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‘Luna Park’s’ Pavel Lungin Plans ‘Esau’ Adaptation, Gulag Epic (EXCLUSIVE)

Russian helmer delivers a masterclass at this week’s Marrakech Film Fest

Pavel Lungin
Photo by Martin Dale

MARRAKECH, Morocco —  Pavel Lungin (“Taxi Blues,” “Luna Park”), one of the key filmmakers of the new Russian cinema that emerged in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is currently developing two new projects: an English-language project based on Israeli writer Meir Shalev’s 1991 novel “Esau,” and a film about a Soviet gulag labor camp.

“Esau’s” story is about two brothers. One left Israel and lives in the U.S. and then tries to rediscover his brother.

“Since I am Jewish, this story touches me a great deal,” Lungin explained at this week’s Marrakech Film Festival, which he attended for a country tribute to Russia.

He went on: “I think that Shalev is a wonderful writer. It doesn’t make sense to set this story in Russia. The question posed by the story is can you be Jewish when you’re living outside Israel and at the same time if you go to Israel, do you become Israeli rather than Jewish.”

The second film is a high-budget project about a gulag forced labor camp during the Stalin dictatorship.

“Stalinism had certain parallels with Ivan the Terrible. I want to make a film about how people lived in the gulag, how it was possible that innocent Russians could incarcerate each other. The guards and prisoners were innocent and had to survive in terrible conditions.”

Lunging said that he doesn’t want to base the story on better known accounts such as that by Solzhenitsyn, and is currently researching real-life stories and personal memoirs.

The key issue that interests him is the force of will of the survivors: “How can you survive, how can you find a reason to live in the midst of such suffering? he asked.

He went on: “The secret of survival. The power of love. The importance of human relations. I think that despite the awful suffering of the gulag, the ability to survive also revealed something profoundly optimistic in human nature. We are not beasts.”

Lungin’s most recent movie, “Queen of Spades,” a contemporary operatic thriller based on a short story written by Alexander Pushkin, was initially developed with David Seidler, screenwriter of “The King’s Speech,” and then by Steven Walsh, since Lunging initially planned to make the film in English. The movie had its world premiere at November’s Tallinn’s Black Nights Film Festival where it won the Audience Prize.

The story turns on a famous soprano singer who returns to Moscow after decades in self-imposed exile, and attempts to recapture her past glory by directing and starring in the Tchaikovsky opera of the same name that once made her famous.

The depiction of a casino-style world set against a high culture setting has been interpreted by some as a metaphor for modern Russia. Lungin explained that what attracted him to the original nineteenth century short story was that it’s about someone who doesn’t believe in justice and therefore either steals or plays cards to achieve success.

This outlook was very dear to Pushkin and is now returning to Russia after a more optimistic period in the late 20th century after the fall of Communism.

“My country has changed a lot in recent years,” said Lungin. “We don’t yet understand where it’s heading. People are now much more pessimistic. The great Russian empire, before the 1917 revolution, was like our grandmother, the Soviet Union was like our mother and the new Russia is a bit like a daughter. But she’s still in her adolescence and is working out who she is. Everyone is a bit confused.”

Lungin initially made his name with “Taxi Blues” and “Luna Park,” More recently, he has directed pictures with a strong religious and metaphysical dimension, including “The Island” and “Tsar.” He also shot several episodes of TV series “Rodina,” a Russian political thriller based on Israel’s “Hatufim” – the basis for the American TV series “Homeland.”

Like any period of adolescence, Russia is caught in a highly emotional state of mind. Lungin’s early films were made in a period of great change, where there was tremendous optimism throughout the whole world, the director said, adding that he was interested to show the new movements and new types of characters that were emerging.

Now “Russia isn’t dead, there continues to be debate, but the questions are now perhaps more metaphysical, as people try to work out Russia’s identity.”

Lungin said that this led him to films that worked at a more deeper personal level, exploring more spiritual aspects, such as “The Island” and “Tsar.”

“Tsar,” about Ivan the Terrible, was a metaphor for Joseph Stalin, although some think it depicts  Putin, Lungin stated.

“I was interested in exploring the mania of the strong man, the moment when someone in power sees himself as God. Some powerful figures stop at a certain point. But other powerful people have no limit,” he commented.

Lungin believes that there is a long historic tendency in Russia for rulers to become an almost godlike figure. In modern Russia, there are some groups and advisers that are trying to push Putin in this direction and make him a kind of dictator figure, Lungin contended. But he said that he believes that Putin doesn’t want that.

His recent TV series “Rotina,” like the US series “Homeland,” also deals with issues of political skullduggery, but is set in 1999, which some critics said demonstrated cowardice to address problems in Russia under Putin.

But Lungin disagrees and said that the series is talking about something much more introspective, the split personality that can develop between being patriotic and detesting one’s homeland. That duality is found throughout modern Russia.

Lunging said left-wing critics didn’t understand what he was trying to achieve with this series, which was very successful with the audiences but received what he considered to be blunt criticism.

“In Russia, the left wing intelligentsia has lost its link with the people. They have become superficial. We see this same problem throughout the world.”