All of history’s monsters end up mythologized on the bigscreen sooner or later, so there’s no reason why Joseph Stalin should be the exception.
But it’s hard to imagine a more intriguing filmmaker to grapple with the mass-murdering Soviet dictator than the maverick British-based auteur Pawel Pawlikowski.
The Polish-born director, who won Baftas for his first two movies “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love,” is attached to adapt “Young Stalin,” Simon Sebag Montefiore‘s eye-opening account of the tyrant’s early career as a poet, pirate and ruthless revolutionary in his native Georgia.
Producer Alison Owen at Ruby Films is developing the project for Film4 and Miramax.
But this being Pawlikowski, who tends to use books merely as a jumping-off point for his imagination, don’t expect anything in the way of a conventional lifestory. “I’m not interested in the man,” he declares. “It’s definitely not a biopic. It’s just an excuse to make a film in this mythic landscape where religion, fairy tale, ideology, banditry, poetry and love meet.”
Oh, and he intends to make the movie in the authentic Georgian language of Stalin’s birth.
“The good news is that the financiers have agreed I can shoot it with Georgian actors, in Georgian,” Pawlikowski explains. “I love that part of the world, the people, the landscapes and of course the Georgian cinema of the past — Iosseliani, Abuladze. Anyway, if you can get away with making films in Aramaic or Quechua, why not Georgian?”
“Young Stalin” attracted rave reviews for its revelatory portrait of Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, as the youthful Bolshevik was originally called before adopting the rather snappier moniker “Man of Steel.”
The bio contradicts the famous dismissal of Stalin by his deadly rival Leon Trotsky as merely a dull bureaucrat. It depicts him instead as a brilliant poet, a dashing bank robber in the revolutionary cause, a passionate husband whose heart was broken by the death of his first wife, but also as a truly vicious individual with a cynical disrespect for human life — as Trotsky himself eventually learned the hard way, with an ice pick in his skull.
How much of this will survive into the movie is anyone’s guess. Pawlikowski, who typically shoots from a treatment and evolves the script by improvising with the actors, hasn’t yet found a writer to work with him on the project. “If I found a writer on the right wavelengths who understands my kind of cinema, that would be great. I haven’t come across any yet. I might muddle through in my usual way,” he says.
Pawlikowski, whose family came to England in his teens, first made his name with BBC documentaries such as “Serbian Tales” and “Tripping with Zhirinovsky,” which cast an oblique, ironic eye over post-Communist Eastern Europe. His feature debut, “Last Resort,” was about Russian asylum seekers in Britain, but “Young Stalin” would mark his first dramatic foray back behind the old Iron Curtain, where the roots of his imagination clearly lie.
Before that, however, he’s putting together another U.K. project, with the provisional title “Dreamcatcher,” which he hopes to shoot early next year for BBC Films. He’s keeping details of “Dreamcatcher” close to the vest for now, describing it only as “a delicate beast, about spiritual and erotic love, set around a church on the edge of a big city.”
This all represents a welcome comeback for one of Blighty’s most unusual and distinctive filmmakers after a family tragedy forced him to abandon his last film, “The Restraint of Beasts.”
The movie, a black comedy starring Ben Whishaw and Rhys Ifans, was suspended in midproduction last year when Pawlikowski’s wife fell seriously ill, and he stopped work to look after her and their children. Several months later, she died.
” ‘The Restraint of Beasts’ is a painful subject,” he says. “We’d shot 60% of the film when I had to stop. The material looks great, like nothing I’ve ever done or even seen before. It could have been really great, definitely original.”
It’s now in the hands of the insurers. He also quit another long-standing development project at the same time, an adaptation of DBC Pierre‘s Booker Prize-winning novel “Vernon God Little.”