Russia, Poland, Serbia, 2018
Color, 126 min
In Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksei German, Jr.
Screenplay: Aleksei German, Jr, Iuliia Tupikina 
Cinematography: Lukasz Zal
Art direction: Elena Okopnaia
Sound: Ivan Gusakov
Editing: Dar’ia Gladysheva, Sergei Ivanov
Cast: Milan Maric, Danila Kozlovskii, Helena Sujecka, Artur Beschastnyi
Producer: Konstantin Ernst, Andrei Savel’ev, Artëm Vasil’ev, Dariusz Jablonskii
Production: Art and Pop Corn, Metrafilms, SAGa

Aleksei German, Jr.’s Dovlatov is less a biopic of Sergei Dovlatov the man than it is an exploration of the role of the artist in society, particularly when that society rejects him.  This writer happens to be a perfect candidate for digging in to such a question. The Dovlatov of the film is an artist-flâneur in an evolving dialogue with Stagnation-era St. Petersburg.  Throughout the film, this Dovlatov is in the process of becoming, in collaboration and at odds with his environment, the sarcastic, melancholy anti-hero of the novellas and short stories for which he is known.

According to Walter Benjamin, the flâneur is a figure of the intelligentsia, a solitary bourgeois wanderer who uses the free time afforded him by his wealth to move through urban space as a detached observer, aimless and unhurried.  The flâneur is at home in transitory spaces precisely because he himself is transitory—an ephemeral, phantasmagorical presence that, while maintaining its corporeality, will nonetheless never fully occupy any one space or belong anywhere.  The flâneur’s bourgeois class positioning is a matter of education and cultural stance.  The artist is always, unavoidably, a flâneur, a peculiar not-quite-bourgeois entity flitting across social fault lines, at a remove from life’s proceedings even as he participates in them.  His ambivalent social positioning and not-quite-there-ness affords him a vantage point from which he can communicate certain truths about society.  When Dovlatov (wonderfully portrayed by Milan Maric) is reprimanded by the editor of the factory newspaper for the lack of heroism in his writing, Dovlatov responds: “What if a hero has just come to watch?  He’s standing aside, pondering, living his own life, small as it is.”  Dovlatov’s hero is a solitary, ephemeral wanderer recording the happenings around him without feeling spurred to action of his own.  In short, Dovlatov’s hero is himself.  The message is clear: to flâner is, for the artist, a moral directive.

The St. Petersburg of German’s film provides its flâneur a series of ghostly, intangible spaces to wander aimlessly about. Dovlatov weaves through overcrowded parties in small apartments flooded with yellow light on his way, as we viewers know, to other things, interacting and observing but never fully engaged.  The spaces themselves or the events taking place within them are either impermanent or transitional: Dovlatov and acquaintances throwing a makeshift afterparty in the shared kitchen of an apartment; Dovlatov and friends drinking in a park; he and Brodsky wandering the streets at night as they carry Dovlatov’s daughter; and so on. The conversations that occur in the film are similarly incoherent or incomplete, the speakers often talking at cross-purposes, or threads of discussion getting interrupted and simply never again taken up.  Sometimes these conversations seem to have no real meaning at all, as with the “kimbi-kiwi” debacle in which Dovlatov engages the Finnish socialist writer.  These many instances strung together over the course of six days could easily be seen as pointless, considering that, on a literal level, very little of consequence actually happens in the film.  That said, it is best to approach the narrative as a literary and filmic representation of the flâneur’s deliberate meandering and aimless path through time and space.

The inclusion of fartsovshchik (black market trader) David’s character arc seems on first viewing rather incongruous, and it appears odd to invest such a minor character with such emotional weight (even if he is played by Danila Kozlovskii).  What is the point of interrupting the mundane drudgery of this slice of Dovlatov’s life with this violent and melodramatic schism for which he is not even personally present?  Kozlovskii’s character, like Dovlatov, aspires to become a successful, exhibiting artist.  He is very concerned with authenticity in his life and identity, counseling Dovlatov against writing an ode to oil workers for the publication credit and the paycheck.  This preoccupation with authenticity explains his choice of career: if an authentic life cannot be had within the confines of the dominant system, to refuse participation in that system is a valid path.

David, like Dovlatov, is a wanderer alienated from the society through which he moves, a Soviet flâneur.  His death disrupts the nostalgia that up to this point has characterized the film, revealing what the flâneur puts up as collateral in pursuit of his authentic life.  David dies without having achieved the artistic fame he sought, leaving behind no trace of the authentic self he gave his life up to construct.  This character parallels Dovlatov, and his death is an enactment of a version of Dovlatov’s own death.  The episode functions to solidify the act of flânerie as a moral directive for the artist.  As Dovlatov claims earlier in the film, “in our times, the very existence of a thought is heroism in itself.”  To stand against the grain in order to be one’s own authentic self—even if that self is no one, as another character states—is heroism, and, furthermore, the artist’s moral mandate.

Some critics have read this film as a tribute to German Jr.’s father, Aleksei German, Sr., and other artists of his era who faced censorship and repression during the time of the Soviet Union.  Others have taken it as an oblique criticism of the state of the arts, and the plight of the artist working within these confines, in contemporary Russia.  If the film contains either of these narratives, they are folded into a more general and timeless comment on the nature of artistic practice, and the artist’s duty towards authentic expression, even in the face of hostility from the authorities or the public who might demand from him something more palatable.  German Jr. does Dovlatov’s literary myth justice in choosing the melancholic, obstinately individualist writer to tell this story.

Florence Helbing

Aleksei German, Jr. received his degree in 2001 from famed film school VGIK and began working at Lenfilm studio.  He has directed six feature-length films and several shorts.  His work has won numerous awards, including a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2008 for Paper Soldier, as well as three Nika awards (for Paper Soldier, Garpastum, and The Last Train) from the Russian Academy of Cinema Arts and Sciences.  He is the son of famous Russian director Aleksei German, Sr.  His latest film, Dovlatov, premiered in 2018.

2018    Dovlatov
2015    Under Electric Clouds
2013    Venice 70: Future Reloaded (segment)
2013    5000 Days Ahead (Short)
2009    Iz Tokio (Short)
2009    Crush (one episode)
2008    Paper Soldier
2005    Garpastum
2003    The Last Train

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