Russian state film promotion body Roskino and public broadcaster Channel One are launching sales on a lavish, eight-part series based on the life of poet, singer, composer and cabaret artist Alexander Vertinsky, a cultural icon whose life played out against the backdrop of history-altering events in the first half of the 20th century.
The series, which is being presented during Roskino’s Key Buyers Event, is available in two versions. The first will drop on KION, the recently launched VOD platform from Russian telecom and internet service provider MTS, for audiences 18 and over; the second, for ages 12 and up, will be broadcast on Channel One. Roskino is handling international sales.
“’Vertinsky’ is a unique project,” said Roskino head Evgenia Markova. “It is among the most high-budget biopics Russian companies have ever made. It is a large-scale portrait not only of Alexander Vertinsky and his outstanding personality, but also of the whole epoch, which was the crucial turning point in Russian history, which drastically changed its course. The whole country turned upside down, taking people’s lives in this storm. ‘Vertinsky’ is an authentic story that everyone is looking for today—having both its unique national style and wide international appeal.”
Russian super-producer and Channel One CEO Konstantin Ernst, who described the “eight-episode epic odyssey” as a “fascinating cinema journey,” told Variety that the passion project has been a long time in the making.
“[Actress] Anastasiya Alexandrovna Vertinskaya, a close acquaintance of mine, called me one night with a question, ‘Kostya, how about making a film about my dad? His life was exciting enough,’” Ernst recalled. “I thought that not going for it would be wrong.”
He enlisted the help of screenwriter and director Avdotya Smirnova, and was ready to begin production in 2014 when an economic crisis crippled the Russian economy, putting those plans on hold. Smirnova said the decision was “very traumatic and dramatic for me.” With “Vertinsky” on ice, she was tapped to direct “The Story of an Appointment,” a drama based on real-life events in the life of Leo Tolstoy.
Several years passed before “Vertinsky” got back on track. “After Roman Abramovich and [businessman and philanthropist] Sergey Adonyev invested in the series, it came to life,” said Ernst. Production resumed in 2018, with principal photography spanning 130 days in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Budapest, and Istanbul.
The series follows Vertinsky’s path from an unknown young writer and beggar to a renowned performer who was forced by historical circumstances to wander the world in exile. Along the way he escaped a firing squad, battled a drug addiction, wooed Marlene Dietrich, and captured the hearts of millions through song.
“The things which really charmed me about him, he was very bohemian, and he was very kind,” said Smirnova. “He was a very kind man who loved people, who never judged anybody, who was very joyful.”
In exile, Vertinsky rubbed elbows with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and the Prince of Wales and had countless love affairs. The series captures the glitz and glamour of the period between the wars, following his travels from golden age Hollywood to the cabarets of Berlin, from Paris to the “Paris of the East,” Shanghai.
Along the way he became a folk hero for millions of Russian immigrants. When he returned to the Soviet Union, the response was overwhelming. At a concert in Moscow in 1946, the police had to be summoned to control the crowds. “It was like a storm,” said Smirnova. “Thousands of people were trying to enter the concert hall.”
Though he was a witness to the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and two World Wars, Vertinsky nevertheless retained his humanity, said the director. “He tried to keep his kindness, his feeling of love for other people,” she continued. “That is, for me, is a very international story. It’s about humanity, about love, about understanding. If you are kind, if you have pity toward other people, if you have empathy toward other people…you will be happy. That’s the story of Vertinsky.”