contraband literature. Dovlatov poses as a KGB officer and demands a list of everyone who has expressed interest in “Lolita.” While he speculates that being Jewish might have to do with being rejected time and again for the Soviet-controlled writer’s union — membership is a prerequisite for professional success — he is hardly the self-pitying kind. In fact, he seems remarkably comfortable and confident as a persona non grata. At one point, a friend offers him some Turkish schnapps. “My Jewish part respects my Armenian part. They’re natural allies,” he explains, waving away the drink.
Marić’s performance brings to mind Marcello Mastroianni as Fellini’s alter ego in “8 1/2,” except that rather than struggle with his neurotic and erotic hang-ups, Dovlatov wages war against the bland conformism that is rewarded at every turn. Despite this crucial difference, Fellini’s spirit hovers over the elegantly choreographed, not to mention verbose, segments and carefully framed shots.
The theme of artistic repression in “Dovlatov” has a particularly personal resonance for the filmmaker. “I remember how my father would hide copies of his films under the bed so that they wouldn’t get destroyed,” German Jr. said at a press conference at the film’s premiere in Berlin. “I admire that period. I admire those people. I admire them because they would not be bent. They would not be distorted. They walked tall.” With an unexpected degree of candor, he then suggested that, faced with that degree of repression, he wouldn’t have found a similar degree of courage within himself. “I’m a different kind of person,” he said. “I think I would have been scared.”
“Dovlatov” is clearly a defense of artistic freedom, but German Jr. suggested that his film is also a different sort of vindication. “Our film isn’t banned. No way. We had all the freedom we needed to make the film. We had no censorship. That’s the truth. And I think there are ideas about Russia; somehow it’s like a second North Korea. No, it isn’t,” he said.
“Brodsky and Dovlatov were not dissidents,” he added, pointing out that Russia in 1971 and in 2018 are two wildly different countries. “Back then, they were thrown out of the country. Today we have statues of them.”
A.J. Goldmann is a Munich-based freelance journalist.