November 2018, arsenal cinema

A Tribute to Sergei Parajanov

SAJAT NOVA, 1969

Armenian-Georgian director and artist Sergei Parajanov (1924-1990) is one of the most fascinating figures in 20th century cinema. Born in Tbilisi to Armenian parents, he grew up there before moving to Moscow to study at the VGIK film school and subsequently worked in the Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan during the Soviet era. The cultures, traditions, folklore, and myths of these countries and regions pervade his films, which continue to impress today thanks to their singular expressive power, unmistakable originality, complex visual compositions, and radically free cinematic forms. Celebrated as an outstanding filmmaker from the mid-60s both at home and beyond, Parajanov’s artistic audacity and multi-faceted approach to culture was met with increasing rejection in the Soviet Union, however. Interventions on the part of the censors were followed by prison terms spanning many years and a filmmaking ban; Parajanov was only able to make two further features once it was finally lifted. This ten-film tribute, which presents all of Parajanov’s eight still-extant features, including his rarely screened early works, now enables his work to be re-discovered. In cooperation with the Parajanov Museum in Yerevan (Armenia), an exhibition of Parajanov’s artistic works will be on show at the Filmmuseum Potsdam from 1.12. onwards.

SAYAT NOVA (armen.: Nran Guyne, The Color of Pomegranates, USSR/Armenian SSR 1969, 20.11., with an introduction by Naum Kleiman, Moscow; 30.11., with an introduction by Zaven Sargsyan, Yerevan) In a series of surreal, poetic, mysterious, opulently folkloric, and meticulously arranged tableaux vivants, Parajanov shows different stations in the life of 18th century Armenian poet, composer, and singer Harutyun Sayatyan, who first lived at the court of the king, later roamed the country as a travelling singer, and was finally murdered and became a martyr. The poetic’s lyrical universe is at the heart of the film, which Parajanov translates into a moving still life: careful compositions which place humans, fabrics, objects of all kind, flowers, and animals in relationship to one another. Today, SAYAT NOVA is one of the central works in film history, although the Soviet film authorities denounced the film upon its completion and banned it from being distributed. It was only years later that SAYAT NOVA reached cinemas, albeit in a revised version. We are showing the 2014 restored version.

ANDRIESH (USSR/Ukrainian SSR 1955, 21. & 25.11.) For his feature debut produced at the Dovzhenko Film Studios in Kiev, Parajanov expanded the film with which he graduated from film school: the titular young shepherd Hirte Andriesch tries to play his magic flute to break the spell of an evil enchanter, which has devastated the land and turned humans and animals into stone. Flying sheep, evil master wizards, black cyclones: rich in images, camera tricks, and action, Parajanov was already working with the elements of his later films here, such as fantastically stylized landscapes, celebratory rituals, and music as an expression of love. The form of the fairy tale gave Parajanov the opportunity to leave behind any form of realism in favor of a free narration with magical and miraculous moments.

PERWIJ PAREN (First Lad, USSR/Ukrainian SSR 1959, 21. & 26.11.) Parajanov’s early films, which were created as commissions in Ukraine, must also be seen in the context of how they grappled with state-ordered “socialist realism”. A colorful musical comedy set in the milieu of the Soviet collective farms, FIRST LAD pays heed to various characteristics of the genre and celebrates the good – i.e., collective – life in the country at a time of progress, electrification, and land machines. The story appears almost like a parody at times: Yusha loves radiant collective farm worker Odarka, who doesn’t just place importance in the right convictions, but also in being in suitably sporty. A special training program is now supposed to lick Yusha into shape. Working outside of the restrictions of the genre, Parajanov weaves folkloric song and dance numbers as well as lyrical moments into the plot, with individual scenes anticipating his later tableau compositions and symbolically charged arrangements.

UKRAINSKAJA RAPSODIJA (Ukrainian Rhapsody, USSR/Ukrainian SSR 1961, 22. & 27.11.) A melodrama wrapped in the ideological garb of the time. The life of famous opera singer Oksana passes before her eyes in a series of flashbacks: her childhood in the countryside full of music, her farewell from the village and her lover Anton, her training at the conservatory, the start of her career in Paris. When the war breaks out, Oksana loses contact with Anton, who ends up a German prisoner-of-war. As much as the depiction of the war and the parties involved in it follow state regulations, the cinematic and thematic freedoms taken by Parajanow still shine through with unusual clarity: the almost abstract studio scenes, the unpredictable narration, which doesn’t unfold chronologically, and the depiction of the music, songs and churches.

TSWETOK NA KAMNE (Flower on the Stone, USSR/Ukrainian SSR 1962, 23. & 28.11.) Before he set out on new cinematographic paths with his next film SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS and found radical new forms of expression, Parajanov made one last studio commission in the form of FLOWER ON THE STONE. It revolves around a religious sect which attempts to disturb the peace of a mining town with missionary zeal. Kristin is torn between the sect and the workers, and is anyway finding her way back into the socialist community after various incidents. With several montage sequences reminiscent of Vertov and individual motifs typical to his work, Parajanov resists the conventions of Soviet cinema, which he was to break with definitively two years later with an aesthetic and thematic re-orientation.

TENI SABYTICH PREDKOW (ukr.: Tini sabytich predkiw / Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, USSR/Ukrainian SSR 1964, 23. & 28.11.) Cascades of color, folkloric elements, fantastically stylized images of landscape, and bold editing of sound and image all frame SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS, which is regarded as a turning point in Parajanov’s career and which established his reputation internationally. The film revolves around Ivan und Marishka, two young inhabitants of a primitive mountain villages in the Carpathians whose love is doomed due to the animosity between their families. A poetic medley of experiences of death, an evocation of heathen myths and sagas, and an entreaty to folkloric traditions in equal measure, the Ukrainian production ended up in the sights of the Soviet censorship authorities, who accused the director of both formalism and nationalism and heavily restricted his ability to make films from then on, actually banning him from doing so at times.

KIEWSKIJE FRESKI (Kiev Frescoes, USSR/Ukrainian SSR 1966, 23. & 28.11.) will be shown beforehand: fragments of a feature about the Second World War that was already banned on the part of the state during the shoot due to “its treacherous and mystic, subjective depiction of the events of the Great War of the Fatherland”. The small amounts of material not destroyed were first discovered 20 years after the film was banned.

AMBAWI SURAMIS TSICHISA (russ.: Legenda o suramskoj kreposti / The Legend of Suram Fortress, USSR/Georgian SSR 1984, 24. & 29.11.) Fantastic visual worlds of exquisite beauty open out in front of the observer in the severe framings of the opulently designed tableaus used by Parajanov to narrate an archaic Georgian legend: to defend themselves from enemy attacks, the inhabitants of a remote mountain region try to build a fortress. According to a prophecy however, the construction can only be successfully completed if a young warrior allows himself to be built into one of the walls while still alive. The young Surab volunteers for the task. Parajanov’s penultimate film – a reflection on the landscape, its inhabitants and their relationship towards those in power – was made in Georgia, after a 15-year filmmaking ban and lengthy periods in prison and work camps.

ARABESKEBI PIROSMANIS TEMAZE (Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme, USSR/Georgian SSR 1985, 24. & 29.11.) Starting from the visual worlds of famous painter Niko Pirosmanashvili (1862–1918), Parajanov evokes and reflects upon the artistic universe – still lives, portraits, and genre scenes – of the Georgian artist.

ASHUK-KAREBI (Russ: Ashik-Kerib, USSR/Georgian SSR 1988, 24. & 29.11.) Parajanov’s last film is based on an orientially inspired poem by Russian romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov tells the story of the poor wandering singer Ashik Kerib, who falls in love with the daughter of a rich merchant. He then sends the young poet on a journey lasting a thousand days so he can find his fortune. He is only able to make it back home in time from his adventure-filled tour to marry his sweetheart with the help of Saint George. A visual circular dance shot in the area around Baku (Azerbaijan) in various languages that resembles 1001 Nights, rich in ornaments, metaphors and symbols, in meticulously mounted composition full of warmth and self-deprecation. (mg)

The program will be accompanied by a discussion event about Sergei Parajanov as an artist who perpetually crossed the borders between countries, cultures, and systems. Those taking part in the discussion include Zaven Sargsyan (Director Sergei-Parajanov Museum, Yerevan), Walter Kaufmann (Head of the Eastern and Southern European Department of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung) and Theo Khatiashvili (Film historian, Tbilisi). An event with the friendly support of the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia and the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.