Obituary: Yuli Raizman

Mark Le Fanu
Monday 23 January 1995 00:02
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Yuli Yakovlevich Raizman, film-maker: born 15 December 1903; died 11 December 1994.

Yuli Raizman was one of the finest of all Soviet film directors, in addition to being one of the most long-lasting.

Joining the Mezhrabpom-Rus Studio in Moscow in 1924; he was still fit and working for Mosfilm in the late 1980s. His final film, A Time of Desires (a dispassionate and rather cruel study of Soviet nouveaux riches), was released in 1984. In collaboration with the scriptwriter Yevgeny Gabrilovich, Raizman was responsible for a clutch of movies which - almost uniquely in their time - hinted that the experience of Communism was among other things an experience of suffering.

Sometimes he went the other way too. There were a number (but not a large number) of Socialist Realist films in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including The Knight of the Golden Star (unshown at the National Film Theatre retrospective of Raizman's filmsin 1984).

Of this genre, the director remarked that he merely wanted to see if he could "spit as far as the other fellow". As justification for a pure experiment in style - as opposed to a credo deeply believed in - this may or may not be disingenuous. Certainly, throughout his career, Raizman managed, more or less, to stay out of trouble. But it could have been because of an innate and rather aristocratic reticence as much as to discreditable alternatives.

As a Jew, and an exceptionally sophisticated artist, Raizman had a strong sense of style, inherited perhaps from his father, Iakov, who was a famous couturier, responsible among other duties for costuming the Moscow Arts Theatre in the period up to the Revolution, he must have been vulnerable to the campaign against "cosmopolitanism" which Stalin unleashed in the late 1940s; but he weathered that storm as he weathered all others.

The most dangerous period of his career (as for so many other artists and intellectuals) was 1937. Raizman mixed at that time in the circle of Elena Sokolovskaya, the deputy head of Mosfilm, who earlier that year, for no particular reason, was arrested and subsequently shot. For Raizman an uncomfortable couple of months - at least - followed this arrest.

But he was rescued from embarrassment by the enormous national and international success of his current release (his first collaboration with Gabrilovich), The Last Night, an essay in Bolshevik heroics. The film's surface ideology endorses the usual Soviet platitudes: vigilance against enemies, omniscience of the Party, deific status of Lenin, and so forth. But in comparison with other films of the period (Mikhail Romm's Lenin, 1918, for example) it is notably lacking in bloodthirstiness. In u nexpectedplaces it is humorous and gentle. And as well as being visually elegant (a quiet, formal pictorial innovativeness was one of Raizman's hallmarks) it reveals, like all of his best films, an effort towards psychological complexity.

Raizman trained at Mezhrabpom-Rus - the most commercial and American- oriented of the studios operating in the 1920s. In film history terms, it was a period of vigorous experimentation; but from the outset Raizman felt no particular attraction towards fashionable theories of montage.

His mentor was Iakov Protazanov, a director in Tsarist times, who had left Russia and then returned again during the NEP period to help set up the Soviet film industry. Protazanov maintained throughout the 1920s a bourgeois admiration for nuance and for complexity of characterisation, even where it concerned so-called class enemies. The great contemporary film for both Protazanov and Raizman was not, therefore, Battleship Potemkin, but Chaplin's high-society romance A Woman of Paris (1923).

Raizman's best films have almost no ideology in them. On the contrary they have a "Chekhovian" sense of life's diversity, and also it should be said of life's gaiety and pleasures. Flyers (1935) gives a wonderfully vivid picture of the round of duties inan elite airforce academy in the vicinity of Odessa, in the warm Ukrainian south: a life of balls and parties and flirtations, without, so far as one can see, a commissar in sight.

Love, in general, should be seen in Raizman's work as the alternative to ideology, a repository of feeling and truth against the shifting background of suffering and betrayals which constitute, inevitably, the hallmark of any public enterprise. The Communist (1957), set in the period of the civil war, is remarkable for showing, first of all, that the civil war was a period of suffering and horror (on both sides of the barricades, so to speak); secondly, that in the midst of this horror, salvation was to be had, if it was had at all, in the privacy of the human heart.

The heart and its velleities was a subject Raizman returned to in a series of ambitious and beautifully modulated films: Can This Be Love? (1961); Your Contemporary (1968); A Strange Woman (1977); and, finally, Private Life (1982). In a telling image in the Private Life, the hero of the story, an old man (perhaps based on Raizman himself), is seen to take a statuette of Lenin that has been standing on his desk and quietly lock it in the drawer. Was this a brave gesture? Perhaps it was. At any event, both film and thought took place years before glasnost.

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