Obituary: Yevgeny Gabrilovich

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The Independent Online
Yevgeny Gabrilovich, screenwriter: born Voronezh 1899; died 6 December 1993.

YEVGENY GABRILOVICH was the most noted Soviet screenwriter of his generation. His collaboration on films started in the 1930s and ended only in the early 1980s - a long career that took him from the darkest days of Stalinism to a period, later on in his life, when he could speak and write relatively openly. One has to stress the word 'relatively', however: there remained certain areas in his personal affairs, and in the chronicling of his generation, that were never free for discussion. This goes for even his otherwise splendid memoir The Fifth Quarter (1983), and the script of such plainly autobiographical movies as Ilya Averbakh's Declaration of Love (1978 - a remarkably beautiful work).

The taboo areas, as might be expected, were the years immediately before and after the Second World War - the heyday of Stalinist tyranny. For a believer in the Communist system, these years were of course the greatest test. Yet it is impossible for an outsider to gather what the final reckoning was on this score. Was there a moment at which Gabrilovich finally came to realise the fraudulence and inhumanity of the whole revolutionary experiment? Or was there still, even at the end, a self-afflicting refusal by this most honest of writers, to look the key truth honestly in the face? By the time it became possible for a third party to ask such questions, Gabrilovich was, perhaps, too old, too honoured and too distant from the events to be held to a scrupulous answer.

As if by compensation for these reticences, Gabrilovich was one of the great Soviet writers, from early on in his career, to stress in his work the paramount importance of love. All his deepest writing comes back to the human couple, and to that essentially private, imaginary world out of reach of ideology and compulsion. His chosen historical background was, again and again, the Great Patriotic War, and one may if one likes - to answer the earlier question - interpret this background (and the afflictions it settled on his lovers) as emblematic of the broader Soviet canvas, encompassing finally Gabrilovich's whole adult lifespan, experienced under the triple constraints of poverty, battle and forced partings from loved ones.

His record in Soviet film history, like everything else about him, is complicated and ambivalent. After an early career in journalism that had taken him to Ukraine in the worst years of the famine (if he was there, how could he not have seen with his own eyes?) he was brought into the film industry in the mid- 1930s as a scenarist. This was at a time when scenarists were being looked to, in some sense, to curb the ambitions of flagrantly 'auteurist' directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko. For the bosses of the industry, to have control of the script was to have control of the film's impact and message. How far did Gabrilovich play along with this? If his first scripted film, The Last Night (Yuli Raizman, 1937), has an orthodox surface sheen, it sets the tone for Gabrilovich's subsequent career by its scrupulous psychological realism, and refusal of bogus heroics. In other words, it is still a film that can be watched humanely, while many others of the time (Mikhail Romm's Lenin in 1918, 1939, springs to mind), repel the viewer through their bloodthirsty opportunism.

Mashenka (1942), the film that followed, also directed by Raizman, is one of the finest works of Soviet cinema; arresting in its profound knowledge of a young girl's heart. In fact the collaboration with Raizman, was evidently the most important in Gabrilovich's career, continuing long after the war into such masterpieces at The Communist (1958: despite its title, a magnificent love story) and, latterly, A Strange Woman (1978), a rigorous chamber work on the subject of divorce from which the last vestiges of socialist realism have been eradicated.

On the way to these pinnacles there were, one supposes, continued accommodations with orthodoxy: a trilogy of Lenin films, for example, made in collaboration with Sergei Yutkevich, not much shown in the West, and therefore difficult to judge freshly. Doubtless, too, other projects 'of command'. It is significant however that when the Khrushchev thaw made way for a new generation of talented film-makers - the late 1950s generation of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov - Gabrilovich was in the vanguard of welcoming and supporting their effort. Thus two of his best later films were made in collaboration with the forceful newcomer Gleb Panfilov. There's No Crossing Under Fire (1967) and The Debut (1971) are films in which, as in all Gabrilovich's best work, love is depicted as more than a mere 'materialistic fact'. Contrary to Marxism, it is the axle round which everything revolves, the force that gives meaning to existence.