“I always meet Putin in my dreams,” says Russian director Alexey German Jr., whose film “Dovlatov” was a favorite with the critics at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was picked up by Netflix for the U.S. and other English-speaking territories, as well as Scandinavia, and won the Silver Bear for its costume and production design.
The film, about real-life Soviet writer Sergei Dovlatov and his circle of friends in Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg) in the early 1970s, shows the scribe’s dreams in which he meets Brezhnev. “Almost all [Russian] artists see a meeting with the Czar in their dreams,” German tells Variety. “My father often saw a meeting with Stalin.”
In his dreams, Dovlatov is also seen revisiting the prison camp where he had served as a guard, a place that German describes as “hell”. “That camp stayed with him all his life. Sometimes he was scared to go in dark places,” the director says.
Dovlatov, described by German as “one of the greatest writers” of the late 20th century, was banned from publishing in his own country. “Through his fate you can see the fate of a great number of artists and writers in Soviet times, whose work was banned and their lives destroyed,” he says.
The filmmaker grew up in Leningrad in the 1980s, and he drew on his own memories to recreate the look of the city during the Soviet era, and the artistic and literary community that existed there. “Everything changed so slowly there, so there was no difference between the 1970s and 80s,” he says. “It was a great city – an imperial city — but lacking in color – there was almost nothing in color. I remember the intelligence gathering that used to go on in the large communal flats. I remember it was cold.”
Like Dovlatov, German’s father — also a filmmaker — ran into difficulties with the Soviet authorities, most notably with 1971 World War II film “Trial on the Road,” which was banned for 15 years. “It was very familiar,” German says.
The artists and writers that Dovlatov knew in Leningrad, whose lives were “destroyed” in many instances, “were not dissidents,” German says. “They just wanted to talk and write about anything they wanted to. They were destroyed for nothing … just because they were different.”
However, authoritarian regimes don’t always succeed in crushing freedom, German says. “The more the state pushes, the more creative people become.”
Life in Putin’s Russia is not the same as Soviet days, at least not for now. “The times are different today. You can easily be published… you can write anything on the internet. But we don’t know what is going to happen in five or ten years’ time,” he says. “A lot of the discussion [about the role of the artist] that are in the film, I hear from some people now… that we need to be ‘positive’ about things.”
Financing films like “Dovlatov” is tough. “No one wants films about artists and writers nowadays,” German says. “There are only a small number of producers who are interested in these things. Everyone wants films about sports and victories.”
However, he had no problem getting funding from Russia’s Ministry of Culture. “There was no censorship. No one asked for any changes. Maybe that is just for the time being, but for now there is no censorship,” he says.