In the Footsteps of Anna Akhmatova: Helga Olshvang Landauer’s Cinemas a Form of Poetry
Born in Moscow, HELGA OLSHVANG LANDAUER creates films as passionately as she writes poetry. After graduating from the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in 1990, she worked on different screenplay projects for feature films, animation and documentaries. As a director, her films include Being Far from Venice (1998), Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear (2002), A Journey of Dmitry Shostakovich (2006, co-directed with Oksana Dvornichenko), and A Film About Anna Akhmatova (2008), which has been screened at international film festivals like Madrid Documenta (Spain), Full Frame (USA), FIFA (Canada), and at major cultural venues such as the Louvre Auditorium in Paris, Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Carnegie Hall and Baryshnikov Art Center in New York. Her newest film, Diversions, was completed in 2009.
Landauer writes poetry in both Russian and English. Author of three collections in Russian, namely 96th Book (Composer Publishing House, 1996), The Reed (Pushkinskiy Fond, 2003) and Poetry Works (Puschkinskiy Fond, 2004), her poems were also translated into Swedish, English and Vietnamese. Now residing in Palo Alto, California, she continues her parallel trajectory of film-making and writing, reconciling the two artistic expressions with one unchanged desire: rendering poetry alive. Visit her website at www.helgaolshvang.com.
The editor would like to thank the producer, Darya Zhuk, for her assistance.
What did it personally signify for you to revive onscreen a literary portrait as emblematic of conflicts in the twentieth century as Anna Akhmatova? What may this perspective offer a contemporary viewer — particularly for a total stranger to poetry?
The twentieth century, particularly in Russia, offers some of history’s most dramatic examples of conflict between the individual artist and the state. Being an artist in this totalitarian society meant, among other challenges, facing tough moral decisions; a creative choice had the ability to change one’s fate as well as the fate of family and friends. A few words of poetry written on a piece of paper could become a reason for arrests, executions, and martyrdom. Akhmatova was not a dissident, but her mere existence, the scale of her words seemed to be percieved as a direct challenge to the system.
Her story may offer contemporary viewers a different sense of scale of human and artistic endeavor. In the film, Anatoly Naiman stresses that the value of the poet’s word itself has significantly changed after her departure, and I begin to understand why he feels this way. In today’s cultural space, poetry followed the retreating paths of philosophy of wizards: it is seen neither as a sacred gift nor as a form of revelation. The majestic image of the poet is long gone, as well as those who used to point at Dante and say, “Look, he came back from Hell.”
No matter how thoroughly we study historical materials and memoirs of contemporaries, it is not possible to understand the life of another, let alone understand what it was like to live a life such as Akhmatova’s. For this reason, I deliberately wanted to avoid definitions as much as possible. For me it was a challenge to maintain this film as a live journey, a process of thought, a long glance at the distant, departed world, rather than making another journalistic biography about a victim of the Soviet terror. And as someone who writes poetry, I was personally captivated by a chance to explore the immense power of words.
Through certain figures in the film (e.g. the caretaker of Akhmatova’s house), one feels the affective and literary attachment between the Russian people and the writer, an attachment that seems to have survived its persecution of the Sovietic regime. What is it precisely?
Spinoza in his “Appendix, continens cogita metaphysica” wrote a fascinating phrase: “…the imagined existence may — accidentally — be the true one…” The revelatory potential of a world imagined by writers has had a strong appeal to many generations of Russian intellectuals. The works of Russian writers have long been examined not just for aesthetic qualities, but also for spiritual guidance. This trend intensified in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and was further heightened and complicated in the Soviet era when ideas of a spiritual search were dismissed and absent in officially sanctioned literature and discourse.
In this context, the foreword to Akhmatova’s cycle of poems called “Requiem” contains an important clue. There is an episode in which she was standing in line in front of the prison to inquire about her son. She recalled a woman standing behind her who suddenly whispered, “Can you describe this?” — to which Akhmatova replies, “I can.” In a time of inconceivable horror and suppression, she, the poet, seemed to be the only person with the ability to offer a connection to something that may — however accidentally — look like truth.
What does it mean for you today to film in the streets of Leningrad, and not St. Petersburg, as Anatoly Naiman had mentioned when crossing the city?
It reflects my own view that the beautiful architecture of St. Petersburg seems to be disconnected from her inhabitants, like a house abandoned by its owners and appropriated by strangers. The somber ghosts of the rightful owners are always adding a hint of trespassing to all that is happening in the house, the same way that black ash was added into every color that was used to paint the facades of the city in the past. Too many murders were committed and too much was ruined during the Soviet years to make it possible to feel as one does in Paris or Venice with a sense of continuity with the past. In Leningrad, the old inhabitants were killed, the continuity was broken. I don’t know what St. Petersburg looked like. I have only images from literature. But I agree with Naiman that now we can return the city its formal name, but we cannot revive its spirit.
A Film About Anna Akhmatova is a documentary in two voices: Naiman’s, which propels the narrative, and yours that one seldomly hears (even though we see you from time to time). Such an assumed subjectivity lies at the heart of its cinematographic plan. How did this urgency impose itself during the elaboration of this project?
I dare to think that “a film about…” is a documentary in the voices of Anna Akhmatova reciting her poetry and memoirs; Anatoly Naiman, who remembers her and how she was telling about the events of her life; and lastly the voices of the chorus from Purcell’s recording of Dido and Aeneas.
Who are you in the film?
I see myself as an anthropologist trying to recreate a disappeared civilization from voices, accounts, poems, objects, and images.
You made an elegant choice of “evoking” throughout the entire filming process. Do you agree? How did those images of a flourishing nature, immobile statues and the long sequence of travelling avant in the park while “Poem Without A Hero” is read aloud come about?
Yes, I agree with your term “evoking” — how else can you deal with abandoned places where poetry was once conceived? You can gaze at these places, you can try to recapture a sound or the beauty which is often faded or simply demolished. For example, in the episode at the Pavlosk train station where only the dialogue of deaf girls on the platform could be filmed at the place that was once a famous concert venue for symphony orchestras. Evoking images of the Antiquity, which was an important point of reference for Akhmatova, was crucial.
Greek mythological heroes, in a last cycle of historical reoccurrences, invaded gardens and books of eighteenth century Russia on a wave of European Classicism. Akhmatova, who was born in Hersones, a peninsula of Crimea — a former Roman city and very significant archaeological site — spent her early childhood near the remains of an antique forum and fragments of statues. The same characters, envisioned by eighteenth century sculptors, surrounded Akhmatova in her youth, when her family moved once again, to Tsar’s Village near St. Petersburg. It is important to understand, when it comes to her fate and her survival as a poet, that for her, Apollo and the muses from the gardens of Pavlovsk and Petersburg had more chance to be “accidentally true” than the grim realities of the subsequent Soviet era.
Naiman compares Akhmatova to a white unicorn which appears in the hollow of the forest, a mysterious and unknown being beyond our time and space. This is a very strong image that evokes other cinematic moments in which the eye on nature is very much present, as if waiting for the unicorn to re-emerge. Do you share this sentiment of étrangeté and fascination in relation to Akhmatova? How did your gaze on her evolve through this film?
I share the sentiment of étrangeté in relation to an artist when this quality is a genuine one rather than self-assumed. For Akhmatova, this étrangeté was initially very genuine. However, over the years, she became more aware of it and occasionally used it as a shelter, or as a weapon.
Often, when one works with biographical material, the subject becomes more real and gains human qualities in the course of one’s work. In the process of listening to Naiman, and working on this film, my experience was the opposite. Akhmatova herself became more ethereal and less comprehensible than the image that I had prior to this project. For me, however, her poetry became more concrete and its subjects more personal.
This film also incorporates a substantial amount of rare (breathtaking!) archival footage. How do you conceive of their onscreen importance here?
My goal was to create a cinematic space with the archival footage, some sort of parallel theme in black and white, a fragile celluloid world inhabited by dead souls. Rather than illustrating word-to-word what was said, I tried, while following the historic relevance of the shown footage, to maintain some sort of timeless nature of its scenes — thus, for example, while listening about the impact of the revolution, we see the footage of a tremendous flood in St. Petersburg, which happened during that time. And the ever-changing crowd becomes the chorus in the tragedy. It follows Akhmatova from the turn of twentieth century in Crimea to Tsar’s Village, Paris, St. Petersburg, and then to Tashkent and Leningrad during the Second World War, as well as to Moscow and Komarovo in the 1950s. While making the film, we traveled to those places, and the modern footage deliberately contrasts with the archival one, emphasizing the remoteness of Akhmatova’s time and presence from our own.
Could you discuss some specific instances during the course of making the film in which Naiman’s choices differ from yours?
The fact that it took me a while to start answering this question is a good sign. It indicates that we rarely experienced a wide gulf between our choices. His initial outline was quite sketchy and abstract in itself, but strangely when the film was complete, we both agreed that the images in the film corresponded rather closely to this abstract outline.
Naiman felt strongly about shortening two episodes: one I changed, and one I didn’t. I ended up thinking he was right about both. Naiman, however, had a strong vision for the film, and we both agreed that if he were director it would be a very different film. Given this strong vision, I found him quite open and willing to accepting ideas that diverged from his own.
You often generously use “we”/“our” when discussing this film. Who does the “we” refer to?
This film is very much a team effort; a number of people were required to constrain some of my wilder ideas and concepts. The synopsis was written by Anatoly Naiman: he outlined the visual and historical materials at the core of the film, narrated it with his comments and memories about the Akhmatova he knew, and recited some of her poems which we hear throughout the film. I was fortunate to hear — and work with — someone’s personal recollections of Akhmatova from half a century ago.
Alexander Zhukov, through the unwavering commitment and the support of his foundation, made this film possible. David Nelson, a distinguished American sound designer helped to define the audio score. His decisions were at times shocking but contributed immensely to the film in our attempts to replicate the complex and multilayered space of sounds, the mystical noise, preceding words and their meanings. The camera work of Juli Olshvang and Sergei Maltsev, the visual details they brought into the story emphasized the contrast between the accessible, brisk Present and the foreign Past captured by the old cameras. I edited the footage with Adelaide Papazoglou, who is also a scholar of Greek heritage, and whose advice I valued in keeping the film aligned to the rules of ancient tragedy. She mastered basic conversational Russian in the course of the year we worked on the film. The first phrase she learned, was “Where on Earth are you?!” — addressed to one or the other child of mine, (three altogether), whom I was parenting mostly on the phone during the editing period. It was the superb English translations of Margo Rosen, creative and precise work of the American producer Darya Zhuk and consultant/ editor Dmitry Rosin I also think of, when I say “we” in regards to this film.
Do you consider your film Russian or American?
I don’t know, as I haven’t thought about it in those terms. I was trying to tell a story about a poet as a metaphysical witness, someone who names things by their names, whose account of his/her time — however different from others — outlives historians and transcends human generations and national boundaries. This story is universal, but Anna Akhmatova who lived through the dramatic events of the twentieth century in Russia, represents the quintessential example of such a poet.
Russians see the film differently, as compared to “Westerners,” as I learned from talking to audience members at the film’s screenings. In general, I observe that people expect their prior knowledge to be confirmed, rather than face something different. I speak from my own experience — it is often unnerving to hear a well-known tale presented in a different way, order or style. Therefore, informed people often ask why I didn’t include this or that important episode from Akhmatova’s life into the film, or, for that matter, why Anatoly Naiman is the only narrator. In America and Europe, unless the audience is academic (or elite), Akhmatova is relatively unknown, and viewers tend to see the film as a glimpse into the epoch — to which I do not object.
In both creative work and life, what kind of energies and imagery attract you most?
The Orpheus myth and everything that has to do with remembrance and reemergence — from Proust to pollen.
You are very much an interdisciplinary artist. How does your own poetry writing dialogue with your filmmaking enterprises?
I believe there are two major and only occasionally overlapping types of dramaturgy: constructing or growing (traveling). An example of the first type would be any existing genre, requiring a set of characters and rules of coexistence.
The second is the force of motion that connects places and events, as in Homer’s Odyssey. Cinema that follows this second road is closest to poetry, using motion rather than the architecture of a known genre as a force to connect characters and events, is most interesting to me. This involves transformations of thoughts rather than characters; a change of emotion rather than a change of circumstance.
When I make a film, I am trying to apply the same elements which concern me as a poet: rhythm, silence as a key structural element, and motion as the connective tissue. The ideal film, like a poem, is a vehicle of sorts, which takes you to an unexpected place different from where you started the journey. At the end of the road, I see these art forms as different vehicles for what is ultimately a metaphysical journey toward Spinoza’s accidental truth, never quite reaching it but moving the artist and the viewer a bit further.
What are some agendas that you often revisit throughout these years of writing poems?
The same agenda that dominates the history of philosophy: death and dying.
Does writing in English compromise sensibilities or sensualities that you may have when writing in Russian?
Most definitely, yes. I envy Nabokov who contributed immensely in both languages. When writing in English, I feel like I am making sculpture without seeing it, and I harbor grave doubts as to whether it reflects me to the same degree that the Russian language does.
Given that you write in both languages, how do you confront their simillar/differing (and at times irreconciliable) temperaments?
I have this image of a Russian phrase approaching from faraway and circling in complicated loops before holding you in a tight embrace. English walks alongside you the whole time, establishing a cozy and deceitful familiarity, and then turns the corner at the last moment.