Conversation with Kira Muratova
An only child leaves his single, divorced mother. It could be the storyline in a film by Yasujirō Ozu. But it isn’t. There is no inner peace, let alone resignation. On the contrary, in Kira Muratova’s The Long Farewell[Dolgie provody, 1971], there’s a lot of fighting. Eugenia stubbornly resists the departure of her son, who is considering moving away to be with his dad. She doesn’t want to be lonely. She clings tightly to him. Her stupid giggling, her hyper-nervous behaviour, her interference, her almost pathological dependence, reveals an inner doubt – it’s unbearable. But also very poignant. It shows her fragility, unrestrained. We read her like a book. The Long Farewell is full of beautiful moments. Such as the scene where Eugenia projects a slide of her husband and gently touches the image. Or when her son phones his father and cheerfully calls him ‘dad’ a thousand times, and we suddenly see her image in the reflection on the telephone booth. But the ending of the film is truly heart-breaking. Sasha, the son, has made up his mind. He’ll leave. Right after the party following his final exams. At that party, Eugenia, wearing a black wig and ogling various men, tries to forget her son. But it’s no use. Soon she’s looking for him again. She finds the person she’s going to lose. It might be a shallow interpretation, but I cannot see it differently: because she has lost him (Sasha had already made up his mind), she stubbornly singles out something else to hold onto, something entirely trivial: their seats in the concert hall. They have been taken, but she insists that they be made available. Nothing can make her change her mind. Having lost everything, she stands in the middle of the theatre, desperately intransigent, obstructing everyone’s view, holding her ground. Finally, Sasha manages to convince her to go outside with him. And there, in front of a fountain, he gives in. She’s impossible, but he loves her. He’ll stay with her. Muratova ends the film with a close-up of Eugenia’s face trembling with excitement, a face that bears the traces of a deep inner struggle. She removes her wig, but that’s unnecessary. She could not have been more naked.
The way Muratova has filmed the story differs even more from Ozu’s films. No stable frames, no tranquil sound design, no general equilibrium. The Long Farewell is characterised by agitated, searching camera work; by extreme close-ups of a drinking glass, of cutlery, of hands caressing a dog. The film is loaded with repetition: of statements, of actions, of scenes, of musical fragments. Sometimes a very full, very lively sound cuts abruptly to complete silence. Some scenes are deliberately out of focus and in others the focus constantly tightens and blurs. But if you think The Long Farewell is just an experiment for experiment’s sake, you would be wrong. It has nothing to do with King Lear by Godard, a film bogged down in its formula and its clever (intellectual) ideas. In The Long Farewell, the emphasis on style does not damage emotion but wonderfully supports it. The agitation on a formal level movingly corresponds with Eugenia’s instability, her own agitated rhythm. And just as her frantic efforts to keep Sasha by her side also demonstrate a desire to live, The Long Farewell (even more so than Brief Encounters) bears witness to a vitality and passion for cinema that is hard to find nowadays.
Mart Dominicus en Mark-Paul Meyer:Are your films Brief Encounters and The Long Farewell based on a screenplay or on loose sketches?
Kira Muratova: I always work with an elaborate screenplay, but during the shoot it remains possible to add or change things. I hear something, see something; someone remarks about something or particular associations develop. The film is constantly changing and deepening. I always start with a strictly chronological story, written in prose. When the film has been through all the various stages –script preparation, rehearsals, shooting, and finally, editing – all chronology has disappeared and the film consists only of flashbacks, memories, repetitions, and associations.
Is the quick succession of short scenes, which give your films a kind of hurried pace, something that is accomplished during editing?
Yes. I’m fascinated by editing. It’s the part of filmmaking I love most. I could spend my whole life editing. I wouldn’t go out anymore. I would stop noticing the difference between day and night.
How long does it take you to edit a film?
Actually, I start editing during the shooting. At the end of the day, I sit at the editing table and edit everything we’ve shot that day. I do this every day. The edited versions can influence the next day’s filming as well as the earlier edited versions, which I keep revising. Usually we have two months to edit both the images and the sound after shooting ends. But by then, my film has already been completely edited. So I use those two months to finish the editing. If you start editing as early as I do, at a certain moment you know all the material by heart. In bed at night, you continue editing. Like a chess player who has the chessboard constantly in mind, even while sleeping.
In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, you said that The Long Farewell was an exercise in editing. What exactly were you trying out in this film?
Editing is a game, not an exercise. It is an entertaining game: from the shot film material you can form any thought, accomplish any transposition or interpretation of the scenes; change their nature, complexity, unexpectedness. Editing shapes the general content, the character of the film. This character, not only the rhythmic effect, is formed at all levels in the editing.
In The Long Farewell, the love of editing became a principle. I filmed various scenes several times in order to be able to select the best take, and I used nearly all of that double material. I threw away very little. You will have noticed the many repetitions in the film. This wasn’t planned in advance. The idea took shape during the editing. This way of working presented itself in one of the early scenes; the use of these repetitions had a very strong effect on the closing scene in the concert hall. It makes it one of the most powerful and emotional scenes in the entire film. That’s the way it worked with this film. For others, things took their course in a different way. Every film has its own life.
Prior to filming, do you have an idea about the rhythm of the film? In Brief Encounters, for example, the pace is very calm and even, while in The Long Farewell, it is marked by ebbs and flows, sometimes very intense, sometimes calm.
I don’t understand the question. What do you mean by ‘have an idea’? For me, the whole process of making films is characterised by having ideas. Film is living matter. It’s not like pen and paper, or not only like that. There are also actors, they are alive too. And the location brings a life of its own as well.
Of course there are directors who establish everything in advance. They see the preconceived plan as a hallmark of their personality and style as a director. Obviously, one can work like that, but I don’t believe in it. I embrace every coincidence. I don’t want to suppress coincidences; I want to investigate what they have to offer. Before shooting begins, you have a concept of each image: one frame looks like this, another like that. But everything changes. There’s too much light or there’s a particular shadow, or there’s a rhythm in a movement that you hadn’t noticed before. All that goes-on on set becomes another rhythm of movement on film, simply because it passes the lens of the camera and is fixed. This always brings a huge amount of new nuance. The provisional editing you’ve done in your head collides with the actual filmed images. The material gives you new information and you have to restudy all the frames to see in which way the editing can make use of this. The material contains one way of editing, one optimal use of all possibilities. That’s what I’m trying to extract.
In both Brief Encounters and The Long Farewell, there are scenes that have nothing to do with the actual story but are very beautiful. In The Long Farewell, a man dictates a personal letter in a public building. In Brief Encounters, the lead characters meet a man in an outdoor café who speaks about the son and daughter he lost in the war. These are scenes that have nothing to do with the story. Can you tell us why they are in the film?
You mean they have nothing to do with the content, only with the presentation of the story. Otherwise you wouldn’t like the film. After all, the entire film consists of similar incoherencies. No character is indispensable, except for the main character. From your point of view, they are all redundant or illogical. You’re referring to the scene at the post office in The Long Farewell, where the man dictates a letter to his children. There’s an elderly lady present, she’s the lead character. Her son, who has just become an adult, is about to leave town. The man’s children have been living far away from him for a long time. The letter is full of sadness. He says: “I’m sending you money. But come and visit me, even if it’s only for a couple of days, so that I can see you. I will cover all your expenses. I want to see you. You are so far away.” He is conveying what’s awaiting her in the future. And you call this redundant? Why do you like the film then? That is the blood and sweat of the film. The man is uttering exactly what the woman is so worried about. He’s illustrating the situation she will find herself in in five or ten years.
Your screenplays consist of simple stories – how do you manage to obtain money from the authorities to make your films?
Where I live, money is not the point; it’s all about ideological conviction. Moreover, my films are very cheap to produce. So why are you asking me about money? Screenplays are judged according to what is deemed necessary for the people and for the culture. The authorities start from what they are used to. It’s different from the situation in the West, where you have to find a producer who wants to finance your film. In my country, the money problem does exist, but only for big productions.
Don’t you have to add some visual material to your initial screenplay, in order to show what the end result will be?
You can do that, if you want. I don’t do it. I only submit a written screenplay. A lot of directors take photographs, make sketches, drawings, and so on. I don’t.
In The Long Farewell, for instance, there’s a scene where the mother projects slides on a door. In the screenplay, this must have seemed like a really simple scene, but in the film it’s very impressive.
Indeed, in the screenplay, this scene had no particular expressiveness. Nevertheless, we had the scene in our head when we started shooting. The slides that were projected had been made beforehand. The man who assessed the screenplay must have understood something, but maybe not this particular scene. If I remember well, the scene shocked the authorities. It made a huge impression, not in a positive sense but in a negative sense. It was judged a depraved bourgeois film.
For Brief Encounters, you worked with many amateurs. Do you rehearse a lot with them?
That depends on the person. The actor should feel free, at ease. He has to know his lines well and then be relaxed in front of the camera and feel comfortable with his character. But often you have to spend a lot of time working with the actors because they are shy and don’t know how it works. Some of them are born to act. If they understand the first set of directions, everything just rolls automatically, without problems. I try to avoid interfering unless it’s necessary. When someone naturally does something suitable or something that’s even more interesting than what I had proposed, I try to save it. For example, if someone performs very well while sitting on a chair but his behaviour becomes unnatural when getting up or walking about, I just film him sitting down when I really want to film him. You have to start from the person’s possibilities. Sometimes it’s necessary to interfere, even severely. But what’s important is that he thinks he has invented something and has done everything himself.
How do you make actors feel at ease and give them the impression that they are creating something themselves?
It’s different with every actor. To give you an example from a different field: when you’re spoon-feeding a child, you try to divert his attention. If you sing a song or draw something, he’ll eat anything. You need to distract him from the discomfort of not knowing what to do with his hands. You put something other than the food in the centre of his attention. Then he can relax.
The actor needs to feel he’s really important to you; that he can help you or that he is indispensable to the scene. It depends on the person. But you cannot pour from an empty bottle. The person has to have talent to start with.
Sometimes I see someone behaving in a special way. Then I really want to film this person. Often I don’t have a suitable scene in the film. I go and talk with them. The person tells you what kind of scene they are suited for.
While I was making one of my films, a film you haven’t seen, I met a tremendous neurotic – a particularly interesting man. I asked him if he wanted to read an excerpt from the screenplay. “Yes,” he said, “I understand what you want, but listen to me for an instant. You look very tired. You’re working too much. You need to do some exercise.” So I said, “Very well, I will listen to you in an instant, but first please read this excerpt.” “OK,” he said, “but please do this one exercise first: keep your face like this, lift the corners of your mouth, let your eyes roll” and so on. I answered, “Yes, we’ll talk about that in a moment. Just first read this excerpt.” He continued, “Yes, I will read your excerpt but do understand how tired you look. This is yoga. I’m doing this for your benefit.” I said, “Stop talking about your exercises. Read this piece!” And so it went on, endlessly. I wrote a piece into the screenplay where this man speaks exactly in this way to the lead character. I showed it to him. He looked at me, surprised. “Do read this,” I said to him. “But I cannot possibly read this. People don’t speak like this.” “But you spoke like this just now!” “Yes, in real life, but you don’t do this in a film.” And so began another dialogue similar to the previous one.
In films where actors act with ease, it’s an unwritten rule to keep the camera work very simple. One chooses a wide frame so that the actors can move in every direction, unhindered by the camera. In your films, that’s different. They move about freely while the camera is very much present. How do you accomplish this?
It’s a lot of work, involving many rehearsals, and you only choose people who are not afraid of the camera. There are experienced actors who freeze in front of the camera. I don’t work with those kinds of people. I rehearse a lot without the camera, sometimes with lighting, often not on location but just in a room. When we start shooting, everyone knows his part by heart. And even then, the camera frequently frightens the actor and he has the feeling he’s jumping into ice-cold water.
What do you do in such a case, if in spite of the many rehearsals things go wrong on set?
Just start anew. That’s how life goes. The atmosphere is always very important. Sometimes someone feels fantastic in a specific space and the atmosphere between him and me is just fine. But when you go to another space with a different kind of lighting, or you see his face in another way, suddenly everything vanishes. It happens a lot in everyday life. I sometimes help actors, give them particular instructions, but it’s more fun if they do it themselves. When they surprise me, even if it’s in a totally different way than I pictured, I’m happy. Of course, it remains difficult. Acting is a combination of discipline and freedom. For instance, the girl who plays the friend of the heroine in Brief Encounters was a tremendous discovery for me. In The Long Farewell she plays the pregnant daughter of a post office employee. She’s enormously talented – not because of her education, it’s innate. All her lines in Brief Encounters are scripted and she performs them exactly right. She learned the text by heart but performed it as though she had invented it on the spot. That’s professionalism. Sudden bright-ideas that cannot be repeated mark the amateur. You should be able to say to the actor: repeat this, but do it a little more softly and add this movement. She was able to repeat a piece with the same natural quality as the first time, while simultaneously making small alterations. I can give you another example. In The Long Farewell, there’s this telephone scene with the hero and his friend. The friend was a total dolt. He wasn’t able to remember anything. In every rehearsal he had to be prompted. He didn’t understand any of his lines and then forgot them immediately. But he always had this clever expression on his face that looked like he was thinking about something else. On film, it makes him seem very shrewd, insidious; despite the fact that he understood absolutely nothing. It all went very spontaneously on set, even with all the prompting, though you’d expect that we spent a long time rehearsing. It’s different with everyone.
What’s remarkable to us in the West is this freedom of form in many Russian films.
The use of the word ‘freedom’ confuses me. One can interpret it in many ways. If your freedom is unlimited and you can freely choose from everything, the result is stagnation and passivity. I’d say the opposite is better. There’s a freedom paradox. The narrower the entrance that leads you inside, and thus the smaller the degree of freedom, the more you will try to get inside without losing something. As a consequence, you achieve a certain inventiveness, a kind of wealth. Sometimes I say: the worse the better. I’ll give you an example from another one of my films. The screenplay was written by a person unaccustomed to writing screenplays. In the beginning, three people are sitting in a truck. Behind the wheel there’s a man, next to him a woman, and next to her another man on the passenger’s side. The woman flirts with both men, holds hands with them, pinches a thigh. It’s a very long scene. The writer wrote: “Suddenly, she gets angry, opens the door and jumps out of the truck.” In literature all is well, everyone has forgotten where the woman was seated. I asked the writer, “How is this possible? Does she jump over one of the men?” “Yes, you’re right,” he answered, “just throw out the end bit.” But I didn’t want to. I liked both scenes. I conjectured that the woman wanted to change seats all the time, sitting next to the door, then sitting in the middle, next to the door, in the middle, and so on. We shot it all: with her in the middle, with her changing seats all the time, and with her jumping out of the truck. Finally, only the middle scene, where she was changing seats all the time, remained in the film. It was the most interesting. Not only was the problem solved, the solution also proved to be the best part. I just want to say that the resistance offered by the living material – because film is very much alive – often indicates the essence. That’s why I find that the more difficult things are, the better. What are we talking about here: about freedom or about its opposite, adjustment?
Extrapolating now, can we say that the problems you experienced while working in the Soviet Union were actually a stimulus?
You know, there’s a saying by Gauguin: “It’s true that suffering sharpens one’s ability. But it is necessary not to suffer too much...” My difficulties lasted a long time, much too long. Luckily that’s over and the films have been released. I’ve written some screenplays that I would have liked to film. At the time, I wasn’t allowed. Now they are saying to me “Go on, film, use those old screenplays, you still have them.” But it’s too late; I cannot make those films. The themes don’t speak to me anymore.
This text first appeared as ‘“Ik omarm alle toevalligheden”. Gesprek met Kira Muratova’ in Skrien 160, 1988.
With thanks to Peter Delpeut, Mart Dominicus, Mark-Paul Meyer and Jodie Hruby.
Image (1) and (2) from Dolgie provody [The Long Farewell] (Kira Muratova, 1971)