Heifits was born in 1905 and studied at the Technicum (College) of Cinema Art in 1923 in Petrograd (renamed Leningrad in 1924, a year after Lenin's death), and at the Institute for the History of Arts. After graduation he joined Sovkino (later Lenfilm Studio), the second largest film studio in the Soviet Union after Mosfilm. At Sovkino he met Alexander Zarkhi, his junior by three years, and there began a productive partnership.
First they organised the first Komsomol (Young Communists) production group, which released films similar to the plays staged at the Theatre of Working Youth (TRAM). For TRAM they scripted, filmed and released two feature films, Luna Sleva ("The Moon on Your Left", 1929), and Transport Ognya ("The Transport of Time", 1930). They then scripted and directed Veter v Litso ("Against the Wind", 1931) and Polden ("Midday", also 1931).
In the early 1930s Soviet cinema was under strict censorship. Stalin's Ministry of Culture demanded either comedies or propaganda films. A film could be stopped in mid-production with no concern for the thousands of roubles spent. So, the pair made a delightful comedy, Goryachie Denechki ("Hectic Days", 1935). Their propaganda film Deputat Baltiki ("The Baltic Deputy") received the first prize at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937 (the Soviet Pavilion was immediately opposite the German Pavilion, promoting its own Nazi propaganda films). In 1941 Stalin personally awarded the film the Stalin Prize.
Deputat Baltiki and a second government-backed film, Chlen Pravitelstva ("A Member of the Government", 1940), established Heifits and Zarkhi as public figures. During the Second World War they made two more propaganda films, Ego Zovut Sukhe-Bator ("They Call Him Sukhe-Bator", 1942) and Malakhov Kurgan ("Malakhov Mound", 1944). In 1945 they made The Defeat of Japan, a film presenting the Soviet view of the war with Japan, for which Stalin gave them another Stalin Prize.This was their last major film together.
After Stalin's death in 1953 Heifits made his first independent film, The Big Family, an adaptation of a novel by Vsevolod Kochetov. Following a long period of greyness and propaganda Heifits showed for the first time a story of real life and the suffering of ordinary Russian people. His next film, The Rumyantsev Case (1956), was a success both with the critics and the public. My Dear Man, adapting a novel by Yuri German, followed in 1958. In each of these three films the lead was played by the then young Alexei Batalov, a character actor discovered in the theatre by Heifits.
Encouraged by his success with The Lady with the Little Dog (1959), Heifits turned again to Russian classical literature: he based At the Town of S. (1967) on Chekhov's short story "Ionych", and Bad Good Man (1973) on Chekhov's "Duel". He adapted Turgenev for Asya (1978), and Alexander Keprin, whose "Duel" he made into Shurochka (1983).
Much has been written about Heifits's work in Russia. From 1970 to 1985 he was the first secretary of the Union of Soviet Film-makers in Leningrad and from 1971 to 1987 the secretary of the Board of the Union of Soviet Film-makers in Moscow. He also received two Lenin prizes. He was happy to see the end of Communism and was an adviser to many young film-makers.
Joseph Yefimovich Heifits, film director: born Minsk 17 December 1905; died St Petersburg 25 April 1995.